The past is present

On December 2, 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 10 states asking for government files on the surveillance and questioning of nonviolent activists involved with anti-war, environmental and free-speech groups. “Do Americans really want to return to the days when peaceful critics become the subject of government investigations?” asked ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson.

Whether we want to or not, we may have returned to those days already. This fall, a stream of news reports from across the country revealed that the FBI is once again hot on the trail of grassroots-level dissenters. In the months leading up to the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the bureau’s agents sought out and questioned activists at their homes, schools and places of work.

If we are indeed witnessing a resurrection of J. Edgar Hoover-era political policing, then there’s a slice of FBI history that merits particularly close study: the bureau’s 15-year “counterintelligence program” (or Cointelpro), which Hoover launched in 1956. By the time of the program’s termination in 1971, the FBI had a host of people and parties surveilled and disrupted, from civil-rights and anti-war organizations to such “white hate” groups as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Cointelpro has achieved a special notoriety in the history of political repression, because much of the FBI’s secret work to neutralize dissenters—by spreading disinformation about them, turning them against each other, infiltrating their ranks with informants, etc.—later was revealed to the public. In March 1971, a group of activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., stole a batch of Cointelpro files and leaked them to news outlets. Later, congressional investigations and multiple Freedom of Information Act requests freed up tens of thousands of additional pages from the FBI’s files.

Now, David Cunningham, a Brandeis University assistant professor of sociology used these papers to write the latest and in some ways greatest contribution to the literature on Cointelpro. Cunningham’s new book, There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan and FBI Counterintelligence, draws out some important new lessons about how the bureau has interpreted and responded to dissent against the American establishment.

Although previous books have detailed some of the worst constitutional violations under Cointelpro, Cunningham felt that important questions about the program still needed to be examined. By using the declassified documents as a window into the FBI’s cloistered bureaucracy, Cunningham finds many insights into why the bureau was so gung-ho in its efforts to shut down New Left groups—including those that were a far cry from revolutionary. Cunningham adds a comparative study of the bureau’s campaign against the KKK—a “parallel tale of protest and repression.”

“Probably my most surprising finding when reading through thousands of FBI memos was the fact that agents seemed to take the Klan just as seriously as they did anti-war and campus activists,” Cunningham writes. Still, he notes, while the FBI tried to weaken the Klan, it tried to crush the New Left.

Today’s peace movement may well face some of the same sort of repression, as the FBI, unleashed by the Patriot Act, pursues the “war on terror” on the home front. “The selection of ‘terrorist’ targets is bound to be widespread, and … the line between intelligence and counterintelligence activity is a fragile one,” Cunningham writes in the book’s conclusion. “A central lesson of COINTELPRO is that, given a mandate to monitor and defuse dissident activity, intelligence organizations will do just that, even at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.”