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Warning: Anti-war Activity Prohibited Without Proper Supervision

by The Project / S.F. (projectcollective [at]
Warning: Anti-war Activity Prohibited Without Proper Supervision
By S.F.
Early December, UCSC Students Against War (SAW) discovered that not only was their April 5, 2005 counter-recruitment action on a 400-page list of primarily anti-war protests and actions that the Pentagon had been spying on over the previous ten months, but they were the only group that was listed as both “credible” and a “threat” to national security. The implications of the US military conducting infiltration and surveillance on peace groups within the US, under the thinly-veiled pretense of fighting terrorism, are enough to raise serious concern about the police state our nation is becoming.

The list that SAW had been included in was a database of information “indicative of possible terrorist pre-attack activity,” maintained by a three-year-old agency called the Counterintelligence Field Activity. The Pentagon has since admitted that anti-war activities and meetings have no relation to this database and shouldn’t have been included in it.

When the report was released, SAW was still just under one year old, and had already made the Department of Defense’s shit list. However, rather than being intimidated, the group chose to wear their status as a “credible threat” to the war machine as a badge of honor and capitalize on an overwhelming swell of criticism of government surveillance over peace groups.

Now, two months later, the group has received national press attention, including an article on the front page of the NY Times’s National Report section; they’ve been working with the ACLU to file Freedom of Information Act requests for more details about who has been spying on the group, how, and why; and meanwhile, our illustrious senator Feinstein was kind enough to take a break from defending her husband’s conflicts-of-interests in running the UC as a Regent to write the Pentagon and good ole’ Donny Rumsfeld himself, demanding to know why student and anti-war groups are being spied on by the US military and exactly what authority it is acting under.

Bottom line? The Armed Forces are struggling to maintain the image of control in Iraq. Massive popular dissent against the war at home is making it impossible for recruiters to meet their quotas and keep the war running. The growing counter-recruitment and anti-war movements are presenting a significant threat to the war effort and the vested economic interests of those who stand to profit from it. Under increasing internal pressure, the government is attempting to solidify its control over the populace by stepping up its crackdown on these popular movements and its long-standing campaign of terrorism fear-mongering.


Sound familiar? Forty years ago, under increasing pressure to end the Vietnam war, the American police state reached its greatest level of development and political repression yet under the FBI’s uber-popular COINTELPRO, or Counter-Intelligence Program. The program was SO popular, in fact, that the public had absolutely no knowledge of its existence until a group of left-wing radicals calling themselves the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into an FBI field office, stole a series of dossiers of COINTELPRO activity, and released them to the media.

COINTELPRO was founded in 1956 and was designed to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” in the Communist Party USA, but was soon expanded to include disruption of the Socialist Workers Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), among others.1 The US Senate’s Church Committee stated that COINTELPRO began “in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government’s power to proceed overtly againts dissident groups.”1

These counter-intelligence programs were as effective as they were disturbing in nature and scope. Fortunately, to maintain their effectiveness, the FBI had to control the various programs centrally and keep in constant contact with their field operatives nationwide, creating an enormous paper trail that is continuing to be unearthed today, exposing the nature of the program in all its components.

There were several favorite tactics of FBI operatives working under COINTELPRO. False media stories were planted to discredit successful organizers and groups, utilizing the FBI’s media contacts. In one case, an attempt to discredit white film star and anti-racist activist Jean Seberg by publishing a fake story in the LA Times on May 19, 1970, claiming that she was pregnant by a prominent Black leader, led to her resulting stillbirth, nervous breakdown, and suicide.2 Bogus leaflets, pamphlets, and other publications were distributed in the names of activist groups to further discredit them. Anonymous letters and telephone calls, using bits of personal information taken from surveillance tapes for authenticity, were used to create miscommunication between groups and turn them against each other. FBI operatives used this tactic to intentionally provoke violence and murder between the Black Panther Party and gang members. The CIA alone admitted to photographing 2.7 million pieces of first-class mall in the 1960s and opening almost 215,000. Other federal agencies not only tampered with mail but altered or “disappeared” it.2

The FBI also engaged in campaigns to “neutralize” prominent activist leaders which, at its extreme, meant sending them to prison for life or eliminating them outright. Others, however, were neutralized by intimidation, harassment, discrediting, snitch jacketing, and an endless assortment of other illegal tactics.3 Still others were victims of both tactics. After civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered on March 25, 1965 by four Ku Klux Klan members, including paid FBI informant Gary Rowe, the FBI finished the job with a smear campaign.2

Another example was the FBI’s campaign to neutralize Martin Luther King, Jr. as an effective civil rights organizer. Carried out from 1963 until King’s death in 1968, the campaign was later exposed by the Senate’s Church Committee. The FBI has confirmed 16 occasions on which microphones were hidden in Dr. King’s hotel rooms to obtain information about the “private activities of King and his advisers” for use to “completely discredit” them.4 The Chief of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division admitted to attempts to reduce Dr. King’s stature by sending letters and tapes aimed at causing a separation between King and his wife. The FBI had plans ready to promote someone “to assume the role of leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited,” and operatives sent an anonymous letter pressuring Dr. King to commit suicide just before his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.4 The operations carried out against Dr. King were due in large part to Hoover’s personal distaste for him, which continued even after his death with Hoover’s plans to prevent the passage of “Martin Luther King Day” by pressuring congressional leaders. The FBI later admitted that there was “no basis” behind the operations against Dr. King and that they were entirely unjustified.

Within weeks of COINTELPRO’s exposure to the public, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover announced that the program had been dismantled. Congress and several court cases later decided that COINTELPRO programs far
exceeded the statutory limits on FBI activity and violated First Amendment rights of speech and association. Of course, these cases came fashionably late enough to be of no comfort to the activists whose lives had been destroyed and ended by a repressive secret police gone haywire.


While the days of COINTELPRO are over, government infiltration of activist groups has not. Post-9/11 America has seen a rebirth of COINTELPRO-style repression under the guise of the “War on Terror”; Freedom of Information Act requests have been providing continuous evidence that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces are primarily targeting activist and peace groups. However, the US activist community has also learned much from the repression of the 1960s, and has developed many practices to resist infiltration.

The first step is to understand the way infiltrators work. Infiltration is based on undermining group trust, taking advantage of existing divisions in the group, and manipulating them to turn activists against each other.

These divisions can take the form of personal arguments, political disagreements, or elements of racism, sexism, and homophobia within the group. The best way to keep these from becoming major problems is to continually challenge these issues openly in the group, and maintain an open dialogue that allows people to express their frustrations and focus them towards positive solutions; if there isn’t time for this at general meetings, retreats and caucuses are good spaces to discuss these issues.

The goal of informers, as opposed to infiltrators, is to obtain information about the potential actions of groups to place in the hands of local authorities. As a general rule, it’s best to assume that group spaces that are open to the public, such as general meetings or open listserves, are not safe for discussing private or sensitive information, especially if your group is well-known. Anything that you don’t want to be public knowledge shouldn’t be discussed in public spaces, especially potentially illegal acts that you or anyone else have performed or are going to perform. If you need to discuss sensitive information, do it in private meetings or with individuals that you trust; if you’re planning an action and need information of your activities to be completely secure, create an affinity group with people you trust and with whom you’ve worked before. Remember, however, that increased security can easily lead to increased exclusiveness, and exclusiveness can end up doing more damage to the movement than it’s worth.

It’s important to keep in mind that much of the division that destroyed activist organizations of the 1960s wasn’t caused by direct infiltration, but by a fear of infiltration that led activists to blame one another and regard each other with suspicion. Activists who worry too much about infiltration tend to create overzealous security cultures that are both alienating and exclusive, and can seriously stifle the group’s growth.

Building strong communities that act in solidarity with one another and incorporate working dynamics of respect, education, and inclusion provides the best defense against infiltration, disruption, and repression.

1. WikiPedia: COINTELPRO
3. Senate Church Committee reports and FBI COINTELPRO documents
4. Senate Church Committee case study on Martin Luther King, Jr.
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