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The past is present 

A look back at COINTELPRO

There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence
By David Cunningham
University of California Press, 382 pp., $27.50
On Dec. 2, the American Civil Liberties Union filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 10 states and the District of Columbia asking for government files on the surveillance and questioning of nonviolent activists involved with anti-war, environmental and free-speech groups. "The FBI is wasting its time and our tax dollars spying on groups that criticize the government," said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson. "Do Americans really want to return to the days when peaceful critics become the subject of government investigations?"

Whether we want to or not, we may have already returned to those days. 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. More recently, FBI agents and police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force have questioned peace activists at N.C. State University.

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 to covertly undermine the Communist Party-USA. By the time of the program's termination in 1971, the FBI had added a host of other people and parties to its list of targets to be surveilled and disrupted, from civil rights and anti-war organizations to such "white hate" groups as the Ku Klux Klan.

COINTELPRO has achieved a special notoriety in the history of political repression, largely 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. --was later revealed to the public. In March of 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 Freedom of Information Act requests freed up tens of thousands of additional pages from the FBI's files.

And now, David Cunningham, a Brandeis University assistant professor of sociology who did his graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, has 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, delves into the minutiae of FBI counterintelligence efforts against the New Left and the resurgent KKK of the 1960s, and draws out some important new lessons about how the bureau has interpreted and responded to dissent against the American establishment.

Though previous books have detailed some of the worst constitutional violations that occurred under COINTELPRO, Cunningham felt that important questions about the program still needed to be examined. "Social movement theorists had long recognized that political repression plays a significant role in movement trajectories, though for some reason, these sorts of studies always seemed to be done from the perspective of the movements themselves," he recently told the Independent. "It seemed to me that it was difficult to fully understand the role of the FBI, the police, etc. if we didn't account for the day-to-day operations within state agencies."

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. And while previous studies of COINTELPRO have largely focused on the FBI's targeting of the New Left, civil rights and black power groups, Cunningham adds a comparative study of the bureau's campaign against the KKK--a "parallel tale of protest and repression."

"I hoped to gain insight into the interaction between the FBI and protest groups generally, as well as to test the commonly accepted view that COINTELPRO was actually a war against the political left," he explains. That view is true to some extent, Cunningham concludes, but the anti-Klan program was more substantial than many have assumed it was.

"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, that the program against so-called "white hate" groups was really more than a token attempt," he says. During the early 1960s, he notes in the book, the FBI's Charlotte office counted 124 chapters of the United Klans of America in North Carolina alone. To sap off some of the UKA's potential for violence, the Charlotte office took the extraordinary step of covertly urging Klan members to join a rival group, the Christian Knights of the KKK, which, Cunningham writes, "was obviously controlled by [FBI] informants."

But while the FBI tried to weaken the Klan, it tried to crush the New Left. "The FBI had differing overall orientations toward left- versus right-wing targets," he says. "They were invested in controlling the violence of the Klan, while eliminating anti-war, socialist and black power movements altogether."

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 terrorism" 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."

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