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Between 1956 and 1971, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted a campaign of domestic counterintelligence. The agency's Domestic Intelligence Division did more than simply spy on U.S. citizens and their organizations; its ultimate goal was to disrupt, discredit, and destroy certain political groups. The division's operations were formally known within the bureau as COINTELPRO (the Counterintelligence Program). The brainchild of former FBI director j. edgar hoover, the first COINTELPRO campaign targeted the U.S. Communist party in the mid-1950s. More organizations came under attack in the 1960s. FBI agents worked to subvert civil rights groups, radical organizations, and white supremacists. COINTELPRO existed primarily because of Director Hoover's extreme politics and ended only when he feared its exposure by his critics. A public uproar followed revelations in the news media in the early 1970s, and congressional hearings criticized COINTELPRO campaigns in 1976.

In 1956 Hoover interpreted a recent federal law—the Communist Control Act of 1954 (50 U.S.C.A. § 841)—as providing the general authority for a covert campaign against the U.S. Communist party. Officially, the law stripped the party of "the rights, privileges, and immunities attendant upon legal bodies created under the jurisdiction of the laws of the United States." Hoover saw the party as a peril to national security and ordered a large-scale effort to infiltrate and destabilize it.

Employing classic espionage techniques, FBI agents joined the party and recruited informants. They spread dissension at party meetings by raising embarrassing questions about the recent Soviet invasion of Hungary, for instance, or about Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of the Soviet leader joseph stalin, who had been a hero to U.S. Communists. Agents also engaged in whispering campaigns identifying party members to employers and neighbors. The FBI intensified its harassment by enlisting the internal revenue service (IRS) to conduct selective tax audits of party members. And it spread rumors within the party itself—employing a practice known as snitch jacketing—that painted loyal members as FBI informants. In all, the government executed 1,388 separate documented efforts, and they worked: whereas party membership was an estimated twenty-two thousand in the early 1950s, it fell to some three thousand by the end of 1957.

After his initial success, Hoover did not rest. From the late 1950s through the end of the 1960s, he unleashed his agents against a wide range of political groups. Some were civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) and the southern christian leadership conference (SCLC). Others were radical, such as the black panther party, the american indian movement, and the Socialist Workers party. Yet another target was the nation's oldest white hate group, the ku klux klan, although Hoover was less enthusiastic about pursuing it and did so chiefly because of political pressure resulting from the Klan's highly publicized murders of civil rights workers. In internal FBI memorandums, Hoover's motive for these operations is given as the need to stamp out communism and subversion, but the historical record reveals a muddier picture. What turned Hoover's attention to the NAACP, for example, was the organization's criticism of FBI hiring practices for excluding minorities.

In their scope and tactics, these FBI operations occasionally went much further than the original anti-Communist COINTELPRO effort. They involved at least twenty documented burglaries of the offices of the SCLC, an organization headed by martin luther king jr. Hoover detested King, whom he called "one of the most reprehensible … individuals on the American scene today," and urged his agents to use "imaginative and aggressive tactics" against King and the SCLC. To this end, agents bugged King's hotel rooms; tape-recorded his infidelities; and mailed a recording, along with a note urging King to commit suicide, to the civil rights leader's wife. The COINTELPRO operation against the radical Black Panther party, which Hoover considered a black nationalist hate group, tried to pit the party's leaders against each other while also fomenting violence between the Panthers and an urban gang. In at least one instance, FBI activities did lead to violence. In 1969, an FBI informant's tip culminated in a police raid that killed Illinois Panther chairman Fred Hampton and others; more than a decade later, the federal government agreed to pay restitution to the victims' survivors, and a federal judge sanctioned the bureau for covering up the facts in the case.

Political changes in the early 1970s weakened Hoover's position. Critics in the media and Congress began to question Hoover's methods, and the newly created freedom of information act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C.A. § 552, promised to pierce the veil of secrecy that had always protected him. In 1971, a break-in at an FBI field office in Pennsylvania yielded secret documents that were ultimately published. Fearing greater exposure of FBI counterintelligence programs, Hoover formally canceled them on April 28, 1971. Some small-scale operations continued, but the days when agents had carte blanche to carry out the director's will were over.

Hoover died May 2, 1972, at the age of seventy-seven. His death was followed by the realization of his greatest fear. In 1973 and 1974, NBC reporter Carl Stern gained access to COINTELPRO documents through an FOIA claim. More revelations followed, producing a public outcry and leading to an internal investigation by Attorney General William B. Saxbe. The U.S. Congress was next: in 1975 and 1976, hearings of the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence further probed COINTELPRO. Even as Hoover's legacy was laid bare, supporters tried to keep the cover on: House lawmakers kept their committee's report secret. The Senate did not; its report, released on April 28, 1976, denounced a "pattern of reckless disregard of activities that threatened our constitutional system."

Along with revealing other instances of FBI illegalities under Hoover, the investigation of his activities set in motion a process of reform. Congress ultimately limited the term of the director of the FBI to ten years, to be served at the pleasure of the president, a safeguard designed to ensure that no single individual could again run the bureau indefinitely and without check. Details about COINTELPRO continue to be made public through government documents.

further readings

Gentry, Curt. 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton.

Hakim, Joy. 1995. All the People: A History of Us. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Kleinfelder, Rita L. 1993. When We Were Young: A Baby Boomer Yearbook. New York: Prentice-Hall General Reference & Travel.

Powers, Richard G. 1987. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press.

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COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program) was a set of programs commenced by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1956 and officially terminated in 1971. COINTELPRO included programs variously named Espionage COINTELPRO; New Left COINTELPRO; Disruption of White Hate Groups (targeting the Ku Klux Klan); Communist Party, USA COINTELPRO; Black Extremists COINTELPRO; and the Socialist Workers' Party Disruption Program. Although these were "counterintelligence" programs by name, the FBI did not consider most of these groups to be engaged in intelligence activities (e.g., spying for the Soviet Union). Rather, it deemed their political activities dangerous, and assumed that various court decisions had made it impossible to control them by nonsecret, legal means (e.g., arrests for illegal acts). COINTELPRO began by targeting the Communist Party, but quickly expanded to include other groups. The FBI's "black extremist" category included not only the Black Panthers but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its president, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other civil rights groups of the 1950s and 1960s. COINTELPRO also targeted groups opposed to the Vietnam War.

COINTELPRO remained secret until a large number of documents were stolen from the FBI office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Lawsuits brought by political groups who believed that they were being observed and disrupted by the FBI soon produced other COINTELPRO-related documents. In 1975, a Senate committeethe Select Committee to Study Governmental Relations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee after its chair, Senator Frank Church (D, Idaho)was appointed to investigate COINTELPRO and other domestic espionage and disruption programs conducted by the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, Army intelligence, and the Internal Revenue Service. The Church Committee concluded in 1976 that "the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens," and stated that the FBI had gathered information by illegal means, disseminated that information illegally, and otherwise violated the law in its efforts to disrupt political activities that it considered subversive. The committee's report stated that "the abusive techniques used by the FBI in COINTELPRO from 1956 to 1971 included violations of both federal and state statutes prohibiting mail fraud, wire fraud, incitement to violence, sending obscene material through the mail, and extortion. More fundamentally, the harassment of innocent citizens engaged in lawful forms of political expression did serious injury to the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and the right of the people to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Disruption techniques used by the FBI during COINTELPRO, according to the findings of the Church Committee, included burglaries; illegal opening and photographing of first-class mail; planting of forged documents to make it appear that individuals were government informants; anonymous letters to spouses, designed to break up marriages; secretly communicating with employers in order to get individuals fired; planting of news articles and editorials (covertly authored by FBI agents) in U.S. magazines and newspapers; anonymous letters containing false statements designed to encourage violence between street gangs and the Black Panthers; anonymous letters denouncing Catholic priests who allowed their churches to be used for Black Panther breakfasts sent to their bishops; requests for selective tax audits; encouragement of violent tactics by paid FBI informants posing as members of antiwar groups in order to discredit those groups; and others.



"Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities." United States Senate. April 26, 1976. <> (March 18, 2003).

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Cointelpro (FBI)


COINTELPRO (FBI). In 1956 the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a formal counter intelligence program against the Communist Party of the United States. Eleven more programs opened in the next decade, targeting an array of groups and causes: Groups Seeking Independence for Puerto Rico, White Hate Groups (such as the Ku Klux Klan), Black Nationalist Hate Groups (such as the Black Panther Party), New Left, Cointelpro-Espionage, Cuban Matters, Hoodwink (to cause disputes between the American Communist Party and the Mafia), Mexican Communist Party Matters, Socialist Workers Party, Special Operations (Nationalities Intelligence), and Yugoslav (Violence-Prone Yugoslav Emigrés to the United States). The program aimed at the New Left was compromised in 1972 by anti–Vietnam War activists who broke into an FBI office and mailed a number of "liberated" files to Congress and the media. That security breach led the FBI to terminate all twelve programs.

J. Edgar Hoover and other FBI officials created COINTELPRO unilaterally. Goals were nearly identical in every case: "to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize." Specific Black Hate operations, for example, ranged from petty harassments to a carefully orchestrated police raid that ended in the murder of the Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The FBI informant who helped with that raid's logistics received a cash reward. Martin Luther King Jr. was another COIN-TELPRO target in this category, and that fact has helped keep alive several of the sensational if largely baseless conspiracy theories surrounding his assassination. Regardless, the counter intelligence programs were not what one would normally expect to see in a democracy.


Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wail. The COINTELPRO Papers. Boston: South End Press, 1991.

O'Reilly, Kenneth. "Racial Matters": The FBI's Secret File on Black America, 1960–1972. New York: Free Press, 1979.

U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. COINTELPRO Files: The Counterintelligence Program of the FBI. 30 reels. Microfilm ed. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1978.


See alsoFederal Bureau of Investigation .

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