L. Neil Smith's
Number 177, June 10, 2002


The Leash Is Off
Part Two: COINTELPRO in Cyberspace

by Jeff Elkins

Special to TLE

I've been amazed at the somewhat bland reaction to Ashcroft's new guidelines from some organizations that should surely know better. The 'Well, that's not so bad' reaction from Cato was shocking. The Cato scholars certainly know the history of COINTELPRO operations by the FBI from the 1950s through the early 1970s. In order to fully grasp what our Attorney General has unleashed, you should too. Especially important today, are the expansion of COINTELPRO tactics into cyberspace.

COINTELPRO is an acronym for the FBI's domestic "counterintelligence programs" to neutralize political dissidents. Formal COINTELPRO operations were conducted between 1956-1971 and targeted against radical political organizations, ranging from anti-war activists to civil-rights organizations.

The roots of COINTELPRO can be found in the Bureau's operations against foreign intelligence services. Counterintelligence also implies more than mere investigation; it refers to actions taken to neutralize enemy agents as well, active measures ranging from disinformation campaigns to actual physical attack.

However, FBI operations targeting foreign spies quickly expanded to include American citizens with undesirable views. Eventually, COINTELPRO became the primary weapon that the state used against the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Quoting J. Edgar Hoover:

"The forces which are most anxious to weaken our internal security are not always easy to identify. Communists have been trained in deceit and secretly work toward the day when they hope to replace our American way of life with a Communist dictatorship. They utilize cleverly camouflaged movements, such as peace groups and civil rights groups to achieve their sinister purposes. While they as individuals are difficult to identify, the Communist party line is clear. Its first concern is the advancement of Soviet Russia and the godless Communist cause. It is important to learn to know the enemies of the American way of life."

COINTELPRO was exposed to the public eye after an unsolved break-in into the FBI's Media, PA field office that resulted in leaked documents, and separate lawsuits by NBC correspondent Carl Stern and the Socialist Workers' Party, followed by a US Senate investigation led by Senator Frank Church. The Church investigation in turn lead to more restrictive guidelines , those that were recently so blithely tossed in the trash by John Ashcroft.

Past COINTELPRO operations utilized four basic approaches:

Infiltration and internal psychological warfare.

FBI agents and paid informers actively worked to disrupt organizations from the inside. The infiltration was designed to both sow discord within (Are you real or are you from the FBI?) and scare off potential supporters. It was also common to leak false information accusing genuine activists of being FBI plants and use entrapment techniques.

External psychological warfare.

The FBI planted erroneous stories with media sources, and published bogus material supposedly created by targeted organizations, wrote anonymous letters and forged correspondence, all this designed to paint false pictures of aims and goals. Other tactics included spreading misinformation about and/or disrupting meetings and events, setting up pseudo organizations run by agents, and using strong-arm techniques on parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others who had influence over activists.

Legal harassment.

Agents perjured themselves and fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and false imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, "investigative" interviews, and grand jury subpoenas to intimidate activists.

Extralegal force and violence.

The FBI and local police conducted break-ins, black-bag jobs, vandalism, assaults, and beatings. It is widely rumored that political assassinations were carried out as well.

We've seen the beginnings of COINTELPRO-type tactics in the Bush/Ashcroft "war on terror" and you may rest assured that we will see the efforts expand. Let's examine some specifics from the full investigative guidelines just promulgated by Ashcroft's DOJ.

In this column, I'd like to examine the expansion of COINTELPRO into cyberspace. Two clauses from the full guidelines available at the DOJ address online activity:

General Topical Research

The FBI is authorized to carry out general topical research, including conducting searches and accessing online sites and forums as part of such research on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.

Use of Online Resources Generally

For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorism or other criminal activities, the FBI is authorized to conduct online search activity and to access online sites and forums on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.

These clauses were widely poo-pooed by the usual suspects, but examined closely, they are chilling to the extreme. Consider the dual nature of activism on the Internet: On one hand, it's widely used as a venue for publishing material critical of government activities that never seem to gain exposure in the mainstream media. Considering COINTELPRO tactics as used in the past, how long before pressure is applied to national ISPs to remove websites featuring such commentary? How long until the major search engines remove anti-government links from their indexes?

And on the other hand, consider the explosion of interactive web-based forums, largely anonymous in nature, that feature discussion areas. Consider just how easily FBI agents and informers could infiltrate these online meeting places, both to gather information and to instigate activities resulting in prosecution and imprisonment. If you think this is far-fetched, please refer back to the four tactical aims of a COINTELPRO operation and perhaps remember other notable entrapment cases that could easily transfer into cyberspace (hint: Waco and Ruby Ridge).

On that note, be very cautious of anyone online who attempts to coerce you into advocating physical action of any type against the government. They may just be the typical Internet hothead/keyboard- pounder, but then again they might be a modern-day COINTELPRO cybernaut.

It's very important to understand that COINTELPRO never really went away. It was largely driven underground by bad publicity and the Church hearings, but it was always lurking beneath the surface of the polished FBI image, waiting for an Ashcroft to resurrect it and a complacent public to accept it.

COINTELPRO has emerged from the shadows with a vengeance. In future columns I'll examine further aspects of its return and John Ashcroft's efforts to fully convert the FBI into the enforcement division of George W. Bush's police state.


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