State Surveillance

Agents of Repression: The FBI’s control of domestic dissent from 1940’s to 1960’s

I am currently reading the book titled “Agents of Repression” written by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall. COINTELPRO covers the whole series of sustained and systematic campaigns directed by the FBI to control domestic political dissent from 1940s to 1960s. It was a clandestine program. The public only became aware of COINTELPRO as an official entity after a group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI’s Media, Pennsylvania office on the night of March 8, 1971 and removed thousands of pages from classified files. In chapter 2 of the book, the authors write about the methods used by COINTELPRO.


A massive program of surveillance was carried out using wiretaps, surreptitious entries and burglaries, electronic devices, live “tails” and mail tampering.  The purpose of such activities was never intelligence gathering per se, but rather the inducement of “paranoia” among those targeted. The word “paranoia” is used in a FBI brief entitled “New Left Notes, Philadelphia, 9/16/71, Edition No. 1.”.

Bogus Mail: 

Fabrication of correspondence between members of targeted groups, or between groups, was designed to foster “splits” within or between organizations.

“Black Propaganda” Operations:

“Black Propaganda” refers to the fabrication and distribution of publications “in behalf of”  targeted organizations/individuals designed to misrepresent their positions in such a way so as to publicly discredit them and foster intra/inter-group tensions.

Disinformation or “Grey Propaganda”:

The FBI systematically released disinformation to the press and electronic media concerning groups and individuals , designed to discredit them and foster tensions.

Harassment arrests:

The repeated arrests of targeted individuals and organization members on spurious charges were carried out, not with any hope of obtaining convictions, but simply to harass, increase paranoia, tie up activists in a series of pre-arraignment incarcerations and preliminary courtroom procedures, and deplete their resources through the postings of numerous bail bonds and retention of attorneys.

Infiltrators and Agents Provocateurs:

This tactic involved infiltration of targeted organizations with informers and agents provocateurs, the latter expressly for the purpose of fomenting and engaging in illegal activities which could then be attributed to key organizational members and/or the organization as a whole. Agents provocateurs were routinely assigned to disrupt the internal functioning of target groups and assist in spread of disinformation.


There is some indication that the Bureau had begun to spawn “pseudo-gangs”, phony organizations designed to “confuse, divide and undermine” as well as do outright battle with authentic dissident groups by the end of the COINTELPRO era.


“Bad-jacketing” refers to the practice of creating suspicion – though the spread of rumors, manufacture of evidence, etc. – that bona fide organization members, usually in key positions, are FBI/police informers, guilty of such offenses and skimming organizational funds and the like. The purpose of this tactic was to “isolate and eliminate” organizational leadership.

Fabrication of evidence:

A widely used FBI tactic has been the fabrication of evidence for criminal prosecution of key individuals, and the withholding of exculpatory evidence which might serve to block conviction of these individuals. This includes the intimidation of witnesses and use of coercion to obtain false testimony.


While Freedom to Information Act files and congressional investigations have not revealed any “smoking guns”, FBI intentions are clarified in a Bureau document transmitted by the Special Agent in Charge, San Diego to the Director:

Shootings, beatings and widespread unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this over-all situation, it is felt a substantial amount of this unrest is attributable to this program.

Read the book to get more details of the use of these tactics by the FBI and the targeted individuals and organizations. The book is published by South End Press.


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