COINTELPRO and the History of Domestic Spying

In light of the Bush administration's secret eavedropping efforts, Farai Chideya takes an in-depth look at COINTELPRO. The 1960s-era federal surveillance program that targeted, among others, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., other civil rights leaders and outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Two civil liberties groups are suing President Bush and the National Security Agency over secret wiretapping of American citizens. The groups say the eavesdropping is both illegal and unconstitutional. George Washington University law professor, Paul Butler, will join NPR's Farai Chideya in just a moment to discuss these legal challenges. But first, Farai takes a look at the historical clash over how far the U.S. government can go in monitoring its citizens. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was the subject of an intense FBI campaign. The FBI's surveillance of King came under the counter-intelligence program, known by its acronym, COINTELPRO. The program tested the constitutional limits of law enforcement and stirred a civil liberties debate that continues today. Here's Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of 1970s report)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are tasked by Senate Resolution 21 to investigate illegal, improper, or unethical activities engaged in by intelligence agencies...

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Those words could have come from today's headlines. Instead, they date from the 1970s, when Idaho Senator Frank Church led congressional hearings into whether intelligence agencies had gone too far in investigating U.S. citizens. At the core of the Church hearings was COINTELPRO, a program started by FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s. COINTELPRO involved not only wiretapping, but as the investigation showed, attempts to disrupt, discredit, and defame perceived political radicals. Hoover targeted few figures as relentlessly as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The charge, Communist influence in the civil rights movement. FBI Director, Hoover:

(Soundbite of 1970s report)

Mr. J. EDGAR HOOVER (Former FBI Director): The Communist Party of America is doing everything in its power to steal the minds and the souls and the hearts of our young people.

CHIDEYA: In August of 1963, Reverend King gathered more than a quarter of a million Americans on the Mall in Washington to champion Civil Rights.

(Soundbite of 1970s report)

Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights leader): Free at last, free at last. Thank God, Almighty, we're free at last.

CHIDEYA: That march spurred Hoover to action. A little more than a month later, the FBI Director petitioned the Attorney General, then Robert F. Kennedy, to approve a wiretap on King's telephone. Kennedy only agreed, according to his attorney Nicholas Katzenbach, in order to protect King.

(Soundbite of 1970s report)

Mr. NICHOLAS KATZENBACH (speaking as Robert F. Kennedy's attorney): He did not let Hoover tap King's wire. That would be used, really, as almost proof that King was being influenced by Communism. Bobby thought that if he tapped it he would find out that you were not.

CHIDEYA: And in fact, Kennedy was right. The Church Commission found that the wiretap showed that Dr. King did not support Communism. And that his two associates who may have been allied with the Communist party didn't influence King's views or his organization. But documents suggest that Hoover's campaign against King was as much personal as political. And the rift between the two men deepened in 1964.

(Soundbite of news broadcast in 1964)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The three civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night have still not been heard from. There is little hope that they are still alive.

CHIDEYA: After the disappearance of three freedom riders, King publicly questioned whether the FBI had done enough to safeguard the lives of civil rights activists and black citizens. An enraged Hoover then began to publicly denounce King, telling reporters that King was, "The most notorious liar in the country." Journalist, Ronald Kessler wrote the best-seller, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI.

Mr. RONALD KESSLER (Author): Hoover really got ticked off because King criticized the FBI. And he said that the FBI has agents in the south who are segregationists, and actually that wasn't true. The FBI was, in fact, working on civil rights at the time. But that was enough to infuriate Hoover and decided that Martin Luther King was an enemy to the country.

CHIDEYA: At this point, it was all-out war between the quintessential American law man and the preacher who made his name challenging the righteousness of American law. Others were drawn into this battle. King associate, Reverend Jesse Jackson was also targeted by COINTELPRO.

Rev. JESSE JACKSON (associate of Martin Luther King): When you have this feeling that the government really is watching you, you know, taps your telephone, maybe in your text files, it has a chilling effect. It takes away your freedom. And often for leaders, none of us are perfect, it neutralizes people.

CHIDEYA: As King's fame grew, so too did the FBI's campaign to discredit him. The Bureau compiled a tape recording of Reverend King with extra marital lovers and sent him a copy, along with an anonymous not that read in part, "King, there is only one thing left for you to do. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

King and his advisors interpreted the note as calling for him to commit suicide. Journalist Danny Schecter, a local organizer for the march on Washington, says the FBI used any means necessary to achieve their goal.

Mr. DANNY SCHECTER (Journalist): Understand that COINTELPRO was not just surveillance, it was active disruption. It was putting agents into the movement to incite rivalries, a jealousy, to try to get people fighting against each other and not trusting each other.

CHIDEYA: Efforts to discredit Reverend King intensified as he began to criticize as he began to criticize the Vietnam War. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th, 1968. But Hoover continued the campaign to discredit the civil rights leader. And, his legacy.

Former FBI Associate Deputy Director, Oliver "Buck" Revell, says that most agents did not know about COINTELPRO, and many disagreed with its tactics, once they came to light.

Mr. OLIVER "BUCK" REVELL (Former FBI Associate Deputy Director): Probably less than 200 people in the FBI ever knew of or were involved in COINTELPRO and the other 8,000 agents were, like I was, investigating organized crime and all types of bank robberies and violent crimes and it just seemed to be to be so out of character with the FBI that I had joined and that I believed was essential to protect the rights of American citizens.

CHIDEYA: In 1975, three years after Hoover's death, Senator Church held hearings that exposed COINTELPRO, and spurred new domestic spying regulations. Kate Martin, Director for the Center of National Securities Studies:

Ms. KATE MARTIN (Director for the Center of National Securities Studies): So the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is much in the news today, was one of the key recommendations of the Church committee, which basically put limits on secret national security wiretaps. And that was passed in 1978.

CHIDEYA: That act, nicknamed FISA, provides the grounds for today's legal challenges to government surveillance. But FBI Veteran Revell says President George W. Bush has done nothing wrong.

Mr. REVELL: When the FISA statute was passed, Griffin Bell made a statement that this did not pre-empt the President's constitutional authority to order surveillance where it was appropriate against possible hostile organizations or nations. But as far as the Constitutionality of it, I think the President will be found to have acted within the scope of his authority.

CHIDEYA: Still, former Attorney General Katzenbach sees clear parallels between COINTELPRO-era surveillance and today's legal battles.

Mr. KATZENBACH: You cannot, in our society, allow any person in the Executive Branch, be it the President, be it the head of the FBI, the head of the National Security Agency, to have an unsupervised power to invade the privacy of people on national security grounds.

CHIDEYA: As America faces the threat of global terror, a specter easily as menacing as communism was during the Cold War era, a society must grapple with key questions. What rights must Americans must give up, if any, in order to remain safe. And who in government, the President, the Courts or Congress, has the final say on where to draw the line?

That piece was produced by NPR's Cory Turner.

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