The Return of COINTELPRO: Government Infiltration of Activist Groups

By Shahid Buttar, Executive Director, Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) & Amy Ferrer, Associate Director, BORDC

Government surveillance of First Amendment-protected speech and political activism unfortunately boasts a long and sordid history in the United States. Well before its resurgence under the Bush administration-and unfortunate continuation under the current administration-a pattern of political surveillance and infiltration has periodically recurred across multiple periods in American history, and by a variety of institutional actors.
The politically motivated "Palmer Raids" of 1919-1921 by the Department of Justice and Immigration and Naturalization Service targeted left-wing activist. The disruption and character assassination activities of the FBI's infamous Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeted civil rights and other progressive groups from 1956-1971. And more recently, state & federal authorities have monitored and infiltrated peace, environmental and civil rights groups around the country. These investigative methods deeply threaten constitutional rights and should raise alarms, especially if they reflect systemic bias rather than isolated abuses.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized the FBI to dramatically expand its domestic surveillance activities. He expanded that authority again in 2003, and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey followed suit with further expansions in December, 2008. Ostensibly crafted to enhance counterterrorism efforts, the resulting surveillance came to serve political purposes: in at least several cases, it was directed against activist groups and individuals advancing goals opposed to those of the Bush administration.
At a time when the specter of genuine terrorism loomed large in our nation's priorities, federal and local law enforcement agencies squandered time and resources conducting unconstitutional surveillance of peaceful activist groups. In all, as many as 150 organizations-including Greenpeace, a Catholic Workers Group, and various Muslim charities-have been monitored in recent years without any evidence of criminal activity.
The "war on terror" has, in effect, criminalized dissent. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee has compiled a brief collection of incidents illustrating government infiltration of activist groups starting in 2002-but unfortunately continuing into 2009. 9.04.2009

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