COINTELPRO is an acronym ('COunter INTELligence PROgram') for a program of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations within the United States. Although covert operations have been employed throughout FBI history, the formal COINTELPRO operations of 1956-1971 were broadly targeted against organizations that were (at the time) considered to have politically radical elements, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organizations whose stated goal was the violent overthrow of the US government such as the Weathermen, to racist and segregationist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The document that launched the COINTELPRO operations against Black groups directed FBI agents to "track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities" of these dissident movements and their leaders.



The origins of COINTELPRO are debated.

Supporters of the program argue that the project was rooted in the Bureau's knowledge that some domestic leftwing and radical organizations were manipulated by hostile foreign intelligence agencies. For example, the FBI had access to the Venona decrypts that showed the Soviet Union and its KGB manipulated and worked under the cover of the American Communist Party for espionage purposes and to incite domestic unrest in the United States.

According to the Church Committee, however, "COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government's power to proceed overtly against dissident groups; it ended in 1971 with the threat of public exposure."[1] (

Counterintelligence goes beyond investigation and refers to actions taken to neutralize enemy agents. Over the years, the FBI focus in COINTELPRO shifted to emerging civil rights, anti-war, and other groups for which there has never been credible evidence of substantial ties to foreign intelligence agencies. Congress and several court cases later concluded that even the COINTELPRO operations against communist and socialist groups exceeded statutory limits on FBI activity and violated Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association.


COINTELPRO began in 1956 and was designed to "increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections" inside the Communist Party U.S.A. The FBI program was later enlarged to include disruption of the Socialist Workers Party (1961), the Ku Klux Klan (1964), Black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam (1967), and the entire New Left, including, antiwar, community, and religious groups (1968).

Some of the largest COINTELPRO campaigns targeted the Socialist Worker's Party, the "New Left" (including several anti-war groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Black Liberation groups (such as the Black Panthers and the Republic of New Africa), Puerto Rican independence groups, the American Indian Movement and the Weather Underground.

The program was secret until 1971, when an FBI field office was burglarized by a group of leftwing radicals calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI. Several dossiers of files were taken and the information passed to news agencies. Within the year, Director Hoover declared that the centralized COINTELPRO was over, and that all future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis. He did not promise that the FBI would stop using COINTELPRO-style tactics.

Further documents were revealed in the course of separate lawsuits filed against the FBI by NBC correspondent Carl Stern, the SWP, and a number of other groups. A major investigation was launched in 1976 by the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the "Church Committee" for its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho.1 ( However, millions of pages of documents remain unreleased, and many released documents are entirely censored.

In the Final Report of the Select Committee COINTELPRO was castigated in no uncertain terms:

"Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propogation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence." 2 (

The Church Committee documented a history of the FBI being used for purposes of political repression as far back as World War I, through the 1920s, when they were charged with rounding up "anarchists and revolutionaries" for deportation, and then building from 1936 through 1976.

The FBI claims that it no longer undertakes COINTELPRO or COINTELPRO-like operations. However, critics claim that agency programs in the spirit of COINTELPRO target groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and the Anti-Globalization Movement.


According to Brian Glick, COINTELPRO used a broad array of methods, including:

1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit and disrupt. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
2. Psychological Warfare From the Outside: The FBI and police used myriad other "dirty tricks" to undermine progressive movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists.
3. Harassment through the Legal System: The FBI and police abused the legal system to harass dissidents and make them appear to be criminals. Officers of the law gave perjured testimony and presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, "investigative" inter views, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
4. Extralegal Force and Violence: The FBI and police threatened, instigated, and themselves conducted break-ins, vandalism, assaults, and beatings. The object was to frighten dissidents and disrupt their movements.
Brian Glick, War at Home (South End Press).

Supporters of the FBI argue that the Bureau was convinced that there was such a threat of domestic subversion posed by radical groups that extraordinary efforts were required to forestall violence and revolutionary insurgency. Critics counter that this perception was flawed, and, in the words of Glick, in the case of "radical Black and Puerto Rican activists (and later Native Americans), these attacks-including political assassinations-were so extensive, vicious, and calculated that they can accurately be termed a form of official "terrorism." (Glick, War at Home).

In 1969 the FBI special agent in San Francisco wrote Hoover that his investigation of the Black Panther Party revealed that in his city, at least, the Black nationalists were primarily feeding breakfast to children. Hoover fired back a memo implying the career ambitions of the agent were directly related to his supplying evidence to support Hoover's view that the BPP was "a violence prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means". Hoover made his real agenda clear in a later memo instructing agents that the "Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge." [2] (

Further Reading


  • Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. The Cointelpro Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. 467 pages. South End Press; 2nd edition (July 1, 2002). ISBN 0896086488.
  • Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. 509 pages. South End Press; 2nd edition (July 1, 2002). ISBN 0896086461.
  • Carson, Clayborne and David Gallen, editors. Malcolm X: The FBI File. 514 pages. Carroll & Graf Publishers. November 1, 1991. ISBN 0881847585.
  • Cunningham, David. There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence. 382 pages. University of California Press (March 10, 2004). ISBN 0520239970.
  • Cointelpro, ed. by Cathy Perkus. 190 pages. New York: Vintage, 1976
  • Davis, James Kirkpatrick. Assault on the Left, chapters 1 and 8. 240 pages. Praeger Trade (April 30, 1997). ISBN 0275954552.
  • Garrow, David. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Viking Pr; Reprint edition. 320 pages. February 1, 1983. ISBN 0140064869420. Yale University Press, Revised & Expanded edition. 420 pages. August 1, 2006. ISBN 0300087314.
  • Glick, Brian. War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It. Boston: South End Press, 1989. 92 pages. South End Press; 1st ed edition (March 1, 1989). ISBN 0896083497.

U.S. Government reports

  • U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Internal Security. Hearings on Domestic Intelligence Operations for Internal Security Purposes. 93rd Cong., 2d sess, 1974.
  • U.S. Congress. House. Select Committee on Intelligence. Hearings on Domestic Intelligence Programs. 94th Cong., 1st sess, 1975.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Government Operations. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Hearings on Riots, Civil and Criminal Disorders. 90th Cong., 1st sess. - 91st Cong. , 2d sess, 1967-1970.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Hearings -- The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights. Vol. 6. 94th Cong., 1st sess, 1975.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Hearings -- Federal Bureau of Investigation. Vol. 6. 94th Cong., 1st sess, 1975.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Final Report -- Book II, Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. 94th Cong., 2d sess, 1976.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Final Report -- Book III , Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. 94th Cong., 2d sess, 1976.

See also

External links



U.S Government reports

Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, April 26 (legislative day, April 14), 1976. [AKA "Church Committee Report"]. Archived on COINTELPRO sources website ( Transcription and html by Paul Wolf. Retrieved April 19, 2005.

  • Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II
I. Introduction and Summary (
II. The Growth of Domestic Intelligence: 1936 to 1976 (
III. Findings (
(A) Violating and Ignoring the Law (
(B) Overbreadth of Domestic Intelligence Activity (
(C) Excessive Use of Intrusive Techniques (
(D) Using Covert Action to Disrupt and Discredit Domestic Groups (
(E) Political Abuse of Intelligence Information (
(F) Inadequate Controls on Dissemination and Retention (
(G) Deficiencies in Control and Accountability (
IV. Conclusions and Recommendations (
  • Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports, Book III

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