January 23, 2013
“Democracies die behind closed doors” – Judge Damon J. Keith
For 15 years (1956-1971) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ran a broad and highly coordinated domestic intelligence / counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgrams). What was originally deemed as a justifiable effort to protect the US during the Cold War from Soviet and Communist threats and infiltration, soon devolved into a program for suppressing domestic dissent and spying on American citizens. Approximately 20,000 people were investigated by the FBI based only on their political views and beliefs. Most were never suspected of having committed any crime.
The reasoning behind the program, as detailed in a 1976 Senate report, was that the FBI had “the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.” The fact that the “perceived threats” were usually American citizens engaging in constitutionally protected behaviour was apparently overlooked. The stated goal of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” any individual or group deemed to be subversive or a threat to the established power structure.
The FBI’s techniques were often extreme, with the agency being complicit in the murder and assassination of political dissidents, or having people sent away to prison for life. Some of the more “moderate” actions that were used were blackmail, spreading false rumors, intimidation and harassment. It has been argued that the US is unique in that it is the only Western industrialized democracy to have engaged in such a wide spread and well organized domestic surveillance program. It finally came to an end in 1971 when it was threatened with public exposure.
Or did it?