Infiltration of Political Movements Is the Norm in America
Earlier this month, several members of LulzSec, an offshoot of Anonymous, were charged with hacking, reportedly on the basis of reports from an FBI informer described in the media as a leader of LulzSec, notorious for its exploits against Sony, the CIA, the U.S. Senate, the FBI, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal.
One year ago, the British newspaper The Guardian published an article headlined “One in four US hackers ‘is an FBI informer.’ ” It told of how the FBI had used the threat of long prison sentences to turn some members of Anonymous and similar groups into informers. It also told why Anonymous was open to infiltration. On “Democracy Now!,” Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who is an expert on digital media, hackers and the law, said: “There had been rumors of infiltration or informants. At some level, Anonymous is quite easy to infiltrate, because anyone can sort of join and participate. And so, there had been rumors of this sort of activity happening for quite a long time.”
In an earlier Truthdig article, we described reports of widespread infiltration of the Occupy movement. In this article we will deal with the history of infiltration of political movements in the United States and the goals of infiltration.
FBI’s COINTELPRO Spread a Wide Net
In light of the long history of political infiltration, it would be surprising if the Occupy movement were not infiltrated. Almost every such movement in modern history has been infiltrated by police or others using many of the tactics we are now seeing employed against Occupy.
The most famous surveillance program was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which according to COINTELPRO documents targeted the women’s rights, civil rights, anti-war and peace movements, the New Left, socialists, communists and the independence for Puerto Rico movement, among others. Among the groups infiltrated were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the Congress for Racial Equality, the American Indian movement, Students for a Democratic Society, the National Lawyers Guild, the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. Leaders including Albert Einstein and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were monitored.
The Church Committee of the U.S. Senate documented a history of use of the FBI for political repression. It described infiltration going back to World War I. In the 1920s, federal agents were ordered to round up “anarchists and revolutionaries” for deportation. The Church Committee found that infiltration efforts grew from 1936 through 1976, with COINTELPRO becoming the major program.
Although these domestic political spying and disruption programs were supposed to have stopped in 1976, in fact they continued. As reported in “The Price of Dissent,” Federal Magistrate Joan Lefkow found in 1991 that the record “shows that despite regulations, orders and consent decrees prohibiting such activities, the FBI had continued to collect information concerning only the exercise of free speech.”
How many agents or infiltrators can we expect to see inside a movement? One of the most notorious “police riots” was at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Independent journalist Yasha Levine writes: “During the 1968 protests of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which drew about 10,000 protesters and was brutally crushed by the police, 1 out of 6 protesters was a federal undercover agent. That’s right, 1/6th of the total protesting population was made up of spooks drawn from various federal agencies. That’s roughly 1,600 people! The stat came from an Army document obtained by CBS News in 1978, a full decade after the protest took place. According to CBS, the infiltrators were not passive observers, monitoring and relaying information to central command, but were involved in violent confrontations with the police.” [Emphasis in original.]
Peter Camejo, who ran as a Socialist Workers Party candidate for president in 1976, as a Green Party candidate for governor of California in 2003 and as Ralph Nader’s vice presidential running mate in 2004, often told of infiltration in his mid-’70s presidential campaign. After campaign offices were burglarized, Camejo was able to get the FBI into court by suing it over COINTELPRO activities. The judge asked the FBI special agent in charge how many FBI agents had worked in Camejo’s presidential campaign; the answer was 66. Camejo estimated he had a campaign staff of 400 across the country. Once again that would be an infiltration rate of about one in six. Camejo discovered that among the agents was his campaign co-chair. He also discovered eavesdropping equipment in a campaign office and documents showing the FBI had followed him since he was an 18-year-old student activist.
Federal infiltration is buttressed by local and state police. Local police infiltrators have a tradition dating back to the Haymarket riots of 1886 and the 1904 Italian Squad in New York City. In addition to their political activity they have been involved in infiltration of unions, especially in regard to strikes. Common throughout the United States were the so-called Red Squads. A 1963 report estimated that 300,000 officers were involved in surveillance of political activities.
A predecessor to the modern Occupy movement, the Bonus March of 1932, was infiltrated by federal agents. Their focus was on radicals, anarchists and communists who might be involved. The infiltration resulted in greatly exaggerated reports about radicals inside the Bonus encampments, which were primarily made up of military veterans and their families. President Herbert Hoover turned to those reports in trying to justify removal of the veterans by using military troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, assisted by then-Cols. Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton.
Another predecessor to Occupy, Resurrection City of 1968, a “community of love and brotherhood” that occupied the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for four months, was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign in fulfilling a plan made before the death of Dr. King. Resurrection City was heavily infiltrated by agents, including some from the FBI, the military, the park police, the Secret Service and the Washington metropolitan police. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had agents go to press conferences with false media identification, stationed agents around the encampment and authorized an expensive informer program. The second most extensive infiltration of Resurrection City was by military intelligence, which conducted an unlawful surveillance program, intercepting radio transmissions, monitoring radio traffic and intercepting communications that were then passed on to the FBI, the Secret Service, the District of Columbia police and the park police. The military, too, sent fictitious media members to press conferences, and the D.C. police “Red squad” sent undercover officers into the camp.
In a recent report, the ACLU writes: “Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country never could have imagined. The FBI, federal intelligence agencies, the military, state and local police, private companies, and even firemen and emergency medical technicians are gathering incredible amounts of personal information about ordinary Americans that can be used to construct vast dossiers that can be widely shared with a simple mouse-click through new institutions like Joint Terrorism Task Forces, fusion centers, and public-private partnerships. The fear of terrorism has led to a new era of overzealous police intelligence activity directed, as in the past, against political activists, racial and religious minorities, and immigrants.” (Here’s a link to the ACLU’s state-by-state review.)
Not only have infiltration budgets increased in the post-9/11 world, but restrictions on spying have been weakened and court review has become rarer. Beyond governmental infiltration, undercover agents are often dispatched by private corporations and political organizations.
What Have Been the Goals, Strategies and Tactics of Infiltration?
The most common purpose of infiltration is the gathering of intelligence, but the goals are often more aggressive. According to COINTELPRO documents, Director Hoover ordered FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” activities of movements and their leaders. According to “Surveillance and Governance: Crime Control and Beyond,” FBI field operatives were directed to:
1. Create a negative public image for target groups by surveilling activists and then releasing negative personal information to the public.
2. Break down internal organization by creating conflicts by having agents exacerbate racial tensions, or send anonymous letters to try to create conflicts.
3. Create dissension between groups by spreading rumors that some groups were stealing money.
4. Restrict access to resources by pressuring nonprofit organizations to cut off funding or material support.
5. Restrict the ability to organize protests through agents’ promotion of violence against police.
6. Restrict the ability of individuals to participate in group activities through character assassination, false arrests and surveillance.
The COINTELPRO documents disclose numerous cases of FBI attempts to stop the mass protest against the Vietnam War. Many techniques were used. The documents state: “These included promoting splits among antiwar forces, encouraging red-baiting of socialists, and pushing violent confrontations as an alternative to massive, peaceful demonstrations.”
Now, at a point in U.S. history when wealth inequality has reached staggering proportions, when unemployment and foreclosures rates are high, when tens of millions can’t afford health care and many students can’t afford to go to college, those in power are fearful that the people will rise up. Events of the past year, particularly the growth of the Occupy movement, reveal that this uprising has begun. It is likely that the powerful will continue to use infiltration and other tools available to stop Occupy.