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Event.png COINTELPRO (subversion,  Civil_unrest/Preparation) Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Cointelpro groups.png
Date1956 - 1971?
Interest ofRon Ridenour, Alex Rosen
DescriptionSeries of covert and illegal projects aimed at subversion of 1960s left wing movements

COINTELPRO (syllabic abbreviation derived from COunter INTELligence PROgram) (1956–1971) was a large series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting American political organizations.

It was COINTELPRO that enabled the FBI and police to eliminate dissident leaders without undermining the image of the United States as a democracy, complete with free speech and the rule of law.

"Foster factionalism and create suspicion within groups"


COINTELPRO gave a name to methods used for a long time against left-wing dissidents, and there is an unbroken continuity between the harassment campaign implemented after 1945 and the official naming of the project in 1956.

The name COunter INTELligence PROgram, comes from "counter-intelligence", where the FBI and US media maintained - just like they do 50 years later - that leftist dissident, dissatisfaction in the African-American community and disagreements among Americans about policy were all part of some kind of Russian conspiracy orchestrated by foreign intelligence services. Despite that no members of the Communist Party USA were ever convicted of spying, the FBI maintained they were a spy ring; the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement were declared as run from abroad[1].

Exposure and Official Closing

On March 8, 1971, a private group called the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI raided the Bureau field office in Media, Pennsylvania. They published more than 1,000 memorandums and detailed descriptions of COINTELPRO's wiretapping and infiltration activities, and sent them to newspapers nationwide. In a terse April 28 note, Hoover abruptly canceled all COINTELPRO-related operations. The program was further exposed by the Church Committee, in the brief thaw in the United States power apparatus in the mid-1970s.[2]

The program officially closed in 1971, but the FBI's use of these methods never really stopped.

“I think people tend to dismiss the FBI in this period as just being easy to spot, rigid, in sync with J. Edgar Hoover’s organizational culture. We discovered there was that, but there was also a high degree of sophistication at the top levels...I think Cointelpro is mysticized and fetishized. It was extreme, and it did do some awful things....Cointelpro was serious, but it’s only part of the picture. It seems that what worked best for the FBI was the tried-and-true methods. It was a matter of putting informants in, getting information, infiltrating early on to get informants at the peak of the organization’s leadership pyramid. Trying to split people from each other, spreading rumors in the press. These are things that still happen today, albeit in different forms and probably by different agencies.”
Aaron Leonard The Secret History of the Radical ’70s: The ’60s Didn’t Just ‘End,’ and the FBI Was Watching [3]

The Methods

The most frequent COINTELPRO methods were the use of wiretaps, break ins, anonymous letters, sexual blackmail, death threats informants, agents provocateurs, black propaganda, provocations, getting people fired, perjury, doctoring of evidence, frame ups and trumped-up charges sometimes leading to long jail terms.

If this wasn't felt to be sufficient, other methods included giving right-wing groups like the Ku Klux Klan or individuals run free to do the dirty work - or with some discreet guidance. Other targets were assassinated by police; to increase divisions in the black community, gangs wars were encouraged; and more...

These, and other means of subterfuge to was meant to, in the Bureau’s own words, foster factionalism and create suspicion within groups, bring individuals into disrepute before the American public, and create disruption and discord among such groups and movements in order to destroy the Left, or at least render it useless.[4]

Four main methods have been revealed:

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" interviews, 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. 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", where most famously the Black Panther leader (Fred Hampton) was assassinated by police, others were jailed on false accusations (Mumia abu-Jamal, Dhoruba bin Wahad[5] and many others).[6]

Divide and Conquer

Against one of its first targets, the Communist Party USA, the FBI perfected the divide and conquer techniques it would later use to great effect. The Bureau used infiltrators to exploit internal divisions within the party, such as over Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin. The Bureau also used “anonymous mailings” in various ways to disrupt party activities. Agents would send letters to party members warning about the treacherous activities of others in the party, hoping to stir up factional disputes.This was also a common ploy in the FBI’s “snitch jacketing” technique to portray loyal party members as informants. This was also frequently accomplished by informants within the party spreading rumors, forged informant reports, or “interviews” where agents would publicly speak with a target to create the impression the party member was an informant.[7][8] Additionally, if the groups were seeking to cooperate with other organizations, agents would send derogatory information to these organizations to prevent an alliance.

Destroying Personal Lives

Anonymous letters and interviews would also be used to impact the personal lives of activists or disrupt alliances the groups would make with other groups. Agents would contact the employers or landlords of party members in efforts to get them fired or evicted; they also sent anonymous letters to spouses of intelligence targets in efforts to destroy their marriages.[9] With student activists, agents would even contact targets’ parents to inform them of their child’s subversive activities. The Bureau targeted academics friendly to radical groups (like Michael Parenti), seeking to get them disciplined or fired.

The Bureau cooperated with local law enforcement to harass targeted groups and their members. Officials sought to stop targets frequently, hoping to arrest and convict them on minor charges. They would also attempt to frame targets for crimes they did not commit.

Destroying the Underground Press

The "underground press", the 1960s counterpart to alternative news websites, was a network of some 400 radical weeklies and several national news services, which once boasted a combined readership of close to 30 million. In the late 1960s, government agents raided the offices of alternative newspapers across the country in purported pursuit of drugs and fugitives. In the process, they destroyed typewriters, cameras, printing presses, layout equipment, business records, and research files, and roughed up and jailed staffers on bogus charges. Meanwhile, the FBI destroyed their finances by persuading record companies to withdraw lucrative advertising and arranging for printers, suppliers, and distributors to drop underground press accounts. With their already shaky operations in disarray, the papers and news services were easy targets for a final phase of COINTELPRO disruption. Forged correspondence, anonymous accusations, and infiltrators' manipulation provoked a flurry of wild charges and counter-charges that played a major role in bringing many of these promising endeavors to a premature end.[10]

Cultivating Friendly Media

The FBI played an active role in the rise of McCarthyism by cultivating “friendly media” outlets which would be used to disseminate derogatory information about the targets. Further, the Bureau aided anti-Communist private organizations such as the American Legion and anti-Communist congressmen, with FBI agents even writing their speeches.

Fake Alternative Newspapers

The "Black Panther Coloring Book"[11] depicted black children enthusiastically killing police officers. The origins of this black propaganda are murky, but it did not originate with the Panthers. A renegade member printed the books without permission, and the police and the FBI quickly circulated it in large numbers, including copies for church and women's groups where the Panthers were seeking funds. The story reached the mainstream in 1977 with a story in the Washington Post[12], which might indicate a limited hangout.

The FBI produced several alternative newspapers including The Longhorn Tale, with the purpose of neutralizing anti-war and anti-draft sentiment on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin at the height of Sixties campus unrest. The FBI had also produced four editions of a fake campus newspaper at Indiana University Bloomington in September and October of 1968, called Armageddon News, and then in December of 1969 it produced and distributed a fake newspaper called the Rational Observer at Washing­ton D.C.'s American University.

White Hate Groups

"White Hate Groups" (1964-71): This unique COINTELPRO program functioned largely as a component of the FBI's operations against the progressive activists who were COINTELPRO's main targets. Under the cover of being even-handed and going after violent right-wing groups, the FBI actually gave covert aid to the Ku Klux Klan, Minutemen, Nazis, and other racist vigilantes. These groups received substantial funds, information, and protection-and suffered only token FBI harassment-so long as they directed their violence against COINTELPRO targets. They were not subjected to serious disruption unless they breached this tacit under standing and attacked established business and political leaders.[13]

IRS harassment

Full article: Stub class article Internal Revenue Service

The FBI cooperated with the IRS to gather information on targeted groups and single them out for financial harassment[14]. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1960s, the IRS audited civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. numerous times[15]. In addition to King himself, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, several of King's lawyers, and supportive newspapers like the The Delta Democrat-Times, were subjected to audits. Activists such as Paul Robeson and (later) William Blum experienced the same warrant-less, time-consuming, expensive and intrusive treatment.

President John F. Kennedy hinted at the method in 1961, when he said "As long as they meet the requirements of the tax law, I don't think that the Federal Government can interfere or should interfere with the right of any individual to take any position he wants. The only thing we should be concerned about is that it does not represent a diversion of funds which might be taxable to - for nontaxable purposes. But that is another question, and I am sure the Internal Revenue system examines that."[16]

Agent Provocateurs / False Flags

The FBI liked to use infiltrators/agents provocateurs who would encourage members to commit violent or criminal acts. For example, a member of the Weather Underground arrested for a conspiracy to bomb Detroit police facilities was actually an FBI informant, Larry Grathwohl. Grathwohl reportedly instructed members on how to build bombs and participated in the group’s bombing of a Cincinnati public school.[17] One of the most famous provocateurs was “Tommy the Travler” Tongyai who traveled around college campuses in the northeast encouraging students to bomb military research facilities.[18]

Darthard Perry

In California, Darthard Perry (code-named "Othello", other names: Ed Riggs, Bill Perry, John Garrison, Crackerjack),[19][20] infiltrated and disrupted local Black groups and in an interview took credit for the arson at the Watts Writers Workshop,[21][22] a multi-million dollar cultural center in Los Angeles in 1973.[23][24][25] In his confession he said that he was blackmailed into participation in exchange for the government not pursuing minor offences for which he was threatened with long prison sentences.

COINTELPRO in the 1980s

Even if the program officially closed down in 1971, the tactics of COINTELPRO continued. The gang wars in the black slums in the 1980s and 1990s were fueled by the CIA/Contra drug imports and the police's active participation in encouraging the divisions in the black community[citation needed].

The FBI and police used the same tactics against opponents of US interventions in Central America. Labeling the peace activists "terrorist", they paid informers to infiltrate church services, Bible classes and support networks of clergy and lay workers giving sanctuary to refugees from the CIA dirty wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Tactics included infiltration, provocation, perjury, doctoring of evidence,break ins, sexual blackmail, frame ups and even assassination.[26]


During the war on terror, COINTELPRO methods featuring "direct involvement" of government agents or informants were used against the US Muslim community to concoct false charges[27].

The COINTELPRO tactics are still in use, by 2020 to combat “hate and extremist narratives" and conspiracy theories, citizens spreading "foreign disinformation", anti-vaxxers, Covid-deniers etc.

A 2019 academic paper suggests fighting “hate” (unacceptable political speech) by inserting a “population in a pre-engineered format” within a targeted “hate-cluster” and destroying it from within. [28]

Prominent Targets

The program had a broad scope.

Martin Luther King, Jr

Full articles: Martin Luther King, Jr

Paul Robeson

Full article: Paul Robeson

George Jackson

Full article: George Jackson

George Jackson was an African-American, who co-founded the 'The Black Guerrilla Family', a Marxist revolutionary organisation.[29][30] He was shot to death by a tower guard inside San Quentin prison in a purported escape attempt.[31][32] James Baldwin is said to have written: "No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did."[33][34] Gill Noble interviewed the FBI Whistleblower Darthard Perry who said that Jackson was assassinated in a set up. (Interview 2, November 1980)[35][36]

The Black Panthers

Full article: Stub class article The Black Panthers

In one case, J. Edgar Hoover wrote in a memo to the Chicago SAC that the "purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the Black Panther Party, and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge."[37]

Jean Seberg

Full article: Jean Seberg

Puerto Rican Independence Movement

Full article: Puerto Rico

American Indian Movement

Full article: American Indian Movement

Malcolm X

Full article: Malcolm X

Malcolm X was reportedly killed in a "factional dispute" which the FBI took credit for having "developed" in the Nation of Islam.[citation needed]


Literature on Wikispooks

File:Cointelpro The FBIs Secret War on Political Freedom by Nelson Blackstock (


A COINTELPRO victim on Wikispooks

Phil OchsThe most political singer/songwriter against the war in Vietnam. Survived strangulation attack by "robber" that may have been CIA operation.


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:COINTELPRO Revisited - Spying & DisruptionarticleBrian Glick


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  7. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. III. Washington: U.S. Govt. Accessed:2020, Pgs. 33-49.
  14. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Vol. II. Washington: U.S. Govt.
  17. Newton, Michael. The FBI Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012,page 133
  18. Churchill, Ward, and Jim VanderWall. Agents of Repression: the FBI's Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Cambridge, MA: South End Pr., 2008, page 48.
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