Thu, Jul

J. Edgar Hoover’s Legacy: Spying On Democracy


COMMENTARY - The surveillance activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Portland and other American cities earlier this year is reminiscent of FBI-CIA-NSA efforts to disrupt anti-Vietnam protest groups in the 1960s and 1970s. 

In 2021, FBI agents, dressed in plainclothes,  were embedded in Portland’s racial justice protests.  Agents alerted local police to potential arrests. The Department of Justice and its Office of the Inspector General must investigate these activities closely because they replicate the illegal activities of the FBI’s counterintelligence program during the Cold War.

The FBI has been conducting domestic surveillance operations since its inception in the 1920s, marking nearly a hundred years of violating the First Amendment of the Constitution.  Very few of these operations involved the investigation and gathering of evidence of a serious crime, the only justification for FBI surveillance.  J. Edgar Hoover, appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation in1924, amassed illegal powers of surveillance that enabled him to conduct extra-legal tracking of activists, collect compromising information, and even to threaten and intimidate sitting presidents.

Hoover created the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in the 1950s to counter the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, but it morphed into a program of covert and illegal activities to disrupt numerous political organizations, particularly the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.  He exaggerated the threat of communism to ensure financial and public support for the FBI.  (The Pentagon similarly exaggerates the Russian and Chinese threats to elicit greater defense spending, such as the record-setting budget that President Biden signed on Monday.)  When Supreme Court decisions made it more difficult to prosecute individuals for their political opinions, Hoover formalized a covert “dirty tricks” program that included illegal wiretaps, forged documents, and burglaries.

The FBI programs were ostensibly designed to protect U.S. national security, but targets were typically nonviolent and had no connections with foreign powers.  Martin Luther King Jr. became a major target when he emerged as the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement. Hoover authorized an anonymous blackmail letter to King in 1964, urging him to commit suicide.  The FBI worked to widen the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, which ultimately led to Malcolm’s assassination in 1965.

COINTELPRO soon expanded to include the illegal activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Defense.  From the Church Committee hearings in 1975, we learned that NSA worked with Western Union to collect copies of telegrams that entered and left the United States.  The FBI worked with AT&T to eavesdrop on domestic political opponents and civil rights advocates.  The CIA program, aptly named Operation Chaos, was late to the game in 1967, cooperating with the White House to investigate the anti-war movement and to find evidence of Soviet control.  There was none.  In any event, the CIA charter prevents any involvement in domestic operations for any reason.

The Congress developed a law to regulate surveillance for national security purposes, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which led to the creation of a secret court that approved nearly every U.S. request for secret surveillance against U.S. citizens.  The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ultimately expanded secret powers that allowed warrantless surveillance on domestic soil.  A top-secret FISA Court order required a subsidiary of Verizon to provide a daily, on-going feed to domestic calls to NSA.

The NSA’s involvement in massive surveillance against U.S. citizens was exposed by the revelations of Edward Snowden ten years ago.  Snowden leaked an internal NSA directive that told its employees to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities.  It noted, “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”  Snowden has been vilified, although his public service alerted the entire country to the dangers of massive surveillance.

Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice has a full slate of possible investigations regarding the January 6 insurrection, but the role of the FBI in Portland and other U.S. cities must not be ignored. (It is noteworthy that there was no FBI presence on the Hill on January 6.)  FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress in September 2020 that the domestic terrorist investigations were “properly predicated” regarding “violent anarchist extremists.”  He provided no evidence to support the surveillance of political gatherings, which demands a high bar to allow such activities.  Unfortunately, we know a great deal more about the surveillance activities of Russia and China against its own citizens than we know about the role of the FBI in “spying” on democracy at home.

Following a request from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the DoJ’s Office of the Inspector General has begun an investigation of the FBI’s role in Portland.  The Portland protests were consistent with free speech activities that didn’t require a FBI presence.  The FBI is authorized to conduct surveillance when there is a threat of federal crimes or a risk to national security.  The Department of Homeland also took part in the surveillance, compiling intelligence reports on protesters without any legal justification.  DHS did its best to conceal identities and affiliations of its officials.

George Orwell’s “1984” represented the all-seeing state with a two-way television set installed in every home.  Today’s location-tracking cell phones provide actual access and too much power over our lives.  There is far too much unmonitored federal surveillance and unregulated cyber-surveillance.  The combination of modern technology; a seemingly unlimited budget for intelligence operations; and the secret accumulation of a surveillance bureaucracy has created an unacceptable degree of “spying on democracy.”

Unfortunately, the American public has ignored policies and political actions that in fact weaken U.S. stature abroad and our democracy at home.  The anti-war movement and the arms control lobby are endangered institutions. According to the New York Times, U.S. bombings since 2014 have consistently killed civilians with virtually no effort from the Pentagon to discern how many were killed and what went wrong.  According to Airwars, a nonprofit organization, the United States has conducted more than 91,000 airstrikes in seven major conflict zones since 2001, with at least 22,00 civilian deaths.

The Pentagon and the CIA used sadistic torture and abuse, but faced no accountability.  CIA Director John Brennan even tried to block the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of these programs, but suffered no consequences despite the obvious violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers.  Meanwhile, President Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex have been ignored.  As a result, our bloated defense spending has limited opportunities to expand needed domestic programs and to rebuild infrastructure.

It takes physical courage to fight our wars, but it takes moral courage to expose the illegalities of our military involvement.  We need more dissidents and whistleblowers to expose the secrecy and lies that often accompany our national security decision making.  The overuse of secrecy limits our debate on foreign policy and deprives citizens of information needed to debate life-and-death issues. A culture of openness is needed to remedy the decision making of the past 20 years that resulted in so much harm to our governance and democracy.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.