The FBI and this reporter tangled briefly in 1960; “Cointelpro” winner as the enemy of free speech

Bring spied upon by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is frightening news to any American, and I was no exception in 1960, when agents were hot on my trail.

No, I had not robbed a bank or refused to “Like Ike.”

The FBI had targeted me, when they went after the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), arguing that its members were a danger to America.

Under its Cointelpro program, the Feds had first infiltrated the Communist Party in the mid-50s, and by the early 60s had added the SWP to its list of internal dissidents.

Unaware of this, I joined the party (even held a membership card, which I later lost), and participated at protests for peace and civil rights in Philadelphia and Washington, including the world premiere of “Exodus.”

That film’s opening stoked a march by George Lincoln Rockwell and his 15 Nazi followers in front of the theater. About ten SWP members joined some 200 others in protesting the Heil Hitler gang. Mounted police scattered the crowd, and carted off 67 of us, including me.

The SWP  hated Communism, objecting to its totalitarian rule by the likes of Stalin, and my conservative friends today might be surprised that most private property rights were documented or implied in most American socialist party’s platforms.

Socialist Workers generally wanted more labor representation in the halls of capitalism, including boards of directors, plus public ownership of public institutions and facilities – roads, utilities, bridges and defense industries. They favored small business over intentional corporations – very similar to today’s Democratic Socialists without being either wonkey or wokey.

But the party needed revamping of its goals. Five members, including me, were asked to propose a new set of goals for a more fair political and economic structure for the nation.

Some interesting and challenging private (we thought!) sessions were held at a nearby Friends Meeting House until one day I was told by the chair of the SWP committee:

We can’t meet there any longer. In fact, I don’t think we should meet any more under the circumstances.

My response was:

What are you talking about? What circumstances?

I was floored by the answer:

The FBI told them not to allow us to meet there any more.

And that conversation ended any membership and plans to reform the party.

A couple years later I became the Philadelphia correspondent for the United States Information Agency (USIA) – in addition to my regular daily newspaper reporting/rewrite.

Working for the government meant writing positive news about foreign visitors and their impressions from visiting here. Those assignments paid well – any two were enough to cover the mortgage on my house in Levittown, PA. Looking back, I was creating propaganda to further the image of America overseas, where my stories were translated and published.

By 1964 I was absolutely on the other side of the political divide, canvassing door-to-door for the election of Barry Goldwater in Levittown, PA.

•  •  •

Some hundred years ago in October, 1919, J Edgar Hoover, targeted “Black Moses” Marcus Garvey for investigation and harassment, claiming “radical elements” were “agitating the Negro movement.”. While Hoover admitted Garvey violated no laws, the civil rights activist’s Universal Negro Improvement Association was infiltrated by FBI informants, provocateurs and undercover agents..

The history of the FBI is often the story of hunting down Americans who are described as dissidents, even activists.
John Cole / Scranton Times Tribune

The Cointelpro program – targeting SWP as well as civil rights leaders – included disinformation campaigns designed to spark conflict within activist movements, discourage donors and supporters, and even break up marriages, according to a U.S. Senate report in 1976 on “Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans.”

Overt investigative activity was used. One stated goal of the Cointelpro program was to inspire fear among activists by convincing them that an FBI agent lurked behind every mailbox, the report explained. That was the same ploy that worked to discourage me.

The report noted that the same techniques used against Soviet spies were used against our dissident citizens, noting:

The Bureau approved 2,370 separate counterintelligence actions.

Their techniques ranged from anonymously mailing reprints of newspaper and magazine  articles  (sometimes Bureau-authored or planted) to group members or supporters to convince them of the error of their ways, to mailing anonymous letters to a member’s spouse, accusing the target of  infidelity; from using informants to raise controversial issues at meetings in order to cause dissent, to the “snitch jacket” (falsely labeling a group member as an informant ), and encourag­ing street warfare between violent groups; from contacting mem­bers of a “legitimate” group to expose the alleged subversive background of a fellow member, to contacting an employer to get a tar­get fired; from attempting to arrange for reporters to interview targets with planted questions, to trying to stop targets from speak­ing at all; from notifying state and local authorities of a target’s criminal law violations, to using the IRS to audit a professor, not just to collect any taxes owing, but to distract him from his political activities.

Following the 1976 report, Congress ordered guidelines issued by the attorney general, Edward Levi, to limit FBI investigations of political activity by requiring a reasonable indication of criminal activity before intrusive investigations could be launched.

Reforms were weakened in December 2008, by Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who authorized a new type of investigation called an “assessment”, which needed no factual basis for suspecting wrongdoing before agents could employ intrusive investigative techniques.

Today, the FBI is allowed to use overt and covert interviews, physical surveillance, government and commercial database searches, as well as enlisting informants.

•  •  •

The SWP investigation yielded nothing, according to the Senate report:

The program was not given high priority – only 45 actions were ap­proved, and was discontinued in 1969, two years before the other four programs ended. (The SWP program was then subsumed in the New Left Cointelpro.)

Nevertheless, it marks an important departure from the Communist Party Cointelpro: although the SWP had contacts with foreign Trotskyite groups, there was no evidence that the SWP was involved in espionage.

These were, in C. D. Brennan’s phrase, “home grown tomatoes.” The Bureau conceded that the SWP never been engaged in organizational violence, nor has it taken any criminal steps toward overthrowing the government.

Looking back six decades, this “home-grown tomato” believes young SWP members were more like “Lonely Little Petunia In An Onion Patch,” just ready for plucking by a federal intelligence community gone rogue – then, and now.

An amateurish FBI Cointelpro flier from the 1976 Senate report

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