HIST-170 COINTELPRO Documents
In 2017, a Justice Department report was leaked to the media (Links to an external site.) suggesting that the FBI was investigating Black Lives Matter activists and designating them as “Black Identity Extremists.” Historians, including Jeanne Theoharis, warned of the disturbing parallels between this report and the harassment of civil rights and black power leaders in the 1960s as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. J. Edgar Hoover’s COunter INTELligence PROgram targeted civil rights groups as well as groups in the New Left and Antiwar movements. It used informants, agent provocateurs, infiltrators, legal and illegal wiretaps, break-ins, false correspondence, and “bad-jacketing,” which was the act of making a legitimate member of a group appear to be a collaborator with the state. FBI agents worked with journalists to plant stories in order to discredit leadership and organizations. Across the country, the Bureau collaborated with local police to repress targeted groups. Sharing resources and intelligence, activists were arrested, fired from jobs, expelled from schools and lost business contracts. COINTELPRO even used switchboard operators and postal workers to spy on citizens, with or without court order.
No one knew this was happening until an anti-war group broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania in 1971 and stole a large cache of files. It later emerged that these activists were professors from nearby Haverford College! (You can learn more about the robbers and what they discovered in https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000002635482/stealing-j-edgar-hoovers-secrets.html?action=click&contentCollection=us&module=lede®ion=caption&pgtype=article
These files are still available to the public because of Freedom of Information Act requests, so you can explore the documents for yourself at this site:
https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/cointel-pro-black-extremists (Links to an external site.)
For this assignment, imagine you are journalists in 1971 aiming to break the story of the COINTELPRO program surveillance of “black extremists.” Explore some of the documents and write up an article (1-2 paragraphs) that identifies the main goals and activities of the program. What did Hoover hope to achieve? What methods were the FBI authorized to use?