©Copyrighted and Published on February 11, 2018
COINTELPRO was a secret counterintelligence program carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to spy on, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic political and civil rights organizations. COINTELPRO officially began in August 1956 and ended centralized operations in April 1971.
Two of the most famous targets of COINTELPRO operations were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a non-violent civil rights organization founded by Dr. King in 1957. Under COINTELPRO, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered FBI agents to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" individuals and organizations targeted by the program.
By the early 1960s, the FBI identified Dr. King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation”. In 1964, The Bureau tried to convince Dr. King to committed suicide by anonymously mailing him a suicide letter that had been written by the FBI. The suicide letter, which referred to Dr. King as an “evil, abnormal beast”, was prepared two days after the announcement of King’s impending Nobel Peace Prize.
The letter was accompanied by an audiotape recorded by the FBI that allegedly contained a series of King's sexual indiscretions. Dr. King was told the audiotape would be released to media organizations nationwide if he did not acquiesce and commit suicide prior to accepting his Nobel Peace Award.
"There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation,” stated the FBI letter.
Dr. King resisted this FBI-sponsored blackmail attempt and effort to end his life. He would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
COINTELPRO was successfully kept secret until 1971 when Director Hoover declared that the centralized COINTELPRO was over, and that all future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
In 1976, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the "Church Committee", launched a major investigation of the FBI and COINTELPRO. The Final Report of the Church Committee confirmed the primary methods used by the FBI to carry out the objectives and abuses of COINTELPRO. They included:
1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit, disrupt and negatively redirect action. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and local police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
2. Psychological warfare: The FBI and local police used a myriad "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 also forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls aimed at disrupting legitimate, peaceful protests.
3. Harassment via the legal system: The FBI and local police abused the legal system to harass targets 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. Illegal force: The FBI conspired with local police departments to threaten dissidents; to conduct illegal break-ins in order to search dissident homes; and to commit vandalism, assaults, beatings and assassinations. The object was to frighten or eliminate dissidents and disrupt their movements.
5. Undermine public opinion: One of the primary ways the FBI targeted organizations was by challenging their reputations in the community and denying them a platform to gain legitimacy. Director Hoover specifically designed programs to block leaders from "spreading their philosophy publicly or through the communications media". Furthermore, COINTELPRO created and/or controlled negative media for the purpose of undermining civil rights and political organizations.
In Alabama, The Birmingham News (now known as AL.com) was a willing and active participant in COINTELPRO. The News also worked closely with the Alabama Sovereignty Commission to implement its “massive resistance” to desegregation initiatives in Alabama and across the South.
Over the course of time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., evolved from an early COINTELPRO target to the first and only African-American (and non-President) to have a Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and a national holiday in his honor.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died on May 2, 1972. His legacy is forever marred by COINTELPRO.
The Birmingham News continues in its COINTELPRO role of smearing prominent African-American leaders and spewing negative news stories about them in an effort to undermine their reputations in the community. Fortunately for all Americans, dynamic changes in the news business and stiff competition from independent online journalists have minimized the adverse impact of the News’ traditional COINTELPRO tactics.