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Most of us have heard about the activists who admitted burglarizing the FBI office in Media, PA in March 1971. The internal documents they leaked to the press revealed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal multi-prong campaign to destroy the anti-war and civil rights movements in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and led to significant civil liberties victories. Many Internet postings have focused on the similarities between COINTELPRO and the NSA spying forty years later, and between the liberators of the Media FBI documents and today’s whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

I find the differences between the two situations just as interesting.

COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was designed to undermine the effectiveness of, and in some cases assassinate, activists who were struggling to bring about basic changes in our foreign and domestic policies. The FBI had specific targets, including the Black Panthers, CORE and other Civil Rights organizations, Puerto Rican Nationalists, the American Indian Movement, SDS and the Weathermen. Even though the project was interrupted, COINTELPRO played a powerful role in undermining progressive movements of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

In contrast, the National Security Administration appears to be collecting massive amounts of data; they want to know everything about everybody. This government spying is ubiquitous and indiscriminate, even sometimes ludicrous. I got a kick out of the stories last month about a mysterious task force of federal anti-terrorist agents who searched a Long Island family’s home after the husband and wife conducted internet searches for backpacks and pressure cookers and their teen-aged son researched the Boston Marathon bombing.

You could describe the FBI tactics as authoritarian (enforcing strict obedience to the government at the expense of personal freedom) and the NSA’s as totalitarian (centralized and dictatorial, requiring complete subservience to the state). I worry that the repeated assaults on progressive dissent from the Red Scare of the 1950’s, to COINTELPRO, and the draconian post 9/11 laws, have finally succeeded in disempowering the activist bulwarks against assaults on our civil liberties. In this manner the earlier authoritarian attacks may have set the stage for our current government’s totalitarian foray, leaving a pacified and frightened population, willing to accept today’s global surveillance in the name of security.

Many commentators have concluded that the problem with these NSA tactics is that they invade our privacy and sweep up harmless innocents. Such analysis reminds me of “Good Night and Good Luck,” the film about Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy period. The film’s focus on the harm caused to non-communists by McCarthy’s wild accusations might have left viewers wondering if the Red Scare would have been acceptable if its attacks had been limited to real communists.

While the danger posed by blanket surveillance is real and must be resisted, I worry most about targeted authoritarian attacks against those working to shift the balance of power and change government policies. What is most dangerous about both COINTELPRO and the NSA’s spying is not that they destroy our privacy and ensnare the innocent, but rather that they target political dissidents who are essential to maintaining the rich fabric of our freedoms.  Read More 
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Nelson Mandela in COINTELPRO’s Crosshairs

The mainstream media and our political leaders have been singing Nelson Mandela’s praises now that he is safely dead. Listening to them got me thinking about what would have been Nelson Mandela’s fate had he been a leader of the struggle for African-American rights in the United States.

During the late 1950’s and early 1970’s the FBI mounted a covert counter-intelligence program to combat the anti-war and civil rights movements entitled COINTELPRO. In the name of protecting our national security, COINTELPRO included psychological smear campaigns against leaders like Martin Luther King, and the targeted assassination of members of the Black Panther Party. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s politically powerful director, is reported to have said that a primary purpose of COINTELPRO was to ensure that no “black messiah” would be able to galvanize the “Negroes.” The FBI took this directive very seriously, among other things conspiring with the Chicago Police to murder Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. The role they played in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is less clear. How would they have responded to Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary at the head of an armed resistance movement. He was charged with sabotage aimed at overthrowing the existing order, a charge he did not deny. Rather than execute him, the South African Court sentenced him to life imprisonment. Perhaps those in charge of the apartheid regime felt it wiser to break Mandela in prison and use him to their advantage rather than risk martyring him. He was released after serving 27 years, 18 of them in the notorious Robben Island Prison. I doubt our court system would have spared his life. I am equally convinced that if, by some quirk, our courts had dealt Mandela a life sentence, he would never have been released. Leonard Peltier, Mumia abu Jamal and Oscar Lopez Rivera have all been imprisoned for much longer than Nelson Mandela. Our government shows no sign it will ever set them free.

However, if Nelson Mandela had been a domestic radical in the United States, I doubt that he would have gone on trial. The FBI would simply have had him assassinated.

And despite our leaders’ praise for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, our government has never revealed the complete truth of COINTELPRO or punished its perpetrators. Our government has never attempted reconciliation for carpet bombing and poisoning the Vietnamese people and their land. Today our government finds it more convenient to praise Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission than to empanel one here to deal with the war crimes and human rights abuses carried out by our leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Perhaps this is why our leaders’ lionizing of Nelson Mandela has made me so nauseous.
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