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John Whitehead's Commentary

The New FBI Powers: Cointelpro on Steroids

John Whitehead

“The trouble with government as it is, is that it doesn’t represent the people. It controls them.”—John Lennon (1966)

“When governments fear the people there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny.”— Thomas Jefferson

Listen closely and what you will hear, beneath the babble of political chatter and other mindless political noises distracting you from what’s really going on, are the dying squeals of the Fourth Amendment. It dies a little more with every no-knock raid that is carried out by a SWAT team, every phone call eavesdropped on by FBI agents, and every piece of legislation passed that further undermines the right of every American to be free from governmental intrusions into their private affairs.

Meanwhile, President Obama and John Boehner are exchanging political niceties on the golf course, Congress is doing their utmost to be as ineffective as possible, and the Tea Party—once thought to be an alternative to politics as usual—is clowning around with candidates who, upon election, have proven to be no better than their predecessors and just as untrustworthy when it comes to protecting our rights and our interests. Yet no matter how hard Americans work to insulate themselves from the harsh realities of life today—endless wars, crippling debt, sustained unemployment, a growing homeless population, rising food and gas prices, morally bankrupt and corrupt politicians, plummeting literacy rates, and on and on—there can be no ignoring the steady drumbeat of the police state marching in lockstep with our government.

Incredibly, with little outcry from the populace, the lengths to which the government will go in its quest for total control have become more extreme with every passing day. Now comes the news that the FBI intends to grant to its 14,000 agents expansive additional</em> powers that include relaxing restrictions on a low-level category of investigations termed “assessments.” This allows FBI agents to investigate individuals using highly intrusive monitoring techniques, including infiltrating suspect organizations with confidential informants and photographing and tailing suspect individuals, without having any factual basis for suspecting them of wrongdoing. (Incredibly, during the four-month period running from December 2008 to March 2009, the FBI initiated close to 12,000 assessments of individuals and organizations, and that was before the rules were further relaxed.)

This latest relaxing of the rules, justified as a way to cut down on cumbersome record-keeping, will allow the FBI significant new powers to search law enforcement and private databases, go through household trash, and deploy surveillance teams, with even fewer checks against abuse. The point, of course, is that if agents aren’t required to maintain a paper trail documenting their activities, there can be no way to hold the government accountable for subsequent abuses.

These new powers, detailed in a forthcoming edition of the FBI’s operations manual, extend the agency’s reach into the lives of average Americans and effectively transform the citizenry into a nation of suspects, reversing the burden of proof so that we are now all guilty until proven innocent. Thus, no longer do agents need evidence of possible criminal or terrorist activity in order to launch an investigation. Now, they can “proactively” look into people and groups, searching databases without making a record about it, conducting lie detector tests and searching people’s trash.

Moreover, as FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni revealed, agents want to be able to use the information found in a subject’s trash to pressure that person to assist in a government investigation. Under the new guidelines, surveillance squads can also be deployed repeatedly to follow “targets,” agents can infiltrate organizations for longer periods of time before certain undisclosed “rules” kick in, and public officials, members of the news media or academic scholars can be investigated without the need for extra supervision.

All of this has been sanctioned by the Obama administration, which, as the New York Times aptly notes, “has long been bumbling along in the footsteps of its predecessor when it comes to sacrificing Americans’ basic rights and liberties under the false flag of fighting terrorism” and now “seems ready to lurch even farther down that dismal road than George W. Bush did.” In fact, this steady erosion of our rights started long before Bush came into office. Indeed, it has little to do with political affiliation and everything to do with an entrenched bureaucratic mindset—call it the “Establishment,” if you like—that, in its quest to amass and retain power, seeks to function autonomously and independent of the Constitution.

What we are witnessing is a coup d’etat that is aimed at overthrowing our representative government and replacing it with one that outwardly may appear to embrace democratic ideals but inwardly is nothing more than an authoritarian regime. And the Establishment is counting on the fact that Americans will gullibly continue to trust the government and turn a blind eye to its power grabs and abuses.

The relationship between the American people and their government was once defined by a social contract (the U.S. Constitution) that was predicated on a mutual respect for the rule of law and a clear understanding that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around. That is no longer the case. Having ceded to the government all manner of control over our lives, renouncing our claims to such things as privacy in exchange for the phantom promise of security, we now find ourselves in the unenviable position of being trapped in a prison of our own making.

It is a phenomenon that Abraham Kaplan referred to as the law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Or to put it another way: to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Unfortunately, in the scenario that has been playing out in recent years, we have become the nails to the government’s hammer. After all, having equipped government agents with an arsenal of tools, weapons and powers with which to vanquish the so-called forces of terror, it was inevitable that that same arsenal would eventually be turned on us. As Michael German, a former FBI agent, recently observed, “You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to find terrorism. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of terrorism in many communities. So they end up pursuing people who are critical of the government.”

One such person is Scott Crow, a relatively obscure political activist who has been the object of intense surveillance by FBI counterterrorism agents. Other targets of bureau surveillance, according to the New York Times, have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska. “When such investigations produce no criminal charges,” notes the Times, “their methods rarely come to light publicly.”

In the case of Scott Crow, those methods were revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request to see the FBI file on him. At a massive 440 pages, Crow’s file speaks volumes about the way in which the government views the American people as a whole—as potential threats to national security, not to mention what it says about the leeway given to the FBI to completely disregard the Fourth Amendment’s protections against searches and seizures of our property and persons. Over the course of at least three years, Crow had agents staking out his house, tracking the comings and goings of visitors, monitoring his phone calls, mail and email, sifting through his trash, infiltrating his circle of friends, and even monitoring him round the clock with a video camera attached to a phone pole across the street from his house.

Given that no criminal charges whatsoever were ever levied against Crow, it might appear that the agency went overboard in its efforts to monitor his activities, but as the FBI’s new manual reveals, such surveillance—even in the absence of credible evidence suggesting wrongdoing—is par for the course. For the federal government to go to such expense (taxpayer expense, that is) and trouble over a political activist, in particular, might seem rather paranoid. However, that is exactly what we are dealing with—a government that is increasingly paranoid about having its authority challenged and determined to discourage such challenges by inciting fear in people.

Then again, this is nothing new. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI conducted an intensive domestic intelligence program, termed Cointelpro, intended to neutralize domestic political dissidents. According to the Church Committee, the Senate task force charged with investigating Cointelpro abuses, “Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone ‘bugs,’ surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens.” The report continued:

Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed—including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials.

Commenting on the methods employed by the FBI in the implementation of Cointelpro, the Church Committee noted, “The unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.” The Committee added, “While the declared purposes of these programs were to protect the ‘national security’ or prevent violence, Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power. Indeed, nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a ‘potential’ for violence—and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave ‘aid and comfort’ to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.”

Following the Church Committee’s report, then-Attorney General Edward Levi implemented a set of guidelines designed to preclude FBI abuse regarding domestic investigations. These guidelines were tweaked by subsequent Attorneys General, substantially relaxed by Attorney General John Ashcroft following the September 11 attacks, further weakened by AG Michael Mukasey in 2008, and now under Eric Holder, any such restrictions are just about nonexistent.

Thus, it would seem we’re back to where we started, only this time we’re facing Cointelpro on steroids—pumped up on the government’s self-righteous quest to ferret out peace activists and dissidents and energized by an arsenal of invasive technologies that make the phone tapping equipment of the 1960s look like Tinker Toys. In fact, this modern period of FBI lawlessness resembles Cointelpro operations in a variety of ways. In both instances, the FBI singled out outspoken critics of the Establishment for scrutiny, attempted to assign them terrorist ties (none were found), and continued the investigations long past the point at which they were found not guilty of having committed any crimes. For example, an attorney for those targeted in a September 2011 FBI raid—including an activist-minded couple that sells silkscreened baby outfits and other clothes with phrases like “Help Wanted: Revolutionaries”—describes his clients as “public non-violent activists with long, distinguished careers in public service, including teachers, union organizers and antiwar and community leaders.”

With all of the so-called threats coming from outside the country, why is the government expending so much energy on a relatively small group of peace and anti-war activists whose First Amendment activities comprise the totality of their “suspicious” behavior? It’s the hammer and nail analogy again. Having acquired all of these new tools and powers post-9/11, of course the government wants to hold onto them and what better way to do so than by using them to ferret out “potential” threats. A prime example occurred in 2002, when the FBI dispatched a special agent, armed with a camera, to a peace rally to search for terrorism suspects who might happen to be there, just to “see what they are doing.” The protest was sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, an organization dedicated to advocating peaceful solutions to international conflicts, and composed primarily of individuals distributing leaflets. The Office of Inspector General, in its report on FBI surveillance of domestic organizations, characterized the task provided to the special agent assigned to the Merton protest as a “make-work” project.

Mark my words: we’re going to find, as time goes on and we come under greater and greater surveillance, that we have all become part of the government’s “make-work” project. What this means is that in order to justify their existence and earn their pay, they’ll be investigating perfectly harmless, innocent citizens.

So what’s to be done?

First, the American people need to get their heads out of the sand and their butts off the couches and act like rea Americans for a change. And by that I mean taking to the streets and truly protesting this deplorable state of our nation. March on Washington, march on your town hall—but whatever you do, make your voices heard. If they can do it in Europe and China and the Middle East, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t do it here.

Second, once we’ve gotten Congress’ attention, we need to push for a legislative response to these FBI abuses. It can be done, but it will take Americans coming together across party lines and calling for Congress to pass legislation restoring the Fourth Amendment and restricting what government agents can do, especially without a court order. Congress may be largely corrupt and incompetent, but with the right kind of citizen pressure, changes can be had. Whatever you do, however, beware of promises made on the campaign trail. As we have seen repeatedly, they never stick.

Third, act now before it’s too late. That dying squeal, the sound of the Fourth Amendment having been gutted and bleeding to death, is getting fainter and fainter. Once it goes silent, there’ll be no turning back.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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