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Friday, August 21, 2015
Book Review and Related Musings

The Burglary by Betty Medsger.

I recently finished this book, which is where I heard about COINTELPRO for the first time. This previously secret program was J. Edgar Hoover's "secret counterintelligence program" COINTELPRO, set up in 1956 to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the United States in order to 'enhance the paranoia endemic in those circles,' to make clear to all Americans that an FBI agent was 'behind every mailbox,' a plan that would discredit, destabilize, and demoralize groups, many of them legal civil rights organizations and antiwar groups that Hoover found offensive-as well as black power groups, student activists, anti-draft protesters...

The FBI files that were stolen in 1971 (called the Media files because they were stolen from the Media, Pennsylvania office), revealed this program to the general public but only some of the information became public. Supposedly it was stopped in 1971, but in fact it only changed names. It is my belief (based on the history of the US government's responses to dissent since then and up to the present year, 2015) that every aspect of the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-war/peace movement, of all whistleblowers and journalists and those who want to expose corruption in the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-prison complex, are being targeted by the same investigations and dirty tricks that the FBI practiced under J. Edgar Hoover.

The Media file burglars were never found, but 40 years later some revealed themselves to the reporter, Betty Medsger, who broke the story in 1971 (they had mailed her the files back then). Recently she published this book filled with not only information from the past but much more info that has been revealed about the contents of Hoover's war against activists of all kinds, uncovered due to the Freedom of Information Act and the dogged pursuit of the files using that act by a few persistent truth seekers who took years to finally get access and then only recently revealed more of the ugly truth that is still so relevant today.

In this piece, I am going to focus on Hoover's war against the black community that he waged for so long that it can be said to have contributed greatly to the subjugation and disenfranchisement of that community, pulling the plug on the momentum of the fight for equal rights over and over again.

I am listing relevant quotes from this book with page numbers for reference. All of this information is documented with extensive bibliography/footnotes for each chapter in the back of the book, which I got from my local public library. This is only a tiny piece of the information in this book.

1) "The Media files revealed that there were two FBIs-the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the secret FBI. This FBI, known until the Media burglary only to people inside the bureau, usurped citizens' liberties, treated all black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and--most important--silence people whose political opinions the director opposed." (page 7)

2) "Blackmail and burglary were favorite tools in the secret FBI--agents were ordered to spy on--and create ongoing files on--the private lives, including the sexual activities, of the nation's highest officials and other powerful people. Electoral politics were manipulated to defeat candidates the director did not like. Even mild dissent, in the eyes of the FBI, could make an American worthy of being spied on and placed in an ongoing FBI file, sometimes for decades." (page 7)

3) One document in the stolen files, signed by Hoover, on November 4, 1970, had two subject headings: "Black Student Groups on College Campuses" and "Racial Matters." According to Medsger, "It was the first of numerous sets of stolen documents I would receive over the next two months that revealed Hoover's preoccupation with surveillance of black people and students, especially black students." The memo stated: Effective immediately, all BSUs [Black Student Unions] and similar organizations organized to project the demands of black students, which are not presently under investigation, are to be subjects of discreet, preliminary inquiries, limited to established sources and carefully conducted to avoid criticism, to determine the size, aims, purposes, activities, leadership, key activists in each group to determine background and if their activities warrant active investigation..."

All higher education institutions, including two-year colleges, throughout the country were to be included in this plan to monitor black students and black student organizations. "The private records of Muhammad Kenyatta, the leader of a national black rights organization based in Philadelphia, were collected without regard for whether they were related to any potential criminal activity. An agent reported in one file that detailed confidential data on Kenyatta and his wife, Mary--phone records, checking account records--had been given to agents without subpoenas. The information was provided by sources with the agreement that if the bureau ever had an official need to use the information in a court proceeding, it would be sought again--at that time with the legally required subpoena, and as though the FBI had not already illegally received the information. Documents release later by the burglars provided additional information about these cozy relationships, including ones between the FBI and employers and with government employment agencies. It appeared that whatever information the FBI wanted, it was given, without regard to privacy restrictions. Banks, credit card agencies, employers, landlords, law enforcement agencies, and military recruiters all opened their confidential files and their mouths when the FBI appeared." Of course Attorney general John N. Mitchell warned that disclosure of the contents of the stolen files "could endanger the lives or cause other serious harm to persons engaged in investigative activities on behalf of the United States...could injure the United States and give aid to foreign governments whose interests might me inimical to those of the United States." (Page 169-170-171) Does this sound familiar???

4) More than anything, the Media files offered "the public and Congress an unprecedented glimpse of how the U.S. government watches its citizens--particularly black citizens, "wrote Washington Post journalist William Greider in an analysis of all the files the summer after the burglary... [The files] revealed details of the bureau's policies and actions that made it clear that the FBI conducted massive spying on African Americans, most of it unjustified. It did so in ways, he wrote, that were as unreasonable as it would have been for the bureau to spy on all lawyers who engaged in politics because, "as everyone knows, some layers in politics turn out to be crooks."

...how the FBI regarded black people was that they were dangerous and must be watched continuously. To become targets of the FBI it wasn't necessary for African Americans to engage in violent behavior. It wasn't necessary for them to be radical or subversive. Being black was enough.

...evidence of Hoover's inability, or refusal, to differentiate people as individuals rather than as stereotypes of either a race or an ideology. One of the results of that failure on his part was that any organization devoted to racial equality risked being labeled as subversive by the FBI and becoming subject to infiltration by the bureau. Local branch offices of organizations widely known to be constructive and nonviolent were infiltrated by the FBI: the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP. That pattern, it was learned later, was reflected in bureau behavior for years toward those and other nonviolent organizations throughout the country. It was learned later that NAACP officials had been under continuous FBI surveillance since 1923. As required by directives from headquarters, African Americans came under the FBI's watchful eye everywhere--in churches, in classrooms, on college campuses, in bars, in restaurants, in bookstores, in their places of employment, in stores, in any social setting, in their neighborhoods and at the front doors of their homes. Probably few people suspected that the bill collector at their door was an FBI informer.

...New bureaucratic terms were created for these operations. Every field office was required to establish a "Racial Squad" to coordinate coverage of what the bureau labeled "Racial Matters. "Ghetto" informers were a subset of the group the bureau called "Racial Informants." These informants infiltrated groups the FBI considered to be black nationalist and black revolutionary group...(page 226-227)

5) There are countless more examples given of specific people being targeted and spied on, including information exposed in the documents from the Media Files, for example detailed reports and personal and other records of Muhammad Kenyatta. If was finally revealed that "Kenyatta and his family moved to Philadelphia from Mississippi in 1968 because of a threatening letter that he thought at the time was written by a committee of students who purportedly were his rivals in a student organization at Tougaloo College near Jackson. He learned the truth about the letter in 1975: It had been fabricated by three FBI agents in a successful effort to force him to leave Mississippi." (page 231)

6) One of the hidden purposes of COINTELPRO, which had the approval of many Attorneys General of the United States during J. Edgar Hoover's almost 50 years in power, was that it contained a list of hundreds of thousands of Americans they had on file who were considered to be in some capacity dangerous to the social fabric of America and in case of martial law being declared in a national emergency, those on this list would be rounded up and placed in detention. Once revealed, this program was ordered to be abolished, but in fact, it was only renamed and continued in secret. One can only imagine a similar list kept by the NSA and Homeland Security in the present day political climate where all dissidents, all journalists and all peace activists, human rights advocates etc. are considered criminals.

7) "In 1988, documents released to the Center for Constitutional Rights under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that beginning in 1981, the FBI did assume that the 'impediments' on investigations had been lifted. That year it opened a five-year investigation of individuals and organizations that opposed Reagan's policies in Central America. The investigation--which included widespread use throughout the country of informers at political meetings; break-ins at churches, members' homes, and organizations' offices; and surveillance of hundreds of peace demonstrations--started under FBI director William Webster and continued under his successor, William Sessions, both of them former federal judges. The massive five-year investigation involved fifty-two of the fifty-six FBI field offices and included investigations of the National Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sisters, the United Auto Workers, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The focus was on the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, known as CISPES." (page 495)

8) This book of just under 600 pages has way more evidence of these deceptions and invasions of privacy and social and political manipulations that are obviously still being maintained today, although with different names and acronyms and government officials. But what is blindingly obvious today is the targeting of the black community and the suppression of any dissent and/or attempts to promote basic human and civil rights by the systematic and intentional discrediting of leaders and by putting a spin on media reporting of incidents of police interactions with the black community. The Black Lives Matter movement is reminiscent of the Black Panther party's attempt to wrest control of the narrative from those in power and give it back to the people.

9) Finally, there is a lot of information on the internet about COINTELPRO and also many videos on YouTube about the FBI's war on Blacks, so I will end with this documentary from 1990 called:

COINTELPRO-The FBI's War on Black America

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