---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 03 Jun 2002 17:25:22 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: COINTELPRO in Cyberspace
COINTELPRO in Cyberspace
June 3, 2002
by Jeff Elkins
I've been amazed at the somewhat bland reaction to Ashcroft's new guidelines
from some organizations that should surely know better. The "Well, that's
not so bad" reaction from Cato was shocking. The Cato scholars certainly
know the history of COINTELPRO operations by the FBI from the 1950s through
the early 1970s. In order to fully grasp what our Attorney General has
unleashed, you should too. Especially important today, are the expansion of
COINTELPRO tactics into cyberspace.
COINTELPRO is an acronym for the FBI's domestic "counterintelligence
programs" to neutralize political dissidents. Formal COINTELPRO operations
were conducted between 19561971 and targeted against radical political
organizations, ranging from anti-war activists to civil-rights
The roots of COINTELPRO can be found in the Bureau's operations against
foreign intelligence services. Counterintelligence also implies more than
mere investigation; it refers to actions taken to neutralize enemy agents as
well, active measures ranging from disinformation campaigns to actual
However, FBI operations targeting foreign spies quickly expanded to include
American citizens with undesirable views. Eventually, COINTELPRO became the
primary weapon that the state used against the anti-war and civil rights
Quoting J. Edgar Hoover: "The forces which are most anxious to weaken our
internal security are not always easy to identify. Communists have been
trained in deceit and secretly work toward the day when they hope to replace
our American way of life with a Communist dictatorship. They utilize
cleverly camouflaged movements, such as peace groups and civil rights groups
to achieve their sinister purposes. While they as individuals are difficult
to identify, the Communist party line is clear. Its first concern is the
advancement of Soviet Russia and the godless Communist cause. It is
important to learn to know the enemies of the American way of life."
COINTELPRO was exposed to the public eye after an unsolved break-in into the
FBI's Media, PA field office that resulted in leaked documents, and separate
lawsuits by NBC correspondent Carl Stern and the Socialist Workers' Party,
followed by a US Senate investigation led by Senator Frank Church. The
Church investigation in turn lead to more restrictive guidelines , those
that were recently so blithely tossed in the trash by John Ashcroft.
Past COINTELPRO operations utilized four basic approaches:
Infiltration and internal psychological warfare.
FBI agents and paid informers actively worked to disrupt organizations from
the inside. The infiltration was designed to both sow discord within (Are
you real or are you from the FBI?) and scare off potential supporters. It
was also common to leak false information accusing genuine activists of
being FBI plants and use entrapment techniques.
External psychological warfare.
The FBI planted erroneous stories with media sources, and published bogus
material supposedly created by targeted organizations, wrote anonymous
letters and forged correspondence, all this designed to paint false pictures
of aims and goals. Other tactics included spreading misinformation about
and/or disrupting meetings and events, setting up pseudo organizations run
by agents, and using strong-arm techniques on parents, employers, landlords,
school officials and others who had influence over activists.
Agents perjured themselves and fabricated evidence as a pretext for false
arrests and false imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and
other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance,
"investigative" interviews, and grand jury subpoenas to intimidate
Extralegal force and violence.
The FBI and local police conducted break-ins, black-bag jobs, vandalism,
assaults, and beatings. It is widely rumored that political assassinations
were carried out as well.
We've seen the beginnings of COINTELPRO-type tactics in the Bush/Ashcroft
"war on terror" and you may rest assured that we will see the efforts
expand. Let's examine some specifics from the full investigative guidelines
just promulgated by Ashcroft's DOJ.
In this column, I'd like to examine the expansion of COINTELPRO into
cyberspace. Two clauses from the full guidelines available at the DOJ
address online activity:
General Topical Research
The FBI is authorized to carry out general topical research, including
conducting searches and accessing online sites and forums as part of such
research on the same terms and conditions as members of the public
Use of Online Resources Generally
For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorism or other criminal
activities, the FBI is authorized to conduct online search activity and to
access online sites and forums on the same terms and conditions as members
of the public generally.
These clauses were widely poo-pooed by the usual suspects, but examined
closely, they are chilling to the extreme. Consider the dual nature of
activism on the Internet: On one hand, it's widely used as a venue for
publishing material critical of government activities that never seem to
gain exposure in the mainstream media. Considering COINTELPRO tactics as
used in the past, how long before pressure is applied to national ISPs to
remove websites featuring such commentary? How long until the major search
engines remove anti-government links from their indexes?
And on the other hand, consider the explosion of interactive web-based
forums, largely anonymous in nature, that feature discussion areas. Consider
just how easily FBI agents and informers could infiltrate these online
meeting places, both to gather information and to instigate activities
resulting in prosecution and imprisonment. If you think this is far-
fetched, please refer back to the four tactical aims of a COINTELPRO
operation and perhaps remember other notable entrapment cases that could
easily transfer into cyberspace (hint: Waco and Ruby Ridge).
On that note, be very cautious of anyone online who attempts to coerce you
into advocating physical action of any type against the government. They may
just be the typical Internet hothead/keyboard-pounder, but then again they
might be a modern-day COINTELPRO cybernaut.
It's very important to understand that COINTELPRO never really went away. It
was largely driven underground by bad publicity and the Church hearings, but
it was always lurking beneath the surface of the polished FBI image, waiting
for an Ashcroft to resurrect it and a complacent public to accept it.
COINTELPRO has emerged from the shadows with a vengeance. In future columns
I'll examine further aspects of it's return and John Ashcroft's efforts to
fully convert the FBI into the enforcement division of George W. Bush's
Jeff Elkins is a freelance writer and the editor of Elkins.org, a free
online webzine and discussion forum.
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