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There's Something Happening Here looks inside the FBI's COINTELPROs against white hate groups and the New Left to explore how agents dealt with the hundreds of individuals and organizations labeled as subversive threats. Rather than reducing these activities to a product of the idiosyncratic concerns of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, Cunningham focuses on the complex organizational dynamics that generated literally thousands of COINTELPRO actions. His account shows how--and why--the inner workings of the programs led to outcomes that often seemed to lack any overriding logic; it also examines the impact the bureau's massive campaign of repression had on its targets. The lessons of this era have considerable relevance today, and Cunningham extends his analysis to the FBI's often controversial recent actions to map the influence of the COINTELPRO legacy on contemporary debates over national security and civil liberties.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Justice-the parent agency of what would later become the Federal Bureau of Investigation-was perhaps best known for its inability to effectively undertake any investigations at all. In a popular anecdote from those early days (the department had been created in 1870), a wealthy family requested that the attorney general track down their kidnapped daughter, only to be met with the reply that he would be happy to help if the family might supply "the names of the parties holding your daughter in bondage, the particular place, and the names of witnesses by whom the facts can be proved." Such ineffectiveness had reached new heights by 1908: during the first two decades of its existence, the Justice Department farmed out its investigative work, with considerable success, to U.S. marshals employing locally recruited posses and private detective agencies. In 1892, however, such practices were outlawed as a conflict of interest, and with the option of using this skilled outside help removed, a patchwork of agents from various government agencies-including the Customs Bureau, Department of the Interior, and Secret Service-were employed to investigate a wide range of crimes.
In the absence of easily obtainable evidence, this system led to the department's do-it-yourself investigative reputation, and its obvious ineffectiveness prompted Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte (whose great uncle, incidentally, was Napoleon) to ask Congress in 1908 to authorize the establishment of "a small carefully selected and experienced force" to head investigations within the Justice Department. Congress's reply was curious: it was unresponsive to Bonaparte's request and instead passed an amendment prohibiting the Justice Department from doing what, to that point, had been commonplace-using Secret Service personnel for the bulk of its investigative work. (The curiousness of this policy was likely related to the indictment of two Oregon congressmen in a land fraud case cracked by Secret Service agents.) Denied a skilled workforce but undaunted by Congress's refusal to formally authorize an investigative department, Bonaparte went ahead and hired thirty-four former Secret Service and Treasury agents to serve as special agents working on investigative matters within the Department of Justice. He was able to somewhat ease Congress's concern that a federal investigative body was prone to abuse its power by recommending that these agents deal exclusively with violations of antitrust and interstate commerce laws-thus placing the investigation of political beliefs and affiliations beyond their purview-and that they report directly to the attorney general. Reassured by these constraints, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that this federal investigative body be funded, allowing George W. Wickersham (newly elected president William Howard Taft's attorney general) to officially establish the unit as the Bureau of Investigation on March 16, 1909.
While the newly formed Bureau's "most significant work" at first involved fraudulent bankruptcies, impersonation of government officials, offenses against government property, and the like, it wasn't long before Bonaparte's self-imposed restrictions were being tested. In 1910 Congress passed the Mann Act (commonly known as the White Slave Traffic Act), which outlawed interstate transportation of women "for the purpose of prostitution and concubinage." As the act required the investigation of "every prostitute in every public house of ill fame," Bureau agents were soon busy doing so and in the process inevitably acquiring personal intelligence about the prostitutes' clients, many of whom were prominent individuals. Along with this expansion of agents' duties, the sheer scope of such an investigative task also required that the Bureau assign certain agents outside Washington, DC, and its first field office was established in Baltimore in 1911. By mid-century, fifty-seven other field offices would open throughout the nation, enabling the greatly expanded FBI to wield influence in most major metropolitan areas.
Meanwhile, in 1917 the United States entered World War I, spurring the growing public concern with alien subversive forces and providing the impetus for a new, Bureau-led campaign to track down those suspected of failing to register for the draft. Enlisting the help of the American Protective League (APL), a volunteer organization of "loyal citizens" devoted to assisting with wartime work-the Bureau initiated a series of "slacker raids" to round up the young draft dodgers. APL membership quickly grew to 250,000 with chapters across the country, and-wearing badges proclaiming themselves an "Auxiliary to the U.S. Department of Justice"-members worked with police and Bureau agents in a series of raids in May 1918 to track down anyone not possessing a draft card. Fewer than 1 percent of the thousands arrested were actually in violation of the draft; many were too old, young, or sick to serve, and many others were registered but happened not to have their draft cards with them at the time. But this didn't dissuade Bureau agents from repeating the raids four months later, with similar egregious results.
Despite such inefficiency and the questionable effect on constitutional rights, the raid soon became the Bureau's tactic of choice to round up huge numbers of suspects in a short period of time. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution spawned a fear of "Reds" that quickly led to widespread paranoia, shared by members of Congress as well as the general public, that subversive Communists were in our midst. In 1918 Congress passed the Alien Act, designed to "exclude and expel" what members referred to as the "anarchistic classes," which included anyone who advocated the overthrow of the government or the unlawful destruction of property. As the act's definition of what actually made one an offender was vague, anyone who so much as dared to speak out against the government or the war effort was at risk of arrest and expulsion. The repressive potential of the Alien Act was realized in 1919, precipitated by a series of bombs exploding in various locations across the country, including the front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's Washington-area home. The bombings were quickly attributed to anarchist organizations (conveniently, anarchist pamphlets were scattered about many of the sites), leading Palmer to reorganize the Bureau and name former Secret Service director William J. Flynn as its head. Palmer anointed Flynn as the "greatest anarchist expert in the United States" and furthered the newly vitalized war on subversion by also creating a General Intelligence Division (GID) of the Bureau to deal with anti-radical activities. This division was headed by Assistant Attorney General Francis P. Garvan, who was directly assisted by the young lawyer who had been instrumental in convincing Palmer of the seriousness of the "radical menace," twenty-four-year-old John Edgar Hoover.
Within the first hundred days of its existence, the GID became a formidable intelligence-gathering machine, compiling personal histories on more than sixty thousand suspected radicals. Hoover, by now being groomed to head the GID, soon also gathered an index of over 150,000 names organized by category of radicalism as well as location. The sheer volume of radicalism that, according to Hoover and Palmer, lay just below the surface of American life was enough to persuade Congress to give an additional $1 million to the GID to "be expended largely in prosecution of the red element in this country, and running down the reds." And run down they were, in a series of events then referred to as the "Red raids"-later popularly termed the "Palmer Raids"-that focused on deporting subversive aliens (since aliens, according to Palmer, accounted for "90% of ... Communist and radical agitation"). The first target, raided on November 7, 1919, was the Federation of the Union of Russian Workers (URW), which yielded only forty-three deportations among the hundreds arrested. This raid was only a prelude of what was to come two months later, when the Bureau arrested between five thousand and ten thousand people in thirty-three cities, allegedly brutalizing many of the arrestees and holding them for long periods without arrest warrants.
Though the raids appeared to have run smoothly, the initial positive public reaction to the capture of thousands of radical aliens soon collapsed. Criticism of the actions by a few newspapers spread negative sentiments that reached a fever pitch after the National Public Government League (NPGL) published a pamphlet entitled "We the American People: Report upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice," which documented the Bureau's questionable actions in detail. Both Palmer and Hoover vehemently defended the raids, but the majority of the cases against the aliens were dropped by Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis R. Post, who oversaw the deportation proceedings. After Post publicly criticized Palmer's actions, the attorney general struck back by accusing Post of "utterly nullify[ing] the purpose of Congress in passing the deportation statute," and Hoover, in what would become a characteristic action, ordered Bureau agents to seek out information tying Post to the radical labor organization Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Ultimately, many of the Bureau's questionable activities-including attempts by its informers within the Communist Party to arrange meetings on the night of the raids to "facilitate the making of arrests"-were made public, and a 1921 Senate investigation supported Post's dismissal of the cases against most defendants.
The debacle that followed the Palmer Raids, as well as the fast-receding public concern with the threat posed by "Reds," ultimately destroyed A. Mitchell Palmer's designs on the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920. The controversy also tarnished the public image of the Bureau, though the effectiveness of both intelligence and counterintelligence to root out an "underground" threat was not lost on its agents. J. Edgar Hoover's role as the virtual architect of the raids left him in a vulnerable position within the Bureau, which in 1921 was facing the prospect of a serious reshuffling under the administration of newly elected president Warren G. Harding. William J. Burns was hired to replace the deposed director Flynn, and Hoover was enlisted to continue to run the GID. Over the next three years, the Bureau under Burns would engage in unprecedented levels of blatantly political (and clearly illegal) activities, including the burglarizing of several congressmen's offices in an attempt to short-circuit criticism of the Bureau and Harding's attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty. Burns also had agents infiltrate the ranks of railway unions that were striking to protest recent pay cuts. Ostensibly, the agents were searching for strikers in violation of the injunction the attorney general had won prohibiting any "acts or words" interfering with the operation of the railroad. In reality, however, their actions went much deeper: through information gathered by Bureau infiltrations, over a thousand unionists were ultimately arrested, and the strike was effectively broken. Hoover organized the successful infiltration of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, using information gathered about Klan leader Edward Y. Clark's sexual misdeeds to convict him under the Mann Act. In addition, Hoover helped to defuse Montana senator Burton K. Wheeler's accusations of improprieties within the Department of Justice by having agents spy on him, ransack his office, attempt to entice him into a compromising situation with a woman, and finally provide fodder for the department to publicly accuse him of inappropriate business dealings.
Not surprisingly, devoting its energies to such overtly political purposes eventually came back to haunt the Bureau, as Burns later was forced in a Senate committee hearing to publicly acknowledge the Bureau's actions in the Wheeler affair. Soon after, he was fired as director of the Bureau, and on May 10, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover took over the position on a provisional basis. Well aware of new attorney general Harlan Fiske Stone's wariness of the Bureau overstepping its bounds (Daugherty had been forced to resign after being implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal), Hoover managed somehow to convince Stone that he was innocent of any past improprieties and even accepted the position only on the self-imposed condition that "the Bureau ... be divorced from politics and not a be a catch-all for political hacks." Later that year, Hoover and Stone met with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) representative Roger N. Baldwin. In another astounding turnaround from his past record and oft-stated concern with neutralizing radical elements, Hoover pledged to remove the Bureau from its previous countersubversive activities. His efforts were largely successful, as Baldwin left the meeting with a clear sense of the Hoover-led Bureau's newly fabricated mission:
The department dealing with radical activities has been entirely abolished. There is not a single man in the department especially assigned to that work. There are no more radical experts. The examination of radical magazines and the collection of data on radicals and radical organizations has been wholly discontinued by specific orders of the Attorney General. The Bureau is functioning only as an agency to investigate cases in which there is a probable violation of the federal law. Investigations of radicals are made for the Department of Labor on request, but none are undertaken on the initiative of the Bureau. While matters would eventually change and Hoover himself was still greatly concerned with radical subversion, Baldwin's impression of Bureau activities in the latter half of the 1920s was largely accurate. It appears that surveillance and informant activity was minimal at this point, and Bureau files on subversives were kept up-to-date largely through the "passive intelligence" strategy of relying on the agency's considerable network of outside sources. Widespread concern with the Red menace reared its head again by 1930, but Hoover, fearing his efforts to "clean up" the Bureau would be threatened, remained opposed to new legislation that would extend the Bureau's authority to engage in intelligence gathering and countersubversion. Instead, he continued to actively advise other federal and local law enforcement agencies about Communism and the danger posed by left-wing propaganda.
Organizationally, Hoover masterfully reinvented the Bureau.
Excerpted from There's Something Happening Here by David Cunningham Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Counterintelligence Activities and the FBI
2. The Movements
3. The Organization of the FBI: Constructing White Hate and New Leftist Threats
4. Acting against the White Hate and New Left Threats
5. Wing Tips in Their Midst: The Impact of COINTELPRO
6. Beyond COINTELPRO
7. The Future Is Now: Counterintelligence Activities in the Age of Global Terrorism
Appendix A. A Typology of COINTELPRO Actions
Appendix B. Organizational Processes and COINTELPRO Outcomes
Appendix C. COINTELPRO Targets