COINTELPRO 2.0

Throughout the history of capitalism, the state has engaged in attempts to squelch dissent and left-wing political activism--and today is no different.

COINTELPRO 2.0 | Cyberspying against the left

THERE'S AN old cliché about the left that we see plots by the state where they don't exist. But the latest revelations about the Big Brother spy state via National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden show that an equally old joke has the ring of truth: Just because we're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get us.

Recent articles by journalist Glenn Greenwald for NBC News and The Intercept document, using evidence obtained by Snowden, cooperation between the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the NSA.

A previously unknown division of GCHQ called the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) presented classified documents to the NSA and other government intelligence agencies that detailed some of their favorite spy tactics and dirty tricks--including "monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same [denial of service] attacks they accuse 'hacktivists' of using, the use of 'honey traps' (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses," Greenwald wrote.

The bottom line, according to Greenwald: "[T]hese agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the Internet itself."

Consider JTRIG's advice on how to discredit a political activist, as explained in a Power Point presentation: "Set up a honey-trap. Change their photos on social networking sites. Write a blog purporting to be one of their victims. E-mail/text their colleagues, neighbors, friends, etc." Other slides in the presentation include suggestions for "Identifying and exploiting fracture points" of activist groups--and "Gambits for deception" when infiltrating such organizations.

According to JTRIG, the "four D's" of "online covert action" are: "Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive."

As Greenwald concludes:

Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people--who have been charged with no crime--for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse?

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THESE NEW revelations are another potent reminder that the actions of the national surveillance state go far, far beyond the usual justification for them--the need to stop terrorism. JTRIG and its associated programs at the NSA have nothing whatsoever to do with stopping a real (or imagined) "terrorist" threat. They are about keeping tabs on--and destabilizing, if possible--radical political activism.

In this respect, the "four D's," taken out of their new context of the Internet age, are nothing new for governments like America's, with its long and ugly record of harassing and repressing the left--such as the execution of the Haymarket Martyrs in the 1880s; the anti-left and anti-immigrant hysteria of the Palmer Raids in the early 20th century; the McCarthyite witch hunts against socialists and communists in the 1950s; and the FBI's COINTELPRO operations against the civil rights, Black Power, anti-Vietnam War and other radical movements.

Coincidentally, another little-known chapter of that history has been revealed by a new documentary, Spies of Mississippi, which aired in February on PBS and is available online until March 12. The film details how, during the 1950s and '60s, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission created a secret, state-funded spy agency to infiltrate "the civil rights coalition, eavesdropping on its most private meetings and pilfering its most sensitive documents."

The filmmakers show how the commission used a "cadre of Black operatives" to infiltrate the civil rights movement, discover its future plans, target its leaders and harass its rank-and-file participants. In all, some 87,000 people were spied on by the agency, which sometimes shared its reports with local police departments--where officers often also belonged to local Ku Klux Klan chapters.

The film makes the case that reports from the Sovereignty Commission played a direct role in the infamous murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.

But more typical was the case of Clyde Kennard--a young Black Korean War veteran who applied three different times to go to school at the University of Southern Mississippi in the late 1950s.

The Sovereignty Commission investigated Kennard and his family, his schooling and his Army record, looking for any hint of moral failing that could be used to discredit his campaign to attend school at an all-white university. When none was found, police--with the help of the Sovereignty Commission--planted stolen chicken feed on the Kennard farm. Kennard was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison at Parchman Penitentiary. He died of cancer soon after his release in 1963

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OF COURSE, the FBI's "COINTELPRO" (Counter Intelligence Program) didn't stop with the civil rights movement. It targeted Black Power organizations, Native American groups, the Puerto Rican independence movement, antiwar activists, and socialists and communists--precisely because these movements for change were seen as a threat to the status quo.

Today, every elementary school student learns about Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington. At the time, though, it earned him the label of "the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation" in a memo written by the head of the FBI's domestic intelligence division. A few years later, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover himself declared that "the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." Both King and the Panthers were subjected not just to surveillance, but a campaign of harassment and dirty tricks aimed at sewing divisions and undermining organizing efforts.

The FBI also kept tabs on the socialist left--the Communist Party, which was the original target of COINTELPRO, as well as other socialist groups and organizations of the New Left of the 1960s. The FBI, for example, set out to smear Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member Clifton DeBerry, who ran for president in 1964, by sending out anonymous letters detailing minor personal transgressions, in order to discredit him and split the ranks of the SWP.

Peter Camejo, who ran as the SWP candidate for president in 1976, sued the FBI after his campaign offices were burglarized. As a Truthdig article reported in 2012:

The judge asked the FBI special agent in charge how many FBI agents had worked in Camejo's presidential campaign; the answer was 66. Camejo estimated he had a campaign staff of 400 across the country...[T]hat would be an infiltration rate of about one in six. Camejo discovered that among the agents was his campaign co-chair. He also discovered eavesdropping equipment in a campaign office and documents showing the FBI had followed him since he was an 18-year-old student activist.

Most people probably assume such practices are a thing of the past. After all, who would defend the government spying on Martin Luther King--who has a federal holiday in his honor, after all? To all but right-wing ideologues, the McCarthy era witch-hunts are a dark blot on American history.

But government spying on legally protected left-wing political activity has been rehabilitated in the post 9/11 era, just the same.

The first targets were Muslims and people of Arab descent, who government officials like ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed must be watched in order to "prevent terrorism." So FBI agents and police spied on and infiltrated mosques, not only spying on Muslims engaged in constitutionally protected religious activities, but entrapping young Muslim men into outlandish "terrorist plots." Incredibly, this modern-day witch hunt was declared legal by a federal judge who threw out a lawsuit against the NYPD.

The targets of surveillance extended to antiwar activists, socialists and anarchists, the Occupy movement and even opponents of the death penalty, among others.

Generally, the attack on our rights today is not as bold and overt as when federal agents rounded up and deported foreign-born socialists; or executed Communist Party members as atomic spies; or stormed into a Chicago apartment building and murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed.

But make no mistake: The state is still engaged in an assault on the left and on dissent in general, designed to keep social movements and political activism fractured and marginal.

The American ruling class prefers to rule by consent, so it can claim to be "the world's greatest democracy"--which means we get to vote in elections every two or four years where the choice is almost always limited to two pro-corporate candidates. But the still-unfolding NSA scandal is further evidence of the fact that it will resort to coercion as necessary.

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NO ONE should be discouraged from fighting for our rights--including our right to protest and to privacy under the constitution, both won by long years of past struggles--by the strength and scope of the Big Brother spy state.

We need to respond, though, with basic precautions. We have a duty to fellow participants in the struggle--those fighting for union rights or planning actions at work that put them at risk of being fired, for example; or those who are undocumented; or those who could face punishment from the criminal injustice system--to defend and shield them, as best we can, from harassment and retaliation by the state, by employers and by our enemies on the right.

Knowing that government agencies like the NSA, not to mention the police, have programs directed at the left, we have every reason--and, in fact, a responsibility--to be suspicious about obvious signs of such operations: the unlikely activist who starts attending meetings right before a big demonstration, the out-of-the-ordinary questions about what we think about violence as a tactic, destructive rumor-mongering from anonymous sources on the Internet.

One counter-argument is that since the NSA's tentacles reach into every form of communications these days, security consciousness is a waste of time. But we certainly don't need to make it easier for the state to abuse our side, or intimidate us into complacency or inaction. And the left has other enemies--most obviously, right-wing opponents in various forms--who don't have the same kind of access.

Ultimately, the left's best weapon against state repression is for our side to get bigger--to convince more people of the need to build the struggle against oppression and injustice. History shows that the agents of the state will always attempt to obstruct struggles to change the status quo--but it also shows that they don't always succeed.

Democratic mass struggles--like the anti-Vietnam War movement, for example, which grew strong enough at its height to discredit a presidency when Richard Nixon's corruption and dirty tricks were revealed--are the best means of combating the security state.

The revolutionary Victor Serge wrote in 1926: "Repression can only really live off fear. But is fear enough to remove need, thirsts for justice, intelligence, reason, idealism--all those revolutionary forces that express the formidable, profound impulse of the economic factors of a revolution?"

The answer then, as now, is "no."