JOHN KIRIAKOU: J Edgar Hoover’s Evil Brainchild

All of COINTELPRO should be declassified.  Bobby Rush’s legislation — now at high risk of getting lost in Congress  — would do that. 

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1959. (Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

COINTELPRO, an abbreviation for Counter-Intelligence Program, was the illegal brainchild of the F.B.I.’s first and longest-serving director, J. Edgar Hoover, whose obsession with communism and “subversion” allowed him to justify violating the civil rights and civil liberties of millions of Americans.

Under COINTELPRO, which Hoover initiated in 1956, the F.B.I. surveilled, infiltrated, discredited, disrupted, burglarized and harassed American citizens and organizations as diverse as the Communist Party USA, anti-Vietnam War protestors, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the American Indian Movement, environmentalists, animal rights organizations, Puerto Rican nationalists and even the National Lawyers’ Guild.

[Related: MLK & Fred Hampton Versus J Edgar Hoover]

The program continued until 1971, when a group of progressive activists broke into an F.B.I. field office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole documents related to COINTEPRO, and sent them to the press.  Nobody in the F.B.I. was ever punished for the program’s many illegalities, but the “burglars” who revealed the program were hunted for decades.  None were ever caught.

And now, 51 years after it ended, a bill has been introduced to the U.S. Congress that would expose still classified details of the F.B.I.’s abuse of power.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in 2013. (Daniel X. O’Neil, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) on May 4 sponsored the legislation that would do some exciting things.  The COINTELPRO Full Disclosure Act would require the U.S. federal government to publicly disclose, within six months of being signed into law, all records related to the F.B.I.’s illegal COINTELPRO operation “that would not cause harm” to the national security.

It would also establish something called the “COINTELPRO Records Review Board” to review determinations by government offices that do not fully disclose their records after six months.  To top it off, the bill would also require the removal of J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the F.B.I.’s headquarters building in Washington.

The measure was assigned to the House Oversight and Reform Committee as well as to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  A day later, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.  There has been no action on the bill since May, and no concurrent bills have been sponsored in the Senate.

The FBI’s Aims

COINTELPRO had specific goals.  According to the book Surveillance and Governance: Crime Control and Beyond by Mathieu Deflam, F.B.I. agents were tasked with creating a negative public image for the groups and people targeted; breaking down the organizations by creating internal conflicts; creating dissension among groups that otherwise might be allied; restricting access to public resources, such as through non-profits; restricting the ability to organize protests, such as by having F.B.I. agents who had infiltrated the groups threaten violence against police or initiate violence; and restricting the ability of individuals to participate in group activities through character assassination, rumor, innuendo, and false arrests.

MIT professor and activist Noam Chomsky told the BBC in 1996,

“COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out not by a couple of petty crooks, but by the national political police, the F.B.I., under four administrations.  By the time it got through, it was aimed at the entire New Left, at the women’s movement, at the whole Black movement.  It was extremely broad.  Its actions went as far as political assassination.”

Certainly, the F.B.I. carried out political assassinations against members of the Black Panther Party.  An even better known COINTELPRO target, though, was Martin Luther King.  Immediately following the 1963 March on Washington, F.B.I. Special Agent William Sullivan, the officer in charge of COINTELPRO, wrote to Hoover, saying,

“In light of King’s powerful demagogic speech (the “I Have a Dream” speech), we must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

F.B.I. headquarters in Washington. (Gareth Milner, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Within weeks, the F.B.I. had bugged King’s home and his hotel rooms, they had planted informants around him and they had designated King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a “subversive organization.”

Hoover’s most degenerate action within COINTELPRO was a plan in 1964 to try to convince King to commit suicide.  King had begun to criticize the F.B.I. publicly in 1963 for not treating the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organization.  In response, Hoover ordered that King’s communications be intercepted.

And on Nov. 21, 1964, just two days after the announcement that King had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the F.B.I. sent him a “suicide package” that contained audio recordings of his liaisons with various women.  An attached letter said,

“There is only one way out for you.  You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

The letter went on to say that the tapes would be released to the media if he did not kill himself before accepting the Peace Prize.  And, indeed, Hoover ordered that the tapes be sent to Newsweek and Newsday. Even after King was assassinated in 1968, the FBI continued to malign his memory by providing his enemies with information to enable attacks on his character.

This building in Media, Pennsylvania, now known as County Court Apartments, was the site of the March 8, 1971, break in of the local F.B.I. office that resulted in the exposure of the CoIntelPro program. (Smallbones, CC0, Wikimedia Commons)

There was literally nothing good about COINTELPRO.  It was illegal.  It was unethical.  It was immoral.  It was used to prevent Americans from exercising their constitutional rights.  It was a dark period in American history — one of the darkest in modern American history.  Our government owes it to the American people to lay the information bare.  All of COINTELPRO should be declassified.  Bobby Rush’s bill would do that.

I say would, rather than will, because this bill has an almost zero chance of passing through both houses of Congress and being signed into law by the president.  That it was referred to a subcommittee in May and has had no subsequent action is akin to a death notice.

But it is possible to give it life.  I’ve spent years on Capitol Hill, working first for a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and later as the senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  I can tell you that a letter from a constituent has a great deal of authority, far more so than an email.  Members of Congress really do react to letters from the people they represent.  It may sound quaint, or even a little silly, but that’s democracy at work.   This bill can be discharged from the subcommittee if the public demands it.

Bobby Rush was right to sponsor this bill.  The F.B.I. should have declassified COINTELPRO decades ago.  Remember, the American people own this information.  They deserve to know what their government has done in their name.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

17 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: J Edgar Hoover’s Evil Brainchild

  1. August 16, 2022 at 18:00

    John, for those of us weak in government history and the relationship between past and present agency conduct, perhaps you would explain the implications of the FBI COINTELPRO abuses for the current GOP efforts to erase the infamy attached to the FBI document search at Mar-a-Lago and any untoward legal consequences for Trump.

    More broadly, given the propensity for even relatively minor associations and institutions to slide into moral compromise and political corruption (such as the American Psychological Association, of which I am a member), as a government insider perhaps you can sometime propose mechanisms of reform that transcend the standard “name, shame, and blame” tactics of reform that raise such incendiary ire and well funded opposition. (Speaking metaphorically, can the CIA and FBI recruit Quakers for General Inspector positions? )

    Thanks so much for your consistent efforts to shine the light into dark domains of government, especially the prison system.

  2. doris
    August 16, 2022 at 09:03

    Now, I’m just being logical here, but wouldn’t an “Illegal law” be considered “Illegal”?! And since we’re removing illegal laws, how about we add the Patriot Act to that list and pull that one too? And pull off of the other anti-Constitutional laws while we’re at it and keep it to the supreme law of the land. Right to free speech, privacy, bear arms, etc..

  3. robert e williamson jr
    August 15, 2022 at 18:02

    This episode of history is a very painful thing for many of us to revisit. So much terror applied by the state to the forces of changes, changes in support of authoritarian governance and a refined value system that respected life and liberty.

    No one my age should not be familiar with what happened. Those younger owe it to themselves to learn about what happened and most important why. What happened, happened because our government “just did it” because they could and once again failed it’s people. Look around, see what it started.

    J. Edger stole from us great portions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Then things got worse.

    I will be contacting my elected representatives as all should. Why, you ask, to give them the opportunity to prove once and for all to us they are either fake or real. Everyone knows the democrats dearly need to give themselves something to be proud to add to their much maligned history.

    Thanks CN

  4. michael888
    August 15, 2022 at 12:35

    So much of the Federal Government’s “secrets” need to be transparent, not just old crimes like COINTELPRO. The Whitmer kidnapping plot, probably the 1/6 Capitol’s “Open Doors” policy, all the mass shootings that the FBI knew about in advance but did nothing (much worst than an outsider like Alex Jones talking trash after the fact about Sandy Hook). The Parkland High shooting was, AFAIK, the only recent mass shooting where the DOJ (FBI) settled for $127.5 million (but of course without admitting wrongdoing.) The FBI is just another partisan arm of the Federal Government.
    Similarly there is a plethora of books on Allen Dulles and James Jesus Angleton and the CIA through the Church Committee Hearings in 1975 (although nothing of substance on JFK’s assassination, which somehow missed its deadline for public release; “national security!”) These people are just psychopaths who need to be “Splintered into a thousand pieces” as JFK said, or at minimum put on a short leash with a choke collar.
    And putting the State Department (ie, the CIA) in charge of domestic propaganda (“moderization”– abolition–of Smith Mundt), created State Media for no-dissent-allowed Official Narratives. The NAZI Gestapo and East German Stasi would be very impressed.
    Probably substack and independent alternative sites like CN will be stomped to death by the Fascists before Joe Biden finishes his terms.

  5. C. Parker
    August 15, 2022 at 11:54

    If only Americans would take a few minutes to write, not email, but actually write a short letter to their representative in Congress. I suppose since most news organizations don’t report the important stuff that very few Americans are aware of the abuses committed by government agencies.

    It is worth reminding readers that the heinous plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, was basically an FBI entrapment scheme. The men arrested were militants who were angered by the governor’s Covid prevention mandates she issued in Michigan. These militants became pawns of undercover FBI agents. This and Russiagate turns the FBI into a political tool which becomes very dangerous.

    Removing J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI building is a good start. Americans need to write a quick note to Congress demanding they pass The COINTELPRO Full Disclosure Act —even if it doesn’t pass the House at least Congress will know that WE know.

  6. Bob Browning
    August 15, 2022 at 11:01

    More hope-and-change for us to hold on to. …they Could even pass such a bil ..and then: an “authority”, unelected, will deem everything redacted due to “natl. security”… oh the drama.

  7. J.M.
    August 15, 2022 at 10:31

    “COINTELPRO, an abbreviation for Counter-Intelligence Program, was the illegal brainchild of the F.B.I.’s first and longest-serving director, J. Edgar Hoover, whose obsession with communism and “subversion” allowed him to justify violating the civil rights and civil liberties of millions of Americans.”

    Now it’s far worse. It’s genocide, but not of communists and “subversion”.

  8. JayB
    August 15, 2022 at 10:18

    Since this piece was written in the past tense, I suppose we are to assume the FBI no longer engages in these kinds of activities. I am so relieved. Thank you. (/s)

  9. evelync
    August 15, 2022 at 09:13

    Thanks for this article , John Kiriakou. It should be shared far and wide. Thanks to Bobby Rush.
    The J EDGAR HOOVER paranoids of this country have mislead, misdirected, and deeply wounded this country.
    We must do better to save this democracy.

    • Lubomir Kolev
      August 15, 2022 at 10:20

      There isn’t any democracy in the USA. Two parties can’t represent democracy. On top of all America lost its “liberty” on 1913, when the FED was created. America is occupied by evil forces since then…

  10. Dennis Hanna
    August 14, 2022 at 19:36

    Lost, misplaced, destroyed … come to mind.
    C.I.A.’s “Enhanced Interrogation” video tapes (Americans don’t torture) come to mind.
    Solution: Just like the “destruction of the Enhanced Interrogation tapes” a criminal investigation will be undertaken by John Durham and the law breakers will be charged, prosecuted, found guilty and jailed.
    In one’s dreams.
    dennis hanna

  11. Sam F
    August 14, 2022 at 18:05

    Thank you, John Kiriakou for this update.

    This is the result of giving unsupervised agencies excessive powers needed only to cover rare cases of extremism.
    So it almost certainly continues under new program names, probably far larger and more sophisticated than ever.
    The FBI, DOJ, and Judiciary refuse to investigate or prosecute theft of government funds by either political party.
    We do not have internal administrative controls able to prevent abuses, including subversion of government itself.
    Proper controls include multiple redundant boards with investigative powers, motivated to expose & stop corruption.

  12. C. Kent
    August 14, 2022 at 10:50

    The most important line in this story is: “The program continued until 1971, when a group of progressive activists broke into an F.B.I. field office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole documents …,” for two reasons:
    1. It points out that young Americans used to actually act under risk of incarceration against government evil, rather than stand at the distance of their social media &
    2. linked in, “broke into an FBI office” is an Amazon page with at least half a dozen books related to the rot at the FBI since it’s inception & this particular program.

    Touting one worthless Congressperson is a waste of time when the whole Congress is as rotten as the FBI itself. People should reward their authors by reading the related books conveniently listed on Amazon, either buy or taking from the library.

  13. Fred
    August 14, 2022 at 09:54

    Today, not only is Cointelpro still the official US policy, and see the stories about the po-lice infiltrating Black Lives Matter and anyone else who dares to protest, but now it is also enforced by legions of former FBI agents, trained with taxpayer money, now working in private consulting firms for any corporation or oligarch with too much money pulling the same dirty tricks.

    If you are playing ‘spot the undercover’ at an activist meeting, you not only need to account for local, state and federal po-lice agencies each having their people in there, but also any corporation who might not like your action having its own undercovers in the room. And of course, if any other oligarchs oppose the activism on even ideological grounds, they’ll also have their own undercovers in the group. In fact, the general ineffectiveness of ‘lefty’ activist groups can probably be accounted for in that most of the people at the meeting are probably undercovers for some oligarch, corporation or po-lice agency or another.

    Yes, the history of Cointelpro should be revealed.
    But, since this, and the rest of J.Edgar Hoover’s evil brainchildren, is/are still official policy, this is unlikely.

    And of course, we get a bs ‘progressive’ holding a press conference and putting forward a ‘no-chance’ bill about it. In other words, all the typical stuff the ‘progressives’ do that accomplishes absolutely nothing, but gets them re-elected into their nice, cushy, 6-figure jobs where they get to live rich. Of course, if they actually did something, it would put that 6-figure job and those nice houses and those investments all at risk. Which is why all we ever see are press conferences and ‘no-chance’ bills and why after decades of ‘progressives’, the whole dang world is going to heck in a bucket.

    If you want this bit of history released and revealed, you’ll have to fight for it. Which means that ‘progressives’ are completely useless towards that goal and the ‘Democrats’ are who will be fighting against.

    • C. Kent
      August 15, 2022 at 10:17

      Fred “the history of Cointelpro” has been very extensively revealed already. It is available to readers in the books linked in the article as I note in my comment as the most important part of the article. PS Your litany of jealousy re Congressional income is a bit pathetic.

  14. Carolyn Zaremba
    August 14, 2022 at 00:59

    Thanks for this article, John. It is past time for this information to be made public.

  15. August 13, 2022 at 20:29

    “A former high-ranking U.S. government official recently admitted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation previously worked to keep ‘progressives’ and ‘socialists’ out of government – years after the agency officially claimed they no longer engaged in such efforts.

    Terry Turchie is a former deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. His swift rise in the Bureau is the stuff of legend and Turchie was the director of the task force that ultimately arrested the infamous Unabomber Theodore ‘Ted’ Kaczynski.

    During a Friday night appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Turchie issued a stunning admission about previous instances of apparently illegal domestic counterintelligence operations conducted against left-of-center American citizens.


    ‘[I]ronically, years ago–when I first got into the FBI–one of the missions of the FBI in its counterintelligence efforts was to try to keep [‘progressives’ and self-described ‘socialists’] out of office.’


    According to Turchie himself, he wasn’t even an FBI Special Agent until 1976 – the same year [FBI Director Clarence M.] Kelley issued his public disavowal [of prior COINTELPRO abuses]. Turchie’s stint as deputy counterintelligence head came much later.”

    Colin Kalmbacher, “Former FBI Official: the FBI Tried to Keep ‘Progressives and Socialists Out of Office’ Long After Claiming Otherwise,” Law & Crime, January 19, 2019

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