Eddie Conway speaks with political activist and writer Ward Churchill about what COINTELPRO was and how it was structured. To see Part II of the interview, click here.
Ward Churchill is co-author of The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States.
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors.
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway from Baltimore. I was joined in the studio by Ward Churchill, coauthor of The COINTELPRO Papers. Churchill is an author, an activist, and a professor, and he had done a lot of scholarly work around COINTELPRO. One of his other books is Agents of Repression, which is a detailed study of government agents’ attacks on the 1960s social movements. So can you give me kind of, like, a short overview of what COINTELPRO was?
WARD CHURCHILL, AUTHOR AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST: Well, for starters, COINTELPRO, the word, the term, it’s an acronym, cryptonym, because the program was secret for as long as it existed in a formal sense. It stands for Counterintelligence Program–CO, okay, from the counter, intel for the intelligence, and program, COINTELPRO. And it was a secret program because it was an illegal program. Simplest terms, it was to take the methods and techniques that we use by the FBI to neutralize the activities of intelligence operatives of hostile foreign powers inside the United States, primarily the KGB, but in principle, at least, any hostile foreign power.
Intelligence operatives of a hostile foreign power are not covered by constitutional rights, and arguably, in the view of the FBI, weren’t even covered by human rights. And maybe that’s the rules of the game in that sector. But COINTELPRO was to take these techniques and use them against select groups of American citizens, those who were considered to be politically objectionable in the mind of the FBI. Alright? The program was initiated–it’s incept date, as they put it–was in August 1956, and the original target was the American Communist Party–CP USA, as they called it. And it eventually included the Socialist Workers Party, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Black liberation movement. There’s overlap between the Socialist Workers Party program, the targeting program, and the Black liberation movement insofar as they targeted the civil rights movement in the South during the early ’60s, but primarily Black liberation movement stuff was aimed at the later phase of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Republic of New Afrika, and particularly the Black Panther Party.
You also had a COINTELPRO that was aimed at the so-called new left, primarily Students for a Democratic Society and its offshoots. And you had various programs that never were developed to full-fledged operational entities that targeted the antiwar movement in its non-leftist configuration–so the Catholic protest movement, for example, Every Mother for Peace, a number of universities insofar as they had programs that were considered to be [inaudible] indoctrination or whatever with regard to the various movements that were targeted, women’s liberation movement to a certain extent. It was discovered in 1971, and that’s the formal end date. It didn’t actually begin in ’56 and it didn’t actually and in ’71, but that’s the formal parameters when they actually used that cryptonym, COINTELPRO.
CONWAY: Mhm. Well, tell me, what did–when you say targeted, what exactly happened? How was the COINTELPRO targeting these particular groups that you just named?
CHURCHILL: Well, the object of a counterintelligence program, the use of these techniques, is to neutralize the target, in other words, to cause the target–that is, an individual, a key individual in a group, or the whole group of individuals–to stop doing whatever it is that caused them to be targeted in the first place. Whatever means will accomplish that are actually considered to be acceptable. And so you have a sort of continuum of things, from spreading false information about them, infiltrating the organizations, both to collect intelligence–that is, get information out from the inside, people who were attending meetings, holding positions, often, in the organizations, and so forth. And often the infiltrators would double not only as informants, but as agents provocateurs. Provocateurs disrupt, they actively disrupt, raising false disputes, spreading rumors, and so forth within the organizations, cause them to be unable to function in a political sense in an effective way.
They would often, as well, particularly in the later phases of COINTELPRO, when the targeting of the Black Panthers, for example, was at issue, attempt to lead people into criminal activities that they would not otherwise have engaged in, entrap them, cause them to the be neutralized in that fashion, tied up in the judicial system, sent to prison. You drain the organization’s resources, both in terms of personnel, cadres, committed activists, often the most experienced, veteran, charismatic, effective activists. Those are the primary targets, but rank-and-file as well. You don’t necessarily get convictions on these, because, as the people who ran COINTELPRO put it, it’s immaterial as to whether facts exist to support a charge; the charge itself is what’s important. So you’re tying up the personnel, but you’re also tying up the financial resources. You have to use money that would be used, say, for feeding children or establishing a community service program of another sort to raise bail for your members, to mount legal defense, to in the event of a conviction, file appeals, and so forth. It’s astronomically expensive. And the organizations that were targeted were people’s organizations. They’re coming from the community. They’re not funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, not receiving federal grants. They’re opposing the government. They’re opposing government policy. They’re opposing the status quo. They are not popular with those who are the wealthy elite. And so money comes at a premium. It costs money to run an organization. It costs money for office space. It costs money for postage. It costs money, if you’ve got full-time cadre, at least, to provide them with subsistence. And so forth. Yeah.
CONWAY: You know, transportation, etc., that kind of stuff. Well, I mean, okay, so far what you’re saying is that they kind of got information. They transferred information. They caused some disruptive activities. They engaged in some illegal kind of activities in terms of getting organizations. But did they do anything beyond that?
CHURCHILL: Sure. But understand, when we’re talking about the latter part of what I was talking about, this extralegal use of the judicial system, you’re talking about things which are crimes.
CHURCHILL: You’re talking about false arrest intentionally. You know you’re arresting someone on bogus charges, but you’re arresting them anyway for a reason having nothing to do with law enforcement.
CONWAY: Like the New York 21, say, for instance, for the Black Panther Party.
CHURCHILL: They’re going to blow up Macy’s and the Botanical Garden and the subway system and a bunch of police stations with a bunch of empty aerosol cans and four ounces of black powder. Okay? They’ve got–what was it–two dozen lengths of pipe with no caps on the ends. These are the evidence of this vast conspiracy to destroy western civilization. Well, I’ve got to give the people on the other side a little bit of credit. They were not actually stupid enough to believe that was true. That was a pretext. They managed to take 21 people who were among the more effective cadres in the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party and tie them up for two years. They were all acquitted [of] all 156 charges filed against them in a mass trial. The jury took less than two hours to acquit them on all 156. That’s how tissue-thin, bogus, if you will, the case was. But in the interim, they’d all been held on a million-dollar bond; $100,000 cash had to be anted up to get anybody out of jail. So they’re sitting in the tombs for two years before they’re all acquitted. They’d already served the time. And the disruption of the party speaks for itself. You have a neutralization of its capacity to function based upon key activists being taken out of action and party resources–tremendous level–sucked into that process. And the Panther 21 case, by the way, was not the only case going on in New York City at the time. It was just the most prominent. You had this on a nationwide basis. This was systematic. It was happening, as you know, in Baltimore. It was happening in Omaha. It was happening in L.A. with the L.A. 13. It was happening in Kansas City. It was happening in Chicago. It was happening up in New Haven with the Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins trial. And so on, straight down the line. I spent the last 40-odd years in and around Denver, Colorado, and you had trials there nobody’s ever even heard of.
CONWAY: Please join me in the second part of my interview with Ward Churchill on The Real News.