At the close of World War I, the federal government created the General Intelligence Division, an agency that eventually morphed into the modern FBI. One of GID’s main tasks was to compile a list of hundreds of thousands of radicals — socialists, anarchists, labor activists and antiwar agitators. Thousands were arrested for being suspected Communists. Hundreds of anarchists were deported to Bolshevik Russia, the silver lining being that left-anarchists like Emma Goldman discovered and wrote about the pure horror of Leninism and the fact that “proletarian dictatorship” was not any sort of improvement upon the wartime corporatism of the U.S. under Woodrow Wilson.
In the late 1920s, the renamed Bureau of Investigation spied on such “socialist” threats as Albert Einstein. Under Franklin Roosevelt, although the FBI continued to keep track of left radicals, it found a new enemy in the form of opponents of the New Deal. FDR used the FBI to spy on multitudes of peaceful rightwingers, unleashing a Brown Scare that was later turned against the left during the McCarthy-era Red Scare. Roosevelt even spied on his Republican presidential opponent, Wendell Willkie.
But during the Cold War, Republican and Democratic administrations again focused the FBI, for the most part, on disrupting the left. Its COINTELPRO operation — a program to “track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of political radicals — was a great success. FBI’S COINTELPRO forged letters to bring about violence between the Black Panthers and United Slaves. In 1976, a Senate report showed that the FBI had boasted that “Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest [among left radical groups] is directly attributable to this program.”
While the FBI was used to infiltrate rightwing anti-Civil Rights and anti-integrationist activists, it was also targeted against stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement. The FBI monitored everyone from Martin Luther King in the 1960s to John Lennon in the 1970s. In the late 70s, the Church Committee reports in the Senate culminated in some effort to rein in this horribly abusive federal agency.
In the 1990s, the FBI was at the center of the militia scare, with its snipers and strongmen turned against peaceful separatist Randy Weaver and his family, and later at the Waco, Texas, standoff with Branch Davidians, at the end of which FBI agents gassed, shot and killed dozens of David Koresh’s followers at their home at Mt. Carmel. They used incendiary devices, which might have brought on the fire, and then lied about it.
It was in this period that the modern left became enamored of the federal police state and especially the FBI. Almost none of them stood up for the Branch Davidians. They came to think of FBI agents as a professional, national and enlightened force populated by such figures as the Jodie Foster character in Silence of the Lambs, an agency that enforced civil rights, protected the country from “rightwing extremists,” and overturned the injustices of local, prejudiced law enforcement.
But during the Bush II era, when the administration was reported to be reviving COINTELPRO, the left’s distrust of national police forces also became revived. In October 2003, the FBI extensively spied on peaceful Iraq war protesters, focusing especially on “anarchists. . . capable of violence.” Bush’s FBI activities were a throwback to the post-World War I General Intelligence Division’s obsession with anarchists. In 2005, the ACLU sued to reveal in court that it had been monitored by the FBI, which had over a thousand pages of documentation on the organization, as had Greenpeace and other politically leftist organizations. Religious pacifist groups were also spied on and infiltrated. And one “terror plot” after another allegedly discovered and broken up by the administration just in the nick of time turned out to be a group of poor saps of below-average intelligence who had been duped by federal informants into saying something threatening or “planning” a terror attack on American infrastructure with no chance at all of being successful, and probably no chance of having even come up with the idea without federal prodding and agitation. The concern about the return of Cold War-era FBI infiltration of fringe groups was once again seen on the left.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.