Activists Who Revealed COINTELPRO Surveillance Finally Emerge, Twitter Explodes with Comparisons to Snowden

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On Tuesday, the activists/burglars who stole top secret J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI files including documents about what’s known as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), and subsequently delivered the files to reporters some 43 years ago finally revealed themselves in The New York Times. Their collective emergence coincides with a forthcoming book about the burglary by Betty Medsger.

And right on cue, Snowden supporters took to Twitter in a predictable and misleading effort to compare COINTELPRO and the people who exposed it with the revelations and activities of Edward Snowden.

I’ll come back to how off-base the comparisons are, but it’s important to understand exactly what was exposed in the FBI documents. COINTELPRO involved the illegal surveillance of activists and other so-called “subversives” without warrants or court oversight. The FBI’s activities included eavesdropping and infiltration of civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the American Indian Movement, and most infamously the secret wiretapping and bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1971, anti-war activists William C. Haverford, Keith Forsyth, John and Bonnie Raines and Bob Williamson, along with three others, successfully broke into an FBI satellite office in Media, Pennsylvania — prying open a back door with a crow-bar, and absconded off with stacks of documents, one of which contained the COINTELPRO acronym. After news about the operations were reported in the press, COINTELPRO was discontinued in 1972 and became one of the primary focuses of the 1975 Church Committee hearings on U.S. intelligence operations.

So there it is, greatly condensed (there’s so much more to it).

We often forget how vastly different America was, pre-Watergate and pre-Church. It seemed everyone in government was eavesdropping on everyone else — looking back, it was the wild west of surveillance inside the U.S., with wires and listening devices instead of six-shooters, operating and recording and blackmailing with impunity.

Knowing how the intelligence community so grievously targeted and intimidated American citizens with wiretaps and eavesdropping without cause or court oversight, is there really any meaningful resemblance whatsoever between COINTELPRO and the NSA revelations from Snowden — other than, of course, the theft of government documents? Well, the usual suspects believe there is.

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger:


Popular liberal blogger “billmon”:


This is a broad and offensive allegation which assumes that, in many cases, Obama voters and “pro-NSA” pundits, including many African-Americans, would condone the surreptitious and warrantless eavesdropping on civil rights leaders and other activists inside the U.S. This also assumes that those who are maintaining an incredulous eye on Snowden and Greenwald are incapable of distinguishing between metadata storage and the unprecedented infiltration and discrediting of MLK and so forth. Such a wild assumption is intellectually dishonest and constitutes a monumentally large straw man.

And, of course, there’s Glenn Greenwald:



Oh, the delusions of grandeur.

What Greenwald and his supporters don’t get is that there’s a very clear distinction between what’s illegal/unconstitutional (COINTELPRO) and what’s being carefully and cleverly exaggerated to appear equally as illegal/unconstitutional. This blurring of the line between COINTELPRO and the Snowden revelations only serves to diminish the sheer awfulness of COINTELPRO, and it insults those Americans who suffered under it. It’s not unlike a foolish, ill-conceived comparison between, say, President Obama and George Zimmerman, or al-Qaida terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki and Trayvon Martin. Where have we heard that nonsense before?

Indeed, the Snowden documents themselves prove that a handful of illegal, and occasionally inadvertent activities at NSA were caught and weeded out internally by both NSA and FISA oversight. Whether it was LOVEINT (a few rogue NSA analysts spying on ex-spouses) or an NSA operation that was stopped by FISA Judge John Bates (the Bates ruling, by the way, was attained legally by the EFF), these infractions were relatively minor compared with the widespread abuses by intelligence agencies from World War II through the early 1970s.

As desperately as Snowden and Greenwald would like to convince us that metadata collection under the supervision of federal judges, as well as other post-Church, post-FISA, post-FISA Amendments Act layers of regulation and oversight, cumulatively amounts to literally “watching everything we do,” it’s simply not the truth. But it was for MLK. (It’s also worth noting that the COINTELPRO burglars didn’t awkwardly and dramatically run off to the (then) Soviet Union, nor were they housed under the protection of a KGB lawyer, as Snowden is at this very moment.)

Perhaps one of these days, NSA or another agency will again overstep its mandate, as it did under the post-9/11 Bush years when the administration allowed NSA to circumvent the FISA Court. When evidence of such wrongdoing arises, those directly involved should ideally be held accountable and the program in question discontinued. Until then, speculating about what could happen, just because it’s happened in the past, is nothing more than an exercise in chasing ghosts.

And if there’s evidence of unpunished crimes contained within the Snowden documents revealing COINTELPRO-level trespasses against the Constitution, we deserve to know. But no such evidence has been revealed. Until that day comes, let’s cut the crap and take a realistic view of the Snowden revelations, rather than amplifying them into something they’re clearly not.


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  • Jason

    @billmon1 @ggreenwald BREAKING: COINTELPRO leakers gave copies of everything to Brezhnev & Mao, because I just know they did.— Mr. LV426 (@mrlv426) January 7, 2014

    • repugnicant

      Seems everyone can be a Greenwald now.

  • ChrisAndersen

    Another difference: Hoover probably used some of the information gathered by programs like COINTELPRO to protect his own job. There’s a reason why he managed to remaing FBI directory for 40+ years.

    If we were facing a similar situation today then James Clapper would be nearly invulnerable to criticism or approbation (and Ron Wyden would be found with a dead woman or a live boy in his bed).

    • Jason

      Nearly invulnerable? As in lying to congress with no consequence invulnerable?

  • repugnicant

    Snowden is probably going to get me banned from the Daily Kos, where Cesca is an underground Republican spy, hellbent on destroying this country. I already got banned from the Democratic Underground for not toeing the Praise Everything Snowden/Greenwald line (all in the name of FREEDOM of speech). I don’t care anymore. This shit is getting so ridiculously stupid now, I don’t care who I ‘offend’. Watching the Left go down the road of false equivalencies, speculations and exaggerations is like being forced to watch FAUX News. It will be fun to see how many people get banned the first day when Greenwald’s Libertarian multi-million dollar propaganda media ’empire’ goes online.

    • Jason

      “Until then, speculating about what could happen, just because it’s happened in the past, is nothing more than an exercise in chasing ghosts.” – Bob Cesca

    • Olga Grobut

      Welcome to the party! I did the honorable thing and cratered my account at the GOS after OPOL published his infamous KILL THE HERETICS! call to arms, “Yawn You Fucking Idiots.”

      For those of you who were not there, it equated any deviation from the line “Snowden is God, Greenwald is his prophet, and NSA spying is the worst thing that ever happened” with advocacy for rounding up and gassing dissidents. Judging by the number of tips and reccs and comments on the various diaries that followed, I estimate that 90% of the vaunted Daily Kos community had first class tickets on the crazy train – and in time virtually all the minoritarians were hounded from the site.

      So when you combine the stupidity and the ignorance and the willful blindness with the shocking levels of internet bullying that were tolerated in the name self righteousness and purity, it’s easy to conclude that the flying monkeys of the Daily Kos need to be kept far away from the levers of power. Not because they are leftsts, because they sacrificed the Left to the Gods of their own vanity.

      • Jason

        As a leftist, i am not entirely certain you wouldn’t sacrifice us to the NSA gods simply for political expediency and favourable electoral results.

        • repugnicant

          How exactly does a ‘leftist’ expect to change government for the better when operating on the same level as FOX, or Issa, who make accusations and then try to find supporting evidence? It doesn’t make any sense. Even GWB and his psychotic army of psychotics gave more ‘evidence’ that Saddam was an Al Qaeda sympathizer than Greenwald/Snowden have that the NSA is operating on tyrannical levels. That isn’t something to be proud of..

          • Jason

            do you even read bro?

          • repugnicant

            Apparently to a much further degree.

      • ChrisAndersen

        I still read there, though I don’t post as much (i’ve got an id in the low 4 digits, so I feel a kind of institutional loyalty if nothing else).

        Surprisingly, there are quite a few people who have not bought into the “Snowden is God” line you describe. You can find quite a few people there who mock the acolytes as much as you might see posted here.

        Overall, the site has significantly lost its standing as a useful place to go on the internet, but it’s not a total waste of time.

    • js hooper

      I’ve ALREADY been banned from Daily Kos for discussing Greenwald / Snowden and using Daily Banter articles as topics for my diaries.

      Those fools over there are insane!!! They claimed I was Bob himself posting over there. Then others claimed I was a former Kos poster.It didn’t help when I revealed that I was black.That was like walking around with meat strapped to my back around a bunch of pit bulls.

      To top it off…some creeps stalked me and found my old comments on the Daily Banter and used them to attack me. You know cuz I’m not a Greenwald fan.Which is a crime on Daily Kos.Pointing out that he is a Koch affiliated Paultard Libertarian is grounds for BANNING on “progressive Democratic” blog Daily Kos.

      • repugnicant

        Must be the same people of accusing me of being Cesca :)

  • feloniousgrammar

    In an issue of Harper’s magazine in the eighties, the editor Lewis Lapham told a true story about a CIA eavesdropping project that used, at that time, cutting edge technology. In order to conceal the instrument with a very sensitive microphone and transmitter, a CIA leader ordered a craftsman that made Chippendale furniture to carve an elaborate and life-like oak tree with a hollow space for the equipment. With a series of elaborate actions, the hollow oak tree was then planted in the fir words by the Kremlin.

    So, not only did the KGB get the latest in eavesdropping equipment delivered to them, they got a one-of-a-kind Chippendale oak tree.

  • Jon Fox

    The Burglars only wanted docs on domestic civil rights violations to release. If they got regular criminal files, its doubtful they would have done anything with them. Unlike Greenwald/Snowden, who would leak the US Nuke codes if they got ahold of them.

    • Jason

      “Until then, speculating about what could happen, just because it’s happened in the past, is nothing more than an exercise in chasing ghosts.” – Bob Cesca

      Come on now…Bob would not endorse such prognostication.

    • js hooper

      “Unlike Greenwald/Snowden, who would leak the US Nuke codes if they got ahold of them.”

      The sad thing is…even Greenwald / Snowden’s own cult followers have to admit that this isn’t hyperbole and is actually within the realm of possibility with those two.

      They’d do it and then arrogantly / defiantly claim that they don’t see how it could possibly be a threat to US National security. They would loudly and flamboyantly protest that anyone who disagrees with them is an authoritarian…and that by giving the codes to Russia & China it doesn’t make them traitors.

  • Patrick Shea

    People in the movement knew they were getting spied on anyway. At UW – Madison, the coiintelpro photagrapher would lurk in the alleys along State Street. It was really fun to let the uninnitiated walk ahead a few paces in the peace march and get their picture snapped,(“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”)

    • feloniousgrammar

      Yeah. I always suspect that the activist who creates intrigue about government agents being undercover in the group is the one most likely to be the fink.

      • ChrisAndersen

        It’s classic counter-revolutionary playbook: play to the paranoia of the organizers by getting them to think that one of them is a mole. You don’t need to actually plant a mole. You just have to get them to think that you did.

        • Jason

          And…if you are going to cop the bad PR for making them think you did, then you might as well deploy a mole as well :-)

  • trgahan

    I’d argue all too many citizens still live in a pre-COINTELPRO world, but their social economic class and skin color negate there relevance to anti-NSA gang who never seemed to care until the White House changed hands.

    I’m not too familiar with COINTELPRO. Did the results of the break-in net mostly documents about U.S. spying efforts against other nation states, were the documents then slowly (AND VERY judiciously) released to the general public in often half-truth screamer headlines, and likely got into the hands of the Chinese, Russians, Brazilians, etc intelligence agencies?

    What was the multi-million dollar media venture that came out of COINTELPRO events?

    • feloniousgrammar

      Yep. The FBI spied on Martin Luther King, and now that there’s a black man in the Oval office, so Snowalden is the real victim and is as righteous, suppressed, repressed, and scrutinized as Martin Luther King. Everything is so easy for activist white men, you almost have to marvel at how much MLK put into challenging the status quo— why didn’t he just write a letter to the local paper, and be done with it.

  • OsborneInk

    Has anyone else noticed just how much of the NSA noise amounts to an attempt to overturn the results of the Church Commission as “not good enough”? Given how much of the chatter comes from veterans of those culture wars like Daniel Ellsberg, it seems as though we are literally re-fighting the battle they won forty years ago.

    • IrishGrrrl

      Yes! That’s a great summation of what’s going on, particularly since it seems that many GG supporters deny that safeguards exist. Then when you finally get them to acknowledge they exist, they will insist that they are inadequate. This kind of tactic is straight from the far right’s playbook IMHO because they use it on many different issues like voting rights, abortion, etc. I’ve sussed out their strategy (…too bad the rest of the US hasn’t.

      • ChrisAndersen

        Some on the left have bewailed, for many years, the lack of a media apparatus that can match the disinformation campaign(s) of the right.

        Looks like they are getting what they want.

  • IrishGrrrl

    GG and crew are just using the COINTELPRO story to buttress their own story’s credibility. It’s a shame (and dangerous) that so many liberals are buying GG’s conflation.

    • Sean Richardson

      Isn’t that what a conspiracy theorist will always do? You say “Prove they did what you say” and they then point to evidence that “they” did it once before under completely different circumstances?

  • astrocat96

    Another difference between the COINTELPRO revelations and Snowden’s revelations: It took forty years for the Media, PA., burglars to reveal their identities. How many days after GG’s first story did Snowden come out saying “Hey guys! Look at me! I did it!”

    A couple salient quotes from the NYT article: “The burglars had, until now, maintained a vow of silence about their roles in the operation. They were content in knowing that their actions had dealt the first significant blow to an institution that had amassed enormous power and prestige during J. Edgar Hoover’s lengthy tenure as director.”
    Also: “‘We didn’t need attention, because we had done what needed to be done,’ said Mr. Raines.”

  • Badgerite

    The non existent threat that Hoover imagined the Civil Rights and Peace movements posed vs crashing airliners into one of the most prominent buildings in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC. One threat is imaginary. The other is real and continuing.
    And correct me if I am wrong, but there was no statute anywhere authorizing any of Hoover’s extra curricular activities. The NSA has been doing exactly what it was charged with doing by Congress and since 2008, under rather significant institutional oversight. Looking for and seeking to prevent terrorist attacks on these shores and abroad.
    And all that these people point out to me when they bring up Hoover is how hard it would be for a Hoover type to get away with today any of the activities he did with impunity for decades. There are too many people involved and way to much oversight. Much as Greenwald and Snowden like to pretend otherwise, audit trails and FISA warrant requirements, minimization and anonymization, rolling warrants that have to go before the FISA Court for review and renewal every 90 days or so. Those are not minor safeguards.
    Indeed, it is exactly what brought about Judge Bates ruling, in 2011, that the NSA had exceeded what was authorized by the FISA Court warrant And much as they like to say the abilities of the NSA in the wrong hands could A-B-and C, I don’t see how that is really the case. An individual with a personal grudge, maybe. But the whole apparatus of oversight going south? I don’t think that is a realistic scenario. Hitler, after all, didn’t need to spy. He just used Brownshirts.

    • feloniousgrammar

      This moral panic about computer technology, cameras, and the internet appears to be late to the party. Anyone here remember a CNN reporter saying that maybe we shouldn’t question the government, at all after 9/11? Funny how discriminating the press has been since Obama became the first black POTUS, Oh, but the press isn’t being discriminating enough for Emotarians—- they’re not calling him a “consummate actor” and talking about him as if he were the help.

      • drspittle

        It seems we should never question the government whenever the POTUS is a white male Republican. I felt from day one that the Snowald operation was an exercise is rodent procreation designed to undermine Obama.

  • conundrum

    Like generals, activists can also fall into the trap of always fighting the previous battle. The current situation is different in so many ways, but to Greenwald, it’s still 1971. As much has changed in oversight as has changed in the move from paper files to the internet.

  • Vipsanius

    It looks to me like an inflation of potential abuse of power into an actual abuse of power.
    Of course many agree with GG and Snowden that it is an abuse of power.
    Bringing in COINTELPRO attempts to ‘up the ante’.

    • FlipYrWhig

      This is my take too. The NSA stories have not revealed anything like a program of eavesdropping on political activists, dissidents, etc. They have revealed the bulk collection of stuff to be further analyzed (no reports of the further analysis having been targeted at activists). Yes? It seems like the missing element in the whole NSA saga has been that Greenwald et al presume that the intent, or the inevitable outcome, is to monitor the nation for sedition. Or that this is already happening, as in the hyperbolic reaction to that David Miranda non-story.

      • Vipsanius



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