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Lessons From The 1960s


Thursday, Mar. 14, 2002

Six months after September 11, the FBI, like a lot of other government intelligence agencies, is still running at full throttle. The public doesn't really know how much progress has been made in, say, tracking down the perpetrator(s) of the anthrax murders, or in rounding up terrorists. Nevertheless, it's hard to find a public official who is willing to question the workings of the agency.

It is precisely these conditions that demand openness from the FBI. We should not forget that it is an institution haunted by a legacy of illegal activities that were conducted in the name of uncovering internal and external subversion. Now -- when the rationale of tracking down subversive Al Qaeda terrorists can be used to justify almost any action -- there is a renewed threat that the FBI may resort, once again, to illegal means.

Examining another time in recent American history when the government also feared internal subversion and domestic terrorism will help illustrate the need for vigilance against FBI lawbreaking, and reform of the agency.

A Promise of FBI Accountability Not Yet Kept

In August of last year, President Bush's appointee to head the FBI, Robert S. Mueller, arrived on the job. Mueller faced an uphill struggle to reform the agency, and he knew it. Accordingly, he peppered his confirmation hearings with expressions of his desire to make his agents more "accountable" -- though accountability has been a concept foreign to the Bureau for much of the twentieth century.

During his hearings, Mueller endured questions about a litany of agency problems that had occurred during the 1990s. The problems included the FBI's handling of the sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge, its unreliable lab results, and the institutionalized racism that had prevented African-American agents from advancing as far or as fast as white agents could.

Now the public has all but forgotten these problems, but that doesn't mean that the agency itself has been rehabilitated. Rather, the agenda has shifted -- with all these issues taking a distant back seat to the war on terrorism.

September 11: Wiping the Slate Clean?

That needs to change. Government institutions, like President Bush himself, are enjoying a post-9/11 honeymoon of sorts. Their popularity--and the public's trust in them--are at longtime peaks. Nevertheless, in order to retain the public's trust while uncovering evildoers, Mueller needs to follow through with his plan for internal FBI reform, even as pressure on the agency to produce results grows daily.

As the fear of September 11 dissipates and normalcy returns, the rights that Americans have handed over to the government, even if informally, must be returned to citizens, and must remain sacrosanct. Now is the time that Americans need to be extra vigilant. As history shows us, it is at times, like the present, when the government has been most trusted, that it has made some of its worst decisions.

Thirty years ago, the FBI believed that the most dangerous enemy of the United States was the American Left, which was centered around opposition to the Vietnam War and to racial discrimination. In 1968, the Bureau initiated the Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was a massive undertaking that was designed to discredit the Left by conducting surveillance, infiltrating organizations, and spreading misinformation and lies.

One of the most insidious efforts of COINTELPRO came in trying to fracture the coalition comprised of African-Americans and American Jews. By 1968, the radical Black Panther Party had captured the imagination of many African-Americans. At the same time, the FBI believed that Jews were behind much of the financing of leftist causes, including the Panthers.

This alliance, from the FBI's perspective, had to be shattered -- and the FBI decided to try to shatter it.

The FBI's Strategy: Lying to--and Dividing--African-Americans and Jews

In 1969, the New York FBI office attempted to turn the Jewish Defense League against the Black Panthers, by sending the JDL anonymous reports of alleged anti-Semitic actions or statements by the Panthers. Eventually the Bureau chose Rabbi Meir Kahane, a mercurial director of the JDL, as the unwitting source through which to funnel and disseminate the false information.

The extremes of the late 1960s demanded hyperbole to get noticed, a tactic the FBI decided to embrace. Agents admitted that information passed to Kahane would need "some embellishment" to provoke the JDL into taking action.

So, resorting to stereotypes, the FBI's New York office penned a fake letter from an African-American World War II veteran to the JDL. The letter claimed that the fabricated veteran had been helped by "a Jewish Army Dr. named 'Rothstein,'" and had been "encouraged to remain in high school for two years by my favorite Jewish teacher, Mr. Katz." The "veteran" said he was upset because his son was a Black Panther who, after returning from Algeria, had hatched a plan to extort money from Jewish storeowners that would then be sent to "the Arabs in Africa." If the storeowners did not cooperate, their shops would be blown up.

Threatening Liberals and Fracturing a Tenuous Coalition

What kind of action the FBI hoped Kahane would take after receiving the letter from the "veteran," is unclear. At a minimum, the Bureau wanted to use the JDL to cut off Jewish funding to the Panthers and other African-American organizations.

The New York office proposed sending Jewish attendees at the fundraiser threatening letters from anonymous JDL members.

The letters urged recipients that "We Jews have fought too long and too hard to let ourselves be destroyed from within by a group of well meaning but foolish people who give aid and comfort to our enemies." Such enemies, according to the letters, consisted of any pro-Arab or anti-Israeli groups in the Middle East, including the PLO and Egyptian leader Gamel Nassar. The Panthers' Jewish supporters, of course, were the ones accused of giving aid and comfort.

By forcing these liberal Jews to choose between their own heritage and the Black-Jewish coalition, the FBI bet that the former would win out over the latter. Ending ominously, the letters reminded these Jews, "We know who you are."

Using the Middle East to split the American Left meant exploiting an already precarious trust between African Americans and Jews. In the FBI's opinion, however, no sacrifice was too great in the name of saving America from itself.

Meir Kahane eventually moved to Israel, where he led a radical Jewish coalition opposed to compromise with the Palestinians. When Kahane was assassinated in 1990, few knew that the FBI had hoped to use his rhetoric, and possibly his legions, against "radical" African-Americans.

The Need for Candor: An Open FBI

As history shows us, Americans have good reason to be suspicious of the FBI, which is exactly why Mueller should emphasize openness. Even in the midst of ongoing investigations against terrorists, the FBI must convince the public that its work is both legal and necessary to protect our rights.

Mueller might begin this process by calling for a thorough investigation into the Bureau's activities three decades ago. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Bureau should also, if necessary, make amends to those Americans who committed no crimes but were illegally harassed solely for their political beliefs.

It would be tragic if, in thirty years, we were to discover that September 11 had unleashed a wave of secret, illegal governmental activities that were performed in the name of fighting terrorism, but that actually undermined our most fundamental rights. Mr. Mueller has inherited a job with a lot of unopened baggage. In the name of accountability, it's time that he and his agents see what they've been carrying around for so long. Only this will allow the agency to move forward, unburdened, into this new century.

Jonathan Schoenwald is a Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University. His study of post-World War II American conservatism, A Time for Choosing, was published last year by Oxford University Press.

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