Sixty years ago, the FBI launched COINTELPRO. Its mission was simple: destroy the Left.
The idea that a tyrannical government is secretly plotting against US citizens is a popular and longstanding belief among much of the American far right. The scenario has many variations, but the basics are that politicians, threatened by a potentially rebellious populace, are watching and listening in on them, working to undermine them and readying for the day they will wrench away their freedoms.
But this scenario isn’t merely a paranoid fantasy dreamed up in the deepest corners of the alt-right — it’s relatively recent history. Instead of gun-toting “sovereign citizens” and Confederate-flag-waving patriot groups serving as the targets, however, the US government largely targeted segments of the Left for widespread surveillance, disruption, “neutralization,” and eventually destruction.
This was the COINTELPRO program, whose first operations were launched by the FBI sixty years ago this month.
COINTELPRO, short for “Counter Intelligence Program,” was the name given to a series of programs initiated by the Bureau between 1956 and 1971 aimed at undermining and eradicating groups, movements, and individuals — almost all of which were part of the Left — it viewed as threats to national security and social order.
By the time the FBI formally shut down the program, it had successfully torn apart many of these left-wing groups and movements. In the process, the Bureau destroyed the reputations, and in some cases lives, of many.
The history of COINTELPRO shows how far a nominally democratic government can go to shut down leftist movements they view as threatening — and what kind of pushback we might expect in response to a movement upsurge in the twenty-first century.