Stay Free! magazine


The Art of the FBI

Fake Letters and Bad Poetry: Highlights from the FBI's Secret War on Dissent

C. McLaren & Brian Bolning | Issue #19

Okay, so the Hollywood fantasy of an FBI agent as a cerebral, calculating genius is exactly that–a fantasy. These guys are more likely to be paper-pushing patsies, sitting behind desks and making their rounds by phone. But just as the typical agent is a fiction so, too, are his villains. For the FBI isn’t only concerned with mass murderers, mad scientists, and tall dark men in black: they also routinely target the political opponents of those in power. Most of us like to think that our government allows pacifists, ministers, scholars, and young radicals to all have their say alongside the businesses, politicians, and wealthy people who run the country. Yet government agents have a deep, hidden history of spying, attacking, and destroying groups that don’t tow the line.

Among the most egregious assaults on American democracy were carried out under the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program, a.k.a. Cointelpro. Launched in the Cold War 1950s, Cointelpro was intended to, according to the FBI, "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists, hate-type organizations and groups, their leadership, membership, and supporters." By the FBI’s hazy definition, "hate-type organizations" could include just about anyone who threatened the status quo–the Black Panthers and Communists, of course, but also anti-Vietnam peaceniks, labor leaders, and Native American groups. These "subversives" were to be secretly investigated and their activities disrupted.

Many of the FBI’s strategies are familiar to Hollywood audiences: tapping phones, stealing files, and hiring spies to infiltrate groups. But by far its most creative tactic was creating "black propaganda"–that is, propaganda that disguises its source. Faked dirty letters, poems, and satirical comic books were among the FBI’s many devices for pitting activists against one another.

Cointelpro was officially sacked in the 1970s when Watergate made domestic surveillance less palatable. But Cointelpro’s demise was in name only, for many of its strategies persist. FBI agents have been known, for example, to masquerade as anti-globalization protesters, secretly joining activist groups and later arresting them on conspiracy charges (ironically enough). Reclaim the Streets, an activist group here in New York, is currently listed on the FBI website as an example of a "left-wing terrorist" organization. What has RTS done to earn the FBI’s wrath? It has thrown impromptu street parties, blocking off parts of the Lower East Side and literally dancing in the streets. (RTS formed to protest the draconian anti-assembly laws in New York, where–in most bars and restaurants–it’s actually illegal to dance.) No broken windows, no violence, just savvy civil disobedience.

If you think we’re making all of this up, you can see the evidence for yourself. Some of the Cointelpro files have been released under the Freedom of Information Act and published as is in collections such as Nelson Blackstock’s Cointelpro and Ward Churchill & Jim Vander Wall’s, Cointelpro Papers. Both books come heartily recommended. –Carrie McLaren

Black Panther Coloring Book

In the late 1960s, the Black Panthers started a Free Breakfast for Children program, serving thousands of black and poor kids across the U.S. Concerned that the program would spread anti-white propaganda, the FBI decided to spread their own anti-white propaganda as a pre-emptive strike. The bureau produced a 24-page coloring book, making it appear as if it had been created by the Panthers. Intending to gut public support for the group, the books contained inflamatory pictures, some of which featured young black kids shooting pigs dressed as policemen. The FBI sent copies of the coloring book to the Panthers’ white contributors and to businesses that supported the free breakfast program, such as Safeway and Jack-In-The-Box. When copies of the forgery reached the Panthers’ national leadership, Bobby Seale destroyed it, saying it "did not correctly reflect the ideology of the Black Panther Party." –Brian Boling
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Yippies Leaflets

As part of its disruption tactics, Cointelpro tried to create rifts between black groups and other leftist organizations. In 1969, for example, the FBI created a fake "Wanted" leaflet with photos of Jewish radicals Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd (of Students for a Democratic Society), and Paul Krassner. The four were separated by a large swastika, over the headline, "LAMPSHADES! LAMPSHADES! LAMPSHADES!" (The headline was a "joke." The Nazis were said to have made lampshades out of the bodies of Jewish victims.) The FBI then distributed the leaflet in black neighborhoods, where it was hoped its anti-Semetic rhetoric would spark violence within an already-shaken community.

Like a lot of the FBI’s propaganda, this crap was supposed to be funny. That way, if the agents got caught, they could point out that the flyer was only facetiously calling for the elimination of Jewish leaders–they were "just kidding." (See Paul Krassner, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, pp. 171-2; and V. Vale and Andrea June, eds., Pranks!, V/Search: San Francisco, 1987, p. 87.)CM

Cartoons on Campus

The FBI also went after leftist student activists, most notably Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This cartoon was produced by the Philadelphia FBI and published in Temple University’s student newspaper as part of an effort to destroy the SDS on that campus. The caption, which compares SDS actions to those of Joseph McCarthy, reads: "I have in my hand a list of 200 names of people who don't advocate the violent overthrow of the government."

The FBI's strategy was captured in a 1968 memo: "Consider the use of cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters which will have the effect of ridiculing the New Left. Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use against it." (Churchill, p. 187)

The Siberian Beetle

The FBI believed that many New Left leaders had a weakness for spiritualist mumbo-jumbo, so a 1968 memo suggested mailing them anonymous cartoons such as the one pictured here. Subsequent mailings (from increasingly closer locations) could say "The Siberian Beetle is Black" or "The Siberian Beetle Can Talk." Other proposed characters included "The Chinese Scorpion" and "The Egyptian Cobra"–anything with a sinister meaning open to mystical interpretation. According to FBI documents, the messages were intended to cause concern, mental anguish, suspicion, and distrust among their recipients. –Brian Boling

Strategic "Poetry"

Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader George Weissman became the first subject of an FBI poem in 1964, shortly after being framed for stealing from a civil rights leader. According to an internal memo dated 4/10/64, the FBI mailed out an anonymous letter, along with this verse [right], to radical publications. The purpose was "to discredit the Party in the Negroe civil rights field." (Blackstock, pp. 100-107.)


The Attack on Martin Luther King, Jr.

History has shown Martin Luther King. Jr. to be a good guy–the sort of leader commemorated on postage stamps, telecom commercials, and middle school posters. But despite the holidays, book weeks, and store sales celebrating King’s legacy, it is easy to forget that, while he was alive, King was considered a subversive. And, like a lot of heroes leading political struggles for working people, he was targeted by the FBI.

The government began spying on MLK in the late 1950s for his alleged Communist influences but quickly shifted to investigating King’s role as a civil rights leader.

In a 1963 internal memo, counterintelligence specialist Charles D. Brennan stated that civil rights agitation represented a clear threat to "the established order" of the U.S. and that "King is growing in stature daily as the leader among leaders of the Negro movement." COINTELPRO head William C. Sullivan responded in a letter: "We must mark [King] now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security . . . it may be unrealistic to limit [our actions against King] to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees."

Instead of sticking to the law, then, the FBI aimed to discredit King by any means necessary. Agents tapped his phone, bugged his rooms, trumpeted his supposed commie connections, and his sexual proclivities, and sicced the Internal Revenue Service on him. When it was announced in 1964 that King would receive a Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI grew desperate. Hoping to prevent King from accepting the award, the Bureau mailed him a package containing a tape of phone calls documenting King’s extramarital affairs and an anonymous, threatening letter (shown here in censored form). In barely concealed language, King was told to commit suicide before the award ceremony or risk seeing his "filthy, abnormal fraudulent self" exposed to the nation. Fortunately, King ignored the FBI’s advice. He accepted the award and lived four more years until his assassination.

–CM (Churchill & VanderWall, pp. 98-99; Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project)