COINTELPRO was a secret program of the FBI to disrupt and break up (mostly) radical left-wing org­an­is­a­tions, particularly anti-racist org­an­is­a­tions, between 1956 and 1971. Its mastermind was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Some of the people and groups targeted by COINTELPRO included:

  • the Communist Party USA
  • Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights activists
  • Black Panthers, and other Black liberationist groups
  • the anti-Vietnam War movement
  • animal rights and environmentalist organisations
  • anything affiliated with the New Left
  • the American Indian Movement
  • Puerto Rican independence groups

They did also invest some effort into suppressing far right groups, like the Ku Klux Klan or the National States’ Rights Movement, but they’re most known for their harassment of leftists (and especially Black leftists), where they certainly directed the majority of their effort.

The FBI took a five-pronged approach to conducting COINTELPRO operations:

  1. Infiltration: They sent undercover agents into organisations in order to disrupt them, sow conflict, and push for actions which would discredit the group more broadly (e.g. senseless violence).
  2. Psychological warfare: For example, planting false smear stories in the papers, making threatening calls and sending threatening anonymous letters, strong-arming employers, landlords and others that activists knew to sack/evict/shun them for their activism, creating fake leaflets etc. in the name of the groups they were targeting, and so forth.
  3. Harassment via the legal system: For example, wrongful arrests, and wrongfully obtaining convictions by providing false evidence and having cops take the stand and commit perjury with dishonest witness statements to frame activists. They also discriminatorily enforced tax laws and engaged in overt surveillance and insisted on regular “investigatory” interviews to intimidate activists.
  4. Illegal force: The FBI collaborated with local police departments to arrange illegal break-ins into activists’ offices and apartments, commit vandalism, violently assault activists, and even assassinate them (for example, Fred Hampton).
  5. Undermine public opinion: I already mentioned the planted false media stories, but they also heavily pressured outlets not to give activist groups a platform to talk about themselves, and sponsored “documentaries” designed to frame activist groups as unreasonable violent extremists.

COINTELPRO was made public when a small activist group (the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI) broke into FBI offices in Media, Penn­syl­va­nia and stole a large amount of documentation pertaining to the program, which they passed on to the press. Initially news organisations refused to publish anything based on the material, but with the one big exception of the Washington Post, whose boldness in going ahead with the story forced other outlets to follow suit. (The Washington Post’s perspective was depicted in the 2017 film The Post.) The FBI announced the wrapping-up of the program within a year.

While COINTELPRO itself officially ended in 1971, the FBI continued its covert surveillance and disruption of activist groups afterwards, it just didn’t put those operations under the same banner. COINTELPRO-like tactics have been used against environmentalists, Native Americans, Muslim Americans, and Black Lives Matter. There is also the egregious 1985 MOVE bombing, in which Philadelphia police killed eleven members of an “anarcho-primitive” African-American group, including five children.

In the UK, the “spycops” controversy is said to be the closest thing they have to COINTELPRO. This is not to say the two schemes were exactly the same, but that they served the same purpose of disrupting and discrediting activist groups.