COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a series of covert and in some cases illegal projects between 1956 and 1971 conducted by the FBI aimed at subversive American political organizations. The FBI broadly targeted dissidents from the New Left such as the Communist Party, anti-Vietnam War organizers, civil rights and Black Power activists, feminist organizations, nationalist groups, and independence movements. Operations included psychological warfare, smearing individuals and groups with forged documents and false reports, perjury, witness harassment, withholding evidence, wrongful imprisonment, and illegal violence including assassination. All this was conducted in the name of “maintaining the existing social and political order” (Final Report 1976). These tactics are still in use today under the label of counterinsurgency, or COIN.

The origins of the program began in a mission to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” inside the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). These techniques borrow from the corporate sabotage of the Pinkertons. A particularly deft maneuver was the planting of flamboyant evidence of surveillance and conspiracies to sow paranoia that would eventually discredit the afflicted person (Rhodri 2007). By fostering a culture of mistrust, the FBI created an atmosphere similar to that of the colonized Philippines under Governor Taft, in which intense suspicion withers the possibility of radical organization.

COINTELPRO was successful as long as it remained a secret from the American people. In 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled an FBI field office and exposed the program by leaking dossiers to news agencies. Many news agencies refused to publish the information, but soon the outrage reached a pitch and Director J Edgar Hoover was forced to announce the end of centralized COINTELPRO operations, promising that future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis. The existence of the NSA undermines this promise, but its status as classified prevents us from knowing the full extent of COINTELPRO’s afterlife.

Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The FBI: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2007.
Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, Book III: Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. 1976.