Domestic Spying, Blackmail, And Murder: Inside The FBI’s COINTELPRO

Published April 18, 2017
Updated January 20, 2019

COINTELPRO And Martin Luther King Jr.

Cointelpro Mlk Letter

Wikimedia CommonsOne of the letters that “unknown persons” sent to Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to kill himself.

COINTELPRO operatives seemed to have a special dark place in their hearts for Martin Luther King Jr.

The events in Selma and Birmingham had brought King to national attention as an emerging leader among Civil Rights activists, and his close association with known CPUSA members, such as Stanley Levinson, certainly didn’t win him friends at the FBI.

In fact, after the SOLO brothers tipped the FBI that Levinson was working as a go-between from King to Moscow – which doesn’t seem to have been true – Hoover got permission from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to install “limited” wiretaps on King’s phones.

The FBI seems to have taken this as a green light to meddle in every aspect of King’s private life. In 1964, someone at the FBI sent King’s wife, Coretta, audio recordings of her husband with other women. King also received several so-called “suicide packets,” which were basically bundles of blackmail material and crudely typed letters encouraging him to kill himself.

The FBI, and in particular Director Hoover and COINTELPRO chief Sullivan, hated King so much that even a year after his assassination, they were still releasing material aimed at discrediting him and went so far as to officially oppose efforts to commemorate King with public monuments and a holiday.

Active Measures

Cointelpro Hampton Body

Wikimedia CommonsThe body of 21-year-old Fred Hampton lies sprawled on the floor after taking multiple gunshots in bed.

The FBI expanded its COINTELPRO activities in the 1960s. Eventually, its methods coalesced into four stages:

  • Infiltration – FBI agents and local police routinely sent undercover agents to join progressive, left-wing, and antiwar groups. Once embedded, agents reported on the groups’ activities and intentions. Dossiers were developed on group members and agents acted as agent provocateurs, always urging group members to be and act more extreme. When word got around that the FBI had planted its people in activist groups, even this was turned to account; infiltrators accused sincere members of being spies, sowing confusion and discouraging sympathetic members of the public from joining.
  • Psyops – Within the targeted groups, infiltrators spread rumors and forged documents to implicate targeted subjects in shady activities. Agents would sometimes draft public statements, alleging to be from the group, that were so extreme as to discredit the group and its goals. In a practice known as “bad jacketing,” agents inside the Black Panther Party spread suspicion that senior members were embezzling funds and plotting to kill one another.

    Fearing the emergence of a “black messiah,” Hoover directed agents to fabricate evidence that Panther leader Stokely Carmichael was a CIA agent. Sure enough, he was expelled from his positions and denounced by other members.

  • Manipulation of the Legal System – The FBI’s position as the chief law enforcement agency in the country gave it a unique position for abusing its power. Suspect activists and supporters targeted by the program were sued, prosecuted for minor crimes, investigated by the IRS, and in many cases framed for crimes they had nothing to do with. Agents and police officers working with COINTELPRO faked evidence and committed perjury to ensure bogus convictions of activists.
  • Violence – Occasionally at first, and increasingly as time went on, COINTELPRO agents used violence on activists they couldn’t discredit or prosecute. This was mostly the preserve of local police, and they could get brutal. One in six members of the rioting crowd at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, for example, were later determined to have been either military members, FBI agents, or Chicago police informants/officers.

    In 1969, the Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan organized a police raid on the residence of Black Panther Fred Hampton. The 21-year-old Hampton had been very critical of Hanrahan in the past, and the Chicago Police came out to repay the favor. Hampton was riddled with bullets while lying in bed. After waking up to the gunfire, he dragged himself onto the floor, where a police officer shot him twice in the head. The later inquest found that the shooting was a justified use of force.

  • Richard Stockton
    Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.