[Interview] Jim Vander Wall

GNN's Anthony Lappé talked with Vander Wall about COINTELPRO's greatest hits, advances in new surveillance technology, and the implications of the newly passed anti-terror legistlation.

Just how paranoid should we be? Read on:

Anthony Lappé: Alright let's jump right into it… Jim Vander Wall, thanks for talking to us today about your book, Agents of Repression. What does that title mean?

Jim Vander Wall: Well, it refers to the role of the FBI as a mechanism for maintaining political conformity… as a mechanism for suppressing dissident political groups.

Most people, when they think of the FBI, have an image from movies like Mississippi Burning and characters like Clarice Sterling from Silence of the Lambs. The media image of the CIA and NSA is much more sinister, but most people think of the FBI purely as a crime fighting organization.

The FBI has been very successful at disrupting and destroying perfectly legitimate organizations involved in dissent - They would like to project the image of crime fighters, but it is not really their principal role.

Crime fighting is one of their roles but it certainly is not their primary role. If you look at what they have not been very successful at, they have not been successful at dealing with organized crime. Organized crime is probably as strong today or stronger than it ever was. And they have not been very successful at dealing with actual spies - Aldrich Ames and other people like that. And in terms of actual crime fighting and counter intelligence, legitimate counter intelligence operations, they have been dismally unsuccessful. What they have been very successful at is disrupting and destroying perfectly legitimate organizations involved in dissent: civil right organizations, women's organizations, generally organizations on the left. So while they would like to project the image of crime fighters, it is not really the principal role of the FBI.

Let's go back because your book looked at the post-war history of the FBI. I have always said that J. Edgar Hoover was the most important or powerful man in 20th century American history, at least domestically. How much power did he really have?

Well, Hoover was the head of the FBI almost from its inception to 1973. He was certainly one of the most feared people in the government. No one wanted to cross him because they never knew what Hoover might have on them. He was certainly one of the people responsible for the creation of the Cold War, and for shaping the anti-communist ideology of the United States following WWII. And something to realize about anti-communism is that like anti-terrorism and the drug war, it is a fundamental principle that's been promulgated and used to justify social repression. From basically the end of WW II onward, anti-communism was the excuse used for the use of extra-constitutional and illegal means for disrupting left or other dissenting organizations. When the Cold War began to wind down, it became the Drug War. When the Drug War didn't prove adequate, it's the War on Terrorism. In all cases, it's been used as an excuse to undermine constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.


COINTELPRO was an acronym that the FBI had for its counter intelligence programs. Now normal counter intelligence is something carried out by most intelligence organizations and it basically means looking for spies in your own organization or looking for spies in the populace as a whole. So counter intelligence in its normal parlance would mean activities designed to detect and combat espionage. Within the FBI, it was actually a code word for their programs to infiltrate and disrupt legitimate legal organizations engaged in activities that the government found objectionable.

So when you say disrupt, give me some examples of that.

It can range simply from sowing dissent within the organization to, at the other extreme, assassination of the leadership of the organization or the framing of key personnel in the organization on bogus criminal charges and supporting those with fabricated evidence to obtain convictions.

Tell me about some of those earlier operations that you talked about in your book with the mob and unions and trying to create friction or even violence between those two groups. How did they do that?

Generally by using or encouraging the mob to attack strikers, key labor people. Well the FBI had considerable connections with the mob, so the mob was not only used to attack labor but there was an example during the civil rights movement of them encouraging the mafia to attack Dick Gregory because of him being an outspoken advocate of civil rights.

I often point out to people the story of what the FBI did to Martin Luther King, who now has a national holiday named after him as well as many major boulevards in cities. I mean he is a national hero. But many people don't believe me when I tell them what the FBI were up to in terms of trying to take him down.

What did they do to MLK and then maybe tell me a little bit more about COINTELPRO and the civil rights movement in general.

Well, you know that Malcolm X has shown up on a postage stamp as well…


Hoover had a particular vendetta against MLK. The FBI tried to get King to commit suicide.

Hoover had a particular vendetta against Martin Luther King, whom he referred to in the most derogatory and racist terms, at least privately. One of the early attacks on King was that they had evidence of him having an extramarital affair. So they then fabricated a letter which was sent to King, threatening to soon reveal this, and the letter in part states, and I'll quote here from it, "King, there is just one thing left for you to do and you know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to." and they put a note here: "This exact number has been calculated for a specific reason… it is definitely significant. You are done. There is but one way out. You better take it before your filthy abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation." So in this particular program, they were attempting to get King to commit suicide by threatening to reveal that he had had an affair.

What are your sources? How did you come across this document? I mean it seems like something that if it were real, the government would want to cover up and bury.

The document was obtained by a senate committee investigating the activities of the FBI. This is actually a quote from an FBI document dated September 1, 1964 to W.C. Salomon, who was then deputy director of the FBI.

So give me an overview of some of the other things that the COINTEL programs did.

The first targets were left groups like Communist Party USA and the SWP. They targeted and attempted to disrupt those organizations. Now they might do it by blackmail, by trying to pit one organization against the other. Some of their next targets were Puerto Rican Independence movement, and then of course by the 60s, all of the civil rights movements. The particular major concern during the 60s was the Black Liberation movement. There was a very interesting document written in 1968 detailing this program. One of the more famous quotes from it was that the program was to "prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the black militant nationalist movement." Malcolm X may have been such a messiah, but he is a martyr of the movement today. MLK, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Mohammed all aspired to that position. Within a year after the issuance of this memo, MLK was dead. Stokely Carmichael had to leave the country after he was badjacketed by the FBI. That is to say, the FBI left a copy of a CIA informant's report in the back seat of his car to be found by his associates in the Black Panther Party.

So as to set him up to make him look like he was an informant?


And that's a common technique?

It's a very common technique - it's a technique called badjacketing. It is one of the techniques that had been used extensively against groups like the American Indian movement, the Black Panther Party and so on. These groups were highly infiltrated.

A lot of people who are familiar with COINTELPRO and what it was doing in the 60s, may not be that familiar with what happened later in the 70s and 80s. When did COINTELPRO end and were there other similar operations that went on later on in the 70s and then into the 80s?

Officially, it ended in 1973, but what apparently ended was the use of the term COINTELPRO, because the same sort of activities were conducted against the American Indian movement by the same personnel in the period from 1973 to 1977, for example.

Who is Leonard Peltier? You always hear his name come up but I think that maybe a lot of readers aren't familiar with his story.

Leonard Peltier is a Chippewa Lakota Native American and he was one of the key people in the northwest American Indian movement - the movement coming out of Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

And what were their goals?

The goals of the American Indian movement centered around getting the U.S. to honor its treaty obligations towards the Native American nations, to promote the survival of Native American cultures, languages and so on. So a lot of it had to do with community control on reservations and the ability to educate people in their languages, their culture and so on. It had programs similar to those of the Black Panthers to provide breakfast to children in very poor areas and to provide alternative schools. It happened to come into conflict on Pine Ridge with - and this being in the 1973 energy crisis time frame of government and corporate plans to exploit the energy resources on the reservations. And for some unknown reason, it appears that the government had a talent for relocating Native people on top of all the energy reserves. So that if you're talking about first oil in Oklahoma, and then low-sulfur coal and uranium in the West, those mineral deposits lay principally on the lands of indigenous people. This led to an outright war on the Pine Ridge Reservation with a group called the Goons, being sponsored by the FBI and the U.S. government and the American Indian movement and local organizations like the Independent Oglala Nation supporting native sovereignty and traditional ways of life.

During the period from 1973 to 1975, at least 60 people were killed by the Goon squads on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I say at least because these are reported homicides. It is probably much larger than that because the agency to which you would report a homicide was the FBI, who were of course sponsoring the people committing the homicides. So a lot of assaults and murders went unreported. On June 25, 1975, the FBI went on to a property called the Jumping Bull Compound on Pine Ridge supposedly looking for Jimmy Eagle, who was a young Native American man, on charges of having stolen a pair of cowboy boots.

The real reason for them being there was that there was an AIM encampment there and when they encountered people from the encampment, a firefight ensued and the two FBI agents who went in - Ron Williams and Jack Coler were killed in the firefight, as well as AIM member, Joseph Stuntz. Leonard Peltier wound up being framed for those murders and when I say framed, I mean that the FBI coerced witnesses and fabricated evidence in order to obtain a conviction. They have since pretty well admitted that they had done that and then said, "Well, it's not really important anyway because we didn't actually get a conviction for him - we weren't actually going on the theory that Leonard Peltier actually committed the murders. He was just aiding and abetting. This actually is not true. Their theory throughout the trial was always that he was the principal.

Peltier has now been down in federal prisons since 1976 on bogus charges and fabricated evidence. Tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents were then released on discovery. Among those documents were documents indicating that the single piece of material evidence that they had linking Peltier to the case was actually fabricated by the FBI lab. This was something of a surprise at the time, but probably isn't now after the misconduct of the FBI lab has become public knowledge. Even the chief judge of the circuit court who denied the appeal based on this evidence said that he believed that Leonard Peltier has served enough time and ought to be released.

One of the other operations the FBI was into was people working for social justice in Central America in the 80s. I was working with a group who was helping mainly Salvadoran and Nicaraguan refugees find jobs in the Bay Area and I remember our offices being broken into with nothing being taken… Later, I found that seemed to be happening across the country with similar groups.

Basically what we had going on was the U.S. supporting a massive terrorist campaign against the people of El Salvador. And I mean terrorism in the very specific narrowly defined sense of the word. We're talking about tens of thousands of political murders, torture and so on. Rather than investigate the supporters of this terrorism in the U.S., the FBI of course investigated those people who opposed this terrorism and then tried to help the victims of it. They did this by infiltrating the organizations, attempting to indict people on immigration charges simply for helping political refugees from terror that was being sponsored by the United States.

Now, these operations seemed to be slightly more benign than what was going on with the Native American and Black Panther movements. They weren't actually trying to take out any of these leaders… You could say that it was inversely proportional to the influence these groups were having. It wasn't like these groups were really having a major impact on American foreign policy.

I think that's exactly right. There were two things that led them to target the Panthers. One thing was the scope of their influence and the other is that they were dealing with a politically volatile community. In other words they were dealing with communities that did not necessarily from the beginning, see the U.S. government or the police as a benign force, or as a force that was serving their interests. And they were groups with a great deal of charisma and appeal so they had considerable support outside their own communities.

In 1975, Congress held the Church Hearings which looked at the CIA's misdeeds in terms of spying on Americans, MK Ultra mind control testing, overthrowing democratically elected governments, etc, which theoretically had some sort of effect in terms of reorganizing the CIA, at least in the way it's perceived… who knows really what, but it had some sort of effect on how the CIA worked. Jump ahead to 2003. Is the FBI the same FBI as it was under Hoover? Are these same operations going on today? I mean are there people on our website who are actively trying to gain information on the activists who come on to the site and try to rally support for different causes?


That's not paranoia?

No. And it's something that you can do very little about, in terms of intelligence gathering and the gathering of information. It's virtually undetectable. And more to the point, after the Homeland Security and the USA Patriot Act, it's pretty much legal.

In terms of a scale of 1 to 10, how worried are you when you see the Homeland Security Act being passed with ease and these new programs like the Total Information Awareness Office. I mean now these groups have the technology for a much greater amount of surveillance. They don't have to crawl into your house to plant a bug anymore…

And it's not only the surveillance and the gathering of information, but the processing of it. If you were to, for example, assume that they had the capability in the 1970s to listen to and record all the telephone conversations, what would they have done with them? There was not enough computing power on the planet at the time to process 10% of it.

Right wing fundamentalist Christians and racist groups are responsible for probably between 600 and 700 terrorist acts every year in the U.S. If you look at it today, I have a machine sitting on my desktop that probably has more processing power than all the computers on the planet in 1970. So it's this combination of sophisticated surveillance technology as well as immense processing technology that poses a threat. As I said before, this is all being done under the aegis of anti-terrorism now. But it's very interesting to consider in terms of the American right and in terms of the Bureau, what they define terrorism to be. And I'll give you just two examples of conflicting or contrasting examples to explain this. Right wing fundamentalist Christians and racist groups are responsible for probably between 600 and 700 terrorist acts every year in the U.S.

Like what?

For example if you look at 2001, I have got some statistics here… what we see is that these groups have committed about 672 acts of terrorism and these included 33 homicides, 186 assaults (36 of which involved the use of deadly weapons), 78 arsons, 33 bombings, 54 terrorist threats, and about 300 different acts of intimidation and vandalism. The weapons charges included threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction…

And the source for this is?

The source for this is the Southern Poverty Law Center that details these crimes on a year by year basis.

OK, go on…

The principal groups involved are the Ku Klux Klan, the National Alliance, Aryan Nation and so on. To my knowledge, there hasn't been a congressional investigation of it, there is not much dedication of FBI resources to it and yet it is instrumental in creating an atmosphere of terror for every person of color in this country, for women and for gays. It is a program of terrorism against almost the majority of the people in the United States. It is of far greater concern to most people of color that they are likely to be murdered by the Klan than by international Islamic terrorists. In fact Ashcroft used 9/11 as an excuse to divert resources form the enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws into anti-terrorist scams. The right in the U.S. and the media in the U.S. don't consider this terrorism. It's just murder, bombings, arson, but hey it's against people who don't have much political power so it's not important. To give you an example of the sort of terrorism they are concerned about, a quote from a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigation concerned with this terrorism - it describes a horrific act of terrorism committed by Earth First, a radical environmental organization:

"On October 16, 1997, my Eureka, California office was rocked by what sounded like a thunderous explosion. In fact the sound was that of a 500-pound tree stump being dumped off a truck into my office foyer floor. Upon responding to the horrific sound, my two female staff members were greeted by the visages of several Earth First terrorists - one wearing a black ski mask. These masked marauders were wearing combat boots and dressed in black from head to toe and their cohorts in the stump drop then dumped large garbage bags of sawdust on the floor…"

This wasn't a joke, they were quite serious about this.

Isn't this when they held them down and put swabs of tear gas in their eyes?


…while handcuffed?

Yes. What we see here is an example of how anti-terrorism is going to be used. Anti-terrorism is going to be used to attack groups that are concerned about the environment, about civil rights, about the rights of gays and women. It's not going to be used to attack racist or fundamentalist religious groups that are murdering people outside of abortion clinics. It's a purely political term and it's being promulgated with a political agenda in mind - that is the rollback of Constitutional rights.

Now, just recently in your neck of the woods I read a story about how the Denver local police were somehow exposed for keeping dossiers on the political activities of like 3,000 anti-globalization and environmental activists, including grandmothers. Are you familiar with that case? What happened there?

I have seen some of those files, particularly the files pertaining to the American Indian movement - obtained by my co-author on Agents and COINTELPRO Papers, Ward Churchill, who was prominent ever since he was an AIM leader in the Denver area. Among other things that showed up, there was evidence: a document indicating that the police had evidence that a party or parties intended to assassinate Ward Churchill. He was never informed of this.

Wow. We've also heard reports about people like Green Party members being on FAA watch-lists and not being able to get on flights…

It doesn't surprise me and I would imagine there is quite a watch-list.

So to wrap up, as someone who has been looking into the history of the federal government's investigations of leftist and other groups, what can you do as someone who might be under the watch of the government?

I think probably the most damaging thing is paranoia. If you are a political activist and are at all successful at doing it in this country, then you are definitely going to be in the files and possibly surveilled. You have to put things in proportion in terms of what sort of information you need to keep secret and what sort of information you don't, OK? In a lot of cases, paranoia has done more damage to organizations - and of course then leveraged by the FBI - to disrupt the organization than the actual activity of the agents themselves. So I would say there are a couple of things. One is to understand and be aware of the techniques used by the intelligence agencies to surveil and disrupt organizations. The second thing is if you suspect you have a problem with somebody in the organization, confront them with it and talk to them about it… But I think education and awareness is probably one of the key things to be considered right now. Generally it is proven to be the case that when the activities of the FBI surface - when the mask of legitimacy is sort of ripped away to reveal the sleazy criminal activities that go on underneath it - the American public will react to that with horror and disaffection from the FBI. And there have been a number of large legal settlements against the FBI - two of them fairly recently - resulting from this kind of activity.

It seems like they are getting hit on a lot of different sides these days from the failures. I mean these unprecedented public accusations of misconduct by these high profile agents, against the top officials of the FBI for screwing up their Al Qaeda investigations to mishandling of evidence - losing hundreds or thousands of pages of documents in the McVeigh trial… What kind of affect do you think that kind of criticism will have on them?

It may have some affect but the basic bottom line is that the Bureau was doing what it was told to do and apparently investigating international terrorist threats wasn't very high a priority. It's much more fun to spy on church groups supporting immigration rights. And they're unlikely to kill you if you're discovered too… not the case with Al Qaeda.

Henry Kissinger said, I think half in jest, "The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer."

Looking forward do you feel hopeful because books like yours are being published, that there is a possibility of getting the word out about these things, like maybe there wasn't back then? That even though the FBI and these groups have this sophisticated technology, they won't be able to go back? Do you think that there is a point where they could go back to the days of outright assassinations and trying to convince leaders of civil rights groups to commit suicide?
Absolutely. I ran across an interesting quote from Henry Kissinger. He said, I think half in jest, "The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer." And it would be a good motto for the FBI. But what is happening now is a framework of unconstitutional legislation is being built to support many activities that the FBI conducted in the past which were illegal but which proceeded anyways. I think that's going to essentially be interpreted as a license to go further than they've gone before. So I fully expect them to get back into this and the principal targets right now appear to be the anti-globalization movement and environmental groups.


And I think we can expect to see much more infiltration, disruption and perhaps the sort of activities we saw in the 60s and 70s, if these organizations continue to gain momentum.

On that optimistic and inspiring note, we will leave it at that and encourage all of our readers to read your book. I think it is absolutely essential reading for anyone to understand the history of post-war America and really understand what goes on behind the façade of the American government.