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Examples of surveillance, spanning all presidents from FDR to Nixon, both legal and illegal, contained in the Church Committee report:
Groups that were known to be targets of COINTELPRO operations include:
- President Roosevelt (1933–1945) asked the FBI to put in its files the names of citizens sending telegrams to the White House opposing his "national defense" policy and supporting Col. Charles Lindbergh.
- President Truman (1945–1953) received inside information on a former Roosevelt aide's efforts to influence his appointments, labor union negotiating plans, and the publishing plans of journalists.
- President Eisenhower (1953–1961) received reports on purely political and social contacts with foreign officials by Bernard Baruch, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
- The Kennedy administration (1961–1963) had the FBI wiretap a congressional staff member, three executive officials, a lobbyist, and a Washington law firm. US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy received the fruits of an FBI wire tap on Martin Luther King Jr. and an electronic listening device targeting a congressman, both of which yielded information of a political nature.
- President Johnson (1963–1969) asked the FBI to conduct "name checks" of his critics and members of the staff of his 1964 opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. He also requested purely political intelligence on his critics in the Senate, and received extensive intelligence reports on political activity at the 1964 Democratic Convention from FBI electronic surveillance.
- President Nixon (1969–1974) authorized a program of wiretaps, which produced for the White House purely political or personal information unrelated to national security, including information about a Supreme Court Justice.
The COINTELPRO operators targeted multiple groups at once and encouraged splintering of these groups from within. In letter-writing campaigns (wherein false letters were sent on behalf of members of parties), the FBI ensured that groups would not unite in their causes. For instance, they launched a campaign specifically to alienate the Black Panther Party from the Mau Maus, Young Lords, Young Patriots and SDS. These racially diverse groups had been building alliances, in part due to charismatic leaders such as Fred Hampton and his attempts to create a "Rainbow Coalition". The FBI was concerned with ensuring that groups could not gain traction through unity, specifically across racial lines. One of the main ways of targeting these groups was to arouse suspicion between the different parties and causes. In this way the bureau took on a divide and conquer offensive.
- Communist and socialist organizations.
- Organizations and individuals associated with the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and other civil rights organizations.
- Black nationalist groups.
- The Young Lords.
- The American Indian Movement.
- White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.
- The National States' Rights Party.
- A broad range of organizations labeled "New Left", including Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen.
- Almost all groups protesting the Vietnam War, as well as individual student demonstrators with no group affiliation.
- The National Lawyers Guild.
- Organizations and individuals associated with the women's rights movement.
- Nationalist groups such as those seeking independence for Puerto Rico, United Ireland, and Cuban exile movements including Orlando Bosch's Cuban Power and the Cuban Nationalist Movement.
- Additional notable American individuals.
The COINTELPRO documents show numerous cases of the FBI's intentions to prevent and disrupt protests against the Vietnam War. Many techniques were used to accomplish this task. "These included promoting splits among antiwar forces, encouraging red-baiting of socialists, and pushing violent confrontations as an alternative to massive, peaceful demonstrations." One 1966 COINTELPRO operation tried to redirect the Socialist Workers Party from their pledge of support for the antiwar movement.
The FBI has said that it no longer undertakes COINTELPRO or COINTELPRO-like operations. However, critics have claimed that agency programs in the spirit of COINTELPRO targeted groups such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the American Indian Movement, Earth First!, and the anti-globalization movement.
According to attorney Brian Glick in his book War at Home, the FBI used five main methods during COINTELPRO:
- Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit, disrupt and negatively redirect action. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
- Psychological warfare: The FBI and police used myriad "dirty tricks" to undermine progressive movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials, and others to cause trouble for activists. They used bad-jacketing to create suspicion about targeted activists, sometimes with lethal consequences.
- Harassment via the legal system: The FBI and police abused the legal system to harass dissidents and make them appear to be criminals. Officers of the law gave perjured testimony and presented fabricated evidence as a pretext for false arrests and wrongful imprisonment. They discriminatorily enforced tax laws and other government regulations and used conspicuous surveillance, "investigative" interviews, and grand jury subpoenas in an effort to intimidate activists and silence their supporters.
- Illegal force: The FBI conspired with local police departments to threaten dissidents; to conduct illegal break-ins in order to search dissident homes; and to commit vandalism, assaults, beatings and assassinations. The objective was to frighten or eliminate dissidents and disrupt their movements.
- Undermine public opinion: One of the primary ways the FBI targeted organizations was by challenging their reputations in the community and denying them a platform to gain legitimacy. Hoover specifically designed programs to block leaders from "spreading their philosophy publicly or through the communications media". Furthermore, the organization created and controlled negative media meant to undermine black power organizations. For instance, they oversaw the creation of "documentaries" skillfully edited to paint the Black Panther Party as aggressive, and false newspapers that spread misinformation about party members. The ability of the FBI to create distrust within and between revolutionary organizations tainted their public image and weakened chances at unity and public support.