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COINTELPRO (wikipedia.org)
147 points by geekfactor on June 15, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 38 comments

I actually thought about posting this as well... definitely required reading for anyone who believes the government would never abuse their powers to stifle dissent. Really sad chapter in American history.

In addition to COINTELPRO, it's interesting to read up on MK ULTRA, another US govt. program which engaged in illegal and unethical behavior, including conducting illegal experiments on unknowing / unwilling subjects who were US citizens.


I know some people will argue that this stuff is off-topic, and maybe it is in a certain sense. But there are a lot of younger readers on HN who probably aren't familiar with a lot of this history, and it helps explain why some people are so quick to distrust the US government. In light of the recent news about the NSA, IRS, etc., I think this is worthy of discussion.

who were US citizens

It doesn't matter if they were us citizens or not. Take for example the Tuskegee syphilis experiment [1]. I don't know if you wrote that in order to make those experiments look even worse, but it shouldn't matter the nationality of those people. The fact that they were experimenting with them without their consent, it's just terrible... And they were doing it for 40 years! It looks like something taken from Josef Mengele's research book (and I can't think of a better case than this to appeal to Godwin's law[2]).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

> "It doesn't matter if they were us citizens or not."

Yyyyes and no. It depends on what you're discussing, and in what context. Medical experiments like Tuskegee and MK Ultra, I agree with you entirely.

Wiretapping, it's a little different. I mean, non-Americans who're being spied on the by US government should be offended, maybe, but not quite the same level of outrage.

It seems reasonable to demand that your own country follow its own law. If/when they break that law, there's an extra type of outrage that's appropriate. And American elected representatives purport to be agents of the citizens of the US (and they do not purport to be agents of humanity at large.. well, not as literally, anyway). If/when they act against the interests of the US citizenry, there's an extra type of outrage that's appropriate.

Further, the harm that the NSA can do to a random citizen of, say, Germany, by spying on them, is modest. The harm that can be done to Americans, by being spied upon by hypothetical corrupt agents of their own government, is much steeper, I think.

So you would only be offended but not outraged if the Chinese, Russian or the British government spying on you?

The only thing that makes it worse that the NSA is spying on Americans is it seems completely contrary to any ordinary reading of the US law (and some reasonable readings of the constitution) and the NSA's remit. If the law (and constitution) was properly amended to allow it it would be less bad than spying on foreigners.

That's right. As a Canadian living in the US, and highly vulnerable to the US government, I am much less outraged by the US spying on me than I would be if I heard about similar offenses from my own government. And I'd be still less concerned if I'd stayed at home in Canada.

> "If the law (and constitution) was properly amended to allow it it would be less bad than spying on foreigners."

I disagree.

I probably should have said it is less bad than being spied on by foreigners. At least if you have a democratic country you can campaign and vote for candidates promising to stop the mass intrusion or even stand on that platform. I don't like the monitoring but at least in a democracy there is something that can be done about it (not that it is easy to persuade a sufficient number of people to join a cause but it can be done).

I would expect governments to try to protect their citizens from foreign spying[1] (and to try to spy on foreigners). I would expect them to regard other countries efforts as illegal and prosecute (or revoke diplomatic status and send home where applicable) those trying to spy on their citizens.

Internally there are several different issues with the recent NSA:

1) The high level of intrusion offensive and dangerous at the apparent levels that it is currently occurring.

2) The democratic process seems to have been poorly followed, NSA is far exceeding its stated brief (foreign inteligence).

3) Constitutionally the situation seems at best dubious.

Issue (1) applies internally and externally. The others are US internal issues.

[1] See Echelon etc. and other actions as cases where this expectation is wrong.

You don't think it is also worse because the US has legal jurisdiction over you, while China, Russia, and Great Britain don't?

Well I'm British living in Britain but the extradition laws are such I don't feel safe from US legal processes. Plus there are numerous reasons to tempt me into the US's jurisdiction (for business, conferences or pleasure) so while I don't visit often I wouldn't want to restrict myself from visiting.

There are also non-legal actions that can be taken from insider trading on call patterns of company execs planning mergers to blackmail or straight industrial espionage.

You're right, the citizenship thing doesn't really matter. I think, however, that it's a little bit more galling for them to target American citizens, coming from the perspective of an American citizen at least, as protecting our rights is nominally the very reason we have a government at all. And for the very same government we created to protect us, to turn around and attack the very people who created it, just adds salt to the wound.

That said, experimenting on people without their knowledge or permission is wrong, evil, and abhorrent regardless of their nationality (or any other attribute!).

I think COINTELPRO is pretty much reducible to a single man's nuttiness, that of J. Edgar Hoover. MKULTRA was CIA as I recall. Worth pointing out that these are different. CIA also has a lot of messy history overseas, in places like Latin America.

But I have to say:

> recent news about the NSA, IRS, etc.

To paint recent stories about IRS with the same brush as the recent news about NSA, or to put IRS on the same level as COINTELPRO/MKULTRA... They're not nearly in the same ballpark. There's this trend on HN right now to say that anything government related (I hear they're putting floride in the water! Don't get me started about the post office!) must be in on the crazy conspiracy, and I find that attitude disappointing. It's not all the same.

I'm certainly not suggesting that there's one big, centralized, massive "crazy conspiracy". I'm just saying that there has been a lot of recent news, which hints that our government is not to be trusted, and that meme "the government is not to be trusted" is also supported by historical evidence as well, such as COINTELPRO, MK ULTRA, etc. For the record, I don't intend to posit any connection between, say, the IRS and MK ULTRA beyond what I just said.

> reducible to a single man's nuttiness, that of J. Edgar Hoover

...which demonstrates that the executive branch wields a disproportionate amount of power, does it not?

I guess FBI is the executive branch, but one of the sneaky things about Hoover was his ability to transcend and defy presidents. A bit different from recent events with Bush and Obama in that sense.

In this most recent iteration of the NSA story it seems like all three branches failed, with congress not giving enough of a crap and the courts rubber stamping everything.

> but one of the sneaky things about Hoover was his ability to transcend and defy presidents

That's one of the reasons he's a suspect in the JFK assassination. The best part of this theory is the implication that discreetly disclosing each new president on exactly how JFK was assassinated tends to get them in line.

A lot of people in the gov't were happy to go along with that nuttiness.

I'm about as paranoid and distrustful of the USG as most people here but as the news unfolds it seems some senators and congressional representatives genuinely care about who they represent.

The CSPAN meeting on Wednesday started out unpleasantly devoted to public-private cooperation and other back-patting but it very quickly took a sharp turn into a grilling and -- dare I say -- public flogging of General Alexander.

Here is a short excerpt of the first shot across the bow of the NSA surveillance programs: http://pastebin.com/pqMxP0s6

I recommend reading the transcript along with the video: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/event/220078

It starts at 49 minutes.

After reading it now it looks very dry and uninteresting but the tonality and the volume of their verbal exchange was certainly reassuring.

I can't the video at the moment, who is the senator speaking?

The Senator speaking at 49 minutes is Senator Leahy.

Senator Leahy (D, Vermont): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Leahy

Other senators also ask some pointed questions, notably:

Senator Johanns (R, Nebraska): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Johanns

Senator Merkley (D, Oregon): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Merkley

Senator Tom Udall (D, New Mexico): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Udall

Also, Senator Feinstein -- despite being a bit of a wind-bag and despite her enthusiastic support for gun-control -- directed Wednesday's NSA/cyber-security hearing pretty well.

The video offers some very interesting contrast between assumptions that all of congress is bought and paid for, and that voter apathy has translated directly to congressional apathy, but it's simply not true. Senators that look beyond the next election cycle (or their retirement) may be few and far between, but they're out there.

"Also, Senator Feinstein -- despite being a bit of a wind-bag and despite her enthusiastic support for gun-control -- directed Wednesday's NSA/cyber-security hearing pretty well."

NOW I understand why the allegations of misconduct around contracts awarded to husband are getting a lot of hype again today. Makes sense - if she's successfully speaking out against the NSA, what better time to highlight anything potentially negative about her!

There are more things we are still just learning about.

See for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gladio

Ha, that has been public knowledge in Europe since the early seventies...

COINTELPRO / MK ULTRA despite not being directly related is a good example of the fact that both the FBI and the CIA have failed to restrain themselves properly.

Americans knew all that in the sixties/seventies.

Nobody would have doubted surveillance then, in the way that some young sophisticated people nowadays believe BS like official statements.

The government, police etc was "the Man", etc, and they were tied with big corporate etc interests. And those "pigs" where against the blacks, the Vietnam war protesters, leftist students, workers etc etc.

Those views might have been naive (in the utopian, free love and dope aspect), but were also very pragmatic (in the those in power are not using it in our favor) aspect.

Then the Reagan eighties happened, and all those "hippy" stuff were scorned in favour of greed and careerism.

Now, with Wall Street getting a trillion for their services in fucking up the economy, the middle class in worst prospects than ever, and the country in more abused mode than even during Nixon's reign, this "greed" didn't seem to have served the people well.

You said it. The number of people saying, "Well, if it isn't abused..." is mindboggling. Any system like this will be abused. The question is by whom, how often, and how the citizenry can hold them accountable.

Because the program is so secret, I have zero faith that there are sufficient safeguards. America was founded on a distrust of unchecked power, and I think we should keep it that way.

>Any system like this will be abused.

Exactly, it happens every time.

Ill be honest I'm glad you chose not to submit it. But you are correct it is required reading, and it was required reading in HS civics class and any 101 Intro to US History class. Its also tinfoil hat 101 so anyone who would find this interesting would have already stumbled across it if they were not previously exposed to it in a school setting.

I'm all for cypherpunk/tinfoil hat stories on HN. I just expected the stories to be of a higher caliber and more interesting/nuanced than something as rudimentary as wikipedia's coverage of COINTELPRO.

I would bet not 1 in 100 high school students ever hear about COINTELPRO in school. If it was ever part of a standard civics curriculum it was briefly in the mid to late 70s.

We covered it in my american history class in high school (97ish).

I took both AP American History and AP Government at about the same time, at a very good school with a pretty liberal teaching staff. I never heard about COINTELPRO in either one. My only exposure to it before college was from my father who was a '70s activist. Even in university, most people in the progressive groups I was a part of hadn't heard of it.

You had a very special teacher if you learned about it in High School.

Note that something similar was done to groups that protested the Iraq War.

Some people who were known demonstrators ended up on the no-fly list.

To be fair, some of the groups that COINTELPRO targeted were subversive. For example, the weather underground:


Ctrl+F "Bomb" ^^

To be fair, you've stepped into a giant pile of irony. Indeed, the Weathermen were a violent terrorist group that needed to be shut down. But very key point in the story: its members originally were an extremely radical but small faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Until its fracturing, the Weathermen had committed no crimes, and SDS was undoubtedly a legitimate organization to exist in a democratic society.

And the irony? Well, the FBI played no small part in the fracturing of SDS. COINTELPRO planted agents who acted as infiltrators, agitators, disruptors, and agents provocateur, with the explicit goal of destroying SDS.

So those bombs put more than a smidgeon of blood on the FBI's hands as well, and the FBI were every bit as much a malign anti-American, subversive influence as the Weathermen.

"To be fair, some of the people Stalin executed really were out to get him."

What the fuck kind of justification is "some were accurately targeted"?

many of them were "subversive", but very few were violently so.

For anyone that's interested in the US history with dissidents, I recommend watching the documentary "The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975)":

  (alt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5_qnnqyxQk )

FBI's stated motivation was "protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.

So the only way to progress is...how again?

I wonder how they view innovation, startups, and Silicon Valley.

With friends like these... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pen3isZj4cM

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