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   Vol.66/No.24            June 17, 2002 
‘Washington’s 50-year
domestic contra operation’

Bush administration officials seeking to expand the official ability of the government’s secret police to conduct domestic spying operations have ended restrictions on the FBI imposed in the wake of the giant social battles of the 1960s and 1970s. Those struggles helped to expose the way the FBI and other police agencies targeted the struggles and organizations of Blacks, women, and working people in the United States, and to shatter the U.S. rulers’ justification for their violations of Constitutional liberties.

Many newspaper articles reporting on the recent announcement by the Justice Department that it will now allow FBI agents to spy on public gatherings, church events, and web sites tend to portray the government’s counterintelligence programs (Cointelpro) of earlier decades as benign information-gathering exercises.

In "Washington’s fifty-year domestic contra operation" Larry Seigle addresses the real history and purpose of these disruption programs. An excerpt from the article, which is published in New International no. 6, is printed below.

Seigle explains the origins of an initiative in 1972 by the Socialist Workers Party, working with constitutional attorney Leonard Boudin, to mount a political fight and file a lawsuit against the government that sought to establish the entitlement of the party and Young Socialist Alliance "to engage in political activity without being spied on and infiltrated by agents provocateurs, having their phones tapped and offices broken into, and being blacklisted and victimized in numerous other ways by the political police."

After a 13-year battle, a historic victory for political liberties was won when Federal District Judge Thomas Griesa ruled in 1986 that FBI use of undercover informers against the SWP violated the constitutional rights of the party, its members, and its supporters to privacy, an essential part of freedom of association. He also ruled that the FBI’s covert break-ins of SWP offices and its disruption operations were unconstitutional.

Copyright © 1987 by 408 Printing and Publishing Corp., reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


The SWP lawsuit was filed in July 1973 as the Watergate scandal was breaking. Watergate was the first governmental crisis resulting from the growing contradiction in the latter part of the twentieth century between what the U.S. ruling class is compelled to do against its class enemies at home and abroad, and what it can openly proclaim as its goals and methods.

In the Second World War, the country’s rulers were able to mobilize the country behind their war aims. Those who opposed this course were in a small minority; some were imprisoned for their minority views without a major national outcry. By the time of the Korean War, however, there was little enthusiasm among working people for the war, and a good deal of opposition was openly expressed. A measure of this shift was the decision by the government not to seek a declaration of war by Congress as required under the Constitution. The Korean War was also the first war the United States failed to win.  
Distrust of secrecy of Washington
When the U.S. government escalated its intervention in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, conditions existed, for the first time in the history of the country, for the emergence of a massive antiwar movement in the middle of a shooting war. Antiwar sentiment was accompanied by deepening popular suspicion and distrust of the secrecy and lies of Washington about its war aims and its methods. As in the Korean War, there was no declaration of war proposed to Congress. The government acted throughout on the basis of "executive power."

As the Watergate revelations developed, it became clear to a growing number of people that the lies and covert operations that were used by the government to further its aims in Vietnam were the very methods it used at home. The "inherent powers" that the president used to wage a murderous war against the peoples of Indochina were also being used against fighters for Black rights, against Puerto Rican and Mexican-American activists, against the women’s liberation movement, against antiwar organizations, and against communists. As more of the truth about Cointelpro and other covert FBI operations began to emerge, it further became clear that these methods had been used at home first. Washington’s wars against its class enemies overseas are an extension of the capitalist government’s war against its domestic class enemies.

Today the U.S. government is in the midst of a second crisis, triggered by the exposure of the secret Iran arms deal and the covert funding of the contras trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. Like Watergate, the current crisis has its roots in the inability of U.S. imperialism to stop the march of history. The U.S. rulers must increasingly turn to covert operations to carry out policies and employ methods that they cannot openly proclaim or defend, and at least some of these covert operations are inevitably exposed publicly.

The SWP suit against the government has attracted new attention and broader support as the current government crisis has developed, since the issues at the heart of the case are the very questions posed by the contragate scandal: Can the rule of law be suspended in the name of "national security"? Are the president, the attorney general, the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Council above the law?

The depth of what is at stake was revealed in a dramatic confrontation that occurred during the pretrial battles in the SWP case. From the outset, the most important issue in the case was whether or not the FBI has a legal right to use covert informers to spy on and disrupt the SWP and YSA. To help prove that this government practice violated constitutional rights, the SWP’s lawyers asked that Judge Griesa order the FBI to turn over the files on its informers. The judge ordered that a sample consisting of files on eighteen informers be produced. The Justice Department immediately appealed that order, first to the Court of Appeals and then to the United States Supreme Court. Turning over any informer files, government lawyers argued, would breach the absolute rule that the identity of undercover informers can never be disclosed without their agreement. To allow this principle to be violated would have "a devastating impact on the overall investigative effectiveness of the FBI," Justice Department lawyers contended. The higher courts nonetheless declined to reverse Griesa’s order.

The government then took an unprecedented step: Attorney General Griffin Bell (a member of President James Carter’s cabinet) informed Judge Griesa that he was refusing to obey the order. It was one of the moments in the case when the routine legal maneuvering between lawyers was suspended. The attorney general was acting not as a political appointee but as the direct spokesperson for the police power of the government, of the state power itself. Griesa responded by finding the attorney general in contempt of court, the first such ruling in U.S. history. "The Attorney General has no ‘right’ to defy a court order," declared Griesa. "The Court possesses and must possess under our system of law, the authority to enforce an order for the production of evidence."

The Justice Department immediately appealed the contempt ruling. The Court of Appeals, which had earlier refused to overturn Griesa’s order, now ruled that a contempt finding was too drastic a sanction for Bell’s defiance of a court order and reversed the ruling. The contents of the files were eventually summarized by a special appointee of the court and this summary was made part of the trial record.
Related article:
U.S. gov’t seeks to reverse limits on FBI’s powers
Justice Department announces new FBI powers  
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