Wednesday, March 23, 2011

'60's Surveillance Culture

Searching for brother Jeff Sharlet hasn’t always turned up friendly sources. Occasionally, I’ve stumbled across hidden adversaries of the Vietnam antiwar movement, in effect, spies working for the FBI, for university authorities, state police, and occasionally even for the odd sheriff here or there. That the civilian arm of the antiwar movement, not to mention the manifestations of GI protest, troubled the government should surprise no one. Not just the federal government writ large, but its parts such as the Department of the Army; municipal governments which spawned their own undercover outfits; and a number of public universities, especially in conservative states where legislators took a dim view of the New Left, were also in the surveillance game.

The FBI operated through its field offices in every major and large provincial city, the Army through its counter intelligence units. Certain city police departments, such as Chicago’s, created a ‘Red Squad’. Surveillance methods varied from university to university – at the University of Texas, campus security collaborated with the City of Austin police, whereas Indiana University made do with a one-man Red Squad which liaised with the FBI in the state capital.

Methods varied. The FBI was fond of surreptitiously sowing disinformation so as to create mutual distrust within and between student groups. Army intelligence was not terribly creative, just basically hunting down soldier-editors of underground papers on bases, and harassing GI coffee houses located off-base in nearby towns. City cops detailed for Red Squad work usually busied themselves with maintaining clipping files on ‘known agitators’ in their communities, while university police favored planting secret informants at student left meetings, not awfully difficult to pull off since most campus meetings were open by design.

The breakthrough in public awareness of the ‘60s surveillance culture came in 1971 when anonymous activists styling themselves the ‘Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI’ broke into a small town FBI office in eastern Pennsylvania and carried away over 1,000 documents revealing past and current FBI activities to suppress dissent, including the New Left and antiwar movement. Soon after, the activists who made the break-in began anonymously mailing packages of FBI documents to major media outlets which in turn made them public. Among the documents for example were several describing an operation against Swarthmore College activists for which the FBI recruited the services of a local police chief, the mailman, and a college switchboard operator.

Discovered in the trove of stolen papers was the acronym for the FBI’s secret umbrella program for countering dissent in America – COINTELPRO or ‘Counter Intelligence Program’. Later in the ‘70s, it also came to light that the CIA was secretly and illegally conducting anti-dissident operations against American citizens within the United States under a far-reaching program called CHAOS. At the local level, the campus newspaper at Chicago’s Roosevelt University exposed many of the city’s Red Squad’s capers.

Based on the FBI's COINTELPRO documents from the '71 break-in

In recent years, a liberal periodical, the ‘Texas Observer’, got hold of and published the long secret surveillance files of the Austin police and the campus cops at University of Texas. Finally, a few years ago, a former Vietnam-era Army lieutenant published a memoir, ‘Vietnam Awakening’, about his time as an intelligence officer at Fort Hood in Texas. One of his assignments, which he quietly botched, was to set up and compromise the antiwar GI coffee house in nearby Killeen, the ‘Oleo Strut’, so it could be declared off-limits to military personnel, no doubt a template for similar military intelligence ops at other training bases throughout the country.

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