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A Special Supplement: The Theory and Practice of American Political Intelligence


The twentieth century has been marked by a succession of different forms of restraint on political expression: criminal anarchy statutes, sedition laws, deportations, Congressional anti-subversive probes, loyalty oaths, enforced registration. These and related measures still survive. But in recent years new, more formidable ways of responding to political and social movements on the left have emerged. The most important of these is the system of political intelligence, which is rapidly coalescing into a national network.1

Despite the efforts of intelligence officials to keep intelligence operations secret, reliable information about our intelligence system is steadily accumulating. We now have a clearer picture of the methods and targets of political surveillance. As a result, we can no longer seriously doubt that the main purpose of such activity is political control of dissent or that the frequently advanced justifications of law enforcement or national security are often no more than a “cover.”

On March 21, 1971, a group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI mailed or delivered to a congressman and senator as well as to the Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times a packet containing fourteen documents, selected from over 1,000 stolen from a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The fourteen documents, all of them of recent date and undisputed authenticity, show that the FBI concentrates much of its investigative effort on college dissenters and black student groups. According to a memorandum from J. Edgar Hoover such groups “pose a definite threat to the Nation’s stability and security,” a conclusion that he has not been able to support and that both the Washington Post and The New York Times have challenged.

When conducting surveillance of a Swarthmore College philosophy professor regarded as a “radical,” the FBI enlisted the assistance of the local police and postmaster, as well as a campus security officer and switchboard operator. In one of the documents, the FBI agent in charge of the Philadelphia bureau instructs his agents at Media that more interviews are

…in order…for plenty of reasons, chief of which are it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox. In addition, some will be overcome by the overwhelming personalities of the contacting agent and will volunteer to tell all—perhaps on a continuing basis.

Dramatic disclosures of this sort as well as the recent Senate hearings on Army intelligence will undoubtedly help to cure the surviving skepticism about these practices. Until fairly recently even the targets of surveillance were reluctant to credit the existence of police activities which violate the most deeply held premises of their society. But political surveillance has become so obtrusive and its targets so numerous that it can no longer be easily ignored or justified. A sharper awareness of intelligence has, in turn, opened up new sources of data about a field which I have been researching since the McCarthy era.2

Of course dossiers, informers, and infiltrators are hardly new. But since the early Sixties, when attorneys general in the South formed a rudimentary intelligence network in order to curb the integrationist activities of students, political surveillance and associated practices have spread throughout the nation.

Surveillance has expanded largely because of the scale and militance of the protest movements that erupted in the Sixties. Policy makers and officers of intelligence agencies were then faced with the need to identify and control new actors on a new political stage—no easy matter in view of the anarchic radical milieu, characterized by highly mobile and anonymous young people, who tend to be hostile to formal organization and leadership. The social remoteness of new radicals concentrated in “tribal,” self-contained groups made it all the more difficult to identify them.

Most of the existing intelligence agencies at that time were no more effective than other institutions in our society. Their techniques were as out-moded as their notions of subversion dominated by an old Left composed of “Communists,” “fellow travelers,” and “fronts.” Intelligence files were choked with millions of dossiers of aging or dead radicals. At the same time, new gadgetry—miniaturization, audio-electronics, infrared lens cameras, computers, and data banks—gave intelligence possibilities undreamed of by the most zealous practitioners of the repressive arts of the nineteenth century.

According to the herald of the “technetronic” society, Zbigniew Brzezinski, new developments in technology will make it “possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date files, containing even personal information about the…behavior of the citizen, in addition to the more customary data.” Full access to critical data, he adds, will give the undercover agent and the roving political spy greater flexibility in planning and executing countermeasures.3


Twenty federal agencies are engaged in intelligence activities. The most important are:

—the FBI, with an estimated 2,000 agents on political investigative assignments in charge of thousands of undercover informers,

—the Army, which concededly had at one time 1,200 agents in the field, together with a huge staff operating a dossier bank of 25 million “personalities,”

—the CIA,

—the Internal Revenue Service (for several weeks in 1970 its agents requested access to the circulation records of public libraries in a number of cities in order to learn the names of borrowers of books on explosives and other “militant and subversive” subjects, a practice which it defended as “just a continual building of information”),

—the Intelligence Division of the Post Office,
—the Secret Service (where names of 50,000 “persons of interest” are on file),

—the Customs Bureau of the Treasury Department,

—the Civil Service Commission (15 million names of “subversive activity” suspects),

—the Immigration and Naturalization Service,

—the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard,

—the Passport Division of the State Department,

—the Department of Justice Community Relations Service which feeds information into its computerized Inter-Divisional Intelligence and Information Unit,4

—civil rights and poverty projects sponsored by the Department of |Health, Education and Welfare and the Office of Economic Opportunity. The Executive Department agencies cooperate with and are supplemented by the Congressional anti-subversive committees.

Intelligence operations are also flourishing in states and counties. A typical state intelligence agency is the Massachusetts Division of Subversive Activities which conducts investigations in response to complaints by private citizens and acts as a central repository for information about subversion. The Division’s Annual Report for 1969 is revealing:

A file is kept of peace groups, civil rightists and other such groups where, due to their enthusiasm, they might have a tendency to adopt or show a policy of advocating the commission of acts of force or violence to deny other persons their rights under the Constitution. These files are kept up-dated by communications with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the House Internal Security Committee, Subversive Activities units in other states and decisions of the United States Supreme Court.

The files in this Division have grown to such an extent that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Defense, U.S. Army Intelligence, Federal Civil Service Commission, Treasury Department, several departments of the Commonwealth, Industrial Plants and Educational Institutions now clear with this Division on security checks.

Requests for investigations, or assistance in investigations, received from various police departments, Federal Bureau of Investigation, House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Subversive Activities Control Board, complied with such requests [sic].

Members of the Division attended demonstrations conducted in the area by various groups. Note was made of the leaders and organizations participating, occasionally photographs are taken, the persons identified, and a file was made.

The Division is continuing to compile and tabulate a check on new organizations in the Civil Rights area so as to be sure of any inclinations toward communist-front activities or the infiltration into these organizations of known communists or communist sympathizers.

During the past year, as a result of the increased activity of the Communist and Subversive Groups in racial demonstrations throughout the country, this Division has kept a watch on these developments so as to note any trend toward that end in Massachusetts.

During the past year, this Division continued to submit information relative to subversive organizations and individuals to several local police departments who are in the process, or have started, Intelligence Units within their respective departments.

Sometimes state intelligence agencies operate under concealed or obscure auspices. For example, the Ohio Highway Patrol runs an intelligence unit which claims to have recruited student informers on every campus in the state. According to the head of the unit, “We have actually had informers who are members of the board of trustees [sic] of various dissident groups.” State intelligence units are also at work in several universities in Maryland and Illinois.

Urban intelligence units (“red squads”) have multiplied greatly and are becoming a standard tool in local police practice. Increasingly powerful, they operate under a variety of names (Anti-Subversive Squad, Intelligence Unit, Civil Disobedience Unit); in some cases they use a “Human Relations” or “Community Relations” cover, which is considered an efficient means of penetrating the ghetto.5

Black communities swarm with urban intelligence agents and informers, as do university and peace groups; invitations to young people to defect or to sell information at high prices are becoming routine. Young college graduates—black and white—are offered “career opportunities” in urban intelligence; courses in intelligence and surveillance are being taught to municipal police units and campus security police.6

In fact, the campus constabulary is spreading throughout the country’s higher education community. Its functions are expanding to include clandestine intelligence activities such as undercover work and wiretapping and are meshed with the work of other intelligence agencies. We get a glimpse of this new collaboration in one of the recent Media documents, dated November 13, 1970.

On 11/12/70 MR. HENRY PEIRSOL, Security Officer, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa. advised that DANIEL BENNETT is a Professor of Philosophy at that School and in charge of the Philosophy Department. He has been there about three years having previously taught at University, of Mass. MRS. BENNETT is not employed and there are two small children in the family ages about 8 to 12 years.

The BENNETTs reside in a semi-detached house located near PEIRSOL’s residence although he does not have any social contact with them. PEIRSOL has noted that there does not appear to be anyone other than the BENNETTs residing at their home but that numerous college students visit there frequently. BENNETT drives a two tone blue, VW station wagon, bearing Penna. license 5V0245. There are no other cars in the family and no other cars normally parked in their driveway.

PEIRSOL was funished [sic] with the wanted flyers on the subjects and he stated he would remain alert in his neighborhood for their possible appearance. Also he will alert in his sources at the college for any information about the subjects particularly any information that subjects might be in contact with the BENNETTS.

  1. 1

    The term “intelligence” as used in this article is adapted from foreign intelligence usage and practice. It describes a body of techniques for collecting political information about a “subject” (physical surveillance, photography, electronic eavesdropping, informers—planted or recruited “in place”—and other deceptive or clandestine practices), the product of these activities (files and dossiers), and a set of political assumptions (the intelligence mind).

  2. 2

    This article is a distillation of verified materials, many of them documentary, drawn from the files of the ACLU political surveillance project and based on the following sources: court proceedings; legislative and administrative hearings; reports by informers and police agents to intelligence units; intelligence evaluations and summaries by intelligence staff and command personnel; interviews and correspondence with subjects, informers, and intelligence officers; the files of lawyers and civil liberties groups; TV scripts, police journals and manuals, graduate theses, newspaper and magazine articles; and the responses to a detailed questionnaire.

  3. 3

    To hasten the arrival of this brave new world, federal funds allocated by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration are being channeled to state and local police units to subsidize such surveillance gear as twenty-four hour infrared lens closed circuit TV cameras which are being attached to telephone poles on the streets of American cities. Sensors and other electronic gadgetry developed for the military in Indochina are being adapted for internal intelligence use and tested on an experimental basis in a number of cities.

  4. 4

    It was on the basis of information supplied by this unit that Attorney General Mitchell was informed in a confidential memorandum that the likelihood of violence during the November, 1969, moratorium was “extremely high…beyond the violence which was witnessed during the Pentagon demonstration in October, 1967, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in August, 1968, and the demonstration in Chicago on October 11th conducted by the Students for a Democratic Society.” This prophecy turned out to be unfounded.

  5. 5

    Police departments have in recent years been loaded with recommendations from commissions and professional groups to develop intelligence techniques as a means of curbing crime—especially organized crime. But the intelligence units which have come into being as a result have been converted into instruments for political surveillance—especially of the ghetto.

    The day and night surveillance of blacks, as a group, by these newly constituted units is considered self-justifying, very much like the surveillance of aliens in the Twenties. This is true even of small and medium-sized cities, which are rife with mounting crime and corruption, but proud of their “mod squads” and the increasing number of intelligence “inputs” to the ghetto, the “long-hair” community, and the campus.

    As for the large cities, there are, according to Illinois Police Superintendent James T. McGuire, more police in the Chicago area on political intelligence assignments than are engaged in fighting organized crime. The same is true in Philadelphia.

  6. 6

    The campus has become the theater of intensive intelligence activities by undercover urban police agents and paid informers. A recent investigation by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the University of California, Los Angeles Division, Academic Senate, concludes that “there are undercover activities by governmental agencies on campus, that some of these activities are conducted by operatives of the Los Angeles Police Department and that it is unclear what other agencies, if any, are involved.”

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