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

(Those who are familiar with the quality of FBI reporting will not be surprised to learn that some of this report is not true. As Professor Bennett has pointed out, he is unacquainted with the subject of the “wanted flyers,” has one child not two, and owns two cars not one.)

Many of the red squads run by city police are growing so fast that they are hard put to find enough agents. The permanent intelligence staffs are frequently augmented by detectives and plainclothesmen—as Chicago’s regular intelligence unit was doubled for the SDS convention in 1969. There are also many informer recruits and trainees who report to intelligence units but are not counted as employees or officers. The official membership of Detroit’s intelligence unit, which was formed in 1961, grew by 1968 to seventy members. In 1968, Boston had forty agents, New York had at least sixty-eight on its intelligence staff (ninety as of 1970) and fifty-five more line agents planted undercover; Chicago had more than 500, Houston fourteen. The Los Angeles Police Department doubled its Intelligence Division personnel from eighty-four in 1969 to 167 in 1970.

Intelligence is not a wholly public |function. Political surveillance has been routinely practiced by private detectives since the nineteenth century, when objections to a political police force left the Pinkerton and Burns agencies free to engage in these activities without official competition. Today the private agencies are an important channel for political intelligence. Often they recruit employees with access to official files from government intelligence agencies and sell such information to private industry.7

Local and national intelligence agencies are beginning to coalesce into an “intelligence community.” For example, the young demonstrators who came to Chicago in 1968 encountered red squad operatives from their home towns. The overheated reports of these visiting local agents led Mayor Daley’s office to conclude that a plot to assassinate Johnson had been hatched. The urban agents cooperated with their federal counterparts, as well as with the Army and Navy secret operatives at the Chicago demonstrations. During the subsequent conspiracy trial no fewer than thirty of about forty substantive prosecution witnesses were police agents or infiltrators associated with governmental surveillance at various levels.

The FBI plays a central role in coordinating the intelligence system; it exchanges information with other agencies, performs investigative work for intelligence groups with limited jurisdiction, and trains intelligence agents for service in other agencies. Its intelligence techniques and political standards serve as a model for local operations. It compiles albums of photographs and files of activists which are transmitted to agencies throughout the United States.8

Congressional anti-subversive committees have also expanded their intelligence activities beyond the passive compilation of dossiers available only to government investigative personnel. They now provide a forum for local intelligence agencies, publish dossiers, mug shots, and other photographs of subjects obtained by surveillance and supplied by police witnesses.9 They also independently engage in intelligence activities.


The changing role of the police in carrying out surveillance was described a few years ago by Inspector Harry Fox of the Philadelphia police. In his Senate testimony, he said:

Police now have become “watch-dogs” and “observers” of vocal, subversive and revolutionary minded people. This function has been institutionalized in Philadelphia in a “civil-disobedience unit” composed of selected and highly trained plainclothesmen. They cover all meetings, rallies, lectures, marches, sit-ins, laydowns, fasts, vigils, or any other type of demonstration that has ominous overtones….

These officers know by sight the hard core men and women who lead and inspire demonstrations. They know their associates, family ties, techniques, and affiliations with organizations leaning toward Communism both on and off the Attorney General’s list. They see them day in and day out recruiting, planning, carrying signs, and verbally assaulting the principles of democracy.

Yes, the police role has become one of…surveillance, taking photographs, identifying participants, and making records of the events. On this basis, local police are able to piece together this jigsaw puzzle and see the widespread activity of the hard core demonstrators and instigators.

This account naturally omits the harassing and “guerrilla warfare” aspects of police tactics. To the policeman, public protest is an unwelcome disruption of the tranquillity which he regards as natural and proper. His response to antiwar activities is particularly hostile because he sees himself as a beleaguered defender of “patriotic” values, which he tends to protect by abusing his power, harassing demonstrators, and intimidating suspects. His resentment and anger are provoked in the same way by the nonconformity and personal style of many young people, who are now the principal targets of heavy surveillance and who are constantly subjected to detention and arrest on flimsy charges.

Protest activities have inevitably served to draw the police into politics and to expand their intelligence functions. Especially ominous is the widening use of photographic surveillance by intelligence units. Police in communities throughout the country systematically photograph demonstrations, parades, confrontations, vigils, rallies, presentations of petitions to congressmen and senators, and related activities. The photographers attached to the Philadelphia intelligence unit, for example, cover more than a thousand demonstrations a year. Any “incident” considered “controversial” is a predictable subject for the police photographer. Protest demonstrations against the Vietnam war are automatically considered “controversial,” but not those in favor. In the South, photographing integrationist protesters is given top priority.

Subjects are often photographed from as close as three to five feet. Sometimes police photographers openly ridicule the demonstrators. Children who accompany their parents are photographed as are casual bystanders and nonparticipants. To convey and conceal photographic equipment, panel trucks are sometimes used, occasionally camouflaged to look like the equipment of a television station (referred to by veteran surveillance subjects as “WFBI”). Surveillance photographers acquire spurious press credentials; bona fide cameramen often moonlight as police or FBI informers.10 Supplementary photographic data are occasionally obtained from cooperating newspaper and television stations.

Photographs are sometimes covertly taken by unobtrusive plainclothesmen when a “respectable” group is involved—for example, parents picketing a school. Usually, however, policemen, sometimes in uniform, do not bother to conceal their activities: they either man the cameras themselves or direct their aides by pointing out individuals or groups to be photographed. The deterrent effect of open photography is not lost on the police but is justified on the ground, among others, that it “cools” the “subversive agitator” and prevents potential lawlessness.11

Photographs of individuals not already known to the police are submitted to informers and undercover agents for identification. Sometimes tentative identifications are verified by automobile license numbers which the police systematically collect at meetings and rallies and in front of the houses of “known militants.” Then they ask other agencies, urban, state, and federal, to help to identify the subjects.

Once the individual is identified, his name is entered in an index. The local intelligence unit then sets out to obtain information about the subject—solely on the basis of his or her attendance at a single “controversial” event—from other intelligence sources, state and federal. In addition, the contents of the file are passed on, as Captain Drake, Commander of the Intelligence Division of the New Orleans Police Department, has explained, to “every conceivable authority that might have an interest in causing any prosecution or further investigation of these persons….”


Photography describes the subject. But other techniques must also be used to obtain political data. These include interrogation of associates, employers, landlords, etc., collection of data about financial resources, bank deposits and withdrawals, and about the subject’s background. Where meetings are held publicly, whether indoors or out, the speeches are monitored by portable tape recorders, a practice which is common in large cities but which also is growing in smaller communities, especially in college towns.

Wiretapping and electronic bugging are also common, in spite of judicial restraints on their use.12 Local police specialists use these devices not only for their own purposes but also on behalf of the FBI. The 1968 Crime Control Law has authorized electronic eavesdropping in certain criminal cases; twelve states have passed similar legislation, while six others are now considering it. A variety of electronic devices is now being offered by commercial supply houses to state and local police departments to implement this legislation. Once they become available for even limited purposes, it is extremely unlikely that they will not be used for political surveillance as well.

Still, personal surveillance is necessary in those areas where technology cannot—at present anyway—replace human beings. Thus infiltration of dissident groups by informers remains a common procedure. Ironically, the Warren Court’s limitations on wiretapping and bugging have themselves led to a heavier reliance on informers as a substitute. Moreover, these limitations encourage the use of informers because they can supply “probable cause” of a crime and so justify a wiretap order.13

Informers are indispensable to political intelligence systems. Electronic eavesdropping and wiretapping are ill-suited to the slow pace, confusion, ambiguity, and factionalism of the dissenting political activities that are the targets of intelligence. Besides, wiretaps can be circumvented once the subject becomes aware of them. Indeed, nothing can quite take the place of the classic tool of intelligence, the informer. But in addition to the moral stigma attached to informing in Western culture,14 informers have always been regarded anyway as unreliable and treacherous observers, reporters, and witnesses. Most of them become informers for money. Their income, tenure, and future usefulness depend on their capacity to produce material useful to the police.15 Others are “hooked” because of previous involvements with the law, or are recruited for ideological reasons—either as police plants or as defectors.

Both the pressures and the inducements, along with the sense of guilt that requires the betrayer to find some justification for his betrayal, tend to produce tainted information. All too frequently it is inaccurate, highly selective, and based on sinister and unwarranted inferences. Where a literal version of a target’s utterances would seem innocent, the informer will insist on stressing the connotations; conversely, where the language is figurative or metaphysical the informer reports it as literally intended. Most important of all, he seizes on the transient fantasies of the powerless—rhetoric and images not intended to be acted upon—and transforms them into conspiracies whose purpose and commitment are wholly alien to their volatile and ambiguous context.

It need only be added that the hazards inherent in the testimony of political informers are especially great in conspiracy cases. The vague, inchoate character of the conspiracy charge and the atmosphere of plotting and hidden guilt which accompanies it make it a perfect foil for the undercover agent who surfaces on the witness stand, a hero returned from the dark wood.16

The informer is not only a reporter or an observer, but also an actor or participant, and he frequently transforms what might otherwise be idle talk or prophecy into action. Professor Zachariah Chafee, Jr., once remarked, “The spy often passes over an almost imperceptible boundary into the agent provocateur.” The purpose of such provocations, as Allen Dulles wrote in The Craft of Intelligence, is to “provide the pretext for arresting any or all of [the group’s] members. Since the agent report[s] to the police exactly when and where the action is going to take place, the police [have] no problems.”

  1. 7

    A Dayton, Ohio, firm which calls itself Agitator Detection, Inc., advertises a “sure-fire method for keeping radical America out of work”: “We have,” the company boasts, “complete, computerized files on every known American dissident…. And all 160 million of their friends, relatives and fellow travelers.”

    A scattering of right-wing organizations and publications across the country also has access to intelligence data. For example, the Church League of America, headed by Edgar Bundy, boasts of its over 7 million cross-indexed files of political suspects, its “working relationships” with “leading law enforcement agencies,” and its cooperation with undercover agents.

    These organizations are prized by intelligence agencies because they share the basic intelligence assumption that the country is in the grip of a widespread subversive conspiracy. Intelligence agents and informers use the platform and publications of the far right to document this thesis with “inside” information.

  2. 8

    The FBI circulates through its own internal intelligence channels a document known as the “agitator index,” which is made available to local agencies. In the spring and summer of 1968 the Washington field office of the FBI compiled an elaborate collection of dossiers and photographs for use in connection with the Resurrection City demonstration.

    That material was thereafter augmented and organized into an album; multiple copies were made and transmitted to the Chicago police for use in dealing with protest activity around the Democratic convention. The FBI agent who was responsible for the idea received a special commendation. Such albums of “known leftists” are now widely circulated.

  3. 9

    In a hearing last year, Chief Counsel Sourwine of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee described the subcommittee’s mission in these words:

    We seek information with respect to the persons who head these subversive organizations and are active in them and who participate in them, the persons who support them: about the interconnections, the channels of authority, and the sources of funds.

    We are asking police departments from all across the country to sift their records and bring these facts here for the committee…by gathering all of the available information from leading police departments throughout the country, the committee hopes to be able eventually to present a picture. We are charting the organizations in each area, the persons in each area who are connected…and we hope when we finish we will have a picture which will show just what this country is up against.”

    The appendix to the volume from which this is quoted contains a series of documents from the intelligence files of the Flint, Michigan, Police Department including a “steno pad” which “was owned by one of the top members of the SDS,” taken from a car in a raid which had no justifiable basis.

  4. 10

    In view of the overwhelming need for identification it is hardly surprising that informers with photographic skills are paid a bonus. Louis Salzberg, a New York photographer, received about $10,000 in the two years he served as an FBI informer. He used this money to finance a studio which sold pictures to left publications, the negatives of which were turned over to the FBI. He surfaced at the Chicago conspiracy trial and subsequently testified before the House Internal Security Committee which was also supplied with the negatives as well as with documents and correspondence taken by Salzberg from the files of the Veterans for Peace and the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee.

  5. 11

    The importance of photography in the new intelligence scene was amusingly demonstrated during the Chicago conspiracy trial. By court order, to safeguard the integrity of the judicial process, photographers were excluded from the federal courthouse during the trial. But this prohibition unwittingly closed a valuable surveillance channel and the order was amended to permit intelligence photographers to continue to ply their trade.

  6. 12

    Attorney General Mitchell has asserted an inherent power flowing from executive responsibility for the national security (a term of enormous looseness) to disregard constitutional restraints in this area whenever, in his unreviewable discretion, an individual may be seeking “to attack and subvert the government by unlawful means.” And even before the Mitchell regime, wiretapping and bugging were systematically used by the FBI in cases (such as those of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Elijah Muhammad) not even remotely linked to national security.

  7. 13

    For example, the primary basis for successful application for, and repeated renewals of, wiretap authorization orders against a group of New York City Panthers consisted of an account by an informer of a conspiracy by the Panthers to engage in the ambush and murder of policemen—a story admittedly invented by the informer, one Shaun Dubonnet, to secure leniency in a criminal case, earn a little money, and further his career as a double agent. Neither Dubonnet’s substantial prior criminal record—including two convictions for impersonation—nor his repeated hospitalization for mental illness served to impair his credibility with the police.

    The tips and reports of informers, frequently fabricated, provide pretexts for raids. One example of many that could be cited is the alleged tip by the undercover agent to the FBI that the Chicago Black Panthers had assembled an arsenal of guns. This led to a predawn raid in which Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed. Only a few guns were found.

  8. 14

    Judge Anderson tersely summed up the matter when he wrote in 1920 in the case of Colyer v. Skeffington, “A right-minded man refuses such a job.”

  9. 15

    According to information from an FBI source, “informants” (as the FBI prefers to call them; “informers” is a subversive usage) submit vast quantities of data of a highly inflammatory character. The “contact” does not challenge it because he is afraid to lose the informant. Frequently he ignores this suspect material in his own reports either because he is convinced that it is incredible or that the informant would have to surface, to testify, if it became the basis for a criminal charge. This would again result in losing the informant and require the “contact” to recruit a replacement. It is infinitely preferable, I was told, to cover up for an informant even if his reports are wholly false than to be forced to go to the trouble of finding a replacement.

  10. 16

    Conspiracy is a classic vehicle for the political informer for another reason. Under conspiracy law, evidence of acts and statements of co-conspirators to bring about the purposes of the conspiracy agreement are admissible against all the co-conspirators even though, without the agreement (frequently proved by flimsy and remote evidence), it would be incompetent and inadmissible as hearsay.

    The informer’s tale in this way becomes binding on all of the alleged co-conspirators including individuals he has never seen or met. The conspiracy charge thus economizes on the number of informer witnesses needed to make a case. This is a highly important consideration to intelligence agencies, which are traditionally reluctant to surface informers.

    The general question of the reliability of informer witnesses as well as their role in conspiracy cases is dramatized by the current conspiracy indictment of the Berrigans, which is based on evidence supplied by a prison informer, Boyd Douglas, Jr., who also inspired and arranged for a number of the “overt acts,” allegedly in furtherance of the “conspiracy.”

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