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

There are powerful reasons for viewing provocation as the handmaiden of infiltration, even when it is not part of a planned intelligence strategy. A merely passive, “cool” infiltrator-observer cannot hope to play more than a lowly “Jimmy Higgins” role in the target group, if he gains entry at all. In order to enhance his usefulness he must penetrate planning circles by becoming highly active. Moreover, the pressure to produce results in the form of concrete evidence of illegal activity often drives the infiltrator into provocative acts, regardless of the official cautionary advice which he may be given when he receives his assignment. Such advice is routinely conveyed by the agent’s “handler” for the record, as a defense against a possible charge of entrapment.

Convincing evidence of provocation has emerged in a number of recent cases.17 But the motives of the agent provocateur are frequently complex and difficult to reconstruct from the materials available. The most common provocateur is simply a professional police agent who coldly engineers a single provocative act designed to “set up” leaders for roundup and arrest.

Another type (of which Tommy the Traveler is an example) is the ultra-rightist who becomes a spy in order to destroy the target group. He is often driven to act out his paranoid fantasies with bombs and guns when his delusions about the group’s sinister goals fail to conform to reality.

On the other hand, as the FBI student informer William T. Divale has disclosed in his recently published confessions, I Lived Inside the Campus Revolution, a planted informer may come to share the values of his victims, with the result that his newly acquired convictions carry him far beyond the call of duty—a form of conversion characteristic of infiltrators of black and youth groups. The infiltrator’s secret knowledge that he alone in the group is immune from accountability for his acts dissolves all restraints on his zeal. He does, of course, take the risk of exposure and punitive reprisal, but this possibility itself encourages him to disarm suspicion by acting as a supermilitant. This almost schizoid quality of the behavior of informers seems inherent in political surveillance and has recurred throughout its history.

Many student informers who have surfaced or recanted have been revealed as operating for two intelligence agencies at the same time—usually a local and a federal one. Several informers commonly penetrate a single organization; indeed this is prescribed as sound intelligence practice, because each surveillance report can cross-check the others.18 Attempts to recruit young leftists as police spies have also recently become common: For example, in the fall of 1969, young volunteers for the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam were solicited to become informers by FBI agents. “Will you work for us?” they were asked as they entered the elevator on their way to the Committee’s office. The FBI has recently acquired official jurisdiction on college campuses, which will result in even more extensive subsidy of student informers.

As the FBI Media documents make clear, Bureau agents now have formal authority from Washington to recruit informers as young as eighteen, including those attending two-year junior and community colleges. This authorization of September, 1970, made official a practice which long preceded the issuance of the directive but was consistently denied for public relations reasons. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover repeated this denial as recently as February of this year.

Moreover, local police—especially in university communities—have lately been given special funds to hire secret informers. For this purpose at least one state, Wisconsin, has made available the sum of $10,000.19


In the past the police agencies (whether federal or local) preferred to act as the informer’s “handler,” “controller,” or “contact.” Police officers themselves only rarely resorted to impersonation, dissembling loyalties, the fabrication of false cover identities—techniques made familiar by foreign intelligence practice and regarded as abhorrent to our traditions. It was one thing to hire an agent as an independent contractor to do the dirty work of political snooping, but quite another for a public servant to do it himself.

Today, however, the police themselves often go underground. In New Orleans an intelligence division officer gained access to the Black Panther headquarters by impersonating a priest. At least six agents of New York’s Special Service Division infiltrated the Black Panthers, and appeared as witnesses in their current trial.

Three members of Chicago’s intelligence unit infiltrated the Chicago Peace Council. One of them, in order to enhance his credibility, exposed another to Council leaders as a policeman. According to Karl Meyer, the Council’s chairman, “At our meetings they invariably took the most militant positions, trying to provoke the movement from its nonviolent force to the wildest kind of ventures.” “They were,” he concluded, “about our most active members.” The Peace Council became suspicious of possible spies when it and other Chicago groups—the Latin American Defense Organization, Women Strike for Peace, the Fellowship of Reconciliation—suffered a number of burglaries of files and records. (Office machines and small amounts of money were also stolen but subsequently returned.)

Agents of the Chicago intelligence unit are scattered throughout Illinois, and sometimes do not report to their superiors for days or even months. Their real identities are concealed even from their colleagues. Their methods include disguises, wiretapping, and the creation of elaborate “covers,” such as dummy businesses. In numerous cities, including San Diego, Houston, Oakland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Columbus, the agent-informer is becoming a familiar phenomenon. We are moving toward the classic European model of political infiltration, in which the planted police agent lives a double life for years if necessary, clandestinely reporting to his superiors. This kind of intelligence requires skill and training; so one should not be surprised to see the emergence of schools of instruction in the deceptive arts, similar to those run by the CIA for indoctrination in foreign intelligence and guerrilla activity.


At an ever increasing rate the activities of antiwar, anti-Establishment, civil rights, black militant, student, and youth groups are being recorded and compiled. Lists and dossiers are coded, computerized, stored, and made accessible to all branches of the intelligence network. Here is how Lt. George Fencl, head of Philadelphia’s civil disobedience unit, describes its filing system:

We’ve been acquainted with quite a number of people throughout the years we’ve been handling demonstrations. We have made a record of every demonstration that we’ve handled in the city of Philadelphia and reduced this to writing, first by report and then taking out the names of persons connected with the different movements.

We have some 18,000 names and we’ve made what we call an alphabetical file. We make a 5×8 card on each demonstrator that we know the name and so forth that we handle. This card shows such information as the name, address, picture if possible, and a little rundown on the person…which group he pickets with and so forth.

Also on the back of the card, we show the different demonstrations, the date, time and location and the groups that the person picketed with. We have some 600 different organizations that we’ve encountered in the Philadelphia area.

This new intelligence system concentrates more on compiling names than on the content of speeches or other activities. For example, a report submitted to the Detroit Criminal Investigation Bureau by two undercover agents reads as follows:

At 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, November 11, 1965, the WEST CENTRAL ORGANIZATION held a special meeting which was comprised primarily of executives, delegates and clergy. The meeting was called for a briefing by MR. SAUL ALINSKY of the INDUSTRIAL AREAS FOUNDATION, Chicago, Illinois, who was in the Detroit area on November 10 and 11, 1965. Thirty-seven persons attended this meeting.

The following persons were identified as being in attendance at the above meeting, identifications being made by surveilling officers as well as by Confidential Informant 059. [A list of twenty-one names follows.]

The following vehicles were observed parked in the immediate vicinity of 3535 Grand River, occupants entering same. [There follows a list of eleven automobiles together with the names and addresses of eleven individuals who are presumably the title registrants.]

There is nothing in the report which suggests the reason for the surveillance or what took place at the meeting.

Experience with other official record systems suggests that it is only a matter of time before the intelligence now being collected by thousands of federal and local agencies will be codified and made accessible on a broad scale. Indeed, we are not far away from a computerized nation-wide system of transmittal and storage.


While the recent bombings and the hunt for fugitives have supplied justification for some surveillance practices, the emerging system as a whole is oriented toward the future and is justified as preventive: the security of the nation against future overthrow is said to require the present frenzy of surveillance. In cases where such an argument makes no sense, surveillance is justified on grounds that it is necessary to prevent local violence and disorder in the future.

Political intelligence indiscriminately sweeps into its net the mild dissenters along with those drawn to violence; when the national security is at stake, so the argument runs, it is folly to take risks. The quarry is pursued long before expressions or associations of radicals are likely to incubate into violent or revolutionary acts. The fear of waiting “until it is too late” conditions the intelligence mind to suspect all forms of dissent as signs of potential “subversion.”20

Thus peaceful, moderate, lawful organizations—from the NAACP to the Fellowship of Reconciliation—become intelligence targets on the theory that they are linked to communism or subversion.21 This lack of selectivity, a familiar phenomenon to students of intelligence, has now been abundantly documented by the Senate testimony of former Army Intelligence agents and the recent Media documents.

To equate dissent with subversion, as intelligence officials do, is to deny that the demand for change is based on real social, economic, or political conditions. A familiar example of this assumption is the almost paranoid obsession with the “agitator.” Intelligence proceeds on the assumption that most people are reasonably contented but are incited or misled by an “agitator,” a figure who typically comes from “outside” to stir up trouble. The task is to track down this sinister individual and bring him to account; all will then be well again.

Since the agitator is elusive and clever, one never knows who he will turn out to be or where he will show his hand. Indeed, the striking characteristic of the agitator, according to the rhetoric and testimony of the intelligence people, is not his views nor his actions but his persistence. A subject who keeps coming to meetings or rallies or is repeatedly involved in “incidents” is soon marked as an agitator^22.

The outside agitator is a descendent of the “foreign agitator” or the “agent of a foreign power,” as he came to be called. The thesis that domestic radicals are either tools or dupes of foreign manipulation provides intelligence agencies with their most effective way of exploiting popular fears, one which is also cherished by legislators. All movements on the left—and especially groups such as the Panthers—have come under attack as agents for foreign powers.23

  1. 17

    Thomas Tongyai (Tommy the Traveler), an undercover agent on the campus of Hobart College (an Episcopalian school with a tradition of nonviolence), was charged by students with preaching revolution, using violent rhetoric to gain converts, and demonstrating the M1 carbine and the construction of various types of bombs. He did not deny these allegations but explained, “The best cover for an undercover agent who wanted to get into the campus was portraying the part of a radical extremist which I did.”

    According to Alabama Civil Liberties Union lawyers, in May of 1970 a student infiltrator for the FBI and the Tuscaloosa police on the University of Alabama campus, Charles Grimm, Jr., committed arson and incited acts of violence, which were then used as a reason for declaring a campus protest meeting an unlawful assembly, a ruling which resulted in criminal charges against 150 students. One of the attorneys contended that the agent had admitted the violent acts to him and that the FBI and local police had spirited the agent away to make him unavailable in the court cases.

    William Frapolly, a Chicago police spy at Northeastern Illinois State College, was the leader of an SDS sit-in and participated in a Weatherman action which culminated in throwing the institution’s president off a stage, conduct which led to his expulsion for two semesters. As the only Weatherman SDS representative on Northeastern’s campus, Frapolly actively recruited young students to join the SDS Weatherman faction and to participate in the Weatherman-sponsored “Days of Rage” in Chicago in the fall of 1969. He surfaced as a prosecution witness in the Chicago conspiracy trial, where he conceded on the witness stand that during convention week he proposed a number of schemes for sabotaging public facilities and military vehicles, although his assigned duties as a marshal were to maintain order.

    There are half a dozen comparable cases. The UCLA Academic Freedom Committee report which I have already cited states that its probe revealed suggestive evidence of “the presence of undercover agents as agents provocateurs, engaging in or precipitating the behavior they are charged with suppressing….”

  2. 18

    There is no optimal number of infiltrators. An FBI agent whom I recently interviewed said that at a Washington Peace Mobilization meeting in 1969, of the thirty-two individuals present, nine were undercover agents. The number of informers an FBI agent can recruit is limited only by his budget for this purpose. An informer is first used ad hoc and is paid a small stipend. He is known in the Bureau’s records as a potential security informant (PSI) or a potential racial informant (PRI). When he proves his worth he becomes a “reliable informant,” acquires a file, cover name, and is paid a fixed salary (sometimes disguised or augmented as “expenses”), which is increased from time to time as his usefulness grows.

  3. 19

    Some students are paid a fixed stipend but the practice is growing, especially in urban intelligence units, of paying them for each item of information. Houston pays them from $5 to $400, depending on the value of the information.

  4. 20

    Or, in the talismanic intelligence usage, “threats to the national security.”

  5. 21

    The informer’s super-militance in such groups, his proclaimed impatience with the slow pace of his associates, clothe him with the requisite credibility when he seeks ultimate entry into the more inaccessible organizations, in spite of his possible differences in social class and personal style.

  6. 23

    Recently declassified Army Intelligence documents (Annex B—Intelligence—to the Department of the Army Civil Disturbance Plan and Department of the Army Civil Disturbance Information Collection Plan), the most revealing intelligence material in the literature, suggest that peace and anti-draft movements are foreign-directed because “they are supporting the stated objectives of foreign elements which are detrimental to the USA.”

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