• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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

Such ideological stereotypes give intelligence a powerful bias against movements of protest from the center leftward. To be sure, a handful of ultra-rightist groups such as the Klan and the Minutemen are also under surveillance, but for political intelligence, the presumption of innocence is largely confined to the defenders of the status quo. For individuals and groups committed to social or political protest, the presumption is reversed:24 Peaceful, nonviolent activity must be constantly scrutinized because it may turn out to be a vital clue to a vast subversive conspiracy.


While intelligence is developing new clandestine activities, it is also becoming highly visible. American political activity is plagued by an intelligence “presence” which demoralizes, intimidates, and frightens many of its targets—and is intended to do so. And it is not merely a “presence.” A variety of sanctions are improvised to punish politically objectionable subjects. These include “information management” (such as inclusion on the “ten most wanted” list), press leaks, harassment, prosecution on drug charges, legislative inquisition, physical violence, the vandalizing of cars, black-listing, the refusal to give police protection when needed, illegal searches and raids on pretexts.

One prevailing assumption of intelligence officers is that “subversion” is financed and supported by respectable “front” institutions (churches, foundations, and universities, for example) and individuals (such as lawyers). Special pressures are brought by intelligence agencies to cut off such suspected subsidies—for example, J. Edgar Hoover’s attacks on white contributors to Black Panther defense funds and the listing by the House Internal Security Committee of honoraria paid to liberal and radical campus speakers.

Intelligence is thus becoming an end in itself, rather than an investigative means—a transformation all too clearly reflected in the encouragement of FBI agents to confront subjects in order to “enhance” their “paranoia,” as one of the Media documents states. But its claim to be conducting a never-ending investigation into some future unspecified threat to the national security is consistently used to legitimize its expansion. Few want to shackle the police in their hunt for wrongdoers, especially those who threaten the safety of the Republic. Why should one question a “mere” investigation, even if tons of constitutional ore may have to be excavated in order to find a single subversive nugget?


What are the standards that intelligence agencies must follow for selecting subjects of surveillance, for the techniques they use or the data they develop? In fact, there are no effective standards, and there are no effective authorities in this country to insist on such standards. Every surveillance unit claims its own authority to deal with “subversion” or “subversive activities,” terms which mean whatever the agency wants them to mean. The head of the Chicago intelligence unit, Lt. Joseph Healy, summed up the matter when he testified at the conspiracy trial that his squad maintained surveillance over “any organization that could create problems for the city or the country.” That Army Intelligence took the same view is shown by recent disclosures that it was snooping into a virtually unlimited range of civilian activity.

In most cases, the jurisdiction to engage in political intelligence activities is wholly improvised. This is true not merely of many local agencies but of the FBI itself. The authority the FBI claims it has to stalk nonconformists can be justified neither by its law enforcement powers nor by its domestic spy-catching jurisdiction. The latter, in fact, is based on an obscure 1939 directive which J. Edgar Hoover has interpreted as conferring upon the FBI the power, in his words, “to identify individuals working against the United States, determine their objectives and nullify their effectiveness.” Who are these “individuals”? Those whose activities involve “subversion and related internal security problems.”

The unlimited scope of their jurisdiction and their virtual autonomy encourage intelligence institutions to consolidate and expand. Intelligence thus constantly enlarges its operations by exaggerating the numbers, power, and intentions of the subversive enemy.25

Ironically, this exaggeration is further stimulated by the need to develop some plausible political and constitutional justification for violating democratic rights. Intelligence not only continually expands the boundaries of subversion in its operations, but inevitably generates a stream of fear-mongering propaganda in its evaluation of intelligence data. A troubled period such as the present intensifies this process: the number of surveillance subjects increases greatly as the intelligence agencies circulate propaganda dramatizing their life-and-death struggle with subversion.


The link between drug use and political radicalism has also served to expand the scope of political surveillance. In the past, narcotics law enforcement and the policing of political crimes have drawn on similar surveillance techniques. This was so because both involve conduct to which the parties consent and both frequently leave little proof that any crime was committed. Today the “nark” and undercover intelligence operatives are frequently in pursuit of the same prey. The same agents sometimes function in both areas and political militancy is a common cover for the “nark,” especially on college campuses.

Similarly, students under surveillance for drug use are frequently selected for their political nonconformity, a link manifest in the background of both the Kent State and Hobart College cases, as well as in the conviction of Dr. Leslie Fiedler of the State University of New York at Buffalo for maintaining premises where marijuana was used. The pot bust has become a punitive sanction against political dissent and the threat of prosecution is a favorite method of “hooking” student informers. Lee Otis Johnson, former head of Houston’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, is now serving a thirty-year jail term for the sale of a single marijuana cigarette to a Houston undercover policeman.


Many young radicals are finding ways of evading undercover surveillance of their political activities. Intelligence inevitably generates countermeasures (“security”), driving its targets into protective secrecy and sometimes underground even though they are usually engaged in legal protest. Such furtiveness is then cited as further proof of subversion and conspiracy (“What have they got to hide?”) and reinforces the justification for surveillance.

Radicals in the past few years have tried to protect themselves by rigorously checking the backgrounds of possible infiltrators, isolating a suspected agent or feeding him bogus information, giving him test assignments, banning the use of drugs, cars, and private phones, and forming affinity groups. The radicals themselves sometimes use disguises and false names. The ultimate response to intelligence is counterintelligence, including the penetration of intelligence institutions to thwart their effectiveness. Some groups are beginning to boast about their double agents, counter-spies, and pipelines to police sources. One Berkeley police officer has already complained (and not very convincingly): “I’m afraid they do a better job spying on us than we do on them.”

The pilferage and circulation of the Media FBI documents seem to suggest an escalation in counterintelligence tactics. The group responsible for the action has already announced, as a follow-up measure, a planned exposure of a “first group” of FBI informers whose names appear in as yet unreleased stolen documents. This listing of a “first group” is presumably to be followed by publication of lists of others.

Such a tactic will not only create a painful dilemma for present Philadelphia area informers but may vastly complicate the FBI’s problems in future recruitment. Because political spies are the keystone of the entire federal political intelligence system, the FBI goes to extraordinary lengths to shield their identities and stresses these protective practices as an inducement for recruits. A breach in the FBI security system may well scare off potential informers not only in the Philadelphia area, but everywhere—Who knows where the Citizens’ Commission will strike next? The increased risk is bound to boost the price of the informers’ services. At the very least, it will “enhance” among the hunters the same “paranoia” now “endemic” among the hunted.


Our political intelligence apparatus has begun to exert a dangerous influence on the exercise of political power. The attempt by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to use intelligence data to discredit and destroy a group of Los Angeles poverty agencies is a dramatic example of a spreading phenomenon. A candidate for public office learns that he has been made an intelligence target by orders of his opponent, the incumbent. A lawyer for a victim of police brutality is threatened with being disbarred as a “subversive” because of leaks in the police department’s intelligence files.

Mayor Alioto of San Francisco discovers that unevaluated intelligence files compiled by federal and urban agencies, full of smears and unverified rumors, are opened up to the press for an article which threatens his political ruin.26 A check of the California Un-American Activities Committee files discloses dossiers on many legislators, including the Senate president, with notations reflecting intensive surveillance. A courageous Chicago newsman, Ron Dorfman, who has vigorously attacked intelligence practices in that city, is confronted with a detailed dossier on himself in a session with the Illinois Crime Commission.

It is chilling enough to learn that in this country literally millions of people are systematically suffering invasions of privacy, and, what is worse, are forced to exercise their rights of free expression and assembly under the fear of surveillance. But when a secret political police begins to play an important role in political decisions and campaigns, the democratic process is in grave danger.

Nor is there much comfort in the notion that our current intelligence mania is only a transient response to a particular emergency. History—and for that matter the annals of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI—painfully teaches that once a political intelligence system takes root, it is almost impossible to eradicate it. Fear and blackmail ensure its autonomy and self-perpetuation. How many of us can be expected to challenge a system which has such power to do injury to its critics?27

Americans will now have to answer the question whether the risks that we face—and some of them are real enough—outweigh the danger of a national secret police. One can hardly question the right of the government to inform itself of potential crimes and acts of violence. The resort to bombing as a political tactic obviously creates a justification for intelligence to forestall such practices. But the evolving intelligence system I have been describing clearly exceeds these limited ends. Before it is too late we must take a cold look at our entire political intelligence system: not to determine whether one aspect or another is repressive—whether, for example, it is possible to keep a dossier confidential—but to decide whether internal political intelligence as an institution, divorced from law enforcement, is consistent with the way we have agreed to govern ourselves and to live politically.

Eighteen cases have now been filed throughout the country, with American Civil Liberties Union support, to challenge various surveillance and filing practices by police agencies as violating constitutional rights of free expression, assembly, privacy, and the protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The constitutional issues imbedded in these cases will undoubtedly be presented ultimately to the Supreme Court. These challenges are important if for no other reason than that they will drag undercover surveillance out of the shadows.

But the political intelligence system cannot be controlled by piecemeal attacks in the courts. If our past experience is a guide, even successful litigation may leave unchecked the particular abuses involved by limiting surveillance in ways that are readily ignored or circumvented by a bureaucracy which is a law unto itself.

Political intelligence is both a symbol of a dying politics and the means of keeping it alive through powerful myths and constraints. A truly effective attack on the evils of intelligence cannot be mounted apart from the political process. A legislative investigation, more sharply focused and more searching than Senator Ervin’s investigation, is vital in order to scour this area as thoroughly as Senator LaFollette’s investigation scoured labor espionage in the Thirties. Such a probe could develop a fuller understanding of political intelligence and might lay the basis for dismantling a system which, if it is allowed to grow, may choke all possibility of real change in this country. But it is illusory to talk of an effective investigative and statutory attack on the powerful intelligence system at present. The elimination of the evils of political surveillance and dossiers is yet another reason why we need a new politics.


Guide to Snoopers July 1, 1971

  1. 24

    It is hardly surprising that intelligence is most at home with non-crimes such as “subversion” or inchoate crimes such as conspiracy in which innocent conduct is treated as criminal because it is claimed to be enmeshed in an illegal agreement and performed with evil intent. The affinity of the intelligence mind for the conspiracy offense can be illustrated by the testimony of Detective Sergeant John Ungvary, head of the Cleveland intelligence squad, before a Senate committee. He urged that “if we had a law whereby we can charge all of them [black nationalists] as participants or conspirators…it would be far better than waiting for an overt act….”

  2. 25

    The technique of broadening the boundaries of subversion has been developed and refined by the Congressional anti-subversive committees: first, by the application of notions of vicarious, imputed, and derived guilt; second, by a process of cross-fertilization which proscribes an organization through the individuals associated with it and the individuals through their relationship to the organization; third, by increasing the number of condemned organizations through their links to one another; fourth, by treating subversion as permanent, irreversible, and even hereditary, with the result that a dossier, no matter how old, never loses its importance nor a subject his “interest.”

    This technique has been ingeniously applied in a remarkable document, A Report on the SDS Riots, October 8-11, 1969, issued by the Illinois Crime Investigating Commission, April, 1970, and reprinted in June, 1970, by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Ostensibly concerned with the Weatherman demonstration (“Days of Rage”), this 400-page report is a virtual encyclopedia of militant radicalism among youth, replete with dossiers, photographs, personal letters, diaries, and documents relating not merely to the SDS figures with whom it purports to be primarily concerned, but to a host of other individuals and organizations about whom the Commission had collected intelligence information and whom it linked in the most tortured fashion to the subject matter of the Commission’s report. This information, much of it highly inaccurate, was published purely for the purpose of punitive exposure of intelligence targets.

  3. 26

    The mayor’s charges against federal agencies have not been denied. The Los Angeles Police Department has admitted supplying confidential files to the writer of the article. The coordinator of intelligence, Sergeant George Bell, stated: “I would pull the index cards and let him go over the resumés, and some of them he asked to see the copy [of the file itself].”

  4. 27

    Political files and dossiers give bureaucratic continuity to intelligence agencies and are a powerful reason for their survival in the face of the most hostile attack. When intelligence spokesmen cry, “What will happen to these valuable files which alone stand between us and a Commie takeover?” critics are usually silenced. After a motion was carried in January, 1945, to terminate the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the House reversed itself on the plea of Congressman Rankin that “these valuable records that probably involve the fate of the Nation, the safety of the American people, would be dissipated—I want to see that these papers are kept; that is the one thing I am striving for.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print