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J. Edgar Hoover’s Legacy: Spying On Democracy

J. Edgar Hoover’s Legacy: Spying On Democracy

Photograph Source: United States Library of Congress – Public Domain

The surveillance activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Portland and other American cities earlier this year is reminiscent of FBI-CIA-NSA efforts to disrupt anti-Vietnam protest groups in the 1960s and 1970s.  In 2021, FBI agents, dressed in plainclothes,  were embedded in Portland’s racial justice protests.  Agents alerted local police to potential arrests. The Department of Justice and its Office of the Inspector General must investigate these activities closely because they replicate the illegal activities of the FBI’s counterintelligence program during the Cold War.

The FBI has been conducting domestic surveillance operations since its inception in the 1920s, marking nearly a hundred years of violating the First Amendment of the Constitution.  Very few of these operations involved the investigation and gathering of evidence of a serious crime, the only justification for FBI surveillance.  J. Edgar Hoover, appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation in1924, amassed illegal powers of surveillance that enabled him to conduct extra-legal tracking of activists, collect compromising information, and even to threaten and intimidate sitting presidents.

Hoover created the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in the 1950s to counter the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, but it morphed into a program of covert and illegal activities to disrupt numerous political organizations, particularly the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.  He exaggerated the threat of communism to ensure financial and public support for the FBI.  (The Pentagon similarly exaggerates the Russian and Chinese threats to elicit greater defense spending, such as the record-setting budget that President Biden signed on Monday.)  When Supreme Court decisions made it more difficult to prosecute individuals for their political opinions, Hoover formalized a covert “dirty tricks” program that included illegal wiretaps, forged documents, and burglaries.

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