Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the early 1970’s, a number of civil rights groups—including the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, the Committee for Public Justice, and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University—investigated documents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency that suggested these federal agencies had conducted intrusive, if not illegal, campaigns against a number of antiwar and leftist organizations during the 1960’s.

Summary of Event

For many years, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) enjoyed a sterling reputation under the leadership of its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover. In the later years of Hoover’s administration, however, questions about overzealousness and abuse began to arise. Similar questions were raised about the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which always had been more controversial. Most of the CIA controversy focused on its foreign operations, for it was forbidden a domestic intelligence role. In the early 1970’s, however, evidence emerged of illegal or improper domestic activity by both agencies, a significant part of that activity targeted against civil rights and anti-Vietnam War groups and individuals. Vietnam War (1959-1975);protests Federal Bureau of Investigation;Civil Rights movement Central Intelligence Agency;Civil Rights movement Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI[Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI] Committee for Public Justice COINTELPRO Civil Rights movement [kw]Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA (1971-1974) [kw]Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA, Civil (1971-1974) [kw]FBI and CIA, Civil Rights Groups Investigate the (1971-1974) [kw]CIA, Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and (1971-1974) Federal Bureau of Investigation;Civil Rights movement Central Intelligence Agency;Civil Rights movement Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI[Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI] Committee for Public Justice COINTELPRO Civil Rights movement [g]North America;1971-1974: Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA[00130] [g]United States;1971-1974: Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA[00130] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1971-1974: Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA[00130] [c]Organizations and institutions;1971-1974: Civil Rights Groups Investigate the FBI and CIA[00130] Hoover, J. Edgar Helms, Richard Johnson, Lyndon B. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Central Intelligence Agency Ford, Gerald R.

J. Edgar Hoover.

(Library of Congress)

In 1971, a group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI revealed a number of FBI documents that suggested that the agency had conducted intrusive, if not illegal, campaigns against a number of antiwar and leftist organizations. In October of the same year, the Committee for Public Justice Committee for Public Justice and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University sponsored a conference titled “Investigating the FBI,” which focused media attention on alleged FBI abuses in investigating civil rights and antiwar activities. Little evidence for these abuses could be produced, as the bureau closely guarded what it considered to be privileged information.

After the death in 1972 of the FBI’s powerful director, J. Edgar Hoover, and with the Watergate scandal in 1973 and 1974, public pressure mounted for further investigation. Finally, suits filed in December, 1973, and March, 1974, under the Freedom of Information Act Freedom of Information Act (1967) resulted in publication of a number of FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) files. The information in these files, coupled with documentation implicating the CIA in domestic intelligence abuses, prompted congressional investigation into the activities of both agencies. Although many FBI and CIA files had been destroyed or altered, the investigations revealed that both organizations had carried out a number of programs intended to undermine, discredit, or destroy civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960’s.

In 1964, following a number of race-related incidents, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate the causes of racial unrest. In April, 1965, the bureau began investigating student antiwar groups for communist influence. When neither of these investigations found illegal or communist activity, Hoover intensified the programs. By 1968, the FBI had established two counterintelligence programs to gather data on black and student movements. COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist-Hate Groups extended to all forty-one FBI field offices authority for collecting information on civil rights groups. COINTELPRO-New Left attempted to undermine the activities of alleged campus radicals, with authority again given to all FBI field offices. Tactics included extensive wiretapping; planting listening devices in homes, hotel rooms, and meeting places of various organizations; infiltrating groups; and fabricating documents to create hostility within and among the organizations.

Specific evidence derived from the FBI’s COINTELPRO files reveals that the bureau found certain individuals to be of particular interest. The Reverend Martin Luther King, King, Martin Luther, Jr. Jr., civil rights leader and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel Peace Prize;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King] was under intense FBI scrutiny from 1963 until his death in 1968. In 1964, shortly before King was to receive the Nobel Prize, the FBI sent him a tape of damaging information it had collected regarding his private life and threatened to make the data public if he did not commit suicide.

Leaders of the Black Panther Party Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were also targets of FBI activity. When the two groups proposed a merger in 1968, the FBI engineered a rift between the groups. The rift contributed to decisions of high-ranking members of both groups, Stokely Carmichael Carmichael, Stokely of SNCC and Eldridge Cleaver Cleaver, Eldridge of the Black Panthers, to go underground. The FBI accomplished this and other similar operations by fabricating stories and circulating them among members of targeted organizations. For example, the bureau leaked information that Carmichael was a CIA informant. It also telephoned his mother claiming that members of the Black Panthers had threatened to kill Carmichael because of his alleged CIA affiliation. Carmichael left for Africa the next day.

FBI infiltrators at times encouraged illegal activities among groups that they had joined in order to create public disapproval of the organizations. These agents were known as provocateurs. One of the best-known provocateurs, Thomas Tongyai, Tongyai, Thomas traveled throughout western New York encouraging students to participate in violent activities such as bombing buildings and killing police.

The FBI’s disruptive capabilities were enhanced by using local police and other federal agencies to collect data. For example, from 1968 through 1974, the FBI obtained confidential tax information from the Internal Revenue Service Internal Revenue Service on 120 militant black and antiwar leaders. The CIA also became an important source of documentation and information for the FBI.

Although the CIA has no authority to gather information regarding domestic matters, that agency began collecting information on American citizens at the request of President Johnson. The agency’s Special Operations Group, later known as CHAOS, was begun in August, 1967, to determine the role of foreign influence in the American peace movement. President Richard M. Nixon increased the demands on the CIA in 1970 by requiring that it become involved in evaluating and coordinating intelligence gathered on dissident groups. Some of the groups targeted for infiltration by the CIA included SNCC, the Women’s Strike for Peace, the Washington Peace Center, and the Congress of Racial Equality.

CIA director Richard Helms was aware of the implications of the agency’s operating outside its jurisdiction. In a cover memo to a 1968 report on student revolutionary activities around the world, including the United States, Helms noted: “This is an area not within the charter of this Agency. Should anyone learn of its existence it would prove most embarrassing for all concerned.” The report concluded that student unrest was a product of domestic alienation, not of foreign manipulation, but the CIA continued to gather data on American citizens. By the early 1970’s, the CIA had accumulated open files on more than 64,000 citizens and a computerized index of more than 300,000 individuals and organizations.


Following the revelation of FBI and CIA abuses, there was a public outcry for curbs on both organizations. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford ordered the creation of a special commission to establish the extent of CIA activities and to report findings and recommendations. The commission found that the CIA had indeed conducted improper investigations. Further, the commission recommended that the scope of CIA procedures be limited to foreign intelligence.

Also in 1975, a federal court awarded $12 million in damages to persons who had been arrested in Washington, D.C., while participating in antiwar demonstrations in May, 1971. The arrests were believed to have been a result of police coercion in which the FBI collaborated with local and national officials.

Because both the FBI and the CIA often deal with what is considered to be “sensitive” information, there was a large amount of controversy over what the public had a right to know and what should be withheld to protect national security. In 1974, Congress amended the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to allow private review of documents by federal district courts in order to determine whether publication of information would pose a security risk. Although this amendment to the FOIA resulted in the declassification of many COINTELPRO documents, in many instances text was deleted.

Participants in FBI and CIA abuses during the COINTELPRO era generally went unpunished. Richard Helms, former director of the CIA, was fined only $2,000. In 1980, the only two FBI personnel tried and found guilty of COINTELPRO abuses were pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, Ronald In 1981, the FBI settled a $100 million suit for abuses committed against former members of the Weathermen, a radical student group.

Changes were made in leadership, administrative rules, and legislation. Recurrences of abuses, however, are possible because of the natural tensions between individual civil liberties on one hand and the demands of national security and civil order on the other. Federal Bureau of Investigation;Civil Rights movement Central Intelligence Agency;Civil Rights movement Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI[Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI] Committee for Public Justice COINTELPRO Civil Rights movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caro, Robert A. Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Critically acclaimed, well-researched biography of Johnson that pays special attention to his impact on civil rights legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2002. Analyzes the FBI’s treatment of the left from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, James Kirkpatrick. Assault on the Left: The FBI and the Sixties Antiwar Movement. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Chronicles the FBI’s targeting of antiwar groups of the New Left.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliff, John T. Crime, Dissent, and the Attorney General: The Justice Department in the 1960’s. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1971. Written prior to disclosure of the extent to which the FBI violated civil liberties, but conveys well the tension between protecting and violating civil rights. Provides especially good coverage of black militant groups and antiwar dissent. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David J. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Well-researched work provides detailed information on the FBI’s relationship with King. Recommended for general readers for insight into the deviation from traditional law-enforcement policies pursued by the FBI during the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kiel, R. Andrew. J. Edgar Hoover: The Father of the Cold War. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. Presents an extensive review of Hoover’s career. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKnight, Gerald D. The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Boulder Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Examines the FBI’s surveillance of, and efforts to subvert, the Civil Rights movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Theoharis, Athan G. Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978. Offers a comprehensive discussion of the various ways in which the U.S. government monitors the actions of citizens. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States. Report to the President. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975. Includes a wealth of information on illicit CIA programs and recommendations for procedural and administrative changes.

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