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San Francisco's Center of COINTELPRO Activity and the Man Who Exposed It

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The cast of characters who played a part in the turbulent circus of 1960s and 1970s activities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) informant program includes the man who uncovered the covert operation and a potential presidential assassin.

The San Francisco Bay Area was a main center of informant activity as noted in Seth Rosenfeld's article, "Richard Aoki, Man Who Armed Black Panthers, Was FBI Informant."

Bay Area informants delivered 83 percent of domestic intelligence gathering for the Bureau.

COINTELPRO was acting to discredit members of what the FBI determined as radical groups. The program was established in 1956 under J. Edgar Hoover, the first (and, until 1972, the only) director of the FBI.

Charles Bates, the FBI agent in charge of the San Francisco office at the time, was assigned to oversee the Patty Hearst kidnapping case and recruit informants to help him locate Hearst and her captors.

While the FBI was busy finding informants in 1972, Carl Stern, working for NBC News, was analyzing and reporting on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

Stern, now a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, related in an interview that he first saw a document with the title "COINTELPRO-New Left" while he was waiting to make a photocopy in a Senate office.

The line for the only copy machine in an office filled with cubicles and staffers was always long, and as he and a Senate staffer were waiting, the staff member showed Stern some of the files that had been seized from a FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.

"The one that caught my eye was a directive to the resident agent to write anonymous letters to a number of Philadelphia area colleges, urging school administrators to bar SDS and similar antiwar and civil rights groups from campus," said Stern. He went on, saying, "I wondered immediately by what authority were FBI agents authorized to write anonymous letters to school administrators urging action about anything."

That marked the beginning of Stern's investigation to find out about the program. When he approached the Department of Justice and the FBI. Neither would comment on COINTELPRO.

Months later, Stern said in an interview that he received a personal note from Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray that said, "This matter involved a highly sensitive operation. It has now been discontinued, but I do not feel that details concerning it should be released since such disclosure would definitely be harmful to the Bureau's operations and to the national security."

Stern believes that there is no way of knowing the full scope of how COINTELPRO-New Left operated and the extent to which it infiltrated people's lives. "It may have continued to be utilized and still may be," said Stern.

It wasn't until the Senate Hearings lead by Senator Frank Church, (D-ID) in 1975, that it revealed the extensive abuses of the FBI by COINTELPRO.

Among the informants recruited to COINTELPRO was Sara Jane Moore, the woman who shot at Pres. Gerald Ford in front of the St. Francis Hotel in 1975, missing his head by a mere six inches.

Bates approached Sara Jane while she was volunteering for the food giveaway program established by Randolph Hearst from the demands of the Symbionese Liberation Army holding his daughter hostage.

Bates asked Sara Jane to meet with him. He told her that he and his colleague would meet her on a particular street corner. His instructions to Sara Jane were to "go stand on such and such a street corner and a green car with license number so-and-so will pick you up." It was like a grade B movie."

Worthington set the stage by explaining the FBI's view of the political activists she was to report on: "Look, we need your help here. These are dangerous people. They are out to destroy the country. Many of them are dupes of foreign governments, of the KGB and the Red Chinese."

Moore signed up and eventually became a "double agent." She shared the information she received from organizations including Viet Nam Vets Against the War and Prairie Fire and revealed to them what she knew from the FBI.

Geri Spieler is the author of "Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford," Palgrave Macmillan. This information is taken from her book.