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Martin Luther King Jr.: Remembering With a New Cointelpro

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This may be just the time to brush up on Cointelpro, the notorious program through which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover vigorously disrupted the activities of American political dissidents.

From 1956 until 1971, the FBI stalked and sabotaged a wide range of groups - from the Communist Party to Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Cointelpro labeled King's nonviolent SCLC a Black nationalist "Hate Group," and hounded the Nobel Peace Prize winner until he was assassinated. (Explore Dr. King's FBI file.)

I raise this ugly historical issue because an Obama Administration official was just caught contending that our government should secretly disrupt and undermine public discourse in "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups" in a recently published academic paper. In this capacity, Teabaggers would be an obvious target, as would antiwar activists. How about people who organize against mandatory health insurance? Or Americans who regard swine flu as a dangerous hoax?

Cass Sunstein heads up the Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs, the website of which asserts it "oversee[s] policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs." Sunstein co-wrote a paper in the Journal of Political Philosophy, urging that the U.S. government actively fight "conspiracy theories." His prescription? Assign state agents and paid advocates who seem independent to participate in online discussion groups and "undermine" them.

Sunstein calls this activity "cognitive infiltration of extremist groups" and targets 9/11 activists in particular. Entitled "Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures," Sunstein's paper was published on January 17, 2008, when the presidential campaign of his Harvard Law School friend Barack Obama was pledging to bring a new era of transparency to Washington.

Novelist Marc Estrin exposed Sunstein's article a few days ago on the Rag Blog and the story was then quickly picked up by Daniel Tencer at the Raw Story. More recently, Salon's Glenn Greenwald and some conservative and right-wing websites have now also delved into it.

Since I've been unable to download the complete version that others have been able to access, here, I've pulled some quotes from Greenwald's excellent take on the matter.

In one passage, Sunstein presents five ways the government might respond to "extremist" conspiracy theories, three of which include formal, informal, and covertly funded responses to said discussions.

Sunstein echoes two tactics suggested by Cointelpro that "will have a place under imaginable conditions:"

(1) "Government might ban conspiracy theorizing
(2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories." Otherwise? What's a nonfinancial tax? My dictionary says it might be a "strain or heavy demand."

In 1956, Cointelpro was established to evade court decisions barring the government from interfering with activities that weren't unlawful. In 1975, Frank Church led a Senate committee's probe of Cointelpro after antiwar activists stole and exposed incriminating FBI files. The Committee reported:

Nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a 'potential' for violence--and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave 'aid and comfort' to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.

The report revealed that the FBI:
  • Broke into homes and mailboxes
  • Created bogus documents to frame targets as government informers
  • Tried to break up marriages with anonymous letters, and jobs with secret tips to employers
  • Sent letters encouraging violence between street gangs and the Black Panther Party
  • Sought to stir up tax audits
  • Dispatched agents provocateurs to discredit antiwar groups with unpopular and unsuitable activities

The FBI played a key role in what turned out to be the murder of Panther Fred Hampton, who was shot while in bed by Chicago police.

This brings us to Martin Luther King Jr.. From his early civil rights activities, until he was assassinated, the FBI dogged him. King's immortal "I have a Dream" speech infuriated the Bureau, which labeled him "the most dangerous Negro of the future." The FBI went on to track every move King made, taping personal moments he shared with friends and women and then sending edited versions of these engagements to King's wife.

Greenwald quotes Sunstein: "Throughout... "We assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, only if social welfare is improved by doing so."

No problem, then, so long as government officials sincerely feel that the country would be best served by personally destroying a troublesome global icon. But what if people like Sunstein and Obama thought the official was wrong? What if they said things to other people -- perhaps held a meeting about it? The government might think they were conspiracy theorists. Good thing they're running the show.