Nearly 40 years ago, the FBI was roundly criticized for investigating Americans without evidence they had broken any laws. Now, critics fear the FBI may be gearing up to do it again.
Tentative Justice Department guidelines, to be released later this summer, would let agents investigate people whose backgrounds – and potentially their race or ethnicity – match the traits of terrorists.
Such profiling faintly echoes the FBI's now-defunct COINTELPRO, an operation under Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s and 1960s to monitor and disrupt groups with communist and socialist ties.
Before it was shut down in 1971, the domestic spying operation – formally known as Counterintelligence Programs – had expanded to include civil rights groups, anti-war activists, the Ku Klux Klan, state legislators and journalists.
Among the FBI's targets were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John Lennon, along with members of black extremist groups, Fidel Castro sympathizers and student protesters.
“These programs resulted in the bureau, at times, effectively stepping out of its proper role as a law enforcement agency,” the FBI acknowledges on its Web site.
The new proposal to allow investigations of Americans with no evidence of wrongdoing is “COINTELPRO for the 21st century,” said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But this is much more insidious because it could involve more people. In the days of COINTELPRO, they were watching only a few people. Now they could be watching everyone.”
A Justice official familiar with the guidelines disputed the ACLU's view, saying the FBI authority will be much narrower than what was allowed under COINTELPRO.
The cover on COINTELPRO was blown in 1971, when a group calling itself the Citizens' Committee to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., outside Philadelphia, and stole documents detailing parts of the operation. Hoover shut down the program a month later.
The documents led to the 1976 congressional Church Committee – named for its Democratic chairman, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho – and investigations into the FBI and CIA.