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Deep Throat's Crimes: Mark Felt And COINTELPRO

by Doug Ireland

A Short History of FBI COINTELPRO

After Mark Felt outed himself as the legendary "Deep Throat" in the Watergate case last week, there was a media rush to canonize the FBI' s former Number Two man, and politicians proposed he be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But in all this gush to make Felt a hero, there has been little or no mention of Felt's prime role in COINTELPRO -- the most gigantic domestic political spying and disruption operation ever in American history, illegally conducted by the FBI.

Felt, in fact, was indicted and convicted in federal court in 1980 of directing nine illegal break-ins, aimed at domestic political targets, when he was boss of the COINTELPRO operation. Felt thus became the highest ranking FBI official to be convicted of criminal charges since J. Edgar Hoover became head of the Bureau in 1924. (He was later pardoned by Ronald Reagan.) And in the early '70s, Felt appeared repeatedly on national TV (on shows like "Meet the Press") trying to whip up a climate of security hysteria that this country didn't see until post-9/11, by painting the anti-Vietnam war left as agents of foreign powers.

Here's what the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities (headed by then- Sen. Frank Church of Idaho-- photo left -- and known to historians as the Church Committee) said about COINTELPRO in its final report in 1976, after an extensive, headline-making, three-year investigation:

"Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence." The FBI compiled dossiers on over 500,000 Americans during the course of COINTELPRO.

There's a great deal of irony in the fact that Felt -- at the very time he was meeting Bob Woodward in those parking garages to confide information about the Watergate break-in and other illegal spying by the Nixon administration -- was again and again directing exactly the same sort of thing against groups on the left the FBI didn't like -- illegal activities that Felt continued to order even after Richard Nixon was in deep trouble because of Watergate," the historian Athan Theoharis -- whose many books include "Chasing Spies: How the FBI Failed in Counterintelligence but Promoted the Politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War Years," and "The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History" -- told me this week. (Morover, Theoharis says, the FBI had a history of leaking on presidents and pols: it leaked information on Truman in the 1948 campaign -- for which its agents wrote Republican campaign literature, spread slurs that Adlai Stevenson was a homosexual when he ran for president in 1952 -- and delivered a dossier to the Nixon White house concerning the alleged homosexual proclivities of certain solons Nixon didn't like.)

The FBI's targets in its COINTELPRO operation included: the Communist Party-USA, especially its black members and groups; the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group; black nationalist organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam; New Left groups such as Students for a Democratic Society; Youth Against War and Fascism; the Progressive Labor party; the National Committee to Abolish the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and other anti-HUAC coalitions; the Puerto Rican Independence Movement; anti-Vietnam war groups, especially those on campuses; and various media, ranging from the Liberation News Service to the New York Post (then the most liberal newspaper in the country.)

The COINTELPRO break-ins of which Felt was convicted were ostensibly aimed at the Weather Underground, a new left splinter group which had engaged in bombings and jailbreaks. But so scattershot were the blunderbuss COINTELPRO illegalities that they often hit people who had not the remotest connection with the Weathermen. One of the victims of Felt-directed break-ins was Juan Gonzalez, now a columnist for the New York Daily News, and co-host -- with Amy Goodman -- of the radio and TV news show "Democracy Now!" On his radio show last week, Gonzalez said:
"I can testify, having been a member of the Young Lords back in those days that the numerous break-ins that occurred in the homes of Young Lord members, including my own, back in 1972, clearly were political break-ins and that people -- that the things that were stolen had nothing to do with valuable goods of a drug dealer, but were clearly break-ins looking for material and information, and I remember back in 1972, when I was arrested by 13 FBI agents for violating the selective service laws at the time and refusing to serve in Vietnam, I was questioned for about eight hours at FBI headquarters before I was arraigned, and virtually all of the questions that the FBI agents asked me were notabout the Young Lords, not about the selective service, but were: When was the last time you saw Bernadine Dohrn? When was the last time that you saw Robbie Roth? When was the last time you saw Mark Rudd? They were obsessed with finding the Weathermen and being able to break a group that they saw sending a bad signal of white progressive Americans and radical Americans uniting with the Black and Latino liberation struggles at the time....[Felt] authorized some break-ins of my apartments."
The FBI stopped at nothing in its efforts to disrupt and destroy left groups and activists, including the use of agents provocateurs who engaged in arson, bombings, and attempted murder. Noam Chomsky wrote about one such agent provocateur several years ago in Public Eye magazine:
"A former student of mine, also active in the peace movement, was teaching at San Diego State College in 1971. According to a report submitted to the church Committee by the ACLU, the FBI provided defamatory information about him to the college administration (and also gained access to confidential college records). Three public hearings were held under college auspices. He was exonerated each time, then summarily dismissed by the chancellor of the California state college system, Glenn Dumke, one of the numerous examples of the treachery of the universities in those years. During this period the same student was the target of an assassination attempt by a secret terrorist army organized, funded, armed and directed by the FBI, which concealed evidence of the crime and prevented prosecution of the FBI agent in charge and the FBI infiltrator who led this organization in its rampage of fire-bombing, shooting, and general violence and terror aimed at the left, all with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Bureau. In this case, the intended victim of the FBI assassination attempt escaped injury, though a young woman was seriously injured..."

Historical amnesia is sadly rampant in this country, but one other reason that the media may have made little or no mention of Felt's COINTELPRO crimes is that a huge number of media outlets were themselves complicit in COINTELPRO, which had an extensive disinformation campaign aimed at newspapers and television. Journalists promized not to reveal that the FBI had suggested stories or provided information for them, and some reporters went further and actually volunteered to help the Bureau, writing articles designed to damage a specific FBI-targeted individual, event, or group. Media outlets with reporters cooperating in COINTELPRO, according to the Church Committee report, included: the Associated Press; U.S. News & World Report; the Hearst and Newhouse newspaper chains; the New York Daily News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner; as well as KTTV in Los Angeles and 11 other local TV stations; and many more.

Even Bob Woodward, in his long, June 2 Washington Post article explaining "How Mark Felt Became 'Deep Throat,'" never mentioned Felt's COINTELPRO convictions at all, or the other Felt-directed FBI crimes for which he was never prosecuted. As to Deep Throat's motivations, the National Security Archive last Friday released transcripts of some Nixon White House tapes on the FBI -- including on which Nixon declares he wants a "house cleaning" at the FBI, which one can deduce included Felt -- who, in his 1979 Memoir, "The FBI Pyramid from the Inside," wrote that he thought he stood an "excellent chance" of being named the Bureau's director until Nixon passed over him. On another tape, Nixon -- who'd just been told by Al Hag that Felt had leaked material to the New York Times -- says of Felt, "He's a bad guy, you see." Both these conversations were before Watergate. Disgusted by not getting the top FBI job, Felt resigned from the Bureau in June of 1973.

I'm perfectly prepared to acknowledge that Deep Throat's confirmations and occasional "look in this direction" guidance put some spine into Ben Bradlee, giving him reassurance that Woodstein were on the right track and that the story should be pursued (as Bradlee admitted to Ted Koppel on "Nightline" last week). But to make a hero out of Felt -- the serial Constitution-shredder and convicted criminal -- for his self-serving, parking garage torpedoes aimed at a president who didn't like him, strikes me as a chapter in the book of laughter and forgetting.

Doug Ireland is the author of Direland. His last article in the MONITOR appeared in November: The Iraqi Judge Who Knew Too Much -- And Was Fired For It
A shorter version of this article appeared this week in LA Weekly

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Albion Monitor June 9, 2005 (

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