Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

Like hundreds of other Southerners in the late 1960s, activist Muhammed Kenyatta was a target of a vigilante operation that often employed illegal methods designed to prevent the exercise of First Amendment rights. The perpetrators were not private citizens taking the law into their own hands; but Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation carrying out a sanctioned counterintelligence program named COINTELPRO. 

Today, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Kenyatta is suing three FBI agents for violating his constitutional rights in the course of their COINTELPRO activities. Filed in 1977, the lawsuit has survived two pre-trial appeals by the U.S. Justice Department. The government’s arguments in the case reveal that it does not completely disavow the bureau’s COINTELPRO techniques of the past. 

Eleven years after the fall of President Richard Nixon, and 13 years after the death of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the use of overt and covert domestic surveillance operations are on the rise. Activists struggling for the liberation of African Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans in this country; those doing support work for the people of Central America, South Africa, and the Philippines; and people working for progressive change in general are being met with increased resistance from U.S. law enforcement agencies. 

We at Southern Exposure think this is an opportune time to take another look at COINTELPRO, the precursor of today’s domestic intelligence operations, and to speak to some of the victims of that program. 

Much of the information contained in this story was gathered from an FBI reading room in Washington which contains, among other documents, 52,000 pages of COINTELPRO files. Our investigation examined the files of selected field offices in the South, looking for COINTELPRO targets with enough background data to be identified. Under the Freedom of Information Act, we also requested files not previously released concerning the University of North Carolina campus. After a two-and-a-half- year delay, the FBI released over 700 pages of files about black and antiwar groups; it withheld another 700 pages to protect informants or for national security reasons. Finally, three COINTELPRO targets were identified from the FBI files by their friends and associates. 

The Kenyatta case is a good example of the use of COINTELPRO in intimidating and bullying targets. Kenyatta moved South in the ’60s from his home in Philadelphia in order to work with the Child Development Group of Mississippi. He enrolled at Tougaloo College and worked with various civil rights and political organizations including the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Jackson Human Rights Project. A well-known civil rights activist, Kenyatta’s endeavors included voter registration drives, organizing and speaking at demonstrations, tutoring black children, and supporting black candidates for office. 

In 1969 Kenyatta received an ominous letter concerning his political activities at Tougaloo College. The letter, forged by FBI agents in Jackson, Mississippi, read in part: 

(I)t has been determined by . . . representative elements of the Tougaloo College Student Body that you are directed to remain away from this campus until such time as your conduct and general demeanor reach the desired level. (S)hould you feel that this is a hollow directive and not heed our diplomatic and well thought out warning we shall consider contacting local authorities regarding some of your activities or take other measures available to us which would have a more direct effect and which would not be as cordial as this note. 

— Tougaloo College Defense Committee 


The FBI’s files left no doubt about the intended result: “It is hoped that this letter .. . will give him the impression that he has been discredited at the Tougaloo College campus, ... It may possibly also cause him to decide to leave Mississippi.” 

“When I got the letter,” Kenyatta remembers, “I took it for what it appeared to be — a letter from some group that was unhappy about what I was doing and was threatening to do something violent.” Since the letter arrived soon after an attack during which “someone shot up the car in which I was driving, and came close to blowing my head off,” Kenyatta did choose to leave Mississippi, but not the civil rights movement. 

Kenyatta was targeted by the bureau primarily for his association with black “extremists” and for his “anti-FBI, antiwhite, anti-establishment speeches,” according to the Justice Department brief. Justice Department lawyers contend the forged letter received the approval of FBI headquarters in the wake of “several incidents of crime and violence in which [Kenyatta] and his associates were involved.” 

According to the Justice Department’s arguments in defense of the three FBI agents being sued, in 1969 “sending a fictitious letter in the context of law enforcement operations . . . had not been recognized as an impermissible infringement on constitutional rights” — an argument for government immunity. When asked specifically whether they would, if their current defense fails, rely on the argument that the FBI’s actions against Kenyatta were justified for national security reasons, a defense attorney said their position was best described in the legal defense brief. There Justice Department attorneys state that most COINTELPRO activities were legitimate and though the Reagan administration “does not condone all the past acts done under the ambit of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Programs . . . it is unrealistic and improper to hold the programs in their entirety unconstitutional per se.” 

According to David Rudofsky, one of Kenyatta’s lawyers, “It is possible that some COINTELPRO actions may have been constitutional, but I haven’t seen any.” He says that the government has argued that the law does not prevent similar counterintelligence actions today. 

Asked if he thought today’s FBI had changed the way it operates against political activists, Kenyatta answered, “Not only has the FBI not changed its tactics, what’s more frightening is that the Reagan administration is more supportive of illegal tactics. The current argument of the government [in my lawsuit] is: if the FBI feels there is a security question, the FBI then has the right and the responsibility to violate the law to protect security. The Nixon administration didn’t argue that. The Ford and Carter administrations didn’t argue that. Not only is the FBI up to its old tricks, but the federal government is more flagrant in support of that philosophy than ever in our lifetime.” 


DURING THE LATE 1960S AND EARLY 1970S THE FBI infiltrated most major anti-war, black nationalist, and civil rights groups throughout the South using undercover agents and informants for COINTELPRO activities. 

According to the Final Report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (also known as the Church Committee report) released in 1976, COINTELPRO was “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.” Actions taken against “black nationalists,” the report continued, “utilized dangerous and unsavory techniques which gave rise to the risk of death and often disregarded the personal rights and dignity of the victims.” The Church Committee report concluded, among other things, that many of the techniques used by the FBI “would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity,” which they were not. 

COINTELPRO actions against “black nationalists” began in 1967. They were designed “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the “leadership, spokesmen, members, and supporters” of the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and other black militant groups. Its broader objectives were to “counter” their “propensity for violence” and to “frustrate” the groups’ efforts to “consolidate their forces” or to “recruit new or youthful adherents.” 

The following year, a COINTELPRO campaign was initiated against the New Left. According to then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s subordinates, this was justified by the “era of disruption and violence” led by New Leftists. Other reasons given for the program were that “activists” were urging “revolution” and calling for “the defeat of the United States in Vietnam,” and also had “scurrilously attacked the Director and the Bureau,” attempted to “hamper” FBI investigations, and tried to “drive us [FBI] off college campuses.” 

According to the Church Committee report, the lack of any clear definition of New Left meant that nonviolent anti-war groups were targeted because they were lending aid to more disruptive groups. 

But COINTELPRO was not a creation of the ’60s. Its roots go back before 1956, the year it was formally employed against the Communist Party, U.S. A. Subsequent targets were “White Hate Groups” and the Socialist Workers Party. In 1971, J. Edgar Hoover suspended all formal COINTELPRO activities in an attempt to avoid the negative press and controversy that the FBI was later to receive when details of the program were made public. Looking back, some bureau officials insist that their actions were justified by the “tenor of the times” — urban uprisings, student rebellions, and attacks on police. Yet propensity for violence was not a prerequisite for inclu- sion on the bureau’s COINTELPRO hit lists. Even after the formal disbanding of COINTELPRO, similar operations were allowed to continue “in exceptional instances where counterintelligence action is warranted” and prior approval from headquarters was received. 

Examples of COINTELPRO techniques proposed in the late ’60s by the Charlotte, North Carolina, field office for disrupting the political activities of “Black Nationalists” included “the use of anonymous or fictitious letters showing connections of the leaders with Communist groups and individuals . . . distributing counterfeit literature showing support of Communist programs and . . . that the group advocates violence . . . anonymous bomb threats . . . anonymous calls to the subject’s wife alleging infidelity,” according to FBI files. These COINTELPRO actions were sometimes made possible by the bureau’s “intimate knowledge of the individual’s daily activities [using] mail [openings], trash and telephone covers as well as fisurs [physical surveillance].” 


KENYATTA’S POLITICAL GROWTH AND HIS EXPERIENCE WITH FBI TACTICS IS SIMILAR TO THAT OF many other activists in the South. “I was motivated in the ’60s by a couple of things,” he explains. “I grew up in a religious family. My folks are Southern. My siblings and I are first-generation Northern born, but raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. I started preaching when I was 14 and the notion of human quality, the preciousness of every person in the sight of God, flies in the face of racism and apartheid as they existed in this country. That was one motivation. 

“What you might call nationalism, a sense of identification with black people in this country and around the world was another ideological motivation.” 

How did Kenyatta leam that the FBI had sent the forged letter during his Tougaloo years? He says that a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU in his behalf under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of FBI files after an unidentified group “liberated” documents in a raid of the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI office in 1971. These pilfered documents revealed the scope of surveillance in Mississippi. As a result of this suit the bureau released the forged letter in 1974. Kenyatta was “very surprised to find out that the letter had come from the FBI.” But, he continued, the FBI was not always so reticent about making its presence known. “During one period of time,” he recalled, “agents would pull up across the street in front of our house at 7:00 a.m. And then they would follow my car up to Tougaloo College campus when I went to school or follow my wife to the store. It seemed to be a pretty open effort at intimidation. 

“Self-identified FBI agents went around the community in Tougaloo talking to people, particularly parents of young people with whom I was working,” Kenyatta remembers. “Spreading lies to parents saying that we . . . civil rights people were really dope pushers trying to get their kids hooked on dope. I was very aware of the FBI presence.” 

Government lawyers deny that this occurred in Kenyatta’s case, and say instead that the FBI merely directed inquiring citizens to other sources of derogatory information about Kenyatta. Yet one of the stated goals of this COINTELPRO campaign was preventing black leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting their image within the “responsible” black community. 

“When we finally got the FBI files,” says Kenyatta, “it was some feeling of relief; my God, we were not paranoid after all. I remember . . . going through files for a two-year period and there were 367 entries on the average of one every day; detailed accounts of meetings, information about goings on in various organizations. Evidence of people, compatriots, co-workers who were plants. That was angering, a little scary, but more than anything, heartbreaking.” 


FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER THE FACT, THERE ARE VARYING REFLECTIONS OF HOW THE BUREAU’S tactics affected political organizing and the lives of those who came under attack. 

“For the core of activists, it [COINTELPRO] did more to radicalize people than anything else,” said Lyn Wells after she was shown her once-secret FBI files which track her activities in the South with the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC). “This is where we learned . . . that you couldn’t just think what you wanted to think unless it was just another drop in the melting pot of American ideas. You learned that if you disagreed with your government you were the target of political spying and worse.” 

Wells travelled the state of North Carolina, campus-hopping from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Duke University and Davidson College and to many small four-year colleges across the state. And the files show that the FBI followed her footsteps as she organized students to protest the war in Vietnam, support labor struggles in the textile mills, and work in the civil rights battles of the day. Her FBI files are over a foot high. 

How did the government’s campaign affect the average student? “There were a lot of students at this time that were the first generation to go to college and their parents were not necessarily well-off people. They were concerned whether this [political activity] was going to hurt their parents. So, I’m sure it took a toll on free speech,” Wells recalls. “One of their [the FBI’s] main points was to separate activists, the leadership, who are more committed and more clear about what they think [from those] who are scared and wavering. It is hard to ask people to risk their jobs and careers for a cause. And that is what I think the FBI was successful at. 

“I remember countless conversations . . . with people who asked: ‘If I join SSOC will this mean I will get kicked out of school?’ It was a common question. People agonized over the simple question of joining a political organization,” says Wells, because they were afraid it would be used against them at a later date. The FBI described SSOC in those days as a group formed to “stimulate activity of Southern student groups in the areas of civil rights, peace, academic freedom, civil liberties, capital punishment and unemployment,” according to their files. The SSOC was seen as a “fraternal affiliate” of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Bureau informants described SSOC’s publications as “pro- Communist and anti-United States” on domestic and foreign policy. 

Wells’s files, obtained under the Privacy Act, show that the FBI was planning to send anonymous letters to her parents about her political activities. When they found out who her parents were, says Wells, “it was a startling revelation.” Her parents were former labor organizers who generally agreed with her activities. The letters were never sent. 

Not everyone was so fortunate. University of North Carolina graduate student, and SSOC and SDS member George Vlasits’s activities were followed through FBI informants and sources in a bureau effort to have his employment at the university terminated. In the summer of 1970 the Charlotte FBI office was conducting an investigation of two “New Leftists,” one being Vlasits, to determine if they had, in their words, “a loan, scholarship or grant at UNC . . . being paid from U.S. Government funds.” If so, the appropriate government agency was to be contacted in order to have the funds cut. 

Vlasits was receiving $2,500 a year for a federally funded job, and a bureau agent sent a letter describing his political activities to Washington. The letter, says FBI files, “got results in as much as on 4/3/70 [a source in the UNC Personnel Department], advised that... his employment with NASA funds was terminated.” A self-satisfied FBI agent concluded in the “Tangible Results” section of a memo to FBI Director Hoover that “this action has not only placed financial pressures on this New Leftist, but has resulted in savings to the Federal Government.” 

All this attention was directed toward Vlasits despite the fact that the bureau described him as having “shown no propensity for violence but has consistently participated in antidraft and anti- Vietnam war activities and demonstrations.” 

The FBI often worked with friends in campus administrative positions. At North Carolina State University in 1962, the FBI had a source in the personnel office who advised them of associate professor Allard Lowenstein’s travel plans and other personal data. Lowenstein, who was later elected to Congress in New York, was under investigation for his anti-Franco activism in Spain as well as for his work in the civil rights movement. Similarly, in an effort to eliminate the voice of the New Left in the Mobile, Alabama, area, the FBI used a confidential source at the University of South Alabama. This person was to “warn” administrators that if they did not take action against two instructors who were supporting the underground paper Rearguard these professors would be “exposed.” 

William Friday, president of the consolidated University of North Carolina system, was on the FBI’s “special correspondent” list, according to bureau files released in 1983. The term “special correspondent” has been described variously as a “friend” of the agency by a former FBI agent and as a “cooperative source” by Connecticut lawyer Frank Donner, author of The Age of Surveillance. Friday denies that he had a clandestine relationship with the FBI. 

According to other files a dean of Norfolk, Virginia’s Old Dominion College, E. Vernon Peele, told the FBI when a group of faculty members who had been aligning themselves with the SDS resigned from the college in 1968. The files say that these resignations pleased the dean as well as the FBI. 


DR. ARTHUR GUTMAN, NOW PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT, REmembers his difficulty in finding a job after receiving his doctorate from Duke in 1971 and leaving an instructor’s position there. Suspicious, Gutman went to the chair of the English Department and was shown a copy of his “recommendation” which said: “Professor Gutman has a fine capacity for scholarship but he has been more active in radical politics on campus and off.” 

In a 1968 FBI memo from Charlotte, North Carolina, to J. Edgar Hoover, Gutman is described as “a leading activist in SSOC during the past school year and, on 10/2/68, he participated in a SSOC sponsored demonstration at Duke University wherein about 10 students picketed recruiters of the U.S. Marine Corps on campus. 

“Bureau authority will be requested in the immediate future to mail anonymous letters to appropriate University officials regarding the New Left activities of Art Gutman.” 

The following year the FBI backed off when it was learned that Gutman’s activism was well known to officials at Duke. After an agent unsuccessfully attempted to interview him, according to the files, Gutman told an informant that he thought the FBI was trying to scare him. The Charlotte field office wrote in a memo to director Hoover: “Consequently, it was felt that Gutman would associate an anonymous letter with the Agent who tried to interview him.” 

The Norfolk, Virginia, field office had a similar plan for leftist faculty: that “anonymous letters be forwarded to the Governor of Virginia describing the activities of faculty members known to be close to the New Left Movements in Old Dominion College and College of William and Mary. ... On 9/26/69, an anonymous letter authorized by the Bureau was mailed to the Superintendant of Public Instruction for Virginia, pointing out the communist background of XXXXXX, a faculty member in the predominantly Negro Norfolk State College.” At the College of William and Mary, as on many other campuses, the FBI was not alone in keeping watch over student activists. According to CIA documents released to the campus paper Flat Hat, the agency’s project codenamed RESISTANCE had a number of informants at the college during 1970. Project RESISTANCE, in existence from 1967 to 1973, was originally established to protect CIA recruiters on campus but broadened its scope to obtain background information on radical campus groups across the country. The Church Committee reported that this project did not as a habit use CIA informants. Rather, the CIA relied on FBI and local police sources. 

The Williamsburg, Virginia, files show that reports were sent to the CIA listing the names of dissident students and faculty as well as detailed information about campus political activity. One six-page report discussed the agency’s concern that the dean of students, Carson H. Barnes, Jr., “the center of resistance to the radical left,” not be ousted by rebellious students. The CIA report states that during Barnes’s tenure as dean “(t)here has been no further significant harassment of the college ROTC. Most activist energy has for some time been diverted toward obtaining greater student representation, expanding black enrollment, and obtaining open dormitory visitation privileges.” These purely campus concerns were reported to the CIA by the informant. 

The Church Committee report questioned the CIA’s authority to engage in domestic infiltration of political groups under its vaguely stated responsibility under the National Security Act of 1947 for “protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure.” In December 1981 President Reagan put in force Executive Order 12333, which permits the CIA to operate domestically so long as the pretext is for “international intelligence.” 

In 1984, 16 years after the FBI had him in their sights, Arthur Gutman said he was “rather shocked” when told of the government’s interest in him. In a letter written after viewing the files, Gutman described his reaction: “I had a couple of rough days and nights. The notion that the government is out to get you surreptitiously is not comforting. It makes one go back over his life, wondering about those junctures where unexplained hostility or prejudice surfaced in institutional settings. Is that paranoid? Or do I have the right to be suspicious, now that I discover that they once were out to get me?” 

Gutman describes his activities at Duke as the basic ’60s-era fere of “protesting the war in Vietnam at draft boards, or on the Duke campus or UNC campuses, or standing in vigils outside the Durham Post Office; getting arrested at a Dow Chemical demonstration at UNC to call attention to the horror of dropping jellied gasoline (napalm) on infants and children; . . . marching in civil rights demonstrations. My activities scared the hell out of my parents, who grew up in Nazi Germany during World War II and knew what governments were capable of doing.” 

What can we expect from the U.S. intelligence community today, with escalating U.S. military involvement in Central America and increasing numbers of political and religious solidarity groups supporting non-intervention? One of the Church Committee report conclusions offers a clue. “The crescendo of improper intelligence activity in the latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s shows what we must watch out for: In time of crisis, the Government will exercise its power to conduct domestic intelligence activities to the fullest extent. The distinction between legal dissent and criminal conduct is easily forgotten.”□