FBI has a history of investigating the personal lives of powerful people
According to FBI documents, one of the purposes of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” Hoover intended to “prevent the rise of a black messiah,” which included leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The FBI director called Dr. King “the most notorious liar in the country” and “the most dangerous man in America, and a moral degenerate.”
The bureau initiated its surveillance of King during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, and continued this activity throughout the 1960s. According to Hoover, who waged a personal war against the civil rights leader, King was under communist influence. When Hoover illegally wiretapped what it believed was proof of King’s marital infidelity in a Washington, DC hotel room, the bureau mailed the tape to the civil rights leader’s office and suggested he commit suicide.
Following King’s assassination in 1968, the Black Panther Party was singled out for special attention by the FBI.
For Hoover, the biggest threat to America’s security was not the Panthers’ guns, but rather their Free Children’s Breakfast Program, which engendered respect and allowed the group to build a following in the black community.
A top priority of COINTELPRO was to create a rift between Black Panther leaders, including Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and using bogus communications to discredit the party and exploit internal divisions.
When the FBI learned actress Jean Seberg was pregnant with the child of a Panther, the bureau leaked the story to gossip columnists. Seberg became distraught, attempted suicide and lost her baby in a premature birth. The actress was institutionalized and ultimately committed suicide in 1979. Hoover had decided Seberg “should be neutralized” because she was a financial supporter of the Black Panthers.
In 1969, Chicago police—under the authority of COINTELPRO and the Cook County State’s Attorney— staged a per-dawn raid on the apartment of Fred Hampton, the charismatic deputy chairman of the Panthers’ Illinois chapter. Hampton, 21, and Peoria Panther leader Mark Clark, 22, were murdered, and Hampton was killed while sleeping in his bed. A federal lawsuit filed against federal, state and city officials by the families of the two men settled for $1.85 million. The Panthers’ attorneys had discovered that prior to the raid, the FBI had obtained a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment through an informant. In addition, a federal investigation found the police had fired between 82 and 99 shots, while the Panthers fired only one shot, a number which was disputed.
In 1976, a special Senate committee investigating COINTELPRO reported that “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 unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.”
The extent of Hoover’s corruption was unknown until after his death— a legacy of employing tactics such as harassment, infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, spreading rumors, planting evidence, psychological warfare and violence—including murder. Although the bureau purportedly acted in the interests of national security and the prevention of violence, Hoover’s targets were nonviolent. And Hoover amassed a degree of power that no bureau head has been allowed to wield since.
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