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Martin Luther King Jr., COINTELPRO and the Normalization of Bulk Surveillance in Post-9/11 America

Martin Luther King Jr. & Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Photo from the Justice Department archive)

There are few better examples of why there should be no bulk data collection, surveillance where the personal data of millions is collected indiscriminately and without suspicion. Neither United States government agencies nor private companies should possess repositories of records or communications that are stored for searches later. And yet President Barack Obama plans to maintain and normalize programs involving bulk data collection.

The political intelligence program known as COINTELPRO was used by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to target civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. COINTELPRO moved “from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate.” It would keep “going down the line,” according to Tom Charles Huston, former aide to President Richard Nixon.

After Hoover learned King would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Hoover was infuriated and committed to spying on King. His hotel suites were bugged and a whispering campaign was employed to discredit him.

Smears were spread about King being involved in a sex orgy, chasing a prostitute down the hallway of a hotel in Oslo, having a romance with the wife of a Los Angeles dentist, and maintaining secret Communist connections.

The FBI sent a letter to King in November 1964 encouraging him to commit suicide because it did not approve of his connection with communist Stanley Levison. They sent audio recordings allegedly of King with women he had been with in hotel rooms, the product a surveillance project that spanned nine months.

“King, look into your heart,” the letter read. “You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this countyr have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time that is any where near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.”

It said, “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant. You are done. There is but one way out for [you].”

When in 1975, the Senate Church Committee was investigating the illegal surveillance engaged in by the FBI, the agency’s assistant director, John J. McDermott, justified this activity by arguing the FBI had “suspicions” King had been “influenced by subversives.”

“We did what we felt we had to do for the welfare of the nation at the time,” McDermott stated. “Don’t forget they (subversives) were bombing the Pentagon. They said they were going to shut down the government.”

There is absolutely no evidence at all to suggest that an “important political advisor” of King, Levison, was the kind of Soviet spy the FBI alleged. He was despised because he was an effective organizer who happened to be communist.

According to biographer David J. Garrow, the FBI was provided “with ironclad evidence” that Levison had severed ties with Communist Party USA

[T]he FBI conveyed that crucial news to absolutely no one outside the Bureau, not even the Attorney General. At a March 19 lunch with his old colleague Lem Harris, Levison said—as Harris recounted in a memo that Jack Childs passed on to the FBI—that “a whole group, formerly closely aligned with us, and over many years most generous and constant in their support,” had now concluded that “the CP is ‘irrelevant’ and ineffective,” and would supply no further support. The Harris memo was confirmed by what an FBI wiretap overheard Stanley telling Roy the very next day about his conversation with Harris: “I was tough, and I think I established my firm view, firm position.”

Levison’s break with the CPUSA was unknown to Burke Marshall, to Robert Kennedy, and to President John F. Kennedy when all three men reiterated to King in mid-June of 1963 that he must separate himself from Levison and O’Dell. Within days another leak to a newspaper revealing O’Dell’s continued presence at the SCLC led King to announce O’Dell’s resignation. Soon after that Levison himself, fully aware of the alarm that the Kennedys were voicing about him to King, told King that with Congress about to begin consideration of the Kennedys’ landmark civil-rights bill, he and King had no choice but to put an end to direct contact with each other. “I induced him to break,” Levison told the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1976. “The movement needed the Kennedys too much. I said it would not be in the interests of the movement to hold on to me if the Kennedys had doubts.”

Syndicated columnist Paul Scott wrote in 1975 that the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence needed to show fairness to Hoover and release the “full story of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” He urged senators to release “recordings of King’s private conversations monitored by the FBI including those with a secret member of the executive member of the executive committee of the US Communist party—a central figure in the fBI’s investigations of the committee of the US Communist party—a central figure in the FBI’s investigation of the controversial Civil Rights leader.”

Hoover, he contended, “sincerely believed that the Civil Rights leader and his activities represented a serious threat to the nation’s security.” If “explosive documents” were released, they would show that “the bugging and wiretapping of King carried out” was done to “determine the influence that the secret Communist official had over the Civil Rights leader and other officials of his Christian Democratic Leadership Conference.”

This “secret Communist official” is O’Dell. Scott believed the surveillance would be appropriate if, in fact, he had been influenced by “secret Communist officials” in the US Communist party. Decades later, it is made even more stunning by the fact that Scott was the target of CIA wiretapping because his columns sometimes contained “national security scoops.”

Columnist John D. Lofton Jr. defended the surveillance of King when he wrote in 1975 that Robert F. Kennedy must have had “ample hard evidence” for conducting the surveillance. The government would have been “derelict” in its duty if it had not tapped King and his associates. He quoted a former RFK aide:

…Kennedy had hard evidence. It’s classified. I can’t describe it, but I can tell you this. If you believe at all that the Soviet Union has agents in the United States—unless you believe it’s all a charade—you had to go along. It didn’t involve somebody who was alleged to have associated with or been a member of the Communist party in 1955. How do you ever know it’s correct? You can’t.

You can know what kind of information it is and where it comes from and he (Kennedy) did that and based on that there’s not anybody who had the authority who would not have put a tap on the phone in that circumstance…

Nicholas Katzenbach, who became attorney general after RFK, agreed and was also quoted:

There was some reason to believe that known subversives were making efforts to influence Dr. King’s movement and the question was how to deal with that, how to confirm whether they were or not and under these circumstances, really as much for the protection of Dr. King as for any other reason, and not because of any suspicion or feeling that Dr. King himself was in any way subversive or disloyal, Mr. Kennedy authorized a tap.

In Lofton’s column, the illegal surveillance is defended as helping keep the civil rights leader safe. The column from Scott suggests full transparency by government, instead of selective files in a Senate investigation, will reveal the government was conducting itself properly.


There are numerous parallels to draw between then and now on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day when America celebrates his life. The surveillance and infiltration by government agents was pervasive and disruptive yet King still managed to accomplish so much as a leader in the civil rights movement. One wonders what else he may have accomplished had he not been targeted by the government.

The government had no evidence he was cooperating with Soviet or communist agents yet they were perfectly willing to extrapolate even the tiniest sliver of suspicious activity and turn it into a pretext for extensive spying on him.

Officials, as they do today against dissidents or whistleblowers, fabricated baseless claims when they were being held accountable for illegal activities. There were people then who suggested transparency might prove it was okay that the government had used vast spying capabilities in the manner in which it did against antiwar activists, civil rights leaders, communists and other left wing organizers.

The FBI took the individuals it was most convinced were subversives, particularly prominent leaders, and then expanded its list of targets based upon associations. It used human relations among figures in movements to collect political intelligence and work to dismantle or discredit groups. All of this was done under the guise of national security, to prevent outside influences from infecting society, and one could say catch those who might commit acts of domestic terrorism against the state.

It is now known that the NSA targeted radical Muslims in foreign countries, including one US person, because they engaged in “online promiscuity” or viewed pornographic websites. Little is known about whether this tactic is being used by the FBI against domestic terrorism suspects in the US, who are Muslim, and wind up being pushed to commit attacks in operations that strongly resemble entrapment schemes. It obviously could easily be used to turn individuals into informants that would help the national security state target dissidents. (Marcy Wheeler has suggested the NSA has actually engaged in “creepy old-style spying” of Americans.)

There has also been evidence of domestic military spying of antiwar activists in the state of Washington, which is being challenged by a lawsuit that is scheduled to go to trial in June. They sought to designate individual activists as domestic terrorism suspects in order to justify infiltration and surveillance. This was done by the Army and also with the help of a Homeland Security fusion center. As Christopher Pyle, a former Church Committee investigator and Army intelligence whistleblower has said, fusion centers have developed into a key component of a secret surveillance network that makes it possible to circumvent the Fourth Amendment.

This is not abusive surveillance, which President Barack Obama addressed in his latest speech. He seems perfectly comfortable with keeping details on this sort of COINTELPRO-style surveillance secret from Americans. But, as the spying on King demonstrates, putting a person under total surveillance can potentially destroy a person’s entire life if the state chooses to do so.

Government agencies nor private companies should hold databases with massive amounts of data on populations in America and the world. They most certainly should not maintain a joint intelligence gathering relationship that enables secret unchecked surveillance with neither taking full responsibility for intruding on privacy of citizens.

The system could easily be turned against future movement leaders, particularly those from or with ties to immigrant communities that are easily marginalized. It is for that reason bulk surveillance should be opposed and not normalized.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."