How did Red Scare Surveillance End?

“After Half a Century as America’s counterrevolutionary in chief, Hoover no longer commanded unquestioned authority…. The control of secret information had always been the primary source of Hoover’s power. He had lost it.” -Tim Weiner, Enemies, 288.

It was dark and late on the night of March 8, 1971 when for the first time in fifteen years eyes other than those of an FBI employee read the word “COINTELPRO.” The COINTELPRO, which stood for Counter Intelligence Program, was created in 1956 during the height of the second red scare as an aggressive campaign to redouble efforts to survey the American left. It was one of the darkest secrets the FBI had.  Through the program, the FBI had clandestinely amassed thousands of files through illegal and

Here William C. Sullivan, the founder of the COINTELPRO, and J. Edgar Hoover shake hands.

unconstitutional methods. Unless the FBI wanted to purposely leak information, the world would never know about the intelligence that had been gathered in the name of COINTELPRO. Even the Attorney Generals that Hoover was supposed to have been reporting to had no idea of the program’s existence. In the 1976 Church Committee hearing investigating the civil rights abuses of intelligence organizations, the committee found that, “To the extent that Attorneys General were ignorant of the Bureau’s activities, it was the consequence not only of the FBI Director’s independent political position, but also of the failure of the Attorneys General to establish procedures for finding out what the Bureau was doing and for permitting an atmosphere to evolve in which Bureau officials believed that they had no duty to report their activities to the justice department, and that they could conceal those activities with little risk of exposure.”[1] That is of course, until March of 1971.

A few miles outside of Philadelphia, in a small town called Media, burglars working for the organization known as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a small satellite FBI office and raided it, taking every classified document they could find.[2]It was the first time anyone had seen documents illustrating the depth of FBI surveillance. For the

Here the Chicago Tribune reports on the FBI break-in in Media, PA.

next few months the organization continued to leak the information to certain members of the government, as well as members of the press who in turn, relayed the information to a stunned population. Tim Weiner writes, “It took weeks, in some cases months, before the reporters began to understand the documents. They were fragmentary records of undercover FBI operations to infiltrate twenty-two college campuses with informers, and the described the wiretapping of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers. It took a year before one reporter made a concerted effort to decode a word that appeared on the files: COINTELPRO. The word was unknown outside the FBI.”[3] The country was shocked. A few weeks later J. Edgar Hoover canceled the fifteen-year operation in hopes that no more secrets would leak, but it was too late. The days of an unquestioned FBI had come to an end. Hoover would stay on as director until his death, a year and two months after the break in. The second red scare had been over for nearly ten years but the systems put in place by that fear had stayed operational. Only after the revelations of 1971 could the public truly learn to what extent they had been watched for the past four decades.

Here is a photograph of J. Edgar Hoover's grave in Washington D.C. He died in 1972, a little over a year after the Media break-in.


[1] US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities Within the United States. 1976 US Senate Report on Illegal Wiretaps and Domestic Spying by the FBI, CIA and NSA. St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007. Pp. 185.

[2] James Kirkpatrick Davis, Spying on Americans: The FBI’s Domestic Counterintelligence Program. Westport: Praeger, 1992. Pp. 1.

[3] Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 293.

Tim Weiner’s NPR Interview

One of the most important secondary sources for this project has recently become Enemies: A History of the FBI by Pulitzer Prize winner Time Weiner. Earlier this year NPR conducted a great interview with the author about his new book.

You can find the interview here:

Were there any “Side Effects” of Being Watched?

“This sense that the FBI was omnipresent was its own kind of power.”-Tim Weiner. Enemies, 77

There are obvious benefits and outcomes that emerged from FBI surveillance. One was information. The first and foremost reason for surveillance was intelligence gathering. However, there is something else that interested me about the omnipresence of these FBI listening devices and informants. Were there any “Side Effects”? Were there any unforeseen benefits or detriments for the FBI? One of the most intriguing ones to me is the idea that knowing you are being watched alters behavior. How can we better understand this effect? What writings can we turn to?

David J. Garrow is one of the more prolific writers on the topic of FBI investigations and techniques during the 1950s and 60s. In a 1988 article, Garrow touches on the subject. He writes:

“With regard to informant’s presence, much more tough-minded consideration must be given to whether passive presence has had tangible effects, to how significant a number of instances of informant activism or agent provocateur behavior actually occurred, and to whether activists’ expectations of informers’ presence may really have been the most significant internal effect of all. Widespread suspicion of informant penetration provided fertile ground for accusations of betrayal whenever movement tensions led to angry, personal recriminations.”[1]

The Panopticon as imagined by Jeremy Benthem can serve as an analogy to the Surveillance system.

The figure that I find it most beneficial to turn to for these answers  is French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. Based on the ideas of British philosopher and social thinker Jeremy Benthem, Foucault dedicated an entire chapter of his book Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, to the idea of the Panopticon, the round prison. The prison is a giant circle in which all of the cells face inward toward a giant tower. The tower’s windows are slated so even though the prisoners know they are being watched, they cannot see their surveyors. Foucault writes, “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” [2]

We see this principle unintentionally used by the FBI time and time again. The entire culture of the era was steeped in the understanding that FBI agents, informants, or wiretaps were out there and therefore, one must alter one’s behavior. Movies or popular stories such as 1951’s film I Was A Communist for the FBI, also helped to propagate this fear of FBI infiltration.

The paranoia was effective. One particularly interesting incident involved the American Communist newspaper The Daily Worker. On January 12, 1953, The Daily Worker accused the FBI of harassing its journalists and beseeched the attorney general to take action. The interesting fact however is that the FBI had not harassed any Worker writers. In fact, besides monitoring the publication with daily clippings, little surveillance had been conducted on the daily publication. In a memorandum from the Washington office to the New York office the author writes, “The (Communist) Part has evidently become so jittery that they decided to try to apply pressure on the Attorney General by accusing the Bureau of intimidation and the use of threats both of which are false. It is believed that we should ignore this attempt…in fact this should give impetus to the program as the Party is undoubtedly very much concerned over our successful penetration.” [3] Here we see the Panopticon in action, the fear of being watched overtaking the reality of the situation.

In fact, the prison as Foucault envisioned it, has one more comparison to Hoover’s objectives in the Second Red Scare. Foucault writes that within the construct of the surveillance tower, even the surveyors may be watched and monitored by their superiors. He writes, “In this central tower, the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders…he will be able to judge them continuously, alter their behavior, impose upon them the methods he thinks best.”[4]Again, the theory has analogous roots in the FBI structure. FBI special

FBI recruits, like those in this picture taken in 1947, were under almost constant surveillance by moles within their training groups.

agent William Sullivan joined the bureau in 1941 and eventually rose in the ranks to third in command of the entire organization. In his memoir The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI, Sullivan remarks that from the first day of training on, the threat of internal spies turning agents in for being overly critical of policy or for indecent behavior is perpetual.[5]

The knowledge of FBI presence for both citizens and lesser agents may have contributed to a considerable behavioral change, although substantiating that may be a very difficult task for historians. Either way, the idea of the Panopitcon should remain a very real and effective comparison to make when analyzing surveillance theory and the FBI during this era.

[1] David J. Garrow. “FBI Political Harassment and FBI Historiography: Analyzing Informants and Measuring Effects.” The Public Historian, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1988. Pp. 17.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Pp. 201.

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation. “The Daily Worker Internal Security” Mr. A.H. Belmont to Mr. J.E Dunn. (January 11, 1953). (accessed April 9, 2012)

[4] Foucault, 204.

[5] William C. Sullivan. The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI. New York: Norton, 1979. Pp. 19.