“High ranking police officials trained by the FBI and J. armed by a U.S. marshal formed a secret unit that may have committed political murders… under the banner of counter-terrorism, the secret police turned into terrorists.” Until recently, most Americans reading such a news report would assume that it derived from the most eccentric radical tract, while even connoisseurs of conspiracy theory might have trouble placing the exact context. Never in the worst years of J. Edgar Hoover did the FBI ever go so far, and it seems a little extreme for the Nixon White House. In fact, the words quoted stem from the quite moderate pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which in 1992 reported on an antiradical operation devised by federal officials working out of the United States Marshals service. In the late 1970’s, the deliriously named “Defenders of Democracy” “disappeared” individuals who might pose a threat to federal judges and apparently bombed the headquarters of the local Bar Association. One might think that this would be a major story, the sort of thing that actually brings down governments, until one realizes that the attacks in question occurred under the United States flag, but on the soil of Puerto Rico. As Graham Greene reminded us, the world can be neatly divided into those who can and cannot be tortured and “disappeared” with impunity, and the Defenders had the wisdom to direct their illegal acts at torturees. With a few honorable exceptions like the Inquirer, the national press treated the death squad affair with all the fanfare normally received by the retirement of a school crossing guard.

The oblivion into which this affair has sunk is indicative of the highly selective coverage accorded to official misdeeds, especially in the realm of covert policing and “dirty tricks.” For much of its history, the United States lacked a clandestine police network of the sort that characterized every other advanced nation, but since the 1940’s, the proliferation of secret agencies has more than made up for this absence. In the last half century, these bodies have repeatedly been caught out in acts of gross illegality, which in the Watergate years brought the whole apparatus to the verge of destruction. Recently, the investigations into the Waco disaster and the Randy Weaver incident have demonstrated a pattern of incredible incompetence and contempt for law and human life. However, the official response has been to reshuffle a few of the obvious culprits, while leaving untouched the overarching structure which permits and encourages misbehavior.

The obvious question is, how do they get away with it? One answer has been the thoroughly partisan nature of the public and political response to the acts in question and the selective nature of the outrage evoked. As with political scandals, tell me the high crimes and misdemeanors which make you irate, and I will deduce your ideological outlook with reasonable accuracy. Very few liberals evince the slightest concern about Vincent Foster and Whitewater, while conservatives shed few tears over the horrors of Iran-Contra. If asked about the dirty tricks of the federal justice agencies, the right will turn to Waco and Ruby Ridge with the same infallible instinct that draws the left to COINTELPRO and alleged CIA drug dealing. Worse, each side may be unwilling to condemn the atrocities wrought upon the other side. Randy Weaver was a white supremacist who got what he deserved; antiwar protesters of the 1960’s were virtual traitors, who could not be treated with kid gloves.

The faction in sympathy with government thus demands ever more forceful action against its enemies on the familiar basis of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Reagan-era conservatives demanded an iron fist policy against potential subversives on the left, and the removal of restrictions that supposedly tied the hands of the FBI. The recent debates over the Anti-Terrorism Bill presented the surreal spectacle of liberals calling for sweeping federal powers to fight white supremacists and militia extremists. With an airheaded lack of historical perspective, both sides appear to believe that the powers granted the federal government will consistently be used for the exact purposes for which they are requested and will never backfire against the original supporters. A vast body of precedent suggests that this belief is incredibly naive, that the real problem lies in the police apparatus itself. To complicate the proverb, just possibly, “my enemy’s enemy is my enemy too.” Conservatives properly exercised over the persecution of the religious right should pause to consider how far their grievances are in fact identical with those of their bitterest ideological enemies. The problem, in short, is the dirty tricks themselves, and not the direction in which they are aimed.

American history has many turning points, the dates which normally punctuate textbooks and college courses, but one of the least recognized is 1936. This was the year in which President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the FBI to undertake covert surveillance of Nazi and communist subversion in the United States. This can fairly be seen as the start of the internal security apparatus in the United States.

The government was principally interested in the far right at this time, in groups like the German-American Bund, the Silver Shirts, and Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic Christian Front. While these groups were both active and numerous, their strength was exaggerated out of all proportion by the organs of the left. The influential newssheet The Week typically presented the fascist right as a vast menace millions strong, engaged in systematic plots to sabotage the American war effort when the United States finally entered the world conflict. The fascists were said to be planning the mass sabotage of factories or agricultural production, the release of germ warfare, and the formation of secret armies. The “fifth column” was a national menace, demanding urgent intervention by the FBI. Such charges were music to the ears of the White House, which used the purported Nazi threat to justify interventionism on the Allied side, and so media friends of the administration placed the charges for all they were worth. The FBI gained abundant new powers and prestige from their war on subversion.

Of the many ironies here, the most striking is the source of the fifth column charges, which were in fact taken from the contemporary Moscow show trials, and which American communists borrowed to stigmatize their domestic enemies. The Stalinist charges created a “Brown Scare” in 1939-1941, which m turn shaped public perceptions of foreign espionage. But from 1946, the same themes and ideas were turned against the left in a new Red Scare, in which the newly invigorated FBI rooted out the communists and exposed their devilish schemes of sabotage and fifth column plotting. As in 1940, a vast superstructure of myth and false accusation was erected upon a core of genuinely treasonous activism, a process made possible by the Red media campaigns of the Roosevelt years. While the political right may ultimately have benefited from the workingout of the cycle, the true beneficiaries were undoubtedly the federal police bureaucrats themselves. For the left, the lesson should have been (in the words of the cliche): be careful what you wish for—you may get it.

The lesson, of course, was learned neither by the left nor the right. For two decades after McCarthy, the right continued to lend support to the secret police agencies in their clandestine war on supposed communist plotting. Initially, the assumption was that leftist activism in the United States was orchestrated from Moscow, and was therefore a subset of the foreign espionage problem. In reality, this became a justification to interfere with any form of protest, however autonomous or constitutional in character. The most notorious manifestation was the Counter-intelligence Program, COINTELPRO, which between 1956 and 1971 undertook nearly 300 actions against black groups alone. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both targeted for surveillance and “destabilization,” countless petty acts of sabotage and rumormongering intended to destroy their careers and reputation. While the bureau probably had no role in the assassination of either man, their conduct over the previous decade was so devious and criminal as inevitably to excite such suspicions, and thus to promote an atmosphere of public paranoia.

An advanced industrial power like the United States certainly needs some kind of internal security agency, to warn of possible subversion and terrorism. The problem with the FBI in the Hoover years was that surveillance and intelligence gathering were rareK considered adequate, and had to be complemented by active measures to disrupt and destroy the potential subversives. This meant, for example, using bogus statements and rumors to excite rivalries within radical groups like the Black Panthers. Agents provocateurs were planted in civil rights and antiwar groups with a view to creating violence that could justify the suppression of the troublemakers.

The FBI was not the only agency engaged in this practice in the 1960’s and 70’s, as some of the worst provocation stemmed from police “Red Squads” in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. All used the same tactics, of employing individuals who would penetrate activist groups with thrilling suggestions about undertaking sniping on Michigan Avenue or bombing police precinct houses in Harlem. Some went further and established their own bogus radical groups with the purpose of discrediting the authentic radicals, and even confronting them physically, a policy which caused several deaths. In his widely read book Low Intensity Operations, British counterinsurgency expert Frank Kitson observes that the American Black Power movement of the 1960’s was actually destroyed by such “pseudo-gangs” or police front organizations. So too was the American Indian Movement, AIM. Many radicals charged that official hands were involved in the operations of bizarre extremist and terrorist groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army of the mid-1970’s. In Puerto Rico (which nobody cares about) federal agents organized bogus bombings and probably killed the leftists presumed guilty of the deeds. As long as they do not target white people, federal agencies can pretty much get away with murder; and in a powerful gesture toward equal opportunity, open season now appears to have been declared on white supremacists and “cultists.”

When Congress discovered COINTELPRO and related schemes in the aftermath of Watergate, its reaction might be compared to that of the police officer in Casablanca who was shocked—shocked—to find what had been going on. That the FBI, of all agencies, had been violating legality in order to pursue radicals! In retrospect, we might ask cynically what else they had expected. However, the worst abuses of the antiradical campaigns did not involve acts of burglary or wiretapping or even the systematic character assassination of Martin Luther King. The most insidious perils lay in the whole culture of infiltration and provocation, which threatened to make official agencies accomplices to violence and even murder. The laws passed to control federal agencies in the mid-I970’s laid down apparently strict constraints on the circumstances under which an investigation could be begun, but placed no effective limits on the nature of a countersubversive campaign once under way.

Under the Reagan administration, domestic countersubversive operations were regulated by Presidential Order number 12333 (1981) and the 1983 Attorney General’s guidelines. Together, these rules permitted investigation and infiltration without specific suspicion of a crime in cases where evidence “reasonably indicates” that a group is connected to foreign espionage and international terrorism. A group also qualifies if it aims to achieve its “social or political goals wholly or in part through activities that involve force or violence.” The words are branded on the souls of all federal agents to this day, but the walls of protection which they erect are paper-thin. 1 sometimes quote the passage to undergraduates and ask them how a federal agency can target anyone it pleases while still remaining within the “A. G.’s guidelines.” A forest of hands goes up, and the correct answer shortly emerges: get someone, anyone, to say that group X is plotting violence, and you can do what you like.

Any American concerned with the protection of civil liberties should have on his or her desk a photograph of a well-intentioned Baptist pastor named Frank Varelli, who became the storm center of FBI attempts to suppress leftist critics of United States policy in his homeland of El Salvador. In the early 1980’s, the Reagan administration was deeply concerned about left-wing activities in Central America and possible connections between these movements and radical counterparts in the United States. As in the Hoover years, the Reaganaut worldview saw public concern over conditions in that region as Soviet-inspired, and therefore likely to fall within the ambit of United States counterintelligence. Suspicions focused on the Committee for Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, CISPES, a coalition of leftist, liberal, and pacifist groups, with a hefty contingent of clergy and religious workers, mainly Catholics influenced by liberation theology. Varelli’s sincere anticommunism led him to become an informant for the FBI in 1981, and he penetrated CISPES. Over the next two years, he found himself pushed to provide ever more damaging information about the group, specifically about violent actions that could justify a charge of terrorism. The accusations were forthcoming, apparently including a bogus account of an assassination attempt on President Reagan in Dallas. As former FBI Director William Sessions declared, “The case pivoted on the information Varelli provided During much of the investigation, the accuracy of Varelli’s information was not adequately verified.” Between 1983 and 1985, nearly all the bureau’s field offices became deeply involved in investigating CISPES and its allies, acting on the false charge that it was a terrorist front group. By 1987, a disgusted Varelli exposed the whole affair to Congress, which began a thorough investigation into what had in effect been a heavy-handed attempt to intimidate opponents of United States foreign policy.

The consequences of the FBI war on the Central American movement were devastating. Several thousand individuals were investigated, photographed, and wiretapped, their license plates recorded, their neighbors interrogated about their subversive leanings. There were hundreds of break-ins, acts of sabotage and disinformation, and numerous people were deported back to El Salvador as likely “subversives.” On their return, perhaps 50 were duly killed either by police or death squads, an outcome that could have surprised no one. The bloodshed resulting from this affair was augmented by the free sharing of information between United States agencies and the Salvadoran National Guard, a body hopelessly tainted with torture, rape, and mass murder. As with the “Defenders of Democracy,” the affair sounds like an outpouring of left-wing conspiracy theory, but the factual bases of the case are beyond question. (There is a partisan but amply documented account of the whole mess in Ross Gelbspan’s 1992 book Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI, published by South End Press.)

It is possible to imagine a conservative reading this in the 1990’s with little sympathy; whether or not they were really involved in terrorism, CISPES were naive dupes, conscious or unconscious allies of communist tyranny in the Americas and elsewhere. Let us for the sake of argument assume that all this is true. What the Varelli ease showed was the utter ineffectiveness of any congressional restrictions on the internal security empire. (These events, of course, occurred under the “restrictive” policies that the 1995 Anti-Terrorism Bill sought to repeal in order to “unshackle” federal law enforcement.) It also illustrated how that machinery works against any perceived danger to national security, and the shape of that threat will naturally change according to the political color of the administration. We obviously cannot know the steps which the FBI and other agencies are currently taking to protect us from militias, survivalists, and white supremacists; but the CISPES affair gives a pretty good idea. I assume that at least one person has already provided the information necessary to justify the investigation of the far right, including quite legal operations like bookstores, political parties, and radio stations. You may trust Reagan and Ed Meese with these sweeping powers, but would you trust Clinton and Janet Reno? (And vice versa.)

Subversion investigations also venture into fundamental issues of religious liberty. According to the classic counterinsurgency theory of Frank Kitson, Roger Trinquier, and others, you can rarely penetrate the fighting formations directly, so you begin with the support and front groups, the “above-ground” legal organizations. In the Varelli case, churches and clergy were prime targets of the investigation, as they assuredly are now in the investigations of the far right. I wonder how many pastors, left or right, have become informants for the federal government?

It would be nice if liberals were to criticize the investigation of rightist and fundamentalist churches and compounds, just as conservatives should have protested the disruption of liberal church activities in the 1980’s. Neither eventuality seems likely. In fact, contemporary feminists are demanding a “proactive investigation” of supposed networks of pro-life terrorists, presumably with the full panoply of infiltrators and informants. The campaign would inevitably reach deep into religious organizations. If that’s what it takes to fight hate groups/communists (delete where applicable), so be it.

There is one historical analogy which might offer hope for overcoming this impasse. In the bloody history of 17th-century England, different factions enjoyed power at various times, and passed draconian laws against their enemies. Puritans and Whigs persecuted Tories and Catholics on the right and received their comeuppance some years later when the fortunes were reversed. From about 1670, however, this futile game of tit-for-tat began to produce lasting benefits, when English parliaments began passing laws which in modified form serve today as the basis for America’s constitutional freedoms. Habeas corpus is a well-known example, but the same period also produced the independence of the judiciary and the liberty of the jury to reach a verdict free of the dictates of the judge. This apparent upsurge of common sense arose not from any novel political theory, but from the growing recognition by both partisan extremes that everyone stood to benefit from protections of this sort. For quite hardheaded reasons, militants on both sides supported what in retrospect appear astonishingly liberal reforms, on the basis that one could never tell when one’s own interests might require these protections. Codification of these individual rights thus arose from an odd and entirely self-interested coalition of enemies who realized that they had more to fear from the state than from each other. Is there any chance that both sides in contemporary America might start seeing each other’s pain, and start dealing with the fundamental issues of state power that we so urgently need to address?