Domestic covert action: How it happens and what we can do

Domestic Covert Action

Book Review

Reviewed by Aurolyn Luykx
April 1990; page 12; Volume 1, No. 5

War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It, by Brian Glick, South End Press, 1989. $5.00 paperback, 92 pages.


Combining a clear-eyed assessment of the obstacles faced by peace and justice activists with a surprisingly optimistic outlook on resisting political oppression, Brian Glick's War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It is already proving itself an indispensible tool for political activists entering the 1990's.

In 92 concise pages, Glick offers a brief historical outline of political repression in the U.S. since the end of World War I, focusing on the COINTELPRO operations of the 1960's, the grass-roots investigative work that brought them to light in the 70's, and their continuation throughout the 80's despite the official "shutdown" of the program that followed the half-hearted revelations of Watergate.

Glick expertly documents the illegal tactics used by the FBI to disrupt organizations and harass individuals critical of U.S. government policy; the extensive footnoting of newspaper and government documents sources (some of which are reproduced in an appendix) should convince even the most skeptical reader of claims which would otherwise seem incredible. The reader doesn't get far (as indeed many activist groups didn't) before "disruption" and "harassment" are extended to include cold-blooded murder, as well as other practices that provoke only jaded nonchalance when met in backpage newspaper articles on Third World dictatorships, but shock when encountered in the context of North American "democracy."

This level of violence that federal agencies have deemed acceptable in their repression of internal dissent will come as a surprise to many readers who thought Kent State was the outer limit of our government's domestic blood-letting. The American Indian Movement alone lost 69 members to FBI killings between 1973-76, as Glick notes, "a rate of political murder comparable to the first years of the Pinochet regime in Chile."

The Black Panther Party and other Black Nationalist groups were also targets of commando-style raids and selective assassinations. The pivotal murder of twenty-three year old Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in 1969, described in detail by Glick, culminated in a citizen's investigation which forced the federal and local governments to pay $1.8 million in damages to Hampton's family.

Of course, such settlements are hardly a deterrent for an agency funded by the federal government, as evidenced by the continued use of assassination against Communist Worker Party members and Puerto Rican independence activists in the late 1970s.

The accounts of violence, while the most gripping, are outdone in practical value by Glick's nuts-and-bolts descriptions of how government agencies have used agent provocateurs, forged letters, false media stories, anonymous phone calls, bogus publications and other disinformation to create divisions and exploit existing tensions within opposition movements. For longtime activists who have experienced the difficult diplomacy of coaltion work and the heartbreaking frustration of seeing personal conflicts hinder or destroy political effectiveness, these sections of the book may have the ring of revelation.

As Texas' own covert action insider-turned-ally John Stockwell noted as his talk here in Austin a few months back, "the government spends hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring and training people to disrupt our meetings, discredit our actions, and poison our personal relationships, and then the left feels guilty because we don't workk well together!" Glick also reveals how FBI "investigations" of right-wing groups like the Klan often serve as a cover for actual cooperation in acts of violence against leftist groups.

Yet in true activist tradition, far be it from Glick to describe a problem without outlining a solution. Though we can't make covert action go away, we can take steps to protect ourselves against it. Glick's clear articulation of such measures is what makes his book a must-read for political activists. Though he sometimes stuns with his revelations that many of our most paranoid FBI musings have actual basis in fact, Glick never loses sight of, nor allows his readers to lose sight of, our most important objective, which is the target of all this covert action: our effectiveness in organizing an ever-broadening base to work against repression and towards a more just society.

The CIA President Bush

Though the reader may experience a certain amount a paranoia after becoming aware of the formidable operations we are up against, it is crucial to remember that such paranoia serves the purpose of repression by leading activists to act out of fear and suspicion, or stop acting altogether. The FBI knows this and uses it to its advantage; one effective tactic noted by Glick is to direct suspicion of being an agent onto a loyal member of the group, thus disrupting political effectiveness and communication and often driving out effective organizers. Glick's suggestions on keeping lines of inter- and intra-group communication open and other methods of defusing government harassment make War at Home an invaluable practical handbook.

Beyond its strictly practical value, War at Home gives us back a piece of our history by sketching the stories of movements and individuals that too often got lost in the hegemonic morass of the mainstream media. Hopefully, younger readers will learn something of the martyred hereos that for many are only the vague recollection of a name, if that. In addition, War at Home holds special interest for Texans in Glick's discussion of the FBI operation against the Dallas Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.

Glick's book is necessary reading, not just for political activists, but for anyone who is affected by domestic covert action, which is to say every citizen of the United States. The illusions of democracy and rule by law are powerful enough that most Americans are unaware of the political violence and illegal activities our government carries out against its own citizens, much less the dozens of political prisoners sitting in U.S. jails at this very moment.

Glick's accessible gem of a book is a political eye-opener as well as a practical guide, and at only $5.00 makes a great (late) stocking-stuffer or just-because gift. Try giving it to your parents; read it yourself and pass it on to a friend. In the end, the best defense against covert action is exposing it; sharing information is one type of political action that everyone can engage in, and books like this one make it easy.

For more in-depth accounts of U.S. government repression, I recommend three weightier books that provide excellent documentations of the political history of "the other America": Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (Harper &amp, Row 1980); Robert Justin Goldstein's Political Repression in Modern America (Schenkman Publishing 1978); and Bud and Ruth Schultz's It Did Happen Here: Recollections of Political Repression in America (University of California Press 1989).