The Basics on COINTELPRO and How to Counter it

For more information on why Real People’s Media is writing about COINTELPRO read our latest article here.

COINTELPRO (or COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a series of methods used by the FBI against “undesirables”. While COINTELPRO officially ran from 1956 – 1971 within the FBI it’s tactics and methodologies were widely published and replicated by a number of government agencies up to today. Notable targets of COINTELPRO include John Trudell, AIM, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr, and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

A COINTELPRO memo discusses using classic divide and conquer techniques to reduce Black Panther recruitment. October 10, 1968

The goal of COINTELPRO is not necessarily the arrest or assassination of any one person, but dismantling a movement through death by a thousand cuts. Government agencies will use any means of pressure they can apply to dismantle a movement or organization. These tactics can include infiltration, psychological warfare, character assassination and even actual assassinations.

A famous example of COINTELPRO tactics occurred when FBI agents called Coretta Scott King to inform her of her husband’s infidelity. The most famous target of COINTELPRO was the Black Panther movement, several members of the Black Panthers were falsely imprisoned or assassinated in COINTELPRO operations. Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panthers was murdered by Chicago Police during a COINTELPRO operation.

Following the exposure of Douglas Durham as an FBI informant in 1974 suspicions ran high among the American Indian Movement. Two years later Anna Mae Aquash’s body was discovered in a ditch near the Pine Ridge reservation. To this day arguments continue over whether she was an informant or a victim of bad-jacketing. As the Free Leonard Peltier movement grew he was implicated in the death of Aquash through a smear campaign. Two men, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham are now serving life sentences for her murder.

Anna Mae Aquash is laid to rest for the second time by members of the American Indian Movement

Ironically it was a COINTELPRO target, Muhammad Ali, who inadvertently led to it’s undoing. On March 8, 1971, while the security guards were glued to their radios listening to Ali stand up to Joe Frazier in what had been billed as “The Fight of the Century” a group calling itself The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI crept into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. They made off with over 1000 classified documents outlining COINTELPRO and mailed them to all of the major papers.

While the FBI stopped using the term “COINTELPRO” after being exposed in 1971 it continues using the same tactics. As recently as April 2018 the FBI announced that they had identified “Black Identity Extremists” as a new threat and would be applying specific law enforcement techniques (read: COINTELPRO) to investigate Black Lives Matter.

One Veterans Square, Media, Pennsylvania, site of the March 8 1971 burglary


1. Bad-jacketing: a method wherein negative but not necessarily damning information is put out about an individual, These are not direct accusations but small tidbits of information that put someone in a negative light. Beware of gossipers and people who spread irrelevant negative information without cause. This information can be true or false.

2. Infiltration: Most infiltrators are out to gather information but they can also attempt to disrupt or sabotage organizations. Beware of people who cause a scene, take up too much space or ask inappropriate questions. Watch for people who disappear and reappear with little or no explanation. Ask people questions: Where are you from? How did you hear about us? Who invited you? Why are you here? A genuine person should have quick and easy answers to these questions.

3. Agent provocateur: Agent provocateurs are a special type of infiltrator; their main task is to goad individuals or organizations into committing overt illegal acts so they can be imprisoned. Beware of new people who make suggestions to commit illegal acts, never discuss illegal actions with people who have not been thoroughly vetted. In Toronto in 2010 anti-G20 activists experienced intense infiltration with a number of provocateurs pressing them to commit illegal acts. Ultimately several were arrested on trumped-up conspiracy charges based on conversations with these provocateurs.

4. Undermine public opinion: This can be accomplished in many ways. Oftentimes the police will share negative information with the news media or assist the media in obtaining negative information. Social media has led to the rise of online trolls who scour online sources for negative information and broadcast it to all of their viewers. Right-wing media is very organized and well-connected with police forces.

5. Legal harassment: Spurious criminal charges and civil lawsuits are used to distract or neutralize movements. They may or may not be directly related to front line activities. These matters rarely make it to trial but the constant stream of summonses, subpoenas, depositions, and interviews can cause mental breakdowns. 

6. False imprisonment/Assassination: Police agencies will work together with their federal and provincial counterparts to trump up charges against an individual to conduct a violent raid on their home or vehicle. Little care is given to whether or not the target survives the operation. Fred Hampton was murdered during such an operation.

Chicago police remove the body of Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who was slain in a gun battle with police on Chicago’s west side Dec. 4, 1969. Shooting erupted as police arrived at the building next to the Black Panther offices to serve a warrant. Another man identified as Mark Clark of Peoria, Ill., was killed and seven others wounded. (AP Photo)


If you are a person involved with struggles supporting marginalized people, environmentalism or animal rights chances are good that some form of COINTELPRO has been directed at you or your allies. The advent of social media has made COINTELPRO actions easier and more widespread.

1. Always work with people you know.
As more people are drawn to the organization always ask them who they know and who brought them. Have conversations with new people, ask them normal questions a person should be able to answer quickly: Where are you from? What do you do for work? Do you have siblings? Try to follow up on this information as much as possible. 

If you believe you have an infiltrator discuss it with people you know and trust the most first. Never take unilateral action, remember it is common to bad-jacket reliable people as informants. Collectively examine this person’s behaviour and note all suspicious activity. Confront them privately, collectively and gently with the information and ask them to explain themselves. If their explanation is unsatisfactory remove them from any position where they might have access to vital information. Tell them they can still be useful, just not on the front lines, present them with other tasks they can perform to support the movement. If they refuse or if the evidence is damning remove them entirely.

2. Tell the truth. Other people will also be asking you questions, you must be honest and open with those on the front lines. Everyone has embarrassing or shameful information from their past. The media or police will uncover it eventually. It is best to share this information with your cohorts before it can be used for bad-jacketing or as part of a smear campaign. Real Peoples Media was recently the victim of a bad-jacketing campaign after it came to light that one of our associates had a criminal record for sexual assault. We were previously unaware of these charges and it hampered our ability to respond.

3. Behave impeccably. The front lines of any movement will be heavily scrutinized and police and right-wing media will look for any means they can to bad-jacket or arrest you. Obey all laws that don’t have a bearing on your movement. Obey traffic laws and local by-laws, don’t do illegal drugs, litter, horseplay or fight in public.

4. Practice Gray Man techniques. “Gray Man” is a method of dressing and behaving so as not to draw attention to yourself. Put away your torn jeans, buttons and patches for plainclothes that match your environment. For example in a rural community, you might wear a plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans, in the city you might wear khakis and a t-shirt. Avoid flashy accessories, strong perfume or cologne, and shower daily using unscented products. Do not talk about your work in public, including over the phone. The goal is to be as unmemorable as possible.

5. Work with movement lawyers. Most large cities will have some sort of Movement Defence Committee or group of lawyers committed to working with activists. It is inevitable that you will face civil or criminal charges and getting in touch with your local movement lawyers before anything happens is crucial. Try to have the Christian Peacemaker Teams or other legal observers on the front lines with you as much as possible.

6. Document and report all interactions with white supremacists, media or the police. No interaction with theses folks is too minor to report. In all instances hit record on your device immediately. Do not engage with white supremacists outside of agreed rules of engagement, record everything until they have left the area. Always ask media if the conversation is on or off the record, state that you will do the same and record the interaction, direct them to a media liaison if you have one.

Record all police interactions, it is legal to do so. Carding is illegal in many jurisdictions, you only have to ID yourself to the police if you are the driver of a vehicle. Ask the officer to identify themselves, their agency and their badge number, if they refuse to tell them you fear for your safety, roll up your windows and call 9-1-1 to verify their identity, this is all legal. Ask the officer if you are being detained, if they say no leave immediately. If they say yes, ask the officer why you are being detained, what the charge is and if you are under arrest. As soon as the interaction is over upload your recording to a secure site at least one other person can access. If you are placed under arrest contact your movement lawyer or another lawyer of your choice. Do not use the 24-hour duty counsel, a night in jail is worth it to talk to a lawyer who understands your case.

One of the hopes and goals of COINTELPRO is that it’s existence alone will paralyze movements in fear, suspicion and mistrust. A phrase commonly used in the military is “a constant state of suspicious alertness” meaning to always be alert and paying attention for suspicious activity so that it becomes a normal part of your thought pattern. Be mindful of your environment and those around but you don’t let it distract you from the task at hand. Do not forget to engage in fellowship, self-care, and leisure, a tired and stressed person is a vulnerable person. Take care of yourselves and each other.

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