The New FBI Powers: Cointelpro on Steroids

Rev. John Whitehead

By John W. Whitehead

Listen closely and what you will hear, beneath the babble of political chatter and other mindless political noises distracting you from what’s really going on, are the dying squeals of the Fourth Amendment. It dies a little more with every no-knock raid that is carried out by a SWAT team, every phone call eavesdropped on by FBI agents, and every piece of legislation passed that further undermines the right of every American to be free from governmental intrusions into their private affairs.

Incredibly, with little outcry from the populace, the lengths to which the government will go in its quest for total control have become more extreme with every passing day. Now comes the news that the FBI intends to grant to its 14,000 agents significant new powers which will extend the agency’s reach into the lives of average Americans and effectively transform the citizenry into a nation of suspects, reversing the burden of proof so that we are now all guilty until proven innocent. Thus, no longer do agents need evidence of possible criminal or terrorist activity in order to launch an investigation. Now, they can “proactively” look into people and groups, searching databases without making a record about it, conducting lie detector tests and searching people’s trash. All of this has been sanctioned by the Obama administration.


Whereas the relationship between the American people and their government was once defined by a social contract (the U.S. Constitution) that was predicated on a mutual respect for the rule of law and a clear understanding that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around, that is no longer the case. Having ceded to the government all manner of control over our lives, renouncing our claims to such things as privacy in exchange for the phantom promise of security, we now find ourselves in the unenviable position of being trapped in a prison of our own making.

It is a phenomenon that Abraham Kaplan referred to as the law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Unfortunately, in the scenario that has been playing out in recent years, we have become the nails to the government’s hammer. After all, having equipped government agents with an arsenal of tools, weapons and powers with which to vanquish the so-called forces of terror, it was inevitable that that same arsenal would eventually be turned on us. As Michael German, a former FBI agent, recently observed, “You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to find terrorism. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of terrorism in many communities. So they end up pursuing people who are critical of the government.”

Consequently, relatively obscure political activists, including antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska, have increasingly found themselves the object of intense surveillance by FBI counterterrorism agents. Such surveillance, as the FBI’s new manual reveals–even in the absence of credible evidence suggesting wrongdoing–is par for the course.

Then again, this is nothing new. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI conducted an intensive domestic intelligence program, termed Cointelpro, charged with the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. Thus, it would seem we’re back to where we started, only this time we’re facing Cointelpro on steroids–pumped up on the government’s self-righteous quest to ferret out peace activists and dissidents and energized by an arsenal of invasive technologies that make the phone tapping equipment of the 1960s look like Tinker Toys.

It’s the hammer and nail analogy again. Having acquired all of these new tools and powers post-9/11, of course the government wants to hold onto them and what better way to do so than by using them to ferret out “potential” threats. A prime example occurred in 2002, when the FBI dispatched a special agent, armed with a camera, to a peace rally to search for terrorism suspects who might happen to be there, just to “see what they are doing.” It was what the Office of Inspector General characterized as a “make-work” project.

Mark my words: we’re going to find, as time goes on and we come under greater and greater surveillance, that we have all become part of the government’s “make-work” project. What this means is that in order to justify their existence and earn their pay, they’ll be investigating perfectly harmless, innocent citizens.

So what’s to be done?

First, the American people need to get their heads out of the sand and their butts off the couches and act like real Americans for a change. And by that I mean taking to the streets and truly protesting this deplorable state of our nation. March on Washington, march on your town hall–but whatever you do, make your voices heard. If they can do it in Europe and China and the Middle East, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t do it here.

Second, once we’ve gotten Congress’ attention, we need to push for a legislative response to these FBI abuses. It can be done, but it will take Americans coming together across party lines and calling for Congress to pass legislation restoring the Fourth Amendment and restricting what government agents can do, especially without a court order. Congress may be largely corrupt and incompetent, but with the right kind of citizen pressure, changes can be had. Whatever you do, however, beware of promises made on the campaign trail. As we have seen repeatedly, they never stick.

Third, act now before it’s too late. That dying squeal, the sound of the Fourth Amendment having been gutted and bleeding to death, is getting fainter and fainter. Once it goes silent, there’ll be no turning back.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Freedom Wars (TRI Press) is available online at He can be contacted at Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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