Centralized operations under COINTELPRO officially began in August 1956 with a program designed to "increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections" inside the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Tactics included anonymous phone calls, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audits, and the creation of documents that would divide the American communist organization internally. An October 1956 memo from Hoover reclassified the FBI's ongoing surveillance of black leaders, including it within COINTELPRO, with the justification that the movement was infiltrated by communists. In 1956, Hoover sent an open letter denouncing Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader, surgeon, and wealthy entrepreneur in Mississippi who had criticized FBI inaction in solving recent murders of George W. Lee, Emmett Till, and other African Americans in the South. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an African-American civil rights organization, was founded in 1957, the FBI began to monitor and target the group almost immediately, focusing particularly on Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, and eventually Martin Luther King Jr.
After the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Hoover singled out King as a major target for COINTELPRO. Under pressure from Hoover to focus on King, Sullivan wrote:
In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech. ... We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.
Soon after, the FBI was systematically bugging King's home and his hotel rooms, as they were now aware that King was growing in stature daily as the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement.
In the mid-1960s, King began to publicly criticize the Bureau for giving insufficient attention to the use of terrorism by white supremacists. Hoover responded by publicly calling King the most "notorious liar" in the United States. In his 1991 memoir Washington Post, journalist Carl Rowan asserted that the FBI had sent at least one anonymous letter to King encouraging him to commit suicide. Historian Taylor Branch documents an anonymous November 21, 1964 "suicide package" sent by the FBI that contained audio recordings, which were obtained through tapping King's phone and placing bugs throughout various hotel rooms over the past two years was created two days after the announcement of King's impending Nobel Peace Prize. The tape, which was prepared by FBI audio technician John Matter documented a series of King's sexual indiscretions combined with a letter telling him: "There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation". King was subsequently informed that the audio would be released to the media if he did not acquiesce and commit suicide prior to accepting his Nobel Peace Award. When King refused to satisfy their coercion tactics, FBI Associate Director, Cartha D. DeLoach, commenced a media campaign offering the surveillance transcript to various news organizations, including Newsweek and Newsday. And even by 1969, as has been noted elsewhere, "[FBI] efforts to 'expose' Martin Luther King Jr. had not slackened even though King had been dead for a year. [The Bureau] furnished ammunition to opponents that enabled attacks on King's memory, and ... tried to block efforts to honor the slain leader."
During the same period the program also targeted Malcolm X. While an FBI spokesman has denied that the FBI was "directly" involved in Malcolm's murder in 1965, it is documented that the Bureau worked to "widen the rift" between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad through infiltration and the "sparking of acrimonious debates within the organization", rumor-mongering, and other tactics designed to foster internal disputes, which ultimately led to Malcolm's assassination. The FBI heavily infiltrated Malcolm's Organization of Afro-American Unity in the final months of his life. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable asserts that most of the men who plotted Malcolm's assassination were never apprehended and that the full extent of the FBI's involvement in his death cannot be known.
Amidst the urban unrest of July–August 1967, the FBI began "COINTELPRO–BLACK HATE", which focused on King and the SCLC, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Nation of Islam. BLACK HATE established the Ghetto Informant Program and instructed 23 FBI offices to "disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate type organizations".
A March 1968 memo stated the program's goal was to "prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups"; to "Prevent the RISE OF A 'MESSIAH' who could unify ... the militant black nationalist movement"; "to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence [against authorities]."; to "Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to ... both the responsible community and to liberals who have vestiges of sympathy..."; and to "prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth". Dr. King was said to have potential to be the "messiah" figure, should he abandon nonviolence and integrationism, and Stokely Carmichael was noted to have "the necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way" as he was portrayed as someone who espoused a much more militant vision of "black power". While the FBI was particularly concerned with leaders and organizers, they did not limit their scope of target to the heads of organizations. Individuals such as writers were also listed among the targets of operations.
This program coincided with a broader federal effort to prepare military responses for urban riots and began increased collaboration between the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Department of Defense. The CIA launched its own domestic espionage project in 1967 called Operation CHAOS. A particular target was the Poor People's Campaign, a national effort organized by King and the SCLC to occupy Washington, DC. The FBI monitored and disrupted the campaign on a national level, while using targeted smear tactics locally to undermine support for the march. The Black Panther Party was another targeted organization, wherein the FBI collaborated to destroy the party from the inside out.
Overall, COINTELPRO encompassed disruption and sabotage of the Socialist Workers Party (1961), the Ku Klux Klan (1964), the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party (1967), and the entire New Left social/political movement, which included antiwar, community, and religious groups (1968). A later investigation by the Senate's Church Committee (see below) stated that "COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government's power to proceed overtly against dissident groups." Official congressional committees and several court cases have concluded that COINTELPRO operations against communist and socialist groups exceeded statutory limits on FBI activity and violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association.
The building broken into by the Citizen's Commission to Investigate the FBI, at One Veterans Square, Media, Pennsylvania
The program was secret until 1971, when the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, took several dossiers, and exposed the program by passing this material to news agencies. The boxing match, known as the Fight of the Century, between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in March 1971 provided cover for the activist group to successfully pull off the burglary; Muhammad Ali was himself a COINTELPRO target due to his involvement with the Nation of Islam and the anti-war movement. Many news organizations initially refused to publish the information. Within the year, Director J. Edgar Hoover declared that the centralized COINTELPRO was over, and that all future counterintelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Additional documents were revealed in the course of separate lawsuits filed against the FBI by NBC correspondent Carl Stern, the Socialist Workers Party, and a number of other groups. In 1976 the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the "Church Committee" for its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, launched a major investigation of the FBI and COINTELPRO. Many released documents have been partly or entirely redacted.
The Final Report of the Select Committee castigated the conduct of the intelligence community in its domestic operations (including COINTELPRO) in no uncertain terms:
The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the "national security" the law did not apply. While intelligence officers on occasion failed to disclose to their superiors programs which were illegal or of questionable legality, the Committee finds that the most serious breaches of duty were those of senior officials, who were responsible for controlling intelligence activities and generally failed to assure compliance with the law.
Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that ... the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
The Church Committee documented a history of the FBI exercising political repression as far back as World War I, through the 1920s, when agents were charged with rounding up "anarchists, communists, socialists, reformists and revolutionaries" for deportation. The domestic operations were increased against political and anti-war groups from 1936 through 1976.