DID THE CIA collaborate with Nicaraguan drug dealers who allegedly sold crack cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs in 1980s?
This question, which surfaced in a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News, has been viewed with skepticism by many whites. For many African-Americans, however, it is perfectly believable that the government would flood their communities with drugs and use the profits to pay for a clandestine war.
Because those whose ancestors were kidnapped from Africa, then dragged across the Atlantic to toil as degraded slaves, are quite capable of imagining the worst of our government - and with good reason. Recall the Tuskeegee syphilis experiment, for example: In this case scores of African-American men in rural Alabama went untreated for decades for venereal disease - though they were told the opposite - because government doctors wanted to determine how this illness ravaged the body.
But, above all, skepticism was fomented by COINTELPRO, the FBI-run "counterintelligence" initiative, beginning in the 1950s, that targeted and disrupted the activities of those so bold as to struggle for racial equality.
Like so many other violations of civil liberties, COINTELPRO initially focused on the Communist Party - one of the more unpopular groups in U.S. society - before it was extended to others. But from its inception in 1956 when it focused on the Reds, COINTELPRO still had a distinctly racial character. For example, the FBI seemed to favor disrupting the activity of African-American communists.
Still, the nascent civil rights movement quickly became a prime target of COINTELPRO. A central emphasis was to disrupt the movement by getting activists to squabble and fight among themselves. This was done by spreading rumors about alleged infidelity and sexual misconduct; claiming falsely that some activists were "snitches" and devising ever more bizarre examples of sophomoric high jinks.
COINTELPRO has come to symbolize an entire range of FBI activity directed at leading figures ranging from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X to the Black Panther Party.
FBI officials sanctioned the mailing to major news organizations of cartoons ridiculing the practices of the Nation of Islam. In Washington, the FBI sought to close a Nation of Islam elementary school and opened files on the parents of each of the 150 children enrolled at the school.
There is little doubt that the FBI stirred up already existing enmity between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in the months leading up to his February 1965 murder. Nagging doubts about the FBI's role at the time of the April 1968 murder of King continue to persist.
These doubts have been fueled by continuing revelations about the harassment King was subjected to by the FBI in the last years of life. His hotel rooms were bugged, as were his telephone conversations. The FBI shared with the news media tapes and transcripts purporting to show marital infidelity on his part. They tried to induce King to commit suicide by threatening to release this information.
Still, it seemed that the Black Panther Party was subjected to the most horrendous harassment by government authorities. Like the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party was all-black, and like the Communist Party, the Panthers sought to ally with Cuba and other foreign powers deemed to be off limits. This combination seemed to fuel the FBI's ire toward this organization of young African-American men and women that had been founded in Oakland in 1966 as a direct response to rampant police brutality.
The FBI consciously sought to engender fighting between the Panthers and black nationalist forces, such as those grouped around Los Angeles' Maulan Ron Karenga. One memo ominously noted how the FBI desired "shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest."
The FBI's wish was fulfiled in January 1969 on the campus of UCLA when a conflict over the direction of an Afro-American studies program led to the murders of two Panthers, Alprentic "Bunchy" Carter and John Huggins, and the wounding of one of Karenga's comrades, Larry Stiner. Stiner and his brother George were convicted for murder and received life sentences.
Apparently pleased with this development, the FBI did not stop there. They produced cartoons that were distributed widely in Southern California that showed Karenga and his comrades gloating about the murders. Such actions increased the enmity between the two groups of black activists and led to more conflict.
In Los Angles, FBI activity helped induce one group of blacks to kill another. In Chicago, the FBI and its police department allies took a more direct role in murder. One of the FBI's agents, who had become a top security official of the Panthers, had provided a drawing of an apartment where top Panther leader Fred Hampton lived. This same agent had informed the FBI that Hampton had stored illegal weapons there. The FBI and Chicago police planned a joint raid.
At approximately 4 a.m. Dec. 4, 1969, Hampton's apartment was stormed by heavily armed police who fired more than 90 shots. Hampton was killed as he lay in bed; another Panther, Mark Clark, also died.
Throughout their brief history, the Panthers faced unremitting hostility from the FBI. Though there is much hand-wringing nowadays about the state of black-Jewish relations, the FBI was not above heightening tensions between these two groups. The FBI felt that given the long history of anti-Semitism and bigotry directed against the Jewish population, it would be sympathetic to the struggle for racial equality. Hence, they sought to derail this possibility by circulating leaflets comparing Panther ideology with the traditional anti-Semitism of organizations like the American Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler.
These stories about COINTELPRO and the FBI are not new. Historians such as Kenneth O'Reilly and myself have written at length about such matters. Yet, there seems to be pained disbelief when many African-Americans seem willing to accept allegations about the malfeasance of the FBI's sister agency, the CIA.
And, the story about government agencies and drug dealing is not new either. Scholars like Al McCoy and Peter Dale Scott and journalists like Jonathan Kwitny and Jonathan Marshall have written at length about this subject as it relates to Southeast Asia and Central America. In an investigation that concluded about 10 years ago, Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, also found credible evidence of government complicity in drug dealing during the course of the war against Nicaragua.
The disruption of the Black Panthers specifically and the struggle for equality generally helped to spawn an alienation that made many in black Los Angeles more susceptible to drug abuse. Such has been the handiwork of the FBI and CIA.
Thus, as the Congressional Black Caucus and other agencies contemplate investigations of the CIA-cocaine connection, they would be well-advised to revisit the legacy of COINTELPRO as well. For African-Americans - and for all those with a passing acquaintance with history - recognize there is good reason for skepticism of the doings of powerful authorities.
Gerald Horne is the director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and author of "Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party" (Delaware, 1994) and "Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising in the 1960s" (Virginia, 1995).
Pub Date: 1/05/97