New film highlights FBI abuses as House Democrats push to strip Hoover's name from building

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Michael Isikoff
·Chief Investigative Correspondent
·8 min read
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The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

WASHINGTON — A group of House Democrats is mounting a renewed push to strip J. Edgar Hoover’s name off the FBI headquarters in the wake of a powerful new film that highlights one of the bureau’s worst abuses under his leadership: a secret, decades-long program known as COINTELPRO that was aimed at discrediting civil rights activists, and which ultimately led to the 1969 killing by law enforcement of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

“You take a poll and I would bet 90 percent of the society has no clue what COINTELPRO was,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who, along with 22 co-sponsors, has reintroduced a bill to remove the longtime FBI director’s name from the bureau’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C. “This is an ugly part of our past that is not well known.”

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Cohen made those comments during an interview for a special, two-part “Buried Treasure” series of the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” It is being released this week on the 50th anniversary of a historic break-in of a small FBI office outside Philadelphia that yielded the first clues to COINTELPRO’s existence, along with other documents revealing FBI surveillance abuses. Among them: a directive from Hoover to create “racial squads” tasked with recruiting informants and agent provocateurs within black nationalist groups. (The full story of the break-in — including the identity of the left-wing activists who committed it — was first told in the book “The Burglary,” by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, and the documentary “1971” by director Johanna Hamilton.)

One of those who participated in the podcast series is Shaka King, the director of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a new film in which actor Daniel Kaluuya plays Hampton, a charismatic community organizer and Black Panther leader who was shot sleeping in his apartment during a December 1969 predawn raid by agents of the Cook County state attorney’s office and Chicago Police Department.

As the film shows, the raid was facilitated by an informant, William O’Neal (the “Judas” in the film’s title), who was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers and passed along a diagram of Hampton’s apartment with an X marked by the bed where he was sleeping.

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Cohen says he hopes the film will give new impetus to his years-long campaign to remove Hoover’s name from the FBI’s national headquarters across the street from the Justice Department. Cohen said this step is akin to efforts over the past year to change the name of military bases named for Confederate generals, as well as the successful removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue from the U.S. Capitol.

Among the Democratic co-sponsors of his bill are leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a former Black Panther activist who said last week she was a “first-hand witness to, and a target of Hoover’s illegal COINTELPRO operations.” No Republicans have yet to sign on.

“That movie has gotten a grand reception, and it showed the interactions between the Chicago police and the FBI in the murder of Fred Hampton,” Cohen said. “That was part of COINTELPRO, J. Edgar Hoover’s organized effort to make sure there was not a Black leader who would rise up for civil rights and better conditions in the Black community.”

Hoover, played by actor Martin Sheen, makes appearances in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” decrying the rise of the Black Panthers as a threat to law and order. “The Black Panthers are the single biggest threat to our national security,” the Hoover character says in the film. “Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black Messiah.” (The real Hoover did in fact make comments along these lines. In 1968, Hoover issued a directive to agents that they must “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”)

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., in 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP)
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., in 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP)

Yet King, the film’s director, seemed less than enthusiastic about Cohen’s bill, calling it a “cosmetic” response to a full reckoning for the historic abuses the FBI engaged in during Hoover’s nearly half-century as director.

“Cosmetic change is change of some kind, but it’s not really any kind of redress,” King said. “It’s not fixing anything. It’s actually a fairly hollow statement. A real statement is, ‘Let’s take a look at COINTELPRO and the damage it’s caused, and let’s engage in some historic justice.”

The renewed interest in the legacy of COINTELPRO comes amid a larger debate over policing and law enforcement in minority communities triggered by last year’s death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is also is taking place amid a parallel controversy over whether the FBI and the Justice Department under the Trump administration were aggressive enough in investigating and conducting surveillance of right-wing extremist, white supremacist and militia groups such as those that participated in the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, date unknown.  (AP Photo)
J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, date unknown. (AP)

Asked if the FBI should be using some of the similar methods it used against the Panthers to target white supremacist groups, King replied: “That is such a great question. In the instance of the Panthers, they weren’t committing a crime, you know? That’s like asking me, if we’re talking about folks who are committing crimes, if law enforcement should do everything within their legal means to prevent criminals from committing crimes, I have to say — if that’s the framework in which the powers that be in this country operated — I would say, yes.”

In fact, there are now strict guidelines governing the FBI’s surveillance of U.S. citizens — in large part because of the abuses first exposed by the burglars who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pa., on the evening of March 8, 1971. The burglars, anti-Vietnam War protesters, chose that night for a reason: It was the evening of the “Fight of the Century” at New York’s Madison Square Garden between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. One of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, then a cabdriver and a progressive activist, described on the podcast how he used a car jack as a crowbar to pry open a door to the second-floor office, allowing the group to break in, rummage through file cabinets and steal up to 1,000 FBI documents.

Among those documents was an internal routing slip with a cryptic reference to COINTELPRO. It was not until years later, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and an investigation by a Senate committee headed by Idaho Sen. Frank Church, that the public learned the full story of what COINTELPRO was: a counterintelligence program launched by Hoover in the 1950s that targeted left-wing and civil rights groups by seeking to discredit their leaders and sew division within their ranks. Its most notorious action was the collection of secret audio surveillance tapes allegedly involving Martin Luther King Jr., particularly those related to his sex life, which bureau agents later used to try to blackmail the country’s foremost civil rights leader.

Enraged about the break-in, Hoover ordered a nationwide investigation to find the culprits, but the FBI never cracked the case. Forsyth and his fellow burglars revealed themselves only in 2014, long after the statute of limitations had expired. Patrick Kelly, one of the former agents charged with investigating the burglary, said at the time that the burglars were “rationalizing a criminal act.” Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show with this reporter, Kelly added: “I don’t believe such people have the right to take it upon themselves and make decisions.”

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, right, with President Richard Nixon in December 1971. (AP Photo/JP)
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, right, with President Richard Nixon in December 1971. (JP/AP)

But Forsyth, in his “Skullduggery” interview, responded: “I’ve heard it all before. ... First of all, what [the FBI] were doing was literally against the law. They were using their power to persecute and intimidate people who were doing things that are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s contrary to what democracy is all about.”

The burglars, calling themselves the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” soon started anonymously mailing the documents to members of Congress and journalists. Presidential aspirant Sen. George McGovern and Rep. Parren Mitchell, both FBI critics, returned the documents to the FBI, saying they did not want to take possession of stolen property.

But Medsger, the first journalist to receive them in her Washington Post mailbox, fought to publish them. As she explains on the “Skullduggery” series, she got stiff resistance. The paper’s lawyers and publisher Katharine Graham opposed publishing them after Attorney General John Mitchell demanded the newspaper hold back. But the paper’s executive editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, sided with Medsger and prevailed, leading to her first big scoop on the documents. “Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities” declared the front-page headline on March 24, 1971.

It was, Medsger says in the podcast, a “dress rehearsal” for the debate within the newspaper just months later when the Post, along with the New York Times, received a more famous cache of stolen documents: the Pentagon Papers.

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