The U.S. Government's Secret War on the KKK Involved the FBI, Fidel Castro and Lots of Dirty Tricks

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "G-Men and Klansmen" on August 25, 1975. Due to recent events at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in one death and 19 injuries, Newsweek is republishing the story.

For decades, almost without restraint, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has carried out a wide range of undercover intelligence projects. Unknown to most Americans, some of these operations probably included violations of the law - and others, as they became known, seemed simply foolish. Last week, at the American Bar Association convention in Montreal, Attorney General Edward H. Levi made clear that he intended to put a leash on the FBI by instituting "guidelines" to cover its intelligence activities.

Levi proposed to restrict domestic intelligence gathering to circumstances that may threaten violence in the nation, and he promised to review these programs periodically. Electronic surveillance, such as wiretapping, would be limited to long-range investigations. The use by the FBI of "provocateurs" to lure unpopular people and groups into trouble would be barred completed. The vast amount of unsolicited - and often derogatory - material that the bureau receives about government officials and private citizens would be destroyed within 90 days if it could not be connected to criminal misconduct. And as part of the Watergate legacy. Levi sought to make sure that the bureau was not misused for political purposes. The FBI would undertake probes for the White House, he said, only upon written request by specified high-ranking officials.

As it happened, even as Levi was announcing his guidelines, the FBI released last week some fresh details of just the sort of operation the new rules were designed to prevent:

Most recent revelations of FBI harassment have involved left-wing groups such as antiwar organizations and the Socialist Workers Party. The newly released document showed that throughout the 1960s, the bureau had also waged a spirited and often imaginative counter-intelligence program - COINTELPRO, in bureau jargon - against right-wing outfits like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

Central to this campaign was a wholly fictitious organization, surreptitiously run from Washington, dubbed "The National Committee for Domestic Tranquility." In a coy touch of esoteric humor, some unknown wag in the Bureau christened the bogus organization's director "Harman Blennerhassett" - the name of an obscure financial supporter of Aaron Burr in the early nineteenth century. In thousands of mailings to unsuspecting Klansmen, the "committee" portrayed Klan leaders as Communist dupes or greedy grafters and parasites living off the membership.

"By placing themselves above the law of the land through the invocation of the Fifth Amendment," the committee wrote haughtily, "these irresponsible Klan leaders have joined hands with Communists who also always hide behind the Fifth Amendment." FBI field agents prodded the Klan with thousands of postcards, intentionally exposing the messages to outsiders along the way. One widely distributed postcard featured a cartoon of two Klansmen drinking at a bar over a caption, "Which Klan leaders are spending your money tonight?" The bureau also sent anonymous letters accusing various Klansmen of being FBI informants - which carried a double edge. They helped to protect the real informants, of whom there were at least hundreds, and they made Klansmen suspicious of almost everybody.

The FBI had a well-stocked bag of dirty tricks. It once faked a picture of a Miami Klansman consorting with Cuba's Fidel Castro. Upon learning that the Klan was holding a meeting in North Carolina, it called various motels in the area to cancel their room reservations. One Klan official was discovered to be receiving a veteran's disability pension while making $400 a month as a plumbing and electrical contractor; the G-men sicked the Veterans Administration on him to cut off his benefits, then for good measure alerted the Internal Revenue Service that he had not filed income-tax returns for several years.

Trinkets: Almost nothing was beneath the bureau's notice. COINTELPRO proposed an attempt to persuade Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr. to collect sales tax on trinkets sold at Klan rallies. The bureau seemed particularly upset with the Virginia Klan. A Washington memo, omitting any mention of attacks on blacks, noted the Klan had attacked the FBI. One Klan leader announced that it would be KKK policy to shoot any agent who appeared on its property.

In its campaign against the Nazi Party, the FBI informed party members that their Midwest coordinator was of Jewish descent, thus forcing his rapid expulsion. In the mid-'60s, the Chicago chapter of the party exhausted its meager financial resources to buy and repair a rundown building for use as it headquarters. After waiting until the job was completed, agents anonymously called Cook County inspectors who closed the building for technical violations.

The hitherto-secret FBI report also revealed that in its COINTELPRO campaign the bureau had carefully manipulated the press, leaking to friendly newsmen stories that were sometimes true and sometimes not. It provides prominent Southern publisher Ralph McGill with information to pass on to a colleague who was writing an article about the Klan for a national magazine. McGill is "a staunch and proven friend of the bureau," a memo from Washington to Atlanta said, and "would not betray our confidence."

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Two members of the Virgil Griffin White Knights, a group that claims affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, pose for a photograph in their robes ahead of a cross lighting ceremony at a private farm house in Carter County, Tennessee July 4, 2015. REUTERS/Johnny Milano
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