At some point in the late 1960s, you could be forgiven for thinking that the FBI was running the KKK.
It infiltrated, manipulated, and ran the Klan into the ground. The name of the operation: COINTELPRO–White Hate (cointelpro meant counter-intelligence program). With violent white hate again on the rise, we should take some inspiration — even if the methods can’t be replicated — from the FBI’s past grappling with racist extremists.
If there was any doubt that the country has a white-nationalist problem, the shocking attack on an El Paso Walmart should remove it. These self-radicalizing freaks, who are a subset of the broader mass-shooting phenomenon, take inspiration from prior acts of vicious mayhem and cheer high body counts on Internet message boards. They are domestic subversives and terrorists, and deserve to be treated as such.
There is no doubt that if we suffered a string of massacres on our soil carried out by Islamic radicals, we’d do everything in our power to diminish and hopefully eradicate the danger — indeed, we have. The national response to the racist extremists in our midst should show the same alacrity and resolve, while acknowledging that they represent a different, more-difficult-to-counter threat than the old Klan did.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson told FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to go after the Klan as he had the Communists. The seedbed of the program was the bureau’s in-depth work, involving 200 agents, investigating the horrific murder of civil-rights workers in Mississippi.
Running until 1971 and involving 26 field offices, COINTELPRO–White Hate targeted groups and people deemed violent threats, not their ideology per se.
The effort was comprehensive and no-holds-barred. In his history of the FBI, Tim Weiner writes that “the FBI dangled small fortunes before potential KKK informers, offered outright bribes to Klansmen who could serve as double agents inside state and local police forces, planted bugs and wiretaps in Klaverns, carried out black-bag jobs to steal membership lists and (on at least one occasion) dynamite caches.”
In an article in the journal Social Science History, David Cunningham recounts how the FBI degraded, and came to effectively control, Klan groups.
At the outset, the FBI carried out what it called “intensive interview programs” with Klan leaders. The sheer fact of the interviews, seeking to “bring to the attention of [Klansmen] an awareness of the FBI’s interest in any illegal activities of the Klan,” disrupted the membership and operations of the groups.
The FBI acquired hundreds of Klan informants, accounting for at least 6 percent of the membership, probably more. According to one FBI official, “There would be a Klan meeting with ten people there, and six of them would be reporting back the next day.”
The FBI worked to preempt violent acts and gained an enormous influence over Klan groups. The New Orleans office was so successful at degrading the Louisiana chapter of the United Klans of America that the office’s concern became propping the group up, lest its disintegration loosen the FBI’s control. The Tampa office had the same problem. The Charlotte office managed to decimate the violent North Carolina UKA and shift its membership to an alternative group under FBI influence.
One informant even became the speechwriter for the leader of the national UKA, Robert Shelton. The FBI mole worked to moderate Shelton’s views. According to a FBI report, this effort led to the Klansman’s relatively “softened position — less racist, critical of violence, more strongly anticommunist.”
Overall, Klan membership began shrinking in the late 1960s, from an estimated 14,000 members in 1964 to 4,300 in 1971. Per Shelton himself, “the FBI’s counterintelligence program hit us in membership and weakened us for about ten years.”
Of course, the contemporary FBI obviously isn’t going to take over the alt-right, nor should we want it to. The abuses of the COINTELPRO programs — the FBI also targeted civil-rights groups and the New Left, among others — became notorious when they were exposed in the 1970s.
There are also practical obstacles to the FBI duplicating its anti-Klan work, the most important of which is that the Klan was an organization, whereas today’s white supremacists are isolated, free-floating haters whose only connection to anyone else often is anonymous Internet postings.
Yet the FBI needs to be intensely focused on this threat. The bureau should take an intelligence-based approach. It should monitor sewer Internet boards such as 8chan, the preferred white-supremacist forum for propagandizing for mass murder. Posters who cross over from First Amendment–protected speech to incitement should be prosecuted. The FBI should interview anyone expressing sympathy with terrorism — just as it does with suspected Islamic extremists — and surveil such persons as appropriate and permitted under the law.
El Paso was an outrage, and surely not the last. We need to react accordingly.
© 2019 by King Features Syndicate