The Emergence of Worthy Targets: Official Frames and Deviance

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C 2004)
Sociological Forum, Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2004 (
The Emergence of Worthy Targets: Official Frames
and Deviance Narratives Within the FBI1
David Cunningham2,3 and Barb Browning2
How do agencies of social control construct understandings of their targets,
and how do these constructions shape subsequent outcomes? In the case of
the FBI’s counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs), agents in the field
avoided organizational sanctions by using personal characteristics of targets to
justify counterintelligence action, particularly in the absence of disruptive political activities by otherwise “worthy” targets. Specifically, agents drew upon
predictable deviance narratives to validate official frames produced at the top
of the FBI hierarchy, thereby structuring the allocation of counterintelligence
action against purported security threats. Our findings point to the importance of considering such intra-organizational negotiations to understand the
mechanisms through which interpretive schema connect to the outcomes of
contentious political interactions.
KEY WORDS: deviance; organization; official frames; social movements.
“The selection of a target embodies a judgment of deviance from the
dominant political culture.”
—Frank Donner, The Age of Surveillance
Alongside political opportunities and threats, mobilizing structures, and
repertoires of contention, framing processes have emerged as central components of models that seek to understand political contention in a wide
range of contexts (McAdam et al., 2001). Most broadly, frames are conceptualized as “schemata of interpretation” that enable individuals to organize
1 An
earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2001 American Sociological Association
Annual Meeting in Anaheim, CA.
2 Department of Sociology, Brandeis University, MS 071, Waltham, Massachusetts 02454-9110.
3 To whom correspondence should be addressed; e-mail: [email protected]
C 2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
0884-8971/04/0900-0347/0 P1: JLS
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experience and guide action (Snowet al., 1986:464). While in daily life all social actors draw upon frames to engage in the production and maintenance
of local meanings, frame analysts have recognized that the strategic process
of frame construction and management is central to the mission of social
movement organizations seeking to replace “a dominant belief system that
legitimizes the status quo with an alternative mobilizing belief system that
supports collective action for change” (Gamson et al., 1982:15). In this sense,
framing processes provide a mechanism through which individuals can ideologically connect with movement goals and become potential participants
in movement actions.
While frame alignment processes have commonly been called upon to
make sense of how these potential participants come to be linked to movement organizations, recent work has increasingly focused on the interactive
and strategic nature of frame construction. Within a contentious climate,
frames introduced by movement organizations might compete with those
offered by media outlets (Gitlin, 1980; Tarrow, 1998), countermovements
(Jasper and Poulson, 1993; Meyer and Staggenborg, 1996), or even their
own internal factions (Balser, 1997; Snow and Benford, 2000). Most commonly, however, collective action frames compete with “official frames” offered by state or other power-holding agencies. As John Noakes (2000:659)
notes, such official frames are often ignored—viewed as “too universal, too
constant, or too derivative to be an interesting factor in the movement equation.” Examining official frames allows us to more clearly view contentious
politics as an interactive struggle between power-holders and challengers
(Goldstone, 2003; Goodwin and Jasper, 1999) and to better understand
the evolution of framing contests between competing interests. The construction and dissemination of these official frames shapes the structure of
political opportunities confronted by potential challengers, allowing state
agencies to legitimize repressive activity against identified threats to the status quo (Cunningham, 2000; Donner, 1980; Goldstein, 1978) and discourage
politicized activity through their influence over public discourse and opinion
(Gitlin, 1980).
While recent studies (Noakes, 2000; Zuo and Benford, 1995) have examined how these frames are constructed and promoted, we extend this
work to analyze how official frames emerging from within policing agencies
have tangible consequences for those perceived as challengers to the status quo. Noakes (1998) importantly notes that such power-holding agencies
are “active signifying agents engaged in the construction and maintenance
of official frames,” and we use the case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) against the New
Left between 1968 and 1971 to show how intraagency processes served to
constitute and reproduce these frames as bases for action.
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Specifically, our analysis of the FBI demonstrates how official frames
are negotiated and acted upon within power-holding organizations. To the
extent that they are employed to maintain the political status quo, these official frames contain implicit or explicit narratives of deviance that serve to
demonize actors and organizations engaged in counter-hegemonic activities.
But these frames, even when explicitly articulated by visible authorities, are
not static, nor do they necessarily translate directly into predictable forms
of action, repressive or otherwise. The key is that the frames are constructed
and negotiated within the repressing agency and shaped by the specific interests and motivations of organizational actors, which in turn are tied to the
structure of the organization itself. Focusing on these intra-organizational
processes moves us beyond the assumption of a simple relationship between
frame construction and subsequent action, thereby strengthening our understanding of how official frames operate to reproduce the status quo.
Central to such processes is the construction of deviance narratives
within organizations. Studies of institutions whose functions include the formal regulation of deviance have long described the classificatory schemes, or
“typifications,” employed by organizational actors to carry out institutionally defined ends (Bowditch, 1993; Frohmann, 1991). These schemes enable
workers to routinize their activities to manage outcomes by reducing uncertainty, thereby maximizing their achievement of organizationally defined
goals. In the case of policing agencies, such strategies have significant implications both for workers (whose upward mobility within the organization
is often a function of their performance) as well as for those consequently
targeted as criminal or otherwise deviant (Waegel, 1981).
In the following sections, we analyze how such intra-organizational processes played out within the particular case of the FBI’s COINTELPROs.
Following Wilson’s (1978) study of the FBI’s investigative mission, we assert
that the bureau’s counterintelligence tasks were shaped by the organizational priorities and procedures defined by its central actors, whose established mandates created incentives for agents to successfully carry out this
work. The ability to reproduce centrally defined official frames was especially
important in counterintelligence work, where, in contrast with criminal investigations that focused on perpetrators of specific criminal acts, agents
needed to identify a steady stream of suspects that matched often-nebulous
classes of subversive threats. Here, we demonstrate how the hierarchical
structure of the bureau created a context where field agents subject to organizational controls were “encouraged” to validate the countersubversive
frames constructed by central actors within the FBI. In the absence of political activity (subversive or otherwise) by New Left targets, field agents were
able to reproduce the frame by drawing upon observable signals of deviance
that could serve as a basis to act against a wide range of New Left adherents.
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In the next section, we examine the structure of the FBI itself to understand the goals and functioning of its COINTELPROs, and then illustrate
the emergence of two central official frames—subversion and hate—that
shaped the selection of COINTELPRO targets and actions. Finally, and
most important, we demonstrate that the looming threat of organizational
sanctions provided incentives for agents in the field to reproduce these official frames. Using the case of the FBI’s counterintelligence activities against
the New Left group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), we show how
field agents drew upon particular culturally resonant signals of deviance to
demonize and subsequently act against SDS members even in the absence
of threatening political activity.
Throughout its nearly century-long history, the FBI has engaged in identifying and monitoring potential threats to the political status quo alongside
its more visible mandate to investigate federal crimes.4 While the former
mission is designed to gather information about a target or suspect (what is
generally referred to as intelligence-gathering), it exists alongside what we
will refer to here as counterintelligence, or the FBI’s attempts to encourage
acts of wrongdoing or restrict targets’ ability to go through with planned
actions (Marx, 1988). In many cases, the bureau’s intelligence and counterintelligence missions were symbiotically related; as William C. Sullivan, the
architect of many of the FBI’s COINTELPROs through the 1960s, stated,
“We might as well not engage in intelligence unless we also engage in counterintelligence. One is the right arm, the other the left. They work together”
(Sullivan, 1979:128).
The FBI’s counterintelligence activities—explicitly referred to by longtime Director J. Edgar Hoover as attempts to expose, disrupt, misdirect, neutralize, and otherwise discredit its targets—have been prominent throughout
most of its history (see Churchill and VanderWall, 1990, 1988; Cunningham,
2000; Goldstein, 1978; Theoharis, 1978), but at no time were such activities more apparent than between 1956 and 1971. During these years, the
FBI operated a set of formal COINTELPROs that targeted a wide range
of groups and individuals viewed as threatening to the status quo. While
the existence of these programs was never made public during these years,
they were exposed in 1971 after a group of activists calling themselves the
4 For
years, the two major units within the FBI—the General Investigative and Domestic
Intelligence Divisions—clearly reflected the bureau’s dual concern with investigation and
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“Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” burglarized the bureau’s files
and gradually leaked them to various media outlets. Several years later, more
than 52,000 pages of COINTELPRO documents were released under the
Freedom of Information Act as a result of several lawsuits. These memos
provide an ideal data source for examining how social control organizations
construct narratives that demonize particular groups and individuals in order
to carry out their intended missions.
Over the 15-year life of the COINTELPRO, five separate programs
were initiated against distinct classes of targets: the Communist Party-USA
(begun in 1956), the Socialist Workers Party (in 1961), “White Hate Groups”
(1964), “Black Nationalist/Hate Groups” (1967), and the New Left (1968).
The function of each of these COINTELPROs remained constant: to “expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize” its targets (FBI Memo from Brennan
to Sullivan, 5/9/68). In several instances, individual field offices requested
permission to discontinue particular COINTELPROs when targeted groups
became inactive for extended periods of time, though Hoover always denied
such requests and never seriously considered disbanding any programs prior
to their public exposure in 1971.
During the COINTELPRO era, the FBI consisted of a National Headquarters in Washington, DC, and a set of 59 field offices throughout the country. Each field office was responsible for its surrounding territory, determined
largely by the boundaries of federal court districts. Within a field office, each
distinct COINTEL program was run by a separate special agent, who reported directly to the office’s special agent in charge (SAC). SACs served
as direct links between field office activity and the centralized leadership
based at FBI National Headquarters in Washington, DC. Amazingly, J. Edgar
Hoover, the director of the bureau throughout the entire COINTELPRO
era, had held the top post in the FBI since 1924. While Hoover had personally shaped almost every aspect of the modern FBI, COINTELPRO memos
addressed to “Director, FBI” were dealt with by a small number of central
actors at National Headquarters (which included Hoover) who were authorized to send memos under this heading. These individuals—we refer to
them as the directorate—made final decisions about all counterintelligence
The key organizational distinction within the FBI is between the local
(field office) and national (headquarters) levels. The vast majority of the bureau’s intelligence information was gathered by agents and informants based
at field offices. SACs were thought of as local experts, in touch with the range
of political and criminal threats in their territories. Within the framework of
the COINTELPRO, SACs were expected to exploit their close connection
to “the streets” within their jurisdiction to propose effective counterintelligence activities against broad classes of targets (“Communists,” “New Left
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students,” “white hate advocates,” etc.) identified by the directorate at National Headquarters. At the same time, however, the directorate maintained
tight controls over field offices, insisting that all communication within the
bureau be channeled through headquarters and prohibiting autonomous local action by requiring that all field office activity be authorized ahead of
time by a member of the directorate (Cunningham, 2003).
Formally, within each COINTEL program, the directorate first identified broad target categories, which in theory served as a guide to identifying
particular local threats within each field office’s territory. SACs were expected initially to compile a description of all existing local target groups
and Key Activists [“those individuals who are the moving forces behind the
[target groups] and on whom we have intensified our investigations” (FBI
Memo from Brennan to Sullivan, 5/9/68)] and submit general recommendations for effective counterintelligence activity. The directorate then summarized all of these initial recommendations in a memo to all field offices. SACs
were subsequently encouraged to submit specific proposals for neutralizing
groups within their division, and these proposals had to be authorized by the
bureau before the initiation of any action. Finally, each SAC was responsible
for compiling quarterly progress reports summarizing potential and pending
actions, as well as any tangible results stemming from past activities.
These bureaucratic steps signaled a tension between the directorate’s
ostensible valuing of agents’ proximity to political threats within their jurisdictions, and the obtrusive and unobtrusive controls placed on SACs deemed
inadequately attentive to particular protest groups (see Cunningham, 2000,
2003). The directorate’s frequent displeasure with field offices who ignored
even inactive targets created a dynamic in which local agents sought to identify threats through observable signals of deviance not directly tied to targets’ protest activity. Therefore, while broad target classes (such as the Klan,
or Students for a Democratic Society) were only viable threats in particular areas where they were most active, all SACs were aware that a failure
to propose counterintelligence actions wherever these groups were present
(even in the absence of protest) was grounds for censure by the directorate.
This threat of reprimand often was clearly evident in COINTELPRO
memos. It was not unusual for the directorate to include warnings in memos
to particular SACs: “You will be expected to be aggressive and forceful. A
lackadaisical attitude will not be tolerated. Failure on your part to seize the
initiative may result in administrative action being taken” (FBI Memo from
Director to Boston, 10/28/68). In another typical case, an SAC was instructed
thoroughly review this program in your Division to assure that its objectives are
fully known to the Agent to whom it is assigned. The Agent handling it will be
expected to pursue it aggressively and with imagination to insure that opportunities
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for neutralizing the New Left, whether it be on or off campus, are not missed. He
should seek to develop advance information regarding rallies and similar activities
and devise counterintelligence measures where appropriate to negate the plans of
the New Left. A lackadaisical attitude toward this program will not be tolerated.
Your office will be expected to devote more attention to it in the future (FBI Memo
from Director to Denver, 7/31/69).
Such reprimands could have serious consequences for agents. At a minimum, unsatisfactory performance reduced opportunities for promotion or
attractive assignments, and it was well known that agents could be demoted
or transferred to unpopular field offices in remote areas of the country as
a result of censure. To avoid such consequences, agents needed to develop
COINTELPRO proposals whenever viable threats were identified at the national level. In the absence of threatening local political behavior, there was
considerable incentive to employ alternative strategies to identify targets
worthy of repression.
For our data purposes, a more concrete consequence of the FBI’s emphasis on tight centralized control and exhaustive documentation is that
virtually all activity and transfer of information within the COINTELPRO
was recorded in memos sent between headquarters and each field office.
These memos are available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, and all of the memos that had been released as of 1977 have been
collected on microfilm by Scholarly Resources, Inc. For our analysis here, we
draw on more than 6,000 pages of written communication associated with
COINTELPRO-New Left, which was active between May, 1968, and April,
1971. Within these pages are 2,143 memos, each representing correspondence between field offices and National Headquarters.5 We are interested
in how particular classes of individuals became defined as “worthy” targets
by the bureau; in other words, how deviance narratives were constructed by
agents in particular field offices to match the official frames generated by the
directorate. The key dynamic emerges when targets framed as subversive by
the directorate are inactive within local areas. In this case, field office agents
learn to avoid censure by identifying “worthy” targets in the absence of political protest through the construction of deviance narratives that connect
subversion to visible personal characteristics. In the next section, we discuss the two central official frames developed by the directorate within the
5 Note,
however, that, while virtually all COINTELPRO actions were documented within
memos, we cannot be certain that the documents released through the Freedom of Information
Act include all that constitute the entire population of COINTELPRO memos (though the extensive cross-referencing of actions within different memos make it possible to construct much
of the information from missing memos). Additionally, certain information within memos has
been censored in the interests of “national security” (see Cunningham, 2000, for a discussion of
the significance of potentially missing files, as well as Churchill and VanderWall, 1990, Chap. 1,
who deal in detail with the FBI’s criteria for deleting information within documents).
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COINTELPRO, and then show how the structure of the FBI itself created
a context for particular types of largely unintended outcomes.
The fact that the first COINTELPRO targeted the Communist PartyUSA was not surprising. Shortly after the bureau’s founding in 1909, a commitment to anticommunism structured and provided a raison d’etre for its
massive intelligence mission. By the 1920s, a young J. Edgar Hoover had
played a central role in constructing what was to become a long-standing
official frame justifying countersubversive activity on the part of policing
agencies. The frame, in its early form, took shape as part of the post-World
War I Red Scare. Within this context, Hoover viewed the communist threat as
primarily rooted within American institutions, and embodied by conspiracyminded members of domestic leftist organizations beholden to Moscow. The
real danger presented by these subversive agents arose from the supposed
covert nature of their mission, which was intended to sway the unsuspecting masses away from the virtues of capitalism and toward a collectivistic
way of thinking (Noakes, 2000; Powers, 1987; Schmidt, 2000). This view of
communism as subversive, inextricably tied to the broader idea of an invisible but omnipresent and global anti-American conspiracy, had tremendous
resonance over time. As such, it came to constitute what Snow and Benford
(1992) refer to as a “master frame,” or general framework that can be appropriated to provide an interpretation of politicized interactions within a
variety of contexts.
By the 1950s, in the wake of HUAC hearings, McCarthyism, and
blacklistings—all of which employed some form of this master frame to
justify rooting out subversive individuals—this idea of “subversiveness” was
easily reemployed by the FBI to present “communism” as the unitary stigmatizing characteristic signaling a worthy target. From the FBI’s perspective,
subversiveness was signaled by a direct link to communist interests—that is,
to known members of the Party—or by a less direct connection to suspicious
others, as in the case of individuals targeted because of perceived ties to Party
members (or even excessive sympathies for Communist causes or ideas). In
1956, this frame provided an intellectual basis for the formalized, sustained
counterintelligence campaign known as COINTELPRO-Communist Party,
USA. Though J. Edgar Hoover had stated publicly that Communist Party
(CP) membership was in serious decline through the early 1950s, he continued to assert that CP members and sympathizers sought to infiltrate key
American institutions, justifying his unrelenting efforts to ensure the bureau’s ability to “minimize the danger of these subversives in our midst”
(quoted in Theoharis, 1971:137).
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Officially, the program against the CP was established to utilize a variety of counterintelligence actions “designed to intensify confusion and dissatisfaction among [the Party’s] members . . . to counteract a resurgence of
Communist Party influence in the United States” (U.S. Senate, 1976:69–70).
While literally thousands of actions were ultimately undertaken through
this program, the Communist Party was certainly not the only group targeted as part of the bureau’s countersubversion efforts. The FBI’s focus on
anticommunism justified conceiving of an incredibly broad range of political
challengers as subversive, extending even to members of the early civil rights
movement, most notably the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr. (Garrow,
1981; O’Reilly, 1989).6 The key consequence was that,“communist” became
synonymous with “subversive,” and thus served as the unambiguous umbrella term signifying a worthy target.
However, identifying subversion simply by its Red tint became more
problematic over time. With the censure of Joseph McCarthy and—by the
early 1960s—considerable shifts in the ideological and political climate, anticommunist claims began to lose much of their stigmatizing power. In the
absence of such a catch-all signal of deviance, the master subversiveness
frame needed to be broadened to incorporate distinct classes of threat. The
evolution of a later COINTELPRO against white hate groups illustrates
this shift quite clearly. When this program was established in 1964, its initial
justification was the Klan’s ostensible ties to communism. High-ranking bureau officials argued that the Klan and other white supremacist groups were
threats due to the “confusion” likely to result from the Communist Party “increasing its activities in the field of racial matters,” including those related to
the KKK (FBI Memo from Tolson to Gale, 7/30/64). Such references to communism soon disappeared from the agents’ dealings with the Klan, however,
and were replaced by a more direct recognition that the Klan’s engagement
in violence made them a terroristic or lawless “hate”-based threat. Such
violent behavior had long been cause for FBI investigation along criminal
lines, but the emergence of COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups fostered
the creation of a new master frame that would justify the proactive targeting
of domestic groups as threats to national security.7
William Keller (1989) focuses on how the political context of the time
provided a window of opportunity for Hoover and others within the FBI to
6 The
specific connection between King and the Communist Party was Stanley Levison, an
SCLC advisor and King confidant who had been a CP member until the mid-1950s.
7 This shift from dealing with Klan activity as illegal, and therefore subject to criminal investigation, to viewing it as subversive, or essentially an intelligence matter, was formalized by
the decision in 1964 to transfer Klan matters from the FBI’s General Investigative Division to
its Domestic Intelligence Division (see FBI Memo from Gale to Tolson, 7/30/64). This latter
branch of the bureau ultimately housed COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups.
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develop this new, official, hate-based frame. The high-profile media coverage of the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the 1964
Freedom Summer campaign resulted in pressures from liberal lawmakers
to prevent further high-profile violence against civil rights workers in the
South. As a more-or-less direct result, broad political support emerged for
using whatever means the FBI had at its disposal to control the actions of the
Klan and other “white hate” organizations (see also O’Reilly, 1989:167, 199).
In Keller’s view, COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups was intended as a discrete program designed to serve such a purpose, though Hoover quickly took
advantage of the opening to broaden the general types of threat that could
justifiably be targeted proactively through intelligence and COINTELPROs,
rather than only reactively through criminal investigations. In this way, the
more far-reaching impact of COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups was that
it provided the impetus for Hoover to frame hate-based threats themselves
as a form of subversion. No longer did a viable counterintelligence target
need to be tied to a global conspiracy to break down American values and
institutions; the precedent set by COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups justified an official frame predicated on a broadened view of subversiveness that
allowed a range of domestic “hate-group” challenges to be viewed as viable
threats falling under the purview of the COINTELPRO.
This hate-based frame was employed again 3 years later against individuals and organizations tied to the civil rights and black power movements.
As discussed above, various members of the civil rights movement, including
Martin Luther King Jr., had been surveilled and harassed since the 1950s,
though such actions were always justified within the bureau’s traditional
communist/subversiveness frame. In this sense, the civil rights movement had
been characterized within the FBI as threatening to the status quo through
its ostensible connections to communist interests, which in the absence of
tangible evidence, was justified through a racist assumption that intellectually deficient black activists would be easily manipulable by the presumably
more savvy Communist Party (O’Reilly, 1989; Powers, 1987:324). Civil rights
activity, therefore, became subversive through its susceptibility to exploitation by established subversive (e.g., communist) threats.
The framing of black activists as subversive shifted considerably with
the initiation of COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist/Hate Groups in 1967.
Consistent with the program’s title, individuals and groups tied to the civil
rights and black power movements were now worthy counterintelligence
targets through their ostensible engagement in, or advocacy of, “hate” activities. As with the treatment of white hate groups after 1964, no mention was
made of communist connections; instead, members of the movement were
targeted “to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder” due to
their “pernicious background, . . . duplicity, and devious maneuvers” (FBI
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Memo from Director to 23 field offices, 8/25/67). Note the continued role
of race in the narrative driving this particular frame. While black activist
threats no longer required connections to a larger communist conspiracy,
the same assumptions about black susceptibility were at work. Rather than
racial deficiencies making black activists easily manipulated by outside agitators, such weaknesses played into their personal motivations for political
activity, which inevitably drove their actions in illegal or immoral directions.
Such ideas were reproduced by field agents’ characterizations of “Negroes”
in reports to the directorate. One agent derided the “animal reactions” of
Black Panther Party members with regard to sex (FBI Memo from Director
to Boston, 7/9/69), and another SAC similarly felt that the bureau needed
to account for the fact that
foremost in the militant Negro’s mind are sex and money. The first is often promiscuous and frequently freely shared. White moral standards do not apply among this
type of Negro. You don’t embarrass many Negroes by advertising their sexual activity or loose morals. Money is not as freely shared and any Negro organization
which attracts the black nationalist revolutionary will fail sooner or later because the
members and leaders will as quickly seek power over and steal from each other as
they will from Caucasians. The temptation to seize power and thus get control of the
money and the other perquisites of leadership will always be strong, and thus offers a
continuing opportunity to sow seeds of distrust and suspicion (FBI Memo from San
Francisco to Director, 4/3/68).
These assumptions, reflecting the pervasive culture of racism within the Bureau,8 provided a context within which political organization by nonwhites
effectively constituted subversion, and race could thereby serve as a key
variable defining “worthy” targets.
By 1968, the FBI faced a more complex challenge with the explosion
of disruptive political activity on college and university campuses, most visibly the week-long takeover of several buildings on the Columbia University
campus that April. While the conflict at Columbia had involved several campus groups, the actions were primarily attributed to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had been steadily growing as the central, nationwide, campus-based organization dealing with issues related to poverty,
the military-industrial complex, and, most significantly, the Vietnam War.
By this point, SDS had ballooned to more than100,000 members in more
than 300 chapters (Sale, 1973:664), and on May 9, 1968, the FBI targeted the
New Left by initiating its fifth and final COINTELPRO. The directorate’s
conception of what actually constituted “the New Left” was somewhat nebulous, but the program’s initial memo defined those who “urge revolution
8 See
Churchill and VanderWall (1988, 1990); O’Reilly (1989, 1994); and Blackstock (1975) for
detailed examination—with supporting evidence from COINTELPRO files—of the Bureau’s
racist views of, and actions against, black targets.
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in America and call for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam” from
primarily campus-based locales as targets to be “neutralized” (FBI Memo
from Brennan to Sullivan, 5/9/68).
SDS quickly became the central target of COINTELPRO-New Left,
though the program itself straddled the line between the two official countersubversive frames that the FBI had utilized to this point. While not a hate
group per se, by this point SDS engaged in confrontational political activities that, in some cases, advanced militant and even revolutionary goals.
In this sense, the New Left fit with the “hate” template established in 1964
and used to justify actions against so-called white hate and black nationalist/hate groups. However, by the late 1960s certain New Left factions overtly
worked toward anticapitalist goals and employed socialist rhetoric to justify
particular actions, which fit with the more traditional, conspiracy-based subversive frame employed against the Communist Party. In the FBI’s official
characterization of SDS, they prominently note the group’s affinity with the
Communist Party, quoting the CP’s General Secretary as describing SDS
as a part of the “responsible left [that we have] going for us” and an SDS
spokesman as stating that “there are some Communists in SDS and they are
COINTELPRO-New Left, as the final and most fully-developed FBI
COINTELPRO, clearly represents the transition in the official countersubversion frame employed by the bureau. Despite the fact that an organization
such as SDS had documentable sympathies and connections to communist
interests, its worthiness as a target was not justified through its attachment
to a broad global leftist conspiracy, but was instead based on the immediate threat posed by its disruptive actions. From the FBI’s perspective, such
a politicized threat justified a response that moved well beyond the investigation of violent or illegal activities engaged in by New Left adherents.
Indeed, COINTELPRO-New Left was intended as a vehicle to eradicate
the very existence of New Left action and ideology (Cunningham, 2000).
However, identifying the frames constructed within the bureau is not sufficient to understand how such ideals led to particular outcomes against
targets of counterintelligence actions. In the next section, we more explicitly
examine how the structure of the bureau itself created a basis for field agents
to employ ideas implicit within particular frames to initiate COINTELPRO
9 This
description of SDS was attached as an Appendix to each of the several hundred
COINTELPRO-New Left memos dealing with the group. The latter claim refers to SDS’s
then-controversial, early-1960s decision not to exclude CP members from its meetings and organization. Note also that, in several cases, agents expressly contrast SDS with the Communist
Party to demonstrate the “unique” problems that the New Left posed from a counterintelligence perspective (see, for example, FBI Memo from Philadelphia to Director, 5/29/68).
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What consequences did these official frames have for those who were
targeted within the COINTELPROs? We focus on two intra-organizational
dynamics through which particular individuals and groups were repressed by
the FBI. First, assumptions implicit within the hate-based frame led agents
to target a much broader range of activists than those exhibiting illegal
or otherwise violent political behavior. In the case of the program against
“Black Nationalist-Hate Groups,” racist assumptions about black activists’
predilection for violence and criminal behavior made anyone active within
the civil rights movement “worthy” of harassment and neutralization under COINTELPRO. As discussed above, the key issue here was the assumption of susceptibility; race itself became a signal of the potential for,
on the one hand, manipulation by communist conspiracists, or, under the
“hate” frame, a lack of self-control that would dissuade an individual from
violent or disruptive political behavior.10 Class-based assumptions similarly
allowed for the initiation of actions against even inactive Klan adherents
under COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups. In this case, bureau agents frequently presented these Klan members as lacking the self-control required
to avoid violent activities and therefore susceptible to subversive behavior
at any point.11
But racist or other types of assumptions by agents were not the
primary motor generating consistent action against the broad range of
COINTELPRO targets. Instead, it is important to understand that the official frames developed by the directorate had significant implications for
agents in the field. We have already seen how organizational control by the
directorate was designed to yield a steady flow of COINTELPRO proposals,
even in locations lacking consistent disruptive activity by targeted groups.
In this context, field agents drew upon these deviance narratives centered
on race or class to suggest that particular individuals were susceptible to
subversive action and therefore worthy targets of COINTELPRO actions.
This dynamic was perhaps clearest in the case of the New Left. As adherents
10 As an anonymous reviewer has pointed out, this conception of race as a “signal” of subversive
behavior turns the usual conception of deviance on its head. Rather than behaviors being
interpreted as deviant (or not) in part based on, say, the race of their perpetrators, race here
becomes the primary signal of a predilection for certain types of deviant behavior. Within the
unique organizational context of the FBI, race effectively became a highly salient proxy for
subversion. We develop this argument in more detail below.
11 To illustrate the conception of Klansmen as susceptible to hate-type activities even in the
absence of violent behavior, one FBI insider described the “typical Klansman” as “ignorant,
prejudiced, hungry for power, frustrated, brutal, convinced that he is persecuted, and highly
responsive to pseudo-dramatic oaths and rituals. He is commonly credited with a low-average
or below-average intelligence. He has an obsessive interest in firearms” (quoted in Overstreet
and Overstreet, 1969:307).
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of SDS and other antiwar or countercultural groupings were primarily white
and middle-class, field agents targeted individuals based on their religious
affiliation or perceived sexual orientation. In an environment where field
agents had considerable incentive to justify counterintelligence actions even
in the absence of political activity by identified targets, such characteristics
served as primary determinants of “worthy” targets.
The fact that most members of the New Left looked a lot like FBI agents
themselves (in terms of demographic makeup at least)12 made it difficult to
explain deviant behaviors as resulting from observable characteristics perceived as deficient. This created difficulties in defining the New Left itself,
as well as in constructing a deviance narrative that could explain why so
many of the nation’s college students seemed sympathetic to the ideas of
prominent New Left organizations such as SDS. To reconcile the latter issue, the directorate began suggesting that only the small cadre of leaders at
the center of New Left organizations was actually deviant; other members
were “deceived” into following these leaders. This lesson was clearly stated
in dozens of bureau memos emphasizing that New Left students, irrespective
of their level of support on campus, “do not and will never represent the student body” (see, for example, FBI Memo from Newark to Director, 6/11/68;
Sacramento to Director, 5/31/68). The bureau’s position here was perhaps
best illustrated by another memo from the Newark field office, which, in
response to a 10-student sit-in at Stevens Institute of Technology in New
Jersey in May, 1970, proposed to send the institute’s president a reprint of
an anti-New Left article, attaching the following warning: “It begins with 10
like a deadly spore and soon the whole campus is infected with an incurable
affliction. Don’t give in to a vocal minority that wants agitation for agitation
[sic] sake” (FBI Memo to Director, 5/26/70).
Explaining away the New Left’s popular appeal (which, in fact, never
constituted a majority opinion in any broad sense) was one thing, but bureau agents still needed to develop a viable deviance narrative around the
small group of central actors who were “infecting” the masses. As we have
12 The
most significant demographic distinction between FBI agents and New Leftists was, of
course, age. The “generation gap” was left in full effect in this case, with agents frequently
struggling to understand the values motivating New Left adherents. Often, this cultural gap
played out in terms of outright derision of countercultural styles (the Newark SAC described
a New Left publication as “a type of filth that could only originate in a depraved mind. . . . The
experimental literature . . . contained 79 obscene terms referring to incest, sexuality, and biology, four dozen ‘cuss’ words and a dozen instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain” [FBI
Memo to Director, 5/23/69]) or clumsy attempts to interpret New Leftist ideals (as when the
Philadelphia SAC weighed in with the observation that “the emergence of the New Left on
the American Scene has produced a new phenomenon—a yen for magic. Some leaders of
the New Left, its followers, the Hippies and the Yippies, wear beads and amulets. . . . Selfproclaimed yogis have established a following in the New Left movement. Their incantations
are a reminder of the chant of the witch doctor.” [FBI Memo to Director, 11/21/68]). We
thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the importance of age here.
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seen above, Hoover and other members of the directorate defined classes
of targets, but SACs had to look out into their local worlds and base their
COINTELPRO proposals on observed signals of subversion. When particular New Left organizations were politically active, subversive behavior was
obvious, but in the absence of activity, SACs needed to latch onto characteristics of targets to match the directorate’s view that these targets were in
fact deviant. We see two characteristics emerge: Jewishness and homosexuality. The former characteristic was never developed in considerable depth,
but was often used to explain the “spoiled” and “non-conformist” tendencies of various affluent college students. In a list of “criteria to identify New
Left organizations and members,” the New York field office prominently
included the fact that “a disproportionate number [of New Left adherents
come] from a Jewish liberal background” (FBI Memo from New York to
Director, 5/28/68).
Used to greater effect was the bureau’s tendency to associate sexual
“perversity” with radical political behavior. While there were some attempts
to link New Left leaders with criminalized sexual acts such as child molestation (see FBI Memo from New York below), by far the most common strategy focused on homosexuality. Since some members of SDS were
known to have engaged in homosexual practices, the FBI strategically implied that the entire leadership was gay even though this was obviously not
true. The distinction was not important to FBI agents interested in “outing” members of SDS in order to make the whole group appear deviant,
with homosexuality’s stigmatizing effect resonating with public attitudes of
the time. Essentially, the FBI made use of the mainstream conception of
homosexuality-as-pathology to paint male members of SDS as inferior, subordinate, retrograde, and primitive (Foucault, 1997; Rich, 1981).13
13 Any
discussion of homosexuality within the New Left would be incomplete without dealing
with the Weather Underground’s attempts to “smash monogamy” within political collectives
in 1969 and beyond. Weatherman first emerged as a faction of SDS during the 1969 SDS
National Convention, which was marred by internal conflicts and led to the splintering of the
organization into multiple competing subgroups. One set of SDSers roughly aligned around
a densely-worded essay calling for direct action against U.S. imperialism (titled, after the
Bob Dylan lyric, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows”)
broke away from what remained of the organization and began a campaign to “Bring the
War Home” through direct action. The ideas advocated by Weatherman never developed a
mass following, but 200 or so adherents retreated into collectives and later went underground
to pursue their goals. Within the collectives, there was considerable emphasis on developing
total dedication to the struggle, creating a context for sexual experimentation, including
both male and female homosexual groupings (Collier and Horowitz, 1982; Grathwohl, 1976;
Jacobs, 1997). While the FBI did seek to neutralize the Weather Underground through the
COINTELPRO, they were not well-equipped to deal with this new type of target. Because
agents didn’t have sufficient knowledge of Weatherman’ practices, and because they could
easily zero in on their tangible illegal, violent, and “terroristic” Weather actions (including a
series of bombings of “Establishment” sites), they made no effort to exploit these “deviant”
sexual practices.
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The bureau, predictably, tried hard to connect such “deviant” personal
behavior with an attraction to New Leftist political ideology. The New York
field office made considerable efforts, including sending fake teletype messages, to link the Gay Liberation Front to the Venceremos Brigade, which
sent American radicals to Cuba to cut sugarcane (see FBI Memo from New
York to Director, 5/18/70). This field office also later informed university
officials about a New Leftist faculty member’s “sexual liaison with his stepdaughter (Age 13)” (FBI Memo from Director to New York, 11/13/70) and
distributed a leaflet “interject[ing] a little ‘black humor” into the New Left’s
“studied seriousness . . . of the fight for homosexual rights” (FBI Memo from
New York to Director, 7/24/70). In Philadelphia, agents “neutralized” a leading member of the CP youth by publicizing his homosexual activities (FBI
Memo from Philadelphia to Director, 5/29/68). New Left women were dealt
with in terms of their sexual behavior as well, through gendered stereotypes
that viewed any taint to a woman’s chastity as deviant.14 The demonization of women due to the open expression of their sexuality played out in
a variety of interesting ways, from an anonymous letter to the Los Angeles
school board calling for a teacher’s ouster in part because of her apparent
penchant for wearing “mini–mini skirts” (FBI Memo from Houston to Director, 6/25/68), to another anonymous letter focusing on an SDS member’s
sexual activities and recently-contracted case of gonorrhea (FBI Memo from
Detroit to Director, 10/29/69), to an almost-singular focus on SDS National
Officer Bernardine Dohrn’s (later perhaps the most prominent member of
the Weather Underground) flashy clothing and celebrity-like social—and,
presumably, sexual—life.
But the FBI’s handling of Dave Dellinger was the clearest case of defining sexual behavior as “perverse” and therefore a valid and effective attribute for use in discrediting a target involved in organized protest activity.
Dellinger had long been known by the FBI for being active in leftist causes,
and by the late-1960s was a leader of the National Mobilization Committee
to End the War in Vietnam (commonly known as “the Mobe,” but referred
to by the FBI as the NMC). The directorate had evidence that he had been
arrested in 1949 for what they labeled a “homosexual encounter in a men’s
room,” and, within a month of the establishment of COINTELPRO-New
Left, the directorate was prodding the Newark field office for information
14 The
other consistent theme regarding female targets of COINTELPRO-New Left actions
played upon their role as daughters, and more specifically the idea that they were easily
manipulable by their parents, especially their fathers. This idea played out through a series
of anonymous letters sent to fathers, encouraging them to convince their daughters to leave
SDS (see, for example, FBI Memos from Detroit to Director, 4/18/69, 11/26/69, and 10/29/69;
Director to all field offices, 7/5/68; Jacksonville to Director, 4/17/70; Director to Washington
Field Office, 4/11/69).
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about Dellinger, who was living in the Newark area at the time (see FBI
Memo from Director to Newark, 6/10/68). On the same day as the directorate’s request, the SAC in the Newark office responded with a proposal
to provide an FBI-approved source at the New York Daily News with publishable information about Dellinger’s 1949 arrest. Within the text of the
proposal, the SAC clearly spelled out its overall function (and limits), recognizing that “while, unfortunately, standards of morality among some of the
New Left movement are rejected as anachronistic, it may serve as a deterrent to some otherwise naive youths to know of the perversion of the Pied
Piper of Protestors for Peace [i.e., Dellinger]” (FBI Memo from Newark to
Director, 6/10/68).
A few months later, the New York office began a campaign to discredit
Dellinger, with a major focus again on the “perversity” of his sexual orientation (agents were apparently not dissuaded by the fact that Dellinger was
by this time married with several children). On January 21, 1969, the SAC
in the New York office proposed that the field office mail an anonymous
“newsletter” to New Left individuals and organizations ridiculing the NMC
generally, but with a special focus on Dellinger’s physical presence—at a
demonstration speech, he looked “pale and more fairy-like than ever” and
“chirped” in his “usual high-pitched voice.” The newsletter also included
an illustration of Dellinger putting “a finger in his mouth and suck[ing] it
reflectively.” This proposal was authorized 3 days later, as was a follow-up
“ridicule-type” newsletter designed to encourage Dellinger’s removal from
NMC leadership and focusing on Dellinger “fluttering his pinkies like a bird
ready for flight” (see FBI Memo from New York to Director, 6/18/69; Director to New York, 6/24/69).
But the most blatant attempt to “expose” Dellinger’s sexual orientation came in February, 1969, when the New York office proposed to anonymously distribute a leaflet designed to “ridicule” Dellinger and provoke a
conflict between the NMC and the group CO-AIM (the Coalition for an
Anti-Imperialist Movement). This leaflet depicted a “Pick the Fag Contest,”
with a photo of Dave Dellinger as one of the choices (the others were photos
of New Left luminaries Che Guevara, Mark Rudd, and Herbert Marcuse).
The “official rules” instructed the reader to “simply pick the faggot from
the following photos. Print your choice on the entry blank at the bottom of
this page and pop it into the mail. YOU COULD EASILY WIN!” “Colossal prizes” included a trip to Hanoi, a weekend in a “genuine fire-damaged
Columbia University dormitory,” and “500 rolls of red toilet tissue, each
sheet bearing the picture of Chairman Mao in living color.” This proposal
was carried out, and the New York office followed it up a full 4 months later
by sending in 40 “contest entries,” each bearing the name and address of an
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individual active in the New Left. The majority of these entries contained
Dellinger’s name, and the goal here, according to the New York SAC, was
to ensure that he was in fact the “winner” of the contest (FBI Memo from
New York to Director, 6/30/69).
This campaign to exploit the sexually deviant nature of particular groups
underscores the point that agents needed to make use of notable characteristics of individuals to “explain” engagement in radical political activity. From
the FBI’s perspective, adherence to the ideas of groups that were ideologically opposed to conventional values could stem from ignorance resulting
from members’ racial or class status, or, in the absence of such marginalized
characteristics, their engagement in some personal form of deviance, such as
homosexuality. Publicizing the ideas and behaviors of these members made
these groups somehow different from other, nonsubversive organizations. To
the extent that emphasis on these deviant characteristics resonated with publicly accepted stigmatizing conventions, such efforts presumably furthered
the bureau’s overall mission of discrediting its targets. Within the bureau
itself, however, the emergence of these deviance narratives again created a
basis for identifying worthy targets, even in the absence of specific protest
In the preceding sections, we have described a process through which
classes of individuals became targeted for repressive activity by the FBI.
This process was complex, in the sense that it involved the transition from
the ostensible repression of targets for their subversive activity to the later
initiation of actions based directly on proxies for such subversion, namely
personal characteristics. The process was also fundamentally organizational,
in the sense that it was set in place by the directorate’s labeling of particular
groups as targets based on an interpretive framework that defined subversion
as tied to communist ideology or “hate” activities. To avoid organizational
sanctions, each SAC had to demonstrate the worthiness of these targets at
the local level, either through the targets’ actions or other observable signals
of deviance.
As both the directorate’s official frames and the stereotypes employed
by agents to signal worthiness often had considerable resonance among the
American public, exploiting these signals of deviance and subversiveness
held considerable strategic value. Even if there is no truth in the assumption
that, say, homosexuality creates a susceptibility to engage in subversive political activity, creating a public image that SDS leaders were gay certainly
had some stigmatizing effect and potentially inhibited these groups’ ability
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to mobilize a broad range of adherents.15 Further, given the fact that social
control agencies are often attracted to the broad-brush logic described here
(through which even peripheral adherents and sympathizers could be tainted
as “deviant-by-association” with movement leaders), the impact of these repressive acts spreads well beyond their particular targets. The prevalence of
this dynamic breaks down any straightforward assumption that only the most
central or active members of social movement organizations are vulnerable
to repression or stigmatization, or that efforts to apply such stigma directly
result from targets’ political activism. In the extreme, repressive responses
by bureaucratic policing organizations become effectively dissociated from
precipitating acts of protest, which may serve to create a broader chilling
effect where sympathizers fear that even token public displays of support
may have real consequences. While civil liberties advocates frequently cite
anecdotal evidence to argue that the nature of police behavior ensures these
sorts of chilling effects, our findings here provide more systematic insight
into how and why such effects may result from counter-subversive efforts.
Beyond the tangible impact of the FBI’s counterintelligence actions,
we can focus on the significance of the process itself within the bureau.
The dilemma often faced by SACs—how to construct local narratives that
validate the directorate’s claim of targets’ deviance—is analogous to social
psychological conceptions of cognitive dissonance (Brem and Cohen, 1962;
Festinger, 1957), which posit that incompatible cognitive elements produce a
psychologically uncomfortable feeling of dissonance and result in efforts to
strategically reconcile competing stimuli. In the case of the FBI, the official
frames advanced by the directorate—most significantly the idea that subversive threats take the form of “deadly spores” insidiously infecting the masses
from within mainstream institutions—demanded that SACs propose counterintelligence actions even against suspect individuals and organizations
that appeared benign in particular local areas. Agents in those areas needed
to develop a strategy to handle inconsistencies between what they were told
and what they witnessed taking place. The common strategy (as noted above)
involved formulating a deviance narrative that made use of observable
15 The
resonance of the stigma associated with characteristics exploited within the
COINTELPRO extended to internal movement dynamics as well. One well-known example
is that of Bayard Rustin, a central figure in the civil rights struggle from the 1930s through the
1960s and beyond. While Rustin at times had considerable influence on movement leaders, including A. Phillip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., he was frequently marginalized from
the movement’s center due to his homosexuality (see Branch, 1988; D’Emilio, 2003; Kates
and Singer, 2002). While Rustin’s sexual behaviors were distasteful to some within the movement, King himself pragmatically feared that public exposure of Rustin’s lifestyle could cause
a backlash against the movement as a whole. Such fears were precisely what the FBI sought
to exacerbate through the COINTELPRO proposals discussed above, and the more general
association of individual behaviors with the subversive potential of entire organization was
remarkably similar to the process by which FBI agents constructed worthy targets.
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characteristics to signal the potential for subversive political activity. In this
case, agents’ efforts to reconcile their observations with the directorate’s assertions were driven by organizationally produced incentives. Achieving status (or escaping reprimand) motivated agents to develop durable strategies
that allowed them to recognize subversion even in the absence of political
Indeed, similar processes involving workers’ selective and strategic employment of information to yield organizationally desired outcomes have
been found in other institutions, from local police investigative units to school
discipline offices (Bowditch, 1993; Waegel, 1981). Such cases—where workers construct and draw upon typifications of settings within which individuals
engage in criminal or otherwise deviant behaviors—emerge within bureaucratic organizations that view the achievement of valued ends as a given
product of workers’ efforts and abilities. Organizational demands generate incentives to reproduce the ideals flowing from above or—in settings
where workers have considerable discretion in the field ( as do beat officers
or school disciplinary officials)—to maintain the steady flow of completed
cases (arrests, suspensions, etc.) that demonstrates capable performance and
facilitates workers’ advancement within the organization.
Most generally, our perspective here takes seriously Noakes’s (2000) call
to examine the construction of official frames produced by power-holding
bodies. Using the case of the FBI, we show how central actors within the
bureau produced and promoted a distinct theory of subversion that was employed against perceived communist threats over the bulk of the twentieth
century. We also demonstrate how a distinct, hate-based frame emerged in
the mid-1960s and provided the FBI with the autonomy to target domestic groups as subversive threats to national security. Significantly, we move
beyond a description of these official frames to demonstrate how their consequences are tied to organizational processes. In the case of COINTELPRO,
tangible repressive acts were a result of a negotiated process through which
agents in the field drew upon particular deviance narratives to validate
the official frames generated at the top of the FBI hierarchy. Our findings point to the importance of considering such intra-organizational negotiations to understand the mechanisms through which interpretive schema
have observable connections to the outcomes of contentious political interactions.
We thank the participants in the session of the 2001 American
Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Anaheim, CA, at which this
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paper was first presented. We are grateful as well to the late Rachel Rosenfeld for suggesting that we pursue the topic, and Cheryl Kingma-Kiekhofer,
Kirsten Moe, Anastasia Norton, Ben Phillips, Laura Regis, three anonymous
reviewers, and Sociological Forum editor Robert Max Jackson for their useful comments on the previous version.
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The Sociological Quarterly 36:131–