December 3, 1973. Christmas shopping has activated midtown Manhattan. On the same island, downtown and away from the plazas of the Avenue of the Americas and from the leather rhinoceri gifts being handled at Abercrombie and Fitch, a violent force is knocking out a plaster wall, blowing away cinderblock partitions, fracturing a living human skull, injuring three other people and sending rubble and shock waves in all directions. The offices of the Political Rights Defense Fund and those of two libertarian organizations have been ruined.
This too may well be Watergate. There is a better than even chance that this explosion and others like it in the offices of the Socialist Workers Party in Houston and Los Angeles were the direct result of an FBI plan called COINTELPRO. Though the full scope of this plan is not known, a few things can be said about it with certainty. The acronym COINTELPRO stands for "Counter Intelligence Program." Its organizational function was outlined in a 1968 secret memorandum written by J. Edgar Hoover: "The purpose of this program is to expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various New Left organizations, their leadership, their adherents." The plan was eventually divided into three principal sections--Old Left, New Left and Black Nationalism. The Old Left G-Men were responsible for covering the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. New Left operatives may well have included in their ranks the infamous "Tommy the Traveller," an agent provocateur working out of Hobart, Cornell and other colleges during the late sixties. The Black Activism unit focused on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers, and other groups. Their handiwork included the infiltration of Malcolm X's organization by a man who soon became the black leader's personal bodyguard.
Government undercover men also placed a wiretap on Martin Luter King Jr., a move personally authorized by President Lyndon Johnson. And it was not a coincidence of espionage that an FBI agent was present in the apartment of a Black Panther only 20 minutes before the "legal murder" of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton in the same place by Chicago police. The agent had been accepted as a brother Panther.
The Political Rights Defense Fund (PRDF) was formed to protect the Socialist Workers Party and, by establishing a precedent, to do the same for other groups by taking legal action and organizing support work. One of the problems which PRDF encountered was that of getting the federal government to either confirm or deny the existence of COINTELPRO. On January 7, 1973, the Socialist Workers Party filed suit on behalf of its members and those of its youth affiliate, the Young Socialist Alliance, against defendants Nixon, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Mitchell, Dean, Huston, Mardian, and unknown others. The suite demanded $27 million in damages and, more importantly, a permanent injunction against harassment. This second demand is one that could powerfully affect the right to organize of every group from the Democrats on leftwards.
On January 10, 1973, U.S. Attorney Paul Curran filed an answer to the charges of the SWP which admitted to a broad spying operation against it and the YSA. The SWP program dated back to 1945. Curran also admitted the existence of an "SWP Disruption Program" running from 1961 to 1969; a "limited national security electronic surveillance of certain plaintiffs" from 1945-1963; the placing of a "mail cover" on all correspondence to the SWP national headquarters from January to May 1973. The "SWP Disruption Program" was first made public by NBC newsman Carl Stern, who had obtained original FBI documents. And as far as the "national security" rationale--well, thanks to Watergate, we all know how that phrase is used. Perhaps the only question now bruited about in Washington is, "Will Nixon place a national security blanket on his tax returns?"
The government claim of the "right to investigation" is very broad and hence, very dangerous. In the present case it includes "persons who indicate they are members of the SWP." That takes in the 96,000 voters who cast their ballots for Linda Jenness the SWP's 1972 presidential candidate, the 70,000 readers of the Party's journal The Militant, and anyone who writes a letter of inquiry the SWP. A case in point of the latter is that of Lori Paton, a 16-year-old New Jersey high school student who wrote to the SWP election campaign offices requesting information pertaining to a report she was preparing for a class. Ever vigilant, the FBI followed up on this dangerous subversive with a visit to her high school and an elaborate investigation of her activities. She has filed a separate suit against the government for harrassment.
Though the FBI claims that its "SWP Disruption Program" was terminated in 1969, attorneys for the SWP and YSA have already identified and documented 141 cases of FBI visits to plaintiffs since the supposed cutoff. And in 1972, a wiretap was found on the home phone of James P. Cannon, chairman emeritus of the SWP. Cannon was 80 at the time.
But Nixon was right. One of his excuses for "the Watergate caper" was that other presidents have ordered similar burglaries. The old "they all do it" gambit was fine as long as the victims were members of minority groups and others who don't deserve civil liberties in the first place, but as soon as Edmund Muskie cried in New Hampshire and a night janitor at the Watergate Complex happened on a taped door-lock, the cry was, "Hold on, boys! These are the major politicians you're messing with."
In the May 24, 1973, edition of The New York Times, Seymour Hersh (exposer of MyLai) wrote, "...Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on have permitted covert surveillance and have authorized illegal burglaries to protect the country against what they perceived as threats to its existence. From 1941 until 1966, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation pursued a policy of making otherwise illegal entries in connection with domestic intelligence-gathering operations."
The story of government surveillance of the left could fill a book. Which, in fact, it does in Watergate, The View From The Left, a book written by the plaintiffs in the SWP suit and published by Pathfinder Press. Of course, this is a time for action as well as for reading. The SWP has obtained the services of Lawyer Leonard Boudin, who won acquittals for Daniel Ellsberg and for Eqbal Ahmad of the Harrisburg 7. Though Mr. Boudin is not charging for his services, his staff must be paid. The $27 million sued for is a large amount, but it will be a long time before even a drop of that is seen. Meanwhile, legal fees will exceed $50,000.
The function of the Political Rights Defense Fund is to collect money to defray these costs and to publicize the case. PRDF's Boston chapter, of which this writer is a member, is presently contacting chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union around the state in an effort to secure their endorsement of the suit. Nationally, prominent people in many fields, who may or may not agree with the SWP's political views, have seen fit to endorse the suit as well. These sponsors include: Eric Bentley, the Berrigans, Noam Chomsky, Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), Daniel Ellsberg, Jules Feiffer (who has also designed a PRDF button), Erich Fromm, Ruth Gage-Colby, Dick Gregory, Eugene McCarthy, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer (though not Maxwell Taylor), Gloria Steinem, I.F. Stone, George Wald, George Novack and many others.
In the Boston-Cambridge area, the PRDF will be setting up forums on the case, selling relevant literature on the streets, collecting endorsements and soliciting funds. At Harvard, a letter will be mailed in the coming few weeks to members of the faculty requesting their support.
This suit cannot be allowed to dry up due to a lack of funds. It must be vigorously prosecuted. "Paranoia strikes deep," a popular song says. And since the government is now on the defensive as a result of Watergate, this is a good time to seek to lessen the paranoia it engenders. Political justice must apply evenly to all groups, not just to members of the major parties but to Chicanos, blacks, American Indians, women, small political parties and others who have organized to defend their rights or change society and who have received a slot on some official's Enemies List for their efforts. If the SWP wins its suit, a historic precedent will have been established guaranteeing the right of plaintiffs to secure government documents on police state-type actions, a right that will be used by many to secure evidence that would otherwise remain in the presidential sanctorum.
Albert Cassorla is working for the Political Rights Defense Fund in the Boston-Cambridge area. He was written for the Columbia Spectator, the International Socialist Review, and is, generally, a struggling young writer.