Forthcoming Documentary Sheds New Light on FBI Surveillance on Americans Through COINTELPRO

Posted on August 11, 2017

In a recent interview with The Real News, George Washington University professor and documentary filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey discussed her forthcoming project shedding light on the surveillance programs carried out by the FBI against American citizens in the 1960s and 1970s. The film, My Fugitive, follows a student protester at Washington University, Howard Mechanic, who was targeted by the FBI’s aggressive campaign against domestic political dissidents and charged with federal felony offenses for alleged violence during a campus protest in 1970, compelling him to flee from the law.

While the documentary focuses on the FBI’s dogged pursuit and merciless prosecution of Mechanic for a crime he claims he did not commit, Seavey stresses that Mechanic’s case is only one of many in which the FBI turned its formidable spying apparatus, spearheaded by its COINTELPRO program which targeted Civil Rights leaders and other political organizers, on American citizens who expressed dissenting political views. She notes that the untold thousands of FBI documents she and her team analyzed, which they secured through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, paint a picture of rampant surveillance, defamation, and persecution of protesters and dissidents at the hands of the FBI. Most notably, Seavey points to the prevalence of so called “black bag” operations, which saw FBI agents and informants intercepting mail, framing targeted dissidents for violent crimes, defaming activists as sexual deviants, and compiling daily intelligence reports on student leaders.  CCDBR president Bob Clarke recalls that a 1970 burglary in his Chicago apartment, while he was helping organize the defense of Eqbal Ahmad (accused of plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger in the “Harrisburg 8” case) appears to have been just such a black bag job: political files were removed but no ordinary valuables taken.

This immense trove of intelligence was then, in many cases, leveraged to bring federal felony charges such as “subversion” against high-profile targets, in order make an example of them by branding them as threats to civil order. Although reform measures to the FBI have since abrogated the most egregious abuses of the agency, the war on terror has since ushered in a renewal of the FBI’s surveillance mandate, a point not lost on Seavey. In particular, she draws parallels between the FBI’s repression in the 1960s and 70s and the draconian felony rioting charges that 212 Inauguration Day protesters in Washington DC are currently facing. New revelations about the inner workings of the FBI may reveal an even closer resemblance between J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and that of today, as recent reports from The Intercept show that agents and even informants on the FBI payroll enjoy shockingly wide latitude to carry out surveillance operations without opening a formal investigation. As the FBI, and the federal government more broadly, continue to expand their mandate, Seavey’s forthcoming exploration of one of the FBI’s darkest periods holds considerable instructive potential.  She expects release of her film in 2019.

You can watch The Real News‘s interview with Nina Gilden Seavey here

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.