At some point in the late 1960s, you could be forgiven for thinking that the FBI was in charge of the KKK.
It infiltrated, manipulated and ran the group into the ground. The name of the operation: COINTELPRO-White Hate.
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 were any doubt that the country has a white nationalist problem, the shocking attack on an El Paso, Texas, Walmart should remove it.
These self-radicalizing freaks, 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 had 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 racist extremists should show the same alacrity and resolve, while acknowledging that they represent a different, more-difficult-to-counter threat than the old Klan.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson told FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to go after the Klan as he had the Communists. 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, “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.”
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In an article in the journal Social Science History, David Cunningham recounts how the FBI degraded, and came to effectively control, Klan groups.
The FBI acquired hundreds of Klan informants. According to one FBI official, “There would be a Klan meeting with 10 people there, and six of them would be reporting back the next day.” One informant even became the speechwriter for the leader of the United Klans of America, Robert Shelton.
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 UKA that the office’s concern became propping the group up, lest its disintegration loosen the FBI’s control.
The Charlotte office managed to decimate the violent North Carolina UKA and shift its membership to an alternative group under FBI influence.
Overall, Klan membership shrank 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 10 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 Klan was an organization, whereas today’s white supremacists are free-floating haters posting anonymously on the internet.
Yet the FBI needs to be intensely focused on this threat. The bureau should take an intelligence-based approach. It should monitor sewer message boards like 8chan, the forum for white-supremacist propaganda.
Posters who cross 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.