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REVOLUTIONS: The Right to Protect vs. The Right to Protest

Revolution can begin small, with a single group or an act of defiance. During the '60s, many individual Americans rose to prominence as activist leaders-figureheads for the rising tide of thousands upon thousands of voices calling for peace, justice, freedom and equality. The government responded with tactics aimed at isolating, controlling, and neutralizing the leaders of rebellion.

Every activist conflict of the '60s can be distilled in a single image of opposing forces at a barricade: on one side, the people attempt to exercise their rights; on the other side, the government asserts its right to protect the nation. During the '60s, these two simple objectives were not viewed as compatible concepts.

The FBI uses the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to investigate and interfere with dissident groups. It's a covert program, initiated in '56 and intended from the outset to operate beyond the approved limits of federal power. Beginning with infiltration of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), COINTELPRO grows like a cancer, rapidly spreading to socialist groups, then right wing extremists, to black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam, to the entire New Left. The operation cuts a broad swath, encompassing every type of remotely radical organization, from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to the bomb-wielding Weathermen.

The FBI uses tactics and methods like surveillance, recordings, anonymous letters, outright blackmail and IRS investigations-anything to discredit activist leaders and create organizational divisions.

In '68, The White House draws the CIA into the domestic spy game. The CIA's (illegal) Operation CHAOS is supposed to identify the foreign agitators behind the protests for civil rights, peace, free speech, and so on. To manage the huge volume of data, the CIA creates a computer index of 300,000 people, and maintains in-depth files on 7,200 individuals and 100 groups in America. Several reports to the White House assert that foreign elements play no significant role in the protests; the White House disagrees. CHAOS expands operations to increase confidence in the validity of its reports. Operations Merrimac and Resistance are added to CHAOS, spying on peace groups,black activist organizations, campus radicals and student groups.

These, and other illegal intelligence operations continue to expand in scope and quantity during the late '60s, finally folding under threat of public exposure and Congressional investigation in the early '70s. The files of many public figures remain sealed, but a growing number of secret dossiers (generally censored) are becoming available through the Freedom Of Information Act.

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