A Democratic lawmaker introduced new legislation Tuesday that would force the government to reveal decades-old FBI files about domestic spying on civil rights and peace activists, saying a full accounting of constitutional abuses is long overdue.
The congressman, who helped found the Illinois Black Panther Party and blames the FBI for Hampton’s death, said the files should hold important details about the bureau’s activities.
“We want to bring light, a bright light, to a dark history of our nation. And I think it’s very timely and very important that we do it at this time,” Rush said in an interview.
The FBI declined to comment.
The FBI’s investigation of Hampton was part of a larger domestic intelligence gathering effort by the FBI called COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program. Begun in 1956 as an effort to hunt communists, the program expanded to include the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panther Party and activists opposed to the Vietnam War. It entailed infiltrating, harassing, and sowing division among groups involved in constitutionally protected political activism.
The program was revealed through one of the most bizarre chapters in U.S. law enforcement history. In 1971 a group of peace activists, including two college professors and a day care director, broke into a small FBI office in Media, Pa., stealing reams of secret files, which they sent to a handful of lawmakers and journalists.
Only one of the recipients, Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, pursued the story, and her reporting about the files spawned a series of follow-up disclosures leading to the official acknowledgment of COINTELPRO’s existence, and a series of reforms to domestic surveillance rules that still shape the FBI today. The FBI never caught the burglars, who publicly identified themselves after the statute of limitations on their crimes expired.
The restrictions imposed on the FBI in the wake of COINTELPRO have come under renewed scrutiny in recent months, as some former law enforcement officials have argued the FBI has interpreted the rules too narrowly, allowing the Jan. 6 pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to be planned in plain view on social media and elsewhere.
When the FBI’s Norfolk office circulated a Jan. 5 report warning of talk online about “war” at the Capitol the next day, it contained cautionary language indicating that some of the individuals named in the report “have been identified as participating in activities that are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” and that their mention in the memo “is not intended to associate the protected activity with criminality or a threat to national security, or to infer that such protected activity itself violates federal law.” Such language is a direct outgrowth of the bureau’s past domestic spying abuses, but lawmakers have questioned whether the FBI was too reticent in pursuing brazen talk of politically motivated violence.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has defended the FBI’s handling of intelligence leading up to the attack, saying at a congressional hearing in March, “we do not investigate ideology, but we focus on acts of violence and violations of federal law.”
Since the insurrection, as the Justice Department has filed charges against more than 400 people suspected of participating in the riot, Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the FBI has gone too far in investigating Trump supporters, raising the specter of the bureau’s abuses in the 1960s and ’70s.
Rush said he would welcome any conservatives’ support for his bill if that helps provide answers about the domestic spying program.
“I want to get this passed. If it’s passed in a bipartisan manner, then I certainly will not be opposed to that,” the congressman said. “But I think I am particularly concerned about the fact that my friend Fred Hampton had the ignoble distinction of being the only American citizen to be assassinated by the apparatus of the federal government, with the local government, in the history of our nation.”
While some COINTELPRO files have been made public over time, with significant redactions, Rush’s bill would require all of the files be made public within six months of the law’s passage, with independent outside experts weighing in on instances where the FBI or government agencies claimed their release could cause harm to individuals.
Rush’s bill would also remove J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters building, since COINTELPRO was orchestrated by the bureau’s controversial first director.
“It is beyond time for someone who was as un-American as J. Edgar Hoover, whose legacy was clear as the No. 1 assailant on American constitutional guarantees for its citizens, should have his name is removed from the federal building,” Rush said.