Rep. Bobby Rush speaks at a Rainbow Push Coalition event in 2018. Rev. Jesse Jackson stands behind Rep. Rush. Photo credit: Rep. Rush's Flickr page

Rep. Bobby Rush, former Black Panther Party member, calls for public release of all FBI COINTELPRO records

Fifty-two years after the killing of Illinois activist Fred Hampton, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) has introduced a bill compelling federal agencies to release all records to the public regarding the FBI and COINTELPRO

Rep. Rush proposed a bill to open intelligence agency’s records, and also calls for the removal of the name J. Edgar Hoover from the FBI headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Hoover was the architect of COINTELPRO, which stands for “Counterintelligence Program.”

“COINTELPRO was spying on American citizens,” said Rush in a news release. “Anyone who took a political position against the status quo, anyone who wanted to make America better was subject to being penalized, investigated, and – in the case of my friend Fred Hampton – assassinated by the official legal arm of the federal government.”

Rep. Bush knows COINTELPRO all too well. When he was a younger man in the 1960s, he involved himself in the Civil Rights movement as a member of the Chicago chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After leaving the organization, he co-founded Illinois’ chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1968. 

Rush was a member of the chapter when its chair, Fred Hampton, was gunned down by Chicago police in 1969.  Hampton was asleep in his bed. A Black informant, William O’Neal, working with the FBI and its COINTELPRO program, infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther Party, supplying the FBI with inside information, leading to the Hampton killing. The story of the informant and Hampton was made into a feature film in 2020 called, “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

“As a victim of COINTELPRO, I want to know, with honesty, with clarity, and with no redactions, the full extent of the FBI’s nefarious operations,” continued Rush in the news release.  “I want to know the breadth and depth of the conspiracy to assassinate Fred Hampton and how taxpayer dollars were spent on his assassination. I want to know why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a focus of the FBI, why Billie Holiday was a focus of the FBI – I want to know why so many young activists were harassed by the FBI. What was the justification for the impact that it had on their lives?”

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The legislation directs government agencies, particularly the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, to release their COINTELPRO-related records so the public can get a more complete picture of how the program disrupted the lives of individuals its operatives deemed as threats to national security. COINTELPRO used such tactics as sending false letters from one Civil Rights or Afrocentric group to its rival group, designed to increase hostility and mistrust between them. It used smear tactics against organizations and individuals to ruin their reputations. It spied on individuals if something they said was critical of the government or its policies.

Rush’s bill requires government agencies to release COINTELPRO-related records within six months after the bill becomes law. If any agency refuses to release such records by claiming doing so would harm certain individuals, the agencies would have to release a portion of the records or submit summaries of the records written in a way that does not cause harm by naming the individuals in question.

As well, the bill proposes to create an independent Records Review Board that includes historians and legal experts who will review the decisions of agencies refusing to release all their records in full. In the process, the board would meet with the President of the United States and recommend the complete release of records which have been disclosed partially.  

If the bill has become law, after 25 years, any agency refusing to release their records would have to write a justification for their refusal, such as “jeopardizes national security.”  The justification statements would be sent to the government archivist and the senior official of the relevant agency, chamber, or branch.  The archivist and the senior official could decide to release the records for public review anyway.

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A week after introducing the bill on May 4, Rush held a virtual forum about COINTELPRO, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). “COINTELPRO, as such, may no longer exist, but its impacts are still here,” said Cohen.  “There are people still imprisoned who were targets of the program . . . . We must reform our law enforcement practices and how we address real domestic threats. We must rebuild our criminal justice system so that it is genuinely focused on justice and not, as Michelle Alexander aptly and famously characterized it, ‘The New Jim Crow.’”

In his statement, Rep. Cohen said that it was after COINTELPRO programs were exposed in the Church Committee hearings by the late Senator Frank Church (D-ID) that “policy changes were made.”

“I know the damages of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO firsthand,” said Lee, who was a community worker with the Black Panther Party.  “I was put in the middle of their aggressive surveillance and counterintelligence activities.  .  .” Lee said she became a COINTELPRO target when she used her fundraising and organizational skills to help implement the Panther’s 10 Point Program. 

Rep. Lee also said that the Panther’s program “embodied many of the progressive goals we are still fighting to achieve today, including equity in education and healthcare; criminal justice reform and ending police brutality; and eliminating food and housing insecurity for the Black community. We cannot allow the harmful legacy of COINTELPRO to manifest ever again, nor can it ever be forgotten.”

Other forum participants included Akua Njeri, partner of the late Fred Hampton, and their son, Fred Hampton, Jr.; Bobby Seale, author and co-founder of the Black Panther Party; Ericka Huggins, human right activist and former Black Panther Party member; Nkechi Taifa, civil rights activist and author; Mike German, former FBI Special Agent now with the Brennan Center for Justice; and Betty Medsger, a Washington Post reporter who helped break the story of COINTELPRO’s existence. Currently, no House committee or subcommittee hearings have been scheduled regarding the bill.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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