COINTELPRO and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Classification of Threats

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Virginia Tech


COINTELPRO was a formidable and extremely controversial counterintelligence program conducted by the FBI from 1956 to 1971. Its exposure showcased the covert methods in which the FBI targeted US citizens it identified as threats to the internal and domestic security of the United States. Since the program's end, the FBI continues to explore and identify the current and potential threats to the United States. However, what exactly does this program say about the FBI at the time of its inception and what does it say about how it had classified threats? And what could it tell us about how it classifies threats today? This study examines how the FBI treated two identified targets of COINTELPRO, "black extremists" and "white hate groups", and whether the differences found between the treatment of the two targets as threats was a result of internal or external institutional factors. In conducting such study, I seek to determine if the factors that influence the Bureau's threat classification may have either been internal, a result of the Directors' influence or the influence of the organization's structure, culture, and/or function, or external, a result of the President's or Congress' influence. I hypothesize that the differing treatment of these targets, where "black extremists" were identified and prioritized as more of a threat than "white hate groups", was a result of internal institutional factors within the Bureau. Within this study, I examine reports and memos from the FBI database, the Vault, from 1968, to best determine which hypothesis is more accurate.



FBI, threat classification, COINTELPRO, black extremists, white hate groups