At nearly five o’clock in the morning, December 4, 1969, heavily armed members of the Chicago Police Department kicked in the door to Fred Hampton’s apartment and, without provocation, opened fire.
The bullets first found Mark Clark, asleep in an armchair with a shotgun in his lap. He was killed instantly, taking hits to the chest. As his muscles seized in death, he squeezed off one round. It was the only retaliatory round fired.
With Clark out of the way, the police turned their guns on Hampton’s bedroom, spraying the wall with bullets, hitting the 20-year-old at least once in the shoulder. They pulled the wounded man, clad in his boxer shorts, to the floor and delivered the coup de grace: a point blank bullet to his head.
Hampton’s crime? He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, an organization deemed by the federal government to be, in the words of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
The apartment had been cased, their organization infiltrated by an FBI operative. It was planned political assassination – there is no other way to describe the incident.
The murder of Fred Hampton was the most flagrant of the abuses carried out under the FBI’s covert Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). When it first was employed in 1956, COINTELPRO sought to monitor and infiltrate anti-establishment groups that the FBI thought were being coerced by foreign powers towards the ultimate goal of toppling the United States government.
It operated in the shadows of American society, beyond the eyes of public scrutiny. And it grew. By 1971, when the program was finally uncovered by a citizens’ group, COINTELPRO was monitoring the activities of myriad individuals and organizations including Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Despite a Senate select committee investigation, many of the more than two thousand approved COINTELPRO operations remain classified.
And now, 37 years later, the Bush White House has come under fire for its own covert domestic surveillance program. The president has authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor the phone calls of American citizens. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 requires court approval for such domestic spying programs. The White House never sought such approval, claiming that the broad resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan, passed by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, gave the president the authority to act without judicial oversight.
While the White House has maintained that Congress was informed of the wiretapping program, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stated during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that 527 of Congress’s 535 members were completely unaware of the initiative.
When the Senate’s Church Committee report came out in the wake of COINTELPRO and other such abuses revealed by the Watergate scandal, it sternly reprimanded the intelligence community: “the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated . and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. (These rights) were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the ‘national security,’ the law did not apply.”
This administration has been given extraordinary latitude from the public, the media, and the legislative and judicial branches to fight the Long War against terrorism. Somewhere, a line begs to be drawn.
We can only hope it takes no more blood from men like Fred Hampton for it to happen.