by Jason Holloway
Howard Zinn was asked about FBI involvement in counterculture activities that spanned more than a generation and affected his life and work as well as the times he lived in.
JH: Could you tell me what you know about Cointelpro?
Z: Cointelpro was a program that was set up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Cointelpro stands for Counter Intelligence Program. I twas most active in the 1960′s in relation to the movements of that period. It was a secret program of course-so much of what the FBI does is secret. The program consisted of all sorts of activities; surveillance, wire tapping-but included also a lot of illegal activities. That is, wire tapping without a warrant, breaking into people’s homes or offices without a warrant. They sent anonymous letters to the members of political organizations to try and stir up animosity amongst different organizations and individuals. It was under the Cointelpro program that an anonymous letter was sent to Martin Luther King suggesting that he ought to get out of the way. There was a veiled suggestion that he ought to do away with himself. Cointelpro was in fact investigated by a Senate Committee.
JH: I have read the Church Committee Report. (A Senate investigation in 1975 into illegality of US intelligence gathering procedurs, headed by Sen. Frank Church, D-ID)–ed.) I found it to be very shocking. On of the things I found to be most shocking was that in the “Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports” there is a memo from William C. Sullivan to Alan Belmont. William C. Sullivan was the Director of the Domestic Intelligence Division. The memo outlined a plan for a “new negro leader” to replace Martin Luther King when he’d been “neutralized” . Do you know if they ever implemented that plan?
Z:I don’t think so. I remember reading that, too. I never heard of that being implemented.
JH: Another shocking thing about the report is that it shows how the FBI manipulates the media. There are members of the media who are actually FBI agents and through them the FBI can plant whatever story they want. Can you comment on that?
Z: This was a very troubling thing about the activities of the FBI and also the CIA. There were two kinds of operations they had. There was one operation where they planted their own operatives inside the media with jobs that gave them the opportunity to plant stories as they wanted. The other was using existing reporters, who already had jobs as professional journalists, make contact with them and utilize them in the name of patriotism to plant stories that the FBI would consider useful. You know about the Church Committee Report which goes into great detail about their illegal activities. There was a special report on Martin Luther King. And they did a lot in connection with the Black Panthers. I think its known that the FBI colluded with the Chicago Police in the 1969 raid on the Chicago headquarters of the Black Panthers which resulted in the deaths of two of the leaders of the Black Panthers. It’s a very, very sordid story.
JH: I want to take a page from ancient history and apply it to today. Do you think the the FBI or the United States intelligence services are a contemporary version of the Roman Praetorian Guard?
Z: All police agencies that operate unscrupulously to violate people’s rights in the the service of emperor or the government have something in common. And I suppose that you could easily make that analogy. You can even make an analogy with the Gestapo. People are annoyed when you make any analogy between the US and Nazi Germany, but analogies are not intended to say that two situations are identical. Analogies are a way to say that certain features of one phenomenon are similar to the features of another phenomenon. The FBI intimidates people by calling them in for interrogation and the Gestapo calls people in and intimidates them by interrogating them. It’s fair to say then that some of their activities are analogous to one another.
JH: In the media we are often told that we are a free country. It is more often repeated that any other lie and since we have this FBI manipulation of media or even direct control sometimes, how “free” are we? Do we have a free press? How many freedoms of the Constitution actually exist?
Z: The question of how free the United States can’t be answered definitively yes or no; true of false, because it is a matter of degree. It is a matter of comparing ourselves to-what? If you compare the US to a totalitarian state where the press is totally controlled and there is no opportunity for any dissenting voice. Then by that standard the US is free. Although it is more reasonable to say it’s freer that a totalitarian state, but if you compare it to the amount of freedom in the American press to the kind of freedom that should exist in a Democratic society. That is, if you compare the US to a situation where there would be equal access to the news where the organs of public opinion are not controlled by a small number of people. By that standard the United States falls short. In the United States the major media is controlled by a small number of very powerful corporations. The corporate connections with major media are startling. It would be bad enough if ABC, CBS, and NBC were the major sources of news for the American people and they that they have very few other sources to go to, but when those three sources are themselves owned by financial and industrial corporations like Westinghouse, General Electric, Disney and Viacom, then we are in a situation where the major organs of public opinion are owned and controlled by the few powerful and rich entities. What we have in the United States is a kind of limited freedom. Limited in the sense that we can have community newspapers. We can have all sorts of alternative sources of information on a small scale because money determines what can be controlled in the country. Money determines how large a piece of the airwaves you can control. The amount of freedom we have, you might say, is proportionate to the amount of money we have. The question, “Do we have free speech?” is not a question of yes or no; the real question is, “How much free speech do we have?” It might be argued that everyone in the United states has free speech. But some people have an enormous amount of opportunities to speak freely to huge numbers of people and other people-the great majority of people-have very, very few opportunities to speak to more than a handful of people.
JH: At some point, does media control become mind control of the American people? If you reason on the facts given by the media and if corporate entities and capitalists control media, aren’t they then ultimately controlling the thoughts of the American people?
Z: Unquestionably. People make up their minds about what is going on in the world on the basis of the information that is fed to them. They aren’t born with that information. It is accumulated. Therefore, the people who can feed the information to them will control their thinking. We have an immediate example of it today where it seems that the majority of American people believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. In fact, they have not been found, but because the media are dominated by the voices of the Bush administration and because the media give the greatest opportunity to the voices of the government, we as a result have a public that is terribly misinformed and whose minds are full of falsehoods. This is a situation that suggests we don’t have a democratic society.
JH: Do you think this media control is a response to the left wing? For the most part we have a right-wing media that is constantly lying to the people. Telling them that the media has a left bias makes it hard to believe that right-wing entities that own and control media would have a left bias. How can we get to a day where people have more control over the distribution of wealth if we can’t wrestle the power of the media from these people’s hands?
Z: That is a profoundly important question. What you’re asking is how can we change the economic system that we have? In order to do away with the enormous disproportion in wealth and therefore disproportion in control. I think it will take a new great social movement in the United States-a citizen’s movement. It will take a movement in the say that we have had movements in the past which have had partial success in changing the control over people’s lives. The trade unions, when they were strong, had a partial success changing the way corporations control their lives. Black people in the South through their movement against racial segregation were able to change the ratio of power in the South and gain some degree of power for themselves. So, the task of changing of the concentration of wealth in the United States is much more formidable-more fundamental one-than winning the eight hour day or getting higher wages from Ford Motor Company or General Motors. A more difficult problem that getting the segregation laws eliminated from the southern states. It’s the most difficult problem that we have had in the history of the this country. It will take a movement of immense proportions; a movement that combines the power of the movements that we have seen already; the power of Black people, Latino people, of women; of newly invigorated labor movements and of those who people who are working to protect the environment. It will take an enormous coalition of people with all sorts of grievances against the system who will come together and demand changes. These changes are not going to come all at once. I don’t think that bringing about the change that I am talking about is a matter of a kind of revolutionary seizure of power. The classical idea of left-wing groups was that they would build up and that they would seize power from the capitalist class. I don’t think that it will happen in that kind of revolutionary moment. I think it will happen as the result of a series of struggles in which territory is won little by little. In which, for instance, the movement becomes strong enough to establish a really graduated income tax, which would very, very severely limit the fortunes that have been accumulated by the present tax system. If we reach a point where the social movement becomes strong enough to insist on a minimum annual income for every family, free health care for everybody, free higher education–in other words, one by one, the needs of the American people and the elements of of the American economic system will have to be transformed by a very powerful social movement. I think that that is the way to me-it seems is the way it can happen in the future.
JH: Do you think that since the US has invaded Iraq and has imposed hegemony over the world’s oil resources, is Marx’s prophecy that if we don not have some sort of socialist revolution or democratic control over the economic resources, that we’re going to come to the ruination of the two classes?
Z: Either there will be a change or the results will be disastrous for everybody-including the capitalist class. I think thatrquote s an analysis that makes sense. Of course, the problem is that the capitalist class itself is planting the seeds of its own demise by what it is doing. The American leaders by their actions are making it inevitable their own end because the fate of past empires is going to be the fate of the American Empire. Empires fall because they grasp too much. They go too far. They are driven to accumulate, accumulate, accumulate and expand, expand, expand and expand beyond their capacity to control things. Expand beyond the capacity of their economic resources to keep up with their ambitions. I believe the American invasion of Iraq and the so-called “War on Terrorism” are really the beginning of the end of the American Empire.
JH: On the Patriot Act; when you take another page from history, Rousseau had made this analysis; so did Hegel and Gibbon–that the Roman Empire really began when all of the powers of the Roman Senate were put in the hands of one man, the Emperor. Now that we see that we are having these military tribunals and black budget that the President controls–essentially, the powers of the purse and the judiciary have all become subsumed under the president. It looks like we’re becoming more like dictatorial Rome.
Z: There is no doubt about the concentration of power. The Congress has become impotent. The Supreme Court has become simply the tool of whoever conrtols the Executive Branch. Yes, the Executive Branch has taken an enormous amount of power and when you have a budget that’s over two trillion dollars, you are in a situation where the economy is more and more in the hands of government. The connections between Corporate Power and Political Power have become overwhelmingly close.
JH: Hasn’t that been true since at least World War II? There was a document that was published by the United States Senate named “Elimination of German Resources for War” . In that document, they talk about the “Unofficial Government” of Germany which was mainly the Thyssen and Krupp families. Who would you say on the American side of things are the prime families that are really pulling the strings behind scenes; really controlling the government?
Z: In the case of Germany, you can concentrate on the Thyssen and Krupp families. In the United States, I don’t know if you can identify one, two or three families. Back in the 1930′s there was an American social analyst named Ferdinand Lundberg who wrote a book called America’s Sixty Families. He traced power and wealth of the United States to the holdings of sixty families. Since the 1930′s those families have certainly diminished down to I don’t know how many families: ten, fifteen, five. I don’ t know how many there are and I don’t know if I could identify them but there is no doubt about the increasing concentration of wealth power.
JH: Aren’t these people also above the law? I remember reading also that I.G. Farben had merged with Standard Oil in the 1930′s and that Standard Oil shared the patents for synthetic oil and rubber with I.G. Farben. And this made World War II last longer. And these people were never brought to justice.
Z: The ties between American companies and German companies has been documented a number of times. There is all this information now. In fact, Kevin Philips in his new book talks about the Bush family and their connections to Nazi business firms. His book might be worth looking at.
JH: Getting back to the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King-in 1968, he was going to lead a Poor People’s Campaign to Washington. He was inspired by the Bonus March. So there was going to be poor people camping out in the shadow of Capitol Hill, but he was assassinated before that could happen. What is your opinion about the assassinations of the 1960′s in general and in particular about Martin Luther King’s?
Z: I know that there are all sorts of theories about the government conspiring to kill Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, possibly John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. I have been very dubious about these theories. Although there is no doubt that it was to the benefit of the government to get rid of Malcolm X and it was to the benefit of the right wing forces in society to get rid of Martin Luther King. Especially at that point, when King was turning the Civil Rights movement into an Economic Justice Movement. He recognized that the real problem now was the capitalist system and he put it that bluntly when he talked to his staff. He said that capitalism and militarism are twin evils. So, yes, theoretically it would have been logical for the government and for the corporate power in this country to see Martin Luther King as the greatest threat to their continued holding of power. I say theoretically; What actually happened in the assassination, and who actually is responsible for it; I have no idea.
JH: Do you think James Earl Ray was the shooter?
Z:I don’t know.
JH: In 1999, Coretta Scott King brought a civil court case against a man named Lloyd Jowers. She was represented by an Oxford Professor by name of William F. Pepper. I was wondering if you are aware of this work and what is your opinion of it?
Z: No, I remember that the King family questioned very much the official version of the assassination of King and that Coretta King and her children had very serious doubts about the official version. I don’t really know how strong the evidence is for their claim. I haven’t looked into it in detail enough to sort of give a strong opinion of it one way or another.
JH: I know that a man you have worked with; James Lawson, is a big believer that the government did participate in the assassination. He testified in the trial. The US Department of Justice under Janet Reno also conducted an investigation into the new developments in the King case brought about by William Pepper. The US Department of Justice on their website published a report critical of the complaint that the King family brought. In the report, there is talk of two members of King’s circle that the King family believe participated in the assassination. They are referred to as the SCLC minister and the Memphis minister. They are respectively, Jesse Jackson and Samuel “Billy” Kyles.
Z: I have never looked closely into that whole thing. I think I’m probably going to have to go at this point. If there is a final question, I would be happy to answer.
Here, the interview ended.—ed.