Ivan Greenberg, The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties Since 1965

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, while many American writers focused on feelings of horror and helplessness, Noam Chomsky soberly looked to the near future and wrote that these attacks would become “a gift to the hard jingoist right, those who hope to use force to control their domains.”[1]  This analysis understood the uses of such a horrific shared public tragedy, and how, as Naomi Klein would latter phrase, the “shock doctrine” could so easily plow under civil liberty safeguards, widespread distrust of domestic intelligence and security operations, and rapidly expand the reach of a burgeoning national surveillance state; all in the name of protecting Americans.

After the fact, it is easy to connect the Twentieth Century American prologue of FBI monitoring and interference in domestic political movements with post-9/11 increased domestic surveillance, violations of civil rights, and the rise of attractive communication technologies that make our lives legible to governmental overseers.  Ivan Greenberg’s The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties Since 1965, provides an excellent, well-documented, narrative connecting these post-9/11 transformations with the FBI’s past efforts to monitor, control, and subvert a broad range of domestic political activities.

The Dangers of Dissent provides a crucial explanation of why, a quarter century before the terror attacks of 9/11, Congressional and Executive Branch limits of the FBI’s involvement in monitoring domestic political groups were established.  The Dangers of Dissent carefully documents the extent to which the FBI has functioned as a domestic secret police force, monitoring, harming, and harassing individuals and groups engaging in deviant political activities.  While a body of solid scholarly historical literature documenting the FBI’s role in monitoring and suppressing the development of socialist or communist political movements during the mid-Twentieth Century, and later programs like COINTELPRO, Greenberg’s work is an important step extending the reach of this body of analysis in ways that connect trends from the mid-1960s to the post-9/11 present.

While he does not frame his analysis in terms of counterinsurgency theory, Greenberg’s book nonetheless provides a well documented analysis of how, during the past half-century, the FBI routinely functioned as an arm of domestic counterinsurgency operations supporting a matrix of hegemonic governmental, corporate, racial, and gendered interests.  While foreign counterinsurgency operations are always necessarily threatened by questions of the local legitimacy of foreign occupiers, domestic counterinsurgency operations run by local governmental forces do not have to struggle for this legitimacy with the bulk of the populous.  Because of the FBI is widely viewed as a legitimate actor in the maintenance of domestic law and order, its actions do not generally come under the same sort of negative scrutiny that foreign counterinsurgency operations frequently experience.  Greenberg’s documentation pieces together a narrative demonstrating how the FBI’s monitoring and interference with political organizations in America has damaged the development of a wide variety of American democratic movements.

The Dangers of Dissent is a well documented and meticulously researched work that deserves the serious attention of social scientists of all disciplines and anyone concerned with the growth and impact of the surveillance state on democracy in America.  Greenberg draws on tens of thousands of pages of FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to present a critical evaluation of the FBI’s investigations and harassment of individuals and groups engaging in political dissent in the United States.  Greenberg divides his approach into succinct chapters exploring the history of FBI surveillance of and interference in the activities of political dissidents in the United States.  The book’s chapters examines: the notion of state crimes, the evolution of 1970s spying, outcomes of efforts to reform the FBI, the FBI’s post-Cold War search for new enemies, the post 9/11 FBI, citizens’ efforts to sue the FBI for spying on them, and a critical examination of the FBI’s role in American surveillance society.

Along the way, Greenberg chronicles the rise and fall of policies restricting the FBI’s investigatory and political activities.  He shows how while both the legislative and executive branches of government have established hearings or commissions investigating FBI improprieties, most of the policies limiting or unfettering FBI actions came from the Executive branch. While the Church and Pike Committees investigated illegal activities of intelligence agencies, it was presidential guidelines (such as the Carter administration’s Levi Guidelines restricting the FBI’s ability to investigate speech activities that do not advocate acts of violence) that significantly restrained FBI activities.  And later, it was the Reagan Administration that worked to again unfetter the FBI from such restrictions.  Historically, the House and Senate have abdicated their responsibility to provide scrutiny and oversight over domestic and international intelligence activities.  But it was the great post-9/11 national security spasm that pushed aside the remaining legislative safeguards preventing the FBI from spying on domestic political groups engaging in political dissent.

The FBI’s campaign of fighting terrorists as a justification for monitoring domestic political activities began long before September 2001, the terror attacks simply accelerated trends set in place during the Reagan administration and continued by later presidents.  One of Regan’s supporters back in the early 1980s, Republican Senator Jeremiah Denton (Alabama) that the “Soviet’s active sponsorship of terror worldwide” represented a serious domestic threat, and Reagan’s Justice Department used claims of terror networks to weaken limits on the FBI’s domestic activities.

Greenberg’s list of domestic political groups subjected to FBI surveillance and harassment is impressive.  While most of the groups targeted by the FBI were from the leftwing of the politic spectrum, rightwing political groups, to a lesser extent, also received the FBI’s attentions.  In the 1980s and 90s, armed rightwing militias did not receive the same FBI surveillance and scrutiny as leftwing political groups.  As Greenberg observes “in the FBI’s view, right-wing radicals were merely misguided and in need of civic education.”[2]  The list of groups under FBI surveillance includes mainstream and radical environmental groups ranging from the Sierra Club to Earth First!, gender equity groups, gay rights groups, anti-war groups, a broad range of socialist, communist, anarchist groups, a broad range of religious affiliated peace groups (e.g. Witness for Peace, American Friends Service Committee, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, CISPES). Under COINTELPRO, FBI programs strove to undermine the effectiveness of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, and a broad range of minority leaders.  These lists go on and on, but are united by a common thread (a thread stretching back to the FBI’s McCarthy Era persecutions of almost much anyone publicly protesting racial inequality as “communists”) of shared resistance to the structural inequalities of American life that the FBI primarily protects.

In 1982 President Reagan lied to the public, claiming that U.S. anti-nuke community leaders had been recruited by the KGB, claims that led the FBI to act as a political agent of the executive branch as they harassed and monitored American anti-nuke dissidents.[3]  FBI agent, Jack Ryan, was fired after he wrote a report arguing that the FBI investigation of members of the anti-nuke Plowshares group was, “using this investigation not as a means of developing a case to be prosecuted but as an end in itself, a way of intimidating.  And I know well how intimidating it can be to be investigated by the FBI.”[4]  Ryan mistakenly believed that his job was to investigated crime, not harass political dissidents. Other presidents used the FBI to settle other scores.  Under Clinton, the FBI monitored anti-abortion groups and in 1994 the Violence Against Abortion Providers Task Force compiled databases on about 900 individuals and groups with rightwing religious ties.[5]  Clinton’s support of globalization brought coordinated political surveillance at the Seattle WTO protests.

Legal efforts to hold the FBI accountable for its violations of civil rights, warrantless break-ins and wiretaps, and general disregard for the law are shown to have mixed results, with some victims (e.g. Frank Wilkinson, the Socialist Workers Party) receiving legal judgments against FBI lawlessness, while many other cases being abandoned before conclusion—in part as a result of FBI’s tactic of refusing to release documents, it’s ability to easily hide behind a veil of secrecy, and using legal tactics to stretch-out litigation for a dozen years or more.  Even when plaintiffs did not prevail in civil litigation against the FBI, many of these cases led to the release of important FBI documents.

Greenberg shows how the post-9/11 era brought little that was new to FBI practices, instead bringing it full-circle back to old habits of monitoring the political activities of dissidents.  After 9/11, the few protections still remaining from post-Watergate, Church Committee era restrictions were quickly brushed aside, as the Patriot Act brought new forms of surveillance.  The Patriot Act’s Section 215 authorized gag orders making it virtually impossible for targets to know if they were under surveillance, much less if their basics rights were being abused by the FBI.  Soon the FBI was back in its comfort zone: infiltrating anti-war groups, religious organizations, and a variety of grassroots organizations, as if the atrocities of the 1960s and 70s had never happened.

The FBI began a new campaign of employing the public to generate “tips” on “suspicious activities” possibly related to terrorism, and while about 96,000 tips were called-in during the first week after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and a half million tips were made to the FBI during the year after the attacks,[6] little usable information was provided to the FBI, though the waves of fear and social solidarity provided by such programs had their own uses.  Arab Americans and American Muslims soon became the default targets of American paranoia and the subject of an unknown number of FBI investigations.

Dangers of Dissent closes with a consideration of the rapid expansion of surveillance in our current electronic age, as the internet, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, street-level microphones, Facebook, cell phones, and a range of digital media make us all increasingly legible to the FBI and other intelligence agencies.  There is much about our surveillance in the present that remains unknown, Greenberg notes when considering disclosures about FBI political practices, we know more “about the period before 1975 than the period after it.”[7]  While efforts to establish a single surveillance database (like the failed Total Information Awareness program), have thus far been publicly resisted, the trajectory documented by Greenberg suggests it will only a matter of time before the FBI, some other intelligence agency, or perhaps a privatized neoliberal corporate subcontractor reaches that moment of singularity where panoptical dystopian science fiction dreams become the waking nightmare governing American’s political lives.


David Price teaches at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is Weaponizing Anthropology. Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (AK Press/Counterpunch Books, 2011).



[1] Chomsky, Noam. 2001. “A Quick Reaction.” CounterPunch 9/12/01. https://www.counterpunch.org/2001/09/12/a-quick-reaction/

[2]  Greenberg,170.

[3] Greenberg,  129.

[4] Greenberg, 131.

[5] Greenberg, 170.

[6] Greenberg, 187.

[7] Greenberg, 291.


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