Lessons from History: CIA Operation CHAOS Revisited
Same playbook, with a different cover. A look back at LBJ and Nixon's Exploitation of the CIA for Covert Surveillance.
COVID-19, election interference, parental rights, and the war in Ukraine have been some of the most recent reasons for the U.S. government to censor, coerce, and sometimes surveil U.S. citizens. Unsurprisingly, this is an old play from an old playbook with a new cover.
The United States in the late 1960s was a tumultuous period of social, cultural, and political change. A frequent appearance on the news were chants of anti-war protests and the cries of civil rights activists. Martin Luther King Jr. has already shared his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and young people across the nation are burning their draft cards, defiantly challenging the government’s relentless pursuit of the Vietnam War.
Opposition to the U.S. government played out frequently, openly, and passionately amidst intense activism and societal unrest. This ultimately prompted a less conspicuous but equally crucial battle to unfold—not in the streets but within the dimly lit corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
The Pre-Operation Years: Setting the Stage
As activists and ordinary citizens raise their voices against the war, the government isn't merely a passive observer. Oh no, because opposition against the government cannot stand.
Alarmed by the wave of protests, lawmakers and intelligence officials grow increasingly uneasy. Their concern isn't solely the domestic discord; they're fixated on the idea that foreign enemies might be fanning the flames of domestic unrest. Because obviously, opposition to U.S. government policies must have some foreign influence. Sound familiar?
Could America's adversaries be using the protests as a front to weaken the country from within? This question is the catalyst for one of the most controversial intelligence programs in American history: Operation CHAOS.
What was implemented as an alleged safeguard for the nation, Operation CHAOS functioned more like a weapon turned against the core of American civil liberties and evolved into the embodiment of governmental overreach. Orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), this clandestine operation aimed to eliminate foreign influence from the surge of domestic anti-war movements sweeping the nation. However, history has taught us that when the government is granted a specific mandate or authority, it inevitably mutates into government overreach. Operation CHAOS was not different and eventually devolved with the CIA, which dealt with foreign partners with the FBI, resulting in a network of domestic surveillance, personal profiles, and blatant infringements on the rights of citizens.
As we pull the threads of this intelligence operation, we must ask ourselves some hard-hitting questions: How far is too far when it comes to national security? At what point does the pursuit of safety transform into an invasion of privacy, or worse, an attack on freedom itself? And what lessons can we learn from this shadowy chapter in American history to ensure that the balance between national security and individual liberty is never again so perilously tipped?
In this article, we will journey through the inception, execution, and ultimate exposure of Operation CHAOS—an operation that, for better or worse, serves as a lasting testament to the government's capacity to wade into morally murky waters, all in the name of “national security.”
The Catalyst: The Gulf of Tonkin and the Escalation of War Sentiments
A Prelude to Strife
In the summer of 1964, an incident took place that would change the trajectory of American involvement in Vietnam and set the stage for unprecedented civil unrest on the home front: the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was August 2nd when the U.S.S. Maddox, a Navy destroyer, reported being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. A second attack was reported on August 4th, although later evidence would cast doubt on the occurrence of this second event. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would admit publicly years later in the 2003 documentary “The Fog of War” that there was no second attack. Regardless, these reports stoked a fire already smoldering in the American consciousness.
From Doubts to Decisions
Doubts about the validity of the second attack didn't prevent President Lyndon B. Johnson from seizing the moment. On August 7, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed, granting Johnson the authority to use military force in Vietnam as he saw fit. This, in effect, laid the groundwork for a massive escalation in U.S. military involvement in Vietnam without the need for an official declaration of war. While this resolution was seen as a decisive move to counter Communist aggression by many conservatives, it also incited the anti-war movement.
The Sociopolitical Tinderbox
The already polarized American society grew further apart. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a catalyst that intensified U.S. involvement in an already unpopular war. Those who questioned America's role in Vietnam felt vindicated and increasingly alarmed. As U.S. military involvement in Vietnam escalated, so did protests across campuses and major cities. Opposition to the war began to cross political and social lines, involving not just the radical left (those dirty hippies) but also moderates and conservatives who questioned the war's wisdom, ethics, and legality. The growing opposition made the government increasingly wary of internal dissension and suspicious of potential foreign influence on domestic matters.
A Matter of Perspective
It's fascinating to look back at the Gulf of Tonkin incident and how it led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution allowing the President to enter the U.S. into conflict without a declaration of war, reminiscent of the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).
The 2001 AUMF authorizes the use of military force against those responsible for the September 11 attacks and their associates, while the 2002 AUMF authorizes the use of military force against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Both AUMFs are still active today and have been used by successive presidents to justify military operations in various countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident didn't just impact the war in Vietnam; it also sparked a domestic war over the very heart and soul of our nation. The government used the protests and debates raging in the streets to go to extreme lengths to maintain control and surveil U.S. citizens.
A Path to Operation CHAOS
The dissent against the Vietnam War sowed the seeds for Operation CHAOS and justified its expansion in the eyes of the government. As protests became more frequent and disruptive, the Johnson administration, followed by the Nixon administration, felt compelled to act or, better described, control U.S. citizens. Yet, rather than directly addressing the citizenry's concerns, they took a route leading to covert operations' backrooms. They authorized the CIA to delve into the lives of thousands of Americans, initiating a program designed to quash what they perceived as a threat to national stability.
1966: The Crossroads of Civil Unrest and Intelligence Operations
The year 1966 was a boiling point in American social and political unrest. The nation was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, and discontent spread like wildfire. From college campuses to inner cities, demonstrations and protests became the order of the day. A new form of civil disobedience was emerging, a cry against the perceived injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government at home and abroad.
Amidst this backdrop of civil unrest, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had already initiated COINTELPRO—short for Counter Intelligence Program—a covert initiative designed to surveil, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt domestic political organizations and movements. Under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO was primarily fixated on quelling the civil rights movement, which had gained significant traction throughout the early '60s.
The agency even went so far as to send an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr., essentially encouraging him to commit suicide. They tried to blackmail him with alleged evidence of extramarital affairs, with the thinly veiled suggestion that he should end his life to avoid public shame. This move's audacity and egregious overreach underlines how government agencies were willing to quash voices they considered "subversive." Given that we're talking about MLK—a man asking America to live up to its stated ideals—the COINTELPRO actions against him show how far off the rails the U.S. government is willing to go to maintain control.
The program was often criticized for overreaching its bounds, employing tactics ranging from wiretaps and forgeries to efforts to create dissent within activist groups. However, the authorities defended COINTELPRO as necessary for national security.
But here lies the paradox: while COINTELPRO was mainly focused on the civil rights movement, many other protest activities were gaining ground. The anti-war sentiment had swelled into a full-blown counter-culture revolution. Social justice movements advocating for women's and gay rights were gaining momentum. However, as these new movements were taking shape, COINTELPRO was still somewhat myopic in its approach, largely overlooking these burgeoning areas of unrest.
For the government, the year was a rude awakening. It became increasingly apparent that civil discontent was not limited to any particular group or cause. It was multi-faceted, and the monolithic approach of COINTELPRO seemed increasingly inadequate to cope with the situation's complexity. This realization paved the way for the eventual birth of Operation CHAOS, a program initiated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the following year.
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