U.S. Counterterrorism was Counterproductive before 9/11

The following is a guest blog post by Daniel S. Chard, author of Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism.  Drawing on thousands of pages of declassified FBI documents, Daniel S. Chard shows how America’s war with domestic guerillas prompted a host of new policing measures as the FBI revived illegal spy techniques previously used against communists in the name of fighting terrorism.

Happy belated Book Birthday to Nixon’s War at Home, officially on sale now!

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 has offered opportunity for reflection not only on the meaning of the terrible attacks that day, but also on the legacy of the U.S. War on Terror, which has taken even more lives and has arguably had an even greater influence on the course of world history. Few realize, however, that U.S. counterterrorism did not start with 9/11, but decades earlier, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the government battled homegrown armed revolutionary groups opposed to racist policing, capitalism, and the war in Vietnam.

U.S. counterterrorism, first developed in its nascent form by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, was not as far-reaching as the post-9/11 War on Terror, which has sought to preempt and destroy accused terrorists through foreign military invasions, incarceration, torture, drone strikes, and mass electronic surveillance. However, Nixon’s war at home laid the groundwork for twenty-first century counterterrorism. The FBI and Nixon administration shifted national security priorities from anticommunism to antiterrorism, revived illegal surveillance tactics of the early Cold War, and expanded preemptive mass surveillance, casting leftists and people of Arab descent as political and racialized suspect communities. 

Federal authorities initiated these efforts in the early 1970s in hopes of eliminating insurgent political violence, but U.S. leaders did not address the underlying concerns motivating such violence. Moreover, much like after 9/11, counterterrorism operations in the 1970s had limited success achieving their stated goals and triggered a host of unintended consequences.

The first people whom the Nixon White House and Director J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI referred to as “terrorists” were those in and around armed groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). These groups splintered off from the era’s wider leftist movements and imported urban guerrilla tactics popularized by Latin American revolutionaries, carrying out hundreds of bombings and several shootings of police officers. The FBI had infiltrated plenty of leftist organizations in the past, but America’s new urban guerrillas generated a unique crisis because they were clandestine. Leftist guerrillas flaunted their evasion of state surveillance by taking on assumed identities, forging fake IDs, and developing networks of “safe-houses” throughout the country while carrying out their attacks. The Weather Underground even bombed the U.S. Capitol (1971) and the Pentagon (1972).

In response, the Nixon administration developed the United States’ first institutions explicitly dedicated to fighting “terrorism,” though neither lasted long. The first was the Huston Plan, a secret proposal drafted by Nixon’s young aid Tom Huston that would have consolidated all federal intelligence agencies under the direct command of the White House and revived break-ins, mail-opening, and warrantless wiretapping, tactics the FBI had used widely against the Communist Party but banned during the mid-1960s. Nixon authorized the Huston Plan in June 1970 but withdrew it after only five days when Hoover, who disagreed with the president over issues of jurisdictional power, refused to go along. The second institution was the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism (CCCT), formed in September 1972 after Palestinian nationalist commandos killed eleven Israeli athletes amid a hostage stand-off at the Munich Olympics. Formed while Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, the CCCT had little power but served as an important funding source for terrorism research.

Huston drafted plans for the nation’s first institution dedicated to fighting terrorism, but it was scrapped due to a bureaucratic conflict between Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. June 18, 1971.

Meanwhile, desperate to destroy the Weather Underground, Hoover’s FBI renewed break-ins, mail-opening, and warrantless wiretapping and cast an expansive surveillance net that targeted leftists throughout the country, encompassing the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, Black Power radicals, and supporters of Puerto Rican independence. After the Munich attack, the government effectively viewed all Arab Americans and other Arabs in the United States as terrorism suspects. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigated each of the approximately 80,000 foreign Arabs in the country and deported over one hundred for minor violations while FBI agents harassed and interrogated an unknown number of Arabs, both foreign and American. 

These efforts forged a template for counterterrorism in the post-9/11 era. Both the Huston Plan and the CCCT informed the drafting of the USA PATRIOT Act (2001) and the Homeland Security Act (2002). The Arab scare of 1972-73 was a precedent for law enforcement agencies’ dragnet surveillance and harassment of Muslims after 9/11.

Nixon-era counterterrorism did not make the world safer, more peaceful, or more just. Indeed, the bulk of this activity backfired—the FBI had limited success thwarting guerrillas, but exposure of classified documents undermined the bureau’s popular legitimacy while a bureaucratic conflict between FBI officials and the Nixon administration fueled the Watergate scandal that brought down the president.

Moreover, American counterterrorism was never politically neutral. Political operatives, law enforcement agents, and a new crop of terrorism experts developed counterterrorism in the 1970s in the midst of a broader “punitive turn” in American politics, as leaders steered the country away from the limited social democracy of the New Deal and Great Society towards mass incarceration, neoliberalism, and growing economic inequality. Underlying problems of police violence and U.S. imperialism remained unaddressed. Rather than providing solutions, the post-9/11 War on Terrorism only supercharged these problems, and the consequences have been nothing less than calamitous. 

Daniel S. Chard is visiting assistant professor of history at Western Washington University.