Prison Radio


FBI COINTELPRO in the 1990s

(This report was written by Noelle Hanrahan in association with the Redwood Summer Justice Project, which pursues Judi Bari’s and Darryl Cherney’s civil rights case against the FBI and Oakland Police.)

On April 22, 1970, as 22 million Americans rallied across the country on the first Earth Day celebration, FBI agents in over 40 cities were ordered to spy on and infiltrate these events. Senator Edwin Muskie, himself a victim, remarked from the floor of Congress that this surveillance was “a dangerous threat to fundamental constitutional rights.” The power of the environmental movement and the challenge it posed to business-as-usual made it an instant target for FBI suppression.

Twenty years later on May 24, 1990, a shrapnel-wrapped car bomb went off under noted Earth First! activist Judi Bari’s car seat, nearly killing her and injuring fellow organizer Darryl Cherney. Even more frightening to Bari, as she woke up in the hospital intensive care unit under armed guard, was the realization that a major FBI “counterintelligence” operation against Earth First! was underway.

Within minutes of their arrival on the scene of the blast, the FBI was falsely characterizing nonviolent environmental organizers Bari and Cherney as “terrorists”. Within hours, the Oakland Police Department had arrested and detained them for transporting explosives. It was not enough that the two leaders had been physically blown up; the FBI immediately began to orchestrate a disinformation campaign designed to discredit and imprison these activists and destroy Earth First!

What could make nonviolent environmental organizers the targets of repression? Back in May 1990, Earth First! in the redwood region was gearing up for “Mississippi Summer in the California Redwoods,” a bold call that would draw thousands of activists to Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Earth First!’s fierce, grassroots, pro-labor campaign of mass nonviolent civil disobedience was determined to stop corporate timber’s liquidation of the old-growth forests. Even in the face of the attempted assassination of the key organizers and a well-orchestrated FBI disinformation campaign, thousands came to Redwood Summer, bringing national attention to the destruction of the redwood forest ecosystem. It is a testimony to the power of the movement mobilized by Judi Bari that today, eight years later, protests to save the old growth forests are more dynamic than ever.

“It is absolutely foolish to suggest that the FBI was involved in anything that would obstruct justice.”

— Richard W. Held, FBI

“These guys are professional liars, who have raised selective memory loss to an art form.”

— Judi Bari, Earth First!

FBI Legacy
From the moment of its birth in 1908 as the Justice Department’s “Bureau of Investigation,” a key part of the FBI’s mission has been to suppress political dissent. In the early years they used deportations and the career-destroying Palmer raids to target union leaders and communists. Burglary, blacklisting, infiltration, and disruption became standard operating procedure. Later, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Smith Act specifically could not be used to target communists, the FBI took it undercover, developing its “counterintelligence” program dubbed COINTELPRO. In the words of then-director J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO was designed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” groups whose views the FBI deemed threatening to the status quo.

Richard W. Held: Constitutional Assassin

Richard W. Held was Special Agent-in-Charge of the San Francisco FBI Office 1985-1993 during its extensive COINTELPRO operations against Earth First! Of all the COINTELPRO operatives, Richard Wallace Held’s past is particularly brutal and haunting.

Held began his career in 1968 in the Los Angeles office of the FBI. He quickly became the lead agent in the “racial matters” squad which focused on what the FBI called “black extremists”. Just one year later he was involved in targeting Los Angeles Black Panther Party leader Geronimo ji jaga (Pratt) for “neutralization.” Framed for a murder he did not commit, Geronimo spent 25 years in state prison. He was released in 1997 after a judge overturned his conviction based on prosecutorial misconduct. The key witness in the case, Julius Butler, was an informant for the FBI, LAPD, and the L.A. District Attorney’s office; that information was kept secret during Geronimo’s trial.

An uncanny ability to lie under oath, commonly referred to as “testa-lying,” is a trademark of rogue law enforcement professionals. Under oath in a deposition for Geronimo’s federal appeal, Held remarked on his relationship with Julius Butler: “I think that it may have been relevant, your honor, depending on what the contact was at the time and what else I knew, because I don’t recall really knowing much about the case at all anyway.” In fact, Held was coordinating COINTELPRO operations in L.A., and Geronimo was at the top of the “Key Black Extremists” list.

Even more damning, Held was the control agent for informant Julius Butler. In two-and-a-half years, Held recorded contact and meetings with Butler 33 times. Contrast Held’s repeated denials of knowledge and responsibility with the cold, hard facts, including this from a 1/28/70 memo by Held to the FBI Director: “I request Bureau approval … to attack, expose, and ridicule the BPP… operation number one is designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised by Elmer Gerard Pratt.”

After a few years in Washington, DC as a headquarters intelligence supervisor, Held was back in the field on the Pine Ridge Reservation three days after the firefight between federal agents and the American Indian Movement (AIM) during which two FBI agents and an Indian man were killed. An FBI memo dated 7/26/75 to the Washington Bureau’s Intelligence Division notes, “Supervisor Richard Wallace Held arrived at Pine Ridge, South Dakota Indian Reservation Command Post on 6/29/75, to assist in the RESMURS investigation. He was assigned three important phases of this investigation; namely, the correlation of Bureau-wide informants into the investigation; the establishment of the confidential fund; and the coordination of all intelligence information as it relates to the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the RESMURS investigations… throughout the country …”

Held’s work contributed to the framing of noted political prisoner Leonard Peltier, and to covering up the truth about the agents’ deaths and the still unsolved killings of 70 AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the extensive FBI’s operations.

From 1979 until 1985, Held was Special Agent-in-Charge of the San Juan, Puerto Rico office. There he presided over a politically-oriented paramilitary campaign against the Puerto Rican Independence movement, creating files on 74,000 individuals. In his last operation in Puerto Rico, Held led 300 FBI agents and U.S. marshals in raids all over the island, trashing office and homes and arresting scores of activists. One advocate of Puerto Rican independence said the raids made “even the desire for independence a crime.” Held left Puerto Rico in 1985 to head the FBI’s San Francisco, California field office.

Held Turns His Sights on Earth First!
In the year before the car bombing of Bari and Cherney, a shocking and classic political disruption campaign was conducted against Earth First! in Northern California. In the months just prior to Redwood Summer, the disruption was intense. Bari, Cherney and other Earth First! organizers received over 30 death threats from March to May, 1990. Fake Earth First! press releases were circulated in the community and to the press, falsely connecting the Earth First!ers with violence and sabotage. Local law enforcement refused to investigate the death threats, signaling their tolerance for violence against environmentalists. “If you turn up dead, Judi,” Mendocino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Satterwhite told Bari, “then we’ll investigate.”

The FBI’s very act of blaming Bari and Cherney for the bombing that nearly killed them, and their repeated feeding of damaging and bald-faced lies to the press about evidence in the case, are both classic components of a “counter-intelligence” campaign. The FBI’s own files refer to the use of informants, yet even now the full scope of their actions remains hidden.

Coincidence or COINTELPRO?
In depositions in Bari’s and Cherney’s civil rights lawsuit, FBI agents repeatedly denied that there was an investigation against Earth First! in California prior to the bombing. Yet, documents at first withheld and blacked out, then later released, show that the FBI field reports written at the time of the bombing stated Bari and Cherney were “subjects of an investigation in the terrorist field.”
The Arizona FBI Sting Operation In 1988, a major FBI sting operation was launched against Earth First! in Arizona. In a cynical attempt to discredit and criminalize Earth First!, the FBI spent $3 million and employed over 50 FBI agents, extensive wiretaps, body wires and overt entrapment in order to arrest Arizona Earth First!ers for conspiracy to down power lines.

At the heart of Operation THERMCON (short for “Thermite Conspiracy”) were undercover FBI agent/provocateur Michael Fain and informant Ron Frazier, who infiltrated a group of environmental activists in Prescott. Though unsuccessful, the FBI worked long and hard to entrap these individuals into using explosives to down power lines. Apparently the FBI sought to involve Earth First! with explosives in order to create a sensational case against them. This would serve to discredit Earth First! and provide justification to conduct illegal investigations and operations against the political and First Amendment activity of the environmental movement nationwide. Busted on May 30, 1989, in the Arizona desert, four people were caught with a cutting torch attempting to disable a power transmission tower leading to a pumping station of the central Arizona project (CAP). CAP is a billion dollar pork barrel project to carry Colorado River water uphill across hundreds of miles of desert to water the lawns of Phoenix and Tucson.

Judi Bari laughingly called this, “the only joint FBI-Earth First! action ever to take place.” Undercover FBI agents picked the target, drove the truck, and taught the activists to use an acetylene torch. The FBI paid informant Ron Frazier $54,000 cash in exchange for implicating the Earth First!ers, and granted him immunity from prosecution for various crimes.  

“The first lesson in activism is that the person that offers to get the dynamite is always the FBI agent,” joked Judi Bari.  

FBI Lies Exposed
It was in the context of such a massive undercover operation against Earth First! that the FBI terrorist squad responded en masse to the bombing of Bari and Cherney in May of 1990. Special Agent John Conway, who was one of the main case agents assigned to the bombing, had also handled the San Francisco FBI office’s substantial field work on the Arizona “THERMCON” sting.

It is striking that after failing in a major COINTELPRO operation to tie Earth First! with explosives in Arizona, the FBI again tried to smear and defame nonviolent environmental activists as terrorists by falsely charging Bari and Cherney with transporting the bomb that was meant to kill them.

In his deposition in the Bari/Cherney lawsuit, Held insists that he was completely out of the loop and unaware of the case, even though other FBI agents contradict his testimony and have said that they briefed him on a regular basis.

Key Questions Remain
Were Judi Bari, Darryl Cherney or Earth First! subjects of an ongoing investigation in “the terrorist field” as agents claimed in FBI reports? If so, where are the files? Was this investigation authorized? Were they under FBI surveillance when they were bombed? What does the FBI know about who bombed Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney? And finally, why have they never made any attempt to catch the real bomber?

In search of answers to these questions, the Redwood Summer Justice Project will continue to expose secret FBI operations against Earth First! as we pursue the civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland Police.

(This article refers to the actions of FBI Special Agent Richard Wallace Held. For clarification, his father Richard G. Held was Associate Director of the FBI.)

COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Secret War Against Democracy

  • Between 1987 and 1990, in a conspiracy to entrap and “pop Dave Foreman [founder of Earth First!] to send a message,” the FBI spent $3 million, used 50 agents and conducted more than 1000 hours of wiretaps. A key informant was paid a total of $54,000.
  • 1981-1990, activists opposed to the U.S. foreign policy in Central America (as well as a dozen U.S. Senators and Congressmen) were subject to FBI harassment. The FBI’s “investigation” of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) involved 59 field offices and 200 incidents of death threats, intimidation, and break-ins.
  • In August 1985, Richard W. Held led 300 FBI agents and U.S. marshals in raids throughout Puerto Rico, trashing offices and homes and arresting scores of activists. The FBI’s overall operations resulted in the creation of files on 74,000 individuals.
  • In 1975, Richard W. Held was involved in the FBI’s cover-up of the 70 deaths of American Indian Movement supporters at Pine Ridge in South Dakota. On the scene after an FBI operation which resulted in the deaths of two FBI agents and one Indian man, Held helped lay the groundwork for the framing of AIM leader Leonard Peltier for murder. Peltier remains wrongfully imprisoned to this day.
  • On April 27, 1970, Richard W. Held requested and received permission from J. Edgar Hoover to “neutralize” actress Jean Seberg. Held placed an anonymous letter with a Hollywood gossip columnist regarding the parentage of Seberg’s unborn child. On August 7, 1970, Seberg, nearly 7 months pregnant, attempted suicide. On August 23rd, she gave birth prematurely to a baby girl. Weighing less than 4 pounds, the baby died. Seberg’s transgression? Her support of the Black Panther Party.
  • Beginning in 1970, FBI agent Richard W. Held, an architect of COINTELPRO vs. the Black Panthers in L.A., helped orchestrate the 25-year false imprisonment of Geronimo ji jaga (Pratt). Held and others engineered the frame-up of Geronimo by withholding critical information that the prosecution’s key witness, Julius Butler, was an FBI operative.
  • On Dec. 4, 1969, Chicago police and the FBI assassinated Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Hampton, who was alive but wounded after the initial assault, was then executed at close range. William O’Neal, an FBI informant, provided a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment; he was paid $30,000.
  • In 1963, the FBI turned their attention to Martin Luther King, Jr., and sought to destroy him through a campaign of wiretaps and harassment. In one incident, the FBI confronted King with a compilation of secretly recorded tapes, threatening to release them to the press if King did not commit suicide before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • From 1943-63, the federal civil rights case Socialist Workers Party v. Attorney General documents decades of illegal FBI break-ins and 10 million pages of surveillance records. The FBI paid an estimated 1,600 informants $1,680,592 and used 20,000 days of wiretaps to undermine legitimate political organizing.