ESSAY: The FBI's Covert Operations Against Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement

March 11, 2014

 After all of the atrocious treatment of the American Indian population by the US Government, more bullets have been fired in attempts to seal the indigenous peoples' fates. Nearly 40 years ago Leonard Peltier, an Ojibway and Dakota Souix Indian, was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in what was called an "execution-style" murder, and has since spent his time in prison serving two consecutive life sentences. Though he was found guilty, many questions about the murders and his trial have been raised, to no avail. Both sides of the story are subjective; both parties involved have clear reasons to bend the truth, but one incontrovertible truth stands out. The American Indian Movement (AIM), a group that Mr Peltier is member of, was a long-standing target of the FBI's Cointelpro operations, which were secretive and illegal programs focused on controlling political and social movements that were seen as subversive to American ideals. Cointelpro operations were in heavy use against AIM and its participants, focused on subverting power from the traditional Indian rights movement through many violent and under-handed maneuvers. Given Cointelpro's dubious history, Mr Peltier should be seen as an innocent political prisoner, who was part of a much larger operation against the South Dakota Indians.

 Leonard Peltier was convicted on June 1st, 1977, two years after the murders of Special Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams, which occurred on June 26, 1975. Both parties involved agree on the date that the murders took place, but beyond that point the two stories sharply diverge. The FBI states that the agents were following a car which turned onto the private property of the Jumping Bull Compound, with a warrant for Jimmy Eagle, when a gunfight broke out. In his own journals, Prison Writings, Mr Peltier describes the day that the murders happened as chaotic; he says that he was awakened by the sounds of distant gunshots (123). He also clarifies that any shooting the Indians did was purely in self defense (125). Curiously, Bob Robideau, who was present and acquitted of any charges, says "they didn't even try to take cover" (Churchill and Wall 239). The FBI claims that their agents were fired on unprovoked, backing this up with information from radio communications; the fact that these transmissions were never released or presented as evidence in his trial calls into doubt the FBI's claims. Other quasi-facts and unethical practices aided the FBI's case against Mr Peltier, including, but not limited to, perjury, coercion of witnesses and falsification of evidence. Added to this is extensive evidence released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests which show that the FBI was targeting AIM at the time of the murders, and was deeply influential in the Anti-AIM policies of the purported Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) , which worked through political means, and the Guardians of Oglala Nation (GOONs), which utilized violence.

 All of the controversial strategies used by the FBI to convict Peltier fall under the goals of Cointelpro, or the "Counter Intelligence Program." In the paper The Patterning of Repression, David Cunningham quotes John Edgar Hoover, the FBI's founder and director, who describes the Cointelpro programs as being established to "covertly 'expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize' the activities of FBI targets" (209). They have operated in some form since the 1930's, and though they were officially abolished in 1971, the article Torture in the US Prison System asserts that the use of these tactics continue to this day (Battaglia and Randolph 1). That the programs were illicit was never a question; William C. Sullivan, a former director with the FBI, intimates "[N]ever once did I hear anybody, including myself, raise the questions: 'Is this course of action which we have agreed upon lawful, is it legal, is it moral and ethical?'" (Cunningham 214). Cointelpro operations were specifically used against organizations and individuals the FBI deemed threats to national security or subversive to American values, such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, various American Communists, and also AIM.

In the book Agents of Repression, authors Churchill and Wade (both active AIM members) detail the FBI's covert operations against AIM, and shed much light on the extensive background information and occurrences of the pivotal day when the two agents were murdered. In his resignation letter, ex-commissioner of the South Dakota State Criminal Justice Commission David Holman states:

 "I have become increasingly aware of the fact that Native Americans who hold traditional views and are political activists are singled out for special attention by the criminal justice system in South Dakota. Members of the American Indian Movement, in particular, are single out for harassment. " (qtd. in Churchill and Wall 179)

 AIM is an indigenous rights movement created to protect the rights and way of life of traditional Indians. Due to divisions in the political views of Reservation Indians, the movement was created to preserve Indian customs, religion, and sovereignty. Non-traditional Indians advocate assimilation into main-stream America; traditionalists petition for Indians to keep their ways and those of the dominant culture separate. These differences set the stage for an infiltration on a grand scale; the traditionalists would be targeted by the FBI. Charged as being a leader of AIM (which he refutes), Mr Peltier was chosen as a mark to quiet political actions by traditional Indians. He joined AIM in the late 1960's, and describes the movement as "a collectivity of leaders working in loose unison ... [for] our people's survival" (96). He also states that "No one person or special group of people runs AIM" (97). He was solely motivated by the injustice and violence against, and a sense of pride for, his own people. That he was chosen as the lone killer is anomalous; there were a number of others involved in the defense at Pine Ridge that day, but only two other Indians were arrested, arraigned, and subsequently released, Bob Robideau, and Darelle Butler. Perhaps it only takes one Indian to kill a revolution?

Given the long history of mistreatment of the Natives of the Americas, those who perpetrate greater injustices against them should be seen through circumspect vision. The American prison population already greatly exceeds that of other prison populations world-wide, and since the 1960's, dozens of so-called "political prisoners" have been incarcerated, most without any possibility of living real lives of freedom again. These jailings have ignited many social movements, and generations of highly emotional responses. One such incarcerated soul is Leonard Peltier, who for nearly 40 years has been in numerous prisons, where he has been repeatedly abused and often placed into solitary confinement. He has been subjected to government sanctioned torture, and getting older in age, is also suffering from failing health. Many documents available arguing his guilt or innocence seem to miss the connection between Cointelpro and the AIM movement, falling back to using second-hand evidence, which is riddled with convincing yet emotionally swaying arguments. In the light of the evidence from Churchill and Cunningham, it is clear that Mr Peltier is ultimately a scape goat to further the FBI's political aims, and should be freed immediately at the risk of dying in prison as an innocent man.

Works Cited
Battaglia, Dan and Preston Randolph. "Torture in the US Prison System: The Endless Torture of Leonard Peltier." truth-out.org; n.p. Aug 2011. Web. 21 May 2013
Ward, Churchill, and Jim Vander Wall. Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press 1988. Print
Cunningham, David. "The Patterning of Repression: FBI Counterintelligence and the New Left." Social Forces 82.2003: 209-240. EBSCO. Web. 27 Feb 2014
Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance.  Ed. Harvey Arden. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1999. Print