No matter how you look at it, the actions of the FBI in COINTELPRO were successful. Aside from the Ku Klux Klan, which documents revealed that the FBI had to almost be forced to investigate, a majority of the counter insurgency operations were taken against African American political activist groups. There is, without a doubt, a lot to unpack there. Questions and hypotheticals about how COINTELPRO may have been one of the single most catastrophic setbacks in the fight for civil rights in American history.
There also is the question of why did the FBI think they could get away with it? The answer may have been that other intelligence agencies had already gotten away with using the same kinds of tactics overseas. The CIA had written the playbook for counter insurgencies based around the justification of fighting communism in Italy in the 1950s. When put side-by-side ‘Operation: Gladio’ and COINTELPRO both seem very similar. Tactics of intimidation, misinformation, and manipulation factor heavily into both strategies.
Personally, I believe the most disturbing part of COINTELPRO is the absolute cooperation of local authorities in these questionable, if not outright illegal actions taken against citizens of their own communities. People often want to worry about Big Government stepping in to surveil us when the first steps in mass surveillance start at the local level. Fortunately the fight to push back against these measures also begins at the local level. Strong communities are built on mutual respect, logic, and empathy. If we had a better understanding of those concepts during the 60s-70s perhaps we wouldn’t be as divided as we are today and we wouldn’t have let a small group of people with a large amount of power set social progress back by 10-20 years.