Reframing Dissent

Paradigm Shift and Political Repression

by Chip Berlet

“What is secret is often squalid as well. In the dark, men were able to act contrary to the values they proclaimed in public. Paying service to democratic ends, they made league with scoundrels whose interest is anything but the survival of democracy…today’s New Right ideologues believe in the omnipotence of the goal and the irrelevance of the deed. So their tactics are those of the enemy they hate and fear, and they award America’s franchises to con men, hustlers, terrorists, racketeers, murderers and other sleazy characters who for a fee sign up for the crusade.”

Bill Moyers

When our national security interests are perceived as threatened, secrecy becomes sacred, and the ends justify the means. Since the end of World War II, the techniques of political repression recur, banal and predictive, like the musical theme that signals stalking in a grade-B thriller. Those organizations and individuals targetted for repression are portrayed as enemies of democracy; those investigating and attacking then assume the mantle of democracy’s guardians.

Because of the covert nature of campaigns and the enormous difference in resources between government agencies and dissident/reform movements, it is often impossible to document or prove the existence of an organized campaign of political repression in its earlier stages. In case after case, however, later investigation has revealed illegal government surveillance, harassment and public opinon manipulation, as well as media complicity.

Therefore, when classic patterns of political repression emerge, a political or social movement would be wise to consider tactics and strategies to protect its members from the negative effects of political repression–political, emotional, and physical. members can be provided with simple, common sense techniques to prevent fears (and actual incidents) of surveillance and infiltration from paralyzing or disrupting the group and diverting it from its goals.


One of the earliest and most overlooked warning signs that a campaign of political repression is underway is “paradigm shift.” Paradigm shift, in this usage, means a major negative change in the way the public perceives the political movement that is ultimately victimized. Paradigm shift frequently is associated with episodes of political repression, and frequently precedes more overt signs of attack such as assaults, break-ins and surveillance. Political repression telegraphs its punches.

For many years the major threat to “the American way of life” was popularly believed to be communism, then generalized leftist revolutionism, and now a vaguely-defined domestic terrorism. Targetted individuals are seen as not only engaged in criminality, but also attacking core cultural and political values which, if abandoned, would destroy America as we know it, and which therefore represent a threat to national security. This concept of America under attack frequently is filtered through a paranoid worldview that represents what social scientists call a “subversion myth.”

The perceptual shift from dissent to criminality first goes public with unsubstantiated allegations and conclusions in the newspapers, newsletters and magazines of the reactionary and paranoid political right. These right-wing media attempts to re-frame the public’s perception of the dissident group. The concept of the “frame-up” has been popularized in pulp crime novels and film noir, but few people stop to consider what it means when, with wide-eyed innocence, the person being dragged to jail proclaims, “I’ve been framed.” The term “frame” is condensed from the original jargon, “to hang a frame” on someone, which means to select for an observer a perspective from which certain conclusions about a person, group or event seem readily apparent, logical, and even inescapable.

Eventually, right-wing re-framing of dissidents as subversives or criminals spills over into more mainstream media. A growing segment of the public begins to see the targeted political movement as fundamentally at odds with mainstream society. This antagonism is portrayed as irreconcilable. The dissidents are seen as non-rational, unstable, alien, and capable of odious crimes because of their zealous mindset. Lists of potential crimes are discussed, and finally actual crimes are blamed on the political movement. Ideas that were once merely marginalized are thus criminalized. Popular opposition to government and private attacks on the dissenting group is partially neutralized. In some cases the re-framing is so successful that there is widespread popular sentiment supporting the attacks. When this process of re-framing is successful, paradigm shift has occurred.

Often, derogatory information passes back and forth between government agencies and private right wing groups through informal back-door channels, and the actual source becomes obscure. Lawsuits and declassified documents have revealed that sometimes it is the investigative agency that leaks information to the right-wing press, and in other cases investigative agencies rationalize investigations by citing charges appearing in the right-wing press. The relationship benefits both sides. The agency is able to test public sentiment and prepare the ground for its assault, while the right-wing press furthers its political agenda and at the same time appears to be generating hard investigative journalism.


Re-framing of dissenters as criminal subversives is a critical process within government law enforcement and intelligence agencies. For internal and external reasons, government institutions must provide justifications for the fact that on the surface, members of a dissident group under investigation often appear to be engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment. Agents and officers who become queasy about lapses in protecting Constitutional rights, or who object to the paranoid assumptions underlying the rationalization of the investigation, are made aware that their careers will suffer unless they become team players. Sometimes, if public political conditions are favorable, a Congressional committee will start a well-publicized investigation and hold hearings where the government and right-wing experts who started the process are called to testify. This forum ensures that the charges against the targeted group are distributed widely by the media, and hearing transcripts become the basis for a new wave of charges.

When the public is prepared to view the dissidents as a clear and present danger, the last stage of political repression is implemented. Government agents engage in intrusive investigative procedures and harass members of the targeted group. Suddenly, demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience are met with huge overreaction and displays of police power (and sometimes acts of police misconduct or brutality); and unexplained and apparently random physical assaults, arson attacks, or robberies occur with increasing frequency.


Implicit in the rationalizations and justifications for political repression is a package of right-wing paranoid beliefs with roots deep in xenophobia and nativism. Two key paranoid theories could be called the theories of the “Slippery Slope” and the “Onion Ring.”

The Slippery Slope Theory of Subversion:

  • Global liberation movements are not prompted by a genuine response to social conditions but by outside intervention, most often by revolutionaries or communists and their proxies.
  • Domestic social change movements are not fueled by a genuine response to social conditions but by outside agitators, most often revolutionaries or those under the control of revolutionaries .
  • Liberalism is the crest of a slippery slope which leads downhill to the Welfare State, then Socialism, and inevitably to Communism or Totalitarianism.
  • Dissent is provoked by subversion. Subversion is a terrorist movement. Terrorism is criminal.

For the true believers who advocate this view, patriotism equals unquestioning obedience to authority and undying resistance to social change. Surveillance and infiltration are justified to stop the spread of subversion. It’s all a plot. Slippery Slope theorists generally also believe in the Onion-ring theory as well.

The Onion-ring Theory of Subversion.

  • Subversive cadre bore into the core of all social change movements both at home and abroad.
  • To uncover the cadre who are engaged in subversive criminal activity, an informant must work step-by-step from the outside onion ring of non-criminal free-speech activity through several rings of hierarchy toward the center core where the criminal activity lurks.
  • Honest though naive activists are often unaware they are being manipulated, and therefore should welcome attempts to expose the core of crafty covert criminal cadre.

The Onion Ring theory is less extreme than the Slippery Slope theory in its concession that some members of radical and liberal political movements are sincere, and not sliding towards totalitarianism. Nonetheless, its advocates also justify surveillance and infiltration to stop the criminal activity at the core of groups exercising their free speech rights.

In fact, in order to insure that at least some agents or informants succeed in penetrating to the criminality at the core, an extraordinary level of invasion becomes not only legitimate, but essential. Onion-ringers advocate infiltrating every group, spying on every member, and keeping track of all persons even tangentially involved in all social change movements. Alas, for the domestic political activist, the end result of both the Slippery Slope and Onion Ring theories is the same: political surveillance and infiltration. While courts have consistently ruled that passive monitoring of First Amendment activity is permissible, critics charge that passive monitoring and dossier-compiling often turn into disruption or attack, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. As Donner explains:

“The listing of individuals, whether for ultimate detention in the event of war or for clues to the source of civil disorders, masked an underlying tension between passive montoring and barely suppressed aggression. Why wait for the future showdown? What can be done to get at these people now? This tension found an outlet in special programs directed at ‘key figures’ and ‘top functionaries,’ singled out for close penetrative and continuous surveillance.”

Since agents are attempting to find a core of criminality that, except in rare cases, does not in fact exist, they become frustrated and redouble their efforts. This fervor is especially problematic with informants and agents provocateur who fail to find the sought-after criminals, and thus may feel compelled to inflate, provoke, or invent charges of criminality to reach their assigned goal, gain status, and continue to receive pay and bonuses. The dynamic of informant abuse is discussed in Under Cover: Police Surveillance in America.

Some critics insist that without unequivocal guidelines, firm congressional oversight, and thoughtful judicial intervention, intelligence activities–whether domestic or foreign–almost inevitably turn toward undemocratic techniques. Other, more historically informed critics point out that all of these constraints have consistently failed to deter abuse.


Much of the “documentation” denouncing the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) as a communist front can be traced to a Congressional report issued during the McCarthy Period. This accusation was part of a coordinated campaign involving Congressional committees, the FBI, right-wing groups, and mainstream periodicals. The NLG was targeted by the right due to its support for the reforms of the Roosevelt presidency, defense of labor unions, and criticisms of erosions in civil liberties brought on by the birth of the Cold War.

According to attorney Michael Krinsky who represented the NLG in a suit against the FBI, the FBI and the Congressional committee publicly launched an investigation of the NLG and privately fed inflammatory information to right-wing and anti-communist contacts. Leaders of the American Bar Association cooperated with the FBI in a campaign to destroy the National Lawyers Guild. Fred Schlafly, Phyllis’s husband, was a leader in early attempts at red-baiting lawyers and legal organizations such as the Guild.

Although right-wing attacks on the NLG began soon after the organization was established in 1937, the public mood was such that for several years the charges never gained wide circulation or provoked concern. Articles in the <New York Times> from the period show a dramatic change in the situation during the late 1940s. <5>

Up until 1948, articles on the NLG cited in the Times index center on substantive activities and positions of the NLG on law and legislation. Starting in 1948, however, the Times coverage of the NLG through the next ten years centers on charges relating to subversion.

The targeting of the Guild began in earnest when an FBI wiretap revealed that Yale Law School professor Thomas Emerson was discussing with the NLG the publication of a study criticizing as unconstitutional a variety of FBI investigative methods. The day before the NLG press conference releasing the report critical of the FBI, Hoover had his friend Richard Nixon, then a member of House Committee on Un-American Activities, call for an investigation of the Guild as a communist front. Hoover then, without hearings or an investigation, initiated an FBI report which HUAC issued under the its own name. The report was titled “Report on the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party.” [CITE] Krinsky says, “The FBI files reveal that HUAC’s report on the NLG, which almost destroyed the Guild by labeling it the `legal bulwark of the Communist Party,’ was not the product of HUAC’s attempt to carry out any legislative function, but was issued by the Committee on the sole instigation of the FBI.” The NLG fought back in court and eventually forced the government to remove it from a list of so-called “subversive” groups. By then, however, the power of the false accusation alone nearly destroyed the NLG, with membership dropping from over 4,000 to under 600. The Guild eventually recovered, and, unlike many political and legal organizations of the period, did so with its principles intact, having never conducted an internal purge of communists, socialists or other targeted groups.


In Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill & Jim Vander Wall wrote a chilling account of the murderous tactics used against non-white political activists during the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence program) and in the years that followed. When some academics challenged their thesis the writers produced COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, which uses numerous actual FBI documents to make a strong case for convincing skeptics that COINTELPRO-type activity continued after the name was shelved and represented an institutionalized form of repression rather than aberrant acts of individual agents. Both books discuss the way in which political repression involves portraying the targeted group as essentially an outlaw formation. Brian Glick, in War at Home, discusses how false stories are used to frame dissident groups as violent or criminal.

The techniques and goals of COINTELPRO were eerily repeated in the FBI’s organized campaign against CISPES (The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). In Break-Ins, Death Threats and the FBI: The Covert War Against the Central America Movement, Ross Gelbspan, a veteran Boston Globe reporter writes about the pattern of robberies reported by persons and groups opposing Reagan administration policies in Central America. Hundreds of offices, homes, and cars were broken into, files were ransacked or stolen, but valuable equipment was left untouched. Several years, hundreds of interviews (some with FBI infiltrators), and many thousands of pages of FBI files later, Gelbspan concludes the perpetrators of the robberies will probably remain a mystery. What is firmly established, however is that the FBI repeatedly lied to Congress about the extent and purpose of its investigations into the same network of Central America activists victimized by the robberies. Gelbspan documents how the FBI forged back-channel ties to far-right anti-communist groups in the U.S. and a shadowy network of government agencies and death squads in El Salvador, and how the press was used in the campaign.


Attorney Michael Krinsky, who had represented the NLG, was not surprised when he learned the FBI had waged a five-year surveillance war against

CISPES in a fruitless search for terrorists and subversives. This scenario precisely repeated the pattern Krinsky and the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee fought in its lawsuit against the FBI on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild. Krinsky charges that FBI “subversion/terrorism” investigations can never really end, because they can never really succeed in accomplishing the FBI’s primary goal–and that goal is not investigating criminal activity, but proving the pre-conceived notion that dissent is fueled by treason. Krinsky agrees with author Frank Donner that the term terrorism is merely a device used by the FBI to justify its political mission.

“This is the theory under which the FBI has kept subversion investigations running for 45 years now,” says Krinsky:

“They believe there is a subversive element out there trying to infiltrate and destroy our government. Infiltration is by definition covert, and therefore, to safeguard our government from this secret plot, the FBI has to know everything about everybody. The fact that the FBI never finds any evidence of this subversive infiltration merely demonstrates to the FBI how clever the subversives really are.”

Even when their Justice Department superiors repeatedly terminate these types of investigations because they result in no evidence of wrongdoing, and only show the non-criminal nature of the targeted group, the true believers simply bide their time and then open another investigation under a different file name. The examples of NLG and CISPES confirm the pattern. When the FBI agents could not find the non-existent KGB candygram to CISPES, they merely ignored their own evidence and redoubled their efforts to pursue the group. In the NLG case, Krinsky notes:

“The FBI investigated the NLG for over three decades, moving from one pretext to another, without being “hindered by the fact that none of their suspicions proved to be based in fact. As soon as one pretext was challenged by a court or the Justice Department administrators, the FBI would abandon that pretext and embark on a supposedly new investigation using a different pretext.


Among the investigative categories used to justify FBI spying on the NLG: Front for the Communist Party, Fomenting Prison Rebellion, Front for the Weather Underground, and Violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. No criminal charges were ever filed against the NLG and each investigation was terminated unsuccessfully when no evidence of criminal activity was found. Ann Mari Buitrago, a file specialist from the Fund for Open Information and

Accountability, was hired by the Center for Constitutional Rights to read and analyze the FBI files on CISPES. Her conclusions:

“The files show a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object–the destruction of the people’s right to know and to assemble in order to express opposing views on public policy. ”

“The FBI is still reaching into the Hoover-era bag of tricks to fight dissent. They are feeding their fantasies that the Red Menace is everywhere. It is an obsessive belief…and like all fantasies, facts do not put it to sleep.”

The process is not just a historical oddity. Intelligence Requirements for the 1990s: Collection, Analysis, Counterintelligence, and Covert Action is a collection of hard-line recommendations which provides what academic Diana Reynolds calls a “blueprint for creating a virtual U.S. police state”. This shopping list for the guardians of post- Constitutional America is a sequel to the equally-onerous “Intelligence Requirements for the 1980s” which was used as a guide by the Reagan administration.

The occurrence of paradigm shift may serve as an early indicator for political repression. If so, it is important to note that the environmental movement and the movement seeking civil rights and equality for gay men and lesbians are both experiencing paradigm shift.


As Johan Carlisle pointed out in a recent issue of Covert Action, “the two environmental groups under the heaviest fire are Earth First! and Greenpeace.” Right-wing publications have been re-framing the environmental movement for several years and current articles in mainstream media are beginning to reflect this paradigm shift. For instance USA Today in April of 1992 ran two oppossing views on Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring published thirty years ago last April. After claiming Carsons’s warnings about DDT were unfounded, author Patrick Cox, “an associate policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute,” went on to frame Carson and the anti-toxics movement as hysterical ideologues. An analysis of Cox’s polemic results in the following:


Persons who oppose pesticides and believe DDT is unsafe:

  • Reject science.
  • Are inflicted with “environmental hypochondria”.
  • Circulate “apocalyptic, tabloid charges.”
  • Have “no evidence” to back their “hysterical predictions.”
  • Use “gross manipulation” to fool the media.
  • Are “unscrupulous, Luddite fundraisers.”
  • Suffer from “knee-jerk, chemophobic rejection of pesticides.”
  • Create “vast and needless costs” for consumers and farmers.


Pesticide supporters who believe wide use globally of DDT is safe:

  • Are pro-science and pro-logic.
  • Have support from the “real scientific community
  • the community of controlled studies, double blind experiments and peer review.”
  • Are on the side of U.S. consumers and farmers and save them money.
  • The rhetoric attempting to frame the environmental movement is vivid.
    • “Willing to sacrifice people to save trees,”
    • “We are in a war with fanatics…they will go to any extreme.”
    • “Behind the Sierra Club calendars…lies a full-fledged ideology…every bit as powerful as Marxism and every bit as dangerous to individual freedom and human happiness.”
    • “Blinded by misinformation, fear tactics, or doomesday syndromes.”
    • “The core of this environmental totalitarianism is anti-God.”
    • “An ideology as pitiless and Messianic as Marxism.”
    • “Since communism has been thoroughly discredited, it has been repackaged and relabeled and called environmentalism.”
    • “The radical animal-rights wing of the environmental movement has a lot in common with Hitler’s Nazis.”


There have been centuries of discrimination against persons who challenge the heterosexual majority, but a recent wave of physical attacks on and harassment of those trying to raise awareness about AIDS, or seeking human rights for lesbians and gay men, reflect classic patterns of political repression.

Articles in the right-wing press have been escalating hyperbolic rhetoric concerning homosexuals for several years. In the early 1980’s Enrique Rueda of the Free Congress Research & Education Foundation was asked by Free Congress president Paul Weyrich “to research the social and political impact of the homosexual movement in America.”

The result was a lengthy 1982 book, The Homosexual Network, in which Rueda concluded that “The homosexual movement is a subset of the spectrum of American liberal movements.” Rueda was alarmed by “the extent to which it has infiltrated many national institutions.” One jacket blurb writer gushed that Rueda had revealed “the widening homosexual power-grab in our society.” From civil rights to power-grab in one volume.

In 1987 Rueda joined with co-author Michael Schwartz to produce Gays, AIDS and You. The introduction warns “The homosexual political agenda represents a radical departure from what we as Americans believe…a terrible threat–to ourselves, our children, our communities, our country…a radical, anti-family agenda.” From power-grab to terrible threat. The authors suggest the movement for homosexual rights is different from movements involving “legitimate” minorities, and using conspiratorial phrases, write:

“This movement is stronger, more widespread, more skillfully structured than most Americans realize. It reaches into our media, our political institutions, our schools, even into our mainline churches….And now this movement is using the AIDS crisis to pursue its political agenda. This in turn, threatens not only our values but our lives.”

Back cover blurbs include snippets from Senator Bill Armstrong, “An urgent warning,” Beverly LaHaye, “reminds us of the necessity to reaffirm our civilization’s Biblical heritage,” and Congressman William E. Dannemeyer, “failure to affirm our heterosexual values not only is unhealthy, but could result in the demise of our civilization.” From terrible threat to end of civilization.

An order form for Gays, AIDS and You circulated by the Free Congress Foundation includes a picture of a man at a desk, his face in shadows, and the headline: “This Man Wants His ‘Freedom’ So Bad He’s Ready To Let America Die For It.” The text adds, “Our civilization stands in the path of his fulfillment as a freely promiscuous homosexual.”

Dr. Ed. Rowe, author of Homosexual Politics: Road to Ruin for America,; goes further in outlawing the targetted movement, stating that “Homosexual politics is a moral cancer eating at the fabric of America. It is an unholy, satanic crusade…this evil movement must be stopped!” Senator Jesse Helm’s introduction to Rowe’s book also raises the theme of non-rational zealousness: “Homosexual politics continues in fanatical pursuit of its goal of carving out a new ‘civil right’ based on the sexual appetite of its adherents.”

Neo-fascist hatemonger Lyndon LaRouche was among the first in the paranoid right to move the alarm into the political arena. LaRouchians spawned restrictive propositions placed on the California ballot that were successfully defeated only after broad-based organizing efforts reversed early polls showing passage of measures that essentially called for firings and quarantines for persons with signs of AIDS. LaRouche even obliquely suggested murder as a tactic, writing that history would not judge harshly those persons who took baseball bats and beat to death homosexuals to stop the spread of AIDS. One 1985 pamphlet published by LaRouche’s National Democratic Policy Committee was titled “AIDS is more deadly than Nuclear War,” which turned out to be a repackaged attack on the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve.

There are dozens of books and pamphlets that marginalize and frame the lesbian and gay men’s movements as threats to the American way of life, and fit the pattern for paradigm shift.


Whether or not paradigm shift is causative, predictive or merely anecdotal, for the activist, paradigm shift should be seen as a warning signal that political repression and government intelligence abuse may soon become major factors in a group’s tactical and strategic decisions.

Chip Berlet watches ornamental goldfish swimming in his garden pool to unwind after a hard day of watching creeping domestic authoritarianism as an analyst for Political Research Associates in Cambridge, MA.

Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Sheila O’Donnell, Brian Glick and Ann Mari Buitrago for the discussions which informed the thesis presented here.

For a large collection of primary and secondary material illustrating paradigm shift, send $10 to Political Research Associates, 678 Mass. Ave., Suite 205, Cambridge, MA, 02139. Ask for the packet “Corporate Roots of Attacks on the Environmental Movement,” or “Re-Framing the Lesbian and Gay Men’s Movements as a Threat to Civilization.”

A version of this article first appeared inCovert Action Information Bulletin.

Footnotes are available in the printed version appearing in Covert Action Information Bulletin, Summer 1992 (Number 41). Send $6.00 toCovert Action, 1500 Mass. Ave., N.W., #732Washington, D.C. 20005


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