A little known but extremely important part of the history of domestic surveillance by intelligence agencies is the CACTUS program. CACTUS was a highly classified channel used by agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to transmit information about “the New Left, Black Militants and related matters.” This channel was never disclosed in the Church Committee reports, even when the reports discuss information that was transmitted through CACTUS.
A review of the available documents also indicates that the program is older than previous FOIA releases indicate, with one federal judge questioning CIA’s good faith in processing FOIA requests relating to the CACTUS channel when the Agency declared it was “still utilized” in the mid-1980s.
According to a memo released to several researchers, “the CACTUS indicator” was described for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by CIA Director Richard Helms on April 22nd, 1970. The conclusion by the very few resources to mention the program has been that the program was first introduced on this date.
Director CIA to Director FBI April 22, 1970
SUBJECT: USE OF THE CACTUS INDICATOR
The cryptonym CACTUS has been assigned as a teletype action indicator covering teletype communications between this Agency and your Bureau dealing with the New Left, Black Militants and related matters. Use of this indicator will facilitate prompt and effective action on such communications by this Agency.
A formerly SECRET message between the FBI and CIA Directors shows that the program predates this memo. The message, dated April 18th, 1970, shows that CIA was sending information about Vietnam War protesters to FBI several days before Hoover had the cryptonym explained to him. It’s likely that the explanation was offered in response to a query from Hoover, who apparently was seeing the cryptonym for the first time. Whether the program was new, or simply new to Hoover, isn’t currently clear. A FOIA request to learn more was filed in March of this year, though the FBI has yet to respond (despite having exceeded the legal time limit several times over).
Notably, one of the people involved in the earliest known CACTUS document was Coretta Scott King. Hardly a “black militant,” she was a civil rights icon and the widow of Martin Luther King Jr - himself infamously targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts.
The Agency seemed concerned that the campaign might invoke “the idea of corporate complicity” in regards to the Vietnam War. Further tying this monitoring to the COINTELPRO project is the fact that the memo was also signed by Richard Ober, the senior counterintelligence officer at CIA who was directing Operation CHAOS at that time, which was in many respects, the Agency’s equivalent of COINTELPRO. Significantly, the memo was flagged Counterintelligence Special Operations.
Within a few months of the FBI and CIA’s earliest known use the CACTUS channel, it provided the FBI with a piece of evidence they used in their efforts to manipulate and ultimately destroy the Black Panther Party as part of COINTELPRO. When the Church Committee investigated this chapter, they simply noted that the FBI learned where Leary was. No citation is given, and it’s unclear if the Church Committee had any awareness of the Agency’s role in this instance of the U.S. Government meddling in domestic politics.
A formerly SECRET teletype between the CIA and FBI Directors, however, reveals that the information came directly from the highest levels of CIA. This support from CIA gave the FBI the information it needed to create and exploit a chain of events that resulted in Cleaver and his people being expelled.
While this happened when COINTELPRO was still officially authorized, the program is generally believed to have been discontinued just over a year after the CACTUS channel was initiated. After the theft and publication of documents from the FBI’s office in Media, Pennsylvania revealed the existence of COINTELPRO, the Bureau decided that it was too sensitive and operations were to shut down - in theory. A closer reading of the memo issued by Hoover shows that the programs were “discontinued” only in a centralized sense, and laid out a process for authorizing additional COINTELPRO-like projects.
As pointed out in the Church Committee report, this merely got rid of the designator for these types of actions. After noting several such examples, the Committee concluded that it would take a search of all investigative files to locate additional instances of COINTELPRO-like activity after the program was declared discontinued. The CIA program, CACTUS, was unaffected.
A formerly SECRET memo shows that nearly a year after COINTELPRO was officially disbanded, CIA was still using CACTUS to transmit and request information on figures in the “New Left” figures such as John Lennon.
A previously CONFIDENTIAL memo shows that just prior to that, the Agency had been supplying the Bureau with months worth of information about U.S. citizens traveling in Korea, Vietnam or China - including Susan Sontag, on assignment for Esquire.
Another formerly SECRET memo bearing the CACTUS cryptonym shows that nearly two years after COINTELPRO was officially discontinued, CIA was still providing information on the Eldridge Cleaver faction of the BPP.
When the BPP tried to sue over this, the Agency deflected and used a form of graymail by attempting to force the Party to reveal the name of every past and present member or contributor. After the BPP refused, the suit was dismissed.
Other memos show that the Agency was not discriminating in what it decided made someone a “black militant.” While a good case can be made that the BPP had militant members, the Agency also decided that individuals like Ralph Abernathy counted. At the time, Abernathy had a history as a non-violent leader in the Civil Rights movement, and as a friend of MLK. He was also the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Some of the same memos contained information about Noam Chomsky, who the Agency similarly saw as giving aid and comfort to the enemy by advocating against war and criticizing the U.S..
Regardless of whether or not someone was a respected member of the government, even they weren’t immune to the reach of the CIA and CACTUS. Less than two weeks after she became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Bella Abzug’s name was included on a list of “United States Lawyers Appearing on the World Peace Council’s Mailing List” that was sent to the FBI in a formerly SECRET memo as part of its monitoring of the New Left.
Other memos show that the program wasn’t restricted to issues of national security or foreign involvement. A memo sent from the CIA to the FBI just days before COINTELPRO was ostensibly “discontinued” shows that the Agency was collecting and disseminating information about domestic protests. Significantly, the Agency doesn’t appear to have demonstrated the necessary reasonable belief that these activities were a threat to CIA personnel, installation or facilities to authorize the collection under domestic security concerns.
Another memo shows that the information wasn’t just being shared with the FBI but to other Agencies, like the Secret Service. It’s unknown what other agencies received CACTUS messages, but there’s a very real chance that every major federal law enforcement agency received one. The police forces of major cities, such as the NYPD, may also have received CACTUS messages in the days before fusion centers.
In a declaration dated October 28th, 1986 the Agency claimed that releasing additional files would reveal a “CIA administrative methodology used to restrict the flow of sensitive information” which was “still utilized at the present time.” While FBI’s COINTELPRO and CIA’s CHAOS programs had allegedly been shut down, the liaison program linking the two remained in effect for decades. Presently, there’s no evidence that the CACTUS program has been discontinued.
Significantly, especially in light of the lack of disclosure of CACTUS in either the Rockefeller Commission or the Church Committee, a federal judge noted that the “chain of events raises still more doubt about the care and good faith with which plaintiff’s FOIA requests were processed” in regards to CACTUS.
Similarly, the FBI seems to have had its own concerns about keeping CACTUS as secret as possible. An inventory in the file on Mark Felt (commonly believed to be the composite character known as Deep Throat) shows that CACTUS had its own handling and dissemination protocols. A copy of this has been requested, and the issue of CACTUS in general requires additional research.
In the meantime, the CACTUS BPP memo is embedded below, and you can view the 30 CACTUS documents that have been identified and collected so far here.
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Image via Wikimedia Commons