1967 March on the Pentagon Anti-War Protest Headline in the San Diego Union

1967 March on the Pentagon Anti-War Protest Headline in the San Diego Union

U.S. Army Intelligence Command and the Home Front

Editor’s Note: In a look back at the engagement of U.S. Army Counterintelligence during the Vietnam War, the research group Global Security had this to say:

Even while the fighting went on in Vietnam, Army Intelligence was actively engaged in operations in another area, the American home front. The principal Army player here was the U.S. Army Intelligence Command (USAINTC), the Army counterintelligence element formed in 1965 to conduct operations in the continental United States. The command had been allotted substantial personnel to carry out its mission. Its seven Military Intelligence groups controlled a network of 300 field and resident offices across the nation.

The merger of Army counterintelligence and criminal investigative records into the investigative Records Repository (IRR) gave the command a massive data base, which was supplemented in 1966 when USAINTC became the DOD agent administering the newly created Defense Central Index of Investigations, a master file of all counterintelligence and criminal investigations performed by the armed services, and the National Agency Check Center, which performed records searches on files maintained by non-DOD agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police departments. By 1967 the command had extended its responsibilities beyond its original jurisdiction, assuming the case control function for routine background investigations requested by the major commands overseas.

Centralizing counterintelligence operations in the United States under a single Army command produced the desired effects in terms of speed and efficiency The new organization not only had a greater capacity to coordinate and conduct counterespionage investigations against military suspects but also was better able to conduct background investigations. Under the old decentralized system, it had taken an average of ninety-seven days to process a standard background investigation. By 1967 USAINTC completed these investigations in an average time of thirty-one days. However, centralization would prove to have less desirable effects. It gave Army counterintelligence a high profile, and gave civilian policy makers an organization to task for domestic intelligence collection in what was rapidly becoming a time of trouble. The end result for Army Intelligence was less than satisfactory.

Under delimitations agreements dating back to the 1940s, the FBI had primary responsibility for counterintelligence investigations of civilians in the continental United States. Army counterintelligence confined its attention to the military and to those civilians who applied for security-sensitive civilian and military positions with the Army. Most of the Army’s counterintelligence effort and resources were devoted to background investigations of the latter. However, the events of the 1960s conspired to break down the neat demarcation line between military and civilian counterintelligence jurisdiction in the United States and to draw Army Intelligence deeply into civilian affairs. Federal troops were frequently alerted and occasionally deployed to restore order when local authorities were unable to maintain control in the numerous crises of the period. Commanders needed intelligence support, and it quickly became apparent that it was too late to attempt to gather intelligence once an actual troop deployment had begun. It also became apparent that the existing civilian intelligence agencies were fragmented and often ineffectual.

The FBI may have had theoretical responsibility for civilian counterintelligence, but its director, J. Edgar Hoover, was aging and increasingly uncooperative. The bureau itself, although having a good track record in apprehending interstate car thieves, kidnappers, and the occasional spy, was primarily a crimefighting agency with neither the capacity nor the inclination to produce finished domestic intelligence. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of FBI agents were middle-aged white males, limiting the bureau’s capability to conduct effective undercover work against the radical black and student groups that seemed to pose the greatest threat to national security. As conditions of disorder became progressively worse, the Army moved to fill an intelligence void.

Local commanders had first begun to request counterintelligence support from the assets they controlled during the civil rights disturbances in the South in the first part of the decade. USAINTC became involved in giving crisis support soon after it had been set up, as a result of Army involvement in the Watts rioting in August 1965. The command formulated its first contingency plan for collecting domestic intelligence in early 1966. STEEP HILL, as the plan was code named, was designed to be implemented only after there had been an actual deployment of federal troops.

The command soon realized that STEEP HILL, redesignated GARDEN PLOT in 1967, was inadequate. For USAINTC to be of any help to Army commanders in a civil disturbance situation, it would have to begin collection as soon as there was any likelihood of a deployment of federal troops. To meet the requirement, the command devised a new collection plan, Rose HILL, later redesignated PUNCH BLOCK and LANTERN SPIKE, successively. Unrest in America’s cities caused PUNCH BLOCK to go into effect eight times during the summer of 1966. By this time, in the words of the USAINTC official history, civil disturbance collection had become a “minimal, but increasing” part of the command’s workload.

The troubled summer of 1967 brought matters to a head. The LANTERN SPIKE civil disturbance collection plan was implemented four times, and federal troops were actually committed to deal with a major riot in Detroit. As a result of the Detroit disturbances, Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, who had served as the agent of the Executive Branch in handling the federal intervention, tasked the Army with “reconnoitering the major cities” to gain information on critical elements of topography and vulnerability before troops were sent in again. He also suggested that “the assembly and analysis of data with respect to activity patterns is also needed.” 24 This put the Army into the domestic intelligence business on a greatly enlarged scale.

After the Detroit riots, the priorities of the U.S. Army Intelligence Command changed perceptibly. The Army now began to collect intelligence data that would not only allow it to intervene effectively in urban riots, but would also help it to cope with the threat of the increasingly violent antiwar movement. By 1967 the popular consensus in support of American commitment to Vietnam was beginning to waver. An uncensored media had brought the horrors of war to American living rooms, and the Johnson strategy of fighting a painless war by allowing generous exemptions for college students while tripling the draft call had made a time bomb out of the nation’s campuses. Radical students and others had started to challenge not only the war, but the whole American system allegedly responsible for it. The Army now felt it had to defend its personnel and installations from possible subversion, sabotage, and even guerrilla warfare. In response to these perceived menaces, USAINTC steadily widened its collection activities, and the files of the Intelligence Records Repository began to bulge with the names of individuals and groups with no connection to the Department of Defense except their reputed opposition to it.

The rioting that devastated the nation’s capital following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the final straw. In response, OACSI set up civil disturbance units in its Counterintelligence and Counterintelligence Analysis Branches in 1968, and the Department of the Army issued a classified Civil Disturbance Collection Plan levying intelligence requirements upon USAINTC that were so sweeping that they could not be filled by the traditional methods of overt collection or liaison with FBI and local law enforcement officials.

To accomplish the tasking, the command had to initiate an extensive collection program against domestic targets. And by now, Army Intelligence elements other than USAINTC were also involved in the domestic intelligence field. In an independent effort, CONARC and several Zone of the interior armies had deployed counterintelligence personnel from their tactical units to engage in domestic collection operations and had compiled computer data bases on suspected potential troublemakers. The Army Security Agency had used its own assets on several occasions in 1967 and 1968 to monitor the demonstrators’ citizen-band radios.

Even at the height of this type of activity, the bulk of USAINTC’s resources remained committed to the traditional role of conducting background investigations. But the amount of activity devoted to domestic intelligence had a significance beyond its limited size. The perceived domestic crisis, coupled with Johnson administration demands for more and more information, led Army Intelligence into dangerous waters. Its activities crossed the traditional dividing line between the civilian and military in American life and overstepped the law, since neither the collection activities nor the civilian intelligence data bank of USAINTC had been authorized by statute.

As early as 1969, after a change of administrations, Robert F Froehlke, assistant secretary of defense for administration, expressed doubts about the wisdom of the whole operation. The Army went beyond its own requirements to involve itself in civilian concerns to such a degree, and the assistant secretary was concerned that the Army might be diffusing its limited intelligence assets, trying to collect intelligence on too large a portion of American society. As Froehlke ruefully admitted, the demands made upon USAINTC for domestic intelligence had gone “substantially beyond the capability for Military Intelligence units to collect. They reflected the all encompassing and uninhibited demand for information directed at the Department of the Army.”

What ended the Army’s domestic intelligence program, however, was not doubts, but public exposure. In early 1970 the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Army and the U.S. Army Intelligence Command for “spying on civilians.” The subsequent publicity, accompanied by recriminations from politicians and journalists, led not only to the end of this particular program, but ultimately to the end of USAINTC itself. The whole Army Intelligence community had suffered a major setback.