Operation CHAOS or Operation MHCHAOS was a Central Intelligence Agency domestic espionage project targeting the American people from 1967 to 1974, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson and expanded under President Richard Nixon, whose mission was to uncover possible foreign influence on domestic race, anti-war and other protest movements. The operation was launched under Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms by chief of counter-intelligence James Jesus Angleton, and headed by Richard Ober. The “MH” designation is to signify the program had a worldwide area of operations.
The CIA began domestic recruiting operations in 1959 in the process of finding Cuban exiles who could be used in the campaign against communist Cuba and President Fidel Castro. As these operations expanded, the CIA formed a Domestic Operations Division in 1964. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson requested that the CIA begin its own investigation into domestic dissent—independent of the FBI’s ongoing COINTELPRO.
- HTLINGUAL – Directed at letters passing between the United States and the then Soviet Union; the program involved the examination of correspondence to and from individuals or organizations placed on a watchlist.
- Project 2 – Directed at infiltration of foreign intelligence targets by agents posing as dissident sympathizers and which, like CHAOS, had placed agents within domestic radical organizations for the purposes of training and establishment of dissident credentials.
- Project MERRIMAC – Designed to infiltrate domestic antiwar and radical organizations thought to pose a threat to security of CIA property and personnel.
- Project RESISTANCE – Worked with college administrators, campus security and local police to identify anti-war activists and political dissidents without any infiltration taking place.
Scale of operations
When President Richard Nixon came to office in 1969, existing domestic surveillance activities were consolidated into Operation CHAOS. Operation CHAOS first used CIA stations abroad to report on antiwar activities of United States citizens traveling abroad, employing methods such as physical surveillance and electronic eavesdropping, utilizing “liaison services” in maintaining such surveillance. The operations were later expanded to include 60 officers. In 1969, following the expansion, the operation began developing its own network of informants for the purposes of infiltrating various foreign antiwar groups located in foreign countries that might have ties to domestic groups. Eventually, CIA officers expanded the program to include other leftist or counter-cultural groups with no discernible connection to Vietnam, such as groups operating within the women’s liberation movement. The domestic spying of Operation CHAOS also targeted the Israeli embassy, and domestic Jewish groups such as the B’nai B’rith. In order to gather intelligence on the embassy and B’nai B’rith, the CIA purchased a garbage collection company to collect documents that were to be destroyed.
Targets of Operation CHAOS within the antiwar movement included:
- Students for a Democratic Society
- Black Panther Party
- Young Lords
- Women Strike for Peace
- Ramparts Magazine
At its finality, Operation CHAOS contained files on 7,200 Americans, and a computer index totaling 300,000 civilians and approximately 1,000 groups.
The aim of the programs was to compile reports on “illegal and subversive” contacts between United States civilian protesters and “foreign elements” which “might range from casual contacts based merely on mutual interest to closely controlled channels for party directives.”
DCI Richard Helms informed President Johnson on November 15, 1967, that the CIA had uncovered “no evidence of any contact between the most prominent peace movement leaders and foreign embassies in the U.S. or abroad.” Helms repeated this assessment in 1969. In total, 6 reports were compiled for the White House and 34 for cabinet level officials.
American public learns of program
The secret program was exposed by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in a 1974 article in The New York Times entitled Huge CIA Operation Reported in US Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years. Amid the uproar of the Watergate break-in involving two former CIA officers, Operation CHAOS had been closed in 1973. Further details were revealed in 1975 during Representative Bella Abzug‘s House Subcommittee on Government Information and individual Rights. The government, in response to the revelations, felt pressured enough to launch the Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States (The Rockefeller Commission), led by then Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, to investigate the depth of the surveillance. Richard Cheney, then Deputy White House Chief of Staff, is noted as having stated the Rockefeller Commission was to avoid “… congressional efforts to further encroach on the executive branch.”
Following the revelations by the Rockefeller Commission, then-DCI George H. W. Bush admitted that “the operation in practice resulted in some improper accumulation of material on legitimate domestic activities.”
An agent provocateur (French for “inciting agent”) is a person who commits or who acts to entice another person to commit an illegal or rash act or falsely implicate them in partaking in an illegal act, so as to ruin the reputation or entice legal action against the target or a group they belong to. They may target any group, such as a peaceful protest or demonstration, a union, a political party or a company.
In jurisdictions in which conspiracy is a serious crime in itself, it can be sufficient for the agent provocateur to entrap the target into discussing and planning an illegal act. It is not necessary for the illegal act to be carried out or even prepared.
History and etymology
While the practice is worldwide anciently, modern undercover operations were scaled up in France by Eugène François Vidocq in the early 19th century, and already included use of unlawful tactics against opponents. Later in the same century the police targets included union activists who came to fear plain-clothed policemen (agent de police in French). Hence, the French agent provocateur spread, just as is, to English and German. In accordance with French grammar, the plural form of the term is agents provocateurs.
An agent provocateur may be a police officer or a secret agent of police who encourages suspects to carry out a crime under conditions where evidence can be obtained; or who suggests the commission of a crime to another, in hopes they will go along with the suggestion and be convicted of the crime.
A political organization or government may use agents provocateurs against political opponents. The provocateurs try to incite the opponent to do counter-productive or ineffective acts to foster public disdain or provide a pretext for aggression against the opponent.
Historically, labor spies, hired to infiltrate, monitor, disrupt, or subvert union activities, have used agent provocateur tactics.
The activities of agents provocateurs against revolutionaries in Imperial Russia were notorious. Jacob Zhitomirsky, Yevno Azef, Roman Malinovsky, and Dmitry Bogrov, all members of Okhrana, were notable provocateurs.
In the “Trust Operation” (1921–1926), the Soviet State Political Directorate (OGPU) set up a fake anti-Bolshevik underground organization, “Monarchist Union of Central Russia”. The main success of this operation was luring Boris Savinkov and Sidney Reilly into the Soviet Union, where they were arrested and executed.
In the United States, the COINTELPRO program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation included FBI agents posing as political activists to disrupt the activities of political groups in the U.S., such as the Ku Klux Klan, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the American Indian Movement. The KKK however was mostly exempt from COINTELPRO initiatives, though the reasons for this special treatment have been left to supposition.
New York City police officers were accused of acting as agents provocateurs during protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
Also in New York City, an undercover motorcycle police officer was convicted of and sentenced to two years in prison in 2015 for second-degree assault, coercion, riot and criminal mischief after an incident at a motorcycle rally. In 2013, the officer, Wojciech Braszczok, was investigating motorcyclists by blending in with a crowd during the rally; at some point another motorcyclist was hit by a motorist, Alexian Lien. Braszczok is later seen on video breaking a window to Lien’s car and assaulting him with others in the crowd. His actions were investigated by the NYPD and he ended up facing charges along with other members of the rally. Braszczok was eventually convicted on some of the charges laid, and received two years in prison.
He should do what I did when I was Minister of the Interior. […] infiltrate the movement with agents provocateurs (sic) inclined to do anything […] And after that, with the momentum gained from acquired popular consent, […] beat them for blood and beat for blood also those teachers that incite them. Especially the teachers. Not the elderly, of course, but the girl teachers, yes.
On August 20, 2007, during meetings of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America in Montebello, three police officers were revealed among the protesters by Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, and alleged to be provocateurs. The police posing as protestors wore masks and all black clothes; one was notably armed with a large rock. They were asked to leave by protest organizers.
After the three officers had been revealed, their fellow officers in riot gear handcuffed and removed them. The evidence that revealed these three men as “police provocateurs” was initially circumstantial-they were imposing in stature, similarly dressed, and wearing police boots. According to veteran activist Harsha Walia, it was other participants in the black bloc who identified and exposed the undercover police.
After the protest, the police force initially denied, then later admitted that three of their officers disguised themselves as demonstrators; they then denied that the officers were provoking the crowd and instigating violence. The police released a news release in French where they stated “At no time did the police of the Sûreté du Québec act as instigators or commit criminal acts” and “At all times, they responded within their mandate to keep order and security.”
During the 2010 G20 Toronto summit, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested five people, two of whom were members of the Toronto Police Service. City and provincial police, including the TPS, went on to arrest 900 people in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. The RCMP watchdog commission saw no indication that RCMP undercover agents or event monitors acted inappropriately.[dubious ]
The internet has been a perfect tool for information warfare, with many internet trolls acting as agents provocateurs by disseminating black propaganda. Such tactics are used to further the interests of countries, corporations, and political movements.
An agent provocateur can tell the target that the proposed crime involves elements which bring it under the jurisdiction of a specific country. For example, that some of the drugs involved in a drug-smuggling plan will eventually go to the United States, even if that is not the immediate destination. This brings the conspiracy within the jurisdiction of US courts, even if the target never joins any plan to smuggle drugs to the US directly.