It was most surprising to come across the following entry at the website for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses for Terrorism (known by the acronym START), which is run by the Department of Homeland Security out of the University of Maryland. According to DHS, START is one of their “centers of excellence,” an academic center sponsored by the DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate.
The webpage concerns the “Terrorist Organization Profile” for the Secret Army Organization, a right-wing terrorist group in the early 1970s, a group START writes was “possibly funded by the FBI.”
According to START, “The Secret Army Organization (SAO), a right-wing militant group based in San Diego, was active from 1969 to 1972. They targeted individuals and groups who spoke out against the Vietnam War, especially those who organized public demonstrations and distributed anti-war literature.”
Indeed, if we could turn the clock back to June 1975, we would read an article in the New York Times, “A.C.L.U. Says F.B.I. Funded ‘Army’ to Terrorize Antiwar Protesters.”
According to the Times, the ACLU compiled a 5,000 page report on the SAO, a group of former Minutemen and other right-wingers and violent home-grown fascists, for the benefit of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “alleging the Federal Bureau of Intelligence recruited a band of right-wing terrorists and supplied them with money and weapons to attack young antiwar demonstrators.”
But that’s not all, the SAO engaged in bombing and attempted assassination, and guess whose house the weapons turned up in? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s let the DHS’s “Center of Excellence” inform us of this important episode in our history, which came, by the way, after the FBI claimed they had stopped their Cointelpro program of disruption of the Left.
Assassination Attempt, FBI Agent Hides the Weapon
From START’s SAO webpage:
The report also stated that the SAO planned to kidnap and murder protestors of the 1972 Republican National Convention, which was to be held in San Diego before being relocated to Miami Beach. An assassination attempt of Dr. Peter Bohmer, professor at San Diego State University, and Paula Tharp, reporter for the San Diego Street Journal, brought about the arrests of several SAO members who later acknowledge an FBI connection. During the investigation, the gun used in the assassination attempt was found in the home of FBI agent Steven Christiansen, who was subsequently identified as a SAO contact. In 1973, Godfrey, testifying as an FBI informant, claimed he received up to $20,000 in weapons and a $250 per month income from the FBI to recruit new SAO members and provide information to agents. He also testified to the criminal acts of several SAO operatives, including fellow leader Jerry Lynn Davis. Official statements from the FBI claimed no involvement with the SAO, and no agents were prosecuted.
The story of the SAO is a forgotten piece of contemporary history that is directly relevant to a number of current issues, including the prosecution of the bogus “war on terror,” and the FBI’s role in it; the debates about government participation in and legalization of assassination of its own citizens; and government surveillance of and attacks upon dissent in this country.
It also could be considered a prime example of the historical amnesia that plagues our times, an amnesia hastened by disinterest by the major media, cheered on by government agencies none too interested in accountability for government overreach or even criminality.
Links to the President
According to the Ann Arbor Sun at the time, the ACLU tagged the SAO as “an interagency apparatus organized ‘at the direction of Richard M. Nixon.’”
Reportedly the link to Nixon came via
Watergate burglar White House “plumbers” operative Donald Segretti, who affidavits claimed had given funds and military hardware to SAO to disrupt the 1972 GOP convention in San Diego. (The convention was subsequently moved to Miami Beach.)
But it was the FBI who seems to have been operationally in charge.
From the Sun: “SAO operative Jerry Lynn Davis, who once participated in the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion, revealed that [admitted FBI informant Howard Barry] Godfrey had regularly supplied the SAO with money and weapons on behalf of the FBI.”
A newspaper office was attacked. A car firebombed. Informants infiltrated, while meetings were monitored. There were plans to poison the punch at antiwar meetings. A theater was bombed. Bulletins were published on “how to make booby traps, how to use ammonium nitrate in high explosives,” And then, there was the assassination plot, or rather plots, as the SAO bungled one assassination attempt after another to kill a left-wing professor at San Diego State.
How It Went Down, and the Cover-up
A 1973 article by Richard Popkin at Ramparts described the threats and the attack, when an SAO hitman with a FBI-paid driver tried to kill an American college professor on January 6, 1972, solely because of his political views and activism.
But first, we should realize this was not the first of the assassination plans. An Associated Press article at the time described another failed plot that had yet another FBI informant, Gilbert Romero, and a San Diego undercover cop kidnapping Peter Bohmer and taking him to Tijuana, and setting him up to be killed by Mexican police. The New York Times wrote that the ACLU report included testimony from a FBI informant, John Raspberry, who said in the winter of 1971-72, the FBI approached him to kill Bohmer. For some reason, the attack never took place.
According to Popkin, Godfrey “was assigned to [FBI] agent Steve Christianson, to whom he reported verbally every day, Godfrey was to work on the militant right wing, and was paid two hundred fifty dollars per month by the FBI.”
Popkin continued, “Apparently, Godfrey himself was among the more dangerous elements in the SAO, and [FBI] agent Christianson among the more dangerous eminences grises of the operation…. Godfrey admitted that he had driven the car from which another SAO member, George Hoover, had fired into Bohmer’s house, wounding Paula Tharp. Subsequently, he had taken the weapon to Christianson, who had hidden it for six months. (This was evidently insufficient grounds for the FBI to take disciplinary action against agent Christianson. He continued as Godfrey’s contact until the bombing of the Guild Theatre, at which point he was removed by L. Patrick Gray himself…)”
The START page on SAO commented dryly on the aftermath of the botched assassination. “The SAO became inactive after the assassination case drew much public attention to the group’s operations,” DHS’s Center for Excellence reports. “The testimony of Godfrey against SAO members resulted in prison terms for a significant portion of the San Diego group. Of course, if the SAO was actually FBI-run, the notoriety drawn to the case would have been the impetus to dissolve the group.”
I think it’s appropriate to give the last words here to Peter Bohmer himself, who survived the attack and while he lost his job at San Diego State, the victim of a witchhunt, went on to join the faculty at Evergreen at Evergreen State College in Washington.
A few words about CoIntelpro before I come back to my story. It is short for counterintelligence program. Cointlepro was/is a program coordinated by the FBI to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” individuals and groups…. Although Cointelpro officially ended in 1971, it has continued although in a somewhat less extreme form without the name up to September 11th 2001. Since then we are going backwards towards more police powers, infiltration and framing of activists….
Although no group I worked in San Diego planned or carried out any violent actions, and many groups were purely educational; 20 people I knew in these groups turned out to be police or FBI agents or informers, many worked for both. They worked hard to cause divisions among individuals and groups. Some but not all were provocateurs…. the FBI visited my employer, SDSU to get me fired, they visited landlords where I lived to get us evicted. They opened my mail, and monitored my checking accounts. We got anonymous phone calls about people being agents who I am sure weren’t….
FBI sponsored groups did firebombings, slashed tires of my cars, continual death threats, put out a wanted poster on me distributed in San Diego in 1971. The Secret Army Organization or (SAO) a group financed from FBI funds and led by an FBI informant, shot into a collective I lived in with the bullet permanently injuring a member of the collective, Paula Tharp in January 1972.
Howard Barry Godfrey, a well-paid FBI informant and head of the Secret Army Organization (SAO) admitted almost a year later in court to driving the car the night of the shooting but claimed another SAO member did the actual shooting. After the shooting into my house, other FBI agents in San Diego covered up the crime and hid the evidence such as the gun used in the shooting. The head of the FBI in LA, working with SD FBI, at this time was Richard W. Held who has been involved in the cases against many activists and political prisoners such as Judi Bari, Leonard Peltier and Geronimo Pratt.
After the shooting, threats and harassment continued. After the Secret Army Organization began threatening liberals as well as radicals and bombed a pornography theater where some police were present, the San Diego police demanded that the FBI reveal their informants in the SAO and the SAO were arrested in the summer of 1972 on numerous charges. Government lawyers hired by the FBI claimed various privileges such as not having to reveal much of the behavior because of security concerns. The full FBI involvement in this attempted murder didn’t come out although one FBI agent was forced to resign. Godfrey, the FBI informant and provocateur in the Secret Army Organization (SAO) didn’t go to prison although two other members of the SAO did.
As I read this many thoughts come to mind: about the Occupy protests last year, the monitoring of antiwar and peace groups, arrests of activists at the political conventions, the legitimization of state assassination by President Obama, the consolidation of ever-greater power in the hands of the FBI.
What came to mind for you? Will this important episode from history simply drop back into the abyss of forgotten American memories?
I’d like to know what happened to that ACLU report and what action (if any) the Senate Intelligence Committee took on it. I intend to find out.