Several months after the Black Panther Party’s shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1969, the militant organization was in disarray. Two leaders, each supported by a block of followers, emerged from the rubble: Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver was a wanted fugitive and had departed the United States for Algeria. A group of Cleaver-faction former Panthers started a new group, the “Nation of Nigretia.” They described themselves as a country without land, ostensibly, descendents of black slaves brought from Africa and now spread throughout the U.S. It took little time for a sixth investigative sense to tell the FBI agents assigned to “extremist matters” that something was afoot.
One young agent volunteered to attempt to find out, and with little more than his supervisor’s nod of approval, an operation was begun. Headquarters didn’t have the option to say “no,” as they certainly would have a few years later. The agent knew the dangers were his identity to become known among many who would “just as soon shoot you as look at you.” His “training” for this assignment was to have attended an inner-city high school in his youth. He entered Panther headquarters armed with only a gray college T-shirt and whatever chutzpah he could muster, explained he was a graduate student in sociology (pointing at the university’s name on the front of his shirt), and was writing his master’s thesis on an American ethnic group. He had chosen them and, would they mind? He was welcomed and even became a card-carrying Black Panther. Not bad for a blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy from Philadelphia.
He attended several Nigretia meetings and learned it had been recognized by four black-African nations. Senegal had even granted a couple of acres for it to achieve actual nation status. After one meeting a few months into the operation, the son of the “High Priestess of Nigretia” took the undercover agent aside and asked, “You know what this is all about, don’t you?” He went on to explain that their objective was to bring Cleaver back into the U.S. under diplomatic immunity as the Nigretian ambassador to the United Nations, thereby, they believed, circumventing our judicial system and avoiding his arrest.
The next day a detailed report was sent to FBI HQ, and disseminated to the State Department. Soon thereafter the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations met with each of the four recognizing nations’ ambassadors to explain what had been unearthed. Each nation quickly withdrew its recognition from Nigretia.
A decade later, in 1983, a senior KGB officer who had worked in Algeria defected to the U.S. During his debriefing, Cleaver’s name was raised. The defector recalled a Soviet embassy reception in Algiers in the early ‘70s that Cleaver attended. He had made an overture to speak privately with someone in the KGB. Our defector accommodated him and heard Cleaver explain that he had a plan for returning to the United States without fear of arrest. He asked the Soviets to supply him with weapons “to foment revolution.” A telex reporting the request was sent to the KGB’s Moscow Centre. A few days later the response was received that Moscow first wanted to see Cleaver successfully enter the U.S., and, only then, would they provide him with the requested arms. It was not at all certain that they would have come through as agreed, but the point soon became moot for, thanks to the FBI undercover operation, the Nation of Nigretia had quietly faded away.
Can anyone read this story and not realize that the work of a few creative agents may well have prevented civil and racial strife in the United States? Would anyone doubt that this operation—with so very little to go on—exemplifies one of the things the FBI should do? Yet under the rules of the era that followed, and remained in place until September 12th, this kind of operation could not have been carried out. It would have been considered illegal, because there was no “criminal predicate,” no evidence of criminal activity either past, present or imminent.
For those who debate and worry about the new lesser restrictions coming into play, you should know there were many times that you slept safely at night oblivious of the harm’s way in which many FBI agents had voluntarily placed themselves because it was their job, and because they, too, had families about whom they cared and feared for their future. Instigators of today’s debate over control of the Bureau’s ability to follow leads wherever they may take them should not handcuff the ones most capable of preventing the next act of terrorism on U.S. soil: the street agents who have foregone administrative advancement because they take such enormous satisfaction in catching bad guys of every stripe. They must be given the opportunity to succeed. Without them, we cannot defeat the terrorists.
Many civil rights activists believe they are losing their hard-fought for gains. They should understand what hangs in the balance, and that it was the terrorists, and not the natural swing of politics as usual, who have grabbed hold of the pendulum and given it an enormous shove back in the opposite direction.