Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

I.C. Van Buskerk

Former Provacateur sues FBI
Had posed as ’Marxist-Leninist’

Published: Guardian, February 4, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In an unusual development, a former agent provocateur here has filed a civil rights complaint against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department.

Joseph Burton, a 43-year-old former janitor and swapshop operator has charged the FBI with conspiring to cover up information regarding the status and nature of his work for the government.

Burton worked for the FBI from 1972 until late 1974 and was in charge of Red Star Cadre, a ”left” police front organization and was extensively involved in the government’s Cointelpro program.

The charges made in the complaint are part of a continuing effort by Burton to expose his past activities and force the government to acknowledge its role in directing his work.

In the summer of 1974 Burton, who since 1972 had acquired the reputation of a “left” activist in the Tampa bay area, announced to the press he was renouncing his “Marxist-Leninist politics.” Several weeks later, in order to maintain his role in the building of a police advisory board and protect newly appointed Tampa Police Chief Otero, Burton announced he had been an FBI operative all along.

This admission was reluctantly confirmed by the special agent in charge of the Tampa FBI office, Nick Stames. Along with the announcements came a problem of “semantics” between Burton and the FBI. The government claimed that although Burton ”... did it out of patriotism, and he did a hell of an outstanding job,” he had never functioned as a hired agent and had merely been a “reliable source”–an informant who sold information to the bureau. This dispute and other matters which developed during his job as a cop have led Burton to describe his activities with the bureau as “constitutionally and statutorially illegal.” He told the press upon leaving his undercover activities, “The greatest threat was not the left but the bureau,” noting he now believes, “the Intelligence Division of the FBI is running this government.”

In a reduced capacity Burton continued to work for the FBI in a “transitional phase” until November 1974. Early in 1975 he began to take his story to the local press, the New York Times and lawyers representing several former targets of his work. In June 5 Burton testified before a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee Washington. Recently Burton, who still resides in Tampa, agreed to discuss his civil rights complaint and past activities with the Guardian.

In talking about his charges and work, Burton summed up his dispute with the FBI, “What they want me to do is take a fall, and there’s no way. If it’s just a question of a disgruntled employee, that’s no big deal. If a question of is Joe Burton a rat fink, a back-alley informant, well that’s no big issue. There’s a lot of back-alley informants, why are they [the FBI] so adamant? The answer to that is not a question between Joe Burton and the FBI, but a legal question. If in fact I was an employee of the FBI, if we prove in fact I was an intelligence agent for the FBI, then the hierarchy of the FBI–individually and collectively–the bureau is responsible for every act and action that I took from May 1972 until November 1974. That’s what they’re trying to avoid, because that will end up in prosecution.”

In talking about how he started working for the FBI Burton stated, “The bureau got me into believing that we were looking for guns, explosives, people who were actively blowing things up, other countries who were infiltrating here and groups and individuals whose ultimate goal was to overthrow the constitutional form of government, and it wouldn’t be too hard for me to be antagonistic toward people like that. But the truth of the matter was, after 18 months, that wasn’t what we were doing.

“There was no reason at that time [1972] for me not to accept what the FBI told me as true. Only after knowing these people for a while and doing monthly analysis on what we were doing, do you come to the conclusion that at no time in that period did I ever see or have reason to believe that any of these people were armed beyond the point that they could legally be armed as a private citizen. And I testified to the Senate committee, there were no arms, no ammunition, no bombs, no explosives, no money.”


Burton also discussed his current view of the nature of the bureau. “The bureau and only the bureau makes the decision of who is and who is not a subversive in this country. Then they take that decision and that terminology (subversive) and act on it, with or without a statutory basis.”

He also explained his disagreement with the work. “I’m certainly not an innocent party in this thing. I wasn’t duped by the FBI.... You may think that it’s a great crime to go get and glean intelligence information on dissidents. I don’t particularly think that’s a great crime. I think when you’ve overstepped the bounds of state and government is when you start acting ex post facto against these people. In other words you make ex post facto determinations against an American citizen who has a constitutional right and who is operating within those constitutional rights and the bureau makes a decision without law and says this individual is a subversive and then starts taking action toward him without giving him due process.”

In addition to discussing the particulars of his work Burton pointed out the conclusion he had reached after giving his testimony in Washington. “Cointelpro, which was supposed to have stopped in 1971 and which we probably did more of than anyone else, that’s what our whole operation was, is still going on today. It hasn’t stopped, it hasn’t changed any. The only thing that’s changed any is that a number of these front organizations [like Red Star Cadre] can no longer exist as they have, that’s all.”

Burton pointed out during the interview that he was in no way sympathetic with the left but viewed the government’s actions as being the main danger. He stated that he will carry his story and struggle with the FBI on both with the civil rights complaint and probably later in the courts with a suit against the Justice Department. Burton maintains that he remains a ”community activist,” will work on local problems and will still carry out plans that he announced while he was a “leftist” to run for local political office.

Burton’s fight with the government over the responsibility for his actions is useful because of the many insights his testimony offers into the way in which the state attempts to deal with the demands and rebellion of the people^ The agency’s fear of this information getting out to the public was made clear by Burton’s superior, special agent Robert Heibel. Burton recalled, ”Heibel made the statement that if it ever got out what we were doing, it would be the Watergate of the bureau.” While the exposure of Red Star Cadre and Joseph Burton’s involvement with the FBI’s Cointelpro program hasn’t in any way curtailed the repression of the state, it and other examples that have come up around the country can be learned from.

Unlike some police operations Red Star Cadre (“Nobody knew what it meant,” Burton says, “but it sounded militant”), set up in 1972, was an all-cop operation. In addition to Burton, it included several former intelligence officers from the military and area students being paid by the FBI. It had connections with police agents working in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) who broke up the local chapter and promoted a split with the national organization; contacts with several older FBI informants who had in the past infiltrated the Communist Party and participated at times in various progressive activities, and informal ties with reactionary trade union officials and local politicians. Through the FBI network Red Star also had contact with other police organizations such as the Red Collective in New Orleans and the Association of Communist Workers in Louisville.

The functions of Red Star were: to conduct intelligence on left, trade union and community activists; to prevent unity on any firm basis among Marxist-Leninist organizations; to bust up trade union struggles and popular movements, to isolate, slander and jail, if possible, movement activists, and to promote terrorism. The organization consistently functioned with a “left” cover and attempted to encourage ultra-“leftism” as a general tactic.

In carrying out their search for information Red Star opened up a storefront operation and encouraged people to stop by. It sponsored group discussions and became a clearinghouse for literature from various organizations. It also made use of its organizational status to engage in discussions with other groups and participated in meetings and conferences.

Red Star, in its attempts to prevent concrete unity among Marxist-Leninists, became allied with the Communist League and the American Communist Workers Movement around a bankrupt line in the struggle over the building of a new communist party. Their “unity” was to promote splits and cause confusion. Locally, the FBI encouraged Burton to attack other activists with a campaign charging some as being, “Maoist dope dealers.” They also wanted to bomb Burton’s car and blame it on a local group in order to promote armed hostilities between political tendencies.


In trying to break up “progressive mass struggles the FBI was especially blatant in its union-busting. The FBI instructed Burton to get a job with company approval at a local Westinghouse plant where the United Electrical Workers union (UE) was conducting an organizing campaign. Burton’s behavior of selling Red Star material and his adventurous actions in the plant were designed to foster and encourage anti-communism among the workers, spread slander about the union and disrupt the organizing. Burton and Red Star were also involved in an attempt to break up an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) drive to organize Tampa sanitation workers and harass a popular organizer. Burton was also a part of attempts by reactionary union bureaucrats to smash a group of rank-and-file members of the United Steel Workers union and attack the United Farm Workers union (UFW).

Another key aspect of Red Star and Burton’s work was the promotion of terrorism. During the demonstrations at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami Beach Burton was told to encourage as much violence as possible. Frequently during his activities as an “activist” Burton spoke of his easy access to arms, encouraging others to come to him for weapons. “We would have given you all the arms you wanted,” Burton later told one of his former targets. Another FBI agent in the VVAW boasted about trying to get guns for the revolution and later opened a gun shop. Burton also revealed that a bomb threat against a visit to Tampa by President Ford was made by a St. Petersburg agent active in VVAW.

The job of Red Star was to experiment with and carry out tactics of disruption against the people’s struggles. While disruption is just one of the tasks of the FBI in its repression of the left in popular struggles, it is an especially visible one. Police attempts to infiltrate and control organizations from within are also dangers which Burton discussed with the Guardian. One of the things the FBI was attempting to do was to place Burton in the leadership of a new communist organization.

Burton’s court fight against the government will undoubtedly be protracted. The exposure of his activities as an agent has played a positive role. However, Burton’s view that government bureaucracy and the FBI’s illegal tactics are the main problem miss the essence of much of what he was doing. This is especially clear in his work, around Westinghouse. Burton was told by the FBI to get a job at the plant of a major corporation with the help of the company’s security chief, also a former FBI agent. His job was to bust the progressive union organizing there. His story about his work for the FBI exposed not just the illegal tactics of the state, but the class which those actions serve.