State-Organized Crime Part 8
William J. Chambliss
State-Organized Crime Part 8
Sun Feb 20, 2005 00:18


Every agency of government in restricted by law in certain fundamental ways. Yet structural pressures exist that can push agencies to go beyond their legal limits. The CIA, for example, is not permitted to engage in domestic intelligence. Despite this, the CIA has opened and photographed the mail of over 1 million private citizens (Rockefeller Report, 1975: 101-115), illegally entered people’s homes, and conducted domestic surveillance through electronic devices (Parenti, 1983: 170-171).

Agencies of the government also cannot legally conduct experiments on human subjects that violate the civil rights or endanger the lives of the subjects. But the CIA conducted experiments on unknowing subjects by hiring prostitutes to administer drugs to their clients. CIA-trained medical doctors and psychologists observed the effects of the drugs through a two-way mirror in expensive apartments furnished to the prostitutes by the CIA. At least one of the victims of these experiments died and suffered considerable trauma (Anderson and Whitten, 1976; Crewsdon and Thomas, 1977; Jacobs, 1977a, 1977b).

The most flagrant violation of civil rights by federal agencies is the FBI’s counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO. This program was designed to disrupt, harass, and discredit groups that the FBI decided were in some way "un-American." Such groups included the American Civil Liberties Union, antiwar movements, civil rights organizations, and a host of other legally constituted political groups whose views opposed some of the policies of the United States (Church Committee, 1976). With the exposure of COINTELPRO, the group was disbanded. There is evidence, however, that illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens did not stop with the abolition of COINTELPRO but continues today (Klein, 1988).


Elsewhere I have suggested a general theory to account for variations in types and frequency of crime (Chambliss, 1988a). The starting point for that theory is the assumption that in every era political, economic, and social relations contain certain inherent contradictions, which produce conflicts and dilemmas that people struggle to resolve. The study of state-organized crime brings into sharp relief the necessity of understanding the role of contradictions in the formation and implementation of the law.

Contradictions inherent in the formation of states create conditions under which there will be a tendency for state officials to violate the criminal law. State officials inherit from the past laws that were not of their making and that were the result of earlier efforts to resolve conflicts wrought by structural contradictions (Chambliss, 1980; Chambliss and Seidman, 1982). The inherited laws nonetheless represent the foundation on which the legitimacy of the state’s authority depends. These laws also provide a basis for attempts by the state to control the acts of others and to justify the use of violence to that end.

For England in the sixteenth century, passing laws to legitimize piracy for English pirates while condemning as criminal the piracy of others against England would have been an untenable solution, just as it would undermine the legitimacy of America’s ideological and political position to pass legislation allowing for terrorist acts on the part of U.S. officials while condemning and punishing the terrorism of others.

Law is a two-edged sword; it creates one set of conflicts while it attempts to resolve another. The passage of a particular law or set of laws may resolve conflicts and enhance state control, but it also limits the legal activities of the state. State officials are thus often caught between conflicting demands as they find themselves constrained by laws that interfere with other goals demanded of them by their roles or their perception of what is in the interests of the state. There is a contradiction, then, between the legal prescriptions and the agreed goals of state agencies. Not everyone caught in this dilemma will opt for violating the law, but some will. Those who do are the perpetrators, but not the cause, of the persistence of state-organized crime.

When Spain and Portugal began exploiting the labor and natural resources of the Americas and Asia, other European nations were quick to realize the implications for their own power and sovereignty. France, England, and Holland were powerful nations, but not powerful enough at the time to challenge Spain and Portugal directly. The dilemma for those nations was how to share in the wealth and curtail the power of Spain and Portugal without going to war. A resolution to the dilemma was forged through cooperation with pirates. Cooperating with pirates, however, required violating their own laws as well as the laws of other countries. In this way, the states organized criminality for their own needs without undermining their claim to legitimacy or their ability to condemn and punish piracy committed against them.

It should be noted that some monarchs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (James I of England, for example) refused to cooperate with pirates no matter how profitable it would have been for the Crown. So, too, not all CIA or NSC personnel organize criminal activities in pursuit of state goals.


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