The Bent Penny Caper

From Mike Horn, Clifton, Virginia:

[On Saturday, May 1, 1971, Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst decided to secretly revoke the camping permit that had been issued to antiwar protesters. who were gathering by the tens of thousands at West Potomac Park in Washington. His idea was to claim that drug use by the protesters invalidated the permit, and then send in riot police to clear the park. To execute the plan, he ordered that hundreds of federal drug agents be dispatched undercover into the camp that night to document the use of illegal substances.]

I was there along with many other of my Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) colleagues. (BNDD was the predecessor agency to the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, which was created in 1973.)

At the time I was assigned to the Philadelphia office, but there were other agents in attendance from New York, Newark, Baltimore and Washington. We were instructed to meet at a location in Washington, D.C. [an auditorium of the State Department.] It was dubbed “the Bishop’s Meeting.” We were also instructed to arrive sans guns and badges.

At the meeting, we were told that our mission was to infiltrate the crowds of demonstrators, purportedly to report on drug use, which would be used as probable cause to make arrests and remove the protestors. We were provided a bent penny, which in the event we were stopped by police officials, would confirm our identities as undercover agents.

After the meeting, a few of my colleagues and I hung out at a bar in Georgetown until closing and then went on to the Mall. On the way, we were stopped by a Washington police officer.  When we proudly displayed our bent pennies, his response was “What the f**k is that?”  Fortunately, he had a sense of humor. We appropriated a few sleeping bags from careless protestors, got a few hours’ sleep, and returned to our homes shortly after the [police] helicopters arrived [on Sunday at dawn].

No one ever asked us for our “probable cause” and we were less than enthused about a mission we considered of dubious value or legitimacy.

2 thoughts on “The Bent Penny Caper”

  1. Thanks for sharing this story, Mike. I wasn’t around for the 1971 protests, but I witnessed the protests against police violence in Portland, Oregon last year. Officers were flown in from around the country to protect a federal courthouse. Although they didn’t go undercover with bent pennies (at least not that I’m aware of) many of them removed identifying markings from their uniforms so no individual officer could be held accountable for his actions, even when captured on video. Given that many protesters were live streaming themselves every night to the entire world, there would have been little need to plant undercover police in the crowd anyway. The officers could have simply tuned in to social media feeds to get all the information they wanted.

  2. What’s also interesting to me about Kleindienst’s bizarre idea to send a legion of undercover drug agents into the park with bent pennies– He was doing it because he thought the press would have harsh questions about why the Nixon crowd was busting up a legal campsite. But as it turned out, reporters barely questioned the right of the authorities to evict the Mayday Tribe, and the police and White House never had to offer up their fake justification.


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