A new book published this week about the FBI's war on dissent in the 1960s also sheds light on the rise of Ronald Reagan -- Michael Kazin (son of Alfred Kazin), writing for the Daily Beast, called Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives "a damning portrait of the feds spying on, harassing, and denouncing largely innocent Berkeley students in the 1960s -- with Ronald Reagan as a star FBI instigator and informant." -- By exploiting "tens of thousands of pages of previously unreleased FBI documents" that required "30 years and four lawsuits to pry out of the Bureau," Rosenfeld shows that "J. Edgar Hoover and his zealous underlings viewed the ragtag Berkeley left as a dire threat to the American system and did all they could to discredit and destroy it." -- In a "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross broadcast on Buffalo's WBFO and other NPR stations, Rosenfeld noted that his book also reveals that Ronald Reagan "was far more active" as an informant "than we know from previously released FBI records. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later." -- Hoover (obsessed with the absurd notion that the Free Speech Movement was a Communist plot and that UCB's president, Clark Kerr, was soft on dissent) and Reagan (beginning his reactionary political career) used each other to advance each other's causes, which always involved distorting the truth in order to malign innocents. -- Democracy Now! devoted three long segments to the book on Thursday and Friday.[3,4,5] -- Rosenfeld told Juan Gonzalez that after more than thirty years of research into his subject, "what I found most shocking is the extraordinary breadth and depth of the FBI’s activities concerning the University of California and its focus on First Amendment activities under J. Edgar Hoover. The documents show that the FBI took techniques developed for use against adversaries during wartime and turned them against people involved in legitimate public dissent at U.C. Berkeley. And ultimately, my book, Subversives, is a cautionary tale about the dangers that secrecy and power pose to democracy." -- COMMENT: So far Rosenfeld's book is receiving scant press. -- A Google News search and our own sleuthing suggests that the only media outlets to comment so far on Seth Rosenfeld's book are Democracy Now!, the Daily Californian, WBFO (Buffalo, NY), Newsweek's "Daily Beast" blog, and Harper's Magazine. -- Perhaps the lack of media interest in Rosenfeld's book comes from a natural disinclination of corporate-owned media to take an interest in an exposé that reflects badly on the political figure who, more than any other, achieved the historic binge of corporate profiteering that have marked the past thirty-odd years....
THE FBI'S HARASSMENT AND SPYING ON 1960s STUDENTS REVEALED IN 'SUBVERSIVES' BY SETH ROSENFELD
By Michael Kazin
** A new book filled with newly released FBI documents paints a damning portrait of the feds spying on, harassing, and denouncing largely innocent Berkeley students in the 1960s -- with Ronald Reagan as a star FBI instigator and informant. Michael Kazin on Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives. **
The Daily Beast
August 23, 2012
I confess that I first opened this stocky book with a skeptical mind. What is there left to learn about Berkeley in the 1960s? Anyone with even a casual interest in that well-documented era has probably already read about the Free Speech Movement (FSM), the counter-cultural bazaar that was Telegraph Avenue, and the battle for People’s Park -- or, at least, seen the videos on YouTube. The inhabitants of Berkeley were prominent combatants in every cause and conflict of the decade: civil rights and black power, women’s rights and environmentalism, hippies vs. straights, doves vs. hawks, radicals vs. liberals, and conservatives against left-wingers of every stripe. One could evoke the scent of tear gas and the din of angry rhetoric just by mentioning the name of the smallish city by the large and lovely bay.
The principal campus protagonists are still pretty famous too: the eloquent young radical Mario Savio, leader of the FSM, and the anxious liberal Clark Kerr, president of the California “multiversity” he struggled, vainly, to pacify. Moreover, every biography of Ronald Reagan describes how, in 1966, his repeated denunciations of “the mess at Berkeley” helped him claim the governorship of California in a landslide -- and immediately won the hearts and minds of conservatives everywhere who saw the charismatic actor as their best chance to capture the White House.
Happily, Seth Rosenfeld, a veteran investigative reporter from the Bay Area, found a splendid way to refresh this familiar story -- with tens of thousands of pages of previously unreleased FBI documents. And his narrative, while lengthy, moves along with vigor, enlivened by deft portraits of major and minor characters and the many battles, literal and figurative, they fought.
The files, in their entirety, took Rosenfeld 30 years and four lawsuits to pry out of the Bureau, and it was definitely time well spent. They reveal that J. Edgar Hoover and his zealous underlings viewed the ragtag Berkeley left as a dire threat to the American system and did all they could to discredit and destroy it. Because Kerr, who had once been an expert labor mediator, sought to compromise with radical students, Hoover denounced him as a coward and alleged, using charges he knew to be false, that he had once consorted with Communists. Early in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson told Kerr he wanted to appoint him secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare -- the key cabinet post at the height of the Great Society. But after Hoover divulged his smears to LBJ, the offer was quickly withdrawn.
Meanwhile, the FBI director’s obsession with Savio, whose stint as a leader was actually quite brief, became increasingly irrational. Early in 1968, long after the FSM had dissolved, Hoover fingered him as a “Key Activist” in a secret program which then dispatched agents to scour his bank statements, grill his employer, and track his movements on a daily business. By then, Savio was a danger to no one’s security but his own. He was struggling to hold down a blue-collar job at an electronics factory, plagued by depression and afraid he was “losing his memory.”
In the crusade against troublemakers at Berkeley and their supposed codependents, Hoover could always count on the zealous assistance, both covert and public, of a number of national celebrities and local politicians. The most significant of these, Rosenfeld shows, was none other than Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan’s close relationship with the FBI began early in the Cold War, when he exchanged “information” about pro-Communist actors, screenwriters, and union officials with agents who stopped by his home in the Hollywood hills.
For the next three decades and more, Reagan became, according to Rosenfeld, “one of the FBI’s best contacts ever.” He routinely passed along to the Bureau rumors about Communists in the film industry and frequently lauded the agency in speeches, press interviews, and on television. So appreciative was Hoover that, in 1965, he stopped his agents from questioning Reagan about his son Michael’s close and rowdy friendship with the son of a top Mafia chieftain, Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno. Instead, the FBI boss ordered his men, as Rosenfeld puts it, “to confidentially warn the father about Michael’s ‘dangerous dalliance.’” Reagan, then considering a gubernatorial campaign, responded with gratitude and relief. A high-ranking G-man reported that “he [Reagan] realized that such an association and actions on the part of his son might well jeopardize any political aspirations he might have.”
Once he took office in Sacramento, Reagan worked diligently in tandem with the Bureau to drive the scourge of radicalism from the premier campus of the state university, and to buff his own image as a defender of Middle American resentments. He pressured the Board of Regents to fire Kerr, solicited reports from FBI informants, and met with Hoover in Washington to discuss what the aging director called “some of the problems which the Governor has had to face up at the University of California and his determination that law and order be maintained there.” If Hoover had lived into the 1980s, he might still have been trading the latest scuttlebutt about Mario Savio with the man who became president of the United States.
For all the rich evidence he distills, Rosenfeld ventures no opinion about the effectiveness of the FBI’s undercover campaign in the radical mecca by the Bay. The director was convinced that if he and his men, with aid of Governor Gipper, could stifle the “agitational activity at Berkeley,” they would “set up a chain reaction” that would set back student radicals all across the nation. But the decentralized, often anarchic nature of the New Left was nothing like the hierarchical organization of the Communist Party -- Hoover’s rigid template of a “subversive” network. In fact, a defeat for protesters in Berkeley had little or no impact on radicals in Madison, Austin, or Cambridge. If anything, overt acts of repression, such as Reagan’s armed dismantling of People’s Park in 1969, provoked more young people into joining the cause.
Coyly, Rosenfeld chooses does not to identify whom he believes were the true subversives. Were they the Berkeley radicals who demanded the right to hawk literature for non-campus groups inside the gates of their public university and then protested, loudly but mostly nonviolently, against an unjust war their nation was fighting in Southeast Asia? Or were they the employees and allies of a powerful government agency who, in the name of protecting freedom, spied on, harassed, denounced, and sought to punish Americans, most of whom had committed no crime? If you think the answer is blowing in the wind, you really haven’t been paying attention.
--Like The Daily Beast on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for updates all day long.
Michael Kazin is the author of the new book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is coeditor of Dissent.
STUDENT 'SUBVERSIVES' AND THE FBI's 'DIRTY TRICKS'
WBFO (Buffalo, NY)
August 22, 2012
In 1964, students at the University of California, Berkeley, formed a protest movement to repeal a campus rule banning students from engaging in political activities.
Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suspected the Free Speech Movement to be evidence of a Communist plot to disrupt U.S. campuses. He "had long been concerned about alleged subversion within the education field," journalist Seth Rosenfeld tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
So Hoover ordered his agents to look into whether the movement was subversive. When they returned and said that it wasn't, Hoover not only continued to investigate the group but also used "dirty tricks to stifle dissent on the campus," according to Rosenfeld.
Rosenfeld's new book, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power, details how the FBI employed fake reporters to plant ideas and shape public opinion about the student movement; how they planted stories with real reporters; and how they even managed -- with the help of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan -- to get the U.C. Berkeley's President Clark Kerr fired.
To research the book, Rosenfeld pored over 300,000 pages of records obtained over 30 years from five lengthy Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the FBI.
The records "show that during the Cold War, the FBI sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, by manipulating public opinion and taking sides in partisan politics," Rosenfeld says.
The book also details how the FBI influenced Reagan's politics as president of the Screen Actors Guild, governor of California and finally as president.
Rosenfeld, a freelance journalist based in San Francisco, was a reporter for the *San Francisco Examiner* and the *San Francisco Chronicle* for 25 years and is a winner of the George Polk Award.
ON THE FBI's INTEREST IN THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT
"[FBI Director] Hoover instantly ordered a major investigation of the free speech movement and assigned a lot of agents to look into it and whether it was a subversive plot. And they determined that while there were a few Communists and socialists involved in the protest, it would have happened anyway, because it was really just a protest about this campus rule [a rule banning students from political engagement]. His agents repeatedly told [Hoover] that it would have happened anyway."
ON HOW THE FBI TRIED TO SABOTAGE ONE OF THE STUDENT LEADERS
"The FBI saw Mario Savio as a potentially dangerous person because he was a very charismatic leader; he was very effective in rallying students and even more broadly members of public to the cause of the free speech movement. Hoover tried to counteract that by taking certain steps that would discredit Savio by portraying him in news stories as an associate of Communists and socialists. At one point, the FBI designated Savio as a key activist, putting him on a list of people whom the FBI would attempt to neutralize through intensive surveillance and harassment. . . . An FBI agent contacted Savio's employer, and sometime later Savio lost his job."
ON THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY
"Clark Kerr was the man in the middle, and he had done so much for the university. He is one of the towering figures in American higher education. He expanded the university, and he also developed a master plan for education -- the system of colleges that's now used not only around the country but all over the world. He also opened the campus to free speech in many ways. He lifted the ban against Communist speakers, saying the role of the university is not to make ideas safe for students but to make students safe for ideas. He believed that students could make up their minds and make the correct decision if they were allowed to consider all sides.
"But times were changing. Kerr had opened the campus to free speech in many ways, but when the student movement in the early '60s began, he was taken by surprise. He didn't expect the students to be as aggressive as they were and he was not quick enough to more fully open the campus. The Free Speech Movement was ultimately successful: It reversed the rule against students' engaging in political activity on campus. Kerr later said he regretted that he had not acted more swiftly to lift that rule."
ON HOW THE FBI ATTEMPTED TO DISCREDIT KERR
"When I met with [Kerr], and showed him some of his FBI files, he was quite astonished that the FBI had tried to get him fired from his job as university president. The document showed that J. Edgar Hoover had ordered agents to leak information to members of the Board of Regents in an effort to convince them that Clark Kerr was not being tough enough on student protesters and that he had to be fired."
ON REAGAN'S AFFILIATION WITH THE FBI
"Starting in Hollywood in the 1940s, Ronald Reagan developed a special relationship with the FBI. He became an FBI informer, reporting other actors whom he suspected of subversive activities, and later, when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI had wide access to the guild's information on various actors. At one point, the guild turned over information on 54 actors it was investigating as possible subversives -- so the FBI viewed Reagan as an extremely cooperative source in Hollywood. He was far more active than we know from previously released FBI records. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later."
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is "Fresh Air." I'm Terry Gross. During the student protests of the 1960s, many activists suspected that the FBI was spying on them and trying to undermine their efforts. My guest, Seth Rosenfeld, has massive evidence that this was true at the University of California at Berkeley, the college that led the way in student protests and that according to Rosenfeld was the target of the most extensive covert operations the FBI is known to have undertaken in any college community.
Rosenfeld filed five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the FBI, resulting in the release of more than 300,000 pages of records about events on and around the campus from the 1940s to the 1970s. He reports that these documents show that the FBI mounted a covert campaign to manipulate public opinion about events on the Berkeley campus, it spied on and harassed students, helped force out the university's president, and ran a secret program to fire professors whose political views were deemed unacceptable.
These documents also reveal the mutually beneficial secret relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan covering the years when Reagan informed on fellow actors through his efforts to suppress the student movement when he was governor of California.
Rosenfeld's new book is called Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power. Rosenfeld has been an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Seth Rosenfeld, welcome to "Fresh Air." We should just start with an explanation of the what the free speech movement was about at the University of California, Berkeley.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, the Free Speech Movement occurred in 1964. It was one of the first major campus protests of the 1960s. It was a nonviolent protest, and it was protest against a rule at U.C. Berkeley that prohibited students from engaging in political activity on campus. For example, if students wanted to hand out a flyer or collect quarters for the Republican campaign for president, they were prohibited from doing that.
If they wanted to hand out flyers for the civil rights movement, they couldn't do that, either.
GROSS: So there was a big protest. The campus police got involved, the police-police got involved, and why did J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, care? What was his concern about this student movement?
ROSENFELD: Hoover had long been concerned about alleged subversion within the educational field, and he'd been particularly concerned about the University of California at Berkeley, which was the nation's largest public university at that time and had been involved in the production of nuclear weapons that brought an end to World War II.
So he was particularly concerned about dissent and alleged subversion at U.C. Berkeley. When the Free Speech Movement happened, he saw this as further evidence of the Communist plot to disrupt the nation's campuses.
GROSS: And he eventually was told by his agents that it wasn't a Communist plot, that there were in fact some Communists and some socialists who were participating in the protest, but they were kind of, like, incidental. They weren't leaders; the protests would have happened with them or without them. They were just, like, people who showed up.
ROSENFELD: Hoover instantly ordered a major investigation of the Free Speech Movement and assigned a lot of agents to look into it and whether it was a subversive plot. And they determined that while there were a few Communists and socialists involved in the protests, it would have happened anyway because it was really just a protest about this campus rule. His agents repeatedly told him that it would have happened anyway, and it wasn't a subversive plot, but Hoover ordered further investigation and beyond that dirty tricks to stifle dissent on the campus.
GROSS: So two of the FBI sources within the university were a security officer and a vice chancellor named Alex Sherriffs. So was their relationship with the FBI legal or illegal? Was it legal for the FBI to be going to them and getting information?
ROSENFELD: It was legal, but what is questionable is whether it was appropriate and consistent with the FBI's mission. And as the federal courts ruled in my Freedom of Information Act suit, the FBI's investigation using Alex Sherriffs and using the security officer William Wadman to gather information had no legitimate law enforcement purpose because those investigations had turned into political spying.
GROSS: And what do you mean by political spying?
ROSENFELD: These were investigations that didn't focus on national security or violations of criminal law. They focused on what people were saying or what they were writing or who they were meeting with in regard to positions they took on matters of public policy. So essentially, it was spying on constitutionally protected activity, such as circulating petitions or holding a rally or going to a demonstration.
GROSS: I want to ask you about one of the people who at the FBI's request infiltrated part of the activist movement in Berkeley, and this is Richard Aoki. And you say he had successfully infiltrated several Bay Area radical organizations. I'm particularly interested in hearing what you learned about his not only infiltrating the Black Panthers but in supplying them and helping them get guns, helping them arm.
ROSENFELD: Well, at first Aoki informed on the Communist Party, then he focused on the Socialist Workers Party. And he did that for a number of years and established his credentials as a leftist. Then in the mid-'60s, he was a student at Merritt College in Oakland and he met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who were also students there.
He began to talk politics with them, and when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in 1966, they went to see Richard Aoki, and they asked him for guns. They knew that Aoki had a collection of guns, that he was a firearms expert from his days in the Army. Aoki gave them several guns, as well as firearms training.
The Panthers proceeded to use weapons in what they called community patrols of the police. The Panthers were very concerned about police brutality in Oakland, and to try and reduce that, they began these community patrols, in which they would follow police officers around Oakland and observe them as they stopped or made arrests of people.
The Panthers were carrying guns and cameras while they were doing this, and some of those guns came from Richard Aoki. But the Panthers later had a lot of problems concerning guns. They were involved in shootouts with Oakland police. At least one Oakland police officer was killed; several Panthers were killed. And by the end of 1968, 28 Panthers had been killed in shootouts with police around the country.
GROSS: So what you're suggesting here is that the FBI, through this informant, actually helped arm the Panthers.
ROSENFELD: What we don't know is what the FBI knew about Aoki giving the Panthers guns. What we do know is that Aoki was a paid informant for the FBI before, during and after the time he gave the Panthers guns.
GROSS: One of the things you learned is that the FBI did spy on Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the student movement at the University of California Berkeley, and they tried to sabotage him. What did they do to try to sabotage him?
ROSENFELD: The FBI saw Savio as a potentially dangerous person because he was a very charismatic leader. He was very effective in rallying students and, even more broadly, members of the public to the cause of the Free Speech Movement. Hoover tried to counteract that by taking certain steps that would discredit Savio by portraying him in news stories as an associate of communists and socialists.
At one point, the FBI designated Savio as a key activist, putting him on a list of people whom the FBI would attempt to neutralize through intensive surveillance and harassment. At one point, an FBI agent contacted Savio's employer, and sometime later, Savio lost his job.
GROSS: One of the things you did while researching this book was present the Freedom of Information Act files that you found on people to those people. And you did that with Mario Savio before he died. He must have suspected that the FBI had investigated him because I think all student activists suspected that, whether it was true or not. What was his reaction when you told that you'd gotten his files and showed them to him?
ROSENFELD: I should explain. I had some files that I was able to show Mario before he passed away in '96, but most of the files I got were after he passed away. But some of the first files I got showed that the FBI had investigated the free speech movement and attempted to discredit it, and when I showed these to Mario Savio, he was -- he said: Well, we always figured that the FBI was spying on us, but we never suspected that they would attempt to disrupt us.
I also obtained a lot of FBI files concerning the president of the university, Clark Kerr, and when I met with Clark Kerr and showed him some of his FBI files, he was quite astonished that the FBI had tried to get him fired from his job as university president.
The documents showed that J. Edgar Hoover had ordered agents to leak information to members of the board of regents in an effort to convince him that Clark Kerr was not being tough enough on student protesters and that he had to be fired.
GROSS: Clark Kerr is such an interesting character in your book because as the president of the university, he felt that he did a lot to open up the campus to more speech. He allowed communists to speak on campus. He refused to punish people for dissident speech. But to the student activists, he was the establishment, who was not allowing them, like, sufficient free speech on campus, but to the FBI and to Governor Reagan, he just wasn't tough enough.
So he lost on all sides, like, to the left and to the right, everyone was against him.
ROSENFELD: Clark Kerr was the man in the middle, and he had done so much for the university. He is one of the towering figures in American higher education. He expanded the university, and he also developed the master plan for higher education, the system of colleges that's now used not only around the country but all over the world.
He also opened the campus to free speech in many ways, but when the student movement in the early '60s began, he was taken by surprise. He didn't expect the students to be as aggressive as they were, and he was not quick enough to more fully open the campus.
The Free Speech Movement was ultimately successful. It reversed the rule against students engaging in political activity on campus. Kerr later said he regretted that he had not acted more swiftly to lift that rule.
GROSS: My guest is Seth Rosenfeld, author of Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power. More after a break. This is "Fresh Air."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Rosenfeld. He's the author of the new book Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power. And it's based on 30 years of research and five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits that led to the release of 300,000 pages of documents.
You write about what you learn from the Freedom of Information Act files, about how Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California, worked with the FBI to get the University of California at Berkeley President Clark Kerr removed from office. What did Reagan, with the FBI, do?
ROSENFELD: The FBI had been very frustrated with Clark Kerr for a long time. Hoover was very upset when Clark Kerr began to liberalize rules on political activities on campus. He saw Kerr as being too soft on protesters and maybe even a dangerous subversive himself. He tried to get Governor Pat Brown to fire Clark Kerr by secretly giving Pat Brown FBI reports about student protesters, and Pat Brown refused to that. He was a staunch ally of Clark Kerr's.
So when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1966, after a campaign in which he made the protests at Berkeley one of his top issues, Hoover welcomed Reagan as a breath of fresh air and worked with him to stifle student protesters and to remove Clark Kerr from the presidency of the university.
A few days after Ronald Reagan took office, he phoned the FBI, and he requested a secret briefing about student protesters, about liberal members of the board of regents and about Clark Kerr. A few weeks later, at the first board of regents meeting attended by Reagan, Clark Kerr was fired.
The governor didn't have the power himself to fire the university president. However, when he was elected, he was able to appoint new members of the board of regents, and that shifted the balance of power, and Reagan's board of regents fired Clark Kerr as one of its first acts.
GROSS: So this was not the first time that Ronald Reagan had worked with the FBI. Their relationship dated back to when Ronald Reagan was an actor. And you say that you learned from the Freedom of Information Act files that you got that Ronald Reagan informed on fellow actors far more than has been known, or at least more than has been known. I don't want to overstate it.
ROSENFELD: Yes, that's correct. Starting in Hollywood in the 1940s, Ronald Reagan developed a special relationship with the FBI. He became an FBI informer, reporting other actors whom he suspected of subversive activities, and later when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI had wide access to the Guild's information. At one point, the Guild turned over information on 54 actors it was investigating as possible subversives.
So the FBI viewed Reagan as an extremely cooperative source in Hollywood. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later.
GROSS: And what's an example of one of those favors?
ROSENFELD: The FBI did a personal and political favor for Ronald Reagan in 1965. FBI agents at the time were investigating the Bonanno crime organization. Joe Bananas, as he was known, was one of the most notorious mobsters in America and had recently moved to Arizona.
FBI agents in Phoenix were investigating him when they discovered that Joe Bananas' son, Joseph Jr., was hanging out with Michael Reagan, who was the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, and they reported this to headquarters.
The agents proposed that they should interview Ronald Reagan to see if he had learned anything about the Bonannos through his son. This investigation, after all, was a top priority. But Hoover interceded. He ordered them not to interview Ronald Reagan, and he instead told the agents to warn Ronald Reagan that his son was consorting with the son of Joe Bananas.
Ronald Reagan was very grateful for this, and I could read a piece of an FBI document.
ROSENFELD: (Reading) This happened in early 1965, just as Ronald Reagan was about to embark on his first run for public office, the governorship of California. And when FBI agents warned him that his son was hanging out with Joe Bonanno's son, he was very grateful. And according to an FBI report, Reagan said, quote, "he was most appreciative and stated he realized that such an association and actions on the part of the son might well jeopardize any political aspirations he might have." Reagan stated he would telephone his son and instruct him to disassociate himself gracefully and in a manner which would cause no trouble or speculation. He stated that the bureau's courtesy in this matter would be kept absolutely confidential. Reagan commented that he realizes that it would be improper to express his appreciation in writing, and he requested that the agent convey the great admiration he has for the director and the bureau and to express his thanks for the bureau's cooperation.
GROSS: You write that, you know, when Ronald Reagan was rising politically, there were parts of his past that could have been considered questionable because as governor, this meant, you know, overseeing the University of California system, which included, you know, atomic research laboratories and atomic research data. And so that's an important security position.
And there were a couple of things in Reagan's past that the FBI might have been concerned about if it was somebody other than Ronald Reagan. Do you want to discuss that?
ROSENFELD: One of the interesting themes that emerged in reviewing all these FBI documents was how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI used information. In the case of Clark Kerr, at one point he was a candidate to be secretary of health, education and welfare. So the FBI did a background report, and Hoover used this as a pretext to send President Lyndon Johnson a report loaded with allegations that Kerr had associated with various subversives, even though the FBI had already investigated these allegations and knew that they were untrue. And this all comes out in the documents.
In contrast, when Ronald Reagan became governor, he had to undergo a similar background check because as governor, he would be a member of the board of regents and have oversight of the university's nuclear laboratories. During this investigation, the FBI went out of its way to help Ronald Reagan.
When Ronald Reagan filled out his personnel security questionnaire as part of this investigation, he failed to list a number of organizations that he was involved in, in Hollywood in the '40s, organizations that had been designated by the federal government as being subversive.
Normally, this would send up red flags with the FBI. It would be seen as a serious omission. But in Ronald Reagan's case, the FBI did not report that he had failed to include these organizations.
GROSS: Seth Rosenfeld will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called *Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power*. I'm Terry Gross, and this is "Fresh Air."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is "Fresh Air." I'm Terry Gross back with Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power. It's based on the more than 300,000 pages of FBI documents released through the Freedom of Information Act about events on and around the University of California at Berkeley, covering the 1940s to the 1970s.
When we left off, we were talking about the secret relationship between Ronald Reagan and the FBI -- from the years he informed her fellow actors, through this time as governor of California, trying to suppress the student movement.
We're having some technical difficulties with the interview that I recorded. But I will tell you as we're waiting for the technical problem to be solved, that the 300,000 pages of FBI documents, most of them were gotten through a series of five lawsuits filed by Seth Rosenfeld to get the FBI to release their documents through the Freedom of Information Act. So he's been at work on this story for 31 years. So here's the interview.
Did you learn anything about how the relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan developed after Ronald Reagan became president?
ROSENFELD: Ronald Reagan's connection to the FBI begins in Hollywood in the late '40s. This was a time in his life when he was having trouble with his film career, his marriage was falling apart and his faith in the Democratic politics of his father were beginning to falter. It was about -- right about this time -- that he was first approached by the FBI and told that Communists were trying to take over Hollywood. This greatly affected Reagan. As he wrote in his memoir, the FBI agents opened his eyes to a good many things. He made fighting Communism his main cause. He became an FBI informer. He supported the FBI publicly in speeches he gave and in return the FBI did certain personal and political favors for him.
One of the arguments in my book is that Reagan's secret relationship with the FBI had a profound impact on his political development. And later as president he goes on to stare down the Soviet Union.
GROSS: So the information that's in your book *Subversives*, and that you've been sharing with us today -- and there's far more information in your book than you're able to share with us in one interview -- this is a result of five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and 30 years of research on your part. Why did it take five lawsuits to get the files released?
ROSENFELD: That's a good question.
ROSENFELD: I first got interested in the subject when I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the late '70s. I was a writer for the *Daily Californian* student newspaper. The *Daily Cal* had requested some FBI files on Berkeley under the Freedom of Information Act. So I looked at those files and I wrote a story about the FBI spying on the Free Speech Movement and on the Vietnam Day Committee. They were published back in 1982. But I realized there was far more to the FBI's activities on campus. So I submitted a much larger Freedom of Information Act request. I figured I would get the files in maybe a year or so and write the story and go on to the next project. I had no idea that I was embarking on what would become a 31-year legal odyssey.
The FBI refused to release the files until I paid thousands of dollars in fees. So the first thing I had to do was filed a lawsuit challenging their refusal to give me a fee waiver. The law provides that when releasing the records would primarily benefit the general public, government agencies are supposed to waive the fees. So once I won the fee waiver, I went back to the FBI and asked them to release records, but they were producing it so slowly we filed a second lawsuit. The court ordered the FBI to expedite its release of the files. When the FBI finally released a chunk of the files, they were heavily redacted. So we filed a third lawsuit challenging the redactions in the FBI documents. The FBI refused to release a lot of the information on the ground that it concerned law enforcement operations or personal privacy. A federal judge looked at the records and concluded that they actually concerned -- in many cases -- unlawful political surveillance and efforts to get Clark Kerr fired from the presidency of the University of California. And the court ordered them released. The FBI appealed the decision and it went up to the federal appeals court. A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling and the FBI then filed a notice with the Supreme Court that it was challenging the appeals court decision. It was at that point that I reached a settlement with the FBI under which it would release the records and pay my attorney's fees of more than $600,000.
GROSS: That's a lot of money.
GROSS: Yeah. It wasn't pro bono, huh?
ROSENFELD: It was pro bono. I was very fortunate to have the pro bono assistance of a small army of attorneys. Under the law, the attorneys were allowed to request that the court order the FBI to pay their fees and the FBI did pay more than $600,000 in attorney's fees. But even then it was clear that FBI was still withholding records, so I filed a fourth lawsuit seeking records on Ronald Reagan. The FBI initially refused to release the records, but ultimately released more than 10,000 pages. This is the most complete record of FBI documents concerning Ronald Reagan in his pre-presidential years that's been released. These documents show that during the Cold War the FBI sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, by manipulating public opinion and taking sides in partisan politics. The FBI's efforts decades later to be improperly withhold these records from the public about its activities is in effect another attempt to shape history this time by obscuring the past.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
ROSENFELD: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Seth Rosenfeld is the author of Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power. You can read an excerpt on our website FRESH AIR.npr.org.
Coming up, we listen back to a 1986 interview with comic Phyllis Diller. She died yesterday at the age of 95.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WAS BAY AREA RADICAL, BLACK PANTHER ARMS SUPPLIER RICHARD AOKI AN INFORMANT FOR THE FBI?
Interview with Seth Rosenfeld and Diane Fujino
** Explosive new allegations have emerged that the man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training was an undercover FBI informant in California. Richard Aoki, who died in 2009, was an early member of the Panthers and the only Asian American to have a formal position in the group. The claim that Aoki informed on his colleagues is based on statements made by a former bureau agent and an FBI report obtained by investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. But Aoki’s friends and colleagues, as well as scholars, have challenged the book’s findings. We speak to Rosenfeld, an award-winning journalist and author of the article, "Man Who Armed Black Panthers was FBI Informant, Records Show," published by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and to Diana Fujino, Aoki’s biographer and a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. **
August 23, 2012
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with explosive new allegations that the man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training was an undercover FBI informant in California. Richard Aoki was an early member of the Panthers and the only Asian American to have a formal position in the party. He was also a member of the Asian American Political Alliance that was involved in the Third World Liberation Front student strike.
The claim that Aoki informed on his colleagues is based on statments made by a former agent of the FBI in a report obtained by investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Over the last 30 years, Rosenfeld sued the FBI five times to obtain confidential records. He eventually compelled the agency to release more than 250,000 pages from their files.
In this video produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Rosenfeld explains how he first stumbled across information about Richard Aoki.
SETH ROSENFELD: A former FBI agent had heard that I was doing research, and he contacted me. His name was Burney Threadgill. And he says, "Hey, I know that guy." And he said, "Aoki was my informant. I developed him."
BURNEY THREADGILL JR.: Oh, yeah, he was a character. He said, "I don’t have any interest in Communism." And I said, "Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?" So, one thing led to another, and he became a real good informant.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Seth Rosenfeld reports that Aoki may have been covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups, according to the bureau agent who recruited him. He interviewed Aoki twice in 2007 about those allegations. Here’s a clip from their phone conversations, which was recorded with Aoki’s permission. After you hear Rosenfeld and Aoki, you will hear a comment from former FBI agent, Wesley Swearingen.
SETH ROSENFELD: I’m wondering if you remember a guy named Burney Threadgill.
RICHARD AOKI: Burney Threadgill?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah.
RICHARD AOKI: No, I don’t think so.
SETH ROSENFELD: What I -- I was told in my research that during this period of time you actually worked for the FBI.
RICHARD AOKI: They tell you that?
SETH ROSENFELD: Burney told me that.
RICHARD AOKI: He did?
SETH ROSENFELD: He did.
RICHARD AOKI: Oh. That’s interesting.
WESLEY SWEARINGEN: Informants were used when I was in the FBI. An informant would report on the inner workings of an organization. They can keep you up to date on the thinking of the leadership of the organization, whether it’s going this way, that way. Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in the Black Panther Party, because they understand he’s Japanese. Hey, nobody’s going to guess -- he’s in the Black Panther Party. Nobody’s going to guess that he might be an informant.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen speaking to reporter Seth Rosenfeld. Many of Richard Aoki’s friends and colleagues have expressed shock and disbelief about the claim. We’ll talk more about this debate in a minute, but first I want to play one more excerpt from Seth Rosenfeld’s interview with Aoki in 2007.
SETH ROSENFELD: Am I wrong?
RICHARD AOKI: I think you are.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah. So, would you say it’s untrue that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?
RICHARD AOKI: I would say it.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah. And I’m trying to understand the complexities about it, and I -- and I think --
RICHARD AOKI: It is complex.
SETH ROSENFELD: I believe it is. And --
RICHARD AOKI: Layer upon layer.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Aoki, speaking in 2007, two years before he committed suicide.
Well, for more about these revelations and what they may mean, we’re joined by two guests. In San Fransisco, Seth Rosenfeld is with us, author of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. The 734-page book was released Tuesday and took three decades to complete. Rosenfeld is a reporter -- was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for almost 25 years, a winner of the George Polk Award.
We’ll discuss the rest of his book later, but right now we’re also joined from Santa Barbara, California, by Diane Fujino, Aoki’s biographer and a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s the author of the recent book, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. Her article, "Where’s the Evidence Aoki Was an FBI Informant?" appears in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Seth Rosenfeld, let’s begin with you. Where is the evidence?
SETH ROSENFELD: Good morning.
Well, the evidence takes -- there’s basically four pieces of evidence, which I’ve detailed in my book. The first evidence came when I interviewed Burney Threadgill in around 2002, 2003. I had met Burney while I was doing research for my book. As you mentioned, I had obtained thousands of pages of documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. And as part of my research, I was contacting former FBI agents and reviewing the records with them -- excuse me -- and reviewing the records with them to make sure that I understood the records and to elicit further information. So I had met with Burney several times for over a period of several months and reviewed many documents with him. And then, one day we were looking at some documents, and Burney said something like, "Hey, I know that guy. He was my informant." Burney had recognized Richard Aoki’s name in an FBI document. So Burney proceeded to tell me how he met Richard Aoki and how he developed him as an FBI informant and how Richard Aoki became, according to Burney, one of the best political informants that the FBI had in Northern California in the early 1960s.
Well, I had never heard of Richard Aoki before. So, while I continued the research on my boat, I also began to research who was Richard Aoki, and I read everything I could find about him. I did public records research. I spoke with other people. And then, in 2007, I interviewed him on the telephone. With his permission, I tape-recorded it, and you’ve heard the comments he made. He denied being an FBI informant, but he also said, "It is complex, layer upon layer. People change." So, I interpreted that as, on the one hand, his denial, but on the other hand, an explanation, perhaps, of what I was asking him about.
I continued to work on the book, and I was also a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. But after Richard Aoki died in 2009, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any and all records concerning him. The FBI released approximately 1,500 or 2,000 pages. One of the documents that was released was a 1967 FBI report on the Black Panthers. And this report identified Richard Aoki as an informant. It assigned him the code number, T-2, for that report. But I still wanted to find out more about it, so I spoke with a former FBI agent named Wesley Swearingen. Mr. Swearingen had been in the FBI for over 25 years. He had retired honorably. He had later become a critic of the FBI’s political surveillance, and particularly he had helped vacate the murder conviction of a Black Panther named Geronimo Pratt. So, Mr. Swearingen was very familiar with the FBI. He examined this record and other records I had, and he came to the same conclusion I did, which was that Richard Aoki had been an FBI informant in the 1960s.
I should add that I did further research in FBI records looking for anything that would be inconsistent, that would challenge my conclusion. And I couldn’t find anything that was inconsistent with it. And that’s how I reached my conclusion.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Seth Rosenfeld, you also mention that you -- that despite the fact that Richard Aoki was a very well-known political activist in the Third World community in the Bay Area, that there were no FBI files or reports on him as a political activist.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, that’s one of the remarkable things about the FBI records that were released on Richard Aoki. Here was a person who had been a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and then an officer in the Young Socialist Alliance. He had been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He had been a member of the Black Panthers. He had given guns to the Black Panthers. He had been a prominent leader in the Third World strike at Berkeley. And yet, the FBI took the position that it had no files on Richard Aoki himself. The records that were released instead were only about various other organizations that he had been in, such as the Young Socialist Alliance or the Black Panthers. Based on my experience in reviewing many thousands of pages of FBI records over the years, I found it extraordinary that the FBI would have no main file, as they call it, on Richard Aoki.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Diane Fujino, you have written a biography of Richard Aoki. And, of course, in the Bay Area and throughout California, he is known and revered by many in the progressive movement as a pioneering political activist and revolutionary in the Asian-American community. But your response to what -- the revelations of Seth Rosenfeld?
DIANE FUJINO: I was very surprised. After I heard -- read the San Francisco Chronicle article in Monday’s paper, I went -- when the book was released on Tuesday, I went to the book. It’s a very thick book, 734 pages. There’s a tremendous amount of research. And I had expected to find a lot more information detailing this accusation that Aoki was an FBI informant. But when I read the book, I was very surprised that there was little more than what’s already been said, than what was said already just this morning on this show. And in my mind as a scholar, I remain open to whatever truth is there, but the evidence needs to be substantial, that needs to meet a certain burden of proof, and it did not in this case.
One of the things that Rosenfeld said he has is this one FBI document. I have the same document, also retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act, the 1967 document, and it is the only FBI document that Rosenfeld cites in, you know, multiple pages. I had 150-plus pages of documents released to me from the FBI. And in it, it says that "A supplementary T symbol (SF T-2) was designated for" -- but the name was left blank. And after that, it is followed in parenthesis by Richard Matsui -- which is not his middle name -- Aoki. But it says after that, "for the limited purpose of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing him." And later on, that same page, it talks about character -- for the "characterization of Richard M. Aoki." So it’s unclear whether Aoki is the informant in this case. T symbols are used to refer to informants and also to technical sources of information, like wiretaps and microphones. And it’s not clear in this case whether Aoki was the informant or whether he was the one being, you know, observed.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth --
DIANE FUJINO: The second thing --
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, go ahead.
DIANE FUJINO: -- is that --
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Diane.
DIANE FUJINO: The second thing -- yeah, I wanted to go through the four pieces of information that Rosenfeld cites. And all of this is cited in a single footnote in the back. There’s no other elaboration beyond this.
He says that the former FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, was the person who gave him this information. But the same bits of information from Threadgill are recited by Rosenfeld, and there’s nothing else elaborated upon this. And he -- Threadgill says that he approached Aoki in the late '50s at a time when Aoki wasn't even political. And he approached Aoki because Aoki -- he overheard Aoki’s conversation with a high-school classmate, and that classmate’s parents were in the Communist Party, apparently, and were under wiretapping surveillance. And it made me think, did this former agent interview or talk to or approach many of this classmate’s friends who talked to him on the phone, or was there something about this conversation? And there’s just a lot of questions not answered.
Swearingen, another former FBI agent, the only evidence -- the only piece of information he has, besides saying Aoki might be an informant, is this idea that because Aoki was Japanese-American in the Panthers, that was a perfect place to be an informant. And this makes no sense to me, and to many people, because being Japanese-American in the Panthers made one stand out, and it aroused suspicion. And it seems the least likely person to be an informant within the Panthers. And that just isn’t something that makes sense to me.
And the final piece of evidence that Rosenfeld uses is Aoki’s own response in the interview. And I think that’s ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. And if you know Aoki, that was classic Aoki in terms of the way he speaks, with allusion, with caution, with -- you didn’t see a lot of his wit and humor, but there’s a lot of that, as well. And I think that it’s inconclusive, and yet very definitive statements were drawn from this inconclusive evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fujino, he said -- Aoki said, in response to Seth Rosenfeld’s question about whether he worked for the FBI, Aoki responded, "It’s complex, layer upon layer." Is there a chance he started out with the FBI and changed? Or do you see this in a very different way?
DIANE FUJINO: Well, I mean, we -- from what, you know, is out there on the FBI, it seems like there were many, many informants in the '60s. And anything is possible. But I don't know. The evidence isn’t there for me to be able to make any informed judgment on this. If he did start off as one, this is -- this is what I would have liked to have seen before public charges made against somebody of this magnitude, is really specific evidence that goes beyond the things that have been said. What was said today, what was in the journal article -- I mean, the San Francisco Chronicle article, is almost the sum total of what is in the book. There’s not much beyond that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring Seth Rosenfeld back in and respond to this -- to Diane Fujino’s statement that this is really scant evidence. But I’d also like to ask you -- because the interesting thing about police agents or FBI agents -- and I’m familiar, having once been in the Young Lords Party, which was under much surveillance by the FBI -- that agents tended to be the type of people who -- or informants, informants tended to be the type of people who said very little but gathered information. And to that sense, Richard Aoki doesn’t fit that profile, because he was -- he has -- throughout his political career, was known as someone who advanced political theories, was actually very actively involved in shaping the political perspectives and views of the organizations that he was involved in. And to that degree, he doesn’t fit the profile of someone who’s basically gathering information.
DIANE FUJINO: Yes, and another way --
SETH ROSENFELD: Mm-hmm. Well, if I can respond to some points that Professor Fujino made, there were a couple misstatements there. What Burney had told me is that the FBI had a wiretap on the home of some people called the Wachters in the late ’50s. The Wachters were members of the Communist Party in the Bay Area at that time. And on that wiretap, they overheard a conversation between their son, Doug Wachter, and Richard Aoki. Doug Wachter and Richard Aoki had been classmates at Berkeley High. After hearing that information, the FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, approached Richard Aoki and asked him if he would be an informant.
Professor Fujino is correct in stating that, at that time in his life, Richard Aoki was not political. In fact, what Burney Threadgill told me was that Richard Aoki told him he had no interest in Communism. And Burney further said that Richard Aoki became involved in political activities initially at the request of the FBI. Burney also said that he worked with Richard Aoki as his handler and met with him on a regular basis and received reports from him and paid him, that Richard Aoki provided information on specific groups, such as the socialist groups I mentioned, and that after Burney was transferred to another office in 1965, Richard Aoki was passed along as an informant to another agent.
And I should also clarify Wes Swearingen’s statement about Richard Aoki being accepted within radical circles perhaps partly because he was Japanese. That doesn’t seem particularly significant now, in modern times, but in the late '60s, somebody coming from a different ethnic background made them seem to be an outsider, and there would be less suspicion that an outsider like that would be working for the government, which in those days, certainly the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, was largely all white, almost totally white and male. So, I believe that's what Wes Swearingen was referring to.
In terms of Richard Aoki’s profile, as I mentioned, he starts out not being a political person. He starts attending these meetings. He becomes -- he becomes gradually involved. And it’s only later in the ’60s that he begins to be more active in advocating different political things.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking with Seth Rosenfeld. His book is published this week, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. And Professor Diane Fujino, author of, Samurai Among Panthers. And I want, when we come back, Professor Fujino, to ask you about this term you use called "snitch-jacketing," the government’s casting suspicion on the most active activists. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with our two guests today: Seth Rosenfeld, the reporter whose new book is out this week, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power; we’re also joined by Professor Diane Fujino, who has written a book about Richard Aoki, who Seth Rosenfeld says he has found through getting information through the Freedom of Information Act, that is an -- was an agent for the FBI. Diane Fujino, can you talk about who Richard Aoki was? Give us a brief thumbnail sketch of his life story.
DIANE FUJINO: Yeah. Richard Aoki was born in 1938. As a young child, only three and a half years old, he and his family, along with 110,000 other West Coast Japanese Americans, were placed into concentration camps. And for Richard, that was very formative, because -- and created -- this kind of hurts of history created a major personal injury, because his parents separated inside the camps. And in a very unusual situation, he and his younger brother went to live with their father, both inside the camp barracks as well as upon their return to the Aoki family’s home in West Oakland.
Richard grew up homeschooled, which is quite unusual, and was very well read. He claims to have been going to the library back and forth and read 600 books in a single year. And while I have no proof of that, I do have many people talking about him, as an adult, as one of the most well-read people that they know. This includes a university professor friend of Richard who was saying this, that Richard is the most well-read person he knows. And Richard was very advanced theoretically, politically and theoretically.
Richard was -- adopted the Cold War standards for masculinity and the military in the '50s, was eager to become -- to join the Army and become the first Japanese-American general in the U.S. Army -- that was his dream -- and a fighter pilot. But, according to what Richard Aoki has told me, is that he -- while he was in the Army Reserves in the late ’50s, he began to connect, through a series of working-class jobs, to labor organizers and socialist organizers. And they started to change, slowly and in an uneven way, his ideas about politics. And he joined the Socialist Workers Party, the Young Socialist Alliance, and then, in the mid-'60s, ’63, returned to Merritt college full time where he began -- and he and others began a socialist discussion club.
And it was at Merritt College, which we know today as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, that he met the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale. And they began to have political discussions and exchanges before the start of the Panthers. And when the Panthers formed, he was one of the earliest members. He says, and Bobby Seale confirms, that they would talk to Richard in very political discussions and that when they wrote their 10-point platform, they ran it by Richard to see what he thought about it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the documentary film Aoki, which chronicles the life of Richard Aoki. In this excerpt, his friends and comrades explain how he helped bring weapons into the Black Panthers movement.
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: He had made guns available to Huey, very early on.
BOBBY SEALE: Huey says, "Look, Richard, you have to let us have some of those guns. You have a lot of guns here."
ELBERT "BIG MAN" HOWARD: Richard would come around and donate weapons to the organization, you know.
BOBBY SEALE: So he gave a M1 carbine and a .45. And this was all about us -- we was going to patrol the police. Richard helped us teach the other brothers -- the new, young seven, eight, ten brothers in there -- how to break these weapons down, how to clean the weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: From the documentary Aoki. Shaka At-Thinnin of the Black August Organizing Committee speaks about Richard Aoki’s commitment to the cause.
SHAKA AT-THINNIN: If you have not won and you are still breathing, then that means you still have to fight. When I get to be 60 years old and like 70 years old and if I’m still breathing, I’m going to be still doing this. And I’m sure that’s the way Richard feels. I know he does, you know. I talk to him. It’s something that generates or emanates from him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Those were some of the tapes of various people who worked with Richard and members of the -- former members of the Black Panther Party talking about him. Seth Rosenfeld, one of the things you raise in your book, that you question whether he was actually -- whether Richard Aoki was actually donating weapons to the Panthers or helping to set them up.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. I’d like to first say, it’s important to be clear about what we know and what we don’t know. What we know is, according to former FBI agent Burney Threadgill and this FBI document, the opinion of Wesley Swearingen, as well, that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant during the same period that he was arming the Black Panthers and giving them weapons training. What we don’t know is whether the FBI was involved in any way with providing weapons or that it even knew that Richard Aoki was giving weapons to the Black Panthers. That’s the first thing I’d like to make clear.
The other thing I want to point out is that, in doing my reporting, I took extra efforts to be totally transparent about what my evidence was. Professor Fujino says there’s only one footnote in the book that addresses this. In fact, it’s a very lengthy footnote, and it lists each piece of evidence that I use. In the story that I did with of the Center for Investigative Reporting for the Chronicle, we were also very specific about what the evidence was. Not only did I say that I had interviewed FBI agent Burney Threadgill, but we played the tape, and we also played Richard’s comments, including his denial and also other statements which seem to be potentially suggestive explanations for his having been an informant.
DIANE FUJINO: I agree that Seth Rosenfeld’s book is well researched. If you look in the footnotes and the bibliography, there’s extensive research done, which is why I was so surprised that, after hearing the San Francisco [Chronicle] article, I expected to get more information in this thick book about evidence, and there wasn’t any. It was very slim. It’s the same things that are being said repeatedly.
I do want to say something that Juan González had mentioned about Richard not seeming to fit the profile because he was a more visible activist. And in another way, Richard Aoki does not fit the profile because many times, especially if they’re agent provocateurs or even infiltrators, they’re either low-key or they are people who try to get people to constantly engage in provocative and disruptive and risky behaviors. And Richard was a scholar. He’s known for giving -- the things that he’s best known for -- well, until this week -- was giving the first guns to the Black Panther Party to support their police patrols to stop police brutality in the black neighborhoods. And Richard was a scholar also. He was advanced theoretically and could spar theoretically with anyone around him. And that is not a typical profile of an infiltrator.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fujino, this term that you use, "snitch-jacketing," can you explain it?
DIANE FUJINO: Yeah, it’s a tactic used by the FBI to -- through rumors, through manufacturing evidence and misinformation, to cast suspicions around legitimate activists so that people think that they might be informants. And so I question: is the evidence there, or might this be a snitch-jacket on Richard Aoki? I feel the evidence is not there and that more needs to be provided in order to have it meet the burden of proof.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth Rosenfeld, your response?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, snitch-jacketing was a technique that was used by the FBI against leftists and also sometimes in criminal cases. The purpose of it was to suggest that somebody was an informant and then leak that or make that known, and thereby cast suspicion on that person and discredit them. I don’t believe that that’s the case here. And there’s absolutely no evidence that that’s what was done here. There’s nothing in any FBI file that addresses that. That’s something that I thought about while I was doing the research. So I think that that supposition and allegation on the part of Professor Fujino is entirely unfounded.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move on to talk about the rest of your book, Seth Rosenfeld, but I wanted to give Professor Diane Fujino one last final comment on this story that is coming out with the publication of Seth Rosenfeld’s book. Diane Fujino, again, wrote the book Samurai Among Panthers about Richard Aoki.
DIANE FUJINO: Yeah. People are saying, you know, if Richard -- that’s a big "if" -- if he was an informant, what did he inform on? When was he an informant? Seth Rosenfeld is claiming that he was in the late '60s based on this one 1967 document, which I argue is very unclear. It can be read in multiple ways. And, you know, so we want to know more information about this. But what people are saying is that Richard contributed so much to the movement. It's unclear if there was -- if he was an informant, what kind of damage he did to undermine the movement is completely unclear. But what he did as a contribution to the movement is clear.
He was a leader of the Black Panther Party. He was one of the foremost architects of Afro-Asian unity. He was the second chair of the Asian American Political Alliance, which was one of the most influential youth groups of the Asian American movement and the group that’s credited with coining the very term "Asian Americans." He helped to start Asian American Studies at Berkeley, both as an activist and then, in late ’69, became one of the first instructors and an early coordinator of Asian American studies at Berkeley. And he went on to be a counselor and instructor at East Bay community colleges, where he supported ethnic studies and supported working-class students in their pursuits of higher education. And he made multiple contributions throughout his life, up through past his retirement, where he served as inspiration and a political mentor to many young people.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Diane Fujino, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her most recent book is called Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. We’ll come back to talk with Seth Rosenfeld about other angles of his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Back in a minute.
SUBVERSIVES: HOW THE FBI FOUGHT THE 1960s STUDENT MOVEMENT AND AIDED REAGAN'S RISE TO POWER
Interview with Seth Rosenfeld
** Investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld’s new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, is based on more than 300,000 pages of records Rosenfeld received over three decades through five Freedom of Information lawsuits against the FBI. The book tracks how then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to investigate and then disrupt the Free Speech Movement that began in 1964 on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. The protests prevailed and helped spawn a nationwide student movement. Rosenfeld outlines in great detail how FBI records show agents used "dirty tricks to stifle dissent on the campus." In the book’s more than 700 pages, he uses the documents to explore the interweaving stories of four main characters: the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover; actor and politician Ronald Reagan, who was running for governor of California at the time; Clark Kerr, then the University of California president and a target of scorn from both Reagan, Hoover and student activists; and legendary Free Speech Movement leader and orator, Mario Savio. **
August 23, 2012
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We want to continue our conversation with Seth Rosenfeld, longtime investigative reporter and author of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Seth, we’ve had a long discussion on Richard Aoki, but he really is a small portion of your book. The large portion of it really deals, as the title says, with the FBI’s attempts to -- through surveillance and repression of student radicals and university professors. You go into -- in depth about the efforts of the agency against Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and even against the president of the University of California system at the time, Clark Kerr. Could you talk a little bit about that?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. My book, Subversives, is a secret history of the '60s. It's the story of the FBI’s covert operations at the University of California at Berkeley and the surrounding campus community during the Cold War. It’s based on more than 250,000 pages of FBI documents. And one of the main parts of the book focuses on the Free Speech Movement of 1964 and Mario Savio.
The Free Speech Movement was one of the first major student protests of the 1960s. It was nonviolent. It was inspired by the civil rights movement. And it was actually a protest against a campus rule that prohibited students from engaging in any kind of political activity on campus. So, for example, if students wanted to hand out a leaflet for the Republican National Convention, which in the summer of '64 was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, they were prohibited from doing that. If they wanted to hand out a leaflet saying, "Come to this civil rights demonstration," they couldn't do that, either. The students felt that this was an unconstitutional abridgment of their First Amendment rights. And that’s what the protest was about.
Mario Savio emerged as perhaps the most prominent spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement. Mario is a fascinating character. He was born in New York City in 1942. He was extremely bright, had a above genius-level IQ and, in high school, a 96.6 grade point average. He was raised in a very religious Catholic family. He was brought up to be a priest. And he, for much of his early life, thought he would become a priest. But as he went through high school, he began to have doubts about his faith. He began to question the dogma and became interested in philosophy and science. He began to look elsewhere to, as he put it -- excuse me -- as he put it, to do good in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, while you take a water break, I thought we would play a clip. U.C. Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza first drew national attention in 1964 when thousands of students struggled for their right to free speech on campus, led by, as you’re describing, student activist Mario Savio. This is a speech he delivered nearly half a century ago on the steps of Sproul Hall.
MARIO SAVIO: There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mario Savio. Give us the context, as you continue with Mario Savio’s story, of this address.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. Mario actually had a very debilitating stutter when speaking in small groups of people. But when he was impassioned and speaking against what he believed was injustice, he spoke with divine fire. And that speech is an example of that. And people who were in that audience in the crowd on Sproul Plaza that day have said that that speech sent shivers down their backs. He moved people to participate. And as a result of his speech and all the work that the Free Speech Movement had done, more than a thousand people streamed into Sproul Hall and staged what was the nation’s largest sit-in to date, overnight, more than 800 people arrested the next day . And this was shocking that students would engage in this kind of behavior. At that time in our history, most campuses were characterized by a kind of complacency and conformity. The Free Speech Movement was a major break from that, and it was very shocking to people, particularly J. Edgar Hoover.
According to the FBI documents that I’ve reviewed, the FBI had special concerns about the University of California, starting at least in World War II. As you know, the University of California played a key role in developing the atomic bomb that was used to end World War II. And during the war and immediately thereafter, there were Soviet efforts to obtain, through espionage, using members of the Communist Party, secrets from the radiation lab. So, some of the records I look at document the FBI’s extensive investigation into Soviet espionage at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s.
But what you see in the following decades is the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, veers from that important national security mission to focus instead on professors engaged in dissent. And during the 1950s, the FBI had a secret program called the Responsibilities Program. And through this program, FBI agents secretly gave governors of nearly every state allegations against professors who were deemed to be too radical or too liberal. The governors would take this information secretly, pass it along to university officials and have them investigate and question and sometimes fire the professors. The professors never knew where these allegations came from. They never had the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses against them. Then, later—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Seth Rosenfeld, as you mention --
SETH ROSENFELD: I’m sorry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As you mention in the book, often the allegations that the FBI passed on were wrong, were erroneous, and people were tarred just because they may have been -- had met with somebody who was politically active in a left-wing movement, so that much of the information the FBI passed on was erroneous.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, that’s true. In a number of instances, I was able to document that, in the case of California, the governor at the time, Earl Warren, passed along these reports to the president of the university, Robert Gordon Sproul. And when the university investigated them, they found they were unsubstantiated. So --
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of—
SETH ROSENFELD: -- that was an extensive program, and nearly a thousand professors around the country were forced from their jobs as a result of it in the early 1950s.
Then, in the very early 1960s, you see -- late ’50s, early ’60s, you see the FBI shift its focus to students who are engaged in political dissent. The FBI starts to investigate them and creates -- actually has a list call the "Security Index." This is a list of people who are deemed potential threats to national security in the event of a national emergency and who would be arrested without warrant and detained indefinitely during an emergency. And quite a few professors and students at Berkeley in the early ’60s were on this secret list. In fact, at that time, former agents told me that the FBI considered Berkeley to be one of the most radical cities in the United States, with the highest per capita number of people on the Security Index.
So, to come back to the Free Speech Movement, when that happens in 1964, J. Edgar Hoover and other FBI officials see this as further evidence of a subversive plot to disrupt the nation’s campuses, and they respond by intensively investigating it and going beyond investigating it with secret efforts to disrupt it and neutralize it in various ways.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth Rosenfeld, we don’t have much time. We have less than two minutes. But you’re following the trajectory of Ronald Reagan, who famously said in 1970, "If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement." He’s talking about the students. The role -- how extensively Ronald Reagan was involved with the FBI, more than was previously known?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, he was much more involved with the FBI than previously known. And one of the arguments in my book is that his covert relationship with the FBI had a profound influence on his political development. This relationship begins in Hollywood in the years immediately after World War II, when FBI agents approached Ronald Reagan, and he becomes an informer. And he names other people in Hollywood, actors, who he suspects of subversive activity. And he names more people than we’ve previously known. Through my Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, I obtained more than 10,000 pages on Ronald Reagan during his pre-presidential years. This is the most extensive record of the FBI’s activities concerning him. When Reagan is president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI has wide access to information from Guild records about actors whom the FBI is investigating. And then, later, the FBI returns the favor to Reagan by doing personal and political help for him. During my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the FBI was withholding certain information, claiming it was law enforcement information. And I challenged that. I said the context suggests that this is actually personal and political help. And the court agreed and ordered the information released. And what those records show --
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
SETH ROSENFELD: -- is that in 1960, for example, the FBI, at the request of Ronald Reagan and his former wife, Jane Wyman, conducted an investigation into the romantic life of his daughter, Maureen Reagan. The Reagans had heard that she was living with -- she was then 18, living in Washington, D.C., and they had heard that she was living with an older married policeman.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Seth Rosenfeld, author of Subversives.
BOOK REVEALS EXTENSIVE EFFORT BY REAGAN, FBI TO UNDERMINE CALIFORNIA's STUDENT MOVEMENT IN 1960s
Interview with Seth Rosenfeld
** Investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld’s new book, *Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power*, is based on more than 300,000 pages of records Rosenfeld received over three decades through five Freedom of Information lawsuits against the FBI. The book tracks how then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to investigate and then disrupt the Free Speech Movement that began in 1964 on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. In part two of our interview, Rosenfeld discusses how Ronald Reagan collaborated with the FBI to target California’s student movement and strengthen Reagan’s own rise to power. **
August 24, 2012
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to another story about secret government agents and surveillance. Today we continue the conversation we began Thursday with Seth Rosenfeld, longtime investigative reporter and author of a new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. The book is based on more than 300,000 pages of records Rosenfeld obtained through five Freedom of Information lawsuits against the FBI over the course of three decades. It looks at how then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to investigate and then disrupt the Free Speech Movement that began in 1964 on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. The protests prevailed and helped spawn a nationwide student movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth Rosenfeld reveals how FBI records show agents used, quote, "dirty tricks to stifle dissent on the campus" and exposes new details about how -- future U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s secret role as an FBI informant. In the book, Rosenfeld interweaves stories of four main characters: the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover; Ronald Reagan, who was running for governor of California at the time; Clark Kerr, then the University of California president and a target of scorn from both Reagan, Hoover and student activists; and legendary Free Speech Movement leader and orator, Mario Savio.
Seth Rosenfeld, welcome back to Democracy Now! When we were speaking yesterday, we left it at Reagan, who was not yet governor, who -- you have uncovered, in a way that has not been revealed before, the level of spying he was doing for the FBI.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, in response to my Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, the FBI was forced to release more than 10,000 pages concerning Ronald Reagan in the years prior to his becoming president. And these records show that he was much more involved with the FBI than previously known. He was more active as an FBI informer in Hollywood, reporting on other actors who he suspected of subversive activities, and that later, in response to this, Hoover and other FBI officials returned the favor by giving Reagan personal and political help that went beyond the FBI’s proper jurisdiction.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Seth, you also point out how Reagan actively sought to disrupt or divide several major Hollywood organizations that he believed, or had reason to believe from the FBI, were being controlled by Communists. Could you talk about some of that?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. Reagan talks a little bit about his involvement with left-wing groups in Hollywood and how the FBI opened his eyes to the alleged Communist infiltration of these groups. And one of these groups was called the Hollywood Independent Committee for the Arts, Sciences and Professions. It was a broad-based group that had many members from all different political perspectives. And Reagan, on being informed by the FBI that it was allegedly run by Communists, proposed a resolution for this group, and he and other members brought this forward at a meeting of the group. And the resolution was to the effect that the group repudiates Communism. And this was a very divisive measure, and it led to a split within the group. And Reagan says that he -- in testimony, in court testimony, he says he proposed another divisive measure to a second group, the American Veterans Committee, in Hollywood in the '40s. And the reason the measure was so divisive is that, at this time in history, there were very broad coalitions within Hollywood that included people from all ranges of political backgrounds who would come together around specific issues. So, that's one of the ways that Reagan sought to disrupt these groups. He also states that he took the minutes from one of these groups, the Hollywood Independent Committee. He actually pilfered the minutes, and the FBI records show that these minutes later found their way into FBI files.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: He also tried to undermine a very bitter strike of the set builders, didn’t he? Even though he was, himself, a member of and later a president of the Screen Actors Guild.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. While Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, there was a very bitter strike in Hollywood led by the Conference of Studio Unions, which was kind of an independent union challenging the status quo. And Reagan and other members of the Screen Actors Guild board of directors took the position that the Screen Actors Guild should not support that strike. Reagan later wrote that he was convinced that Communists were behind the strike, although the evidence is that the strike had some legitimate issues that they were pursuing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of a speech of Ronald Reagan when he was running for governor in ’66 and spoke out about the Free Speech Movement.
RONALD REAGAN: There is a leadership gap in Sacramento, a morality and a decency gap. And there’s no more tragic evidence of this than what has been perpetrated on the campus of Berkeley across the Bay. There -- there, a small minority of beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates have brought shame on a great university, so much so that applications -- applications for enrollment have dropped 21 percent, and there’s evidence they will continue to drop even more.
Now, we’ve all read the press reportings of the report that was handed in by the Senate subcommittee and its charges that the campus has become a rallying point for communists and a center for sexual misconduct. I’ve never seen that report. I only know what I’ve read in the paper about it. But I’ve had in my position information that verifies, at least in part, what the press has said about that report. As a matter of fact, I have here a copy of a report of the district attorney of Alameda County. It concerns a dance that was sponsored by the Vietnam Day Committee, sanctioned by the university as a student activity, and that was held in the men’s gymnasium at the University of California. The incidents are so bad, so contrary to our standards of human behavior, that I couldn’t possibly recite them to you here from this platform in detail.
This is not only a sign of a leadership gap -- or not the only sign. It began a year ago, when the so-called free speech advocates, who in truth have no appreciation for freedom, were allowed to assault and humiliate the symbol of law and order of policemen on the campus. And that was the moment when the ringleaders should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ronald Reagan speaking as he ran for California governor. In that same speech, he called for hearings to investigate allegations against professors accused of being communists and for said faculty -- should be required to sign a code of conduct. Talk about these files that Ronald Reagan, who then became governor, is talking about.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, well, that speech was given in May 1966 at the Cow Palace during the Republican primary. And you can hear Reagan focusing on the University of California, the Berkeley campus, in particular. And by this time in his campaign, he has made the campus protest, the Free Speech Movement, antiwar protest and civil rights protest, a major issue. And he’s not only complaining about those protests, he’s using them as a way to attack the incumbent Democrat, Pat Brown. He’s saying that these pose -- these show that there’s a leadership gap and a morality gap at the center of the state’s Democratic Party.
Reagan, by this time, had formed a very close and cordial relationship with the FBI. That’s a phrase that FBI officials used to describe their relationship with Reagan. This relationship was based on his years in Hollywood, where he was more active as an informer. He had named a number of people to the FBI, sometimes on very scant evidence. In one instance, in the documents, he meets a young actress at a cocktail party, and she comes up to him and says, "You know, I have serious concerns about the blacklist. I think it’s unfair to people." And Reagan disputes this with her and later reports her to the FBI. And the FBI, as a result of that, opens a file on her. So, by the time he’s running for governor, he has a very close relationship with the FBI.
And soon after he’s elected in November 1966, he phones the FBI, as one of his first acts in office, and he requests a secret briefing about the protests at U.C. Berkeley, not only about students and professors engaged in dissent, but also about members of the Board of Regents, specifically liberal members of the Board of Regents, and about the university president, Clark Kerr.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Seth, you also --
SETH ROSENFELD: Not long after this, Reagan attends his first meeting of the Board of Regents, and at this meeting, Clark Kerr is fired.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, you’ve mentioned that not only was Reagan -- did Reagan particularly target Clark Kerr, but J. Edgar Hoover also felt that Clark Kerr was a menace as the president of the University of California. Could you talk about Kerr himself, his history and his role, in terms of the FBI targeting him, and Reagan? Because a lot of people also forget that Reagan was the first person to institute tuition at the University of California, which, before him, had been free to all people who were able to get into the California university system.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. Clark Kerr is one of the towering figures in American higher education. He was born in 1911, coincidentally the same year that Ronald Reagan was born. Kerr came from a rural part of Pennsylvania. His father was a farmer and a teacher. And Kerr worked on the farm as a boy and attended a one-room schoolhouse. Kerr has written in his memoirs that he had a teacher at this one-room schoolhouse named Miss Elba, who took an interest in him and had a profound impact on him. She helped him become a good student, and as a result of that, he went on to attend Swarthmore College. So, Kerr has always felt, from his very early days, very strongly about the power of education to transform people’s lives.
At Swarthmore, Kerr becomes a Quaker. He believes in nonviolence, and he works for social justice through the American Friends Service Committee and then moves to California, does graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and later becomes the first chancellor at Berkeley in the 1950s. In 1958, he’s elected -- he’s appointed president of the University of California system. Kerr helps expand the University of California into one of the greatest public universities in history and opens the door to higher education for thousands of people. One of the things that Kerr accomplishes is called the Master Plan for Higher Education. This was a system of junior colleges, four-year colleges and public universities, graduate schools, like UC Berkeley, that was set up around California and was then emulated around the country and internationally. And this really transformed the educational system and opened it up to many, many people.
At the same time Kerr was doing this, he opened -- also opened the University of California campus to free speech in many ways. He lifted the ban against Communist and socialist speakers. And his explanation at the time was, the university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students, it’s engaged in making students safe for ideas. He believed that if students were well educated, they could hear ideas from any point of view and then make the right decisions. However, J. Edgar Hoover didn’t appreciate that point of view. He viewed Kerr as potentially subversive and certainly as somebody who was not in sympathy with Hoover’s own political views. He blamed Kerr for opening the campus to activism and was very angry at Kerr later, during the Free Speech Movement, for not cracking down more severely on student protesters.
So, in my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, I requested any and all records concerning Clark Kerr. And the FBI released over a thousand pages on him. And what these documents show is that the FBI did normal background investigations of Kerr, because he was in a high position at the university and was overseeing the nuclear radiation labs, but that the FBI also used these background investigations as a pretext to try and sabotage his career. And one way the FBI did this, under J. Edgar Hoover, was by gathering allegations against Kerr and then sending them to the White House to Lyndon -- President Lyndon Johnson, even though the FBI had investigated the allegations and knew that they were untrue.
And the FBI also leaked information to conservative members of the Board of Regents in an effort to convince the Regents to fire Kerr. But Kerr had a very staunch ally in Governor Pat Brown. And as long as Pat Brown was the governor of California, Kerr would remain as president of the University of California. So when Ronald Reagan was elected in November of '66, FBI officials saw this as a breath of fresh air. They finally had an ally in the governor's office. And they complied with Governor Reagan’s request to meet with him soon after he was elected. They gave him an extensive briefing about Berkeley, about Clark Kerr, about his opponents on the Board of Regents. And then, very shortly thereafter, Kerr was fired at the University of California.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to --
SETH ROSENFELD: Moving -- I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interview from the ’60s with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover speaking about how the American Communist Party was committed to the overthrow of the government by force and violence.
J. EDGAR HOOVER: I think that Communism is as serious a menace to the United States as it ever was, if not more so. The tendency to judge the strength of the Communist Party by its membership in numbers is fallacious and, I think, can be a -- can lead us into very serious trouble, because today you have in charge of the Communist Party a hardcore fanatical group of members who are dedicated to the overthrow of our government by force and violence. The Communist Party itself is a part of an international criminal conspiracy for the destruction of the American way of life.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was J. Edgar Hoover. If you could, Seth Rosenfeld, fit this into how the government dealt with Clark Kerr, but also, though, the -- he was also unpopular among the students, ultimately.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, he was. In the early years of the Cold War, particularly right after World War II, there was great concern about Communism. There were links between the Communist Party in the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union did attempt to use some Communist Party officials in the United States to gather nuclear secrets and other information from the University of California. But by 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that being a member of the Communist Party was not, in and itself, illegal. There had to be further evidence that a member of the Communist Party was engaged in espionage or breaking a law. Despite this court ruling, the FBI continued to intensively investigate Communists, socialists and, according to congressional findings, in the ’70s, virtually anybody who challenged the status quo, and amassed more than half a million files on American citizens.
So, at Berkeley, Hoover was extremely concerned about dissent, and he focused on Clark Kerr and tried to get him fired. At the same time, the students, student activists, viewed Clark Kerr as their adversary. Clark Kerr had in fact opened the campus in many ways to free speech. He believed in public debate. But he had not responded quickly enough to the students’ challenge in 1964 against a campus rule that still prohibited free speech on campus. Kerr came from the point of view that keeping politics off campus would protect the university from outside political influences, and therefore protect academic freedom. But many of the students, particularly Mario Savio and other people who had been involved in the civil rights movement, saw this rule as an outrageous limitation on their free speech rights. Savio had spent that summer in the South registering blacks to vote. He had faced down the Ku Klux Klan. He had been assaulted by the Ku Klux Klan. And he returned to campus in that fall of ’64 only to find that this rule prohibited him from even handing out a leaflet on campus. So, when Clark Kerr failed to lift this rule, the students came to view him as their enemy.
Clark Kerr was really the man in the middle. On the one hand, he had Ronald Reagan challenging him, accusing him of being weak on student protesters. On the other hand, he had Mario Savio and other student activists who viewed him as their enemy. And then, behind the scenes, unbeknownst to anybody at the time, was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, secretly working to get Clark Kerr fired and, meanwhile, secretly giving Ronald Reagan personal and political help.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth Rosenfeld, we just have 30 seconds, but what were you most shocked by? I mean, that’s a big question to ask for someone who’s done this research and gotten so many hundreds of thousands of pages from the FBI and done this research for 30 years. But as you publish this book this week, *Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power*, what most shocked you?
SETH ROSENFELD: I think what I found most shocking is the extraordinary breadth and depth of the FBI’s activities concerning the University of California and its focus on First Amendment activities under J. Edgar Hoover. The documents show that the FBI took techniques developed for use against adversaries during wartime and turned them against people involved in legitimate public dissent at UC Berkeley. And ultimately, my book, *Subversives*, is a cautionary tale about the dangers that secrecy and power pose to democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us. The book Subversives has come out this week. It is by Seth Rosenfeld. He was an award-winning reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for almost 25 years. Thanks so much.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we remember the late great Howard Zinn. He would have been 90 years old today.