The FBI’s secret war against Berkeley

In his book, “Subversives,” Seth Rosenfeld details how Hoover’s FBI feared Communists were controlling the Free Speech Movement and sought to sabotage it. Photo: UC Berkeley Libraries

Seth Rosenfeld’s book on the FBI and UC Berkeley, a culmination of 30 years of work, has been out for just a week, but its revelations are already creating consternation.

It’s not just the news that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent agents to spy on Berkeley professors and students starting in the 1940s and worked behind the scenes with Ronald Reagan to get UC President Clark Kerr fired. It’s not just Rosenfeld’s massive evidence that Hoover twisted the inner workings of the FBI to justify intensive spying on the Free Speech Movement and its leaders, including Mario Savio and Bettina Aptheker.  And it’s not just the news that top UC Berkeley officials, upset about unrest on campus, worked closely with federal agents to harm the reputations of students and professors they considered subversive.

What has people fired up is Rosenfeld’s revelation that Richard Aoki, a revered radical leader best known for providing the first guns to the Black Panthers, was an FBI informant.

In Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Rosenfeld notes that Aoki started to work for the FBI shortly after he graduated from Berkeley High in 1956, at a time he was politically conservative. Over the next decade, Aoki become more radical and joined the Young Socialists’ Alliance, took a leadership position in the Black Panthers, worked for the  Vietnam Day Committee, and became a leader in the Third World Strike at Cal, a protest that led to the formation of the university’s Ethnic Studies Program. All that time he was reporting to the FBI, writes Rosenfeld.

“It’s entirely possible he was playing both sides of the fence,” said Rosenfeld.


Rosenfeld first learned about Aoki when he talked to retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill, Jr., who mentioned he had recruited Aoki to join radical organizations and report on their inner workings. That led Rosenfeld on a search to unearth more about the political activist, including a telephone interview in which Aoki denied he had been an informant, but acknowledged the complexity of the times. Based on this information, as well as a 1967 FBI document that identified Aoki as an “informant” with the code number “T-2,” Rosenfeld concluded he worked for the FBI.

Two filmmakers who made a documentary about Aoki and a UC Santa Barbara professor who wrote a book on him denounced Rosenfeld’s charges soon after they appeared on Aug 20. In an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Where’s evidence he was an FBI informant?” Professor Diane C. Fujino argues that Rosenfeld had not met “the burden of proof,” in showing that Aoki tattled for money for the FBI. Fujino suggested that naming Aoki as a spy was “snitch-jacketing,” a classic FBI tactic to discredit people.

Rosenfeld “made definitive conclusions based on inconclusive evidence,” Fujino wrote in the Chronicle.

Seth Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld stands by his reporting and says it is difficult for people to believe that Aoki, who has risen to iconic status since his suicide in 2009, was a collaborator.

In some ways, it is unfortunate that the revelation about Aoki has captured the majority of the media attention for Subversives. The book, which is the culmination of a 30-year investigation and five lawsuits against the FBI, is a masterpiece of reporting and writing with much deeper significance than the one fact that Aoki was an informant.

Subversives details the prolonged and systematic attempt of Hoover to undermine Berkeley’s student protest movements, all because he was convinced Communist manipulators were clandestinely controlling the students. The book also reveals for the first time just how closely the actor Ronald Reagan worked with the FBI in the 1950s to pass on information about actors and other Hollywood professionals rumored to be communists. (The FBI, Rosenfeld noted, considered Reagan “one of its best contacts ever”). Reagan, Rosenfeld reveals, was not paid by the FBI but he benefited from his close relationship with Hoover, as the agency FBI helped at least two of Reagan’s children, Maureen and Michael, get out of trouble. The book also details how Reagan used concern about the student protest movements’ alleged connection to Communism (false allegations trumped up by Hoover) as political fodder than allowed him to defeat Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1966.

By intertwining three narratives, that of the FBI’s relationship to Clark Kerr, Ronald Reagan and Mario Savio, Rosenfeld creates a readable, dramatic, and disturbing portrait of a federal agency gone amok. It broke into offices, stole and copied information, planted false news stories, wrote erroneous reports to advance Hoover’s political agenda, and created secret lists of subversives who should be rounded up in a political emergency.

Some of this information came out during the 1975 hearings Senator Frank Church conducted on the FBI and its counter-intelligence work against student radicals. And Rosenfeld has published some of his findings over the years, most notably in 2002, when he detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a reporter at the time, how the FBI worked closely with Reagan and members of the UC Board of Regents to try and fire Kerr, whom Hoover felt was too soft on student radicals and communism. But much of the information in Subversives is new, and Rosenfeld amplifies its impact by bringing the various strands of the FBI’s activities in Berkeley together in one place for the first time.

Rosenfeld first encountered some documents on the FBI campaign against student radicals at Cal in 1981 when he was a reporter for the Daily Californian. His editor called him and asked if he wanted to peruse boxes of documents the paper had gotten through a Freedom of Information Act Request filed in 1977. Rosenfeld agreed and carted home a hand truck of papers. Even as he was writing a three-part story on the FBI and the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam Day Movement, Rosenfeld was sending off more requests to the FBI.

“I was very interested from the beginning,” said Rosenfeld. “I knew the Church Committee had found intense domestic surveillance elsewhere and I knew Berkeley had been a center of intense protests in the 1960s. I was curious to know what the FBI’s role on campus had been.”

The FBI is notorious for saying no to FOIA requests, often claiming it does not have the requested documents. Rosenfeld studied several reference books that detailed the FBI’s arcane filing system, which allowed him to target his requests. He mailed off his first 10-page FOIA request in November 1981 from the Berkeley Main Post Office.

The FBI was slow in responding to Rosenfeld and frequently denied his request for documents, stating they were exempt because they concerned law enforcement logistics. Eventually, Thomas Steele, a civil rights attorney in Oakland, the First Amendment Project in Oakland and another attorney, Ben Stein, assisted Rosenfeld by filing five lawsuits against the FBI. The agency spent more than $1 million fighting off Rosenfeld’s requests, but federal courts consistently ruled in his favor. The courts held that the agency was using the law enforcement exemption as a way to cover up activities that were outside the FBI’s purview – i.e. investigating Kerr, Savio and others for political rather that public safety reasons.

“Coyly, Rosenfeld chooses does not to identify whom he believes were the true subversives,” historian Michael Kazin wrote in a review of the book for The Daily Beast. “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.”

Rosenfeld will be speaking about Subversives Sept. 19 at 7 pm at Sibley Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus in a program put on by the Graduate School of Journalism. He will also appear at Litquake, the West Coast Literary Festival, at 1 pm on Oct. 7.

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