Interview with Seth Rosenfeld



Investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld’s 2012 book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power draws on thirty years of research and three hundred thousand pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to tell the story of the FBI’s covert operations in Berkeley during the 1960s.

Focusing on four central figures—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, University of California president Clark Kerr, free-speech activist Mario Savio, and actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan—Subversives uncovers new evidence about the FBI’s often unlawful activities on campus and the role the bureau played in Reagan’s political career. A review of the book appears in the May–June 2013 issue of Academe.

Michael Ferguson interviewed Rosenfeld by e-mail.

Michael Ferguson: You received the AAUP’s Iris Molotsky Award for Excellence in Coverage of Higher Education in 2003 for a San Francisco Chronicle article that became the basis for Subversives. What happened between then and now? How did the book Subversives come about?

Seth Rosenfeld: Subversives greatly expands the article I wrote for the Chronicle in 2002. I go into much more depth about the FBI’s covert operations in the campus community. I also develop the main figures—Reagan, Savio, Kerr, and Hoover—as multidimensional characters, starting with their childhoods and following them through college and into public life. I show how each represented major social and political forces that collided at UC Berkeley and had enormous impact on society. Hoover, of course, created the FBI and presided over the bureau and its predecessor for almost five decades. He represents “The Establishment”; he was suspicious of anyone who deviated from the mainstream, especially “aliens.” Savio represents the student movement of the early sixties, which was strongly influenced by southern civil rights activism and would soon spread to nearly every campus in the nation. Reagan represents the New Right, rising in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s presidential defeat. Kerr symbolizes the Cold War Democrats, anticommunist but liberal.

Subversives required substantial additional research. I brought several more court motions in my existing lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain more FBI documents concerning the University of California, and I filed two new lawsuits, one for records on the activist and FBI informant Richard Aoki, the other for records on Ronald Reagan that the FBI had long withheld, frustrating Reagan biographers such as Garry Wills, Edmund Morris, and Anne Edwards.

The book is the most complete examination to date of the FBI’s activities at a major university during the Cold War. It is also the most thorough study so far of Reagan’s relationship with the FBI in the years before he became president.

I felt it was important to expose what Hoover’s FBI had been up to at one of the nation’s largest public universities, and how this affected individuals, the university as an institution, and the larger community. The FBI’s activities at UC are very relevant to current issues of national security and civil liberties.

I tell the story in novelistic fashion by following the converging narratives of the FBI’s secret involvement with Reagan, Savio, and Kerr against the backdrop of Berkeley, a campus community involved in great scientific and cultural ferment. Along the way, I include a wide range of voices and interests. For example, I quote speeches at Berkeley not only by my protagonists but also by I. F. Stone, Dick Gregory, Norman Mailer, Benjamin Spock, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Seale, Robert F. Kennedy, and Stokely Carmichael. And I include comments of many others about Berkeley events, such as Jessica Mitford, Joan Didion, Sonny Barger, Gary Snyder, and Ken Kesey. But though I present my findings as a story, I document it with 199 pages of source notes.

Michael Ferguson: One reviewer contends that Subversives did not sufficiently discuss the complexity of Richard Aoki’s situation and the ethnic studies struggle of 1960s. How would you respond to this criticism?

Seth Rosenfeld: I have full chapter on Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) at Berkeley and the strike for more ethnic studies. Contrary to what your reviewer says, I do not “relegate” it to the last part of my book; it appears as it happened chronologically, as do most of the main events in the narrative. (Earlier multiracial civil rights protests are noted previously in the book.)

I do not provide a comprehensive study of the 1960s ethnic studies movement in the United States, as that is beyond the scope of my book, just as a full study of the Students for a Democratic Society or the Black Panthers would be. (Likewise, your reviewer’s suggestion that Subversives should have included a study of “how California was not only a key staging ground of 1960s social ferment but also an incubator of a modern carceral state” is misplaced.) My stated focus is on events at UC and at Berkeley, and specifically on the FBI’s covert operations concerning them.

However, I do provide considerable detail about the TWLF and Aoki. I tell how the TWLF was composed of several different ethnically based student organizations whose members overcame their initial suspicions of each other to work together to demand more ethnic studies. I discuss their history. I note that leaders of the TWLF came from backgrounds very different from those of the white, middle-class students involved in the Free Speech Movement. They’d had more exposure to poverty, racial injustice, and the criminal justice system. Several of them were older and had served in the military. I also make clear that the university was remiss in not having had more ethnic studies in place, and I note that our society is better for having expanded ethnic studies at UC and elsewhere in the wake of the TWLF.

I reconstruct many of the campus confrontations during the TWLF strike. In doing so, I note the increased use of violence by some of the strikers and especially by the police. I present this not as an aberration or a result of racial differences. Rather, I show it was part of a trend of mounting conflict throughout the sixties. The TWLF followed violent clashes between students and police during the Stop the Draft Week Protests of 1967, and preceded the even more violent confrontations over People’s Park.

In telling the story of the TWLF, I tell the story of Richard Aoki, a fascinating figure who had been a radical activist in Berkeley since the early 1960s, and who, I revealed, was a paid FBI informant at the time he gave the Black Panthers some of their first guns and firearms training.

I portray Aoki as a complex figure, someone whose life had been defined by deep dualities and damaged by internment during World War II. I also explore his family’s history and the severe discrimination and disruptions they faced. I trace his involvement with the FBI and political groups, including the Panthers and the TWLF.

I don’t suggest that Aoki was the only source of the Panthers’s weapons—he was not—or that he was directly responsible for some Panthers’s misuse of guns. I report Panther cofounder Bobby Seale’s statement that he and Huey Newton went to Aoki and asked him for the guns to use in their community patrols of police. I do note that it was legal to publicly carry firearms at the time. As further background, I write that the advent of the Panthers reflected a frustration among blacks with the slow pace of reform and years of fraying relations with police. I also note that the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders had found that long-term, ingrained white racism and pervasive discrimination had contributed to urban riots around the nation during 1967. Police and news media had greatly exaggerated the incidence of black violence.

Your reviewer misrepresents my writing on several points: I do not “scapegoat” Aoki as being responsible for the Panthers’s militant stance and use of guns. I do not “rob the Panthers of their agency.” I certainly do not suggest that the Panthers’s armed patrols of the police were an “FBI-inspired gimmick.” I do not hold Aoki responsible for all of the TWLF’s violence. Nor do I portray all “New Left activists of color as purveyors of destruction.” But Aoki was a leader in both organizations—even as he was a paid FBI informant—and I hold him accountable for his own words and deeds.

I accurately report that Aoki contributed to the Panthers’s use of guns, and that their use of them, by any measure, and with whatever intentions, ultimately brought them great trouble. I do not say Aoki was a government provocateur, but I raise the salient question of what he was really doing. This does not conflate being an informant with being a provocateur, and it does not exclude other questions about, and explanations for, Aoki’s actions. So far the FBI has refused to comment on its relationship with Aoki and whether agents knew he was arming the Panthers.

Michael Ferguson: I think it would be hard for even the most cynical readers not to be unsettled by some of the revelations of your book. What discovery was most shocking to you?

Seth Rosenfeld: I was astonished by the depth of the FBI’s involvement in university affairs. The bureau developed informers at every level of the campus community­—among students, professors, administrators, and members of the board of regents. I was surprised by Hoover’s intense antipathy to Kerr and by his prolonged efforts to undermine one of the nation’s most respected educators. I was also surprised at how routine it was for Hoover’s FBI to use unlawful surveillance techniques, such as “black bag jobs,” in which agents would surreptitiously enter homes and offices, search them, and photograph records.

I was quite surprised to learn that Aoki had been a paid FBI informant. And though I expected people to be skeptical and perhaps shocked, I was taken aback by the personal attacks on me by a handful of his supporters and academics. One author of a laudatory biography of Aoki (which failed to mention his work for the FBI) even absurdly accused me of using the FBI tactic of “snitch-jacketing” to frame him as an informant and thus discredit him. These critics apparently did not understand my evidence, and some of them mischaracterized it. But after Subversives went to press I obtained additional FBI records on Aoki that confirmed he was a paid FBI informant for sixteen years. I published a follow-up story and posted his informant file as it had been released by the FBI. At this point, most of the critics seem to have accepted that whatever else Aoki did, he also was an FBI informant.

I was also struck by how Reagan emerged as a much more active informer than was known, sometimes reporting fellow actors to the FBI on the scantiest of evidence. This was contrary to his public statement that he never pointed a finger at anyone. In return, Hoover did personal and political favors for Reagan, which he secretly accepted. However, your reviewer overstates my conclusions about the FBI’s role in Reagan’s rise. (He also erroneously reports that Subversives claims the FBI tried to “oust” Pat Brown and managed to successfully “quarantine” Savio.)

Michael Ferguson: Clark Kerr emerges as a largely sympathetic figure in your book: a decent person who was besieged from all sides. Was he simply in an impossible position? How would you assess his accomplishments and failures as a senior administrator?

Seth Rosenfeld: Kerr was a complex figure and was in many ways a hero. In fact, I present heroic aspects of each of the four main characters. They all faced adversity in their family lives and public lives, worked hard to overcome it, and went on to profoundly influence society. Each was also flawed. So there is a lot to be learned from them.

As the first chancellor of UC Berkeley, and then as president of the entire UC system, Kerr eased many restrictions on campus speech. He convinced the regents that Communists should be allowed to speak on campus. He famously said, “The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” (In 1964, the AAUP gave Kerr its Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom.)

Kerr believed deeply in free speech. Yet he left in place a rule prohibiting students from using campus property to engage in off-campus political activity, whether in support of civil rights or Goldwater’s presidential campaign. (The rule, established decades earlier, was intended to protect the university from outside political interference.) Kerr would later say that the university system was in the process of decentralizing control, and that he had rightly delegated the resolution of the FSM dispute to Berkeley chancellor Edward Strong. But Kerr also acknowledged that he failed to appreciate how serious Savio and other students were about exercising free speech on campus and that he should have quickly interceded and lifted the ban.

In the wake of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, Kerr found himself caught between students and their faculty supporters on the one side, and more conservative members of his own administration, the regents, and the public—including gubernatorial candidate Reagan—on the other. Kerr was in a difficult situation. Interestingly, in his 1963 talks at Harvard, later published as The Uses of the University, he had outlined the general dilemma facing university presidents: they must maintain balance between such conflicting forces while protecting the integrity of the university and moving the whole enterprise forward. Although Kerr had his shortcomings, he also had extraordinary success in advancing the cause of higher education. He oversaw tremendous growth in the size and quality of UC and defended and expanded academic freedom in many bruising battles. And he maintained a sense of humor, remarking that “I left the presidency as I entered it—fired with enthusiasm.”

Michael Ferguson: The Free Speech Movement won the battle for student speech rights and civil liberties, but the context and consequences of that fight were enormously complex—reaction to the movement, for example, fueled Reagan’s rise to power, leading in turn to the removal of Clark Kerr as UC president and the imposition of fees that were in effect the first tuition in the UC’s history. What do you see as the most significant legacies of the events you examine in your book for higher education today?

Seth Rosenfeld: There are several significant legacies. In response to the Free Speech Movement, the UC regents conceded that students do have the constitutional right to engage in free speech on campus. In the near term, this opened the Berkeley campus to antiwar teach-ins and other political activities. The Free Speech Movement also inspired activism at other campuses. Today university students take for granted the right to engage in political activity, that they can be actors in society at large.

Reagan was elected governor in 1966 after appealing to voters on a range of issues, the most emotional of which was his pledge to crack down on campus protesters at Berkeley. He convinced the regents to impose what was in effect the first tuition in UC’s history. Tuition may well have been inevitable, given the economy. But Reagan’s relentless bashing of the university needlessly tarnished the institution and harmed the cause of higher education.

Kerr—the man in the middle—was fired soon after Reagan took office. He played a key part in building one of the greatest universities in history and, through the 1960 Master Plan, in advancing universal access to higher education. He also symbolizes the decline of the liberal center and the splintering of the Democratic Party during the 1960s.

And it is fair to say that our continuing “culture wars” are in part a legacy of events described in Subversives.

Michael Ferguson: It took thirty years—and multiple FOIA requests and lawsuits—for you to gain release of the documents you sought. What can be done to make such research easier, both for journalists like you and for academic historians who need access to government records? How has the culture of government secrecy changed since the 1960s?

Seth Rosenfeld: Based on my experience, and the findings of other researchers, the culture of secrecy has been metastasizing, especially since September 11 and the institution of heightened security measures. I began the research that led to Subversives when I was a journalism student at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s, writing for the Daily Californian student newspaper. The Daily Cal had obtained some records under FOIA. I then submitted many new requests and brought five lawsuits under FOIA over a period of nearly thirty years to obtain the records for Subversives. As a result, I have worked with FBI records processed under six different presidential administrations. Government agencies have never fully embraced FOIA. Generally speaking, Democrats are friendlier to the act than Republicans. However, the memo that President Obama issued in support of FOIA after his first election apparently never reached the Justice Department, because the FBI has continued to make incomplete searches for records and unfounded claims of secrecy in redacting them.

It was necessary for me to bring my FOIA lawsuits independently of my job as an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, with the help of pro bono lawyers. (In an appendix to Subversives I describe my legal fight for the FBI files.) It would be great to see universities develop formal programs that use FOIA to obtain records of historic and public interest.

Michael Ferguson: What should we be most concerned about today?

Seth Rosenfeld: We should be concerned about increasing government secrecy, ensuring the maximum possible openness under FOIA, and having full accountability of our domestic intelligence agencies.

As Subversives shows, secrecy and power pose inherent threats to the democratic process, particularly during times of national emergency. Universities, which depend on open debate and dissent to pursue the truth and serve society, may be especially vulnerable.