If you thought you got a glimpse into the workings of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, by watching the Hollywood film,"J.Edgar," this interview will open your eyes much wider.
Not only is Terry Gross one of the best interviewers in North America, by bringing intellect, insight, wit, humour and sensitivity to her encounters but her subjects invariably come pregnant with new and dramatic information, in this case, about the super-cozy relationship between one of America's heroes, Ronald Reagan, and the FBI, even though much of that relationship was kept under wraps for decades, prior to the release of his book.
From the npr website, August 21, 2012
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 UC 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 UC 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