Investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld never imagined his new book would attract so much criticism after it named 1960s Bay Area activist Richard Aoki an undercover FBI informant.
“Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” is a nonfiction book that details the history of the FBI’s secret activities surrounding the University of California, Berkeley, during the 1960s. The facts from the book are compiled from more than 300,000 confidential FBI pages gained through the Freedom of Information Act over the course of 31 years. During those three decades, Rosenfeld had to sue the FBI five times, forcing the agency to hand over the documents. The book also draws on hundreds of interviews and historical research.
The book’s 502-page-long narrative examines the FBI’s activities and influence behind the scenes of the political arena on the Berkeley campus. It focuses three historic figures: Ronald Reagan, who leveraged his FBI informer status and the protests at Berkeley to get elected as California Governor; Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California’s eight campuses who got fired thanks to Reagan’s influence on the Board of Regents; and Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley campus.
Yet, the loudest outcry from critics arose from a small part of Rosenfeld’s research that outs Richard Aoki, a political activist with ties to the communist-socialist party and the Black Panthers, as an informant. It is well documented that Aoki first armed and trained the Panthers. According to the FBI records Rosenfeld obtained, Aoki was operating as an undercover informant during these times.
A day before the book hit the shelves on August 21, Rosenfeld, with the Center for Investigative Research, published an article and video that revealed to the public for the first time Aoki’s role as a paid FBI informant — to the astonishment and anger of many people.
“I knew this information would be somewhat controversial because Richard Aoki is a very revered figure within the activist community in Berkeley and the Asian American community,” said Rosenfeld during his book event at the University of California, Berkeley on Sept 19. “I expected people to be skeptical and some debate, but I was not prepared for some of the personal attacks made on me as a result of reporting the real story.”
Editorials rebutting Rosenfeld’s claims and attacking his character sprung up in papers from the San Francisco Bay View to The Chronicle of Higher Education. A great deal of misinformation spread through the media and Rosenfeld wrote a scathing letter to the editor of The Chronicle that cited many inaccuracies in their original report and reaffirmed his position and described updated facts.
Democracy Now aired a debate between Rosenfeld and Diane Fujino, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Aoki’s biography. She said on Democracy Now, and in her editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, that the FBI was trying to “snitch jacket” Aoki, a tactic used to discredit someone by releasing fake informant records. She also said the records and testimony were unsubstantial and flimsy.
Since the release of his book Rosenfeld has sued the FBI again (the fifth time), and received an additional 221 pages on Aoki. The records indicate that Aoki worked as an informant from 1961 to 1977. However, the records are heavily redacted and don’t reveal to what extent Aoki’s role was as an informant, or any information he may have given the FBI.
During a book discussion hosted by the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and led by longtime friend and colleague Lowell Bergman, Rosenfeld fielded questions from an audience where many had graying hair, glasses, bald spots, hearing aids and a couple people even walked in carrying copies of the New Yorker. Many questions centered on Aoki. They either wanted to know what his role was as an FBI informant during his time as a Black Panther or they remained skeptical about Aoki’s involvement with the FBI and questioned Rosenfeld’s evidence and procedures.
Rosenfeld maintains there isn’t any evidence of FBI “snitch jacketing,” or Aoki working as a double agent, but there is ample evidence that he worked as a paid, FBI informant—anything else at this time is speculation, he said.
One man asked Rosenfeld what the activist of today can learn from his research. He said that the organizations, like Occupy, can protect themselves by operating openly, transparently and nonviolently. Rosenfeld added that he wasn’t aware of FBI infiltration on U.S. universities at present time.
“The FBI today,” said Rosenfeld, “is very different than J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.”
However, Bergman, a professor in the Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley’s journalism school, said that the FBI is currently focused on the Islamic communities in the U.S. and conduct massive infiltration operation within those communities.
Brian Rinker is a journalism major at San Francisco State University, and was an inaugural participant in the Guild’s summer program Bay News Rising.