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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. J. Edgar Hoover famously called the Black Panthers, without question, the greatest threat to the internal security of the country. Well recently, released documents appear to show that Hoover had an informant inside the group. That man committed suicide a few years ago. But NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, he was a fascinating character who stoked questions about his allegiances to the very end.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Their official name was the Black Panther Party of Self Defense.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) No more brothers in jail. The pigs are going to catch hell. Off the pigs.

GONZALES: Founded in 1966, the group insisted that someone had to stand up to the police.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) No more brothers in jail. The pigs are going to catch hell. Off the pigs.

GONZALES: Black Panther co-founder, Bobby Seale:

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BOBBY SEALE: We want an end to police brutality and murder of black people. This is very, very important and here's whether you know it or not is where you start dealing with the Black Revolution.

GONZALES: It was a time of high emotion as the Black Panthers armed themselves for community patrols. That eventually led to gun battles leaving dead police and dead Panthers. A couple of years later, Seale published a memoir revealing that some of the very first guns the Panthers got their hands on came from, in his words, a Japanese radical cat. His name was Richard Aoki.

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RICHARD AOKI: You might say I was a founding member of the Black Panther Party.

GONZALES: Aoki was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and was interned along with tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. After the war, he grew up in predominantly black West Oakland. Aoki joined the Army straight out of high school, serving one year of active duty and seven years in the Reserves. In a 2009 documentary about the Black Panthers, produced by the Peralta Community College District, Aoki described himself as a very gung-ho soldier.

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AOKI: I wanted to be a career soldier. I was going to be the first Japanese-American general in the history of the United States Army and worked my way up through the ranks.

GONZALES: But that dream had faded by the time he was honorably discharged in 1964 after he became disenchanted with the war in Vietnam. He gravitated towards left wing groups and attended Merritt College in Oakland. That's where he met two students who were creating the Black Panther Party: Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.

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AOKI: And then Huey said we want you to join, Richard. And I said, say what? I said, I know you two are crazy, you know, but are you guys color-blind? You know, I'm not black. He said, I know you're not black, Richard, but I'm asking you to join because the struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers.

GONZALES: Aoki became the minister of education for the Black Panther's Berkeley branch. Three years later, he was a prominent leader of a sometimes violent student strike, demanding ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. All the while, no one suspected the makings of a mystery that lasts until today. Was Black Panther leader, Richard Aoki, living two lives?

SETH ROSENFELD: Richard Aoki is a fascinating person.

GONZALES: Seth Rosenfeld is the author of a new book about the FBI's covert surveillance of student protesters at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.

ROSENFELD: On the one hand he was Japanese, on the other hand he was American. On the one hand he was a gangster, on the other hand he was a brilliant student. On the one hand he was a militant activist, on the other hand he was working for J. Edgar Hoover.

GONZALES: Rosenfeld bases that claim on documents released by the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. He has successfully sued the FBI five times to get access to more than 300,000 pages of heavily redacted bureau documents. You can see some of those documents at npr.org. More than 200 pages relate to Aoki's activities as a paid informant from 1961 to 1977. Rosenfeld spent 30 years researching his book. He says he first heard that Aoki was an FBI informant in 2001 from a now deceased former agent named Bernie Threadgill. In 2007, Rosenfeld got a chance to ask Aoki himself about those claims. And he shared his tape recordings of that interview.

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ROSENFELD: I'm wondering if you remember a guy named Bernie Threadgill?

AOKI: Bernie Threadgill?

ROSENFELD: Yeah.

AOKI: No, I don't think so.

ROSENFELD: What I was told in my research that during this period of time you actually worked for the FBI.

AOKI: They tell you that?

ROSENFELD: Bernie told me that.

AOKI: He did?

ROSENFELD: He did.

AOKI: Oh. That's insane.

GONZALES: Rosenfeld kept pressing Aoki.

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ROSENFELD: Am I wrong?

AOKI: I think you are.

ROSENFELD: Yeah. So, would you say it's untrue that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?

AOKI: I would say...

ROSENFELD: Yeah.

AOKI: ...people change.

ROSENFELD: People change, sure. And, I'm trying to understand the complexities about it and I think.

AOKI: It is complex.

ROSENFELD: I believe it is. And...

AOKI: Layer upon layer.

GONZALES: Huh? What is Aoki saying here? Is he confessing or simply being coy? The answer may depend on whether you accept Rosenfeld's conclusion that Aoki did indeed work for the FBI. There are a lot of people who don't believe it. On a recent weekday night, a few dozen people, many of them old activists, Panther supporters or family and friends of Richard Aoki, met in an Oakland library to discuss Rosenfeld's allegations.

DIANE FUJINO: I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm not going and saying this was all fabricated. I do question the timing of some of these things.

GONZALES: Diane Fujino is a professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of her own biography of Richard Aoki published this year. She has been Seth Rosenfeld's most outspoken critic. Fujino says she's also seen the FBI documents but she still has her doubts.

FUJINO: For an FBI agent to reveal the identity of an informant is a serious breach of FBI protocol. You know, why would he do this all of a sudden? It seemed a little odd.

GONZALES: An FBI spokesman declined comment on Rosenfeld's allegations. Rosenfeld says more FBI records probably would answer some important questions about its relationship with Richard Aoki.

ROSENFELD: What did the FBI know about Richard Aoki arming the Black Panthers and was he FBI involved? I don't know the answer to that question. But I think it's incumbent on the FBI to offer a full explanation to the community. Especially in light of the fatal consequences of the Panthers' involvement with guns.

GONZALES: Richard Aoki took his secrets to his grave. He was 71 and ill when he committed suicide in 2009. But before shooting himself, Aoki neatly laid out two sets of clothing: his freshly pressed Army uniform and a black leather jacket, black trousers and beret - his uniform as a Black Panther. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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CORNISH: This is NPR.

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