Interview: Seth Rosenfeld, Author Of 'Subversives' Journalist Seth Rosenfeld spent three decades pursuing government documents about the FBI's undercover operation in Berkeley, Calif., during the student protest movements in the '60s. His book details how the FBI "used dirty tricks to stifle dissent on campus" and influenced Ronald Reagan's politics.
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Student 'Subversives' And The FBI's 'Dirty Tricks'

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Student 'Subversives' And The FBI's 'Dirty Tricks'

Student 'Subversives' And The FBI's 'Dirty Tricks'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Back in the 1960s, a lot of student activists suspected that the FBI was spying on them and trying to undermine their efforts. After a series of Freedom of Information Act, our guest, Seth Rosenfeld, secured 300,000 pages of government records, which show that yes, indeed, the FBI was very active on campuses, especially the University of California at Berkeley.

He writes that the documents show the FBI mounted a covert campaign to manipulate public opinion about events at Berkeley, spied on and harassed students, helped force out the university's president and ran a secret program to fire professors because of their political views. The documents also reveal a mutually beneficial and 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 book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power" is now out in paperback. Rosenfeld has been an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Terry spoke to him last August.


Seth Rosenfeld, welcome to FRESH AIR. We should just start with an explanation of 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 a 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.

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. So essentially, it was spying on constitutionally protected activity, such as circulating petitions or holding a rally or going to a demonstration.

GROSS: One of the things you learned was 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, 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 some time 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 quite shocked. 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 them 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.

GROSS: You write about what you learn from the Freedom of Information Act files, about how Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California, worked with the FBI to get the University of California at Berkeley President Clark Kerr removed from office. What did Reagan, with the FBI, do?

ROSENFELD: The FBI had been very frustrated with Clark Kerr for a long time. Hoover was very upset when Clark Kerr began to liberalize rules on political activities on campus. He saw Kerr as being too soft on protesters and maybe even a dangerous subversive himself. He tried to get Governor Pat Brown to fire Clark Kerr by secretly giving Pat Brown FBI reports about student protesters, and Pat Brown refused to that. He was a staunch ally of Clark Kerr's.

So when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1966, after a campaign in which he made the protests at Berkeley one of his top issues, Hoover welcomed Reagan as a breath of fresh air and worked with him to stifle student protesters and to remove Clark Kerr from the presidency of the university.

A few days after Ronald Reagan took office, he phoned the FBI, and he requested a secret briefing about student protesters, about liberal members of the board of regents and about Clark Kerr. A few weeks later, at the first board of regents meeting attended by Reagan, Reagan's board of regents fired Clark Kerr as one of its first acts.

GROSS: So this was not the first time that Ronald Reagan had worked with the FBI. Their relationship dated back to when Ronald Reagan was an actor. And you say that you learned from the Freedom of Information Act files that you got that Ronald Reagan informed on fellow actors far more than has been known, or at least more than has been known. I don't want to overstate it.

ROSENFELD: Yes, that's correct. Starting in Hollywood in the 1940s, Ronald Reagan developed a special relationship with the FBI. He became an FBI informer, reporting other actors whom he suspected of subversive activities, and later when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI had wide access to the Guild's information. At one point, the Guild turned over information on 54 actors it was investigating as possible subversives.

The FBI viewed Reagan as an extremely cooperative source in Hollywood. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later.

GROSS: And what's an example of one of those favors?

ROSENFELD: The FBI did a personal and political favor for Ronald Reagan in 1965. FBI agents at the time were investigating the Bonanno crime organization. Joe Bananas, as he was known, was one of the most notorious mobsters in America and had recently moved to Arizona.

FBI agents in Phoenix were investigating him when they discovered that Joe Bananas' son, Joseph Jr., was hanging out with Michael Reagan, who was the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, and they reported this to headquarters.

The agents proposed that they should interview Ronald Reagan to see if he had learned anything about the Bonannos through his son. This investigation, after all, was a top priority. But Hoover interceded. He ordered them not to interview Ronald Reagan, and he instead told the agents to warn Ronald Reagan that his son was consorting with the son of Joe Bananas.

Ronald Reagan was very grateful for this.

GROSS: You write that, you know, when Ronald Reagan was rising politically, there were parts of his past that could have been considered questionable because as governor, this meant, you know, overseeing the University of California system, which included, you know, atomic research laboratories and atomic research data. And so that's an important security position.

And there were a couple of things in Reagan's past that the FBI might have been concerned about if it was somebody other than Ronald Reagan. Do you want to discuss that?

ROSENFELD: One of the interesting themes that emerged in reviewing all these FBI documents was how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI used information. In the case of Clark Kerr, at one point he was a candidate to be secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

So the FBI did a background report, and Hoover used this as a pretext to send President Lyndon Johnson a report loaded with allegations that Kerr had associated with various subversives, even though the FBI had already investigated these allegations and knew that they were untrue. And this all comes out in the documents.

In contrast, when Ronald Reagan became governor, he had to undergo a similar background check because as governor, he would be a member of the board of regents and have oversight of the university's nuclear laboratories. During this investigation, the FBI went out of its way to help Ronald Reagan.

When Ronald Reagan filled out his personnel security questionnaire as part of this investigation, he failed to list a number of organizations that he was involved in, in Hollywood in the '40s, organizations that had been designated by the federal government as being subversive.

Normally, this would send up red flags with the FBI. It would be seen as a serious omission. But in Ronald Reagan's case, the FBI did not report that he had failed to include these organizations.

DAVIES: Seth Rosenfeld's book "Subversives" is now out in paperback. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with journalist Seth Rosenfeld. His book "Subversives: How the - The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power" is now out in paperback.

GROSS: Did you learn anything about how the relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan developed after Ronald Reagan became president?

ROSENFELD: Ronald Reagan's connection to the FBI begins in Hollywood in the late '40s. This was a time in his life when he was having trouble with his film career, his marriage was falling apart and his faith in the Democratic politics of his father were beginning to falter.

It was about - right about this time - that he was first approached by the FBI and told that communists were trying to take over Hollywood. This greatly affected Reagan. As he wrote in his memoir, the FBI agents opened his eyes to a good many things. He made fighting communism his main cause. He became an FBI informer. He supported the FBI publicly in speeches he gave and in return the FBI did certain personal and political favors for him.

One of the arguments in my book is that Reagan's secret relationship with the FBI had a profound impact on his political development. And later as president he goes on to stare down the Soviet Union.

GROSS: So the information that's in your book "Subversives" and that you've been sharing with us today, this is a result of five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and 30 years of research on your part. Why did it take five lawsuits to get the files released?

ROSENFELD: That's a good question.


ROSENFELD: I first got interested in the subject when I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the late '70s. I was a writer for the Daily Californian student newspaper. The Daily Cal had requested some FBI files on Berkeley under the Freedom of Information Act. So I looked at those files and I wrote a story about the FBI spying on the Free Speech Movement and on the Vietnam Day Committee.

They were published back in 1982. But I realized there was far more to the FBI's activities on campus. So I submitted a much larger Freedom of Information Act request. I figured I would get the files in maybe a year or so and write the story and go on to the next project. I had no idea that I was embarking on what would become a 31-year legal odyssey.

The FBI refused to release the files until I paid thousands of dollars in fees. So the first thing I had to do was file a lawsuit challenging their refusal to give me a fee waiver. The law provides that when releasing the records would primarily benefit the general public, government agencies are supposed to waive the fees.

So once I won the fee waiver, I went back to the FBI and asked them to release the records, but they were producing it so slowly we filed a second lawsuit. The court ordered the FBI to expedite its release of the files. When the FBI finally released a chunk of the files, they were heavily redacted.

So we filed a third lawsuit challenging the redactions in the FBI documents. The FBI refused to release a lot of the information on the ground that it concerned law enforcement operations or personal privacy. A federal judge looked at the records and concluded that they actually concerned, in many cases, unlawful political surveillance and efforts to get Clark Kerr fired from the presidency of the University of California. And the court ordered them released.

The FBI appealed the decision, and it went up to the federal appeals court. A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling and the FBI then filed a notice with the Supreme Court that it was challenging the appeals court decision. It was at that point that I reached a settlement with the FBI under which it would release the records and pay my attorney's fees of more than $600,000.

GROSS: Whoa.


GROSS: That's a lot of money.



GROSS: Yeah. It wasn't pro bono, huh?

ROSENFELD: It was pro bono. I was very fortunate to have the pro bono assistance of a small army of attorneys. Under the law, the attorneys were allowed to request that the court order the FBI to pay their fees and the FBI did pay more than $600,000 in attorney's fees.

But even then it was clear that FBI was still withholding records, so I filed a fourth lawsuit seeking records on Ronald Reagan. The FBI initially refused to release the records but ultimately released more than 10,000 pages. This is the most complete record of FBI documents concerning Ronald Reagan in his pre-presidential years that's been released.

These documents show that during the Cold War the FBI sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, by manipulating public opinion and taking sides in partisan politics. The FBI's efforts decades later to be improperly withhold these records from the public about its activities is in effect another attempt to shape history, this time by obscuring the past.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

ROSENFELD: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

DAVIES: Seth Rosenfeld's book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power" is now out in paperback. This is FRESH AIR.

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