Letter to the Editor: On Subversives: An Author's Perspective

Seth Rosenfeld, November 2012

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To the Editor:

Donna Jean Murch's article [Perspectives on History, October 2012] contains many serious misstatements about my book Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and my revelation that the late Richard Aoki, a revered radical leader and founder of the ethnic studies movement, was a paid FBI informant at the time he gave the Black Panthers some of their first guns and firearms training.

Murch misrepresents my findings on Aoki, falsely claiming I attributed the Panther's use of armed self-defense "solely" to Aoki. Nowhere do I suggest this. (Even so, Murch acknowledges "Aoki's central role in the Panthers' program of armed self-defense.")

If my finding that Aoki was a paid FBI informant is correct, Murch contends, "readers could logically infer that from its inception, the state guided the Black Panther Party's hand as it embraced the gun." Her assumption ignores the complexities and unknowns of informant operations. I have never said Aoki disrupted the Panthers, or that the FBI knew he was arming the Panthers or was involved in it.

Murch also mischaracterizes my research. She claims my conclusion that Aoki was a paid FBI informant rests on "a single FBI document and interviews of two people who are now deceased." Although reporting on intelligence activities is difficult and often relies on off-the-record sources, I relied only on on-the-record sources. These include a detailed, tape-recorded interview with Burney Threadgill, Jr., the former FBI agent who developed Aoki as an informant; thorough research about Aoki, including a review of all available material concerning him and interviews of people who knew him; and two interviews of Aoki during which he denied being an informant but, when pressed, added, "People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer."

After Aoki committed suicide in 2009, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all FBI records on him. The FBI released more than 1,800 pages. A November 16, 1967 report on the Panthers identified Aoki as informant T-2. I consulted with former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen, a critic of unlawful FBI activities, who gave me a sworn declaration, filed in court, stating his conclusion that Aoki had been an FBI informant.

I further tested my thesis about Aoki by examining other FBI records and instances of exposed informants. I then sued under the FOIA, challenging the FBI's claim it had no other responsive records on Aoki. My conclusion that Aoki was an informant was thus based on the totality of my research, as set out in my back notes.

Yet, Murch claims I rely on "outdated sources." She declares that had I consulted "new research" on the Panthers I would have reached a different conclusion. The only book she cites, however, is her own, published in 2010, and it contains little original research on either Aoki or the FBI (and no FOIA work). In fact, my selected bibliography and back notes cite hundreds of relevant books, dissertations and other sources. Still, the only research to date on Aoki as FBI informant is my own.

Murch complains that researching FBI records is "tremendously difficult, intricate, and expensive," and suggests I simply did not rise to this challenge. She fails to note that Subversives is based on more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released to me as a result of five successful lawsuits I brought under the FOIA. A court order recognized my expertise, stating, "Plaintiff has persuasively demonstrated in his affidavit that his research requires meticulous examination of records that may not on their face indicate much to an untrained observer." My fight for the files is detailed in the appendix.

Murch asserts I exaggerate Aoki's role, but he is just one of many characters in Subversives, which examines the FBI's covert operations at the University of California during the Cold War and traces the bureau's converging involvements with three protagonists, Ronald Reagan, Clark Kerr and Mario Savio.

Finally, my initial disclosure about Aoki has since been confirmed by 221 pages of Aoki's FBI informant file released to me as a result of my fifth lawsuit. I reported this in a September 7 news story posted at the website of the Center for Investigative Reporting, along with Aoki's file.

The full story of Richard Aoki has yet to emerge. But it is clear from their apparently concerted attacks that Murch and some other members of the academy are more concerned with protecting their versions of Aoki's history than in the scholarly examination of apparently inconvenient evidence.

—Seth Rosenfeld
San Francisco