In 1977, The Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student paper, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents bearing on FBI surveillance in Berkeley during the 60’s and early 70’s. In 1981, Seth Rosenfeld, then a Daily Cal reporter, started reading those files that the FBI turned over. He published some initial reports. Later that year, having observed how many files were missing or blacked out (“I wondered whether the bureau was America’s biggest consumer of Magic Markers,” he writes), he filed an additional request for “any and all” records on former UC President Clark Kerr, former Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, and more than a hundred other individuals, organizations, and events. Five lawsuits, many more Magic Markers, and 30 years later, he had succeeded in retrieving more than 300,000 pages of records, a federal judge having ruled that the FBI had no legitimate law enforcement purpose in keeping them secret. His venture in unearthing records about illicit espionage and political operations by America’s chief cops extended throughout, and outlasted, Rosenfeld’s distinguished career as an investigative reporter for San Francisco’s Examiner and Chronicle.
The resulting book is not only about campus surveillance but political causation. Much of it concerns the backstage maneuvers of a right-wing electoral-administrative conspiracy (an accurate word, for once) to subvert First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, press, and assembly. To clarify: Officials not only collected information, true and false, but they illegally shaped events—in particular, the political rise of Ronald Reagan in California politics. Rosenfeld has thoroughly digested various illegal and undemocratic efforts of this sort, supplementing the FBI archive with some two hundred interviews and arriving at a scrupulous chronicle and analysis of America’s deep politics, the likes of which exists nowhere else. This writer has long surmised that some of what he reports might be true, but wondered if his paranoia was getting the better of him. It was not. The record of the FBI’s obsession and meddling is overwhelming and, across the abyss of time, still shocking. (I should disclose that I read the proofs to write a blurb several months ago, but even on second reading, I’m bowled over by what Rosenfeld has found.)
What he uncovered is, to use a word of that era, dynamite. It would take the length of this review even to list bullet points of (so to speak) greatest hits, but among them are these:
• Starting in 1961, long before a mass student movement erupted at Berkeley, the campus vice chancellor for student affairs was telling tales to the FBI.
• In 1965, Hoover ordered up a report for his “close and trusted friend” Lewis Powell, so that Powell could give a talk denouncing campus radicals. (This was the same Lewis Powell later appointed by Richard Nixon to the Supreme Court.)
• An FBI informer, who had cut his espionage teeth infiltrating the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party in Berkeley, procured firearms for the budding Black Panther Party.
• The FBI colluded with Ronald Reagan before he was a political candidate, while he was a gubernatorial candidate, while he was governor of California, and thereafter. Sharing a political agenda—to root out Communists–they scratched each others’ backs for decades.
• Their collaboration began during his years as a Hollywood performer ferreting out suspected Communists. As Reagan rendered favors, so did the FBI render them back. Among other things, they snooped on his daughter at the behest of her parents, helped protect one of his sons from scandal, and not least, during his first month in Sacramento, met secretly with him to spill intelligence about student protests and help him drive Clark Kerr out of the university presidency. Earlier, Hoover had also helped disqualify Kerr for a cabinet appointment by Lyndon B. Johnson.
There is, as they say, much more. But the story Rosenfeld tells so lucidly and at such necessary length should not be considered “ancient history,” a quarry for the antiquarian delectation of specialists and veterans. It points to something even more vast and unexplored: presumed troves of evidence concerning the surveillance of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of American citizens by government agencies, unrelated to any legitimate law enforcement purposes, and sequestered from public view for decades. In particular, Rosenfeld’s account raises the question of what else the FBI, and the CIA, and military intelligence knew about who was doing what in the ‘60s and ‘70s; and when they knew it; and who else they told.
There is plenty of talk about government transparency. But transparency gets encrusted over time. If we are interested in buried truth, it is a matter of urgency to get busy. To put it bluntly, those who were surveilled, infiltrated, and manipulated are passing away. So are those who conducted the surveillance, the infiltration, and manipulation. To make matters worse, the newspapers that fed Seth Rosenfeld during his years of dogged industry have cut to the bone.
Is this “ancient history”? Events of those years still cloud American politics. (See: Ayers, Bill.) Conventional wisdom about the past is alive—one may say festering — in the present. Rosenfeld convincingly shows that a picture of the student left of those years that fails to take government operations into account is askew. I write this as one who has long doubted that so-called intelligence operations can, by themselves, explain America’s political fortunes or even the demise of the New Left. I still doubt it. But this is one reason why we need journalists and historians: to unearth what is buried; to doubt our doubt. It’s past time for an onslaught of pro bono legal and journalistic work. Rosenfeld points the way.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]