Letters to the Editor

Author of 'Subversives' Responds to Book's Critics

Richard Aoki
September 23, 2012

To the Editor:

I write to correct serious errors, omissions, and misstatements about my new book—and particularly about my revelation that the late radical leader and ethnic-studies activist Richard M. Aoki was an FBI informant—in "Scholars Challenge Author's Assertion That 1960s Activist Worked for FBI" (The Chronicle, August 31).

My book, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), examines the FBI's covert activities concerning the University of California during the cold war. It focuses on the FBI's involvement with three key figures: Clark Kerr, the university's president; Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; and Ronald Reagan, then California's governor. I also profile many other figures, including Mr. Aoki, a revered activist in the San Francisco Bay Area, who I reveal was also a paid FBI informant at the time he gave the Black Panthers some of their first guns and firearms training in late 1966 and early 1967. I also made this disclosure in an article and video that were published contemporaneously with my book, the week of August 20.

My findings about Mr. Aoki and the journalistic method that led to them were widely accepted by the public and the press but sparked an angry response from a few professors specializing in ethnic studies and some of Mr. Aoki's friends and fellow activists. Instead of approaching my new evidence in an appropriately skeptical and scholarly way, these professors mischaracterized my evidence and made personal attacks on me. Unfortunately, The Chronicle did not provide a fair examination of this dispute.

I reported that Mr. Aoki had become an FBI informant after graduating from Berkeley High School in the late 1950s, and was still an informant when he armed the Panthers. Contrary to assertions by the aforementioned critics, and repeated by The Chronicle, I never stated the FBI knew of or was involved in his arming the Panthers. In fact, in both the video and article I made this clear.

Thus, Donna Jean Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers, is misinformed as quoted in The Chronicle that this was "a central claim" of my book and I had not substantiated it.

The Chronicle further reports: "Mr. Rosenfeld's critics say that his accusations against Mr. Aoki rely on one former FBI agent, now deceased, who said he was Mr. Aoki's handler in the years before his political activism, and one FBI document, redacted and, critics say, ambiguous." This may be what critics said, but it is not a fair description of my evidence, which I shall set forth below.

First, it should be noted that reporting on intelligence activities is notoriously difficult and often relies on off-the-record sources, but I relied only upon on-the-record sources. I first heard that Mr. Aoki was an informant from a retired FBI agent, Burney Threadgill Jr. I'd had several multiple-hour interviews with him in which we reviewed FBI records that I brought and discussed bureau operations under J. Edgar Hoover. Over a period of years, I had the opportunity to get to know Mr. Threadgill and assess his information and attitudes in regard to my research. One day Mr. Threadgill noticed Mr. Aoki's name in an FBI record I presented to him without prior notice, and he recalled that Mr. Aoki had been his informant. I subsequently interviewed Mr. Threadgill about Mr. Aoki in detail, and obtained an on-the-record statement that was taped with his permission. (Mr. Threadgill died in 2005.) However, this alone was not enough evidence for publication.

Mr. Threadgill had not mentioned Mr. Aoki before I showed him that record, and that was the first I had heard of Mr. Aoki. I proceeded to research Mr. Aoki, reading everything I could find and interviewing people who knew him over the years. In 2007 I interviewed Mr. Aoki twice, for about an hour each time, and in the second interview asked him if he had been an FBI informant. Mr. Aoki denied it, but when I pressed him further, he said, "People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer."

I still did not think I had enough evidence to report that Mr. Aoki had been an FBI informant. So after Mr. Aoki committed suicide, in 2009, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all FBI records concerning him. The FBI released more than 1,800 pages. One of these records, a November 16, 1967, report on the Black Panthers, identified Mr. Aoki as informant T-2.

I was confident of my interpretation of this document because, over the decades, I have reviewed tens of thousands of FBI records and closely studied the FBI's records-keeping practices. Subversives is based on more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released to me as a result of five hard-fought lawsuits I brought under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI frequently claimed that redacted information had to be withheld by law, but as a result of my challenges, seven federal judges ordered the FBI to release much additional information. One court order specifically 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."

Still, I went further and consulted with another former FBI agent, M. Wesley Swearingen, who after serving 25 years had criticized unlawful FBI activities under Hoover. Mr. Swearingen had helped vacate the murder conviction of the Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt on the ground that the FBI and Los Angeles police had failed to disclose that a key witness against him was an FBI informant. Mr. Swearingen reviewed some of my FBI records on Mr. Aoki and gave me a sworn declaration, filed in court, stating his conclusion that Mr. Aoki had been an FBI informant.

I further tested my thesis that Mr. Aoki was an FBI informant by examining other FBI records, as well as other examples of activists who had turned out to be informants. And in an effort to get additional evidence on Mr. Aoki, I filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act challenging the FBI's assertion that it had no other responsive records on Mr. Aoki.

My conclusion that Mr. Aoki was an informant was thus based on the totality of my research—not, as the critics contend, merely on Mr. Threadgill's statement and one FBI document. The detailed notes in my book make this clear.

The Chronicle quotes Diane C. Fujino, a professor and chair of the department of Asian-American studies at UC-Santa Barbara, as criticizing my findings on Mr. Aoki. The Chronicle presents Ms. Fujino as a dispassionate scholar and quotes her saying, "Anything is possible, and so I'm open to the truth."

Her book, a biography of Mr. Aoki, published four months before Subversives, is mainly an oral history that presents a glowing portrait of Mr. Aoki. Although Ms. Fujino offers her book as the definitive work on Mr. Aoki, she completely missed the fact that he was an FBI informant; my book revealed a gaping hole in her scholarship.

The Chronicle reports Ms. Fujino's opinion that Mr. Aoki's activities were inconsistent with her expectations of how an FBI informant would behave. But Ms. Fujino offers no basis for her unstudied opinion. In fact, Ms. Fujino acknowledged in a KPFA radio broadcast that she had obtained the same FBI document that identified Mr. Aoki as informant T-2 but had consulted no experts to help her interpret it, and her book makes no mention of any steps she took to research the FBI records or of any of the standard FBI reference works.

The Chronicle also fails to note that Ms. Fujino has been leading the charge against my revelation about Mr. Aoki. Instead of engaging in scholarly debate, Ms. Fujino published an article in the San Francisco Chronicle full of personal attacks (she wrote that she "questioned Rosenfeld's motives" because my article and video were published with the release of my book, even though any author and professor should know it is accepted practice to publish articles about newsworthy information in new books), misstatements (she declared, "the entirety of Rosenfeld's information relies on FBI sources"; she asked, if Mr. Aoki was an informant, "How did he help the FBI disrupt political movements?"—evidently not understanding that informants generally inform but do not disrupt, and ignoring the fact that I never reported he had disrupted anything); and wild speculation (she suggests twice that I was involved in putting a "snitch-jacket" on Mr. Aoki by framing him as an informant).

Although Ms. Fujino attacks my evidence as inadequate, she plainly does not understand FBI operations and provides not a scintilla of evidence for her false conspiracy charges.

Your article reports that "his critics say Mr. Rosenfeld's sourcing is irresponsible." In this regard, they point to one thing: a difference between my article and my video. The article quotes Mr. Aoki as saying, "People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer." The video includes audio of Mr. Aoki saying only: "It is complex. Layer upon layer."

My article, however, was not published as a transcript of the video. In editing the video, that first part of Mr. Aoki's quote was simply not included. Your reporter speculates that the two missing words "appear not to have been in that part of the interview." Wrong. The words are in the exchange immediately before the others.

Likewise, The Chronicle reports that my critics are bothered because I do not cite "recent books by historians and other scholars" that might be relevant to the Aoki matter in my back notes. Among the books cited by The Chronicle is Donna Jean Murch's Living for the City. I have examined her book, and it contains little original research on either Mr. Aoki or the FBI, and added nothing to my understanding of his role as an informant. Moreover, my selected bibliography is extensive and includes many recent works that I found relevant to my research.

The Chronicle quotes Scott Kurashige, a professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, as declaring that "if this were a scholarly work, it would not survive academic peer review. I dare say that it would likely fail even a dissertation defense."

The Chronicle again omits information that would have helped its readers evaluate Mr. Kurashige's comments. Mr. Kurashige had jumped into the debate from the start, stating in a widely circulated screed, "But let's remember that Rosenfeld is probably some kind of liberal, so let's conclude by bringing the scrutiny back where it belongs in this case. White liberals don't want to believe that there was an organic drive toward militancy and armed resistance in the age of Third World liberation. ..." In another missive, Mr. Kurashige announced about me, "He's working for himself and is not a movement person." Does this sound like objective scholarship, or stereotyping?

Like Ms. Fujino, Mr. Kurashige downplays my evidence but engages in irresponsible speculation, asserting that Mr. Threadgill may have even been spreading disinformation as a way of discrediting activists. Mr. Kurashige ignores the totality of my research, and again offers not a shred of evidence.

My book is heavily documented. The text itself is 502 pages, and the back matter—including an explanation of my legal fight for the files, citations, selected bibliography, source lists, and acknowledgments—fills another 204 pages (in a smaller font). I provide line-by-line citations to sources, citing FBI records by serial number. My back notes and citations are far more specific and extensive than those in either Ms. Fujino's or Ms. Murch's books. It should also be noted that in addition to my copious research, I circulated drafts of my text to four independent experts with different points of view, and the final text was reviewed by a lawyer.

The Chronicle makes other misstatements: It suggests that I had asserted that Mr. Aoki's lack of legal trouble for having a weapons collection was a basis for concluding he was an informant. It then quotes "scholars" objecting to that. In fact, I made no such assertion, and, moreover, to my knowledge there was nothing illegal about Mr. Aoki's weapons collection.

The Chronicle states that "the evidence Mr. Rosenfeld presents dates from the period in which Mr. Aoki attended activists' meetings but before the Black Panther Party was even formed." As your reporter should have known, this is not so. The FBI record that identifies Mr. Aoki as informant T-2 is dated November 16, 1967. The Panthers were formed in late 1966. But having made this false statement, The Chronicle then reports that a critic, Yohuru R. Williams of Fairfield University, asserts that I appear to draw a conclusion based on slight evidence and then project it forward.

Mr. Williams and his fellow critics in The Chronicle's article seem oddly ignorant of other instances of activists' being exposed as informants under similar circumstances. Two prominent examples: In his 1981 book, The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr., David J. Garrow revealed the identities of two high-level FBI informants inside the Communist Party. In 2010 the Memphis Commercial Appeal revealed that Ernest Withers, a longtime photographer of the civil-rights movement who was granted extraordinary access by Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders, was an FBI informant.

Rather than a scholarly discussion of the evidence, the critics cited by The Chronicle have engaged in mischaracterizing the evidence, emotionally charged attacks, and unfounded speculation. It is too bad that The Chronicle did not take the time to actually assess these claims and offer its readers a useful understanding of the debate.

In addition, I note that my initial disclosures that Mr. Aoki was an FBI informant during the period he armed the Panthers have been confirmed by the FBI's release to me of 221 pages of Mr. Aoki's FBI informant file. I reported this in a second article, on September 7, and posted Mr. Aoki's entire informant file, as released to me, at the Web site of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

These records are the result of my lawsuit. The FBI had maintained it had no other responsive files, but after hearing my evidence, the court ordered the FBI to make an additional release. Significantly, key among the evidence that I submitted to the court was the document that identified Mr. Aoki as informant T-2.

In response to The Chronicle's story, one reader posted a comment asking, "Who cares?" There are three reasons to care. First, that Mr. Aoki was a paid FBI informant when he armed the Panthers inescapably raises questions about what the FBI knew about it, given that Hoover was intent on destroying the Panthers. Second, Chronicle readers should be concerned about the quality of scholarly criticism within the academy, and it is evident that has been sorely deficient here. Finally, readers should be concerned that The Chronicle, entrusted to report responsibly on such matters, has in this instance been astonishingly careless.

When the dust settles, The Chronicle and its handful of critics will have no choice but to revise their accounts of Richard Aoki, who turns out to have been a far more complicated person than they knew.

Seth Rosenfeld

San Francisco