Un-American Activities: 'The Record of the FBI's Obsession [with Student Radicals] and Meddling Is Overwhelming ...'

By Gitlin, Todd | Nieman Reports, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Un-American Activities: 'The Record of the FBI's Obsession [with Student Radicals] and Meddling Is Overwhelming ...'


Gitlin, Todd, Nieman Reports


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

BY SETH ROSENFELD

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 734 pages.

IN 1977, THE DAILY CALIFORNIAN, THE University of California-Berkeley's student paper, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents bearing on FBI surveillance in Berkeley during the '60s and early '70s.

Four years later, Seth Rosenfeld, then a Daily Cal reporter, reviewed the 9,000 pages the FBI had finally released and wrote a few stories. Struck by how many files were missing or blacked out ("I wondered whether the bureau was America's biggest consumer of Magic Markers," Rosenfeld writes), he filed an additional request for "any and all" records on former UC-Berkeley 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 forcing the release of 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. Rosenfeld, who had a distinguished career as an investigative reporter for San Francisco's Examiner and Chronicle, supplemented the FBI archive with more than 150 interviews.

"Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power," the resulting book, is not only about campus surveillance and illicit espionage by America's top cops but about 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 laid hands on history--in particular, assisting the political rise of Ronald Reagan.

Rosenfeld has produced 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 Rosenfeld reports might be true, but wondered if 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 galley 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. Among the (so to speak) greatest hits are these:

* In 1961, long before a mass student movement erupted at Berkeley, the campus vice chancellor for student affairs was in touch with FBI agents about the campus activist group SLATE. Furthermore, he assured them of his belief that "recognition should be denied to any organization which may have as its motive, open or secret, the discrediting of the university, the Federal Government or any other well-established American ideals'--as if the right to political activity were not a well-established American ideal.

* In 1965, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover agreed to help the bureau's "close and trusted friend" Lewis F. Powell, Jr., who was preparing a talk about the Free Speech Movement. The report the bureau prepared for him emphasized the movement's "subversive element." Powell, who in his speech to lawyers denounced campus radicals, was 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. …

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