In 1981, student journalist Seth Rosenfeld began researching the FBI's misconduct in its investigations of 1960s student protests at UC Berkeley. The project blossomed into a 30-year investigative odyssey, resulting in the release of 300,000 FBI documents, which the government spent over $1 million trying to block. Bob talks to Rosenfeld about some of the stunning revelations from his new book, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: On the campus at Berkeley, there was beginning a phase of this youth revolt that was to be heard around the world.
BOB GARFIELD: The political tumult of the 1960s, when the remnants of the Red Scare collided with Vietnam protests and the student Free Speech Movement had its epicenter on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.
MARIO SAVIO: And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
BOB GARFIELD: Movement leaders, such as 21-year-old Mario Savio, speaking here on the Berkeley campus in 1964, lit a fire under the FBI that raged for years. Student journalist Seth Rosenfeld got on the story and spent decades investigating FBI misconduct in pursuing the student movement. We spoke to Rosenfeld in 2012 when he published “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power.” It documents the secret relationships between the FBI and Ronald Reagan, handpicked journalists and with the radical movement itself. The book is based on some 300,000 FBI records obtained through five separate Freedom of Information Act requests, which the FBI spent more than a million dollars trying to fight. Among the revelations therein, Ronald Reagan’s long career as an FBI informant and collaborator, starting in the late forties when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
SETH ROSENFELD: Reagan continued as an informant through the 1950s. J. Edgar Hoover repaid the favor by giving Reagan personal and political help.
BOB GARFIELD: Such as intervention in family matters.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, in 1959, Ronald Reagan and his former wife, Jane Wyman, became concerned about their eldest daughter, Maureen Reagan. She was 19 years old and she had moved to Washington, D.C. and they had heard that she was living with an older, married policeman. Instead of simply calling up their daughter and asking her what was going on, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman turned to the FBI. One FBI agent posed as an insurance salesman and interviewed neighbors of Maureen Reagan. Another interviewed the cleaning lady. J. Edgar Hoover personally authorized an FBI investigation into the romantic life of Maureen Reagan.
BOB GARFIELD: You argue in the book that this relationship between Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover was the beginning of what turned out to be a historic trajectory.
SETH ROSENFELD: I think the FBI's relationship with Ronald Reagan starting in Hollywood and continuing through the 50's and 60's helps explain Ronald Regan's political evolution from being a liberal in Hollywood to becoming a staunch conservative and going onto the become the President who would face down the Soviet Union. When Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, J. Edgar Hoover finally had an ally in the Governor’s Mansion. A few weeks after Reagan took office he phoned the FBI and requested a confidential briefing, not only about student activists but also about University President Clark Kerr and liberal members of the Board of Regents. Hoover personally authorized this briefing. Two weeks later, Clark Kerr was fired as president of the University of California. In the months and years following, J. Edgar Hoover continued to give Ronald Reagan confidential reports about student activists and professors. Reagan used this information to quash student protests and other First Amendment activity at the University of California.
BOB GARFIELD: At the same time, the FBI was using friendly press to undermine its perceived enemies.
SETH ROSENFELD: One of the most prominent reporters in San Francisco was a man named Ed Montgomery. In 1951, Montgomery won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption involved underworld figures and officials of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, as the IRS was then known. All along, he had a secret relationship with the FBI. Montgomery was a larger-than-life character. He had dark swept-back hair, horned-rimmed eyeglasses. He wore a bulky hearing aid that he would, according to legend, sometimes lower through a heating duct so he could eavesdrop on conversations in other rooms. In the sixties, when student protests erupted at UC Berkeley, the FBI gave Montgomery information containing allegations that members of the Free Speech Movement had connections to the Communist Party. This information was greatly distorted because the FBI had already investigated the Free Speech Movement and knew that there was a tiny percentage of students who had some connection to the Communist Party or the Socialist Party. In fact, the Free Speech Movement included students of all political persuasions, including Young Republicans and Young Democrats. But the FBI provided these allegations to Montgomery and he ran a front-page series in the San Francisco Examiner, picked up widely around the country. In the following years, J. Edgar Hoover ordered other information leaked to Ed Montgomery to discredit the antiwar movement or to tarnish student activists or liberal professors who were involved in the antiwar movement.
BOB GARFIELD: And it wasn’t just Ed Montgomery. There was a number of friendly journalists who Hoover could count on to embellish the Communist threat narrative.
SETH ROSENFELD: He had actually created a program called the Mass Media Program, and there were scores of reporters around the country, reporters, broadcasters and editors who the FBI trusted to confidentially receive information and to report it, without revealing the FBI’s role in trying to influence public opinion. All this comes out in the FBI records that were released to me under the Freedom of Information Act.
BOB GARFIELD: As both a beneficiary of FOIA and its three-decades-long victim [LAUGHS], what’s your take on the state of the Freedom of Information Act in 2012?
SETH ROSENFELD: During the course of my research, I had the opportunity to study FBI records that had been released under six presidential administrations. I can say that while Democratic administrations are somewhat friendlier to the Freedom of Information Act than Republican administrations, there’s an enormous problem within the Federal Government of over-classifying documents. I was encouraged when President Obama, as one of his first acts in office, issued a strong statement in support of the Freedom of Information Act. But I soon came to realize that that memo apparently never reached the Justice Department. I want to note that today’s FBI is very different than J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. There’s much more public accountability, there’s much more congressional oversight. Nonetheless, I would say the FBI is withholding as much information under the Freedom of Information Act today as it did under the administrations of George Bush.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Seth, congratulations on the book. Now, I strongly advise you to go outside, just to, you know, live a little.
SETH ROSENFELD: [LAUGHS] Thank you so much. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Seth Rosenfeld is the author of “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power.”