The story of 1970s FBI informant Sheila O’Connor provides lessons for today’s progressive organizations about infiltration by the state security apparatus.
Back in 1972, Sheila O’Connor was a busy woman. She had a job in the Washington, DC office of the National Lawyers Guild. In her off time, she attended demonstrations organized by the Youth International Party (YIPPIES!), went to meetings of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization, and was a committed member of a study group of the Revolutionary Union, a Maoist organization now called the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
She had one other job: She was a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, code named “Reverend.”
The last several months have seen a certain controversy over the revelation that Richard Aoki – a Japanese-American 60s radical, secret member of the Black Panther Party, and a key force behind the struggle at UC Berkeley for ethnic studies – was a long-standing FBI informant. Putting aside for the moment the arguments of Aoki’s detractors and defenders, something on clear display in that case is how little is known – with the exception of those in law enforcement – about how informants operate. This is for good reason. In writing about the Aoki controversy, Trevor Griffey noted, “It is very rare for the FBI to ever release one of its informant files.” While it is the exception in the Aoki case that some of his files were released, they are nonetheless heavily redacted, raising nearly as many questions as they answer. That is not the case in the matter of Sheila O’Connor Rees: Those documents are hardly redacted at all, and are thus of enormous value in understanding the work of the political informant.
Sheila and John Rees
Sheila O’Connor Rees was one half of a duo of freelance spies. In the parlance of FBI coding, she was WF5728-PSI (Potential Security Informant), along with her husband, the British national/journalist/spy, John Herbert Rees, who was WF3796-PSI. Of the two, John Rees was better known, producing a journal called “Information Digest.” That journal served as a clearing house for information on the antiwar movement and radicals, and was made available to local police agencies. While Rees was not a paid FBI informant at the time, he was a paid informant for the DC Metro Police and, among other things, was subsidized by them to set up the Red House Bookstore in Washington, DC in 1971.1 The thinking was that this would bring Rees in touch with activists the police wanted to target.
For her part, Sheila Rees adopted her maiden name of O’Connor and used her ties in the DC activist community to become an FBI informant. As one document notes, O’Connor “is knowledgeable about and is in a position to supply information concerning the Revolutionary Union, United States China Friendship [US-China Peoples Friendship Association], National Lawyers Guild, YSA/Socialist Workers Party, Youth International Party and numerous subjects of investigative interest.”2
As we will see, John Rees’s work on the “Information Digest” would lead to the termination of Sheila’s work as a paid FBI informant, but that was in the future. First, she would spend considerable time and effort as a member of a collective of the Revolutionary Union, in Washington, DC.
The Revolutionary Union
The Revolutionary Union (RU) is not much known today outside of certain radical circles and 60s veterans. However, in the early 70s, it was a key concern and target of the FBI. The sense of how they were viewed comes through in the following breathless account in the New York Times in 1972: “The Revolutionary Union, a coalition of Maoist groups, [is] now operating in 10 states and [is] dedicated to destroying the Government and creating a Communist society.”3 All sensationalizing aside, the FBI saw the RU as a threat.
The RU got its start in the Bay Area in 1968 and 1969, through the initiative of political activists and Berkeley Free Speech Movement veterans Steve Hamilton and Robert Avakian. Along with them, were Stanford English Professor Bruce Franklin, his wife Jane Franklin, and ex-Communist Party and ex-Progressive Labor Party member Leibel Bergman. The group navigated the 1969 collapse of Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and came out the other end poised to expand. By the early 70s, this grouping of mainly recent college and graduate students was becoming the most influential Maoist organization in the country, and its members were beginning to insert themselves into various working-class communities and industries, as well as into larger social movements.
During 1969 and 1970, the RU was infiltrated by the husband and wife team of Betty Sue and Laurence Goff, two Christian missionaries who posed as a young radical-minded working-class couple. The Goffs had insinuated themselves to such a degree that Laurence Goff had become chair of his collective in San Jose and was able to attend an RU Central Committee meeting.4 The pair likely would have kept on had not a split in the organization sent them off with the minority faction. That faction, known as Venceremos (not to be mistaken with the volunteers who went to cut sugarcane in Cuba), advocated a certain version of urban guerrilla warfare in the US. In contrast, the RU advocated sending a cadre to organize the working class as a strategic way of preparing for a future revolution. As things turned out, Venceremos had limited longevity and faded after a couple years. In their later Congressional testimony, the Goffs offered the rather chilling assessment that Venceremos wouldn’t last because, “its members will be arrested or killed, before the organization can present a long range threat.”5 In contrast,
The Goffs offered the opinion that, of the two groups, the RU is the much more dangerous because of its long-range plan for revolution, the secrecy and subterfuge of its operations, and its concentration on building a ‘mass line’ among the working classes.6
By the early 70s, the domestic intelligence apparatus was strategically concerned with “heavy” radicals,7 like the RU, who had not gone the route of the Weathermen and other urban guerillas – forces who were by then largely in jail, forced into hiding and/or inactive. The RU in contrast was ascendant and a key target, even though they were neither illegal nor charged with engaging in illegal activity. So when the Revolutionary Union looked to expand and create a chapter in Washington, DC, the FBI welcomed the prospect of having someone inside. In fact, by 1973 they had an established doctrine of doing just that:
HQ experience has determined that the best possible time to target sources and informants for penetration of the RU is during the initial stage of development of new study groups and collectives. An effort should be made by WFO [Washington Field Office] to capitalize upon any logical means to place sources in contact with these groups.8
That is what Sheila O’Connor Rees volunteered to do. We know this because prior to joining the RU study group, she worked at – and spied on – the National Lawyers Guild as a secretary. Unfortunately for her, and thankfully for the forces of justice, the NLG had in 1977 sued the FBI over just such surveillance. In 2007, after years of legal wrangling, the courts ruled surveillance documents should be turned over to the Guild with a copy housed in New York University’s (invaluable) Tamiment Library. Contained in those documents was O’Connor’s informant file.9
On one level, the O’Connor file is a compilation of bureaucratic and bookkeeping items. There are the various memos authorizing her to be paid (on average $150 a month) and justifying those payments. It also documents the background check conducted on her and includes progress reports of her development as an informant. The heart of the file, though, is the short descriptive notes (typed up by her handlers) of what O’Connor was learning and of her goals:
Source has become a full member of the DCRU, and besides providing weekly summaries of the activities of the DCRU, source has set as one of her goals to find any information regards “secret members” of the RU.10
It also outlines specifically how she should go about the business of informing; stipulating she “not retain copies of informant reports, to submit these reports written in the third person, not to personally contact the office and to use a pay telephone when making phone contacts with the office.”11
While the FBI was mindful of its own security, there was a particular focus on dealing with unearthing (and presumably being able to undermine) the security of the group it was infiltrating. One report describes how the group, “devised a telephone code to prevent police or anyone else from bugging members (DCRU) phones from obtaining members’ phone numbers.”12 Another describes how one member talked about the need for security by “encouraging different locations for meetings.” Yet another claims to describe a member talking about the different types of RU members:
First, open, where everyone both inside and outside the RU knows the individual is an RU member. Second closed, where the RU member is known only to other RU members. And lastly secret, an individual known only to certain RU members.13
While allowances need to be made for the informant and her FBI handler’s (Special Agent, Robert Golden) distorted interpretations of what they were hearing in the study group, it is clear that the bulk of the measures the group took to operate outside the purview of the FBI were well compromised before they were ever implemented. The paradox is that the grouping was more than justified in wanting to avoid the surveillance of the FBI and other agencies. There is, however, a further irony. These discussions were held in the presence of not one, but two police agents. An informant report of May 1974, in the context of itemizing the status of various study group members, reveals the following jaw-dropper:
Ted Falk: Source advised TED FALK is a code name used by a Maryland State Police undercover agent who has penetrated the Military Law Project (MLP) and VVAW/WSO.14
Yet with all this, there is more going on than just spy versus spy machinations. What comes through tellingly is a political consciousness (albeit from the informer and FBI’s skewed lens):
The RU now views the national question (blacks, Chicanos, Indians), as no longer being primary. The changes in the US are now being made by the working-class black and white. This change in position cost the RU two allies. The Black Workers Congress and Puerto Rican Socialist Party.15 [Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, formerly the Young Lords Party]
This came in the midst of the RU having just been through a major internal struggle over how to approach the struggle of black and other non-white people and the relations of those movements to the broader working-class movement. That struggle led to the collapse of a coalition set to merge the three entities into a single communist organization – what would become the Revolutionary Communist Party (a small grouping that still exists today). This was a fortuitous event for the authorities who were already concerned about the RU’s expanding influence.
Beyond that, reports also trace the July 1974 visit to the DC area by Avakian, then a national spokesperson and soon-to-be Chairman of the Party, and other RU leaders who were on a national tour as part of efforts to build the Party.16 An entry recounts how Avakian spoke at American University about the RU’s success in going into the working class and the limitations of the October League (another Maoist grouping) “for being undependable and not following the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line correctly.”17 Again, this exhibits pronounced attention to political detail – and a basic political sophistication on the part of the informant, in contrast to the widely held caricature of the angry instigator. Obtaining such information was not just a matter of general curiosity to the FBI, but was information gathered to create divisions and encourage political infighting and schisms – something they had done to much effect within SDS, the Black Panthers, and other organizations. While it would be wrong to think the FBI was the main source of those divisions, they did leverage them to their advantage at every opportunity.
In the wake of Avakian’s visit, the work of the DC collective seems to have tapered off. As a result, O’Connor went fishing elsewhere. To keep her value for the FBI current, “When source noticed a lack of activity in the DCRU, she took upon her own initiative to take an active role in the RU-dominated organization, the Baltimore Newsreel.”18
Alas, it would be short-lived. O’Connor’s undoing was ultimately bound up with the number of pots she had her hand in. Her file ends abruptly in 1976 when the FBI learned the New York State legislature was investigating John Rees’s “Information Digest,” and was intending to subpoena him and his wife to testify. The FBI concluded,
This exposure of informant, although not identifying her as a Bureau informant, renders the Bureau susceptible to numerous inquiries. It will also nullify her value as an informant. WFO advised in referenced Bureau telephone call that this informant is not invaluable.19
In the parlance of the FBI, the “captioned case should be closed.” O’Connor was dropped as an informant. By that time O’Connor had a job working as a researcher with Congressman and John Birch Society member, Larry McDonald, after having earlier been fired from working for the House Internal Security Committee (the new name given to the old, House Committee on Un-American Activities). As for John Rees, by the early 1980s, he was working with McDonald’s private intelligence operation, Western Goals.
Informants Then and Now
Much has changed since those heady days of the 70s, yet the use of informants is still a staple of law enforcement. Witness, for example, the FBI’s prominent display of an FAQ on its web site: “Use of informants to assist in the investigation of criminal activity may involve an element of deception, intrusion into the privacy of individuals, or cooperation with persons whose reliability and motivation may be open to question.” Such informants are, however, still essentially freelancers. “Informants are individuals who supply information to the FBI on a confidential basis. They are not hired or trained employees of the FBI, although they may receive compensation in some instances for their information and expenses.”
It remains the case that the FBI and police continue to use informants not only in criminal investigations, but also to infiltrate peaceful and law-abiding organizations exercising their civil rights. In the past decade-plus, the use of informants has remained the currency of the US security apparatus. The case of protests at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 is exemplary of this, where Pennsylvania State Police posed as “workers” to infiltrate protestors (and set them up for arrest). There also have been characters, like Brandon Darby, who was an FBI informant targeting activists at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Most recently, the Occupy Movement has had to confront the specter of informants worming their way into that movement.
The presence of informants has, and continues to have, a pronounced negative effect among progressive and radical-minded movements and people. Too often, in confronting this specter, progressives either lapse into a hyper-paranoia that sees police agents everywhere and moves a grouping to disproportionately focus on such things, or alternatively, display reckless disregard and thus unnecessary vulnerability. Informants are at once part of the terrain to be taken seriously, but at the same time a force that needs to be put into context. As Temple University historian Heather Thompson stated with respect to the 60s framework, “The extent to which the FBI sought to infiltrate and undermine the social and political movements of the 60s and 70s is not all that surprising. What is remarkable is how much those movements were able to accomplish despite such determined infiltration.”20
This article was written with the assistance of researcher Conor Gallagher.
Memo to Director, FBI, From SAC WFO, 8/24/73. From the National Lawyers Guild records, TAM.191, Box 205. Tamiment Collection, New York University. All memos and reports referenced below are contained in TAM.191, Box 205