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When a Celebrated Activist Turns Out To Be an FBI Informant

Civil rights activist and Black Panther Party member Richard Aoki. (Photo: oso / flickr)

Richard Aoki was a well-known activist in the San Francisco Bay Area – celebrated for his role as one of only a handful of Asian American members of the Black Panther Party, a leader in UC Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a mentor to a generation of left-leaning activists.

So when the journalist Seth Rosenfeld alleged in August 2012 that Aoki was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Rosenfeld shocked Aoki’s family, friends, and allies. He also sought to shake up how we tell black freedom movement history by playing up the fact that Aoki provided the founders of the Black Panther Party (BPP) with their first guns. In the process, Rosenfeld raised important questions about what it is that informants do and what it means when an ally in struggles against government racism and police repression turns out to be an informant for the government.

Rosenfeld’s allegations were surprising in part because they followed on the heels of the creation of two recent celebratory histories of Richard Aoki’s life. Aoki died in March 2009. In November of that year, activist filmmakers released a history of his work with documentary film, Aoki. And in April, 2012, University of Minnesota Press published a scholarly, 496 page biography of Aoki titled Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.

Only four months after the publication of Samurai Among Panthers, Rosenfeld alleged in an August 20 news article that “the man who armed the Black Panthers was FBI informant, records show.”

Rosenfeld tread gently on the revered figure’s memory. Having chosen not to share his research with activists or historians beforehand, he announced that “unbeknownst to his fellow activists, Aoki had served as an FBI intelligence informant, covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups.” Rosenfeld described asking Aoki directly, during an oral history interview, whether he had been an informant (Aoki denied it). And Rosenfeld twice mentioned in his story that Aoki committed suicide in 2009. Could Aoki have committed suicide out of fear that Rosenfeld would expose him? Rosenfeld didn’t speculate overtly about Aoki’s decision. But he seemed to raise the issue by paying significant attention to the way that Aoki died (something few others have dwelled upon).

Rosenfeld’s story was provocative, and arguably sensationalistic. Rosenfeld’s highlighting of Aoki’s connection to the BPP piqued international interest. He played up that interest when he wrote that after Aoki provided guns to the Black Panthers, “although carrying weapons was legal at the time, there is little doubt their presence contributed to fatal confrontations between the Panthers and the police.” It was an exaggeration that played to headlines. Rosenfeld seemed to be suggesting, without explicitly saying or proving, that Aoki acted on behalf of the FBI, and therefore the FBI set the Black Panthers up; the BPP might not have armed themselves had it not been for Aoki or the FBI; and that carrying guns was a major cause of the Panthers’ later “fatal confrontations” with police.

Rosenfeld published his story on Aoki just one day before the formal release of his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. As his allegations raced around the globe, the exposure of Aoki as an informant not coincidentally also delivered extraordinary free publicity for Rosenfeld’s new book.

The method that Rosenfeld first used to out Aoki as an informant put Aoki’s allies, friends and historians on the defensive. For weeks afterward, a number of people sympathetic with Aoki and/or the Black Panther Party – including Aoki’s biographer Diane C. Fujino, Asian American Studies professor Scott Kurashige, and Black Panther historian Donna Murch – criticized Rosenfeld for his use of evidence, while also suggesting that his liberal politics distorted his ability to portray Aoki or the Black Panther Party in a sympathetic or even historically responsible way. The San Francisco Bay View also published a number of defenses of Aoki by former Panthers and their allies.

Then, according to Rosenfeld, “The FBI released [new] records [on Aoki] as a result of a lawsuit [by Rosenfeld] under the Freedom of Information Act after the initial story and video were completed.” These weren’t just any records. In a remarkable turn of events, Rosenfeld was able to use the courts to compel the FBI to do something that it almost never does: release its file on an informant.

When Rosenfeld published this file (FBI Headquarters file 134-10010, or 134-HQ-10010 for short) in response to his critics on September 7, with the story “FBI files reveal new details about informant who armed Black Panthers,” he conclusively proved (in my opinion) that Aoki was an informant for the FBI. The only question that remains is what kind of informant Aoki was.

In what follows, I offer a close reading of FBI documents to explain how and why they prove that Aoki was an informant. I also use the documents to draw attention to potential ambiguities in the relationship between Aoki and the FBI, to raise questions that can only be answered with further research and to identify documents whose declassification might help us better understand Aoki’s dual role as informant and activist.

Informant T-2

When Seth Rosenfeld first alleged that Aoki was an FBI informant, Rosenfeld had two compelling pieces of evidence. His biggest scoop was that former FBI Agent Burney Threadgill Jr. reportedly told him that Threadgill developed Aoki as an informant in the early 1960s, and that “he was one of the best sources we had.” FBI agents rarely if ever disclose the identities of their informants, so the fact that Rosenfeld got Threadgill to go on the record with such information before Threadgill passed away in 2005 is remarkable.

But Rosenfeld still needed corroboration of Threadgill’s claim. And he seemed to find that in a single page of a single FBI document on the Black Panther Party. According to Rosenfeld’s article, “a Nov. 16, 1967, intelligence report on the Black Panthers lists Aoki as an ‘informant’ with the code number ‘T-2.’ “

Calling Aoki informant “T-2” was misleading. FBI reports regularly used “T” symbols to identify a source throughout a single report. FBI agents, instead of naming a source multiple times in their lengthy memoranda to FBI Headquarters, would instead cite “T-1,” “T-2,” or “T-3” as shorthand. Each T number would then be listed at the end of a report, identifying the corresponding source. A “T” symbol in an FBI report is an endnote, not a symbol reserved exclusively for informants. It could represent an informant in a particular report. But it could also represent a person that an FBI agent spoke with (even under a false pretext), a newspaper article, the transcript of a conversation captured by an illegal wiretap, or any other public or private source of information. In addition, the use of one “T” symbol in one report did not oblige the FBI to use the same “T” symbol for the same source in other reports.

So contrary to Rosenfeld’s initial claim, the description of Aoki as “T-2” offers no proof that he was an informant. This is perhaps why the FBI did not fully redact the page that disclosed this information: That Aoki was listed as a source for an FBI report does not prove that he had any formal relationship with the FBI.

What does indicate that Aoki was an informant is that on the same page from the November 16, 1967 document (FBI document 105-HQ-165706-22) that identified Aoki as source “T-2,” the types of sources listed with T symbols in that specific report are described as “INFORMANTS” (underline in original) used by the FBI as part of its investigation of the Black Panther Party. By not redacting the word “informant” and by clearly identifying “T-2” in that particular report with Aoki, the FBI inadvertently provided a crucial piece of evidence that Aoki was an informant for the FBI who reported on the Black Panthers. A number of Rosenfeld’s critics treated this evidence as flimsy, but I think it’s pretty damning, even if it doesn’t provide any details about Aoki’s specific work as an informant.

Rosenfeld also cited his interview with former FBI Agent M. Wesley Swearingen, and his interview with Aoki, as further evidence that Aoki was an FBI informant. These were important people to interview. Swearingen served as lead analyst of FBI intelligence on the Panthers for the San Francisco field office (see his interview with Roz Payne for the DVD set, What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library). But neither the interview with Swearingen or Aoki provided solid evidence to prove or disprove Rosenfeld’s allegation.

Precedent-Setting Release of Informant File

It is very rare for the FBI to ever release one of its informant files. Files with a 134 prefix contain the FBI’s paperwork about its cultivation, use and discontinuance of informants. Though prohibited by a consent decree with the National Archives from destroying its informant files, the FBI also has wide latitude under the Freedom of Information Act to forever refuse to release files to the public. Long after an informant has ceased to work for the Bureau, long after the subject of investigation has lost any significance (if it ever had any) pertaining to law enforcement or national security, even long after an informant’s death, the FBI will still refuse as a matter of policy to disclose the name of any past informant. Indeed, FOIA law allows the FBI to refuse to even acknowledge the existence of informant files, even when requested by name.

Why is the FBI so protective of informants’ identities? Because, the FBI argues, to reveal a past informant’s identity undermines the FBI’s ability to recruit and maintain its informants today. The possibility of future exposure could discourage potential informants from enlisting in the US government’s current domestic intelligence programs. In this way, the FBI seeks to use its control of the past to continue to exert control over the present and future.

People protective of Aoki’s legacy have questioned why the FBI would release Aoki’s informant file to Seth Rosenfeld, given its longstanding protection of informant identities. They have speculated that perhaps the FBI did so maliciously: to slander a revered activist, not engage in an honest historical reckoning. “Why are they ONLY NOW coming to public light?” asked longtime Asian American activist and scholar Fred Ho when Rosenfeld released Aoki’s FBI file to the public. “If one wants to entertain motives, were these documents fed to Rosenfeld only recently with the blowback he’s faced?”

Ho’s speculation is understandable but, in my opinion, unfounded. First, there is the issue of timing. According to markings on the FBI file released to Aoki, the material in the file was declassified on July 18 and July 19, 2012 – one month before Rosenfeld publicly accused Aoki of being an informant and therefore before he received any “blowback.”

Second, there is the issue of the method that Rosenfeld received Aoki’s file. He acquired it through litigation, not through FOIA. In other words, Rosenfeld had to use the federal courts to compel the FBI to release a file it had already chosen not to release to him in response to his FOIA request in 2009 (the date of the search slips provided to Rosenfeld by the FBI). Rosenfeld filed suit against the FBI for Aoki’s file on April 29, 2011. It took over a year for the FBI to even begin to declassify the file – which hardly suggests that the FBI just willfully handed the information over.

Still, some continue to suggest that the FBI is “snitch-jacketing” Aoki – i.e. that the FBI is releasing fake documents purporting to indicate that Aoki was an informant to attach the label (or “jacket”) of “snitch” on him and discredit him. Aoki biographer Diane Fujino first hinted at this possibility in a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle after Rosenfeld published his first story. Even after the release of Aoki’s informant file, John Studer wrote for the Militant that Rosenfeld’s allegations were nothing more than “FBI ‘snitch-jacket’ allegations against [a] deceased activist.” But the knowledge that the FBI even engaged in “snitch-jacketing” comes from the release of FBI files about its counterintelligence programs. To use those FBI documents to then discredit another set of FBI files without additional information seems to indicate a selective use of evidence. It also ignores another possible explanation for why the FBI may have released Aoki’s informant file: The FBI didn’t value his service enough or didn’t see sufficient threat to contemporary national security to disobey a court order to release the file.

I have not seen the court’s judgment in the litigation that Rosenfeld used to compel the FBI to release Aoki’s file to him. But Rosenfeld’s decades-long lawsuit over FBI files related to Ronald Reagan and UC Berkeley may have undermined the FBI’s credibility with the court. More importantly, once the government has “officially confirmed” someone’s status as an informant, that person’s informant file may no longer be withheld from FOIA requests. One could argue that the FBI’s accidental release of information about Aoki’s informant status legally required it to release far more than it wanted to about Aoki. Whether Rosenfeld used the courts to make this case is unclear. But the latest release of documents to Rosenfeld certainly seems to constitute “official confirmation,” and therefore opens the door to a full accounting over Aoki’s relationship with the FBI sometime in the future.

Seth Rosenfeld’s acquisition of Richard Aoki’s informant file, 134-HQ-10010, is therefore no small accomplishment and one that the FBI is probably still smarting over. It’s unclear whether the file’s release could serve as a legal precedent for future disclosures of informant identities. But the recent outing of Richard Aoki and Ernest Withers as informants have certainly increased public awareness of FBI domestic intelligence practices. It would not be surprising, based on these precedents, if we were to see more popular demands that the FBI open up its informant files well beyond the documents that it has on these two individuals.

The Format of FBI File 134-HQ-10010

To understand the informant file released to Rosenfeld, we first have to make sense of its format. FBI file 134-HQ-10010 consists entirely of correspondence between the San Francisco field office and FBI Headquarters. It is the record of field office requests to use Aoki as a certain kind of informant, updates on his informant status, and requests for reimbursement of certain kinds of expenses Aoki claims to have incurred. There may also be requests to use Aoki in particular ways, but if so, those requests are entirely redacted.

Aoki’s FBI informant file seems to indicate that FBI field offices are required to periodically update the headquarters on their use of informants. In nearly every piece of correspondence, the field office rationalizes its use of Aoki as an informant and regularly emphasizes his mental stability, his dedication to the Bureau and the value of the information that he provides. The repetition of these statements indicates that, rather than just being about Aoki, they were part of FBI protocol for assessing all of its informants. Claims made in these reports may accurately reflect the viewpoint of FBI agents in the San Francisco field office about Aoki. But like most correspondence within any bureaucracy, FBI agents are also catering to the expectations of those higher up. In this case, the documents are telling J. Edgar Hoover and his lieutenants what they want to hear: that the FBI’s use of resources to cultivate and maintain its informants are producing valuable information that could not be acquired in any other (less-risky, less-expensive) way.

Aoki’s own voice is nowhere in the file. His type-written reports from the early 1960s, and FBI agent dictation of his telephone reports afterward, are contained elsewhere in FBI files and perhaps have yet to be released to the public. If Rosenfeld has these reports, including FD-302s, he hasn’t said so. [1]

Absent Aoki’s first-person testimony, the FBI’s informant file on him consists of a series of fragmentary bits of information. These fragments are difficult to decipher because the FBI has redacted the name of every organization that Aoki reported on and all descriptions of the specific information that he apparently provided to the FBI. The FBI also redacted the San Francisco field office file number for Aoki’s informant file, making it much more difficult to use previously-released FBI documents to identify what kind of intelligence Aoki provided to the FBI and how it was used.

But even with these limitations, the FBI file on Aoki is still valuable. The FBI has the ability to withhold documents without a trace, even when those documents are requested through FOIA. The first page of Aoki’s informant file has the codename “Richard Ford” on it to prevent association of the cover sheet with Richard Aoki’s name. Though FBI files are supposed to list each document in the file as a separately numbered serial in chronological order, the FBI as a matter of policy would not attach a serial number to certain kinds of sensitive documents so that they could be removed from a file without a trace. The documents released to Seth Rosenfeld from Aoki’s informant file contain a number of documents without serial numbers that could have been easily withheld if the FBI had not been compelled by court order to release them. That we have these documents at all, even as redacted copies, should not be taken for granted.

Aoki as Informant

On first glance, Richard Aoki’s informant file appears to provide a straightforward reporting of facts. Though he was listed by the FBI as an informant from 1961 to 1977, Aoki’s activity as an informant waxed and waned. He seems to have been most active as an informant from 1961-’64 (when he reported on socialist groups, according to Agent Threadgill) and 1966-70 (when he reported on the Black Panther Party and possibly also the Third World Liberation Front).

A closer reading of the file provides a few instances of Aoki seeking support from the FBI when struggling to pay for school, then pulling back from the FBI when busy with work or school obligations. This pattern raises questions about why Aoki became an informant and whether he developed second thoughts.

According to the first serial in 134-HQ-100101, Richard Aoki submitted his first report as an informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in February, 1961. The San Francisco field office assigned him the code-name Richard Ford for his reports and soon requested from FBI Headquarters that he be made a “PSI” – or potential security informant. By November of 1961, serial 6 shows San Francisco agents praising Aoki to their superiors for providing them with “voluminous information, as well as important data,” delivered in “current, concise and complete reports, usually typewritten by him” at a time when many men and few informants knew how to type. Whatever position Aoki held in activist groups he reported on inspired the FBI to also claim that Aoki’s reports were “of unusual value.”

In June of 1962, the FBI reported that Aoki “furnished names” of people in left-wing organizations as well as those who attended meetings sponsored by those organizations; that he “continues to be a close personal friend of” someone that the FBI presumably considered fairly important; and that the FBI held Aoki to be of significant value because he was the “only source” they had that was “currently active” in a particular organization that he was spying on.

Richard Aoki’s informant status apparently changed when he enrolled in college. FBI files begin to refer to Aoki saying that he “must work out financial arrangements” before he can do unspecified tasks for them and that his unemployment during August 1963 may be having an impact on his work as an informant. And though he resumed his duties as an informant in the fall of 1963, he appears to have worked part time or been fully focused on his college studies during the 1963-64 school year. During the 1964-65 school year, Aoki’s work for the FBI appears to have dropped off some more. Working full time while attending school full time, Aoki told the FBI that “his current employment situation precludes” his ability to serve as a regular informant. In January, the FBI reported that Aoki was not engaged in his “full activities” as an informant because “he is working nights and attending school during the day.” It went on to elaborate that Aoki:

feels that it will be necessary for him to continue his employment for another six months. Informant has had to support himself for a number of years and has had no family to turn to for any financial aid. He feels that his schooling should come first because it is necessary for him to obtain a degree in order that he might look forward to elevating himself in the community. Informant is eager to maintain his relationship with the Bureau and to be of any service possible . . . Informant feels that once he is enrolled at the UC he will be in a good position to assist the Bureau in its investigation . . .

This long passage testifies to the way that Aoki invoked the need for school and for a steady income to keep at bay some of the FBI’s more aggressive demands that he continue to work as an informant. At the same time, this strategy for keeping the FBI at bay also maintained Aoki’s ongoing relationship with the FBI rather than severing it completely. It may suggest that Aoki partly wanted to serve as an informant for the financial benefits, which could bankroll his education, but also threatened to distract him from it.

It would not be unreasonable to ask whether Aoki was reconsidering his role as an informant from 1963-65. Perhaps he was merely using financial hardship as an excuse to step back from spying on left-wing groups? On the other hand, the fact that the FBI claimed that “he has resumed full activities as an informant” by the Summer of 1965 seems to suggest if Aoki had a change of heart, he certainly didn’t take decisive action to sever his ties with the FBI.

Aoki then appears to have been an active informant through the rest of the late 1960s -during which time he was close to the Black Panther Party and was a leader in the Third World Liberation Front at UC Berkeley. He withdrew somewhat in 1970 “due to present employment as member of faculties,” but continued on as an informant in a likely more-limited form from 1970 until 1977 – even while serving as a college professor.

Though nearly every bit of information provided to the FBI by Aoki is redacted, there is fragmentary evidence that suggests that the FBI wanted Aoki to provide information on the group I Wor Kuen. Serial 59 of Aoki’s informant file mentions a letter regarding the investigation of a topic related to “IS-IWK” whose office of origin is the San Francisco field office. “IS” generally stands for “Internal Security,” with the kind of IS investigation explained by a following acronym – in this case “IWK.” “IWK” could stand for I Wor Kuen, a New York-based organization that when it merged with the Bay Area-based Red Guard Party in 1971 formed what Diane Fujino called in her biography of Aoki “the first national revolutionary Asian American organization.” It would make sense for the FBI to solicit information on IWK from Aoki. Whether Aoki actually provided such information requires more research to determine (likely in the San Francisco FBI field office files on IWK).

The final documents in the FBI’s informant file on Aoki reveal that Aoki told FBI agents that he feared ever publicly revealing his identity as an informant. “Source advised that he is not willing to testify in open court or before administrative hearing boards if such testimony would reveal his past connection with the FBI,” the field office report noted. The FBI agent in San Francisco cited this information in part to demonstrate to FBI headquarters that Aoki would not be liable to expose the FBI’s illegal domestic intelligence programs and also that it could not use his testimony for government hearings or litigation. But it also inadvertently may have registered Aoki’s own sense of guilt about his work as an informant. Exposure of his role, he reportedly told the FBI, “would alienate him from associates and friends and would cause him great trouble in his relationships with students as a student counselor.”

The Counterintelligence Question

The exposure of Richard Aoki as a longtime informant for the FBI inevitably raises questions about what kind of informant he was. The FBI waged extensive counterintelligence programs against two of the organizations that Aoki reportedly spied on – the Socialist Workers Party and the Black Panther Party. Was Aoki consciously part of the disruption of these two groups? Was he an unknowing accomplice in destroying the groups he reported on?

There is not a shred of evidence released so far that indicates that Richard Aoki consciously engaged in counter-intelligence activities against his comrades. But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating. On the one hand, Rosenfeld’s writing in Subversives connects Aoki’s activism to what Rosenfeld describes as a “violent” turn in the left in the late 1960s in the Bay Area, implicitly raising the question about whether and to what degree government agencies are responsible for the actions of their informants. On the other hand, Ward Churchill and others have speculated that the exposure of Aoki is itself a form of government counterintelligence to “distort the legacy of Richard Aoki.”

But in both cases, the debate over whether Aoki was an informant prevents a more nuanced approach to exploring the historical significance of his relationship with the FBI.

In theory, intelligence and counterintelligence are different and separate activities. Intelligence involves the gathering of information about people’s lives. Counterintelligence involves the spreading of information – sometimes false, sometimes true but sensitive or private – for the purposes of disrupting others’ lives. Intelligence may sometimes be considered a legitimate part of law enforcement investigations into criminal activities. Counterintelligence, because it replaces law enforcement with subterfuge, is anathema to democracies.

In practice, however, the distinctions between intelligence and counterintelligence can blur, most often through the figure of the informant. The psyche of the informant is often rife with complexities and contradictions associated with having to perform very different roles. Informants do not – indeed cannot – just passively report on the activities they observe. Through their participation in organizations and their personal relationships with those they report on, informants inevitably influence what they describe and to some degree are also auto-ethnographers. Informants not only document radicalism. They participate in it. In so doing, they may even encourage its development. Whether informants become organizers out of affinity with radicals or as a form of entrapment, or both, varies widely and is always difficult to discern. But it is important to note that sometimes informants do not just follow. They lead, and not always at the direction of those to whom they report. This, I think, is part of what Tony Platt meant when he recently wrote that we “need to consider the possibility that Aoki was both an informant and a leftist, and that he both reported to and fought against the FBI.”

It is not unreasonable to expect that most FBI informants remained unaware of how the information they provided was used. The very existence of numerous FBI counterintelligence programs (COINTELPRO) against American citizens in the 1950s and 1960s was not made public until 1971. It’s unlikely that the FBI briefed its informants – who after all were not FBI agents – on the FBI’s illegal counterintelligence programs, even when informants might have been party to these programs in some form.

A dramatic example of how informants can be used for counterintelligence in ways that they’re not aware of is the case of William O’Neal – the informant in the Chicago Black Panther Party who provided a floor plan for Fred Hampton’s home to the FBI. O’Neal was apparently shocked to witness the Chicago police use his floor plan to raid Hampton’s home and assassinate Hampton while he lay sleeping in bed. Twenty years later, O’Neal went out of his way to explain to an interviewer for Eyes on the Prize that despite this raid, he did not think of himself as having engaged in counterintelligence: “Contrary to public belief, I haven’t been instructed to commit crimes, or provoke crimes, or conduct burglaries, or inject drugs in people or to commit murder. I haven’t been. If anything, my association with the FBI made me a better person.” Yet the questions that informants have about how their work is used can be haunting. Not long after the Eyes on the Prize episode about Hampton’s murder aired on national TV, O’Neal committed suicide on Martin Luther King Day.

Informants aren’t entirely unaware, however, that information that they provide to governments about social movements could be used against those movements. To rationalize their double lives and minimize the sense of guilt they might feel during the course of befriending people whose lives they are spying on, informants may also come to see themselves as protectors of social movements. For instance, when activists in Olympia, Washington, confronted a fellow antiwar organizer in 2009 with evidence that he was a US Army intelligence agent who was illegally spying on them, the informant – John Towery – reportedly cried. Towery had so deeply infiltrated Olympia Port Militarization Resistance (OPMR) that he moderated its email listserv and helped lead its direct-action trainings, all the while sharing information about their protests with local law enforcement and regional anti-terrorist agencies. Yet, he tried to explain to those who confronted him with his betrayal being an informant is “complicated.” There are ways, he said, that informants can protect those they report on from repression, that they can influence the government based on what they choose to report and how they report to their superiors.[2] OPMR activists didn’t believe a word he said because, after all, he had lied to them for years and his “protection” seemed a lot like betrayal. But regardless of whether he was telling the truth, what is interesting is that Towery may have believed what he said. That he thought he was protecting OPMR while reporting on it provides a telling insight into how informants justify their work to themselves.

There is likely a grain of truth to the idea that the discretion afforded informants can be significant, and informants’ decisions on what and how to report what they know can shape how governments respond to social movements. That’s why the FBI routinely sought to infiltrate organizations with more than one informant. When it could, the FBI collected reports from multiple informers on the same events, organizations, and individuals. Inevitably, this meant that informants were also reporting on the behavior of other informants without knowing it. In this context, a single FBI informant’s ability to protect activists or shape history – while real – is probably more limited than they would like to believe.

Even when informants aren’t consciously participating in counterintelligence programs and information that they provide is not used for counterintelligence, their attempts to blend into an activist organization will still have effects and may even be disruptive. Informants can perform a certain kind of strident or militant role in activist groups to identify and report on radicals in a social movement. Performing militancy may not be intentionally disruptive, but it can contribute to an organizational culture that isolates moderates or dissenters.

Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives provides a troubling anecdote that highlights the ways in which, whether or not Richard Aoki was ever part of a formal counterintelligence program, he was hardly just a passive observer of social movements. His actions -whether at the direction of the government or his own conscience or some mix of both – encouraged left-wing militancy, while also sometimes discouraging alliances with moderates. According to Rosenfeld, in 1970, at a time when Aoki had been working as an FBI informant for 9 years,

. . . Manuel Delgado received a phone call saying that some of the black strike leaders had “kidnapped” Richard Rodriguez and were holding him in an apartment on Shattuck Avenue. Rodriguez was on the staff of the university’s YMCA at Stiles Hall, Delgado’s trusted colleague, and one of the more moderate [Third World Liberation Front] strike leaders. Rushing over, Delgado found Rodriguez seated in the middle of a room as if being interrogated, as several blacks looked on and Aoki hovered over him. “We’re going to kill this motherfucking snitch,” Aoki said, slapping Rodriguez across the face. Delgado stepped in between them, took Rodriguez, and left. . . . Afterward, Aoki sought to assuage Delgado, revealing that he was secretly a member of the Black Panthers and it was his “job” to stay close to the black strikers to make sure they weren’t unduly influenced by black nationalists who were rivals of the Panthers. “That’s why it looks like I’m on their side all the time,” he said. Delgado remained suspicious of Aoki, however, because he “seemed to be playing two sides on the Central Committee.” [3]

When Rosenfeld asked Aoki about this story in 2007, Aoki was unrepentant about his conduct and continued to suggest that Rodriguez had been an informant. “Aoki confirmed this account [by Delgado] of the Richard Rodriguez incident as true,” Rosenfeld wrote in his book’s endnotes, “and said he suspected Rodriguez was ‘stirring dissension up within our ranks.'” Aoki explained that “Some of us felt that he was a mole for the administration, because he was constantly throwing water on our plans. Rodriguez was perceived as being one of the soft people.” In contrast, Aoki reportedly bragged, “I was considered the hard of the hard.”[4]

The Need to Open the Files

The exposure of Richard Aoki as an informant is a tiny blip in the history of FBI domestic intelligence operations. It’s important to keep the bigger picture in view and to use the release of Aoki’s file and the discussion that it has generated to demand a full historical reckoning that the American people have so far been denied.

So far, the left’s response to the release of Aoki’s informant file has been largely defensive and introverted. This is an understandable reaction to the sensational way that Seth Rosenfeld released his allegations. But defensiveness has also narrowed the scope of discussion about Rosenfeld’s scholarship to the question of whether Aoki was an informant, without any clear understanding of what an informant is.

Aoki’s informant file provides us with important insights into the way the FBI processed and maintained its informants. It shows how the cultivation of long-term informants at an early age could assist the FBI with infiltrating activist organizations at their highest levels. And it raises a whole host of questions not just about what information Aoki provided to the FBI, but how the FBI used that information and to what end. Pursuit of this information could provide insights not just into Aoki and the organizations he participated in, but also into how the FBI used its informants more broadly.

If the release of just one informant’s file could generate these kinds of questions, imagine what could be learned by the release of all FBI domestic intelligence files after a half-century. As the 1960s turn 50, the time seems ripe for the public to demand a full accounting of the role that its government took in monitoring and repressing social movements during the Cold War.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has in the past decade acquired hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pages of historic FBI files that it does not have the resources to declassify in our lifetimes. These include civil rights investigations from the 1950s and 1960s (44 classification files), investigations into the New Left and Black Power movements (located partly in 157 classification files), anticonspiracy investigation and trial materials (176 classification files), and, most importantly, the main domestic security files of the Hoover era from the 1940s-70s (100 classification files). We should demand the release of all these files in unredacted form. This is more than a demand for an historical reckoning. It is a challenge to a national security state whose ongoing use of informants depends on historical erasures.

To the degree that the FBI still has Aoki’s informant reports, they are likely contained in 50 pages of file numbers provided to Rosenfeld along with Aoki’s informant file. These slips of paper identify documents related to Aoki in dozens of different investigation files. In addition, the National Archives likely has material of interest to researchers. NARA currently holds the original San Francisco field office files for the two organizations that Aoki became famous for participating in: the Black Panther Party (157-SF-1204) and the Third World Liberation Front (157-SF-1202). These voluminous files have yet to be declassified and deserve much greater attention than they have so far received from historians. Because of declassification backlogs at NARA, it may require litigation to compel NARA to declassify these files anytime in the near future.

Jeff Berryhill talk, July 23, 2012, The Evergreen State College.

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2012), 435.

Ibid., 648

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