The Aoki files

Pub date September 25, 2012

Editors note: Steve Woo and Alex T. Tom argued in a Guardian oped last week that a new book unfairly paints Richard Aoki as an FBI snitch. The book’s author asked for space to respond.

OPINION I write to correct serious misstatements about my new book — and particularly about my revelation that the late radical leader Richard Aoki was an FBI informant — in the editorial by Steve Woo and Alex T. Tom.

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 secret involvement with three iconic figures: Clark Kerr, the UC president; Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; and Ronald Reagan, California Governor.

Subversives is based on more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released to me as a result of five lawsuits I brought under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI frequently claimed redacted information had to be withheld by law, but as a result of my challenges, seven federal judges ordered the FBI to release more 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.”

In Subversives I also profile many other figures, including Aoki, a revered activist in the San Francisco Bay Area who I revealed was 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 disclosed this in an article and video produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which were published contemporaneously with my book last month.

Woo and Tom are incorrect when they claim my findings about Aoki are “baseless and false.” Although reporting on intelligence activities is notoriously difficult and often relies on off-the-record sources, I relied only upon on-the-record sources such as:

— A detailed interview with retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr., who was Aoki’s initial handler;

— A 2007 interview with Aoki in which he denied being an informant but when pressed added, “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”

— FBI records concerning Aoki released in response to my Freedom of Information Act request, including a November 16, 1967 report on the Black Panthers that identified him as informant T-2.

— Consultation with former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen, who had helped vacate the murder conviction of Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt on the ground that the FBI and Los Angeles police failed to disclose that a key witness against him was an FBI informant.

My conclusion that Aoki was an informant was thus based on the totality of my research — not merely on a “scrap of evidence.” The detailed notes to my book make this clear. As I also have noted, available evidence does not show whether the FBI was involved in Aoki’s arming the Panthers, or that bureau officials even knew about it.

My initial disclosures about Aoki have been confirmed by the FBI’s release of 221 pages of Aoki’s FBI informant file. I reported this in a September 7 article, posted with his entire informant file as released to me at the CIR website.

Although I strongly disagree that my revelations about Aoki “damage the movement” and reinforce stereotypes of Asian Americans, they surely shed new light on him. For while he may well have been a dedicated activist, substantial evidence shows he also was an FBI informant. Although his full role and motives are not yet known, Richard Aoki was undoubtedly more complex than his fellow activists knew.

Seth Rosenfeld is a San Francisco writer.