2013 / Seth Rosenfeld

Seth Rosenfeld has been awarded the 2013 Ridenhour Book Prize for Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. This remarkable book traces the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures who clashed at Berkeley during the 1960s — the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile student radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr.

Through these converging narratives, Rosenfeld tells a dramatic and disturbing story of FBI surveillance, illegal break-ins, infiltration, planted news stories, poison-pen letters, and secret detention lists. He reveals how the FBI’s covert operations — led by Reagan’s friend J. Edgar Hoover — helped ignite an era of protest, undermine the Democrats, and benefit Reagan personally and politically. At the same time, Rosenfeld vividly evokes the life of Berkeley of that era — and shows how the university community, a center of the forward-looking idealism of the period, became a battleground in an epic struggle between the government and free citizens. As Rosenfeld concludes, Subversives illuminates “the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.”

Indeed, the FBI spent more than $1 million trying to block the release of the secret files on which Subversives is based, but Rosenfeld brought five lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act over 27 years that ultimately compelled the bureau to release more than 300,000 pages.

As Matt Taibbi wrote in the New York Times Book Review, Subversives provides “a relevant warning. Domestic intelligence forces will tend to use all the powers they’re given (and even some that they’re not) to spy on people who are politically defenseless, irrelevant from a security standpoint and targeted for all the wrong reasons. And policemen who abuse their powers don’t just ruin innocent lives and undermine our faith in the law. They miss the real threats.”

Subversives at first appears to be about a single place at a specific moment in a part of our past that is safely tucked away,” said the Ridenhour judges. “But its genius lies in its masterful and seamless braiding of investigative research and storytelling dexterity to depict an American government that used its vast resources for partisan political gain under the cloak of protecting the nation from a nebulous external threat. Seth Rosenfeld has done us an enormous service to remind us today that the efforts of a courageous few — even against the most powerful institutions — can make a difference.”

2013 Book Prize Speeches

Transcript of Liza Goitein’s speech

LIZA GOITEIN: Thank you, Danielle. It is my honor to introduce the recipient of this year’s Ridenhour Book Prize, Seth Rosenfeld, and his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. We live in a time in which the legal and practical restrictions on our government’s ability to spy on its own citizens are weakening by the day. A decade ago, the law required the government to obtain a court order to wiretap Americans’ international communications. Today, no individualized court order is needed. A decade ago, customs agents were subject to a directive that required them to have reasonable suspicion in order to search the contents of your laptop when you returned home from overseas travel. Today, agents are free to copy and read all of the files with no basis for suspicion whatsoever.

In 2001, FBI agents had to have some reason to suspect wrongdoing in order to send uncover agents, or informants, into places of worship. Today, the FBI can and does infiltrate mosques at will.

When I tell my friends and colleagues, particularly the younger ones, about these changes, the reaction I often hear is, “So what? I’m not a terrorist or a criminal. I have nothing to hide.” For years, attempting to answer this argument has been one of the most frustrating and difficult tasks I faced as an advocate. My answer now is this book. Seth has presented unassailable evidence of the FBI’s ruthless campaign to disrupt and punish lawful political activity on the Berkeley campus in the 1960s. No one who reads this book can maintain the illusion that the mere collection of information by government officials is no cause for concern. No one who reads this book can doubt that unfettered powers to collect information can be, and will be, abused. Not because the officials we entrust with these powers are evil, but because they are human and subject to all the human weaknesses that are so vividly illustrated in this book: ambition, fear, pettiness, and blind ideology.

What’s particularly wonderful about this book is the way that it animates this lesson. Seth is a gifted storyteller and the book captures the personalities and the relationships that drove this saga. It makes the people, the events, real. And making the abuses of the past real to people who either didn’t live through them or didn’t know about them or didn’t really believe them, is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to make today’s threats to liberty real as well.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the government was not eager to help Seth in this effort. He spent 30 years battling the government in Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in order to obtain the 300,000 documents that he used to write this book. I used to work at the Department of Justice and I defended the government in FOIA litigation and I can tell you you need to measure time spent in FOIA litigation like dog years. So, 30 years of FOIA litigation feels like roughly two centuries of misery. Seth’s persistence and his dedication were extraordinary. He scored some truly stunning victories. Most striking to me, he convinced multiple federal judges that the documents compiled by the nation’s leading law enforcement agency could not be described as law enforcement records because they had no rational nexus to law enforcement. That finding says it all.

The fact that you may not be doing anything that’s of interest to law enforcement is no guarantee that the FBI will never be interested in you. I suspect that if Seth were to file similar requests today, his battle might be even more difficult. Rather than simply stamping, “Do not file” on the records of black bag jobs, the FBI would classify them, which would pretty much take them out of reach in the context of FOIA.

I don’t know what the actual classification levels were in the 1960s, but I do know that in 1995 there were 3.6 million decisions to classify information. And by 2011, there were 92 million decisions to classify. The secrecy fortress is in many ways more impregnable now than it has ever been. In the prologue to his book, Seth writes, “Above all, this book illustrates the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.” That danger is alive and well today, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Seth for the powerful illustration he has given us. I’m delighted to present The Ridenhour Book Prize to Seth Rosenfeld. [applause]

Transcript of Seth Rosenfeld’s speech

SETH ROSENFELD: Thank you very much. I am greatly honored and humbled to receive this award in the memory of Ron Ridenhour, a citizen, a whistleblower, and an investigative reporter of the highest order.

I first began the research that would lead to this book, Subversives, in 1981 when I was a journalism student at UC Berkeley. My editor at the Daily Californian asked me to take a look at some FBI records that the campus newspaper had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. I already knew that UC Berkeley had been an epicenter of student protests during the 1960s, and I knew also that Senator Frank Church’s hearings in the ’70s had exposed massive FBI surveillance and harassment of people engaged in lawful dissent in other places.  So I jumped at the chance to see what the FBI had been up to at Berkeley.

I researched the files, I wrote several articles, but I realized that there was much more to the story. So in 1981, I submitted a greatly expanded Freedom of Information Act request seeking any and all records in any way concerning the University of California and more than a hundred other organizations and individuals connected with the campus. I figured I would get the files in about a year, write up the stories, and go on to the next project. I had no idea that I was embarking on what would become a 28-year legal battle in which I would bring five lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI would spend more than a million dollars trying to suppress the records I was seeking, and that ultimately seven federal judges would order the FBI to release more than 300,000 pages, that my case would set legal precedent in favor of open government. And that the courts would also order the FBI to pay more than a million dollars additionally to my pro bono lawyers for prevailing in court. [applause]

These FBI records provide the most extensive account of the FBI’s activities on any college campus during the Cold War period. Among other things, they show that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI initially focused in the 1940s on investigating Soviet espionage attempts to gain secrets from the nuclear laboratories overseen by the University of California. But they show that the FBI veered from that important national security mission to instead turn counterintelligence techniques developed to use against adversaries during war time on professors and students engaged in legitimate dissent.

The FBI unlawfully investigated Mario Savio, leader of the 1964 Free Speech movement, a nonviolent protest against a campus rule, and listed him as a key activist, someone to be disrupted and neutralized under the counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO. The FBI put dozens of students and professors on its so-called Security Index, a secret nationwide list of people to be detained without warrant in the event of a national emergency. I recently discovered, also, an FBI record showing that Ron Ridenhour had also been placed on the Security Index.

FBI officials waged a concerted campaign throughout the 1960s to get UC president Clark Kerr fired because they disagreed with his policies and his politics. They leaked false reports about him to the media, to members of the Board of Regents, and even to President Johnson. But eventually, FBI officials realized that they would never get rid of Kerr as long as Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father, was governor, because Brown was a staunch supporter of Clark Kerr. Kerr was, in fact, one of the towering figures in higher education and the developer of the master plan for higher education that has been used throughout this country and around the world.

So when Ronald Reagan ran for governor in 1966, Hoover and other FBI officials viewed this as a breath of fresh air. In fact, the FBI had a secret relationship going with Reagan going back to Hollywood in the ‘40s. The FBI records show that Reagan was a much more active informer in Hollywood that we previously knew, and that he reported other actors and actresses to the FBI, sometimes on the scantiest of evidence. In return for his help in Hollywood, J. Edgar Hoover gave Reagan personal and political assistance in the following decades. In 1960, for example, the FBI helped Reagan investigate the romantic life of his daughter, Maureen Reagan. Then in 1965, just as Reagan was about to begin his run for governor, the FBI warned him that his son, Michael Reagan, was consorting with the son of an infamous mobster, Joe Bonanno. One of the most interesting FBI documents released to me records Reagan’s response when he received this secret warning. Reagan said that he was most appreciative, and that he realized that such an association and actions on the part of his son might well jeopardize any political aspirations he might have. He stated that he realized it would be improper to express his appreciation in writing, so he asked the FBI agent to convey his great thanks to Hoover personally.

Once Reagan was elected governor, the FBI worked with him to suppress student dissent at the University of California, providing him with intelligence reports not only about students and professors, but about members of the Board of Regents, and of course about Clark Kerr who was fired at the first regents meeting attended by Reagan in early 1967.

My research in the FBI records bears out several observations that Ron Ridenhour made in an essay he wrote for the Los Angeles Times on the 25th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. One of them was that some people, most, it seems, will, under some circumstances, do anything someone in authority tells them to do. Another is that government institutions, like most people, have a reflexive reaction to the exposure of internal corruption and wrongdoing. No matter how transparent the effort, their first response is to lie, conceal, and cover up.

I was hopeful when President Obama first took office because one of his first acts in office was to issue a strong statement in support of the Freedom of Information Act. Apparently, that memo never reached the FBI. [laughter] In my experience, at least, the Department of Justice and the FBI have continued to violate the law as badly, if not more so, than any prior administration. To be sure, today’s FBI is more accountable and faces much more oversight than it did in the days of J. Edgar Hoover. But once again, the nation has granted great secrecy and great power to the FBI and other national security agencies to protect it.

And as these FBI records show, this combination of secrecy and power can pose a grave threat to democracy, especially during times of national crisis. If I may paraphrase Ron Ridenhour in conclusion, “We will serve ourselves and future generations best if we insist on having the transparency necessary for true government accountability.” I’d like to thank my publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, my agent Alice Martell, and my partner, Heidi Benson, for their great support along the way. And my great thanks to the Fertel Foundation and The Nation Institute for this wonderful and humbling award. Thank you very much. [applause]