When then-UC Berkeley student Seth Rosenfeld was asked by his editor at The Daily Californian to look through a 9,000-page file documenting FBI activities on campus in the 1960s and 1970s, he had no idea he was about to embark on a quest that would last more than three decades, involve five lawsuits and procure more than 300,000 pages of FBI records.
What he did realize as he studied the records — which became his senior journalism project — was that much was missing from the original FBI report.
“I realized … that there was more to the story, that there were more records, that there were records on other subjects that had not been requested,” said Rosenfeld. “So I filed many additional (Freedom of Information Act) requests.”
The story Rosenfeld uncovered from the requests was published on Tuesday in a book titled “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power.” The book tells a story about Berkeley during the tumultuous era of the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam War protests and about the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover that used its Cold War-era tactics to target political protesters on campus.
“The book begins at the end of World War II, when the FBI was investigating Soviet efforts to get nuclear secrets from Berkeley’s radiation labs … But then you see how the FBI veers from that very important national security mission to focus instead on dissent,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld’s book follows the FBI’s intrusion into the lives of three main figures of the era: Mario Savio, the leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement; Clark Kerr, the UC president at the time; and Ronald Reagan, the then-newly elected governor of California and future U.S. president.
To obtain the information that revealed the exact nature of the FBI’s activities in the events taking place on and around Berkeley’s campus, Rosenfeld filed five successive Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
But even with FOIA and a team of pro bono lawyers on his side, Rosenfeld had trouble obtaining the information he needed. The FBI spent more than $1 million in an effort to withhold records from Rosenfeld, once arguing that the records were of little public interest.
But as he continued to examine the documents the FBI slowly released, Rosenfeld found that the opposite was true. The FBI had been involved in a plot at Berkeley — which was ultimately successful — to get Kerr fired from his position as UC President, according to the book. Rosenfeld’s research revealed that the FBI was engaged in surveillance and a smear campaign against Savio. Its director, J. Edgar Hoover, had cultivated a budding friendship with Reagan — an early FBI informant into purported communist activity in Hollywood — that informed the rest of Reagan’s political career.
“Each of these figures (Savio, Kerr, and Reagan) had tremendous influence not only on the campus but nationally,” said Rosenfeld. “These three figures had an intense conflict at Berkeley.”
In his book, Rosenfeld said he tried to capture an image of Berkeley’s campus during a time of intense cultural and political upheaval.
“FBI officials viewed Berkeley as one of the most radical cities in the country,” he said.
The political ferment of the era has parallels with a similar discussion over the university’s proper role that is taking place today, Rosenfeld said.
“I think there is a parallel between the importance of the university and its value to society then and the need for the university — the need for stronger universities and better-funded universities — today, when America again faces technological challenges,” he said.