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The FBI’s Vendetta Against Berkeley

Alex Constantine - August 21, 2012

Photo: Mario Savio, a leader of the student protests at Berkeley, is dragged away by campus police in 1964.

By Seth Rosenfeld

Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2012

Curtis O. Lynum, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco field office, rang the bell by the front door of the governor's mansion in Sacramento. By his side stood Glenn A. Harter, his top domestic-security agent. They had been summoned by the new governor, Ronald Reagan.

Waiting on the portico of the century-old grand Victorian that gray Monday morning in January 1967, Lynum felt some trepidation. He admired Reagan, but secrecy was crucial. He was carrying confidential information about the student protests that were disrupting the University of California's Berkeley campus and making headlines across the country. He had intelligence about Mario Savio, who had been a leader of the Free Speech Movement and was Berkeley's most notorious campus agitator, and Clark Kerr, the president of the university.

Reagan had been sworn into office just two weeks earlier, and within days contacted the FBI and requested help with "the Berkeley situation." Lynum got the call at his San Francisco office. He immediately notified J. Edgar Hoover at headquarters and recommended against meeting with Reagan—the controversy at the university was just too politically sensitive—but the director ordered him to go ahead.

During a fiercely contested gubernatorial campaign, Reagan had seized on the problem of campus unrest, and it became his hottest issue. Back at Eureka College, in Illinois, he had joined in a student strike as a freshman in 1928, and even helped lead it, but these Berkeley protests were different. He was disgusted with the sit-ins, strikes, and pickets lines of the Free Speech Movement, with the drugs and sex at the dance held by the Vietnam Day Committee in a campus gym to promote anti-war protests. He declared that "beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates" were proof of a "morality and decency gap" at the center of the state's Democratic Party.

His message resonated with voters who saw the turbulence at Berkeley as a symbol of all that was ailing their country, an America facing threats from enemies abroad and rising taxes, racial strife, and generational conflict at home. Reagan defeated the incumbent, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, in a landslide that left the state's Democratic Party a wreck and instantly made the new Republican governor a national political figure.

Hoover welcomed Reagan's victory. For years, he had been frustrated by what classified FBI reports called "subversive" activities at the University of California's flagship campus. Berkeley had been the kind of institution that exemplified the best of American values: Here was a public university that offered a tuition-free education rivaling those offered by Harvard, Princeton, or Yale; employed a constellation of Nobel laureates; and held millions of dollars in government research contracts.

But even as the university was helping the nation win World War II by overseeing the development of the atomic bomb, Hoover's agents were investigating Berkeley students and professors suspected of spying for the Soviet Union. In the cold-war atmosphere of the late 40s and early 50s, the director's concern had grown when scores of faculty members refused to sign a special loyalty oath for university employees.

So far, the 60s were posing an even greater challenge to authority, with the university generating one provocation after another—that "vicious" essay question about the dangers of an organization like the FBI that was optional for applicants in 1959, student participation in the protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee at San Francisco City Hall, the Free Speech Movement, attempts to stop trains carrying troops bound for Vietnam. The old Communist Party had been bad enough, but now there was the New Left, the hippies, the Black Panthers, Allen Ginsberg. Hoover and Clyde Tolson, his second in command at the bureau and his most intimate companion, saw Berkeley as the vortex of a youth movement fed by "free love," drugs, and a general disrespect for authority spreading all too quickly to other colleges. Stepping up its efforts at Berkeley, the bureau mounted the most extensive covert operations the FBI is known to have undertaken on any campus.

The FBI has long denied investigating the university as an organization, and that much is true. But a legal challenge I brought under the Freedom of Information Act, entailing five lawsuits over the course of 27 years, forced the bureau to release more than 300,000 pages of its confidential records concerning individuals, organizations, and events on and around the campus during the cold war, from the 1940s through the 1970s. This is the most complete record of FBI activities at any college ever released. The documents reveal that FBI agents amassed dossiers on hundreds of students and professors and on members of the Board of Regents; established informers within student groups, the faculty, and the highest levels of the university's administration; and gathered intelligence from wiretaps, mail openings, and searches of Berkeley homes and offices in the dead of night.

Although the bulk of the documents were released in the mid-90s, continuing litigation has compelled the FBI to release more than 50,000 additional pages, some as recently as this year, that provide a clearer picture of the agency's relationship with Reagan and suggest that it profoundly influenced his political development. These records—including material from the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO operation to discredit domestic political organizations—also provide a more complete account of Hoover's activities concerning the university, and the bureau's covert efforts to stifle dissent and circumscribe academic freedom.

In court papers asserting its right to withhold documents, the FBI maintained that its activities were lawful and intended to protect civil order and national security. But the records show bureau officials used intelligence gleaned from these clandestine operations not only to enforce the law, or to prevent violence, or to protect national security.

As U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled in 1991, the FBI's own records show that its initial investigation to determine whether the Free Speech Movement protest violated federal laws soon evolved into political spying, and that it likewise investigated Kerr unlawfully. As she found, "The records in this case go [to] the very essence of what the government was up to during a turbulent, historic period of time." The FBI appealed, but the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed virtually all of Patel's ruling. Having reviewed the uncensored FBI records in chambers, the court concluded that the documents "strongly suggest" the bureau's investigation of the Free Speech Movement became an effort to "harass political opponents of the FBI's allies among the Regents, not to investigate subversion and civil disorder." The court also found that the records "strongly support the suspicion that the FBI was investigating Kerr to have him removed from the UC administration, because FBI officials disagreed with his politics or his handling of administrative matters. Conspicuously absent from these documents is any connection to any possible criminal liability by Kerr."

In response to my reporting on some of these records, the FBI's current director, Robert S. Mueller III, acknowledged in 2002 that the bureau's surveillance and harassment at Berkeley during the cold war was inappropriate. "Such investigations are wrong and anti-democratic, and past examples are a stain on the FBI's greater tradition of observing and protecting the freedom of Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights," Mueller declared.

FBI documents also show that in the 1950s Hoover ran a secret operation called the "Responsibilities Program" to get professors whose political views were deemed unacceptable fired by surreptitiously giving anonymous and unproven charges of disloyalty to Gov. Earl Warren, who then ordered investigations of the faculty. In fighting suspected radicals, Hoover also made common cause with State Sen. Hugh Burns, the head of the state senate's un-American-activities committee, instead of investigating allegations from organized crime sources in Burns's home district of Fresno that he had taken payoffs and secretly owned a brothel.

In 1960, FBI officials mounted a covert campaign to turn public opinion against the university and embarrass university officials by planting negative news stories and arranging for conservative allies to complain to the regents. Hoover was furious about the essay question for applicants, which had asked, "What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?" In 1965, Hoover collaborated with CIA Director John A. McCone to harass students involved in the Free Speech Movement by leaking unproved allegations that they were disloyal to Edwin W. Pauley, who then urged his fellow regents to crack down on them. The FBI chief also misled President Lyndon B. Johnson by sending the White House allegations impugning the loyalty of Kerr and two of his staff members, even though the FBI had investigated the claims and knew they were false.

Hoover had been trying to stifle dissent at Berkeley for years. But Governor Brown, the liberal Democrat elected in 1958 and again in 1962, had been unresponsive to Hoover's concerns about the university. Worse yet, he had betrayed Hoover's trust when the bureau sought to work with him covertly against the Free Speech Movement. In Reagan, however, the FBI director finally had an ally. Like Hoover, Reagan saw the Berkeley campus as a breeding ground for radicalism, where ungrateful students and insubordinate faculty used state resources to engage in anti-American protests. In their eyes, Savio was a "ringleader," and Kerr was, at the least, unwilling or unable to take control, and maybe a dangerous subversive himself.

Agents Lynum and Harter were surprised when the official who greeted them at the door of the governor's mansion told them Reagan would receive them upstairs in his bedroom. As they climbed the winding stairway to the master suite, Lynum hoped Reagan had picked the unusual meeting place for the sake of discretion. Lynum had warned Hoover that if reporters discovered the FBI was secretly helping Reagan, it would embarrass the bureau—something Hoover hated more than anything else.

Discretion was not the only reason Reagan had chosen the unusual meeting place. As the two FBI men were admitted to the governor's bedchamber, they found him propped up with pillows in a four-poster bed, suffering from a bad case of the flu. Reagan wore red pajamas, a muffler around his throat, and a robe. The covers were piled with stacks of official documents, and all around the bed stood aides in suits and ties.

Lynum introduced himself and Harter, congratulated Reagan on his election, and held out his business card. The governor took the white rectangle, thanked the agents for coming, and got to the point: He was "damned mad" that campus officials had allowed the demonstrations to continue. At one recent protest, students had even burned him in effigy. Pulling his robe closer, he said he intended to "straighten out" the university and was hoping the FBI could tell him what he was up against.

Lynum hesitated. Then, apologetically, he reminded Reagan that Hoover had agreed to the meeting on the condition that it would include only Reagan and Lt. Gov. Robert H. Finch. Lynum did not say so, but the director was concerned other witnesses might expose the FBI's involvement.

The governor coughed and looked around the room at his aides. "Well, you heard him, boys," he said. "We'll follow the FBI's rules." Once they were gone, Lynum swore Reagan to secrecy and briefed him about the trouble at Berkeley.

Lynum had plenty of information to share. The FBI's files on Mario Savio were especially detailed. Hoover had ordered his agents to gather intelligence they could use to ruin the brilliant philosophy student's reputation or otherwise "neutralize" him, impatiently ordering them to expedite their efforts.

They also had compiled a bulging dossier on the man Savio saw as his enemy: Kerr. As campus dissent mounted, Hoover came to blame the university president more than anyone else for not putting an end to it. Kerr had led UC to new academic heights, and he had played a key role in establishing the system that guaranteed all Californians access to higher education, a model adopted nationally and internationally. But in Hoover's eyes, Kerr confused academic freedom with academic license, coddled Communist faculty members, and failed to crack down on "young punks" like Savio. Hoover directed his agents to undermine Kerr in myriad ways. He wanted him removed as university president. As he bluntly put it in a memo to his top aides, Kerr was "no good."

Reagan listened intently to Lynum's presentation, but he wanted more—much more. He asked for additional information on Kerr, for reports on liberal members of the Board of Regents who might oppose his policies, and for intelligence reports about upcoming student protests. Just the week before, he had proposed charging tuition for the first time in the university's history, setting off a new wave of statewide dissent. He told Lynum he feared subversives and liberals would attempt to misrepresent his effort to establish fiscal responsibility. It was Reagan's fear, according to Lynum's subsequent report, "that some of his press conferences could be stacked with 'left wingers' who might make an attempt to embarrass him and the state government."

Lynum said he understood Reagan's concerns, but following Hoover's instructions he made no promises. Then he and Harter wished the ailing governor a speedy recovery, departed the mansion, slipped into their dark four-door Ford, and drove back to the San Francisco field office to send an urgent report to the director.

The bedside meeting was extraordinary, but so was the relationship between Reagan and Hoover. It had begun decades earlier, when the actor became an informer in the FBI's investigation of Hollywood Communists. When Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, he secretly continued to help the FBI purge fellow actors from the union's rolls. Reagan's informing proved useful to the House Un-American Activities Committee as well, since the bureau covertly passed along information to help HUAC hold the hearings that wracked Hollywood and led to the blacklisting and ruin of many people in the film industry.

Reagan took great satisfaction from his work with the FBI, which gave him a sense of security and mission during a period when his marriage to Jane Wyman was failing, his acting career faltering, and his faith in the Democratic Party of his father crumbling. In the following years, Reagan and FBI officials courted each other through a series of confidential contacts. And after Reagan emerged as a leading conservative spokesman in the 50s, Hoover secretly gave him personal and political help that, a federal court ruled in my FOIA challenge, served "no legitimate law enforcement purpose." He even lent Reagan a hand in keeping track of his own wayward children, Maureen and Michael. Now the long courtship between the FBI director and the former movie star would pay off for them both.

The FBI would become deeply involved in the clash over free speech at Berkeley among the powerful social forces represented by Reagan, Kerr, and Savio. Each of those men had a transforming vision of America and has exerted extraordinary and lasting influence on the nation. Tracing the bureau's involvement with these iconic figures reveals a secret history of America in the 60s. It shows how the FBI's dirty tricks helped energize the student movement, damage the Democratic Party, launch Reagan's political career, and exacerbate the nation's continuing culture wars. Above all, the story that emerges from the once-secret files illustrates the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power poses to democracy, especially during turbulent times.

In his corner office at the FBI's headquarters in Washington, D.C., the director finished reviewing Lynum's report. He saw Reagan's request as a chance to finally quell demonstrations at Berkeley before they ignited even more protests at other campuses.

Hoover's hand moved quickly across the report, scrawling jagged marks in blue ink.

"This," he underscored, "presents the bureau with an opportunity."

Seth Rosenfeld was for many years an investigative reporter for The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. This essay is adapted from Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power, to be published next week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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