Explosive new allegations have emerged that the man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training was an undercover FBI informant in California. Richard Aoki, who died in 2009, was an early member of the Panthers and the only Asian American to have a formal position in the group. The claim that Aoki informed on his colleagues is based on statements made by a former bureau agent and an FBI report obtained by investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, "Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power." But Aoki’s friends and colleagues, as well as scholars, have challenged the book’s findings. We speak to Rosenfeld, an award-winning journalist and author of the article, "Man Who Armed Black Panthers was FBI Informant, Records Show," published by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and to Diana Fujino, Aoki’s biographer and a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with explosive new allegations that the man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training was an undercover FBI informant in California. Richard Aoki was an early member of the Panthers and the only Asian American to have a formal position in the party. He was also a member of the Asian American Political Alliance that was involved in the Third World Liberation Front student strike.
The claim that Aoki informed on his colleagues is based on statments made by a former agent of the FBI in a report obtained by investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Over the last 30 years, Rosenfeld sued the FBI five times to obtain confidential records. He eventually compelled the agency to release more than 250,000 pages from their files.
In this video produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Rosenfeld explains how he first stumbled across information about Richard Aoki.
SETH ROSENFELD: A former FBI agent had heard that I was doing research, and he contacted me. His name was Burney Threadgill. And he says, "Hey, I know that guy." And he said, "Aoki was my informant. I developed him."
BURNEY THREADGILL JR.: Oh, yeah, he was a character. He said, "I don’t have any interest in communism." And I said, "Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?" So, one thing led to another, and he became a real good informant.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Seth Rosenfeld reports that Aoki may have been covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups, according to the bureau agent who recruited him. He interviewed Aoki twice in 2007 about those allegations. Here’s a clip from their phone conversations, which was recorded with Aoki’s permission. After you hear Rosenfeld and Aoki, you will hear a comment from former FBI agent, Wesley Swearingen.
SETH ROSENFELD: I’m wondering if you remember a guy named Burney Threadgill.
RICHARD AOKI: Burney Threadgill?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah.
RICHARD AOKI: No, I don’t think so.
SETH ROSENFELD: What I—I was told in my research that during this period of time you actually worked for the FBI.
RICHARD AOKI: They tell you that?
SETH ROSENFELD: Burney told me that.
RICHARD AOKI: He did?
SETH ROSENFELD: He did.
RICHARD AOKI: Oh. That’s interesting.
WESLEY SWEARINGEN: Informants were used when I was in the FBI. An informant would report on the inner workings of an organization. They can keep you up to date on the thinking of the leadership of the organization, whether it’s going this way, that way. Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in the Black Panther Party, because they understand he’s Japanese. Hey, nobody’s going to guess—he’s in the Black Panther Party. Nobody’s going to guess that he might be an informant.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen speaking to reporter Seth Rosenfeld. Many of Richard Aoki’s friends and colleagues have expressed shock and disbelief about the claim. We’ll talk more about this debate in a minute, but first I want to play one more excerpt from Seth Rosenfeld’s interview with Aoki in 2007.
SETH ROSENFELD: Am I wrong?
RICHARD AOKI: I think you are.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah. So, would you say it’s untrue that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?
RICHARD AOKI: I would say it.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah. And I’m trying to understand the complexities about it, and I—and I think—
RICHARD AOKI: It is complex.
SETH ROSENFELD: I believe it is. And—
RICHARD AOKI: Layer upon layer.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Aoki, speaking in 2007, two years before he committed suicide.
Well, for more about these revelations and what they may mean, we’re joined by two guests. In San Fransisco, Seth Rosenfeld is with us, author of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. The 734-page book was released Tuesday and took three decades to complete. Rosenfeld is a reporter—was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for almost 25 years, a winner of the George Polk Award.
We’ll discuss the rest of his book later, but right now we’re also joined from Santa Barbara, California, by Diane Fujino, Aoki’s biographer and a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s the author of the recent book, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. Her article, "Where’s the Evidence Aoki Was an FBI Informant?" appears in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Seth Rosenfeld, let’s begin with you. Where is the evidence?
SETH ROSENFELD: Good morning.
Well, the evidence takes—there’s basically four pieces of evidence, which I’ve detailed in my book. The first evidence came when I interviewed Burney Threadgill in around 2002, 2003. I had met Burney while I was doing research for my book. As you mentioned, I had obtained thousands of pages of documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. And as part of my research, I was contacting former FBI agents and reviewing the records with them—excuse me—and reviewing the records with them to make sure that I understood the records and to elicit further information. So I had met with Burney several times for over a period of several months and reviewed many documents with him. And then, one day we were looking at some documents, and Burney said something like, "Hey, I know that guy. He was my informant." Burney had recognized Richard Aoki’s name in an FBI document. So Burney proceeded to tell me how he met Richard Aoki and how he developed him as an FBI informant and how Richard Aoki became, according to Burney, one of the best political informants that the FBI had in Northern California in the early 1960s.
Well, I had never heard of Richard Aoki before. So, while I continued the research on my boat, I also began to research who was Richard Aoki, and I read everything I could find about him. I did public records research. I spoke with other people. And then, in 2007, I interviewed him on the telephone. With his permission, I tape-recorded it, and you’ve heard the comments he made. He denied being an FBI informant, but he also said, "It is complex, layer upon layer. People change." So, I interpreted that as, on the one hand, his denial, but on the other hand, an explanation, perhaps, of what I was asking him about.
I continued to work on the book, and I was also a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. But after Richard Aoki died in 2009, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any and all records concerning him. The FBI released approximately 1,500 or 2,000 pages. One of the documents that was released was a 1967 FBI report on the Black Panthers. And this report identified Richard Aoki as an informant. It assigned him the code number, T-2, for that report. But I still wanted to find out more about it, so I spoke with a former FBI agent named Wesley Swearingen. Mr. Swearingen had been in the FBI for over 25 years. He had retired honorably. He had later become a critic of the FBI’s political surveillance, and particularly he had helped vacate the murder conviction of a Black Panther named Geronimo Pratt. So, Mr. Swearingen was very familiar with the FBI. He examined this record and other records I had, and he came to the same conclusion I did, which was that Richard Aoki had been an FBI informant in the 1960s.
I should add that I did further research in FBI records looking for anything that would be inconsistent, that would challenge my conclusion. And I couldn’t find anything that was inconsistent with it. And that’s how I reached my conclusion.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Seth Rosenfeld, you also mention that you—that despite the fact that Richard Aoki was a very well-known political activist in the Third World community in the Bay Area, that there were no FBI files or reports on him as a political activist.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, that’s one of the remarkable things about the FBI records that were released on Richard Aoki. Here was a person who had been a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and then an officer in the Young Socialist Alliance. He had been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He had been a member of the Black Panthers. He had given guns to the Black Panthers. He had been a prominent leader in the Third World strike at Berkeley. And yet, the FBI took the position that it had no files on Richard Aoki himself. The records that were released instead were only about various other organizations that he had been in, such as the Young Socialist Alliance or the Black Panthers. Based on my experience in reviewing many thousands of pages of FBI records over the years, I found it extraordinary that the FBI would have no main file, as they call it, on Richard Aoki.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Diane Fujino, you have written a biography of Richard Aoki. And, of course, in the Bay Area and throughout California, he is known and revered by many in the progressive movement as a pioneering political activist and revolutionary in the Asian-American community. But your response to what—the revelations of Seth Rosenfeld?
DIANE FUJINO: I was very surprised. After I heard—read the San Francisco Chronicle article in Monday’s paper, I went—when the book was released on Tuesday, I went to the book. It’s a very thick book, 734 pages. There’s a tremendous amount of research. And I had expected to find a lot more information detailing this accusation that Aoki was an FBI informant. But when I read the book, I was very surprised that there was little more than what’s already been said, than what was said already just this morning on this show. And in my mind as a scholar, I remain open to whatever truth is there, but the evidence needs to be substantial, that needs to meet a certain burden of proof, and it did not in this case.
One of the things that Rosenfeld said he has is this one FBI document. I have the same document, also retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act, the 1967 document, and it is the only FBI document that Rosenfeld cites in, you know, multiple pages. I had 150-plus pages of documents released to me from the FBI. And in it, it says that "A supplementary T symbol (SF T-2) was designated for" — but the name was left blank. And after that, it is followed in parenthesis by Richard Matsui—which is not his middle name—Aoki. But it says after that, "for the limited purpose of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing him." And later on, that same page, it talks about character—for the "characterization of Richard M. Aoki." So it’s unclear whether Aoki is the informant in this case. T symbols are used to refer to informants and also to technical sources of information, like wiretaps and microphones. And it’s not clear in this case whether Aoki was the informant or whether he was the one being, you know, observed.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth—
DIANE FUJINO: The second thing—
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, go ahead.
DIANE FUJINO: —is that—
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Diane.
DIANE FUJINO: The second thing—yeah, I wanted to go through the four pieces of information that Rosenfeld cites. And all of this is cited in a single footnote in the back. There’s no other elaboration beyond this.
He says that the former FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, was the person who gave him this information. But the same bits of information from Threadgill are recited by Rosenfeld, and there’s nothing else elaborated upon this. And he—Threadgill says that he approached Aoki in the late '50s at a time when Aoki wasn't even political. And he approached Aoki because Aoki—he overheard Aoki’s conversation with a high-school classmate, and that classmate’s parents were in the Communist Party, apparently, and were under wiretapping surveillance. And it made me think, did this former agent interview or talk to or approach many of this classmate’s friends who talked to him on the phone, or was there something about this conversation? And there’s just a lot of questions not answered.
Swearingen, another former FBI agent, the only evidence—the only piece of information he has, besides saying Aoki might be an informant, is this idea that because Aoki was Japanese American in the Panthers, that was a perfect place to be an informant. And this makes no sense to me, and to many people, because being Japanese American in the Panthers made one stand out, and it aroused suspicion. And it seems the least likely person to be an informant within the Panthers. And that just isn’t something that makes sense to me.
And the final piece of evidence that Rosenfeld uses is Aoki’s own response in the interview. And I think that’s ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. And if you know Aoki, that was classic Aoki in terms of the way he speaks, with allusion, with caution, with—you didn’t see a lot of his wit and humor, but there’s a lot of that, as well. And I think that it’s inconclusive, and yet very definitive statements were drawn from this inconclusive evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fujino, he said—Aoki said, in response to Seth Rosenfeld’s question about whether he worked for the FBI, Aoki responded, "It’s complex, layer upon layer." Is there a chance he started out with the FBI and changed? Or do you see this in a very different way?
DIANE FUJINO: Well, I mean, we—from what, you know, is out there on the FBI, it seems like there were many, many informants in the '60s. and anything is possible. But I don't know. The evidence isn’t there for me to be able to make any informed judgment on this. If he did start off as one, this is—this is what I would have liked to have seen before public charges made against somebody of this magnitude, is really specific evidence that goes beyond the things that have been said. What was said today, what was in the journal article—I mean, the San Francisco Chronicle article, is almost the sum total of what is in the book. There’s not much beyond that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring Seth Rosenfeld back in and respond to this—to Diane Fujino’s statement that this is really scant evidence. But I’d also like to ask you—because the interesting thing about police agents or FBI agents—and I’m familiar, having once been in the Young Lords Party, which was under much surveillance by the FBI—that agents tended to be the type of people who—or informants, informants tended to be the type of people who said very little but gathered information. And to that sense, Richard Aoki doesn’t fit that profile, because he was—he has—throughout his political career, was known as someone who advanced political theories, was actually very actively involved in shaping the political perspectives and views of the organizations that he was involved in. And to that degree, he doesn’t fit the profile of someone who’s basically gathering information.
DIANE FUJINO: Yes, and another way—
SETH ROSENFELD: Mm-hmm. Well, if I can respond to some points that Professor Fujino made, there were a couple misstatements there. What Burney had told me is that the FBI had a wiretap on the home of some people called the Wachters in the late ’50s. The Wachters were members of the Communist Party in the Bay Area at that time. And on that wiretap, they overheard a conversation between their son, Doug Wachter, and Richard Aoki. Doug Wachter and Richard Aoki had been classmates at Berkeley High. After hearing that information, the FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, approached Richard Aoki and asked him if he would be an informant.
Professor Fujino is correct in stating that, at that time in his life, Richard Aoki was not political. In fact, what Burney Threadgill told me was that Richard Aoki told him he had no interest in communism. And Burney further said that Richard Aoki became involved in political activities initially at the request of the FBI. Burney also said that he worked with Richard Aoki as his handler and met with him on a regular basis and received reports from him and paid him, that Richard Aoki provided information on specific groups, such as the socialist groups I mentioned, and that after Burney was transferred to another office in 1965, Richard Aoki was passed along as an informant to another agent.
And I should also clarify Wes Swearingen’s statement about Richard Aoki being accepted within radical circles perhaps partly because he was Japanese. That doesn’t seem particularly significant now, in modern times, but in the late '60s, somebody coming from a different ethnic background made them seem to be an outsider, and there would be less suspicion that an outsider like that would be working for the government, which in those days, certainly the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, was largely all white, almost totally white and male. So, I believe that's what Wes Swearingen was referring to.
In terms of Richard Aoki’s profile, as I mentioned, he starts out not being a political person. He starts attending these meetings. He becomes—he becomes gradually involved. And it’s only later in the ’60s that he begins to be more active in advocating different political things.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking with Seth Rosenfeld. His book is published this week, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. And Professor Diane Fujino, author of, Samurai Among Panthers. And I want, when we come back, Professor Fujino, to ask you about this term you use called "snitch-jacketing," the government’s casting suspicion on the most active activists. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with our two guests today: Seth Rosenfeld, the reporter whose new book is out this week, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power; we’re also joined by Professor Diane Fujino, who has written a book about Richard Aoki, who Seth Rosenfeld says he has found through getting information through the Freedom of Information Act, that is an—was an agent for the FBI. Diane Fujino, can you talk about who Richard Aoki was? Give us a brief thumbnail sketch of his life story.
DIANE FUJINO: Yeah. Richard Aoki was born in 1938. As a young child, only three-and-a-half years old, he and his family, along with 110,000 other West Coast Japanese Americans, were placed into concentration camps. And for Richard, that was very formative, because—and created—this kind of hurts of history created a major personal injury, because his parents separated inside the camps. And in a very unusual situation, he and his younger brother went to live with their father, both inside the camp barracks as well as upon their return to the Aoki family’s home in West Oakland.
Richard grew up homeschooled, which is quite unusual, and was very well read. He claims to have been going to the library back and forth and read 600 books in a single year. And while I have no proof of that, I do have many people talking about him, as an adult, as one of the most well-read people that they know. This includes a university professor friend of Richard who was saying this, that Richard is the most well-read person he knows. And Richard was very advanced theoretically, politically and theoretically.
Richard was—adopted the Cold War standards for masculinity and the military in the '50s, was eager to become—to join the Army and become the first Japanese-American general in the U.S. Army—that was his dream—and a fighter pilot. But, according to what Richard Aoki has told me, is that he—while he was in the Army Reserves in the late ’50s, he began to connect, through a series of working-class jobs, to labor organizers and socialist organizers. And they started to change, slowly and in an uneven way, his ideas about politics. And he joined the Socialist Workers Party, the Young Socialist Alliance, and then, in the mid-'60s, ’63, returned to Merritt college full time where he began—and he and others began a socialist discussion club.
And it was at Merritt College, which we know today as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, that he met the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. And they began to have political discussions and exchanges before the start of the Panthers. And when the Panthers formed, he was one of the earliest members. He says, and Bobby Seale confirms, that they would talk to Richard in very political discussions and that when they wrote their 10-point platform, they ran it by Richard to see what he thought about it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the documentary film Aoki, which chronicles the life of Richard Aoki. In this excerpt, his friends and comrades explain how he helped bring weapons into the Black Panthers movement.
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: He had made guns available to Huey, very early on.
BOBBY SEALE: Huey says, "Look, Richard, you have to let us have some of those guns. You have a lot of guns here."
ELBERT "BIG MAN" HOWARD: Richard would come around and donate weapons to the organization, you know.
BOBBY SEALE: So he gave a M1 carbine and a .45. And this was all about us—we was going to patrol the police. Richard helped us teach the other brothers—the new, young seven, eight, 10 brothers in there—how to break these weapons down, how to clean the weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: From the documentary Aoki. Shaka At-Thinnin of the Black August Organizing Committee speaks about Richard Aoki’s commitment to the cause.
SHAKA AT-THINNIN: If you have not won and you are still breathing, then that means you still have to fight. When I get to be 60 years old and like 70 years old and if I’m still breathing, I’m going to be still doing this. And I’m sure that’s the way Richard feels. I know he does, you know. I talk to him. It’s something that generates or emanates from him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Those were some of the tapes of various people who worked with Richard and members of the—former members of the Black Panther Party talking about him. Seth Rosenfeld, one of the things you raise in your book, that you question whether he was actually—whether Richard Aoki was actually donating weapons to the Panthers or helping to set them up.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. I’d like to first say, it’s important to be clear about what we know and what we don’t know. What we know is, according to former FBI agent Burney Threadgill and this FBI document, the opinion of Wesley Swearingen, as well, that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant during the same period that he was arming the Black Panthers and giving them weapons training. What we don’t know is whether the FBI was involved in any way with providing weapons or that it even knew that Richard Aoki was giving weapons to the Black Panthers. That’s the first thing I’d like to make clear.
The other thing I want to point out is that, in doing my reporting, I took extra efforts to be totally transparent about what my evidence was. Professor Fujino says there’s only one footnote in the book that addresses this. In fact, it’s a very lengthy footnote, and it lists each piece of evidence that I use. In the story that I did with of the Center for Investigative Reporting for the Chronicle, we were also very specific about what the evidence was. Not only did I say that I had interviewed FBI agent Burney Threadgill, but we played the tape, and we also played Richard’s comments, including his denial and also other statements which seem to be potentially suggestive explanations for his having been an informant.
DIANE FUJINO: I agree that Seth Rosenfeld’s book is well researched. If you look in the footnotes and the bibliography, there’s extensive research done, which is why I was so surprised that, after hearing the San Francisco [Chronicle] article, I expected to get more information in this thick book about evidence, and there wasn’t any. It was very slim. It’s the same things that are being said repeatedly.
I do want to say something that Juan González had mentioned about Richard not seeming to fit the profile because he was a more visible activist. And in another way, Richard Aoki does not fit the profile because many times, especially if they’re agent provocateurs or even infiltrators, they’re either low-key or they are people who try to get people to constantly engage in provocative and disruptive and risky behaviors. And Richard was a scholar. He’s known for giving—the things that he’s best known for—well, until this week—was giving the first guns to the Black Panther Party to support their police patrols to stop police brutality in the black neighborhoods. And Richard was a scholar also. He was advanced theoretically and could spar theoretically with anyone around him. And that is not a typical profile of an infiltrator.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fujino, this term that you use, "snitch-jacketing," can you explain it?
DIANE FUJINO: Yeah, it’s a tactic used by the FBI to—through rumors, through manufacturing evidence and misinformation, to cast suspicions around legitimate activists so that people think that they might be informants. And so I question: is the evidence there, or might this be a snitch-jacket on Richard Aoki? I feel the evidence is not there and that more needs to be provided in order to have it meet the burden of proof.
AMY GOODMAN: Seth Rosenfeld, your response?
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, snitch-jacketing was a technique that was used by the FBI against leftists and also sometimes in criminal cases. The purpose of it was to suggest that somebody was an informant and then leak that or make that known, and thereby cast suspicion on that person and discredit them. I don’t believe that that’s the case here. And there’s absolutely no evidence that that’s what was done here. There’s nothing in any FBI file that addresses that. That’s something that I thought about while I was doing the research. So I think that that supposition and allegation on the part of Professor Fujino is entirely unfounded.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move on to talk about the rest of your book, Seth Rosenfeld, but I wanted to give Professor Diane Fujino one last final comment on this story that is coming out with the publication of Seth Rosenfeld’s book. Diane Fujino, again, wrote the book Samurai Among Panthers about Richard Aoki.
DIANE FUJINO: Yeah. People are saying, you know, if Richard — that’s a big "if" — if he was an informant, what did he inform on? When was he an informant? Seth Rosenfeld is claiming that he was in the late '60s based on this one 1967 document, which I argue is very unclear. It can be read in multiple ways. And, you know, so we want to know more information about this. But what people are saying is that Richard contributed so much to the movement. It's unclear if there was—if he was an informant, what kind of damage he did to undermine the movement is completely unclear. But what he did as a contribution to the movement is clear.
He was a leader of the Black Panther Party. He was one of the foremost architects of Afro-Asian unity. He was the second chair of the Asian American Political Alliance, which was one of the most influential youth groups of the Asian American movement and the group that’s credited with coining the very term "Asian Americans." He helped to start Asian American Studies at Berkeley, both as an activist and then, in late ’69, became one of the first instructors and an early coordinator of Asian American studies at Berkeley. And he went on to be a counselor and instructor at East Bay community colleges, where he supported ethnic studies and supported working-class students in their pursuits of higher education. And he made multiple contributions throughout his life, up through past his retirement, where he served as inspiration and a political mentor to many young people.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Diane Fujino, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her most recent book is called Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. We’ll come back to talk with Seth Rosenfeld about other angles of his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Back in a minute.