Though he had no way of knowing it at the time, Seth Rosenfeld was already working on his explosive new book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” over three decades ago, before he’d even graduated from college, because of a phone call from his editor at his student newspaper.
The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan had just taken office as president, and Rosenfeld, a superannuated 25-year-old undergrad, was studying English and journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. The Daily Californian had obtained files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the Freedom of Information Act, most of them concerning bureau activities on campus during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Rosenfeld’s editor at the paper called him up — did he want to take a look? He soon found himself pushing a hand truck loaded with more than 9,000 pages of previously secret documents from the Daily Cal offices to his second-floor apartment a half a mile away.
Rosenfeld learned that the FBI had actively sought to undermine the Free Speech Movement, which had been protesting restrictions placed upon on-campus political activity, and which is often credited with sparking the nationwide student protests of the 60s. In fact, he found so much damning material in the documents that he made them his senior project.
But the files also seemed incomplete — pages missing, key information blacked out and an occasional handwritten memo that seemed to hint at deeper, possibly illegal FBI activities. So Rosenfeld sent out a request to the FBI for more files, thinking he’d have most of his answers in a few months. After graduation, the young reporter — who to this day claims that his college professors rather than his pre–bar mitzvah studies taught him to enjoy close scrutiny of obscure documents — freelanced for a few years, then worked as an investigative reporter for decades at both the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.
As for that FBI request, it took 31 years, five lawsuits, and more than a million dollars of taxpayers’ money (which is what Rosenfeld estimates the bureau spent fighting his lawsuits). But the bureau eventually released more than 300,000 pages of files. They reveal, in chilling detail, the extensive efforts of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to undermine, discredit, harass and investigate various men and women associated with radical campus groups, as well as previously unknown information about Ronald Reagan’s role as an FBI informant during his Hollywood years.
The book has been Rosenfeld’s lifelong project, his personal and professional “Moby Dick.” But there is nothing overtly Ahab-like about the soft-spoken 56-year-old when we meet in person at Caffe Mediterraneum, a few blocks from the Berkeley campus. “The Med,” as locals call it, is a former haunt of members of the Free Speech Movement, the Third World Front, the Black Panthers and other radical groups. It’s where Allen Ginsberg is said to have written “Howl,” and, according to the sign behind the register, it was also the birthplace of the café latte. Most important for Rosenfeld, it’s where he used to fuel up on cappuccinos while on deadline at the Daily Cal offices just up the block.
The walls are covered with photographs of sit-ins, riots and scruffy teenagers holding up signs lambasting the “pigs.” Flyers on a bulletin board advertise consciousness-raising sessions and meetings for Occupy Wall Street. A genial, unkempt fellow with his shirt tucked into his waist-high green sweatpants has already approached the table, requesting we vote for him in the upcoming mayoral election. With his khakis, navy blue blazer and brown leather oxfords, Rosenfeld is by far the squarest cat in the room.
He’s also the most ideologically subdued. When asked about his own politics, he politely demurs, claiming that his positions are “irrelevant,” instead aligning himself with the great muckraking tradition of Lincoln Steffens, Seymour Hersh, and Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.