Revelations that prominent radical activist Richard Aoki was an FBI informant have prompted angry denials among his supporters, but newly released records confirm Aoki was secretly providing information to agents during the period he gave the Black Panthers guns and firearms training.
The documents from Aoki’s FBI informant file – totaling 221 pages – were released after a court challenge under the Freedom of Information Act and show that Aoki was an informant from 1961 to 1977, with only brief interruptions. The records say that at various points, he provided information that was “unique” and of “extreme value.”
The records chronicle Aoki’s 16-year career as an informant during the time he was a student at Merritt College in Oakland and at UC Berkeley, participating in a series of radical groups, including the Black Panthers, the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front, a 1969 protest for more ethnic studies that involved the most violent strike to date at UC Berkeley and led then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to declare a state of emergency.
An early FBI report says Aoki was assigned the alias “Richard Ford” to use when signing reports, as well as a permanent informant number, which the FBI redacted. It notes his date of birth, his parents’ names and his address.
A Dec. 14, 1971, report notes that Aoki was an instructor in Asian studies at UC Berkeley and a student counselor at the Grove Street campus of the Peralta Junior College District.
“Coverage furnished by this informant is unique and not available from any other source,” it says. “Many activist individuals seek informant’s advice and counseling since informant is considered as a militant who has succeeded within the establishment without surrending (sic) to it.”
FBI officials even reminded Aoki to report his pay as an informant on his tax return, according to a handwritten notation on a Dec. 29, 1972, report. The records do not say how much he was paid, but according to a congressional study, security informants in the 1960s typically received about $100 per month, with more valuable informants receiving up to $400 per month, the equivalent of about $2,900 today.
FBI representatives Julianne Sohn in San Francisco, and John Fox in Washington, declined to comment for this story.
Aoki was a well-known member of the Bay Area’s activist community in the 1960s and 1970s. After he committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 70, he was celebrated as a “fearless leader.”
He was born in San Leandro in 1938 and was interned at age 4 during World War II with thousands of other Japanese Americans. He achieved new notoriety with the release of a feature documentary about him in 2009 and a biography this year. Neither work mentions his relationship with the FBI.
The assertion that Aoki was an informant was first made last month in a news report and video with the Center for Investigative Reporting. Both were based on the new book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.”
The information was based on an interview with retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr., an FBI record that identified Aoki as informant “T-2,” consultation with former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen to interpret the records and additional research in FBI records concerning Aoki and other informants.
Threadgill, in a detailed interview before his death in 2005, recalled how he first approached Aoki around the time he graduated from Berkeley High School in 1956.
“He was my informant. I developed him,” Threadgill said. “He was one of the best sources we had.”
In a 2007 interview, Aoki denied being an informant but added, as if by way of explanation: “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”
Aoki’s friends, as well as his biographer and the producers of the film about him, expressed shock at the disclosure that he had been an informant, and some of them angrily disputed it. Some suggested the story was an attempt to place a “snitch jacket” on Aoki – an FBI tactic of falsely claiming radicals were informants, causing suspicion and mistrust among fellow activists – even though Aoki has been dead for three years. They have provided no evidence of that.
The FBI released the records as a result of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act after the initial story and video were completed. The bureau excised the names of all people and organizations on which Aoki reported but the documents identify him as an informant and assess his performance every few months. Although his name does not appear in every document, all the records are sequentially numbered in his informant file.
Swearingen, a retired FBI agent who has criticized unlawful FBI activities under J. Edgar Hoover, reviewed the file. “It confirms that he was an informant,” he said.
The earliest reports contain errors about his age and ethnicity, describing him as white or Korean. Some later reports note he had temporarily decreased his informing because of school or work. Generally, they show the FBI contacted him at least once a month and usually at least twice a month. The reports say his information was “disseminated” or “channelized” into dossiers on people under investigation.
The earliest memo, dated March 6, 1961, names Richard Masato Aoki and says he was being considered for development as an informant. He came to the FBI’s attention in 1957, soon after he began service with the Army at Fort Ord, near Monterey. Aoki had told an Army official that he attended certain “socials” while a student at Berkeley High School and was acquainted with several fellow students who apparently were of interest to the FBI.
“Aoki was contacted and expressed a willingness to cooperate with the Bureau in any way possible,” according to the report, which bears Threadgill’s initials.
That fall, Aoki joined the Berkeley Young Socialist Alliance. A Nov. 8, 1961, FBI report says Aoki was informing on “several other front groups” allegedly created by organizations the FBI deemed subversive. It says he furnished “voluminous information” in “current, concise and complete reports, usually typewritten by him.”
The report also says, “This informant is closely controlled and has constantly been reminded of his position as an informant and that this relationship must remain absolutely confidential.”
It adds, “The informant is of unusual value.”
By now, Aoki had become an officer in the Young Socialist Alliance and a member of the Socialist Workers Party, two groups under intensive FBI investigation. He would remain a member of the Socialist Workers Party until 1967.
An Oct. 29, 1962, assessment says, “During the past four months informant has furnished considerable information.” An Oct. 28, 1964, report says, “Informant has submitted complete and thorough reports.”
At the beginning of the next year, a report notes that Aoki had “curtailed activities” because of his full-time job and course load as an undergraduate student at Merritt College. But six months later, on June 30, 1965, another report says he had “resumed full activities as an informant.”
“There is still no indication of any instability on the part of the informant,” it notes, “and it is believed that he is completely reliable in exercising his responsibilities to the Bureau.”
By now, Aoki was active in the Vietnam Day Committee, a Berkeley-based group whose anti-war activities were being investigated by the FBI. He worked on the group’s international committee, as liaison to foreign anti-war activists.
A March 10, 1966, report notes Aoki was a full-time student at Merritt and had provided information that “was not available from any other source in this division.”
Among the Black Panthers
At Merritt, Aoki met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, two fellow students who were forming a group that would become known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. After Aoki transferred to UC Berkeley as junior in sociology in fall 1966, they consulted him about their plan for the group, and he gave them some of their first guns and firearms training.
Early in 1967, Aoki gave them additional guns, according to Seale’s memoir, “Seize the Time.” By July 1967, Aoki had been named captain of the Berkeley branch of the Black Panthers.
During this period, the Panthers openly carried weapons on their patrols of Oakland police, which they said were intended to reduce brutality against African Americans. That May, they brandished guns during a visit to the state Legislature to protest a bill that would bar carrying firearms on city streets.
That October, Oakland police Officer John Frey was killed in a shootout with the Black Panthers in Oakland, and Newton and Officer Herbert Heanes were wounded. In April 1968, Eldridge Cleaver and five other Panthers were involved in a gunfight that wounded him and two officers and killed Panther Bobby Hutton.
The FBI records show Aoki was informing during this period, but the redacted files do not mention the Panthers or guns. The documents do not show whether the FBI was aware Aoki was arming the Panthers.
A Nov. 2, 1966, report to FBI headquarters notes Aoki was a full-time student at UC Berkeley. “Informant utilizes all available time in obtaining information for the Bureau, consistent with the demands of the study program,” it says.
The San Francisco FBI field office suggested contacting Aoki at least once every 30 days instead of the usual two weeks “because of the security problems incidental to contacting this informant who is so active in and so well known to the dissident elements.”
The next report, dated Feb. 27, 1967, is heavily redacted but says that during the preceding period, Aoki provided no information of “unusual value.”
“Informant utilized all available time in obtaining information for the Bureau. However, he is presently finding that his course of study at the university is both challenging and demanding and he is presently unable to increase the time devoted to the (redacted),” it says.
“This informant furnishes unique information of considerable value particularly relating to the personal circumstances of (redacted),” it says.
Teaching and beyond
Subsequent reports say Aoki continued to inform through 1969, submitting written and oral reports on numerous people. A Jan. 23, 1969, memo says, “Because of volume and value of information being furnished, informant should be continued.”
The reports show he informed during the time he was a member of the Asian American Political Alliance in Berkeley and was one of the most militant leaders of the Third World Liberation Front strike.
A memo dated Dec. 29, 1969, says, “Informant is cognizant of the Bureau’s interest in activities on campus being limited to those individuals and organizations whose activities are directed against the interests of the U.S.”
On June 30, 1970, San Francisco reported to headquarters that Aoki had just obtained a master’s degree in sociology at UC Berkeley.
“Due to the demands of his academic pursuit the informant furnished little information subsequent to April 15, 1970, and consequently has not been (redacted). It is considered necessary and desirable to maintain regular contact with the informant and to retain Bureau authority to reimburse him for services and expenses,” it says.
Subsequent reports say Aoki continued to inform even after he became a lecturer in Asian American studies at UC Berkeley and Merritt. A Sept. 30, 1970, memo noted, “The informant has the ability to relate to all races and crosses the barriers between the ethnic movements with ease.”
Aoki informed even after he became a full-time faculty member at Peralta Community College, a July 2, 1973, report says.
“Coverage furnished by this informant is classified as high level and is not available from any other sources,” it adds. Another memo from January 1974 says he continued to inform after he became acting head of the school’s social sciences department.
A memo dated Sept. 28, 1976, is the first document that identifies him as a former confidential informant. But it says that earlier in the month, he reported information “indicating (redacted) is actively recruiting members and seeking to become influential.” It adds that “contact will be maintained with source as in past.”
The last released document, dated Oct. 13, 1977, notes that Aoki most recently has been an FBI informant in Chinese foreign counterintelligence investigations.
Aoki, the report says, had concluded that being an informant was inconsistent with his work as an educator He refused to reveal his past relationship with the FBI because this “would alienate him from associates and friends and would cause him great trouble in his relationships with students as a student counselor.” The report added that it was unlikely “there will be any control problem concerning this informant.”
“This case,” the report says, “is being placed in a closed status.”