The FBI’s Vendetta Against Berkeley
August 25, 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…