- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
Socialism is on the upswing right now. And whenever radicalism has been on the rise over the past century, that has also meant that something else has gone on the rise: state repression, often at the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
That certainly was the case in the New Left era. In their book A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence and Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union — 1962-1974, Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher tell a shocking and even gripping story of how the FBI did everything it could to destroy leftist groups emerging from the ferment of the student, civil rights, and antiwar movements. The book is a follow-up to their first book Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists and is based on a huge number of documents (many of which are included in the book) obtained from the bureau on a variety of left groups and activists.
At times, A Threat of the First Magnitude reads more like true crime than leftist history. The laundry list of FBI tactics for disrupting radical groups is incredibly long, and the reader often feels hot on the trail of infiltrators of these organizations — even at the highest levels of their leadership — as Gallagher and Leonard put together the pieces of how and why the FBI disrupted them.
At a recent event at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht spoke with Aaron Leonard about what they found and what lessons leftists today can take from his book. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This book is a follow-up to another book that you wrote, Heavy Radicals, and both of them are about the FBI’s “secret war” on American radicals. Remind us what the FBI’s relationship to radicals in the United States has historically been.
The FBI serves the role of the secret police in the United States. It has some peculiar features. They are charged with maintaining internal security, ferreting out foreign spies, along with organized crime and things like that.
But really the history of the FBI in the twentieth century has been largely a battle with communism. J. Edgar Hoover cut his teeth in the twenties during the first red scare. Into the thirties and forties, the Communist Party became a big force and the FBI was the big counter. Then into the upsurge of the sixties with the New Left and then the Maoist and pro-Castroist New Communist Movement, it was the FBI that was on the job along with local police intelligence departments.
The FBI project that most are familiar with is Cointelpro. But this book isn’t about the kinds of actions we usually associate with Cointelpro.
Our book is actually about two things: informants that have elevated themselves to the very top of radical organizations, and about counterintelligence. The FBI invoked that term as a proactive way to undermine forces, to destroy and neutralize those organizations. The big example of Cointelpro from our book is the Ad Hoc Committee for a Scientific Socialist Line, later called the Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party.
What most people know about counterintelligence is this program that was developed in the mid to late sixties, which targeted groups like the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the New Left and other forces. It involved a lot of dirty tricks and it’s really creepy stuff. There’s the famous example of sending a phony letter to Martin Luther King encouraging him to kill himself.
It’s appalling stuff but it’s a very small fraction of what the FBI actually does.
We set out to give people a better picture what this counterintelligence stuff is. We got all these documents after writing our first book, which was focused more specifically on the largest Maoist group in the United States, the Revolutionary Union. The second book [came from] looking at these documents.
What we saw was that these informants had gotten to the very top of leftist organizations.
A revelation we had while researching the book was that wiretapping comes when there isn’t human intelligence. If you and I are having a conversation, and I’m an informant, I can give a much better recreation to my handlers. I can also maneuver you in the conversation. I can testify in court, theoretically, although many informants won’t.
We realized there was a kind of methodology. When there are not live people, there’s a premium on electronic surveillance.
Can you talk a bit about that methodology? When I was starting the book, I thought of a informant or an infiltrator as being a beefy guy in the back of the room. He’s got his aviator shades down. He’s sitting low. That’s not who you profile in the book. You profiled people at the very highest levels of these left organizations.
I was in the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party for a very long time. I left and was in a position then of reflecting on it from the standpoint of an outsider. One of the myths among the New Communist Movement was you can’t really avoid informants. The best thing you can do is make them work for you.
That led us back to Roman Malinovsky, an informant in the Bolshevik Party. Malinovsky is referred to by Lenin in “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.” Lenin says, on the one hand, Malinovsky sent thousands of committed Bolsheviks to prison and death. On the other, tens of thousands were recruited to the party. He’s a template for why we don’t need to worry about informants. He’s on the central committee of the Bolshevik Party. He’s their representative on the international. He is one of three people charged with ferreting out spies in the Bolshevik Party. Yet he’s an informant.
Lenin saw in Malinovsky what he wanted to see: a working class guy who was an intellectual and was willing to fight for the cause. But I had to review [Lenin’s] logic.
If Malinovsky actually did more good than harm for the Bolsheviks because he was a good party member as well as an informant, then by that logic, let’s have twenty Malinovskys. Maybe we ought to just have all police informants because then, jeez, we can seize state power. The logic does not hold.
Can you explain what the New Communist Movement was?
The New Communist Movement came out of the New Left. When the split between the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party happened, the monolith of world communism broke into two. The New Communist Movement, by the mid sixties, was cohering more around the Chinese model.
At the beginning of the sixties there was this group the Progressive Labor Party, which is pro-Mao, but they start to lose affection for Mao. They’re instrumental in the breakup of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Out of that emerges the Revolutionary Union, the October League, the Communist League, and a bunch of smaller groups.
China is the most populous country on earth. It’s the most radical communist country in the late sixties, early seventies. Whether we think that’s true today, at the time people saw it as a model. Women seemed to have more rights. There’s no drug addiction anymore. There’s no crime. People seem to be eating after the lean years of the famine. It seemed like an alternative, and a group of young radicals cohered around it.
Groups that identified as Marxist-Leninist were the dominant trend on the openly ideological radical left after the New Left declined.
Yes, because the Communist Party was just not very appealing in the sixties. They dropped the ball as far as connecting with the radicalism that was animated on the street. All the cool people were in the New Communist Movement.
So that’s why the FBI targeted them: because they were the dominant left tendency.
The FBI is canny. They’re not just going after everybody all the time. They’re looking for people in organizations.
Going into the SDS national conference in Chicago in 1969. The Progressive Labor Party (PLP) has a lot of influence. There’s the national office, which will become the Weather Underground on the other side. Then there’s a larger array of forces that’ll become Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM).
The FBI issues a memo instructing their informants (of which there were hundreds) going into that convention to vote with the national office because it is far preferable for the national office — Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, the people who would go on to form Weather Underground — to assume power of SDS. Because they’re going to go off. They’re going to commit acts of violence. They’re going to be on the other side of the law and they can be marginalized much more quickly, alienated from US society. Progressive Labor Party, on the other hand, is a disciplined, democratic-centralist organization and if they have power, that’s not going to be good.
In other words, the FBI was instructing informants to go with the people they think are going to set off bombs and and go on this ultraleft adventurism. That’s a good thing because it’ll quickly alienate the left from American society, fracture it into a million pieces, and people will end up in jail and maybe killing each other.
The FBI like the law. They know the law. They like it when people break the law. It makes their job very easy.
This is all useful background to the book itself, which has several important case studies of infiltrators, especially within the Revolutionary Union.
Before that, though, it’s important to talk a bit about the Communist Party. The FBI cut its teeth on the CP. Morris Childs was the courier for the CPUSA to the Soviet Union. He was flipped by the FBI in 1952.
At the time, he was kind of withdrawn from the party. His wife had left him, he had heart disease. The head of the Chicago FBI counterintelligence office goes to his apartment at his brother’s recommendation and has a series of talks with Morris Childs. He turns him into an FBI informant, where he stays for about twenty-five years. He is the secretary of state and bagman to Gus Hall, the leader and chairman of CPUSA.
So Morris Childs sits inat the upper level of the Communist Party, and he’s giving the FBI intelligence. He actually leaks a copy of Khrushchev’s secret speech to the FBI. He’s in a pivotal position and he knows things.
So he is a template for the FBI going to the very top of an organization. He’s also the composite example of why not criticizing a Roman Malinovsky in your midst has repercussions.
In the book, after you introduce Childs, you talk about the Ad Hoc Committee for a Scientific Socialist Line.
This is where I start to go a little Glenn Beck with the crazy organizational charts. Carl Freyman went into the FBI in 1962. Freyman is supervisor for this other guy Herb Stallings. According to FBI personnel files, in 1962, Stallings created this phony Maoist group.
It’s called the Ad Hoc Committee for a Scientific Socialist Line, and it circulates a bulletin in the CP advocating a pro-Maoist position. This is at a point when the Soviet Union-China tensions are heating up. So it’s extremely disruptive. People who embrace the bulletin and the Ad Hoc Committee are expelled. Which was the FBI’s whole plan, of course. And it seems to have worked great. It goes on for another seventeen years.
This is mindblowing because it’s just a bulletin. It’s not like the Ad Hoc Committee is putting on events or waging public campaigns. There isn’t anyone in the book who is identified in the flesh as an Ad Hoc Committee member. The committee just sends polemics around the Left. Yet despite never appearing in person anywhere, they have this massively disruptive effect on the New Communist Movement.
We have a Freedom of Information request. There are fifteen thousand to seventeen thousand pages on the Ad Hoc Committee. They’ll start trickling out. I will be long dead before they all come out but I suspect a lot of our conclusions about the sixties are going to be upended.
The Ad Hoc Committee bulletin’s language is, at a very high level, operating with extreme familiarity with Marxism. It speaks the language of the Left. You would have to do a fair amount of studying of Marxist texts to write the kind of polemics that they were writing and be credible to people who are on the left. The FBI manages to do that.
Exactly. It used to be an article of faith on the Left that the FBI can’t bamboozle us with political line, because they wouldn’t be able to speak the language of the Left. Yeah, they totally can. The Ad Hoc Committee shows that.
In their bulletin over time, they are arguing diametrically opposed things. Their arguments are always in Marxist language, but they’re arguing opposite things just a couple years apart from each other. But nobody but you, years later, has the whole record spread out in front of you to realize, wait, something’s fishy here.
Yeah, there’s no internet. The bulletin is circulating secretly. There’s no library of Marxism that has all this in one place.
This isn’t a real Marxist group and people never really appear in the flesh, but they cause all this damage. They never appear but they force out twenty-five people from a left organization.
Yeah, they never appear. We’ve got evidence there are one or two people in this group plus the FBI operatives. Herb Stallings is in it, and there are probably people who think they’re in an organization that’s real. But it isn’t.
In the book, we reprint a letter from this guy Bob Fitch, who later joined the RU, asking for the latest copy of the bulletin. It goes straight into his FBI file. Also, with the sophistication of the bulletins, we suspect people like Morris Childs had a hand in it. Connor, my coauthor, got the notion to go to look at Morris Child’s papers at Stanford University and lo and behold, there’s a catalog of every Ad Hoc bulletin that appeared. He was in a position to hold forth on the nuances of black self-determination in the South or the Comintern line on the national question in the United States.
Can you talk about Richard Aoki?
Richard Aoki has become an icon. Around 2009, he was the subject of a documentary film. He was a secret member of the Black Panther Party and a leader of the Berkeley Strike for Ethnic Studies. Diane Fujino, an academic in Santa Barbara, wrote a monograph which is essentially Aoki telling his own story.
Fujino did us all a service because she has him on record meticulously talking about who he was. Unfortunately, it’s all a lie, because his life was a lie.
Seth Rosenfeld wrote a book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, about the free speech movement and Reagan and California in the sixties, and inadvertently discovered documents saying Aoki was an FBI informant. A lot of the Left didn’t want to believe that.
Fred Ho said something to the effect of, “If Aoki was an informant, he was a piss-poor one because he did far more good than bad.” This is where our friend Malinovsky comes back in.
Aoki has a monumental history. He was in the Socialist Workers Party in Berkeley. He is written about in histories of the Black Panthers as being there with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as one of the founders. They ran the initial Black Panthers’ ten-point platform by Aoki. He gave guns to the Black Panthers early on and, as you already mentioned, was involved in the strike for Ethnic Studies at Berkeley and then goes on to become faculty in that program.
This is a guy who’s at the upper levels of some of the most important movements and movement organizations of the New Left. There’s a picture of him seemingly being beaten by the cops and arrested. He’s a storied figure and yet it is pretty clear from the record that for a significant chunk of time of his life, he was this informant.
He’s kind of a Zelig in the movement. He’s everywhere. Huey Newton gets arrested for a shootout with cops, sending Huey Newton to jail and the Free Huey movement explodes. Richard Aoki tells the FBI within a day or two that the car Newton was driving was Newton’s girlfriend’s car.
This is Richard Aoki. This is his real legacy.
He never leaves school. He gets his undergraduate and masters degrees. Unlike the three other leaders of the ethnic studies struggle in Berkeley, he is not expelled or suspended. Aoki gets a position in the Asian American Studies Department in Berkeley and tells the FBI that from that position, he could inform on that group and other Asian American activists. That’s his legacy.
You quote from a FBI report on him that says, almost quizzically, that they were paying Aoki a pretty small amount of money, but he didn’t bring up getting more from the FBI, because informing wasn’t about the money for him. It was about doing what’s best for the country.
Exactly. He and his family were interned during World War II. The Communist Party supported the interment because the Communist Party supported the war effort so there was that. Aoki became an informant through the army. When he was seventeen and joined, an army form asked, “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” He said no. Then the question asked, “Did you know anybody who was a member of the Communist Party?” He said, “Oh yeah, I did.” Then he listed three names, including somebody he dated.
That was his first act of informing. Military intelligence sent that off to the FBI.
Talk about Don Wright, who was an informant as well as a top member of leadership in the Revolutionary Union.
Don Wright was a big success for the FBI. He’s an African American man. We don’t know too much about him. We suspect he came out of the military. His bonafides for being a radical were his claims that he was in the Chicago Black Panther Party. There’s no evidence of that. But his big letter of recommendation is that he was in the Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party!
Don Wright comes into the RU and goes from being a cadre to being a central committee member to being on the secretariat, which is the four people who lead the group. In a democratic centralist organization, these are the people who hold all the power and they know everything. That’s Don Wright. He’s given this important responsibility soon which has pretty important ramifications.
I have to say, with Aoki and Wright’s stories, what they did in their organizations, how high up they were — it’s made me look around at my friends, my roommates, my romantic partner: are they cops? The editor of the socialist magazine that I work for: is he a cop? Am I a cop?!
Wright was at such a high level and, like you said, he’s one of the four people who are in the leadership. Nobody ever figured it out. People had some suspicions later in life, but he did quite a bit of damage before he was expelled from the organization.
The thing with Wright is a lot of people did have a lot of suspicions. It went on for a long time. Don Wright was operating at a very high level and at a certain point, the groups that he messed with could’ve come together and had a talk and said, “Let’s compare notes about this guy.” But nobody wanted to talk about it. Again, this goes back to Malinovsky.
There’s a notable moment in Don Wright’s career. There were groups trying to come together to form a party: the Revolutionary Union, with left-nationalist groups of Puerto Ricans and African Americans, and others. They wanted to create a large umbrella party.
Wright plays this critical role in destroying a lot of those relationships, right?
Yes, he does. The various groups were actually making good progress towards a party in 1971, 1972.
Don Wright maneuvered his way to being the RU’s point person for that. Rather than going in there arguing for a multinational party, he was arguing black people need to lead black people, Puerto Rican people need to lead Puerto Rican people. The different racial and ethnic groups need to not come together, essentially.
The Ad Hoc Committee, which now has been around for ten years between 1962 and 1972 and don’t have anything to do with this new party, took the time to write a note to the Guardian, the newspaper important in the New Communist Movement at the time, and say, “You know, black people should lead black people and Puerto Rican people should lead Puerto Ricans . . .”
They said exactly what Don Wright was saying. And the whole thing fell apart, shockingly actually.
Reading that, I couldn’t help but think about how the RU eventually turned into the Revolutionary Communist Party, which is a very tiny, bizarre sect revolving around Bob Avakian. I’m not personally sympathetic to much of RU’s politics at the time. But there was this effort to make the RU broader — the opposite of what the RCP is now. They were trying to bring together people from different left-nationalist groups and other leftist organizations. Wright almost singlehandedly torpedoed that.
One has to wonder what could’ve come of that effort and the different path the RU would have taken if he had not done that.
It’s a good question. Counterfactuals have their limits. But it was not clear that these groups couldn’t have come together. The FBI had instructed one of their informants: your chief task is to make sure that the Revolutionary Union and the October League do not come together. They were the two biggest Maoist trends at that point.
Your book has quite a bit more examples of all of these kind of shenanigans that the FBI was engaged in. You haven’t written it as a guide for people today who are engaged in political action to ferret out cops in their midst. But one has to wonder in reading it what the lessons are for people today who are engaged in left activity.
I was in this Maoist party and I fancied myself an expert on dealing with FBI counterintelligence. Then I quit and started to look at it differently. First, the freedom of information requests — you don’t get to do this in other countries around the world. This is the legacy of the FBI screwing up big time and getting exposed. This was a concession wrought out of them overreaching.
It should be taken advantage of. The documents are out there.
The other thing is, some people learn about this stuff and say, “God, that’s so depressing.”
I have to tell you: reading your book, I was very depressed.
It’s true but look, you’d rather know, wouldn’t you? Also, the lesson from this book is not to look at your comrades or neighbors and think they’re cops. That’s counterproductive. It took me years to figure out Don Wright was who he was. There’s a protocol and a methodology to cracking the case of someone like him.
In the case of Don Wright, maybe you couldn’t have figured out that he was an FBI informant. But the kind of behavior that he was engaged in over a long period of time was so disruptive that whether he was a cop or not, his behavior should’ve been dealt with by other members of his organization. But when people first tried to call him out on his disruptions, he just accused his comrades of attacking him because he was black.
What did Crosby, Stills and Nash say back in the day? You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.
Hold the people who you’re in this common project with to those principles.
Yeah, that’s well put.
In Wright’s case, there were FBI documents basically saying, “this guy is black. This is a group of mostly white radicals. We need to take advantage of this. They’re not going to be willing to kick this guy out of the group because they want their group to be more rooted in the multiracial working class.” You have a chapter about a husband and wife, the Goffs, who were informants. Because they came from a working-class background, nobody wants to call them out.
With the Goffs, people were saying, “These people are a little off.” But a party leader effectively said, “You shouldn’t attack them because they’re proletarians.” Well, they’re screwed-up proletarians.