(Editor’s note: The late Richard Aoki, who was a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, has been identified as an FBI informant in a new book by Seth Rosenfeld and a video produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Following is a response from filmmakers Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, who produced the 2009 documentary “AOKI.”)
A recent article (published at CIROnline.org) and book (entitled “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power”), both authored by Seth Rosenfeld, contain a serious allegation that Richard Aoki acted as an FBI informant throughout his involvement in several revolutionary movements for social justice. If these allegations are proven to be true, we do not condone these actions in any shape or form.
However, as the discourse and investigation of these claims commence, we feel it is important to remind people that the burden of proof must fall on those that make the accusation. “No investigation, no right to judge” is a common Movement saying that bears repeating in these circumstances.
Accusing anyone of being an informant is extremely inflammatory and any allegations must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated for evidence. For those familiar with the history of COINTELPRO and tactics employed by the FBI, falsely hanging “snitchjackets” on prominent contributors to the Movement to create internal dissent and conflict, the burden of proof must lie with the individual or group making the claim.
After reviewing Rosenfeld’s article, video, and book, there is no solid evidence presented that Richard was a FBI informant.
Rosenfeld’s conclusion that Richard was an FBI informant is based on the following:
• He claims Richard made “suggestive statements” during an interview he granted Rosenfeld in 2007. However, the audio Rosenfeld has provided of the interview reveals that Richard clearly denied any allegation that he was an FBI informant.
• An interview with former FBI agent Burney Threadgill in which he claims he recruited and trained Richard to be an informant. Threadgill passed away in 2005 and does not appear to have offered any additional proof beyond his own word, which contradicts Richard’s.
• An FBI document that connects Richard with a supplementary T symbol (SF T-2). This document does not explain what this designation meant except for the unclear statement, “the limited purpose of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing him.” Furthermore, all names under the “informants” column on the page with the SF T-2 designation have been redacted. In fact, all names on this page have been redacted except for Richard’s, which calls for further information and clarification as to the actual identity of SF T-2. Since the identify of SF T-2 is unknown, it is possible that the SF T-2 informant was assigned to inform on Richard, explaining why Richard’s name is listed on this document and why SF T-2 was “designated (assigned) for…Aoki.” The FBI files released by Rosenfeld do not reveal any documentation that Aoki actually provided information to the FBI.
• The testimony of former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen that Richard fits the profile of an informant. While Swearingen has been consistently outspoken and critical of the FBI’s counter-surveillance tactics, he admits he does not have any actual connection to Richard.
Armed with no proof, it is unacceptable for Rosenfeld to discredit Richard’s integrity based on the unsubstantiated word of a deceased FBI agent and a document with redacted and vague information. Many individuals and media outlets have immediately accepted the claims of an author who is aggressively promoting his book without properly examining the evidence for themselves.
Instead of automatically trusting questionable government sources and Rosenfeld’s sensationalist journalism, we must scrutinize what Rosenfeld states as fact. We urge Richard’s former comrades, friends, associates, the 600-plus mourners who packed Wheeler Auditorium (at UC Berkeley) to attend his memorial service, and anyone concerned with government infiltration of social justice movements to get involved.
We must conduct our own research and publicly share our findings to determine the truth of the matter. Characterized by many as a man of great principle, consistency, and integrity, Richard wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are many different ways to establish, conclusively, whether or not Richard Aoki was, indeed, an FBI informant — especially if he was a “paid” informant.
First, a comment about T-symbols used by the FBI. A T-symbol assigned to a source of information would not necessarily mean he/she was an actual informant. T-symbols were used to designate raw information obtained from employers, postal service employees, mail covers, electronic surveillance, financial institutions, military service records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, as well as persons interviewed by the FBI who may or may not have had reliable information.
However, if Aoki truly was a paid informant of the FBI, he would have been assigned a code name and a symbol number.
For example, one famous FBI informant (Matt Cvetic) was assigned a code name of Bob Lee and his symbol was CNDI C-113 (Confidential National Defense Informant C-113).
Perhaps the most famous (and most productive) FBI informant of all times was Morris Childs who was a highly placed mole inside the Communist Party. His code name was Harold Lasky and his symbol was CG-5824-S*. His brother, Jack Childs, was also a major FBI informant inside the CPUSA. His code name Marat and his symbol number NY-694-S*.
All FBI field offices kept an index of their active and inactive informants — so it should be possible to determine if Richard Aoki was listed by the FBI’s San Francisco field office and/or if his name appeared on the HQ Informant Index.
In addition, if Richard Aoki was a “paid” informant, his FBI field office case agent (and Special Agent in Charge of San Francisco) would have prepared a request sent to FBI HQ to (1) request authorization to use Aoki as an informant and (2) request permission to pay him whatever amount was deemed necessary for expenses and services.
As I told Seth Rosenfeld, there MUST BE a “main file” on Aoki (both HQ and San Francisco) to archive all these documents plus copies of his reports and FBI employee evaluations of his information plus details regarding how that information was used.
HOWEVER, it is possible that Aoki was only an information source — not a paid informant. Space limitations here prevent me from going into details but new FOIA requests would seem to be in order to ascertain if he was actually a paid informant.
I urge you to read the statement from one of his contemporaries, the Jamaican-Chinese Black Panther, Lee Lew-Lee, and I quote, “Richard Aoki has always been held in the highest esteem by everyone – and I mean by every last comrade who knew him – and that should be good enough for everyone.
For me, there are two ways to look at this allegation made by Seth Rosenfeld.
Either Richard used his knowledge of the system to game the system and f***d up an old and dead FBI agent who was trying to settle an old final score from back in the day. (Maybe he was the ONE guy who successfully double-crossed the agent?)
Or it was an attempt to smear his name in the `60s that lay dormant as a document time bomb, only to be misunderstood 44 years later…We must remember that people were “bad jacketed” all the time back in the day and these documents may have been from a result to do the same back in say 1968-1969.”
(C/f San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper,August 23, 2012).
Thank you for covering this important story!