Kiplinger Financial Expert, FBI 'Subversives' Sleuth Headline May 3 Radio

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Sammon is a past president of the National Press Club and served for several years on its Board of Governors. During his term, Sammon presided over many of the club's trademark and nationally broadcast luncheons featuring speeches and Q&A sessions with prime ministers, presidents and national figures in the government, arts and entertainment, business, science and politics.

Rosenfeld's focus also is on high-level government officials. Rosenfeld (portrayed in the photo above by Heidi Elise Benson) is an accomplished investigative reporter who won the Ridenhour Book Prize for Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. The book documents 1960s FBI surveillance, illegal break-ins, infiltration, planted news stories, poison-pen letters, and secret detention lists.

The revelations about Reagan are the heart of the book. Reagan proudly opposed the left throughout his career following his early membership in the Democratic Party. Rosenfeld's research, however, suggests that his opposition was stronger than commonly known.

"Reagan’s FBI connection is rooted in the turbulent years of post-World War II Hollywood, a time when, Reagan has written, his worldview was coming apart," Rosenfeld argued in a New York Times column, Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine. "His film career, his marriage to Jane Wyman and his faith in the political wisdom received from his father, an FDR Democrat, were all faltering."

"Reagan went on to make his fight against Communism in Hollywood a centerpiece of his talks as spokesman for General Electric in the 1950s," Rosenfeld continued. "Those eventually became broader warnings about what he saw as creeping socialism. The founding fathers, he declared in his 1961 speech, believed 'government should only do those things the people cannot do for themselves.'”

"But that guidance apparently didn’t apply to Reagan himself," Rosenfeld continued. "According to FBI records, in 1960 he turned to the federal government for help with the kind of problem families usually handle themselves." 

Rosenfeld described how Reagan successfully urged the FBI to spy on two of his children, Maureen and Michael, when they were developing what he regarded as dangerous associations in their youthful years. They are shown at right with their father in a 1976 photo from the Reagan Family Photo Collection.

The interventions involved FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. "Here was Ronald Reagan, avowed opponent of overdependence on government," Rosenfeld wrote, "again taking personal and political help from Hoover." 

In my column Two DC Media Ceremonies Contrast Courage, Comfort,  I described the investigative work recognized by the Ridenhour process. Of Rosenfeld, the judges said:

This remarkable book traces the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures who clashed at Berkeley during the 1960s — the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile student radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr. Through these converging narratives, Rosenfeld tells a dramatic and disturbing story of FBI surveillance, illegal break-ins, infiltration, planted news stories, poison-pen letters, and secret detention lists.

He reveals how the FBI’s covert operations — led by Reagan’s friend J. Edgar Hoover — helped ignite an era of protest, undermine the Democrats, and benefit Reagan personally and politically. At the same time, Rosenfeld vividly evokes the life of Berkeley of that era — and shows how the university community, a center of the forward-looking idealism of the period, became a battleground in an epic struggle between the government and free citizens. As Rosenfeld concludes, Subversives illuminates “the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.”

Indeed, the FBI spent more than $1 million trying to block the release of the secret files on which Subversives is based, but Rosenfeld brought five lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act over 27 years that ultimately compelled the bureau to release more than 300,000 pages. As Matt Taibbi wrote in the New York Times Book Review, Subversives provides “a relevant warning. Domestic intelligence forces will tend to use all the powers they’re given (and even some that they’re not) to spy on people who are politically defenseless, irrelevant from a security standpoint and targeted for all the wrong reasons. And policemen who abuse their powers don’t just ruin innocent lives and undermine our faith in the law. They miss the real threats.”

“Subversives at first appears to be about a single place at a specific moment in a part of our past that is safely tucked away,” said the Ridenhour judges. “But its genius lies in its masterful and seamless braiding of investigative research and storytelling dexterity to depict an American government that used its vast resources for partisan political gain under the cloak of protecting the nation from a nebulous external threat. Seth Rosenfeld has done us an enormous service to remind us today that the efforts of a courageous few — even against the most powerful institutions — can make a difference.”

 

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment
 
 

 

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Seth Rosenfeld and His Book, 'Subversives'

New York Times, Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine, Seth Rosenfeld, Sept. 1, 2012. In 1961, when Ronald Reagan was defining himself politically, he warned that if left unchecked, government would become “a Big Brother to us all.” But previously undisclosed FBI. records, released to me after a long and costly legal fight under the Freedom of Information Act, present a different side of the man who has come to symbolize the conservative philosophy of less government and greater self-reliance. When Reagan needed government help, he was happy to take it, which is particularly interesting in light of the current debate over “entitlements,” and which might give pause to members of both political parties who speak glowingly of the Reagan legacy. The documents show that Reagan was more involved than was previously known as a government informer during his Hollywood years, and that in return he secretly received personal and political help from J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI. director, at taxpayer expense.

New York Times, The Hunters and the Hunted: ‘Subversives,’ by Seth Rosenfeld, Matt Taibbi, Oct. 5, 2012. America never got over the ’60s. The deep social divisions that emerged during that decade remain, for the most part, the divisions that define modern American politics. The battle lines are still so painfully visible that 50 years after the beginning of the Vietnam War and the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, the presidential race this year will come down to a contest between a former community organizer pilloried for supposed ties to ’60s radicals and a former Stanford student who protested against campus antiwar demonstrations.

Selected Reviews of Subversives

“Masterfully researched . . . A potent reminder of the explosiveness of 1960s politics and how far elements of the government were (and perhaps still are) willing to go to undermine civil liberties.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Armed with a panoply of interviews, court rulings, and freshly acquired FBI. document, Rosenfeld shows how J. Edgar Hoover unlawfully distributed confidential intelligence to undermine the nineteen-sixties protest movement in Berkeley, while brightening the political stars of friendly informants like Ronald Reagan. Rosenfeld’s history, at once encyclopedic and compelling, follows a number of interwoven threads.” —The New Yorker

“In case you’ve forgotten or are too young to know, the 1960s were the template for today’s political divisiveness. In Subversives, Seth Rosenfeld chronicles how the abyss formed. His book is crucial history. It’s also a warning . . . Profound thanks to Seth Rosenfeld for outing the truth and speaking truth to power.” —Carlo Wolff, The Christian Science Monitor

“Several books have dealt directly or tangentially with the Berkeley student revolt, but Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives presents a new and encompassing perspective, including a revisionist view of Ronald Reagan and a detailed picture of FBI corruption. The details of the story did not come easily. It took Rosenfeld, a former reporter for The Chronicle and the Examiner, 25 years and five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to finally get all the material he requested from the FBI. The bureau fought him every inch of the way, spending more than $1 million of taxpayers’ money in an effort to withhold public records, until it finally had no choice . . . A well-paced and wide-ranging narrative . . . A deftly woven account.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Vivid and unsettling.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune
 

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