A new report published last Friday confirmed earlier revelations that Richard Aoki, a former longtime political activist and Peralta Community Colleges professor, was an FBI informant for sixteen years. The new report from respected journalist Seth Rosenfeld and published by the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered numerous government documents, definitively proving that Aoki repeatedly provided information to the FBI during a time in which he also armed and trained the Black Panthers and was a member of other militant leftist organizations. But while the startling revelations about the iconic Aoki are disturbing, there are still many unanswered questions about his relationship to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
We also don’t know yet whether Aoki had gathered intelligence from the FBI and then used it to help the Black Panthers and other groups he was involved with. That may sound farfetched to some, but the history of spying is littered with cases involving double agents, who convinced their handlers that the information they were giving was “unique” and of “extreme value,” but was actually neither.
Moreover, as a member of militant activist groups who also talked to the FBI, Aoki was in a unique position to know exactly what each side knew about the other. Indeed, in public interviews, Rosenfeld has acknowledged that Aoki may have been working both sides, so to speak. And so, even though Rosenfeld’s reporting has been exemplary, the full story of Aoki and his involvement with the FBI remains untold.
We know for sure, for example, that Aoki, a former US army sergeant, provided arms and training to the Black Panthers. We also know that the Panthers and other groups viewed Aoki as an important, trusted activist; the Panthers dubbed him the “minister of education” of their Berkeley chapter. As such, it seems possible that Aoki may have helped steer the Panthers in ways that allowed the organization to avoid FBI detection.
The only way we’ll know for sure if Aoki really did sell out his fellow activists to the FBI is if the information he provided to the agency truly was crucial. And we probably won’t know that until the FBI releases all its documents about him. Moreover, we probably won’t know whether Aoki also provided FBI secrets to the Panthers and other groups he worked with — until evidence is uncovered that shows Aoki predominantly steered those groups in ways that helped the FBI. In short, the question of whether Aoki was a traitor to the activist cause or a shrewd manipulator of government agents has yet to be answered.
Finally, it should be noted that some of the attacks against Rosenfeld by leftists and Aoki supporters have been out of bounds. Rosenfeld has long been one of the best investigative reporters in California.