Mario Savio's FBI Odyssey
SETH ROSENFELD / SF Chronicle 10oct04
How the man who challenged 'the machine' got caught in the gears and wheels of J. Edgar Hoover's bureau
try to stop Mario Savio from speaking at the
Savio at rally, December 1964. UPI File Photo, 1964
Savio at rally, December 1964. UPI File Photo, 1964
Police arrest protester at UC Berkeley, December 1964.
Student pickets on campus April 1965.
Student protesters march through Sather Gate at
Savio at a sit-in.
Police grab Savio at the Greek Theatre.
Savio, Suzanne Goldberg and Bettina Aptheker.
Mario Savio, wife Lynne Hollander, 1984.
J. Edgar Hoover strode into a closed congressional chamber and delivered a blunt warning to the House Appropriations subcommittee about a threat to national security in the Bay Area.
The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, which staged the nation's first major campus sit-ins of the '60s, was being used in a Soviet plot against America. Hoover implied that the Communist Party USA was manipulating Mario Savio, the Berkeley student who'd become famous for leading the FSM. "Communist Party leaders feel that based on what happened on the campus at the University of California at Berkeley, they can exploit similar student demonstrations to their own benefit in the future," Hoover testified on March 4, 1965.
But FBI files show Hoover knew there was no evidence Savio or the Free Speech Movement were under the influence of any group plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. He knew the FSM was a nonviolent protest against a university rule barring students from engaging in political activity on campus. He knew Savio broke no federal law. He knew because his agents had told him.
Hoover's FBI spied on Savio for years because he had emerged as the nation's most prominent student leader, a symbol of revolt against the establishment. Savio gave the speech that sparked the massive sit-in at Sproul Hall that fall, his words striking at not only the impersonal nature of the modern university but at all of bureaucratic society: "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop," the 21-year-old said. "And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
Savio spoke and hundreds of people occupied the administration building overnight, leading police to make the largest mass arrest in of students in U. S. history and shocking a public accustomed to campus conformity.
A few days later at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., Hoover told his aides he feared Savio and his fellow protesters would inspire student rebellion "at other colleges across the land. We need to and will give continuous attention to this matter."
Hoover turned his surveillance machine on Savio: the indexes, dossiers, watch lists and informers; the liaisons with local police and the CIA; the discreet contacts with neighbors, school officials and employers; and, finally, covert action to "disrupt" and "neutralize" him. In 1976, a U.S. Senate subcommittee exposed these kinds of unconstitutional activities on a huge scale and forced the FBI to adopt strict investigative guidelines.
Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, the third highest FBI official under Hoover, denied the FBI abused its power in Savio's case. "We looked at him more or less as fomenting various activities which could promote anarchy," he said in an interview.
LaRae Quy, an FBI spokeswoman in San Francisco, declined to comment on the Savio case. "It's not today's FBI," she said. The FBI now has more oversight from Congress and others and "the highest standards of integrity."
As the Free Speech Movement hits its 40th anniversary this month, some say the FBI's treatment of Savio illustrates the potential for abuse in the bureau's greatly expanded surveillance apparatus since Sept. 11, 2001. Attorney General John Ashcroft has loosened bureau guidelines, and the Patriot Act has given federal agents more power to pry. "You have a very wide-open playing field," said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in Washington, D.C.
When I first met Savio in 1982, he told me he suspected FBI agents had monitored campus rallies but did not think they had targeted him. Before he died in 1996, he gave me permission to request his FBI files, which were released only after I sued under the Freedom of Information Act.
Those previously secret files show the FBI caught Savio in the gears and wheels and levers of its intelligence machinery, even as the reluctant radical leader was mysteriously withdrawing from politics and struggling with his own inner conflicts.
An Altar Boy
Savio came to Berkeley from New York City in fall 1963 to study philosophy. He brought an overriding sense of morality and troubling questions about authority. He was born Dec. 8, 1942, to a steelworker father from Sicily who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His mother was a housewife. He had one older brother. The family was devoutly Catholic. Two aunts were nuns, and he was an altar boy who planned to be a priest. From the beginning, he said later, his mission in life was not to get rich or have a career, but to fight evil and do good.
Growing up in the '50s, Savio was part of the first generation raised under the threat of nuclear war. He participated in air-raid drills at school and believed J. Edgar Hoover when he said communists wanted to overthrow America. But as a teen, Savio began asking questions. He doubted whether diving under his desk would save him from an atomic blast. He came to reject the Bible stories he'd been taught as fact. "Not that things couldn't have happened that way," he said, "but there seemed to be lots of reasons to think maybe they hadn't."
Holocaust photographs hit him hardest. "Heaps of bodies. Mounds of bodies. Nothing affected my consciousness more than those pictures," he said. "They meant to me that everything needed to be questioned. Reality itself." Savio was stunned by his realization that many Germans, and many others, had accepted mass murder. "I mean, how could it possibly [be]? I started to get the idea that people weren't really coming clean about things ... that there was almost a conspiracy not to tell the truth to oneself, even on a mass scale. "
After graduating from high school, Savio worked with a church group building sanitary facilities in the slums of Taxco, Mexico. When he arrived at Berkeley he found student life dominated by sororities and fraternities. The dry logic of analytic philosophy ruled the lecture halls, but existentialism held court in the coffeehouses. Savio and other students were following the civil rights movement in the South. In August 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led 250,000 people in a march on Washington and declared, "I Have a Dream." In September, Ku Klux Klan members bombed a Birmingham church, killing four girls.
Some students joined pickets of Bay Area businesses that refused to hire blacks, including Mel's Drive-Ins, car dealers along Van Ness Avenue's "Auto Row" and San Francisco hotels. "The spirit of 'do good' and 'resist evil' was an important part of my religious upbringing," said Savio. "I saw [that] present in the civil rights movement, and I wanted to ally myself with that." Besides, he recalled, the civil rights protests were starting to become hip and "there was this girl I wanted to impress ..."
One day in March 1964, Savio was at the entrance to campus at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue when someone handed him a leaflet advertising a sit- in at San Francisco's Sheraton-Palace Hotel. He was soon among nearly 1,000 people in its grand lobby, chanting "We Shall Overcome." The protest stretched from March 6 to March 7, ending only after Mayor John Shelley negotiated a minority-hiring agreement. Savio was one of 167 charged with trespassing.
Soon after, an FBI agent discreetly visited the San Francisco Police Department's intelligence unit and picked up a list of the arrestees and their photographs for bureau dossiers. It was part of secret FBI investigations that were supposed to ferret out alleged Communist infiltration of the civil rights movement and other advocacy groups. "In practice the target often became the domestic groups themselves," said the 1976 report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee for its chairman, Sen. Frank Church).
By 1963, the FBI had opened more than 441,000 "subversion" files on individuals and organizations, the report said, and "the investigation of the civil rights movement ... added massive reports ... on lawful political activity and law-abiding Americans."
Savio plunged into civil rights work and soon encountered both the Ku Klux Klan and the FBI.
Savio was in a San Francisco jail after his arrest at the Sheraton-Palace when a cell mate asked "are you going to Mississippi" meaning Mississippi Freedom Summer. The project aimed to bring hundreds of white Northern students South to register black voters and raise the civil rights movement's profile nationally.
For Savio, it was a way to do good and a reality check. "I was really on a 'doubt all things' trip in part fed by analytic philosophy," Savio said. "I wanted to come into contact with some reality. I had to go to Mississippi."
It was dangerous. On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were arrested, released, then murdered by Klansmen.
At about 4 p.m. July 22, Savio was walking down the street in Jackson, Miss., with another white civil rights worker and a black acquaintance. Savio wore a "One Man/One Vote" button. Suddenly, a gray 1950s Chevrolet sedan pulled up and two men with clubs got out and attacked them.
Savio and his fellow volunteer filed charges with the local police; the investigation went nowhere. But earlier that month, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, and he pressed a reluctant Hoover to probe civil rights violations.
Two FBI agents tracked the car's license plate, identified an attacker and turned over evidence to state prosecutors. But in Jackson County court, the assailant was convicted only of misdemeanor assault and fined $50.
The special agent in charge of the new Jackson FBI office suggested the case agents be "commended for their excellent performance," but FBI headquarters declined. And though the local prosecutor promised to credit the FBI's investigation, Hoover's aides didn't want attention for solving a crime against a civil rights activist whom the FBI already suspected might be subversive. "This does not seem desirable," said one.
But after students captured a police car on the Berkeley campus a few months later, Hoover ordered his agents to give Savio special attention.
Savio took off his shoes and climbed onto the roof of the white campus police car trapped in the middle of Sproul Plaza.
Thousands of students had surrounded the patrol car on Oct. 1, 1964, and sat down when police tried to drive off with a former student named Jack Weinberg, whom they had arrested for soliciting contributions to a civil rights group. The conflict had been building ever since Savio and other students returned to campus that fall eager to continue their civil rights work, only to learn the administration was enforcing a ban on campus political activity. The rule barred handing out leaflets or collecting money for any off- campus political cause, even Goldwater or Johnson for president.
Savio saw the ban not only as a denial of his First Amendment rights but also as an attempt to thwart the civil rights movement. As he pondered how to respond, he recalled how he'd urged blacks to risk their lives by registering to vote. "Am I a Judas?" he asked himself. "I'm going to betray the people whom I endangered now that I'm back home?" For two weeks, the students tried to negotiate with the administration. When that failed they violated the ban, setting up folding tables and leaflets in front of Sproul Hall. That led police to arrest Weinberg.
For the next 32 hours, the students held the car captive, with Weinberg inside, as Savio and others condemned the rule from atop the car's soon- flattened roof. Meanwhile, hundreds of helmeted police lined up behind Sproul Hall, ready to make arrests. Finally, Savio climbed the car roof once more to announce a temporary agreement with UC President Clark Kerr: The university would review its ban on political activity; the students would desist from illegal protests. "I ask you to rise quietly and with dignity, and go home," he said, and the crowd did.
The students soon formed the Free Speech Movement to fight the ban on political activity. The FSM included campus groups from across the political spectrum, held lengthy open meetings and made collective decisions through a steering committee. Savio emerged as the most prominent FSM leader. He sometimes stuttered speaking to small groups, but his speech flowed eloquently before crowds.
Savio was a key link between the Southern civil rights movement and the nascent student movement that would sweep the country. "He was an early example of people who put their lives on the line and who were inspired and transformed by the discipline of the civil rights movement," said Taylor Branch, author of "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," the Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the civil rights movement. "He took it back and applied it correctly to issues at Berkeley. The idea that students were actors in history ... and felt impelled to be activists in the world ... was really a thunderbolt."
Negotiations with the administration failed. The FSM issued an ultimatum: Lift the ban and drop disciplinary charges against Savio and other leaders in 24 hours or face "direct action."
On Dec. 2, more than 4,000 people filled Sproul Plaza to hear Savio give what would become his most famous speech, about "the operation of the machine. " His words electrified people, who occupied Sproul Hall overnight. Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown ordered police to arrest the protesters. Almost 800 were arrested for trespassing, and police were still carrying them out the next morning. The arrests triggered more protests. Trying to restore order, Kerr called a campus-wide meeting at the Greek Theatre on Dec. 7. The audience of more than 16,000 listened as Kerr proposed a compromise that still fell short of granting students the constitutional right of free speech on campus. Just as he finished speaking, Savio strode toward the lectern. Two officers pulled him away by his coat and tie. The crowd began to chant, "Let him speak." Kerr let him, and Savio briefly announced a rally to be held later.
The next day, the Berkeley faculty, upset by the handling of Savio, voted overwhelmingly to back the FSM's call to lift the ban. The faculty vote drove UC's governing Board of Regents to declare on Dec. 18 that university rules should follow the U.S. Supreme Court orders on free speech, conceding the FSM's key point.
The FBI had been investigating the FSM from the start. Agents in the crowd around the police car took notes and photos. Hoover read their reports and ordered agents around the country to determine whether the FSM was influenced by the Communist Party. He was particularly concerned because one of the FSM's leaders was Bettina Aptheker, publicly known to be in a Marxist youth group called the W.E.B. DuBois Club and the daughter of Herbert Aptheker, a top official of the Communist Party USA. But after four months of investigation, Curtis O. Lynum, the special agent in charge of the San Francisco FBI office, reported, "It is the opinion of this office that subversive participation in the demonstrations did not have any bearing on the measure of success achieved." Some communists or socialists were among the thousands of participants, Lynum said, but "the demonstrations would have taken place with or without any participation by subversives because of basic grievances."
On Jan. 19, 1965, Lynum affirmed his finding in a second report. At this point, the FBI's investigation of the Free Speech Movement ceased to have any legitimate purpose and "came to focus on political rather than law enforcement aims," the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals later ruled in ordering the FBI to release records in response to my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The court said FBI records showed Savio had "negligible contacts with communists" and the bureau unlawfully investigated him. But Savio had emerged from the FSM as the nation's best-known student radical, the subject of television and magazine features. Hoover's investigation of him was just heating up.
The Reserve Index
On March 12, 1965, the San Francisco FBI sent bureau headquarters a secret 33-page report on nearly every aspect of Savio's life:
1) Physical Description: White, Male, age 22, 6'1'', 195 pounds, medium build, blue eyes, brown hair, no scars. "Peculiarities has slight speech impediment at times."
2) Background: Graduated first in class, Martin Van Buren High School, Queens, New York, June 1960. Grade point average, 96.6. Class valedictorian. Editor, school paper. Honorable Mention, Westinghouse Science contest.
Manhattan College, full scholarship, Queens College, 1960-1963. Enrolled UC-Berkeley, fall 1963. Marital status, single. Draft status, 2-S (student deferment). No credit history. Arrests, Sheraton-Palace protest and Sproul Hall sit-in.
3) Activities: Leader of Free Speech Movement. Speaker at anti-Vietnam war rallies. Quoted extensively in the press, including these excerpts from LIFE magazine:
On modern education: "The university is a vast public utility which turns out future workers in today's vineyard, the military-industrial complex."
On politics: "I am not a political person. My involvement in the Free Speech Movement is religious and moral ... I don't know what made me get up and give that first speech. I only know I had to."
On civil disobedience: "... You can't disobey the rules every time you disapprove. However, when you're considering something that constitutes an extreme abridgement of your rights, conscience is the court of last resort."
The report concluded by reviewing Savio's alleged "contacts" with "subversive" groups. He had spoken twice at meetings of the Socialist Workers Party and once at the W.E.B. DuBois Club. He had frequently and publicly associated with Bettina Aptheker during the FSM. But none of the FBI's many informers in the Communist Party could provide any information on Savio.
Based on the report, the San Francisco FBI office proposed putting Savio on a secret, unauthorized list of people to be detained, without judicial warrant, in the event of a national emergency. It was called the Reserve Index, and the FBI never told the Department of Justice about it.
The FBI created the Reserve Index in 1956 with the names of people who did not meet standards for another detention list the Justice Department had approved. By 1959, the Reserve Index totaled 12,784 names.
San Francisco agents recommended Savio for the list "in view of his leadership in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) and the national news coverage of the FSM, his contacts with known Communist Party members, his contemptuous attitude, and other miscellaneous activities."
FBI headquarters admonished the agents for not putting Savio on the detention list sooner.
Savio was back on the Sproul steps on April 26, 1965, attacking the university's plan to punish four students for using obscenities on campus.
He didn't appreciate the students' display of a profane sign, in what became known as the Filthy Speech Movement. But now he charged the university with denying them "even rudimentary demands of due process." It was the kind of argument the campus had come to expect from Savio.
Then Savio abruptly announced he was quitting as an FSM leader. "I've thought a long time about it," he said on the steps where he'd delivered speeches that brought the university to a halt. "Good luck and goodbye."
Savio had been torn, his friends said recently by misgivings about leadership, by internal conflicts, by a struggle to balance his personal life with his political activity.
As he explained in his farewell speech, he feared the Free Speech Movement was becoming "undemocratic" and he was guilty of "Bonapartism." In a letter to the Daily Californian student newspaper soon after, Savio implied students were becoming too dependent on him. But he added, "This does not preclude ... my participation in campus political activity at some time in the future."
A few weeks after he quit, FBI agents summoned Savio to their Berkeley office. Savio arrived for the May 12 meeting with his lawyer and was sarcastic from the start. "So this is the Federal Bureau of Inquisition," he quipped. The agents "immediately advised that he was in the Berkeley Resident Agency of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." They told him they had received letters threatening him with physical harm and were investigating the matter, an FBI memo said. But they balked at the presence of his lawyer, saying "the FBI could not vouch for the confidential matter of information if a third party is present and therefore, preferred not to discuss the matter" with his attorney there.
Savio refused to dispatch his lawyer and declined to cooperate with the inquiry. He criticized the FBI for its "failure to make arrests and take action in the South where human rights are being violated every day." The agents firmly replied that the FBI always fulfills its duty. Savio and the agents agreed to end the meeting.
One week later, newspapers around the country reported Hoover's congressional testimony implying Savio was being used in a Communist scheme to disrupt the nation's campuses. The New York Times reported on Page One that Hoover said Savio was "closely associated" with Aptheker. She said in a recent interview that any implication that they were lovers was false.
At the time, Savio and Aptheker shrugged it off. "We find Mr. Hoover's statements ... patently absurd," they said in a joint statement. "It once again indicates Mr. Hoover's inability to grapple with and understand that there were real issues confronting the students at the University of California."
Hoover saw Savio as a threat to the existing social order, and he meant to do something about it.
The FBI Looks Out
Mario Savio and Suzanne Goldberg were excused from their Alameda County trial for the Sproul Hall sit-in for one day, to be married. Goldberg, 24, a graduate student in philosophy, and Savio, 22, had met early in the Free Speech Movement. She had been attracted by his brilliance, eloquence and principled stands. The small, private wedding was held May 23, 1965, at the home of a Los Angeles municipal court judge who administered the vows, and was attended by Savio's parents, brother, lawyer and one other friend.
When a reporter interviewed him about the wedding, Savio took the opportunity to make a political statement. "There's one thing we'd really like to have as a wedding present," he said. "We would like President Johnson to withdraw all our troops from Vietnam. ..."
An FBI agent obtained a copy of the Savios' marriage license and interviewed the county clerk who issued it to them. "Mario was very evasive to all questions. Suzanne did all the talking," the clerk reported. "They are both going to go back to Cal in September. ... They both needed hair cuts and they were both a mess."
The couple did not return to Cal that fall. "We both felt that Mario needed to be away from Berkeley, where everyone seemed to need something from him and constantly pressured him to be something for them," Goldberg said.
In September, they boarded a ship, bound for Italy and England. They planned to stay abroad as long as a year. Savio had won a scholarship to study physics at Oxford University. Suzanne was pregnant with their first child. A Chronicle story reported, "Friends say Savio is uncertain about what he wants to do and feels a period abroad may help him make a decision."
FBI headquarters alerted bureau offices in London, Paris and Rome that the Savios were afoot. In a classified bulletin, the FBI also asked the CIA for "any pertinent information" on them. They were among thousands of American anti-war activists whom the CIA trailed for the FBI by contacting foreign intelligence services, according to the Church Committee.
In January 1966, the FBI's London office reported the CIA had found no evidence the couple was involved in "security" matters.
An FBI agent placed an indefinite "lookout notice" for Savio with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The lookout system worked roughly like a modern "no-fly" list, but instead of blocking their travel any INS agent who encountered them would alert the FBI.
Savio, meanwhile, was having trouble concentrating on his studies at Oxford. Instead of completing his class work, he compulsively analyzed his own physics problems, Goldberg said. She added, "We had to leave Oxford ... because Mario's internal pressures became too great for him."
On Feb. 16, 1966, an Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector at Kennedy International Airport notified the FBI that the Savios and Stefan, their baby boy, had just arrived from London. Their destination was an apartment on Durant Avenue in Berkeley.
An FBI agent in Berkeley asked his "confidential sources and informants .. . to notify this office ... if and when they arrive." He also checked local phone and utilities companies for new service records. At his request, agents in New York, Los Angeles and New Haven contacted local police and postal officials to see whether the Savios were visiting relatives.
All to no avail. The Savios were driving back to California with his parents. The landlord reported their arrival on May 20, 1966. Posing as a member of UC Berkeley's philosophy department, an FBI agent phoned Savio and learned he planned to return to school to study math or physics. The agent updated Savio's address on the FBI's detention list.
The Security Flash
Savio's plans for quiet study went awry. The university denied his application in August 1966, saying it was a week late.
And though he had largely abstained from campus activism since resigning from the FSM 17 months earlier, he resumed his position on the Sproul Hall steps that fall, protesting campus restrictions on rallies. As voters went to the polls Nov. 8 to elect as governor Ronald Reagan who had vowed to crack down on protests at Berkeley Savio predicted more civil disobedience "if we do not win the rights of due process and judicial review."
Alarmed FBI headquarters officials ordered San Francisco agents to intensify their probe of Savio. On Jan. 23, 1967, the agents reported that an informer claimed Savio had attended two "educational classes" of the Berkeley branch of the Communist Party. The report suggested Savio was more involved with Communists than previously known. It was repeated in other FBI reports and sent to Army intelligence. But it was wrong.
A subsequent FBI report said the informant's report had been incorrectly transcribed: Savio was not present; his name was merely mentioned. FBI headquarters reiterated the error, and there is no sign the FBI told the Army about it.
But on the basis of that allegation, FBI headquarters on Feb. 23 ordered San Francisco to upgrade Savio to the Security Index. This was a list of people whom the bureau deemed most dangerous to national security in the event of a national emergency and would detain indefinitely without judicial warrant.
At its height in 1954, the list contained 26,174 names. According to the Church Committee, Congress was not informed of the detention plan, which was based partly on inaccurate information and failed to meet the legal requirement of "reasonable ground to believe" those listed would engage in espionage or sabotage.
Bureau officials also issued a "Security Flash" for Savio, a notice in the FBI's main crime computer to alert field offices whenever a police agency inquired about him.
The security flash listed him with the "alias" Josι Martν the 19th century poet exiled from Cuba at 16 for leading the independence movement under whose name Savio had listed his phone to avoid unwanted calls.
Savio Goes to Jail
Mario and Suzanne Savio loaded 17-month-old Stefan and their bags into their car and drove away from Berkeley. "Things were too difficult here," Suzanne Savio told the Berkeley Barb underground newspaper as they left in early May 1967. "We're just going to get in the car and go."
For weeks, the FBI could not find them. On June 7, an agent contacted their landlord, who said they had bought a used station wagon and planned to visit Savio's relatives in Southern California and then drive to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he might enroll. FBI agents in Los Angeles, Massachusetts and New York contacted local police and college officials. The bureau ended the hunt only when Savio appeared in Alameda County Municipal Court on June 30 to be sentenced to 120 days at Santa Rita Prison for the Sproul Hall sit-in. "I would do it again," he told reporters. "I think it is the best thing that ever happened for American education."
While Savio was in jail, an FBI agent phoned his wife. Posing as an author who wanted to collaborate with Savio on a book, the agent asked about his plans. "She stated Mario is not interested in writing any books or articles at the present time and, in fact, has welcomed the opportunity to do reading and some research while he is in jail," said the agent's report. "She stated Mario does not want to become involved in any further political activity upon his release from jail but hopes to obtain a job and 'settle down and live a normal life.' "
Savio was released from Santa Rita on Oct. 24, 1967, at 6 p.m. An FBI agent took down the license number of the Plymouth Valiant that picked him up.
A judge had suspended Suzanne's 45-day sentence so she could care for Stefan, who was chronically ill. The judge also cut 80 days off Savio's sentence, declaring, "Mario was a model prisoner and it appears Mario has reformed."
Hoover was not convinced.
A Key Activist
On Jan. 30, 1968, the FBI director launched a nationwide program to hone in on Savio and 14 other "Key Activists."
The memo defined them as members of the "New Left" who were "extremely active and most vocal in their statements denouncing the United States and calling for civil disobedience and other forms of unlawful and disruptive acts. " The Church Committee found, however, that Key Activists were chosen not because they were involved in crime but because of their First Amendment activities.
FBI headquarters ordered agents to use "high-level" informants and electronic and physical surveillance to identify "their sources of funds, foreign contacts and future plans."
In San Francisco, at least four FBI agents investigated Savio. A mortgage company gave the agents confidential financial data about the Savios' purchase of a home on Ninth Street in the West Berkeley flats. Banks turned over figures on the couple's meager accounts. The telephone company released his billing information.
Savio had continued to list his phone under the names of famous people
such as the poet Wallace Stevens, the artist Kathe Kollwitz and the physicist David Bohm to avoid constant nuisance calls. The bureau noted these as additional "aliases" in his dossier.
One agent interviewed Savio's former manager at an electrical parts firm where he had worked on an assembly line. According to a bureau memo, he said Savio got the job in November 1967 through a state employment agency after he'd had "great difficulty" finding work. The boss said he'd tried to "orient him to the free enterprise system and the American way of life."
The manager claimed that Savio had confided that he had "personal emotional problems" that stemmed from his childhood. Savio, he added, also said his parents pressured him to be "a typical American boy" who built model airplanes and read comic books. The boss said he ordered employees to give Savio extra help at work, but Savio resigned in January 1968, saying he needed time to "think through his personal problems."
Every commercial institution readily complied with the FBI's requests for Savio's private information. Although subsequent laws barred businesses from releasing personal information to the government, the Patriot Act has greatly eased those restrictions.
Despite its efforts, the FBI found no sign Savio was involved with any violent or subversive group. San Francisco agents reported Feb. 15, 1968, that he might not qualify as a Key Activist.
But just in case they promised to "keep up with Savio's day-to- day activities."
Peace and Freedom
Savio stood before a full auditorium at Berkeley's Garfield School on a Wednesday evening and announced he wanted to join the political establishment.
He declared at the March 10, 1968, meeting that he was running for state senator from Alameda County on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, a third- party forerunner of Barry Commoner's Citizens Party and the Green Party. Over the next few weeks, he campaigned throughout Alameda County, attacking the Democrats as failing to adequately address poverty, racism and the Vietnam War. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, Savio led a march of 5,000 people from UC Berkeley to Oakland.
Even in the midst of his campaign, Savio was divided over his public role. "I hate being in politics, having to manipulate lives," he told a Berkeley Barb reporter who visited his office, a garage cluttered with paint cans, cast- off furniture and other debris that lent the place "an atmosphere of honest poverty and quiet desperation."
Savio said he hoped "I will not have to continue to be a very public person after the campaign, and I will be able to return to working," adding, "If this speech making and public activity after the campaign becomes one of the major focuses ... it would be very unhealthy."
The bureau already was planning to help him get out of politics.
On May 10, 1968, Hoover sent all FBI field offices an urgent memo escalating the FBI's attack on dissent. The memo authorized an extremely sensitive operation called "Counterintelligence Program New Left." [More on COINTELPRO]
"The purpose of this program is to expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various New Left organizations, their leadership and adherents," the memo said. According to the Church Committee, COINTELPRO was ostensibly intended to protect national security. But it went far beyond the collection of intelligence. Its goal was "preventing or disrupting the exercise of First Amendment rights."
The program took tactics developed for use against foreign adversaries in war and applied them to political activists: leaking phony allegations, sending anonymous poison pen letters, interfering with jobs, falsely labeling people as informers, encouraging violence. "In essence, the Bureau took the law into its own hands, conducting a sophisticated vigilante operation against domestic enemies," the committee said.
The FBI used COINTELPRO against a "staggering range" of people, it said, including Martin Luther King Jr., "almost every anti-war group, students demonstrating against anything" and "Key Activists."
On May 17 1968, headquarters ordered San Francisco agents to turn the program on Savio. They replied that Savio and the Bay Area's two other key activists were "not members of any known subversive organizations. ... They are independent free thinkers and do not appear to be answerable to any one person or any group or organization." Still, the agents promised to remain alert for opportunities to disrupt them.
On May 31, 1968, headquarters officials asked the Internal Revenue Service for copies of the Savios' 1966 and 1967 tax returns. The FBI used the returns to disrupt people's political activities, the committee said, and to determine whether their income "supports their ability to travel ... as part of the New Left revolt."
Between 1968 and 1974, the FBI requested at least 120 tax returns under COINTELPRO, said the Church Committee, adding that the IRS turned them over despite a law permitting the release of returns only when necessary.
The Savios' joint returns showed they earned $2,106.31 in 1966 and $2,046 in 1967. If they were getting money from Moscow, it didn't show up in their tax returns.
On June 4, 1968, Savio lost his bid for the state Senate to Nick Petris, the incumbent liberal Democrat. About three weeks later, FBI headquarters sent the Secret Service a confidential form letter alleging Savio posed a potential threat to the safety of the president.
The June 21 notice was an example of what the Church Committee called "imprecise and over-inclusive criteria" that improperly ensnared nonviolent people like Savio. The same day, San Francisco agents reported there was still no evidence Savio was connected with or influenced by any subversive group.
The report also said Savio had trouble finding work after his campaign, and was hired only recently as a ship's clerk through the International Longshore & Warehouse Union at San Francisco's Pier 9.
An FBI agent contacted an ILWU dispatcher secretly serving as a bureau source, according to a report. The dispatcher promised he "would do everything in his power to keep Savio from getting anywhere through the hiring hall."
Savio's job on the pier lasted through August, according to an FBI memo. He was soon working as a sales clerk at Cody's Books in Berkeley. In April 1970, the Savios had a second son, Nadav, and Savio was barely involved in politics.
In May 1971, a phone company source reported the Savios were moving to Venice (Los Angeles County). An FBI agent staked out their new home to verify the tip. Savio apparently listed his phone number under "Alfredo Joe Martν," a play on his earlier use of the Cuban poet's name.
The FBI checked its files on Alfredo Joe Martν and notified the Secret Service of Savio's new "alias."
In April 1972, newspapers reported Suzanne Savio had filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.
Mario Savio entered a period of severe emotional difficulty, according to friends. At one point he appeared at the Los Angeles home of Jackie Goldberg, who was an FSM leader (not related to Suzanne Goldberg) and is now a state assemblywoman. "I know he was having a very, very hard time," Goldberg told The Chronicle in 1996. "He showed up homeless on my doorstep ... He was in a very bad emotional state."
Savio was suffering from depression and was politically inactive.
Hoover died in May 1972. The Watergate burglars were arrested in June. The FBI still tracked Savio, but in July agents lost him. Then, in February 1973, a confidential source told the FBI Savio was receiving psychiatric care at UCLA Medical Center. The FBI revised its detention list to show the hospital as his residence.
By 1974, Savio was living in Venice and teaching at the Mar Vista Alternative School. But the gears of surveillance enmeshed him until Jan. 21, 1975, when the FBI finally closed its file and rescinded its lookout notice for him.
That day, Congress proposed that the Church Committee investigate FBI abuses of power. The committee revealed large-scale and illegal FBI activities such as leaking tapes about Martin Luther King Jr.'s sex life to the media and in 1976 called for a law limiting the FBI's powers. Congress backed down when President Ford's administration adopted guidelines for FBI activities and agreed changes would be subject to congressional review. In 2002, Ashcroft became the first attorney general to loosen the guidelines without consulting Congress, expanding bureau secrecy and power to gather information about lawful personal and political activities.
In 1980, Savio married Lynne Hollander, a former civil rights and Free Speech Movement activist. In 1984, he graduated college summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in physics from San Francisco State University, where he earned a master's degree in 1989. The couple and their son, Daniel, moved to Sebastopol in 1990, and Savio began teaching physics at Sonoma State University. He emerged to campaign against state propositions to curtail illegal immigration and affirmative action. On Nov. 2, 1996, he died after having a heart attack. In recent interviews, Suzanne Goldberg, now a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., called the FBI's investigation of her and Savio a waste of money and an invasion of privacy. Hollander said the FBI's surveillance of Savio showed how the intelligence machinery could go astray. "It's worrisome given the situation the country is in now," she said.
E-mail Chronicle staff writer Seth Rosenfeld at email@example.com.
'60s Free Speech leader got caught in FBI web
SETH ROSENFELD / SF Chronicle 10oct04
The FBI trailed Mario Savio for more than a decade after he led the 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, and bureau officials plotted to "neutralize" him politically even though there was no evidence he broke any federal law, according to FBI records obtained by The Chronicle.
J. Edgar Hoover's FBI targeted Savio because he was the nation's first prominent student leader of the '60s, and top FBI officials feared protests would spread from Berkeley to other schools, the records show.
The bureau used tactics against Savio that Congress in 1976 found were improper including some similar to investigative methods that agents may now use against suspected terrorists under the Patriot Act and under loosened FBI guidelines, experts said.
According to hundreds of pages of FBI files and, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, as reported in today's Chronicle Magazine the bureau:
- Collected, without court order, personal information about Savio from schools, telephone companies, utility firms and banks and compiled information about his marriage and divorce.
- Monitored his day-to-day activities by using informants planted in political groups, covertly contacting his neighbors, landlords and employers, and having agents pose as professors, journalists and activists to interview him and his wife.
- Obtained his tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service in violation of federal rules, mischaracterized him as a threat to the president and arranged for the CIA and foreign intelligence agencies to investigate him when he and his family traveled in Europe.
- Put him on an unauthorized list of people to be detained without judicial warrant in event of a national emergency, and designated him as a "Key Activist" whose political activities should be "disrupted" and "neutralized" under the bureau's extralegal counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO.
The bureau took these actions against Savio even after San Francisco FBI agents repeatedly told bureau headquarters that he was not connected with, or influenced by, any subversive political group or foreign power.
A 1968 memo from the San Francisco FBI office said Savio was one of several Bay Area activists who were "independent free thinkers and do not appear to be answerable to any one person or any group or organization."
LaRae Quy, an FBI spokeswoman in San Francisco, declined to comment on Savio's case but said the FBI now operates with a greater concern for First Amendment activities and more oversight from the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress and the press.
Savio died at 53 of a heart attack in 1996 at his home in Sebastopol.
Lynne Hollander, a former Free Speech Movement activist and Savio's widow, said the FBI made the mistake of believing he threatened national security because he protested government policy.
"That's outrageous. These are all constitutionally protected activities, and the FBI had no business spending time and money taking note of them," said Hollander, a retired librarian who lives in Sonoma County.
Suzanne Goldberg, a Free Speech Movement leader who was married to Savio in the '60s and was also under surveillance, called the FBI's activities disturbing. "The whole thing is an invasion of privacy," said Goldberg, now a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C.
Savio was a brilliant, 21-year-old philosophy student who had helped register black voters in Mississippi the previous summer when he joined in protesting UC Berkeley's enforcement of a ban against political activity on campus in the fall of 1964.
Students from across the political spectrum formed the Free Speech Movement and used nonviolent civil disobedience such as pickets and sit-ins.
Savio quickly emerged as the movement's most eloquent spokesman and attracted international media attention, urging students to "put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels" to stop the university "machine." In response, students occupied the campus' Sproul Hall on Dec. 2, 1964, in an overnight sit-in that led to almost 800 arrests, the largest mass arrest of students in U.S. history.
Hoover soon ordered agents to focus on the student leader, and though Savio became less active politically in the following years as he dealt with sometimes overwhelming depression, the FBI continued to gather information on him into 1975, three years after Hoover's death.
The records obtained by The Chronicle provide the most complete account to date of the FBI's activities concerning Savio. The bureau targeted him during the Cold War, when Hoover was deeply concerned about growing dissent at UC, the nation's largest public university and operator of top-secret federal nuclear laboratories. As The Chronicle previously disclosed, Hoover was secretly campaigning at the same time to oust UC President Clark Kerr whom the movement saw as its enemy because bureau officials blamed him for not cracking down on student protesters.
David Sobel, general counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C., group that has challenged some of the government's efforts to expand the collection of personal information, said many of the tactics used against Savio such as putting his name on "watch lists" and collecting personal financial data and school records are "ancestors" of current surveillance systems. He said Savio's case was a "cautionary tale" about how the combination of power and secrecy can lead to intelligence abuses.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who was involved in the Free Speech Movement as a UC Berkeley political science student, called the FBI's treatment of Savio "outrageous."
Lockyer said the excesses of the Hoover era have been "reined in, in very substantial and significant ways, and the J. Edgar Hoover culture has been replaced by a significantly more law-abiding ... environment."
But he said it is necessary to be sensitive to constitutional rights in the war on terrorism and that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's call to expand the Patriot Act "raises very serious questions about federal authority being used to step on people's personal liberties."
"The idea that the FBI would continue its surveillance of Mario Savio years after the FSM and put him on watch lists is absurd," said Lockyer, who, as the top state law enforcement official, heads California's anti-terrorism effort.
Savio was no threat to national security, he said. "He was somebody who believed deeply in the Bill of Rights and believed the university and the state were stepping on our civil liberties. And he was right."