Politics

Was Ronald Reagan an FBI Informant?

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A federal judge granted summary judgment to a journalist who sought a 37-year-old FBI document the reporter believes will shed light on Ronald Reagan's work as an FBI informant, and "about the FBI's operations with respect to aiding Reagan's political career."

"Plaintiff claims that Reagan was a FBI informant and that the FBI played an integral role in supporting Reagan's political career," U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, in San Francisco, wrote in granting summary judgment to Seth Rosenfeld, who sued the Department of Justice.

"Plaintiff seeks information about the FBI's operations with respect to aiding Reagan's political career, and how such operations affected government policy and the exercise of First Amendment rights," Chen added.

"Plaintiff Seth Rosenfeld is a professional journalist who, over the past 30 years, has extensively researched and written about the FBI's activities in connection with the University of California during the Cold War," Chen wrote in his 12-page order. "Plaintiff has published numerous articles about the FBI's activities in the University of California during nationally prominent events in the 1950s and 1960s, including the FBI's political surveillance of University of California students and faculty, and the FBI's attempts to oust Clark Kerr as president of the University. These articles were based largely on FBI records released pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.

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"Plaintiff is currently writing a book about the FBI's activities in connection with the University of California during the Cold War that expands upon his published articles. To that end, plaintiff made FOIA requests for records concerning Ronald Reagan and related persons and organizations from the date of the first record up to 1979. Plaintiff claims that Reagan was a FBI informant and that the FBI played an integral role in supporting Reagan's political career. Plaintiff seeks information about the FBI's operations with respect to aiding Reagan's political career, and how such operations affected government policy and the exercise of First Amendment rights.

"After the FBI failed to comply with plaintiff's FOIA requests, plaintiff filed suit in 2007." (Citations omitted.)

Rosenfeld sued the Justice Department after it denied his request for the document Ronald Reagan 1539-1541, a 3-page document dated Jan. 9, 1975.

"The document is titled 'Ronald Wilson Reagan, Special Inquiry, Buded Past' and concerns the traffic violations and arrests of a party whose name is redacted. The redacted information includes the third party's name and birth date, the dates and docket numbers of the violations and arrests, and the amount of the fines," Chen wrote.

"Plaintiff asserts the individual is [half a line blacked out here]. Because the identity of the party informs the purpose of the document, the strength of privacy interests, and the public interest at issue, the Court ordered defendants to produce an unredacted copy for in camera review."

The Department of Justice argued that the redacted information was properly withheld under Freedom of Information Act exemptions 6 and 7, which protect the privacy of people identified in agency records.

But Chen, citing U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, wrote: "if a third party has more than a de minimis privacy interest in the requested material, the court must weigh the third party's privacy interest against the public interest in disclosure." 

Chen said the record may be used "to examine whether the FBI used - or potentially abused - their investigative powers in order to aid Ronald Reagan in a non-law enforcement capacity."

The ruling states: "Defendants fail to demonstrate that Ronald Reagan 1539-1541 was compiled for any legitimate law enforcement purpose. Defendants claim that Ronald Reagan 1539-1541 was compiled as part of 'the FBI's investigation of Ronald Reagan's activities in and involvement with - the Communist Party and other extremist activities.'"

But the 1957 Supreme Court ruling in Yates v. United States, Chen said, established that only active members of the Communist party "with specific intent to advocate the forcible overthrow of the United States government" could be prosecuted under the Smith Act and analogous laws.

"Here, Ronald Reagan 1539-1541 was generated in 1975 nearly 20 years after the benchmark date of 1957. Thus, defendant's reliance on Ronald Reagan's alleged connection to Communism does not constitute a sufficient law enforcement purpose for this document to satisfy the rational nexus test. ...

"Defendants' assertion that the document is related to Ronald Reagan's connection to the Communist Party is wholly unbelievable," Chen wrote.

The White House has acknowledged that Reagan was an informant for the FBI starting in the late 1940s, identifying suspected communists in the Screen Actors Guild, Chen noted.

"Given Ronald Reagan's status as an informant for the FBI, the FBI would have no reason to investigate Ronald Reagan for his involvement in the Communist party during the 1960s and 1970s, and certainly not so in 1975 after his term as Governor of California," the judge added.

Reagan's position as a public figure, and his ties to the FBI, merit the release of the information, Chen ruled.

Reagan "has placed himself in the public sphere since coming of age, now being viewed as a conservative icon whose opinions and endorsements are regularly covered by the press. As a person who has put himself in the public light through his political work, the subject has a significantly diminished privacy interest.

"Accordingly, the court finds that the privacy interest in Ronald Reagan 1539-1541 is de minimis because the document concerns decades-old traffic violations of a public figure."

The order concludes: "For the reasons stated above, the Court finds that the public interest in Ronald Reagan 1539-1541 greatly outweighs the subject's privacy interests. Under Exemption 6, the disclosure of the redacted information must constitute 'a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,' and this invasion must outweigh the public interest. As discussed above, the disclosure here is not a 'clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' given the document concerns the forty-year old traffic violations of a public figure. This interest is outweighed by the public interest in understanding whether the FBI used public resources to compile information, without any apparent law enforcement purpose, to assist Ronald Reagan's political aspirations.

"Conclusion: For the reasons stated above, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and DENIES Defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment. Defendants are ordered to release the unredacted version of Ronald Reagan 1539-1541."