FBI Must Pay $470,000 to California Journalist Who Outed Reagan as Informant

Monday, October 22, 2012
Seth Rosenfeld (photo: Heidi Elise Benson)

Twenty-two years after a San Francisco journalist first filed suit against the FBI and the Department of Justice to obtain records on former President Ronald Reagan, a federal judge has awarded him $470,459 in legal fees.

Seth Rosenfeld, a freelance journalist who used to work for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, had filed Freedom of Information requests in 1990 and 2007 for files on the former president and California governor. The suits were two of five he filed since 1985. U.S. District Judge Edward Chen had granted Rosenfeld summary judgment on his lawsuits in March.

It was not the first time that Rosenfeld had prevailed in lawsuits against the Justice Department. He was previously awarded $560,000 in attorney’s fees in 1996 in a settlement surrounding the release of documents. But Rosenfeld did not receive all the material he was promised and litigation continued.

Although Rosenfeld gleaned enough information from his requests to write a book— “Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power”—and a series of articles, the government withheld documents for years until lawsuits pried the information from them. Rosenfeld wrote extensively about Reagan’s role as an FBI informant, and the FBI’s assistance to him in his personal life and political career.

Writing for the New York Times opinion pages in September, Rosenfeld briefly outlined the relationship Reagan had with the FBI, stretching back to 1946 when, after a visit from federal agents, he began informing on members of a liberal group he was associated with. The FBI was interested in what it considered subversive activities by left-wing Socialists and Communists.

Reagan continued to inform on friends and acquaintances through the 1940s and 1950s, including during his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild when he passed the agency information from the union’s personnel files. His visibility as a spokesman for conservative politics became more pronounced when he became a spokesman in the 1950s for General Electric.

The FBI also helped Reagan with personal family matters, according to Rosenfeld. At Reagan’s request, the agency investigated his daughter Maureen’s lifestyle in the 1960s, when she was living with a married man whom she eventually wed. The FBI also informed Reagan that his son Michael was hanging out with the son of Mafia kingpin Joseph Bonanno, but agreed to keep it quiet in light of the negative impact publicity might have on the elder Reagan’s political aspirations.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Feds Owe Half a Million to Tenacious Journalist (by Jonny Bonner, Courthouse News Service)

FBI Must Pay S.F. Journalist $470,000 (by Vivian Ho, San Francisco Chronicle)

Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine (by Seth Rosenfeld, New York Times)

FBI Must Deliver Info on Informant Reagan (by Jonny Bonner, Courthouse News Service)

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