This interview was originally published on September 2, 2014. On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Johnston says the LA Times shut down a major investigation into the widespread use of agents to undermine peaceful and legal opposition groups from the ’60s to ’80s.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And this is Reality Asserts Itself.
We’re continuing our series of interviews with David Cay Johnston, who now joins us in the studio. David’s a lifelong journalist, bestselling author, and recent work explores the causes and conditions of inequality in the United States. He’s written a trilogy of books on our pro-corporate tax system, as he describes it, The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use “Plain English” to Rob You Blind. He’s also editing the forthcoming book Divided: The Perils of Growing Inequality, writes regular columns for Al Jazeera America, Tax Analysts, and a weekly piece for Newsweek.
Thanks for joining us again.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Glad to be here.
JAY: So, in part one we explored David’s back story, his personal story. We’re going to pick that up from when he actually really lands his first job as an investigative journalist.
So you go to work. Tell us where. And what do you cover?
JOHNSTON: Well, I got hired at the San Jose Mercury. I had done a couple of little investigations for weeklies before that, but I was just learning my craft. I covered East Palo Alto, which is a poor black suburb across from Palo Alto.
JAY: This is 1968.
JOHNSTON: Nineteen sixty-eight.
JAY: Just to set the scene, ’68, antiwar movement.
JOHNSTON: Yeah, ’68, what we now call Silicon Valley, antiwar movement. I’m on the peninsula for the Mercury, covering lots of crime stuff.
JAY: No, I want to set the scene more.
JAY: You’re in San Francisco.
JOHNSTON: No, no, no. I’m in the peninsula.
JAY: I’m sorry. But you ain’t far from San Francisco,–
JOHNSTON: That’s right.
JAY: –the cultural Mecca, homeland of the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s, antiwar movement, left-wing progressive politics, black radical movements. I mean, there’s a lot going on. And then globally, national liberation movements, the Cold War. Of course, the war in Vietnam is the overriding thing.
JOHNSTON: And I’m split covering sort of two things. I’m going and covering and making overtime covering school boards and city council meetings, but I’m also covering antiwar demonstrations, walkouts by high school students and college students, six riots that I went through, Stanford University demonstrations, and East Palo Alto, this blue-collar, poor black neighborhood across the highway from Palo Alto, which is ground zero for the Silicon Valley fortunes.
JAY: Now, we establish in part one you grow up with an outrage against injustice, against inequality. There’s a point here where you have to say, well, I’m a journalist, I’m not marching.
JAY: So where is that decision for you?
JOHNSTON: I was covering this stuff, and what I wanted to do was make sure that people understood what was going on in these demonstrations. I would pick up some of the competing papers–and back then there were all whole slew of competing papers in the Bay area, all with different owners–and I would read about the demonstration. It was like, that’s not what happened. And so I made it a point to be right in them. I got hit a number of times, sometimes by radicals, sometimes by cops with nightsticks, but I would get right into them so that I could talk about what was going on in these things. And I got people to invite me to their homes. There were right-wing loonies who built bombs who I met, and there will left-wing loonies who built bombs.
JAY: What was your own attitude towards the Vietnam War?
JOHNSTON: I wasn’t–I mean, I thought it was kind of a dumb idea, but I wasn’t, you know, oh, this is awful. Now, because I had children, I wasn’t going to be drafted. Maybe that had some effect on it. But it was like, this is a stupid, dumb adventure, sort of the–you know, I had no outrage beyond that level about it; just thought it didn’t make a lot of sense.
JAY: If you’d been drafted, would you have gone?
JOHNSTON: Oh, sure. No, no. I would have complied with the law. Yeah. But I was learning about all these different things–and you would meet people who, unbeknownst to each other, might live six blocks apart, and one of them has this view that the communists are at the door and they’re going to take over the world, and then you meet somebody else who–they’are not a card-carrying communist, but they’re a communist and they want to take down the system. And I go, you know, you live in almost identical houses in suburbia a few blocks apart; how do you come to these totally different perspectives?
And in all of this you had these police red squads who were around. Anybody paying attention knew about them. What I didn’t know at the time and appreciate was the degree to which there were agents provocateur, that is, undercover police officers whose job was to try and get people who wanted to be peaceful in their dissent to do something violent so the police would have excuses to arrest people and knock heads.
JAY: And at the time, a lot of the protesters and leaders of protests were accusing the police of that. They were denying all of that.
JAY: And later that actually turned out that is–and part of your investigation is you actually found that to be true.
JOHNSTON: Well, I left and went to, briefly, the University of Chicago and then to the Detroit Free Press for three years and did all investigative reporting. And then I was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 1976 to come back to San Francisco, and a couple of years later moved to L.A. And in Los Angeles, I wrote a couple of stories for the L.A. Times about undercover operations and how I got a hold of documents showing that the California National Guard, under Lieutenant Colonel /dʒiəfridə/, was teaching martial rule, not martial law. And they were also not teaching that military leaders who take over have a duty to hand authority back to civilians. They only gave the takeover lesson, not the restoration of civilian power lesson.
So then I went to Los Angeles in 1979, and a editor there began sending me over to cover the police commission. There was an assigned reporter, who was a terrific reporter, but she wrote features, and so he would send her out of town to write features, iand pretty soon it became my story. And so I began writing about the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division. That was their red squad. And I understood that they were doing stuff they ought not to be doing, and it was apparently a pretty big unit and somewhat out of control, but I figured, yeah, it’s just police /fɑːldərɑːl/ and nobody has any control over them, until an event. I go to social event for a retiring L.A. police officer, and Police Chief Daryl Gates signals everybody to go away. And unlike today, where all sorts of politicians won’t talk to reporters, they run away from them, Gates is a sophisticated guy. He always wanted to talk to me. He always wanted to know what I was up to. Didn’t matter if he wanted to throttle me, he wanted to talk to me. He signals everybody go away, and he says, in the sometimes crude language of cops, something to the effect of perhaps I have an affinity for large-bosomed redheaded women.
JAY: Meaning you have.
JOHNSTON: Yeah. And I thought, where is this coming from? And while I’m trying to figure out what to say next, I go, sure, Daryl; who doesn’t? And he then begins to unload on a blind date that I had been on with the woman I’ve now been married to for more than 32 years, what we ate, critiqued the champagne that I ordered on its likely success at getting some further intimacy. And I just–I’m, like, thinking, this is astonishing. Why is he doing this? And it suddenly occurs to me, oh, he’s trying to intimidate me. So I egg him on. And when he’s given me everything he has, I just–I looked at him and I said, you know, Daryl, several things I know you don’t know about me. And this is not the reaction he expects, so he’s a little surprised. I said, first of all, maybe I have a /ˈskruːdəlɪs/, but I don’t intimidate. You know, I’ve run into a burning building, and almost run into another one, and I’m just–I’ve lived through six riots, and I just don’t have a fear button, and nobody cares who I’m involved with. Oh, listen, I’ve got to talk to Sergeant So-and-So, and I walked off. So we had each given each other a message here.
But I went home that night and went, oh my God, it’s true. Everything I’d been hearing, that they’re spying on city council members and politicians and he has a list of who’s had affairs with who, it’s probably all true. And I know–one last thing, Paul–I knew the L.A. Times didn’t want to publish this.
JAY: I want to stop, ’cause I really want to dig into this story. So I just want to back up one step.
JAY: So tell me the story of May Day, ’81. Is it ’81? Yeah. This issue of the role of the police provocateurs, it’s very important, because whenever a fight would break out and the cops got into a fight, it was always this example: crazy anarchists just trying to cause chaos and disorder, and that’s the TV images.
JOHNSTON: That’s right. Well, there’s a famous TV episode that you’ve seen show up in movies and elsewhere where a group of black protesters are complaining about the LAPD, and somebody jumps up and says, let’s go kill cops. And suddenly a bunch of people are shouting and [incompr.] Well, that meeting actually took place, but every single person who got up and shouted, let’s go kill cops, and who in the actual meeting was told, sit down and shut up–
JAY: By the real leadership.
JOHNSTON: –by the real leadership, were undercover cops. And we now know this because of the–years later. So, May Day, 1981, the Revolutionary Communist Party–now, talk about a really crazy group of people. Both Beijing and Moscow had said, we have nothing to do with these people; they’re crazy. They decide they’re going to have a march through downtown L.A. on Mayday. They have a demonstration and they draw, I don’t know, maybe three, four hundred people. It was the biggest thing they’d ever put together. And they start peacefully marching towards downtown.
And all of a sudden they start running. The police appear at the next street corner in riot gear. They beat everybody up. The revolutionaries regroup. They march through downtown. There’s no more violence.
I wrote a story almost a year later with videotape proving that the running was done at the direction of an undercover L.A. police officer–he had a baseball cap on–where everybody’s walking along peacefully, and he goes, “Run! Run!” And then you see him and the camera back up like this out of the picture.
The L.A. Police Department did this sort of thing repeatedly in various forms. And I named in the L.A. Times–and I was flabbergasted that they were willing to do it, but I named and outed several of these undercover spies. I always told the police department, we’re going to name this guy tomorrow, ’cause if you think he’s in danger, you’ve got plenty of time to go get him. I proved that one officer had been ordered by the chief to sleep with a woman to get political information out of her. Spies do.
JAY: This is Gates?
JOHNSTON: Chief Gates. Buff guy, fresh out of the Academy, you go into an organization; oh, here’s a woman who’s not attached; she’ll start telling you everything between the sheets. I actually had seven other women who told me the same story, but by the time I got to them they were married, they had children, or they’d left radical politics and they wouldn’t go on the record.
JAY: The same story, that a cop seduced them, sleeps with them, and uses them to get information about a radical group.
JOHNSTON: Yes. Right. And in one case for three years, where you’ve got to wonder a little bit about the woman’s judgment after three years.
And Gates would always say that all of this political stuff that was coming out through lawsuits brought by the ACLU, it’s just garbage they didn’t care about. In fact, he spent 45 minutes to two hours a day reading over this stuff. He was incredibly aware of these things. And there came a point where Ira Reiner, the city attorney and, later, district attorney of L.A., had his office burglarized. My cars were burglarized seven different times, including once underneath Parker Center, the police headquarters. And the reason I’m positive the police did it was I don’t smoke, so I always had coins in the ashtray. And what would be gone for the car is every scrap paper except my drivers license, registration, and the material you have to have for the police, auto insurance, and the coins. What thief takes papers and leaves that stuff?
JAY: And you once left a gold ring there.
JOHNSTON: And up until the second-to-last burglary, the gold ring was always there. Yeah. It got taken by–.
JAY: And this is to send you a message–we can get to you.
JOHNSTON: Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. And other people–I mean, I know of people in town who–one of whom I tried to get for her to come and tell a story. And the reason that she wouldn’t speak was she was involved–a very prominent political person–she’d had an affair with somebody, and she knew the police knew about this. So it’s not–there’s no reason for the police department in any city to be spying on people’s private lives.
JAY: And just to be entirely clear, people that are involved in entirely legal activities.
JOHNSTON: Yes. And we’re not even talking about people who you might be suspicious of because they’re dissidents, okay? We’re talking about people who simply have political power.
JAY: Or even if they’re dissidents, it’s entirely legal. I mean, it’s not illegal to be a dissident.
JOHNSTON: No, no, it’s not. But I want to draw a distinction here. It’s one thing, and you can say, okay, so the police think that maybe this group is a cover for something that’s illegal they’re not seeing and they want to go in and take a look at them. That you can conjure up an argument for why you might do it. But–I’m sorry. But people over here who are nothing but leading citizens of the community, the only reason you would spy on them is because you want to make sure you have a lever over them if they raise questions about your budget or anything else. The crimes that they found? None. We couldn’t find any evidence whatsoever, except when the police did them. The Black Panthers had as their treasurer an undercover LAPD officer. They had $800. That’s how wealthy the Black Panthers were now. He stole it. And the LAPD never give it back to them. They had officers undercover around the world, and–.
JAY: I want to back up one sec, ’cause I want to get to this point, but I want to back up a point. Yes, you go after prominent people ’cause it saves your ass, it gives you leverage, nobody ever fires you as police chief, and you have tremendous power the way Hoover did through the FBI–
JOHNSTON: That’s exactly right.
JAY: –at the national level. I mean, he’s replicating the Hoover model. But these political groups, if you want to conjure up an argument, two weeks of infiltration and you know they’re not doing anything illegal. They’re–whatever their model of the world is, whatever their–.
JOHNSTON: And the reason you keep spying on them is because–
JAY: They were selling newspapers.
JOHNSTON: –you don’t like them. I mean, the reality is, these people police were picking people–I mean, they weren’t spying on far-right groups. Think about all the incidents we’ve had in America, the sheriff’s deputy killed in Arizona because a right-wing crazy thought he was an IRS agent (you’ve got to be pretty crazy to make that confusion), the whole series of bombings and things we’ve had from people on the right. But we haven’t seen law enforcement in L.A. concentrate in the same way. And this paranoia that the LAPD had under Daryl Gates extended way beyond the city of L.A. He had officers undercover all around the world. There were at least two officers who each spent 20 years in the Communist Party and who are listed in the House Un-American Activities Committee reports as leading communists. When I was about to reveal that, I got shut down by the L.A. Times.
JAY: Okay. And part of what you were revealing: he had, like, hundreds of people, right?
JOHNSTON: He had–well, we don’t know how many he had. I finally got Zev Yaroslavsky, who’s now county supervisor, to get the nerve–.
JAY: Sorry to interrupt you. Again, we’re not talking FBI. This is LAPD,–
JOHNSTON: I’m talking about LAPD.
JAY: –a local municipal police force, hundreds of agents undercover, and some of them internationally.
JOHNSTON: Well, hundreds of agents in the unit that supervised the undercover officers. So I finally got Zev Yaroslavsky, then the city councilman and now an L.A. County supervisor, at a hearing, asked the question, well, how many undercover officers do you have? And the deputy police chief, who later became chief of Beverly Hills, says, well, Councilman, if I were to give you the answer to that question and one of our undercover officers were to turn up dead, you and every other member of this committee would become a murder suspect.
JAY: And he said this publicly, right?
JOHNSTON: Now, see, you laughed at that, Paul. I would have laughed at it. If he’d said that to me, I [would have (?)] said, are you serious? How did you get to the rank of deputy chief with that kind of stupid thinking? Instead, he intimidated them.
JAY: ‘Cause they believed it could be true.
JOHNSTON: Well, they were afraid of the signal that if something went wrong, they would be blamed. And so they didn’t pursue it.
JAY: But in some of your work, there are murders that it seems lead back to the police.
JOHNSTON: Oh, there is–the last big story I did on this before the L.A. Times shut me down was about how a guy who they had been pursuing undercover for a long time was murdered–standing here; police officer’s here, right, literally next to him. He didn’t see a thing. But the principal suspect in the murder turns up dead a couple of days later in the L.A. River.
And an important element in this is that I’m right on the verge of naming these undercover officers, one of whom I’ve interviewed, who’d been in the Communist Party for 20 years each, and showing a whole bunch of other stuff, and the L.A. Times shuts me down. Turns out later, the police chief and the editor of the paper play golf every weekend, unbeknownst to me.
And then the L.A. Times suddenly has huge front-page stories by another reporter, all about a sergeant. And I went to a party one night, and somebody said, oh, wow, two and a half, three years, Johnston, you couldn’t solve it; look, I see they got somebody else on it; they figured out right away it was all done by this sergeant. And I looked at this guy and I said, are you serious? You think a police sergeant ran a multi-hundred officer spying operation with officers undercover and was assigning people to sleep with women and had agents provocateur having crimes committed? You think it was done by a sergeant? Really? You believe that? And, of course, many people did, because the L.A. Times give it huge page-one coverage and diverted attention from the truth of the matter that I had reported and which I was about to move to the next stage of, which was showing murders, undercover officers overseas. And when Daryl Gates finally lost his job, he wrote an autobiography, and in it he not only bragged about spying on everybody, including business executives he named, but he bragged and I had officers undercover in Moscow and Havana.
JAY: Did he have any in the L.A. Times?
JOHNSTON: Well, one of the things was the files of one of the officers I under-covered–he’d appeared in some new stories–had disappeared from the paper. And I proved that this officer had gotten a job at the L.A. Times and had an L.A. Times ID card that shouldn’t let him into the paper itself but into an ancillary office. But once you’ve got one of those cards, you can get in; he could have been walked to the library, asked for his clip file. And it was right during this period when it was checked out and it disappeared. Now, I was able to reconstruct that file through a lot of hard work and prove that he had been in the paper.
JAY: So why does the L.A. Times protect Gates?
JOHNSTON: Well, the family that owned the L.A. Times were people who–I mean, they’re about as close to being actual fascists as you have in America. They were involved with the Christian Anti-communist Crusade. When the PBS documentary was run about L.A. and about Otis Chandler, this great man who made the family fabulously wealthy, one of the family members kept basically saying, he’s a communist, you know, he’s not one of us. And I had to deal with various members of the family over the years, and their political views would make the leading right-wingers in America right now look like liberals. I mean, it was astonishing to hear their views. They were deeply racist in their perceptions of people.
JAY: John Birch Society?
JOHNSTON: They were–oh, Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, the John Birch Society, all that kind of stuff.
JAY: Is Walt Disney in this circle?
JOHNSTON: Not to my knowledge, no. But these were family members. And so it was actually surprising, in retrospect, I was able to get in as much stuff as I did. But the shutdown came just when–had we gotten that stuff in the paper, I think there would have been a huge change, and Daryl Gates’s career probably would have come to a rapid end.
JAY: Well, might it [have] led to the family that owned the L.A. Times? I mean, is it not just them covering up Gates as Gates somewhat working with their support?
JOHNSTON: Well, there were various family peccadilloes that were known in the newsroom, and if they were known in the newsroom, they were known to the LAPD. So do I reasonably think that among the things that was going on is that the family was told, shut this guy down or there could be bad consequences? Yeah. I mean, I can’t prove that, but it’s a logical expectation.
JAY: But also he’s doing, in some ways, an extension of what they want anyway, and they believe all this stuff.
JOHNSTON: Yes, but remember, all families have factions, and everybody has secrets, and prominent rich families have lots of secrets they’d not like to have to get into a fight with somebody about. And the Chandlers were very split. I mean, Here’s Otis, this great man, great publisher, who produced a great newspaper, and then the rest of the family, who would be perfectly happy, you know, if he fell off the diving board and into a pool with no water.
JAY: So where does Gates end up?
JOHNSTON: Well, Gates continues as chief. The Rodney King riots occur. I’ve gone to Philadelphia for The Philadelphia Inquirer. And one of my police sources–’cause I always had sources all around Gates, ’cause they knew what a fraud he was–faxes me something called the Command Cadre Critique. It is the internal review of how did we handle the riots. It is devastating. And I saw to it that every newspaper in Southern California that took the Knight Ridder news service, which went to every newspaper except the L.A. Times, knew this story was coming. They all played it big. Gave it to one of the TV stations on the condition that they specify clearly where they got it. And the L.A. Times never wrote a word about what was in it. Gates had to resign then, not–by law, he had his job for life, but he had to resign because his position was untenable and it was clear he had no plan to take care of the riots–the thousand-page document he held was a fraud on TV. And so Gates retired and wrote this autobiography, which, if you understand what’s going on, is just chock full of stuff that verifies what I reported at the time.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to pick up the story. I’m going to ask David now, with this window into policing, who has this kind of control over this coercive power, and the window you had into this family, a window into who has real power in America, what that did to you and your thinking.
So that’s what I’m going to ask David in the next part of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
Never miss another story
Subscribe to theAnalysis.news – Newsletter
“David Cay Boyle Johnston is an American investigative journalist and author, a specialist in economics and tax issues, and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting.”