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A Window Into Infiltration: The FBI Informant File of Sheila Louise O'Connor

Spying on You

Back in 1972, Sheila O'Connor was a busy woman. She had a job in the Washington, DC office of the National Lawyers Guild. In her off time, she attended demonstrations organized by the Youth International Party (YIPPIES!), went to meetings of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization, and was a committed member of a study group of the Revolutionary Union, a Maoist organization now called the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

A Window Into Infiltration: The FBI Informant File of Sheila Louise O'Connor

By Aaron Leonard, Truthout
16 January 2013

The story of 1970s FBI informant Sheila O'Connor provides lessons for today's progressive organizations about infiltration by the state security apparatus.

Back in 1972, Sheila O'Connor was a busy woman. She had a job in the Washington, DC office of the National Lawyers Guild. In her off time, she attended demonstrations organized by the Youth International Party (YIPPIES!), went to meetings of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization, and was a committed member of a study group of the Revolutionary Union, a Maoist organization now called the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

She had one other job: She was a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, code named "Reverend."

The last several months have seen a certain controversy over the revelation that Richard Aoki - a Japanese-American 60s radical, secret member of the Black Panther Party, and a key force behind the struggle at UC Berkeley for ethnic studies - was a long-standing FBI informant. Putting aside for the moment the arguments of Aoki's detractors and defenders, something on clear display in that case is how little is known - with the exception of those in law enforcement - about how informants operate. This is for good reason. In writing about the Aoki controversy, Trevor Griffey noted, "It is very rare for the FBI to ever release one of its informant files." While it is the exception in the Aoki case that some of his files were released, they are nonetheless heavily redacted, raising nearly as many questions as they answer. That is not the case in the matter of Sheila O'Connor Rees: Those documents are hardly redacted at all, and are thus of enormous value in understanding the work of the political informant.

Sheila O'Connor Rees was one half of a duo of freelance spies. In the parlance of FBI coding, she was WF5728-PSI (Potential Security Informant), along with her husband, the British national/journalist/spy, John Herbert Rees, who was WF3796-PSI. Of the two, John Rees was better known, producing a journal called "Information Digest." That journal served as a clearing house for information on the antiwar movement and radicals, and was made available to local police agencies. While Rees was not a paid FBI informant at the time, he was a paid informant for the DC Metro Police and, among other things, was subsidized by them to set up the Red House Bookstore in Washington, DC in 1971.1 The thinking was that this would bring Rees in touch with activists the police wanted to target.

For her part, Sheila Rees adopted her maiden name of O'Connor and used her ties in the DC activist community to become an FBI informant. As one document notes, O'Connor "is knowledgeable about and is in a position to supply information concerning the Revolutionary Union, United States China Friendship [US-China Peoples Friendship Association], National Lawyers Guild, YSA/Socialist Workers Party, Youth International Party and numerous subjects of investigative interest."2

As we will see, John Rees's work on the "Information Digest" would lead to the termination of Sheila's work as a paid FBI informant, but that was in the future. First, she would spend considerable time and effort as a member of a collective of the Revolutionary Union, in Washington, DC.

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