Tales from the FBI’s Crypt

WaPo’s Joe Stephens FOIAs the dead

Last Thursday, readers of The Washington Post woke up to find an interesting— but hardly timely—story on the front page of their paper.

Joe Stephens, an investigative reporter with three Polk awards to his name, had discovered that, over forty years ago, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI conducted an investigation into whether or not a top aide to Lyndon Johnson was gay.

The aide? DC fixture Jack Valenti, who left the White House in 1966 to become president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and perhaps the nation’s only celebrity lobbyist. Valenti was equally at home in front of the cameras at Oscars broadcasts as he was schmoozing Washington lawmakers at private film screenings.

Before Valenti became one of Washington’s biggest wheels, he was LBJ’s fiercely loyal assistant. Still, when the FBI told Johnson that they wanted to investigate his sexuality, neither their closeness nor the fact that Valenti was married to the president’s personal secretary kept Johnson from assenting. The investigation ultimately concluded that Valenti was heterosexual, but not until the FBI confronted a Houston photographer who was friends with Valenti. (Under questioning, the friend acknowledged “homosexual activities” but insisted that he’d never had a sexual relationship with Valenti, that Valenti knew nothing about his “tendencies”—as the FBI put it—and that Valenti certainly didn’t share them.)

The details of the investigation were revealed in documents that Stephens obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request that he filed on April 26, 2007, the day Valenti died of complications from a stroke.

“I send out a lot of FOIAs that are just Hail Mary passes,” says Stephens, who figured Valenti might have a file worth looking at because of his stint in the White House. “If you throw enough stuff against the wall, something might stick.”

Stephens estimates that he sends out about eight or ten FOIA requests each month. In that mix is the standard posthumous FBI file request. (He said he had some more of those pending, but didn’t want to name names before publication.)

“When someone dies, as a government agency, you lose the catch-all of privacy under the law,” says Stephens, meaning that all government files on the deceased are ripe for FOIAing. “Most of them come back either with nothing, or it’s not newsworthy.”

But sometimes there’s gold. In recent years, Stephens has published revelations from the FBI’s files on Norman Mailer (the FBI wasn’t a fan of his work, calling it usually “obscene and bitter;” in turn, Mailer wasn’t a fan of theirs, once calling Hoover “the worst celebrity in America”) and James Brown (wherein the Godfather of Soul gives his side of a drug-fueled two-state police chase that ensued after becoming enraged over unauthorized usage of his office bathroom). In 2001, Stephens wrote about the file of Senator Al Gore Sr., revealing years of retributive FBI observation after Gore Sr. complained that the Bureau was spreading salacious rumors about a female friend.

Whether the documents concern celebrity investigations or dry departmental data, the Freedom of Information Act requires that agencies respond to requests within twenty days of receiving them. But journalists know that it’s foolish to expect documents so quickly—indeed, the Brown request took five months, Mailer’s took a year, and Valenti’s twenty-one months.

“Under the Bush administration, the FOIA [was] a broken process,” says Stephens. “It’s outrageous how they ignored the law.”

A 2007 study of federal data by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government suggested that many agencies took longer to respond to requests in 2006 than they did in 2000, and that at least half of the requests at fourteen agencies received a response after the twenty-day window had closed.

“It’s a bizarre process and there’s no explanation,” says Stephens. “I hope it gets better.”

Some may question the usefulness of tromping around in old government records of the famous and powerful. But to Stephens, the answer is clear.

“I think it’s a public service, even at this late date, to really look at how the Hoover FBI worked,” he says.

It didn’t take much to end up under FBI investigation. The Mailer files show that Hoover launched that investigation after learning that the author had written an Esquire article that mocked Jackie Kennedy. Gore, an elected representative, was placed under surveillance for criticizing the bureau’s excesses.

“If history ever repeats itself, maybe we’ll be better prepared,” he says.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.