Yesterday, The Washington Post ran an article on the late Robert Novak’s FBI files. It turns out that in the 1980’s, Novak or Roland Evans, his writing partner, reported classified information that led the government to launch leak investigations on three separate occasions. In the end, the files indicate that they were fruitless. (The article also notes, disappointingly, that the released files contain not a mention of Novak’s far more contemporary contretemps with the Justice Department in the Valerie Plame affair.)
The piece is the result of a Freedom of Information Act request that reporter Joe Stephens filed shortly after the iconic columnist’s death, which obviated Novak’s privacy rights under the law. This is not the first time that Stephens has gotten an interesting story by following up on a famous name in the obituary pages, nor, I suspect, will it be the last.
I spoke with Stephens about the practice last year, after he posthumously disclosed that Jack Valenti, the Motion Picture Association of America’s long time lobbyist, had been subject to a homophobic FBI witch hunt.
“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.
If you’d like to read my whole 2009 piece its here. But in any case, don’t miss Stephens’s write up of Soul Brother Number One’s FBI encounter after running his car around a police barricade with a shotgun in the trunk, possibly while high on PCP.
This is the kind of stuff that open records laws are for, people!Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.