Pinkos, Pornos, and Potheads

A visit to the FBI’s new Electronic Reading Room reveals the sometimes seedy, always entertaining underbelly of American culture.

Image: Jenny Villagrán

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a delightful thing. Passed by Congress in 1966, it allows citizens and foreign nationals residing in the United States to request any records from the executive branch of the government. Which is a good thing, because executive branch agencies, like the FBI, have been keeping records on loads of folks, like you and me, for years.

The Bureau has long been sticking its nose into other people’s business; FOIA allows the public to examine the fruits of that snooping. Unfortunately, “FOIAing” is a long and messy process—it often takes years to get the files you’ve requested.

Never fear, the FBI, being the magnanimous agency that it is, has made many of its most popular files available over the Web via the FBI Electronic Reading Room.

Sweet! Now you don’t even have to get out of your chair to peruse a wealth of titillating information on celebs, political figures, and crime bosses. And they’re all there: From Lucille Ball to Thurgood Marshall to John Dillinger, the FBI seemed to keep files on all the major players.

Sports fans look no further: The FBI kept an extensive file on American hero Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball. Although Robinson was never the subject of an official FBI investigation, he did warrant a 132-page file as “his name came to the attention of the FBI as a result of activities with various groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Those troublemakers.

The Reading Room also should appeal to conspiracy theory and UFO buffs, with FBI files on Project Blue Book and the Roswell, N.M. incident—just a weather balloon, who knew?—just in time for the X-Files big-screen alien extravaganza.

If you can suffer through pages of blacked-out information, poorly photocopied documents, inane drivel about Communist Party meetings, and a complete disregard for the rules of grammar (I’m not positive about this but I’m pretty sure the FBI sends their trainees to the James Joyce School of Punctuation), you’ll be rewarded with some real gems.

Take, for example, the FBI’s file on John Lennon, who was being investigated for his (wholly legal) donations to a group threatening to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention. “Source advised that Lennon appears to be radically orientated,” one document reads, “however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics.” Which pretty much explains the Plastic Ono Band.

Marilyn Monroe fell under the watchful eye of the FBI as well, thanks in part to her marriage to Arthur Miller and flirtations with the Communist Party. However, the FBI did not merely keep tabs on Comrade Norma Jean’s political activities—unless you consider sex with a Kennedy to be political activity—as the following dish from an anonymous source describes:

“During the period of time that Robert F. Kennedy was having his sex affair with Marilyn Monroe, on one occasion a sex party was conducted at which several other persons were present.” [Insert smart-ass Kennedy joke of your choice here. It’s just that easy!]

Perhaps the most fascinating dirt in the reading room, however, is on Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling role model for Charlie Sheen. The FBI investigated Flynn for allegedly violating the White Slave Traffic Act, and as a victim of two extortion attempts. The Bureau was interested in Flynn’s associations with Fidel Castro, numerous pimps, and various prostitutes—some of whom were thought to be underage girls transported across state lines. Among the seedier stories in the Flynn file is the saga of his behavior on the way to a movie premiere:

It is alleged that when a private train of Warner Brothers personnel proceeded eastward for a premiere showing off a film believed to be “Santa Fe” [Name Withheld] allegedly gave [Name Withheld] a Mickey Finn following which she was raped by Errol Flynn. Flynn allegedly made bets with certain friends on the train that he could accomplish this feat and as a result the actress attempted to commit suicide and had to be flown back to Los Angeles for hospitalization.”

Makes you want to smack the bastard right out of his funny little tights, doesn’t it?

There are numerous other stories of lust, crime, greed, and silliness in the reading room. To get the juice, you’ll need to get the Adobe Acrobat Reader. Then enjoy.

And if you want to see whether the FBI has been sniffing through your dirty underwear, you can start by filing a FOIA request with the Department of Justice. If you need some help, and you will if you haven’t done this type of thing before, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains a very helpful FOIA Web page that even includes an easy fill-in-the-blanks FOIA letter generator.

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