Cracking the Vault

The archives of the FBI have long been of great curiousity to researchers everywhere. Thought we would delve a bit deeper and sent our intrepid reporter Michael Masterson to explore a bit.

With the FBI so much in the news recently, it seemed timely to do a little investigation of our own. In response to public demands through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the bureau launched an electronic reading room called “The Vault” in 2011. The database allows you to search nearly 7,000 agency documents by keyword or topic and delivers whatever results are found in the form of (sometimes poorly) scanned documents and files. The Vault contains memos, letters, Western Union telegrams, newspaper clippings and all manner of miscellany.

The material available dates back decades and includes an incredible range of categories from anti-war and civil rights material to gangster era and unexplained phenomenon files. Some of the most frequently requested topics recently include J. Edgar Hoover (not a surprise), the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Trump Management Company (again not a surprise) as well as the Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Shuttle and the impersonation of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the recently deceased King of Thailand. Apparently in 2000 someone set up a Yahoo account in the king’s name and began using it on game sites.

Of course, celebrities frequently feature in popular searches so you’ll find documents relating to James Baldwin and Ben Bradlee, Phil Ochs and Debbie Reynolds. She appears in a confidential response to a request from the Nixon White House for “pertinent derogatory” information about her, Fred Astaire, Rod Serling, Shelly Winters, Patricia Neal and Vincent Minnelli among others. Debbie apparently came to their attention because she’d attended the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And just in case that wasn’t enough, the FBI included the information that an “admitted homosexual” had had sex with her then-husband Eddie Fisher while Debbie engaged in both “normal and homosexual relations.” In Arnold Palmer’s case, Nixon’s counsel, John Ehrlichman, had requested any arrest records or derogatory information about the golf pro and his wife before they were invited to a White House dinner for Burma’s leader. He came off clean and got the invite apparently.

The “Unexplained Phenomenon” section includes a wealth of material about UFOs, discovering alien bodies and Roswell, New Mexico with another section devoted to Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP). In the late 50s the bureau scrutinized a Virginia railroad employee named William Foos regarding his claims of having ESP and teaching the blind to “see.” As proof he did a demonstration with his blindfolded teenage daughter who was able to read, move about, distinguish colors and even play jacks without being able to see. The FBI conjectured that ESP could be used to provide “undetectable access to mail, the diplomatic pouch, visual access to buildings – the possibilities are limitless insofar as law enforcement and counterintelligence are concerned.” But in the end they found no scientific evidence for it and dropped the idea in 1960.

More serious subjects provide insight into the bureau’s obsession with civil rights activists like singer Paul Robeson who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and was the object of particular ire for Director J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI dubbed him a Communist, forced cancellation of his concerts and eventually had his passport revoked. He merits 31 documents of hundreds of pages each in The Vault. There are 30 more like that for Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz and dozens more for Rodney King, Cesar Chavez, the Freedom Riders, the NAACP, the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan.

Browsing the “Popular Culture” section yields documents on everything from Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, Walt Disney and Marvin Gaye to the Grateful Dead, the Monkees and the song “Louie Louie” which was investigated for possible obscenity. Charlie Chaplin makes an extensive appearance for both his personal and political shenanigans. The FBI, suspecting him of being a Communist, pried into every aspect of his personal life. After his affair with a minor actress named Joan Barry resulted in a paternity suit which she won, FBI director Hoover used it as an excuse to charge Chaplin with “white slavery” or violation of the Mann Act which prohibited transporting women across state lines for sex. Chaplin was acquitted but still mercilessly pursued by the bureau in minute detail. In 1943 a memo to Hoover discussed Chaplin’s future wife, the 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, as someone who enjoyed listening to the Little Tramp because he “likes to think of himself as exceptionally well read and intellectual, and for a couple of years Paulette Goddard had been content to sit around and listen to him.”

By movie studio (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The “Miscellaneous” section is a grab bag of odds and ends including aviation subjects such as the crash of TWA flight 800, Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and the Hindenburg tragedy where the FBI pursued a sabotage theory that an anti-Nazi professional acrobat on board was responsible for crashing the zeppelin. There’s a marvelous set of documents about the movie “I Was a Communist for the FBI” including a request from Warner Bros. for J. Edgar Hoover to film a short intro “pointing out the need for citizens to report information to the FBI.” The director demurred.

Be forewarned: opening The Vault is addictive. Hours will disappear. And just in case you’re interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, there are sections on “Criminal Profiling” and the “Legal Handbook for FBI Special Agents.” Have fun.

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