In 1967, the FBI was keeping close tabs on The People’s Weekly, the communist party’s west-coast newspaper affiliate. They had an informant who knew his way around the circulation department and was feeding them names of subscribers.
Among them, according to newly released records, was Hunter S. Thompson, a high-flying, drug-addled journalist who had just written a book about riding with the Hell’s Angels.
The FBI began gathering string on Thompson, who moved from San Francisco to Woody Creek, Colo. (where, decades later, he would commit suicide).
The agency followed Thompson’s unsuccessful bid for sheriff of Pitkin County, in which the Freak Power candidate memorably shaved his head bald and began referring to the crew-cut sheriff he was running against as “my long-haired opponent.” (Thompson campaigned on promises to rename Aspen “Fat City USA”; to jackhammer the streets and lay down sod; and to legalize drugs for personal use. Profit-seeking traffickers would be put in stocks on the courthouse lawn.)
FBI agents interviewed Thompson’s mailman and other Woody Creek locals. They collected copies of the Aspen Wallposter, a bimonthly newspaper that Thompson edited with the artist Tom Benton; illustrations of a bloody-mouthed Nixon (spelled with a swastika) and “comments regarding law enforcement and the Director” caught the agency’s eye. The Secret Service was alerted.
All this and more is detailed in Thompson’s FBI file, which I got a copy of last week. You can read it here:
I figured someone already had Thompson’s file when I went hunting around for it earlier this year, but I didn’t find it. So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
Meaning it’s possible that this is the first time Thompson’s file has been released — all scant 58 pages of it, released not by the FBI but by the National Archives. Because here’s the interesting thing: According to the FBI, “records responsive to your FOIPA request were destroyed on Feb. 1, 1994 and Sept. 1, 1998. Since this material could not be reviewed, it is not known if it was responsive to your request.” The agency forwarded my request to the National Archives, which several months later sent along the file you see here.
I asked Matt Cecil, a professor of journalism at South Dakota State University and FOIA ninja who is writing a book about J. Edgar Hoover, to review it. Cecil said it was typical in most respects except for its brevity; he speculated the FBI probably has or had other records on Thompson. His notes:
The first thing to note is that this is a 100-file, which is the designation for “Domestic Security” cases. The FBI estimates that it has 1,303,078 cases filed under this designation. There are 278 different categories of files. The Bureau keeps tracks of its millions of files using a central index that, in 1981, consisted of more than 65 million index cards. That index is currently being rebuilt to make searches more comprehensive.Any HST aficionados out there see anything I’ve missed, please let me know.
My initial impressions are:
This is a very brief file considering the subject. It covers only Thompson’s time in Woody Creek, Colorado. Since the FBI has been working on its central index of late, I wouldn’t be surprised if you receive additional serials at some point in the future.
It is apparent from this file that the FBI became interested in Thompson as a result of his Hell’s Angels article in The Nation (and book that followed) along with his subscription to The People’s World.
It is interesting that “weight” on Thompson’s wife’s driver’s license is considered a private fact and is redacted, but address, date of birth, height, and license number are not redacted. Also, weight is not withheld on Thompson’s driver’s license. The file is listed as having been processed by a trainee. That is a good reminder that the processing of FOIA requests is done by a human being who uses his or her judgment in deciding what to withhold. Thus, researchers need to be prepared to ask for pages or entire serials to be reprocessed if the redactions seem overdone. Likewise, this is a newly processed file, but in cases where a file has been previously released, the FBI does not reprocess that file. So redactions made under a different set of legal and cultural circumstances in 1986 or even 1976 remain. I often request that those files be reprocessed.
The intrusiveness of FBI domestic security investigations is on display here. An agent just barged into Woody Creek, Colorado and started asking questions. Obviously, the FBI didn’t care much what conclusions people drew from that. Thompson probably didn’t either. Imagine, however, that you were the subject of a 1960s domestic security investigation and agents came into Sioux Falls and started asking questions about you. What inference would people make?
There is an 8-page “confidential” memorandum in the file. It is a LHM or letterhead memorandum distinguishing it from so-called “blind memoranda” that were used to circulate subversive material without identifying the FBI as the source. The LHM in Thompson’s file, marked confidential, is made up almost entirely of quotes from newspapers, posters, and other public source material.
Edit: Here’s a link to the file (large PDF).