The Smoking Gun: They Spy on the FBI
Arena Magazine (UK) November, 2001
It’s not easy being a cop. I know this because I read a police report describing how officers in Manchester, NH, on routine bicycle patrol, encountered a man wearing “what appeared to be a costume made to resemble a penis.”
The report continued: “We asked him what he was doing and he replied, ‘I am a dickhead.’“
Faced with this ticklish standoff between free expression and good taste, the officers were fortunate to find two bystanders who were willing to say that, why yes, they were offended. The walking appendage was provided with lodging in the local jail.
How did I obtain this operational law enforcement document? Actually, I read it on the irreverent website, www.TheSmokingGun.com. That’s also where I read about Sweaty Selma. She’d fled when police approached her car, and when finally cornered, refused to come out. When officers broke the vehicle’s windows, they found her partially disrobed. “Selma said she normally takes off her undergarments during long trips,” the police report noted, “because she sweats a lot, because she wasn’t wearing clothing from the waist down, and [because] she was late for her check-in time [at a convention] , she decided to try her chances on fleeing the police.”
These documents, (and even more important newly discovered ones) are posted twice a week to the Smoking Gun site, turning such formerly ignored primary materials into the supporting actors of history, bringing ironic sophistication to the grubbier aspects of contemporary civilization. Here we also find more erudite materials, like Monica Lewinsky’s resume-- the one that landed her a White House internship-- wherein she highlights her ability to “take direction” and her expertise in “public affairs,” and describes herself as “extremely enthusiastic.” Not to mention a streaming video of President Bush at a 1992 wedding, acting pretty looped and embarrassing his friend the groom and, presumably, himself.
It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the approach taken by fine print purveyors of irony and chroniclers of hypocrisy like the American magazine The Onion (online at www.theonion.com), the British magazine Private Eye (online at www.private-eye.co.uk),d and the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. But Smoking Gun is something different: a sort of document-based, digital Smithsonian Institution with a sense of humor. The subjects themselves include everything from politicians to sports stars, entertainers, law enforcement officials, and the weirdest and wildest of “ordinary” people., all of whose off moments --indiscretions, greedy squabbles, jabbering conspiracy theories, bizarre explanations of self-mutilations-- appear in the form of arrest records, surveillance reports, internal memos, legal filings and the like.
Documents like these weren’t widely accessible – and certainly not by computer -- until the Smoking Gun launched four years ago. Not from the mainstream media outfits, which tend to eschew the most embarrassing, silly or off-color material that comes their way, preferring to allude to it obliquely, if at all. Nor from the tabloids, which love the droppings of the elite and any bizarre incident claimed by ordinary people, as long as it involves UFOs or Madonna sightings -- but often don’t know what to do with anything remotely subtle. Certainly, other media organizations seem far less equipped to handle large numbers of significant documents when they become available, as the Smoking Gun found when the Lewinsky Scandal prosecutor, Kenneth Starr released the appendices to his famous report. They contained the juicy raw material whence came his conclusions. Anticipating a huge rush, the Smoking Gun set up an elaborate relay system so the documents could go live quickly. “We expected everyone to do that,” says TSG co-founder William Bastone. “But nobody did. To this day, no one has put the documents up. We’ve got every FBI interview with Lewinsky, the letters she wrote to the president. It’s very powerful to see the actual things.”
TSG is the brainchild of Bastone, 40, a tall, black-haired, gregarious fellow, and Daniel Green, 38, his salt-and-pepper haired, more reserved friend, both former reporter-contributors to the feisty New York alternative weekly, the Village Voice. Document-hounds by disposition, they knew the thrill of finding something in a musty court archive, obscure library collection or far-flung county clerk’s office – or its modern-day, online equivalent -- and the purity and power of a simple document. They had nowhere to go with most of the goodies they dug up, but they had a hunch there was a demand. “If you put cops and reporters aside, virtually nobody ever gets to see these things,” says Bastone. “Most people have probably never looked at an FBI report, or a deposition. We figured that if we found these things interesting, others would too.”
With design help from Bastone’s wife, he and Green launched the website part-time out of their homes in 1997 and began regularly posting their finds. Last year, with traffic and buzz about the site growing steadily, they sold ownership of TSG to the crime-obsessed cable broadcaster, Court Television (once known as all-OJ-all-the-time), which kept them in charge and turned the operation fulltime. Assembled in misleadingly bland midtown offices with cubicles and boringly neat desks, the staff of four quietly and methodically makes its telephonic and Internet rounds in search of material, occasionally punctuating the working silence with a yelled question or a kindling-dry joke. The only real tip-off that something interesting is going on are the adhesive notes affixed to piles of dull looking documents, summarizing the content: Bungled Horse Castration, Drunk Student Kicks in Strangers Door; Jail Chess Match Assault; Guy Set on Fire in Strip Club; Pet Cat Gets Electrocuted; Insane Inmate Lawsuit.
Other material is deadly serious, providing insight into seminal events or a fresh, visceral interpretation of talked-out topics. Like the actual death certificate for convicted Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh, with its matter-of-fact notations in a doctor’s hand providing unwitting commentary on the death penalty: ‘MANNER OF DEATH: homicide, HOW INJURY OCCURRED: “judicial execution by lethal injection.” Immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Smoking Gun posted a terrorism manual found in 2000 in the Manchester, England, home of an Osama Bin Laden follower that chillingly calls for “Blasting and destroying the embassies and attacking vital economic centers.” Other historically significant paper includes a Dallas nurse’s firsthand account of JFK’s final moments at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and detailed blueprints for a plot to kill Hitler.
When the movie Titanic was about to be feted at the Oscars in 1998, TSG posted dozens of related historical documents, including this SOS telegram from the foundering ship: “We have struck iceberg sinking fast come to our assistance.” For perspective on the value of lives and a sense of people’s priorities, there’s an intriguing lawsuit filed sometime after the disaster by one Vincenzo Vicario of Providence, Rhode Island, against the owner of the Titanic, for his personal loss – 40 cases of Roquefort Cheese. Another bit of historical flotsam posted on the website must surely be the paperwork for Richard Nixon’s little-known 1937 effort to become an FBI agent. Did Nixon have executive ability? “Perhaps,” wrote the examiner, who found the man later famous for profanity-laden diatribes and enemies’ lists to be “tactful”, and, most significantly, noted that the awkward and joyless Nixon listed dancing among his hobbies.
If The Smoking Gun offers us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, it also functions as a useful wakeup call about new forms of collective insanity and new indignities being foisted on us from on high. TSG made headlines when it momentarily popped the noxious quiz show bubble by publishing background material on the “prize” of the overhyped Fox TV special, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-millionaire” -- a judge’s restraining order against the man from years earlier, requested by an ex-fiancée who said that her "repeated attempts to break off an engagement" led him to assault her and threaten that "he would find me and kill me."
Anyone feeling sanguine about the aging of the baby boomers should check out a Smoking Gun feature called Felonious Fogies, a literal rogues gallery with mug shots of elderly criminals arrested in Florida for everything from cocaine trafficking to child molestation. It reads like a warning to Little Red Riding Hood: Granny just ain’t what she used to be. (Have old people always been this vulgar and we just didn’t know it?) Check out, too, the arrest record for the aggressive passenger caught defecating on a flight attendant food cart – and in First Class! Speaking of shitty things to do, be sure to examine the police paperwork in which an officer in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, reports discovering a “thick, slimy substance” in his McDonald’s cup. After lab tests on the foreign body, a 15-year-old burger flipper was arrested. “We will never understand what possesses America’s fast food workers to place foreign objects in the grub of customers wearing a badge,” commented TSG. “Wouldn’t a doctor or street sweeper be, legally speaking, a better choice?” The website positively swells with stories of poor schlubs who get into unimaginable binds, apparently through no fault of their own: the unfortunate tough who filed a lawsuit against a tattoo parlor that had misspelled “villain” on his right forearm. And the prison inmate who filed suit because he understandably feels cheated that a Penthouse magazine he bought failed to deliver on its cover tease that a spread featuring Clinton ex-paramour Paula Jones “shows all.”
Many of these finds, most of which are obtained through requests under the United States’ Freedom of Information Act, are included in the Smoking Gun’s first book, released in September by Little, Brown.
The TSG folks keep up their readers’ interest with periodic contests and quizzes. One required that readers mix and match a list of dead celebrities with the correct autopsy excerpt. Another offered a document with one quote or element blocked out, and asked readers to supply the missing material, for example, what a sick suspect said to arresting officers after dramatically ripping off his intestinal feeding tube. There is no shortage of players; some contests generate 1000-1500 responses, in the form of e-mailed answers that Bastone, apparently a semi-Luddite when it comes to automation, plods through one at a time as they arrive.
With the digital highway littered not just with gross excesses but also with the carcasses of carefully-targeted and well-reasoned websites, TSG stands out for its seat-of-the-pants success. ”People told us, ‘Before you start, figure out who the audience is,’ ” Bastone recalls -- advice he and Green promptly ignored. Now, four years in, about 600,000 people visit the website each month. Some of these afficionadoes doubtlessly have nothing better to do with their time, but a surprising number seem to be busy folks – reporters and columnists, citizen activists, entertainers, prosecutors – anyone seeking to make a case, score a point, borrow a good anecdote or settle a bet. Other fans have what might delicately be called “specialties,” as I learned when I searched Usenet, the portion of the Internet devoted to the postings of regular folks. An “Uncle Stevie” had posted the following to the newsgroup rec.arts.movies.erotica: “Everyone: There’s an interesting non-porn website called The Smoking Gun…they show some FBI investigative reports from 1975, wherein two FBI agents went to a porno theater in Memphis, TN.” Uncle Stevie noted that he’d never had the pleasure of watching the films cited in the FBI report, and did anyone out there have any more info on them?
Despite Bastone’s liberal-left credentials from the Village Voice, his followers include plenty of right-wingers, who frequently post links on their own websites to TSG. “They think the site is this guerilla operation that’s going to tell you what the mainstream media won’t,” says Bastone. “They think we’ve cut out the middleman, the bogeyman who strips these documents of their real meaning. I don’t think that happens usually. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t trust the media.”
Judging by the e-mail they get, a lot of their readers live abroad. And though the documents are primarily American, the site features material from Britain’s Public Records Office, ranging from the Titanic files to a 6-page memo from the British Ambassador to Tokyo, breathlessly reporting on a visit by the Beatles to Japan. “I have the honour to report…They were a five-days’ wonder…In sober truth, no recent event connected with the United Kingdom…has made a comparable impact in Tokyo.”
The success of The Smoking Gun has spawned an offshoot, an audio website called WMOB. It’s a natural for Bastone, who created a Village Voice column called Wise Guys, which fearlessly chronicled the banality and plodding murderousness of mobster life, a sharp contrast to the dashing, clever hoods found in most films and novels. On the new site, which Bastone refers to as “The Real Sopranos,” each week brings another “episode,” or portion of streaming audio taken from federal wiretaps. Currently playing is the Frank and Fritzy show, in which two Genovese mob family soldiers talk about crime and life, just like Tony Soprano, including their extramarital affairs, their possessive mothers, their love of good sausage.
In the office on a recent Tuesday, Joe Jesselli, the technical guy (a former Village Voice computer technician), is sitting with a headset, doing the painful weekly transcription duty, deciphering the street-accented, rapidfire wiseguy chatter for the uninitiated . Jesselli, who is Italian-American, gets up and comes into Bastone’s office to discuss some particularly challenging passages. Bastone dials his modem into the website, which responds with the jingle, “WMOBeeeee, MobTalk Raaaadiooooooo)” To me, it’s nearly impossible to understand what the fellas are saying. Its rapid-fire shtick, punctuated with mouthed drum rolls of the standup comedy variety, seems to be all sonno and fury signifying nothing: “What is this bullshit…bubump bump… yeah? How’s the beef? How’s the fuckin roast? How’s the roast. Enjoy the roast bubumpbubump? And the movie with her….bubububu…I tapped the phone, you know what I mean…”
“Hmm,” says Joe. “This is a hard one.” But somehow, not insurmountable. Next, something even tougher. “What did he say?” asks Bastone, who is half-Italian and grew up with a bookmaker uncle. “ ‘That’s what the fuck you could’, ” replies Jesselli. “What does that mean?” demands Bastone, “That’s what the fuck you could?” .
Even these inarticulate mobsters are, models of modesty and reason compared with the imperious celebrities chronicled on the site. A perennial favorite is the contract rider: in which celebrities, especially pop stars, stipulate terms and conditions, such as Christina Aguilera’s requirement that her dressing room spread contain not just “Soya Kaas” Soy Cheese Full Fat Mozarella or Cheddar but also “Flintstones” vitamins with extra vitamin C; and Van Halen’s insistence that someone remove all the brown m&m’s from their refreshments. (A lot of this can be retailed elsewhere. An email arrives from a gossip columnist: “Can you give me any (exclusive) jumps on any upcoming backstage tantrum-dish, or the like?”)
If this is what turns you on, be sure to examine a confidentiality agreement foisted upon household staff by the then-happy couple of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. To discourage leaks to the media about their private lives, the couple imposed Draconian penalties. A traceable item appearing in the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer might set some cook back a cool $55 million. When Kirstie Alley’s marriage to Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson soured, Stevenson sought to convince a court that he needed a huge settlement to maintain his opulent lifestyle, and cited these examples of past expenditures: a $10,000, custom built model of a working lobster boat for their daughter Lillie; and a party for their celeb friends that featured a petting zoo and 150-piece marching band and six cavalrymen on horseback shooting blanks from guns. One wonders if Cruise and Alley got their life skills from their years in Scientology, whose founder, L Ron Hubbard, is also featured on the Smoking Gun. An FBI report describes correspondence from Hubbard, in which he claims that someone entered his apartment, knocked him out, and thrust a needle into his heart. Hubbard noted that the only other person who had a key to his apartment was his wife. The Smoking Gun annotation includes the following: “While he is often described as the controversial and enigmatic founder of the Church of Scientology, a more accurate description of Hubbard would be COMPLETE LUNATIC.”
Also in need of a good vacation is Martha Stewart, if you believe the testimony of
a landscaper. The man had been working on a neighbor’s property when the queen of household control allegedly became enraged after discovering what she claimed was an unauthorized fence. In a court deposition, the landscaper asserted that, after yelling, “You’re all no good, the bunch of you,” Ms. Stewart had attempted to crush him with her car. “ ‘I started to yell, ‘You’re fucking crushing me, stop the car…,’ “ the worker recounts, “She looked right at me and kept backing.”
To be fair, it’s not easy being famous. Consider the alleged plot by a group of Hell’s Angels to kill Mick Jagger. Their plan to sail out to the Pouter-in-Chief’s Long Island manse aborted, according to an informant, when the boat capsized and the pot-bellied amateur sailors “barely escaped [with] their lives.” An FBI report on the incident tersely noted: “…no further attempts were made on the life of Mick Jagger…” More troubling still is the threatening letter sent years ago to Jack Lord, the star of the 70s hit, Hawaii Five-O, in which Lord was informed that he would be killed. Even worse, he was accused of having atrocious body odor.
To Bastone and Green, it’s still the news business. “We feel we’re in competition with every other news organization out there,” says Bastone. “We want to be first and often are.” Today the adrenaline is pumping over a breaking celebrity item, which they’re handling like a sighting of sunken treasure, moving quickly to nail down the specifics. A tipster reports that the hot young actor Jason Mewes, who plays a doper in the new Kevin Smith comedy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is playing to character. Apparently Mewes had been arrested sometime back by police officers, who noticed him and his friends driving with an inflated airbag. When they pulled the vehicle over, cops say they saw Mewes trying to stash a “metal package” in his girlfriend’s purse; a search turned up a hypodermic needle and a small bag of heroin. Now, the TSG boys have discovered both the original incident and the fact that Mewes appears to have violated the terms of parole, a jailable offense. TSG’s researcher, Andrew Goldberg, who has spent much of the day trying to nail down information from a law enforcement source, pops in with an update. Grilling him like a police superior in a tv series, Bastone demands specifics – and clarifications. “Is he just puffing?” he growls. “Is he just winging it? Did he tell you how he knows, where he’s getting this information?” He sends Goldberg out to make another call. Once the item is web-ready, Bastone types out one of TSG’s trademark mini-commentaries: “Mewes, who has played a hilarious stoner in director Kevin Smith’s films, also appears in the music video of this summer’s most-requested song, Afroman’s drug-themed “Because I Got High.”
It must be hard to be a cop – after all, not only do you put your life in danger, but you’re in danger of dying laughing, when you’re supposed to be writing deadpan arrest reports. As in: “Rollo stated that it took him approximately four weeks to build his guillotine” (we soon learn that Rollo “thought by cutting off his arm that this would enhance his masculinity and thus enhance his appearance.”
Yet the government agents portrayed on the site aren’t exactly Solomonic figures themselves. The following passage is from a wartime OSS (CIA forerunner) manual on disguises: “Start now to observe how men of different classes of society and age sit, stand and walk. One section of the crowd will move with a purpose, preoccupied with their own important little lives. Another group will slouch or waddle along, like dully curious animals. Any little object catches their interest for a fleeting moment. They have no goal in life and every movement and line of their body show it.”
TSG also posted details of a CIA scheme to use trained cats on foreign missions, and a 1963 FBI report expressing concern over the cartoonist Walt Disney’s plans to buy the rights to a book in which the bureau surveils a cat. In real life, though, the bureau was more interested in celebrities. FBI agents ostensibly investigating white slavery also felt the need to critique the actor George Raft (his tough-guy roles included a mobster in Scarface) “Agents observed that Raft is small in stature, has a very limp handshake and gives the personal impression quite contrary to that which he portrays in motion pictures and television shows.” (The Smoking Gun usually has something pithy to say about these shenanigans. In this case: “Couldn’t the agent’s time have been better spent Red-baiting someone or tapping the phone of a civil rights leader?”) Apparently not, because it was too busy worrying about couture, as evidenced by this transcript of a court hearing in which a prosecutor grills The Doors’ Jim Morrison in an effort to establish obscene behavior:
“Q: Tell me again how were your pants tailor made?.. A: To the best of my recollection…they were custom-made leather pants that tightly contoured the lower part of my body. Q: You also testified that you don’t usually wear undergarments, isn’t that a fact? A: Right.”
There’s a police report related to the overdose death of Curt Cobain, and, for comparison’s sake, an old FBI report in which an informant claims that the beloved comedy couple of George Burns and Gracie Allen were dope fiends: “that is the reason Gracie wears long sleeves all the time.” If Burns did use illegal drugs, it doesn’t seem to have harmed him much. The report is dated 1939; Burns died 57 years later, at the age of 100.
No institution escapes the Smoking Gun’s scrutiny, not even the media. Recently, when
Lizzie Grubman, a tough, spoiled and hated celebrity publicist plowed into a nightclub crowd with her father’s Mercedes SUV, injuring dozens and prompting a flurry of lawsuits, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid New York Post saw a chance for a circulation booster, and started a giveaway contest for a LizzieMobile. A young reporter was dispatched to drive the vehicle, and she wrote about it, mentioning in passing that she felt qualified because she’d had her own “near-death” experience and been sued before. Leave it to the Smoking Gun folks to inquire further. TSG’s find: paperwork showing that the reporter had apparently been involved in a crash that resulted in a traumatic head injury to her passenger – and a $1.75 million legal settlement. Whoops! That’s publicity even Murdoch would rather not have.
TSG also has a thing about the cousin of shameless promotion -- shameless begging. Intrigued by the desperate measures employed by journalists – mostly tv types – seeking exclusive interviews, TSG obtained the media correspondence file maintained by the so-called Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who had built package bombs at his remote cabin and mailed them around the United States, killing three people and injuring twenty-nine others in a seventeen-year bombing campaign. “Since your arrest, the world has been waiting to hear your side of the story,” begins one letter. “I understand how the press and media can warp or outright lie about a person’s history because it makes for a better story.” The note, from a producer working for the talk show host and actor Roseanne Barr, tries to build a bridge with the man, noting that Barr “is a non-conformist and rarely does what society expects of her. I believe that you and her would definitely ‘hit it off.’"
Bastone has seen a lot in his day, but the Unabomber collection is beyond the pale. One letter, from an ABC News correspondent, inspires incredulity. “He says something like ‘I also grew up out in the country, I also have a cabin in the woods without electricity… I’m a hermit too!’ I mean, how low can you go? .”
As surely as readers like this material, the subjects presumably don’t. Yet so far, whatever goes up, stays up. They’ve never taken anything off the site, and never been sued. The only time they were even threatened was by the lingerie peddler, Victoria’s Secret, for posting a memo reminding staff that they must wear black, of all things.
Unmasking corporate conservatism in the diaphanous slip industry is all in a day’s work for these electronic town criers. “We’re here to serve the people,” says Bastone, in his perfect New York blend of irony and intense sincerity. “If you go home and feel you’ve helped the people, you’ve done something important. Tonight, I’ll sleep solid.” Maybe he will, but then he hasn’t seen his own FBI file.