Monday, July 9, 2012

Douglas M. Charles's "The FBI’s Obscene File"

Douglas M. Charles is an assistant professor of history at Penn State University’s Greater Allegheny Campus and author of J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The FBI’s Obscene File, one will read a description of the FBI’s concerns with the director of the famous porn film Deep Throat. Happy that he decided to act as a cooperative witness, FBI officials were nevertheless concerned that Gerard Damiano was still out to get as much publicity for himself and his film as possible by appearing at Deep Throat trials across the country. The media covered these trials closely.

This episode reflects the nature of the FBI’s Obscene File, a sensitive and special file FBI officials had maintained since 1942 and a topic that had interested them since at least 1910. Over the years and decades, as the legal definition of obscenity changed, making obscenity and pornography prosecutions more difficult, FBI officials and particularly FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover used the file for different purposes. While at first they targeted actual obscenity rings, eventually Hoover used the file for his own particular ends. He used it to collect sexual information on public officials, he used it in an effort to silence African American R&B musicians, he used it in an attempt to silence the emerging gay rights movement in the 1950s, and he did not hesitate to use it to silence his enemies.

In the years after Hoover’s death (after 1972), subsequent FBI directors continued the file but returned to a focus on law enforcement. One aspect of this effort was the targeting of the Mafia, which had entered into the pornography business in the 1970s. Yet obscenity law still made prosecution difficult, resulting in the Bureau making use of racketeering laws to get to the money behind the mob and porn. Eventually, FBI officials gave up in targeting what they called “adult obscenity” to focus almost exclusively on child pornography. That is, until the rise of the George W. Bush administration when an attempt was made to revive targeting adult obscenity and creating a new Obscene File (which was incinerated in 1992 under Clinton). With a puritanical attorney general, who covered the bare breasts of a statue in the Justice Department’s great hall, Bush tried and failed to revive widespread anti-obscenity prosecutions which, again and predictably, faded with the Obama administration.
Learn more about The FBI’s Obscene File at the University Press of Kansas website.

--Marshal Zeringue