The brainchild of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is a crime-fighting and intelligence agency that rose to true prominence during the “gangster era” of the 1930s, when outlaws ranged across America, bootlegging and robbing banks. Hoover was a polarizing character who may have been the most powerful man in America at the height of his influence, capable of challenging even US presidents. Hoover was a master manipulator, and in turn, his agency became ruthless and cunning in accomplishing its goals. Below are 10 secret instances of the FBI’s willingness to defy justice.
10 Ronald Reagan, Informant
Ronald Reagan is best known for serving as the President of the United States during perhaps the bleakest portion of the Cold War. But he wasn’t always known for staring down the “evil empire;” he was a Hollywood leading man in his early years. Perhaps his most famous role was of George “The Gipper” Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American. The nickname would follow him all his life. Surprisingly enough, Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, used their Hollywood connections to report to the FBI those they considered possible communist sympathizers. His code name was T-10.
Reagan had another bizarre brush with the FBI in 1981, after he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. After arriving in the hospital, his suit was cut away. The FBI and military officers at the scene immediately got into a tussle over Reagan’s belongings—particularly his wallet, where he carried the code card needed to initiate a nuclear missile strike. The FBI eventually won, and confiscated the wallet. They did not return it for two days. Of course, Reagan wasn’t the only president with ties to intelligence agencies. George H.W. Bush spent a year serving as the Director of the CIA.
9 John Steinbeck’s Taxes
Nobel prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck began his writing career during the Great Depression and connected with many leftists and labor unions. As a result, the FBI exhaustively researched the author, but unfortunately for J. Edgar Hoover, Steinbeck didn’t seem to have any prosecutable skeletons in his closet. To make his life miserable, the FBI arranged for the IRS to audit his taxes every year of his life. In 1942, he wrote to US Attorney General Francis Biddle, “Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome.”
However, there may have been more to Steinbeck than meets the eye. In 1952, he was to be sent to Europe to write articles for Collier’s Magazine. Before he left, he wrote to the CIA offering his services, writing in part, “Again—I shall be pleased to be of service. The pace and method of my junket together with my intention of talking with great numbers of people of all classes may offer peculiar advantages.” Director Walter B. Smith wrote back, asking to see Steinbeck before he left on the trip. What transpired by way of this arrangement remains a mystery.
8 Mafia Capo Gregory Scarpa
Mafia nicknames are often less than intimidating, but Gregory Scarpa’s savage nature earned him a pretty tough one—“the Grim Reaper.” Scarpa rose through the ranks of the Colombo crime family, but was collared in 1962 for armed robbery. Realizing what a potential asset they had on their hands, the FBI offered him an informant deal, and Scarpa accepted to keep himself out of jail.
Over three decades, the mafioso had a tumultuous relationship with his FBI handlers. He was a brutal, tough man (later in life he would try to self-medicate a bullet wound to the eye by pouring scotch into it), and the agency used that to their advantage. According to some sources, he was sent to Mississippi in 1964 to uncover the fate of three missing civil rights workers. The FBI gave him a gun and bribe money, and sent him on his way. Unencumbered by the regulations which law enforcement agencies are forced to work under, he kidnapped a Ku Klux Klan member from the store where he worked. Scarpa viciously beat the man, then shoved a gun in his mouth until he revealed the location of the men’s graves.
Of course, there was nothing personal about his attack on the KKK member—Scarpa was just doing his job. If anything, he probably would have had a few things in common with the man. We’ve mentioned before how Scarpa met his end—by refusing to take a blood transfusion from a hospital because he was worried that it might contain African-American blood.