FBI releases files on Roger Ailes

The FBI on Friday publicly released its files on the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who died in May. 

The release is more than 100 pages and mostly includes a background check that the FBI completed before Ailes worked for President Nixon, and two subsequent “expanded name checks” in 1988 and 1990 for access to the George H.W. Bush White House. 

Ailes never actually worked in the White House, but served as a consultant to Nixon and President Reagan and President Bush after serving in their campaigns. In a tribute to Ailes after his death, Bush credited the eventual Fox News chief for getting him elected.

FBI investigations are a standard part of the political appointee process. Agents interview figures in a person’s life as part of the determination into whether they get the job. They check credit scores, arrest records and even grade-point averages. (Ailes graduated college with a 2.698 GPA.)

Records show the agency interviewed at least 30 people in Ailes’s life, including his former neighbors in his hometown, former professors at his alma mater, Ohio University, and people who had worked with him.

Investigators asked whether Ailes had good morals, was honest and a loyal American — those who were interviewed all agreed he was.

Some gushed about Ailes, who was not yet 30 when he began advising Nixon. 

“AILES has consistently evidenced and utilized such gifts to record notably successful careers with Group W and the NIXON for President Committee and to learn the respect, if not actual awe, of his professional colleagues,” the FBI documented after one interview.  

These qualifications “overrides the qualms one might ordinarily entertain watching a man still under thirty years of age launch his own television production firm in certainly one of the most competitive and riskiest business extant,” the person told the FBI.

Another person called Ailes “a wonderful young dynamo” and “the antithesis of the show-business stereotype, always considerate and pleasant, mature, unaffected, even-tempered and, in general ‘a delightful, a real nice man.’”

Over the years Ailes would gain a very different reputation. 

In “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” a biography of Ailes for which Ailes did not participate, author Gabriel Sherman describes the career ascent of the brash Ailes, painting a man unafraid to create conflict.

The late Lee Atwater once told Time Magazine that Ailes “has two speeds … Attack and destroy.”

An Ohio University professor told the FBI in 1969 that Ailes was “one of the brightest young people in this field and one who is quite the expert.”

“He noted that the applicant is a highly, aggressive individual but added this aggressiveness is not offensive and is probably responsible for the success he has enjoyed,” the FBI agent’s notes say.

There were two figures close to both Nixon and Ailes not interviewed by the FBI about Ailes: H.R. Haldeman, who served as Nixon’s chief of staff, and Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman. 

The men “were not contacted because of their request not to be interviewed on White House personnel investigations,” the FBI wrote. 

However, there were also underlying tensions between Haldeman and Ailes. 

Haldeman at times lobbied for Ailes to advise Nixon on media strategy, but ultimately fired him and attempted to keep him from having the president’s ear. 

As part of the 1990 “expanded name check,” the FBI turned up a New York City arrest record. Ailes, worried about his own security, had been arrested in November 1974 for illegally possessing a gun. The initial charge was a Class D felony (the “criminal possession of a weapon bomb/silencer”), but Ailes pleaded guilty to a lower misdemeanor charge.

Gizmodo first wrote about the FBI documents earlier this month after suing to obtain them. The publication said the FBI did not respond to their open records request on Ailes in the required time frame after his death.  

The publication is appealing the release of the documents, arguing that the files are likely an incomplete account of what the agency has on Ailes. It has released 113 pages, and noted it had located 147 — the rest of which it has held for various reasons. There are no documents with dates beyond 1990.

Gizmodo believes there are additional documents about Ailes beyond the ones the agency says it has located.

“Gizmodo is confident the FBI maintains other records on Ailes and we intend to pursue all legal avenues to enforce the public’s right of access under [the Freedom of Information Act] FOIA,” Gizmodo reporter Dell Cameron told The Hill.

Dan Novack, the company’s lawyer, argued to a New York federal judge last week during a hearing that the FBI has a history of acting in bad faith when fulfilling FOIA requests. 

The FBI has now agreed to disclose exactly how it searched for the Ailes records and report, in detail, why the agency has withheld or redacted any material. Those explanations are due by mid-March, Gizmodo said. 

The next court date is in April, where a judge will determine if the FBI needs to go back and conduct another search for documents.

FBI records for U.S. citizens typically remain private until the person dies, unless a living individual provides written consent to the FBI for their release.

Federal law enforcement officials opened a probe into Fox News last year, around the time Ailes died, relating to secret payments to women who worked there that had accused Ailes of sexual harassment, according to the New York Daily News.  

An ongoing federal investigation is one of the reasons that an agency can withhold records from the public. However, Gizmodo said the FBI did not use this as a justification for withholding at least 20 pages of documents in Ailes’s file.

In court last week, Gizmodo says the government’s lawyer told the judge she is not aware of any investigation.

– This story was updated at 3:48 p.m.


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