By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007
The late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist took a powerful sedative during his first decade on the Supreme Court and grew so dependent on it that he became delusional and tried to escape from a hospital in his pajamas when he stopped taking the drug in 1981, according to newly released FBI files.
The files also show that during both of Rehnquist's confirmation battles -- when he was first named to the court by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and when President Ronald Reagan nominated him as chief justice in 1986 -- the Justice Department enlisted the FBI to find out what witnesses lined up by Senate Democrats were prepared to say.
The FBI this week released 1,561 pages from its files on Rehnquist in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed after his death in September 2005. Privacy laws forbid disclosure of such files during the person's lifetime.
The fact that Rehnquist checked into George Washington University Hospital for a week in late December 1981 to be treated for back pain and dependence on a prescription drug was previously known. Journalists had noted that fall that Rehnquist's speech was sometimes slurred on the bench, and The Washington Post reported on the hospitalization.
But the files reveal dramatic new details about the length and intensity of the addiction. During its routine 1986 investigation of Rehnquist's background, the FBI concluded that Rehnquist began taking the drug Placidyl for insomnia after back surgery in 1971, the year before he joined the court. By 1981, he apparently was taking 1,500 milligrams each night, three times the usual starting dose.
Placidyl, known generically as ethchlorvynol, is a sleep-inducing drug that is not usually prescribed for more than a week at a time. It is not an opiate and is not a painkiller, but it is addictive, and withdrawal can cause hallucinations and temporary memory loss.
Doctors interviewed by the FBI told agents that when the associate justice stopped taking the drug, he suffered paranoid delusions. One doctor said Rehnquist thought he heard voices outside his hospital room plotting against him and had "bizarre ideas and outrageous thoughts," including imagining "a CIA plot against him" and "seeming to see the design patterns on the hospital curtains change configuration."
At one point, a doctor told the investigators, Rehnquist went "to the lobby in his pajamas in order to try to escape." Ultimately, the doctors concluded that the withdrawal symptoms were so severe that they began giving Rehnquist the drug again and slowly lowered the dosage until he quit taking it entirely Feb. 7, 1982.
By 1986, the files show, all the doctors interviewed by the FBI said the former drug dependence should not affect Rehnquist's future work on the court, and it did not become an issue in his confirmation as chief justice.
Alexander Charns, a lawyer in Durham, N.C., who was among the scholars and journalists who received the documents this week, said that in his view, they contain evidence of "the ongoing use of the FBI for political purposes, not only in the sixties and seventies but well into the 1980s."
Because the FBI withheld some documents on national security grounds and because many of the pages it released are heavily edited, "no one can be entirely certain what happened and why" when the FBI conducted its background investigations, Charns said.
But in the files that have come to light, he said, there is a clear partisan tilt. "You don't have Democrats calling up the FBI saying, 'We need to know what the Republican witnesses are going to say about Rehnquist' the way you have Republicans calling up saying, 'We need to know what the Democratic witnesses are going to say,' " Charns said.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson declined to comment on any documents released by the bureau. "We don't expand beyond what has been released, because that's all the information that's been released pursuant to the law," he said.
However, Bresson denied that the FBI's background investigations for judicial nominees are partisan in any way.
"We are not political; we are apolitical. We're just trying to find the facts," he said. "It's a very rigorous process that involves investigating both people who are going to say very favorable things and people who may not. We don't make suitability judgments. . . . We report the facts to the agency that has requested the background check, in this case the White House."
The files indicate that in 1971, the Nixon administration was deeply concerned about hostile witnesses to Rehnquist's confirmation after the Senate's rejection of two previous Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.
In an October 1971 memo, an aide to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst had telephoned to request a "criminal background check" on two Phoenix residents who were expected to testify against Rehnquist's nomination.
The Post reported at the time that the FBI was stirring controversy by questioning potential witnesses against Rehnquist, including Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. When a Harvard official complained that the interviews were "seriously intimidating," Kleindienst wrote back that the questioning was impartial and that "any assumption that interviews were conducted with a view toward 'intimidation' is completely unjustified."
In 1986, the FBI files show, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the FBI to interview witnesses who might testify about allegations that Rehnquist had "challenged" blacks waiting in line to vote in Phoenix in 1962. Rehnquist was a legal adviser to the local Republican Party at the time.
Thurmond's request was relayed to the FBI by John R. Bolton, who was then an assistant attorney general and who recently stepped down as ambassador to the United Nations after the Senate did not act on his nomination. Although an FBI official warned that the bureau might be accused of "intimidating the Democrats' witnesses," Bolton approved the request and wrote that he would "accept responsibility should concerns be raised about the role of the FBI."
Bolton said in a telephone interview yesterday that there was no political bias in the investigation, because the request actually came from Senate Democrats.
"The Democrats wanted the FBI to interview these people who had raised questions about what Rehnquist had done," he said. "It was an unusual request. It stretches the whole concept of a background check. But Thurmond and the other Republicans on the committee at the time felt we should go ahead because there wouldn't be anything to it and Rehnquist would go ahead and be confirmed."
And that, Bolton added, is what happened. "The FBI didn't find any evidence that Rehnquist had intimidated voters," he said.
Staff researchers Robert W. Lyford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.