All last week, as they pushed for an FBI investigation into Brett M. Kavanaugh, Democrats cited the agency’s 1991 probe of Clarence Thomas as a model: A tightly focused, speedy inquiry to sort out claims of sexual misconduct against a Supreme Court nominee.
Democrats got their wish, as the FBI carried out a time-and-scope-limited investigation into the claims of at least two of Kavanaugh’s accusers. Maybe Democrats also remembered all the deficiencies critics found with the Thomas probe.
A far cry from the investigative blitzkrieg that former FBI director James B. Comey imagined this week’s effort could be, the agency’s 1991 investigation of Anita Hill’s accusations against Thomas was a small and quiet affair, open and shut inside three days, with as few as three witnesses questioned about the nominee’s behavior.
The FBI never talked to — or even knew to look for — four potential witnesses who had knowledge of Hill’s complaints about Thomas, according to two Wall Street Journal reporters who reinvestigated the case and wrote a book about it. Hill later testified that the agents who spoke to her asked few pressing questions, stood her up for a follow-up interview, then misquoted her in their final report.
In the end, the FBI report was used by Republicans to discredit her and help secure Thomas’s confirmation.
In other words, Democrats would have been wise to remember: Be careful what you wish for.
Senators first learned of Hill’s accusations through the Washington rumor mill, a few weeks before Thomas’s confirmation hearings were set to begin.
Until then, the Oklahoma university professor had told only a few friends and confidants about Thomas’s allegedly obscene behavior when she worked for him in the 1980s. When a Democratic staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee first contacted Hill about the rumors in early September, 1991, she was reluctant to share her story — let alone tell it to the FBI.
“Hill . . . thought it strange that rather than investigating her allegation, [committee Chairman Sen. Joe] Biden wanted to send the FBI to her doorstep,” reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson wrote in their book, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. ”
Biden had second thoughts, too, they wrote, mindful that “the FBI’s boss and chief client in any administration is ultimately the president ... [who] of course was sponsoring Thomas.” But the chairman was afraid using his own investigators “would look partisan,” so he gambled on the FBI.
It took several weeks and many conversations with Senate staffers before Hill changed her mind and decided to speak out. On Sept. 23, a few days after Thomas’s confirmation hearings wrapped up with little drama, Hill faxed Biden’s office a four-page affidavit accusing the nominee of years-long harassment.
Two FBI agents were on Hill’s doorstep that same day.
The White House of President George H.W. Bush ordered what it called a “full, thorough and expeditious investigation” as soon as committee leaders informed the administration of Hill’s statement. It’s unclear if Bush set any limits on to whom the FBI could speak, as President Trump allegedly did for Kavanaugh this weekend.
Hill’s recollections suggest the investigation leaned more toward “expeditious” than “thorough. ”
The agents visited her on the evening of Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City, Hill later testified to the Senate committee. Neither recorded the interview, she said, and neither asked her to give a written statement, though one of the agents took notes as she spoke.
They were nice, she recalled.
“They simply said that if I got to any point with regard to being specific that made me uncomfortable, that I should withdraw from the conversation,” Hill told the senators. “Or I could perhaps give the information to the female agent who was there. ”
Hill told the FBI, in general terms, what she had already written in her affidavit to the committee. She said Thomas had hit on her over a period of several years when she worked as his assistant at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s. He turned casual conversations to graphic discussions of porn and sex, she alleged, ignored her protests and pressured her to go along with it.
Hill said she gave the FBI the names of people she thought could corroborate her allegations, including a close friend she had complained to at the time. The agents thanked her for her information and left her house.
“Did they say that they might come back and talk with you again?,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Hill later, at a Senate hearing.
“Yes,” she replied. “He almost assured me that he would come back. ”
“But did they?” Leahy asked.
“In fact, they did not come back,” Hill said. “I have not spoken with the FBI since then. ”
The FBI has never publicly released a list of whom it interviewed over the next two days — or even how many people to whom the agents spoke. But in all the testimony, reports, articles and books about the investigation in the decades since then, only a few names have been mentioned.
The most significant and possibly only significant witness contacted by the FBI is Susan Hoerchner: the close friend Hill had mentioned to the agents. Agents interviewed Hoerchner at her home the same evening they spoke to Hill. By all accounts, she vividly remembered her friend’s distress a decade earlier.
“At some point after Hill began working for Thomas, [Hoerchner] had asked Hill in one of their many phone conversations how things were going,” Mayer and Abramson wrote in their book. Hill sounded very depressed, Hoerchner recalled, and “said she was being ‘sexually harassed’ by ‘her boss, Clarence.’”
The FBI also apparently spoke to Nancy Fitch, who, like Hill, had worked for Thomas in the 1980s. It’s unclear who referred the agents to Fitch, but Fitch later testified: “I trust Judge Thomas completely” and had never seen him act inappropriately.
In addition to citing Hoerchner and Fitch, an unverified draft copy of a Senate report about the FBI investigation also lists Allyson Duncan, who is now a federal judge. She too vouched for Thomas’s character.
The list of potential witnesses the FBI did not speak to is a bit longer, Mayer and Abramson wrote in their book.
After the Thomas scandal had gone public, they wrote, three of Hill’s old friends reminded her that she told them about Thomas’s behavior in the 1980s and testified on her behalf at a Senate hearing. The authors also tracked down and interviewed a friend Hill had completely forgotten about, who said she had confided “extremely explicit and upsetting sexual comments from Thomas” while she worked for him.
None of those witnesses appear to have come up in the FBI’s September investigation into Hill’s claims, which concluded three days after it began, with a visit to Thomas’s house.
Unlike the probe into Kavanaugh, already a source of speculation and spectacle, the FBI worked in near total secrecy in the summer of 1991. Not even Thomas knew about Hill’s allegations until agents confronted him on Sep. 25.
“I was stunned, I was hurt, I was confused, I was pained,” Thomas later recalled to the Senate committee. “I think my words to him were, ‘Anita?’ And then when he told me what the nature of the allegations was, I said, ‘You can’t’ — something, like, you have got to be kidding. This can’t be true. ”
And that was it. The FBI delivered its report to the White House almost immediately after interviewing Thomas. About a half-dozen senators on the Judiciary Committee read the document over the following week. None of them seemed in a rush to act on it.
The report was widely seen as a victory for Thomas and his Republican supporters; the nominee’s total denial of Hill’s claims and the lack of witnesses who corroborated her story made Democrats wary of pressing the issue. The investigation’s existence might have never even been made public — Thomas might have been confirmed to the Supreme Court without further argument — had the press not got wind of it.
Although the FBI report itself never leaked, Newsday and NPR learned of Hill’s affidavit and broke the news in October, days before the Senate was scheduled to vote on Thomas. The scandal riveted the public and all but forced senators to hold an extraordinary televised hearing around the dueling testimonies of Thomas and Hill.
The FBI report played a starring role — if not also an adversarial one to Hill.
Hours after Hill delivered her graphic opening statement to the Senate on Oct. 11 — recounting Thomas’s alleged harassment under oath and in more explicit detail than she ever had before — the two agents who had visited her released affidavits accusing her of “discrepancies” and “contradictory comments” between her testimony and her interview.
“Hill never mentioned Judge Thomas saying how well endowed he was,” wrote one of the FBI agents, who had just watched Hill speak on CNN. “Hill never mentioned or referred to a person named ‘Long Dong Silver’ or any incident involving a Coke can, all of which she testified to before the Senate Judiciary Committee."
Republican senators seized on the agents' account when they questioned Hill. Without explicitly saying so, they suggested she was making up details as she went.
“These two FBI agents told her to be as specific as she could possibly be, and yet she never said anything about ‘Long Dong Silver’ or ‘pubic hair’ to them,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) told the committee, quoting from Hill’s opening statement.
“When you talked to the FBI, there was one witness, and you are testifying today that you are now ‘recalling more,’ that you had ‘repressed a lot,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said.
Hill tried to defend herself. She said she had been uncomfortable in the FBI interview and had assumed there would be another. “The FBI agent made clear that if I were embarrassed about talking about something, that I could decline,” Hill told the senators. “The FBI agent told me that it was regular procedure to come back and ask for more specifics if it was necessary. ”
Moreover, Hill told the senators after reviewing her section of the FBI report, the agents had not even reported her interview correctly. When she recalled a dinner conversation in which Thomas pleaded that she never go public with her accusations, she said, “I told the FBI agent that he said that it would ruin his career.” But in the report, Hill said, she was quoted as saying “he would ruin her career” — making it sound like Thomas threatened her.
As is now repeating with Kavanaugh, most Democrats stood by the accuser while Republicans lined up for the nominee. But midway through the hearing, even senators who had encouraged Hill to cooperate with the FBI were trying to play down the investigation’s significance, pointing out it had drawn no conclusions either way.
“The next person that refers to an FBI report as being worth anything obviously doesn’t understand anything,” Biden told his colleagues.
Only months after Thomas took his Supreme Court seat did a majority of Americans come to believe Hill. Reporters such as Abramson and Mayer (who also interviewed one of Kavanaugh’s accusers this month) reinvestigated the allegations, turning up witnesses the FBI had not found and pointing out flaws in the quick-turn probe.
One addendum to the FBI’s witness list: After the investigation concluded and leaked into the news, another woman who used to work for Thomas accused the nominee of very similar harassment, which Thomas also denied.
FBI agents were dispatched to interview Angela Wright at the last minute — as Hill and Thomas were already testifying in the final hearings. “Once they were there, however, they seemed to have no idea why they had come,” Abramson and Mayer wrote.
“Neither agent, according to Wright and her attorney, had a copy of her deposition, and neither asked anything relating to the hearings,” they wrote. The FBI asked instead what sounded like form-list background questions, such as whether Thomas used drugs or could be entrusted with confidential documents.
“They just sat there and scratched their heads in wonder,” Wright recalled.