Steve Jobs FBI file: What did his neighbors think about him?

Steve Jobs FBI file readers will find some interesting nuggets, including what neighbors thought about his landscaping plans and evidence that most FBI agents aren't at all like Jack Bauer.

Ben Margot/AP/File
Steve Jobs of NeXT Computer Inc. poses for the press with his NeXTstation color computer at the NeXT facility in Redwood City, Calif., 21 years ago. Newly released FBI interviews conducted in 1991 were part of a background check for an appointment to the President's Export Council during George H.W. Bush's administration.

The FBI released its Steve Jobs file on Thursday. Well, maybe “file” overstates the case – the bureau made public documents related to a background check of Mr. Jobs conducted in 1991, when President George H. W. Bush was considering him for a post on the President’s Export Council.

The dossier contains basic biographical information, interviews with friends and associates, and a check of his legal and financial record. Many people the FBI talked with praised him as visionary leader and strong personality. Others, not so much.

His abrasive style obviously made him some enemies. One woman said that Jobs’s initial success at Apple Computer provided him an enormous amount of power “but also at times caused him to lose sight of honor and integrity and even caused him to distort the truth at times to get his way.”

Having read all 191 pages of the file, here’s our quick reactions as to its contents:

THE NEIGHBORS LOVED HIM. Yes, the G-men went door to door in Mr. Jobs’s neighborhoods, asking whoever answered about that thin, intense guy who lived down the street. His immediate next-door neighbor in Silicon Valley in 1991 loved him, saying he was a “quiet and unassuming” individual who “never caused any problems” and who had even visited her last week “to ensure that some landscaping he was having done would not cause any problems with her and her husband.”

Such a nice boy! The FBI did not mention whether he baked her brownies.

Another neighbor said he “seemed to be a nice enough person,” while a third said they’d had Jobs over to dinner and that he was a vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank “and did a great deal of jogging.” Yet another said she was English and didn’t think she should comment on whether he was fit to work with the US government.

THE PAST IS ANOTHER COUNTRY. Jobs’s FBI file is also a window on the late Cold War era, when the interviews involved took place. For one thing, the bureau takes pain to make sure Jobs is not a communist. Jobs had to check “no” on a box next to a question about whether he’d ever been Red or plotted to overthrow the government.

“[Jobs] has no close relatives residing in communist-controlled countries,” says the FBI dossier at one point.

The file also contains more discussion of Jobs’s youthful indiscretions with controlled substances than might be the case today. Every interviewee appears to have been asked about the computer guru’s use of drugs and alcohol. All said that they’d never seen him drink to excess or use drugs, but that he freely talked about experimenting with marijuana, LSD, and so forth when he was young. “It was the era,” said one interviewee.

Yes, they were looking for potential weaknesses that would either embarrass the US government or open him up for blackmail. But that’s less of a sore point today, when the US has Supreme Court justices with drug experimentation in their past.

JACK BAUER MUST HAVE BEEN UNAVAILABLE. The FBI agents who conducted the Jobs research were dogged and thorough. But they did make some simple mistakes. The summary of the personal interview with Jobs, for instance, contains repeated references to Apple’s “Mackintosh” computer. (It’s spelled “Macintosh.”)

Nor did their work move along as smartly as it does on TV and in the movies. The FBI files contain reference after reference to people who are just too busy to talk to them. The president of a university they attempted to contact never bothered even to have his secretary return a message. Jobs himself at one point said he was unavailable for three weeks, not even for one hour.

The overall impression is of a group of mid-level feds working on a project of middling priority. This is reinforced by the doodle of a G-man on a missive from the FBI’s New Rochelle, N.Y., office, saying “Just the fax, man. Nothing but the fax.”

By the way, the bottom line is that the FBI turned up nothing that kept Jobs from serving the US government. According to the Associated Press, Jobs did serve on the export council during the first Bush administration.

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