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FBI reveals 1991 probe of Steve Jobs

During background check for possible gov't appointment, some cite Apple co-founder's skill at twisting truth

February 9, 2012 12:55 PM ET

Computerworld - The FBI today made public a background investigation of Steve Jobs in 1991, when he was being considered by the George H. W. Bush administration for a spot on the President's Export Council.

The council is a group that advises the President on international trade. Current members include the CEOs of such U.S. firms as Boeing, UPS, Verizon, Walt Disney and Xerox.

In 1991, Jobs was the CEO of NeXT, the computer company he founded after being forced out of Apple. Subsequently, Jobs returned to Apple, which he co-founded in 1976, where he remained until his death last October at age 56.

The documents, released by the FBI after the Wall Street Journal filed a Freedom of Information Act request, also detailed an 1985 investigation of a bomb and extortion threat against Apple.

While little revealed in the documents was new, several threads ran through the investigation, including the FBI's focus on Jobs' admitted drug use.

Jobs acknowledged that he had used marijuana, hashish and the psychedelic drug LSD from 1970 through 1974. Several of those interviewed by the FBI also noted his earlier drug use, but said they had no knowledge of drug or alcohol abuse in the years prior to the investigation.

A California contact said that Jobs had "undergone a change in philosophy by participating in eastern and/or Indian mysticism and religion," a move that "apparently influenced the Appointee's personal life for the better."

Several others commented on Jobs' notoriously difficult leadership style, with many using the word "demanding" to describe him.

"[The] appointee is a demanding individual, expecting a lot of himself and others," said one former Apple employee questioned by the FBI. "An individual dealing with appointee must know what he is talking about and present a strong case or appointee will disregard the discussion and sometimes the individual."

Other common lines of commentary and questioning in the background check ranged from Jobs' initial denial of paternity of a daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, born out of wedlock, to a then-current class-action lawsuit brought by Apple shareholders, who alleged that during Jobs' time at Apple the company had mislead investors about the promise of the Lisa computer, a forerunning to the Macintosh.

Apple later settled that lawsuit, paying $16 million into a fund to be distributed to class-action members who had purchased Apple stock between November 1982 and September 1983.

The FBI fanned out across the country during the investigation, with agents involved from field offices in several states. Jobs' next-door and nearby neighbors were also interviewed.

Most of the people questioned by the FBI gave Jobs glowing recommendations, but some did not.

"Several individuals questioned Mr. Jobs' honesty, stating that Mr. Jobs will twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals," the FBI reported.

Jobs was famous for what many called his "reality distortion field," a phrase first coined by an Apple developer in 1981 to describe Jobs' ability to convince people that seemingly impossible tasks were, in fact, possible.

Others among the scores interviewed described Jobs as "deceptive," "strong willed," "stubborn" and "driven."

Jobs was never appointed to the advisory committee; the released documents do not specify why. The FBI interviewed Jobs himself on March 13, 1991, at his NeXT office.

The 191 pages released by the FBI can be downloaded from its website (download PDF), or viewed here.

covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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