Yesterday's release of salacious new details from former senator Edward M. Kennedy’s FBI file has fueled another intense round of debate about the former Massachusetts senator, who died in 2009 and has been a polarizing figure for decades.
But some perspective is in order: the fact that the FBI collected embarrassing details about Kennedy doesn’t mean he was the uniquely roguish figure imagined by his foes on the right. And we shouldn't assume that the allegations in the files are true.
That the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover collected information on one of the Kennedy clan should not be surprising to anyone. It was standard operating procedure for Hoover, who directed the agency from 1924 until his death in 1972, to keep tabs on the activities of prominent politicians. This information could prove useful to Hoover for a variety of reasons: to protect his position as FBI director; to leverage influence for FBI appropriations; or simply to satisfy Hoover’s own voyeuristic interest in the peccadilloes of the Washington elite.
Hoover’s keeping of such information also should not be taken at face value simply because one finds it in an FBI record. Most Americans today automatically think formerly redacted information in an FBI file must be true because someone blacked it out. Not at all. This simply reflects the culture of secrecy about most information in agencies like the FBI. We should not make the mistake of accepting all or formerly withheld FBI information as gospel. (In 1941 FBI agents reported the existence of a group called the One Gun Club that vowed insurrection if FDR took the United States into World War II. The group did not exist.)
When the Ted Kennedy file was released, most commentators took note that it contained primarily a collection of death threats against the senator and noted the complex relationship he had with Hoover. But recently, the conservative group Judicial Watch, which purports to be non-partisan and to promote "transparency, accountability, and integrity in government, politics and the law," won appeals of various redactions in Kennedy’s FBI file. What the FBI released to the group was information alleging that while in Santiago, Chile, Kennedy had rented an entire brothel and invited an embassy driver to participate in its indulgences; that he met with Communists, including the alleged American Communist spy Lauchlin Currie; and that Kennedy wanted to interview leftists at the embassy. What should we make of this?
Not much, beyond that it tells us far more about Hoover and the FBI than Kennedy. Hoover regularly collected unverified gossipy information. Hoover similarly collected information about the alleged sexual indiscretions of aviator Charles Lindbergh, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. In JFK’s case, Hoover subtly reported his "discovery" of such information coyly to remind the Kennedys that he had information about them, information that gave the FBI director leverage. What’s more, the number 94 in the Kennedy FBI file number indicates "Research Matters," and some of the Kennedy documents are stamped "Crime Research." This indicates the part of the FBI that liaised with Congress and systematically collected any and all information on elected public officials. Even the names of FBI officials on the documents reflect this fact: FBI assistant directors Louis Nichols and his successor Cartha DeLoach. Both were tasked with the job of secretly keeping such records in the Crime Research section of the Bureau’s Crime Records Division.
But does the information reveal anything startling about Kennedy? Not really. The information is far from confirmed fact. The information about Kennedy consorting with the alleged Communist spy Currie is not revealing; historians today hotly debate whether Currie was a spy, and Kennedy would have known nothing about it either way. That Kennedy is noted as having met Communists in South America simply reflects Hoover’s own intense anti-Communists interests. None of this information supports the view put out by Judicial Watch’s president — that "Ted Kennedy, one of Obama’s leftist politician heroes, liked to hang out with communists and prostitutes," and that the Obama FBI improperly kept this information secret.
Instead, we have at hand yet one more example of subjective FBI redactions that tells us little. We don’t even know, for example, if or how Hoover made use of this information — only that, unsurprisingly, he collected it.
Douglas M. Charles is an assistant professor of history at the Pennsylvania State University in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He is the author of J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939-45.
Globe file photos: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in 1972; Edward M. Kennedy in 1961.