Nixon aides pressed FBI on Kopechne

Asked bureau for ‘discreet’ inquiry after fatal crash

Bystanders examined the car driven by Edward M. Kennedy, recovered off Chappaquiddick. Bystanders examined the car driven by Edward M. Kennedy, recovered off Chappaquiddick. (Globe File/ 1969)
By Bryan Bender and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Top aides to President Richard M. Nixon asked the FBI to “discreetly’’ look into the background of the young political aide Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned in 1969 when Edward M. Kennedy’s car careened off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, newly released FBI documents show.

The thousands of pages of the late senator’s FBI file made public yesterday show that the bureau played no official role in the investigation of the accident, which threatened the Massachusetts senator’s career.

In the weeks after the accident, however, the Nixon administration sought to use the bureau to quietly gather information about Kopechne as part of an effort to damage Kennedy’s reputation and political fortunes, the FBI records show, revealing another level of detail to a previously disclosed campaign against the Massachusetts senator.

In one request, John Dean, then an assistant to Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, asked the FBI to find out whether Kopechne, who had worked for Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had traveled to Greece in August 1968. Newspaper reports show that Ted Kennedy vacationed in Greece that month with Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of President John F. Kennedy.

The Oct. 17, 1969, memo, addressed to a top aide of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, said that Dean contacted the bureau and “stated that both the deputy attorney general and the attorney general [John Mitchell] are anxious to discreetly find out if Mary Jo Kopechne (deceased) had visited Greece in August 1968.’’

“Dean also stated that he would appreciate receiving any reports that the FBI might have as a result of investigation of Kopechne or her acquaintances,’’ the memo stated. “Mr. Dean reiterated that he would appreciate this matter being handled in a very discreet manner.’’

Dean later became White House counsel to Nixon and during congressional hearings implicated the president in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. He said in an interview yesterday that the White House was keenly interested in finding out more about Kennedy and Kopechne, through any means available.

“There was a lot of interest in Kennedy,’’ Dean said. “Nixon thought that was who was going to run against him. He didn’t know if Chappaquiddick was going to end Teddy’s career or not.’’

Dean added: “He was looking for any information of a negative nature — and constantly looking for it.’’ Dean, however, said he did not recall why the Justice Department wanted to know about Kopechne’s travel history.

The FBI responded to Dean on Oct. 23, 1969, but the part of the memo that discusses Kopechne’s travels is blacked out, leaving it a mystery whether she was in Greece or why the Nixon administration was interested in her whereabouts. Dean said he did not recall why his superiors, Mitchell and Kleindienst, wanted to know if Kopechne had traveled to Greece and said he could not recall what the FBI concluded.

“Nixon was obsessed with winning the next election,’’ said David Kaiser, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., author of several books about the Kennedys. “Teddy was consistently the candidate they worried about and they wanted anything they could get on him.’’

In previously released tapes, Nixon considered wiretapping Kennedy’s phone to gather information to discredit him.

The memos released yesterday contain some of what the FBI provided Dean about Kopechne. They reveal for the first time that the bureau interviewed Kopechne in August 1967 and March 1969 in connection with the investigation of a “young hoodlum’’ who had forged her name on a check and was later convicted of fraud.

Kopechne apparently met him at a party in Washington in August 1967, and dated him for about a week, including a trip to Virginia Beach and one evening in her apartment building.

“I met her at a cocktail party in an apartment in Northwest section of Washington, D.C.,’’ the man, whose identity was blacked out, told FBI agents, according to a partial transcript included in the Kennedy file. “I met Mary Jo several times at her place of employment and dated her socially.’’

The man was described as 6-foot-2, with blonde hair and dark eyes. What Kopechne didn’t know was that he was a con man who used an alias, carried fake driver’s licenses, and had received a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force in 1962.

In his December 1967 FBI interview, the con man stated that “I then asked Mary Jo to cash several checks for me.’’ She cashed about $400 in bogus checks for him at her bank.

Before the con man skipped town, he stole a check from Kopechne’s roommate, then hitched a ride for three days with a salesman to Atlanta, where the salesman cashed a check for the con man under the forged name of Mary Jo Kopechne.

The con man pleaded guilty in 1969 to transporting stolen checks over state lines, according to the FBI file. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

The files released yesterday did not provide a transcript for the Kopechne interviews.

The files also show the extent to which the Chappaquiddick crash proved irresistible for conspiracy buffs, who offered their theories in letters to Hoover, the FBI’s director.

One letter, on the stationery of Jackson Park Baptist Church, of Kannapolis, N.C, raised the idea that the accident may have been an assassination plot against Kennedy that had been hushed up. Hoover’s office dismissed the conspiracies with terse response letters, stating that there was no evidence in the crash of any breaking of federal laws.

Bender can be reached at Arsenault can be reached