A dark corner of Camelot

50 years after President Kennedy asked his brother Robert to oust Castro, RFK’s files at the JFK Library remain in family control, largely out of view

Documents on Robert F. Kennedy’s service as attorney general could help fill gaps in the history of US covert operations against Cuba, relations with Fidel Castro, and the Cuban missile crisis, but many are secret. Documents on Robert F. Kennedy’s service as attorney general could help fill gaps in the history of US covert operations against Cuba, relations with Fidel Castro, and the Cuban missile crisis, but many are secret. (Bettman/ Corbis)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Stacked in a vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, individually sealed and labeled, are 54 crates of records so closely guarded that even the library director is prohibited from taking a peek.

And yet, archivists contend, the trove contains some of the most important records of Cold War history: diaries, notes, phone logs, messages, trip files, and other documents from Robert F. Kennedy’s service as US attorney general, including details about his roles in the Cuban missile crisis and as coordinator of covert efforts to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro.

A half-century after those critical events, a behind-the-scenes tussle continues over the Kennedy family’s refusal to grant permission for researchers to freely review them. The disagreement lingers even as the JFK Library this month celebrated the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s inauguration by providing “unprecedented’’ access to thousands of records of his presidency.

“The RFK papers are among the most valuable, untapped archival resources of foreign policy and domestic history left to be excavated,’’ said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, who has been rebuffed several times in his attempts to gain access to the papers.

“This history is immediately relevant to the ongoing debate over US policy toward Cuba,’’ he added. “I look forward to the day — hopefully sooner than later — that access to the RFK papers contributes to advancing that debate.’’

Access to the papers is tightly controlled by Robert Kennedy’s ninth child, Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, a lawyer whom library officials said has been designated by his mother, Ethel, to take on the responsibility.

In a written response to Globe questions, Max Kennedy denied that access to the papers is closed, saying he has “selectively granted full access’’ to prominent biographers, including Evan Thomas and Robert Dallek.

“There are many requests to see them, and frankly, many of those requests come from people with poorly-conceived projects. It is my responsibility, as custodian of the papers, to grant use responsibly,’’ Max Kennedy wrote in an e-mail. “That does not mean that every book must be cloyingly positive; I do not think that for a moment, and I would be doing a disservice to my father if I acted that way. But I do believe that historians and journalists must do their homework, and observe the correct procedures for seeking permission to consult the papers, and explain their projects.’’

Thomas could not be reached. Dallek said he could not recall how much access he was granted, referring the question to library staff. Library director Thomas J. Putnam said those authors were granted limited access — not the full public scrutiny that researchers now seek.

The JFK Library itself would like to make the documents available, Putnam said, but current law stipulates that it must first get a signed deed from RFK’s heirs before the documents can be made widely available.

“We are still in long-term negotiations with [the Kennedy family] to get that deed,’’ said Putnam, who is an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration, which would be responsible for reviewing the records to protect information that could harm national security. “We can’t fully process papers that we don’t own.’’

Some historians attribute the family’s guarded attitude to a desire to protect Robert Kennedy’s image as a champion of civil rights and social programs, and a man who emerged, in the years after his brother’s assassination, as a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. The boxes, they say, may contain evidence of Robert Kennedy the ruthless anticommunist who broke laws in the quest to take out Cuba’s leader, and perhaps other abuses of power.

“Obviously this was not the sort of thing [Robert Kennedy] wanted to come out,’’ said Sheldon Stern, former director of the Kennedy library’s American History Project. “The Kennedys are especially sensitive about this stuff.’’

The papers are so closely guarded that they were never fully shared with government investigators probing events of the time, including the Warren Commission, which investigated President Kennedy’s assassination, and subsequent congressional inquiries into Cold War era intelligence activities.

Kornbluh, who accompanied Ethel Kennedy and Max Kennedy to Havana in October 2002 for a 40th anniversary conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, said he believes the “treasure trove of material’’ is uniquely important to understanding the still-frosty relationship between the United States and Castro’s Cuba.

That relationship has roots in such major Cold War episodes as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the trade embargo, and the missile crisis, when it was discovered that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from American shores.

After President Kennedy was elected in 1960, he chose his younger brother to be attorney general. Robert Kennedy had run the presidential campaign and was the president’s most trusted adviser and confidant. As attorney general, he took on an especially prominent role in White House decision-making and foreign policy, not traditionally spheres for the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

The rough outlines of some of his most controversial activities are known. It was after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 that Robert Kennedy was put in charge of secret efforts to undermine the communist government in Cuba, including Operation Mongoose, the CIA-led effort to assassinate Castro or topple his government.

“Operation Mongoose was a covert operation to destabilize the Cuban government and he was the person in charge,’’ said Philip Brenner, a professor at American University who has written extensively about US-Cuba relations. “It is very unusual for an attorney general to be in charge of an international covert operation.’’

The records sealed in the harborside library do not just span his time as attorney general. They cover his entire career in government, from his start as an aide to the fiercely anticommunist Senator Joseph McCarthy to his service as US senator from New York. He was assassinated in 1968 while running for president.

Robert Kennedy’s own deputy attorney general, Nicholas D. Katzenbach, who succeeded him as attorney general in the Johnson administration, said he believes the records should not be treated any differently than other government documents from the time.

“I am with the historians on this. I think all the records should be made available,’’ Katzenbach said in an interview. “People should understand. Historians can get new perspectives if that is what the records show. Bobby might have recorded his phone calls. There would be notes of conversations with the president.

“He was wrong on Cuba, I think, for the most part,’’ he added, “but it seems to me this length of time after the events it is time to make them public.’’

Lamar Waldron, author of two books about the Kennedys and Cuba, said there are many unknown elements of Robert Kennedy’s role in covert operations, as well as the roles of other government agencies and foreign regimes.

“The main acts of the Kennedy presidency involved Cuba and we still don’t have the most important records,’’ Waldron said. “We could flesh out many details about coup plans,’’ he believes. “We might also learn more about JFK and RFK’s desperate attempts in November 1963 to find a back-channel, peaceful solution to the Cuba issue.’’

The records may also either support or undermine speculation about why John Kennedy handed his attorney general the anti-Cuba portfolio in the first place.

“It involved the violation of so many domestic laws you needed the top law enforcement officer to oversee it,’’ Brenner said. The covert operations relied on Cuban operatives in Miami who traveled back and forth for meetings or to ferry explosives and guns.

“They did not go through customs and that’s violation of the law,’’ Brenner said. “Robert Kennedy could make sure the FBI or Immigration and Naturalization Service didn’t interfere.’’

Researchers are also eager to see what the documents reveal about another of Kennedy’s crusades as attorney general: his war against organized crime. It has previously been documented that some top mob bosses also aided the CIA in Cuba, where they ran gambling operations before Castro took power in 1959.

Efforts by the Globe to reach a representative of the Cuban government, through its liaison office in the Swiss embassy, were unsuccessful.

Precedent regarding the treatment of attorney general records supports making the records public. According to the Justice Department, the official files of the nation’s top law enforcement officers are housed “in a variety of locations, including presidential libraries, the Library of Congress, and university libraries.’’

The family has always treated Robert Kennedy’s papers as “a very sensitive issue,’’ said Frank Mankiewicz, who served as Robert Kennedy’s press secretary.

When he was attorney general “he was clearly much more hard-line and militaristic than his brother and more willing to take radical action,’’ added historian Gareth Porter, who traced the Kennedy brothers’ role in the Vietnam War in his book, “Perils of Dominance.’’ “The papers are likely to show very stark contrasts between the public and private Robert Kennedy.’’

Katzenbach added: “I think the things he said when he came to the Justice Department would be different when he left’’ in 1964. “I don’t see why historians shouldn’t know that.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at