FBI memo tied Kennedy to brothel, leftists in ’61
Bureau releases report on Latin America visit
WASHINGTON — An FBI account of a 1961 trip to South America by the late Edward M. Kennedy alleges that he rented a brothel in Chile and dined with an economist in Colombia who was being investigated as a possible Soviet spy.
The newly disclosed allegations about Kennedy’s Latin America tour, a trip to bolster foreign policy credentials before his Senate campaign the next year, are detailed in an internal FBI memo written several months after he returned to the United States. Published yesterday on the website of a conservative group, Judicial Watch, it is unlikely to alter public opinion about a man whose triumphs and failings are already well known.
Ardent detractors seized on it to launch fresh attacks on Kennedy’s politics and personal life, while his defend ers dismissed it as an unsubstantiated and possibly exaggerated account by an FBI that was seized by fear of communism.
Some historians saw the memo as a footnote in Cold War history, more evidence of how the FBI frequently butted heads with the Kennedys during that era.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “thought the more dirt you had on any important person, the better, because you never know when it might come in handy,’’ said David Kaiser, a historian at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and the author of two books about the Kennedys.
Attempts to reach Kennedy’s children and his widow, Vicki, were not successful yesterday. A close family friend who was in contact with them yesterday did not want to be quoted about the issue.
“It was a long time ago and I don’t know that it is helpful,’’ he said.
But Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a self-described conservative group that seeks greater government transparency, says the documents shed new light on Kennedy’s world view.
“It strikes me as worthy of historical note that on a trip designed to give him foreign policy bona fides as he is about to be installed in the Senate,’’ Fitton said, “he spends a lot of his time seeking to meet with communists and the hard left.’’
Yet clues to Kennedy’s motivation were contained in columns he wrote for the Globe when he returned, in which he argued that Latin Americans could turn toward communism if the United States did not reach out to them.
The newly disclosed FBI memo was from William Sullivan, a senior FBI executive, to Alan Belmont, the number-three official at the FBI at the time. It was written four months after Kennedy, a 29-year-old, married, newly minted assistant district attorney of Suffolk County, returned from his nine-nation trip.
It is the latest in a trove of documents that the FBI has released since Kennedy’s death in 2009, a process speeded up by a lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch. Previously released documents show that the FBI took meticulous notes on Kennedy’s journey, and even photocopied a travel diary he accidentally left on a plane.
“You may be interested in the following information which was furnished to the bureau agents during the course of the South America assessment survey,’’ the Dec. 28, 1961, memo reads. “In each country, Kennedy insisted on interviewing ‘the angry young men’ of the country. He wanted to meet with communists and others who had left-wing views.’’
The memo states that the first person Kennedy wanted to meet in Colombia was Lauchlin Currie, an economist and former aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose name had been mentioned in US investigations of Soviet spy rings. Kennedy and Currie dined together in Bogotá, the memo said.
Harvey Klehr, a professor at Emory University who has written extensively on Soviet espionage in the United States, called the meeting with Currie “odd’’ but said evidence that Currie had passed information to the Soviets was not made public until much later.
He said Kennedy’s interest in meeting leftists might have been an attempt to help his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, shift US policy in Latin America away from autocrats and toward more democratic leaders.
“Maybe the assumption was that Ted Kennedy would meet with these young dissidents,’’ Klehr said. “But exactly why you would pick a guy who had no experience in foreign affairs is not exactly clear.’’
Kennedy’s penchant for partying during that journey was cited in the FBI memo, which described one State Department official complaining that Kennedy was “pompous and a spoiled brat.’’
“While Kennedy was in Santiago, he made arrangements to ‘rent’ a brothel for the entire night,’’ the memo reads. “Kennedy allegedly invited one of the Embassy chauffeurs to participate in the night’s activities.’’
The source of the claim was not disclosed in the memo, which was partially redacted at the request of the CIA.
Allegations that Kennedy solicited prostitutes are not new, but the specifics contained in the memo had not been previously disclosed.
Burton Hersh, author of “Edward Kennedy: an Intimate Biography,’’ said that he published an account of Kennedy “waking up State Department staff and demanding that he be taken out to a cathouse somewhere’’ during the South America trip.
But Hersh warned that the allegations in the FBI file should not be taken as fact. “Raw files are just hearsay usually, whether they are CIA or FBI files,’’ he said.
But Kaiser, who has pored over thousands of FBI documents about the Kennedys, said it is unlikely that an unsubstantiated report would have made it into such a high-level memo. He also said Currie was serving as an adviser to the Colombian president at the time, so there would have been ample reason to meet with him.
“He was a controversial figure, but he was the sort of person, that if you were a Republican, you would say ‘he’s one of Roosevelt communists’ and if you were a Democrat, you would have said ‘he’s an unjustly vilified liberal.’ ’’
Fitton, of Judicial Watch, complained that the FBI files on Kennedy released last year redacted the allegations of the Currie meeting and the brothel rental, and suggested that the FBI was trying to hide the files to protect Kennedy’s legacy. He said it was a “tough fight’’ to win release of the details.
“We think that Senator Kennedy was terribly corrupt, and we thought the FBI files would detail some more about that, so we wanted to complete the historical record,’’ he said.
But Dennis Argall, assistant section chief for the records dissemination section of the FBI, said the FBI had to wait for the CIA to clear the information for release.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.