This approach could be used in regard to the Martin Luther King Jr. Records Act file releases on Dr. King
Family Gets A Say on FBI Kennedy File
Courtesy given to protect kin’s rights before release
By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff | April 12, 2010
WASHINGTON — Edward M. Kennedy’s family will be given a rare opportunity to raise objections before the public disclosure of thousands of pages of the late Massachusetts senator’s exhaustive and secret FBI file, according to bureau officials and advisers to the family.
The accommodation, though uncommon, will help ensure that the release of material on Kennedy gathered by agents throughout much of his life will not violate the privacy rights of his surviving relatives, those involved in the process said.
“In certain circumstances [such as] the family of victims of crimes or, as in this case . . . a public official, [the FBI] may coordinate the release of certain material with the family,’’ said Dennis Argall, an FBI spokesman, adding that the practice was rare. “The family of a deceased person may have a privacy interest.’’
Three FBI officials said the bureau has nearly completed its review of 3,000 pages of Kennedy’s FBI file. Those pages constitute only the first installment in an unusually large collection of FBI documents about one of the most famous politicians in modern history, the heir to one of America’s most storied political dynasties, and the frequent source of fodder for the tabloids.
The FBI’s Record Information Dissemination Section, in Winchester, Va., began expediting requests for the file soon after Kennedy’s death at age 77 from brain cancer in August. Those requests were filed by the Globe and other news media under the Freedom of Information Act.
Before releasing the documents, however, the FBI says it will give the Kennedys a chance to weigh in. And while the family will not have any legal power to demand that information be withheld, the bureau said it will take into consideration any privacy concerns.
“But the reason [for objecting] can’t simply be that it is embarrassing’’ information about Kennedy himself, Argall noted, adding that he does not expect the process to cause significant delays in releasing the information.
There are no formal guidelines for consulting family members on the release of FBI files about individuals; Argall said the move is made on a case by case basis.
But he pointed to a 2004 case in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that photos of former White House adviser Vince Foster taken by law enforcement officers after he killed himself in 1993 could be withheld from the public to protect the privacy of loved ones.
“Family members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own,’’ Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the high court’s opinion in the Foster case.
Consultation with family members is not only reserved for high-profile individuals such as politicians or celebrities. One recent example, according to the FBI, involved the family of a young woman killed in a shooting at a Utah shopping mall. When local media requested the killer’s FBI file, the family persuaded the FBI to withhold certain information.
Several Kennedy family advisers have already been consulted about the pending release of the late senator’s file, according to two individuals with longtime ties to Kennedy who were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
One informal adviser at this stage is Kenneth Feinberg, a former chief of staff to the late senator who managed the US fund to compensate the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Now Feinberg is the Treasury Department’s “pay czar,’’ overseeing the compensation of executives at companies that have received federal bailout money.
Feinberg, who is also chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, confirmed that he has had private discussions about the Kennedy family’s potential role in the release of the FBI file but said he was not authorized to discuss publicly any details.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the senator’s widow, and other family members, including his son, Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, also declined to comment.
The other sources knowledgeable about the process said it is not clear whether the FBI will allow the Kennedys to review all the documents set for release or only information the agency deems most likely to upset the family.
Several said they believe the senator himself, as permitted by law, requested periodic updates of his FBI file.
Speculation is growing among Kennedy family members and associates, historians, and the news media about what may be contained in the file — and how much will be made public.
Experts on the FBI say the bureau is likely to remove specific references to individuals still living and to any sensitive national security data, including details related to Kennedy’s involvement in or oversight of intelligence matters.
Some historians expect, however, that the files will reveal substantial information about the FBI’s investigations of threats to Kennedy in the decades after his older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, were assassinated, particularly when Edward M. Kennedy ran for president in 1980.
Like files on other famous people, there could also be information about possible extortion attempts against Kennedy, they said, as well as a variety of reports the FBI may have compiled about his private life.
Several suggested the FBI could possess previously undisclosed information about the 1969 tragedy in which a passenger in Kennedy’s car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned after the senator drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island after a party. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and served a suspended sentence.
“It’s impossible for me to say what is in the file, though one can speculate that it will contain material about Senator Kennedy’s private life, including Chappaquiddick,’’ said Robert Dallek, a former professor at Boston University and author of several biographies of politicians.
“I will be interested to see what will be released.’’
Previously disclosed government files show that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard M. Nixon, longtime Kennedy adversaries, unlawfully sought information to either discredit Kennedy or gain political leverage. Previously unknown details about these activities — and what was reported to them — could be revealed in Kennedy’s file.
Embarrassing information about Kennedy, however, could be withheld if the bureau doubts its factual basis, it is part of an ongoing investigation, or officials determine there is no reasonable need for the public to know it.
In addition, the family, possibly on the advice of its lawyers, could persuade the FBI to remove it.
“When the FBI is actually investigating something they are great,’’ said David Kaiser, a history professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., who has written several books about the Kennedy brothers.
“Everything gets written down and followed up and everyone who is supposed to see it sees it,’’ Kaiser said.
“When it comes to Teddy, I don’t think that is going to be the case. There is also going to be a lot of unsubstantiated stuff from out of the blue. And there is no reason why we should see that.’’
Former senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania said that when he requested his own FBI file it contained a memo from Hoover reporting that the former civil rights aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy was overheard in “a darkened room full of Negroes’’ in 1951 expressing support for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Wofford said the incident in question, which took place when he was a student at Howard University in Washington, was during a slide show presentation he gave to fellow students in an apartment — with the lights turned off — that included descriptions of Communist propaganda posters he saw on a recent trip to India.
“The FBI was really awful on key facts,’’ said Wofford.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Kennedy lived one of the most exhaustively chronicled lives, his FBI file is still expected to reveal some new facts about a national figure who was involved in nearly every major political debate — and controversy — of the second half of the 20th century.
New information, specialists said, could cover Kennedy’s meetings with world leaders or with Soviet dissidents during the Cold War.
But Kaiser said that should embarrassing episodes involving the late senator be revealed, how and why that information was gathered by the FBI may be most telling.
If he were still living, “the person I suspect would be very embarrassed is Richard Nixon,’’ Kaiser said.
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.