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Bureau’s file was personal, political

COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover often interacted with Edward Kennedy as a distant family friend. At the same time, the agency was keeping close tabs on the senator’s movements and activities. COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover often interacted with Edward Kennedy as a distant family friend. At the same time, the agency was keeping close tabs on the senator’s movements and activities.
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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WASHINGTON — On paper, they were friendly. When young Edward M. Kennedy was recovering from a plane crash in 1964, he kept up an affectionate correspondence with J. Edgar Hoover, the longstanding FBI director who had been a friend of Kennedy’s father.

But years later, when Kennedy wanted to call Hoover as a witness to testify before his Senate committee, Hoover wrote in a secret memo that Kennedy could not be trusted.

Kennedy’s FBI file, released yesterday, paints a vivid picture of the sometimes close, but often adversarial relationship that the Kennedy family had with the agency. Charged with protecting the Kennedys, the FBI also kept meticulous files on their political activities and their personal lives.

“It was a complicated relationship,’’ said Burton Hersh, author of “Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America.’’

The documents show that Hoover often interacted with Edward Kennedy as a distant family friend, sending personal notes and articles that might be of interest.

As Hoover’s agents tracked death threats around the world, especially after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover seemed to take the job of protecting the last brother personally.

But, at the same time, the FBI went to great lengths to keep tabs on Edward Kennedy, especially as his political star rose. The agency collected thousands of pages of personal and political information that had no apparent national security purpose.

“That’s what Hoover did,’’ said Athan Theoharis, professor emeritus of history at Marquette University who has published extensively about Hoover and the FBI. “While it doesn’t constitute an abuse of power, it goes beyond the FBI’s mission. . . . We don’t always know what they did with the information.’’

Hoover, who served 48 years as FBI director, became friendly with Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, in the 1930s when both were rising stars in the Roosevelt administration. In the 1940s, Hoover arranged to have a full-time agent protecting the Kennedys, Hersh said.

But documents released yesterday suggest that some of the protections that the FBI offered were political.

One of the earliest mentions of Edward Kennedy in the FBI records involves a 1954 phone call from Joseph Kennedy to a senior official at the FBI complaining that journalist Drew Pearson intended to write an article asserting that Edward Kennedy had been prevented from attended a Maryland military school because of an “adverse FBI report which linked him to a group of ‘pinkos.’ ’’

FBI officials assured him that no such report existed. The files don’t indicate whether the story ran.

In 1961, a source from Portugal told FBI agents that Kennedy intended to enter politics and had retained a Portuguese “extremist’’ — whose name was redacted in the files — to help him attract the Portuguese vote in Massachusetts. The FBI grew concerned that the Portuguese operative was not registered as a foreign agent with the US government. FBI officials informed Robert Kennedy — then US attorney General — about it, and the operative registered.

In January 1961, just as JFK was taking office as president, a confidential informant whose name was redacted told the FBI that Joseph Kennedy had “expressed an interest in placing Teddy as the Assistant District Attorney of Suffolk County. . . . [The informant] surmised that the President was using this way to get Teddy into politics,’’ the file states.

A month later, Edward Kennedy was sworn in as assistant district attorney.

In July of the same year, Kennedy took a tour through Latin America and the FBI wrote reports on his meetings there.

“Kennedy met with a number of individuals known to have communist sympathies,’’ states one report.

The FBI was so interested in the young Kennedy’s thoughts during the trip that it photocopied his travel diary, which he left on the plane, before returning it to him with a courteous note.

But concerns about Edward Kennedy’s political leanings did not stop Hoover from sending a note of sympathy in 1964 when Edward Kennedy survived a plane crash in Massachusetts and was recovering in the hospital.

Edward Kennedy responded by asking Hoover to write a personal essay about his father for a collection he intended to publish.

Hoover eventually wrote a piece entitled “Forever, in deeds if not in written words’’ about his affection for Joseph Kennedy. In the essay, Hoover wrote that Joseph Kennedy urged him to run for president as either a Democrat or a Republican, guaranteeing “the largest campaign contribution I would ever get from anyone and his personal services as the hardest campaign worker in history.’’ Hoover chose not to run.

When an FBI informant told the agency in 1970 that Students for a Democratic Society planned to “embarrass’’ Senator Kennedy during a speech at Boston University, the FBI tipped off Boston police, who prevented the student group from entering.

But at the same time, the FBI was recording concerns about Kennedy himself. The FBI reported on an informant’s fears that Kennedy intended to bring burned Vietnamese children to the United States to show the damage from American bombs.

But Kennedy’s career in the Senate was apparently so closely watched by the FBI director that Hoover demanded an explanation when a lower-level official was informed before he was about Kennedy’s successful takeover in 1969 as assistant Senate Democratic leader.

When Kennedy told reporters that Hoover would be called before his committee to testify about a sensitive matter, Hoover was furious, since he had been promised that he would never be called to testify.

“This shows what an irresponsible person Ted Kennedy is,’’ Hoover wrote in 1967.

But two years later, Hoover’s apparent affection for the family returned when Edward Kennedy send him a Western Union telegram informing him of Joseph Kennedy’s death.

“Mother and I want to thank you for the warm ties of friendship which he shared with you,’’ Kennedy wrote.

Hoover replied, “I have lost a dear friend, and my thoughts are with you in this hour of grief.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com