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Death threats hounded Kennedy for decades

FBI records show many warnings; Agency guarded, monitored senator

By Susan Milligan and Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy lived under the constant threat of violent death, a burden he inherited from his slain brothers, according to FBI records released yesterday detailing hundreds of threats issued by hate groups or relayed by agency tipsters and police across the country.

The first batch of thousands of pages of Kennedy’s official FBI file reveals how the assassinations of his older brothers haunted US officials who struggled for decades to pick out serious threats from a torrent of ominous warnings and obsessive rants.

“Please make sure that Ted Kennedy gets all the protection he needs. We are down to one Kennedy. . .’’ an urgent FBI communication under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s name said on June 6, 1968, the day Robert F. Kennedy died, as federal agents considered security measures for the launching of an aircraft carrier named after John F. Kennedy.

But the FBI’s voluminous records also demonstrate a sometimes shifting role at the FBI. Before seeking to protect Kennedy from physical harm, agents closely monitored his travels to Central America, for instance, and noted his intention to meet with “leftists.’’

The files additionally contain unsubstantiated reports on Kennedy’s social life. And they provide a few glimpses of the complex relationship between one of the most powerful families in America and Hoover, a fierce anticommunist who presided over the FBI for nearly half a century.

The FBI said yesterday that, because no federal violations were alleged, it played no role in the investigation of the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne after Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick in 1969. FBI staff did snip newspaper clippings about the incident and dutifully placed them in the senator’s file.

Many of the allegations — including both the death threats and gossip about his sex life — are unverified. And the FBI’s wide information-gathering net picked up some bizarre claims, including a statement from a Los Angeles pastor that he had “a vision’’ of Kennedy getting shot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

But the letters, interviews, and FBI reports tell a compelling story of what it meant to be Kennedy: a man powerful enough to have his father enlist the FBI to refute an allegation of communist ties, respected enough that authorities took special care for his protection, and hated enough that individuals sent hand-written, signed letters to his office calling for his death.

“Many people thought the FBI may have been digging into Ted Kennedy’s personal life. We’re so used to the FBI stories of the ’60s and ’70s being about Hoover bugging famous people’s bedrooms,’’ said historian Douglas Brinkley. “But what emerges is the FBI as the great protector of a US senator.

“I don’t think any of these documents present a problem for Ted Kennedy’s reputation in history,’’ Brinkley added. “What it does is show how brave he was to run for president, to go out on the road, and to try to have a normal life with a bull’s-eye on his chest.’’

The files, revealed under an agreement with the Kennedy family, lack certain details and insights into critical parts of the senator’s life. Many names are redacted to protect the privacy of other individuals. There is no indication what documents might have been left out entirely at the request of the family, which was allowed to review the file before its release to raise any privacy concerns.

The Kennedy family, through prominent lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, declined to comment on the contents of the file or discuss what might have been kept from public view at their request.

The files, widely anticipated by journalists, historians, and Kennedy buffs, are the first installment of a larger trove requested under the Freedom of Information Act by the Globe and other news organizations. They cover the years 1961, when his brother was president and he began his own political career, to 1985, five years after his failed bid for the White House. The FBI says it is continuing to review more documents in Kennedy’s file for public disclosure.

The FBI emphasized that the file was not the product of any investigation of the senator himself, but rather the compilation of documents related largely to the safety of the senator, who died last August of a brain tumor.

Sirhan Sirhan, who murdered Robert Kennedy, allegedly tried while in prison in 1977 to pay someone $1 million to kill Ted Kennedy, according to a fellow inmate of the assassin. An unidentified man was approached in 1969 in a Michigan bar, shown $5,000 in cash, and asked how much it would take to get him to “assassinate the youngest Kennedy brother,’’ the files reveal.

Other threats came from the Ku Klux Klan and “minutemen’’ militia groups at odds with Kennedy’s liberal, pro-civil rights agenda, according to the documents.

While Kennedy politicians have always attracted a core of vocal dissenters, “I had no idea’’ of all the threats against the senator, said historian Robert Dallek. “I’m kind of surprised there would be so much rage at him.’’

During his life, Kennedy showed little outward concern about threats, many of which were mailed to him or other members of Congress.

“There’s a NUT in New York City that’s out to kill you. This NUT is watching every move you make and he’s going to shoot you,’’ said a June 1969 letter addressed to “Senator Kennedy’’ and acquired by the FBI. “Your [sic] one of the richest senators in the Senate. When your [sic] dead you can’t take it with you,’’ the letter warned.

Another letter to Kennedy’s Washington office included a picture of the senator with a hole drawn in his forehead, apparently to look like a bullet wound. Other letters and calls alluded to Kennedy’s wealth and social stature, alleging that the senator escaped prosecution for the Chappaquiddick accident because of his political and family connections.

One such potential attacker, identified in FBI papers as “The Marine,’’ warned that “he has a gun and could easily shoot Kennedy at boat races, and thinks he will get his gun out and polish it up,’’ according to the document.

On Capitol Hill in the last dozen or so years, Kennedy did not have a personal security detail and was accompanied only by his two Portuguese water dogs and staffers. He campaigned for President Obama out West during the 2008 campaign, and no one had to go through a metal detector to see the onetime presidential candidate Kennedy.

“He never appeared to be bothered by it all,’’ recalled Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. While Kennedy briefly had a single security person outside his office many year ago, the Bay State Democrat didn’t want to be slowed down by security threats, McCain said.

“I think he appreciated that he had had that airplane accident, and miraculously recovered from it. I think he realized, obviously, with his two brothers being assassinated,’’ that danger was always near, McCain said. But “it made him determined that he was going to make the most of his time of service.’’

Milligan can be reached at milligan@globe.com, bender at bender@globe.com