WASHINGTON – Sen. Edward M. Kennedy became a magnet for extremist rage in the decades after his brothers were gunned down, living under constant, chillingly specific assassination threats targeting him, according to newly released FBI documents.
Five years after President John F. Kennedy was killed and shortly after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot, one letter warned that the third brother was next: “Ted Kennedy number three to be assassinated on Oct. 25, 1968. The Kennedy residence must be well protected on that date.”
Nearly two decades later, in 1985, the threats continued, this time including the conservative Republican president as well as the liberal Democratic senator: “Brass tacks, I’m gonna kill Kennedy and (President Ronald) Reagan, and I really mean it.”
Releasing 2,352 pages from Kennedy’s FBI file, many of them concerning threats over the years, the agency said on its website: “These threats originated from multiple sources, including individuals, anonymous persons and members of radical groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, ‘Minutemen’ organizations and the National Socialist White People’s Party.”
Some of the threats prompted investigations, some resulted in warnings to Kennedy or local law enforcement authorities. There is no indication any attempts were carried out.
In 1977, the FBI even looked into allegations that Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Robert Kennedy, had tried to hire a fellow prisoner to kill Edward Kennedy. The prisoner, who was housed next to Sirhan for 18 months, told the FBI he was offered $1 million and a car but declined.
Monday’s documents were the first round released by the FBI since Kennedy’s death last year at 77 after a fight with brain cancer. Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, declined comment through a spokesman on the document release.
Kennedy family members were given a chance to review and to raise objections to the documents before they were released Monday. The FBI said it has additional documents on threats to Kennedy, possibly thousands more pages, that it plans to make public once the agency finishes reviewing them.
Without offering specifics, Dennis Argall, assistant section chief of the FBI’s record information dissemination section, said the family was given “appropriate” time to review the documents. The family has no legal power to keep information withheld, Argall said, but the FBI does consider privacy concerns on a case-by-case basis.
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Robert Kennedy died on June 6, 1968, a day after he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Their deaths cast a long shadow on the youngest brother’s life, and prompted fears he, too, would be targeted by an assassin’s bullet. Indeed, Kennedy wrote in his memoir “True Compass” that after his brothers were killed he was easily startled by loud sounds and would hit the deck whenever a car backfired.
Most of the documents released Monday are about death threats and extortion attempts against the Massachusetts Democrat.
The release had been highly anticipated by historians, scholars and others interested in the life and long public career of one of America’s most prominent and powerful politicians. The Associated Press and other media organizations requested the documents through Freedom of Information Act requests.
There is relatively little on a major controversy, Kennedy’s car accident on Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of Massachusetts, which killed Mary Jo Kopechne, a young woman who had been a worker in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
The files do show that the FBI was told almost immediately of the accident and Kennedy’s involvement, but authorities kept his identity quiet at the start.
The Boston FBI office relayed word to Washington headquarters at 2:45 p.m. EDT on July 19, 1969, after being notified by Police Chief Dominick Arena in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
The advisory said Kennedy, the vehicle’s driver, was uninjured.
It also said, “Stated fact Senator Kennedy was driver is not being revealed to anyone.”
Kopechne drowned after Kennedy drove the car in which she was riding off a bridge into a pond. He swam to safety, leaving Kopechne in the car. Kopechne, 28, was found dead in the submerged car’s back seat 10 hours later. Kennedy, then 37, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and got a suspended sentence and probation.
In his memoir, Kennedy wrote that his actions on Chappaquiddick were inexcusable. He said he was afraid, “made terrible decisions” and had to live with the guilt the rest of his life.
Kopechne’s death also caught the attention of the Nixon administration and one of the eventual Watergate conspirators.
One file shows FBI Deputy Director C.D. DeLoach reporting an Oct. 17, 1969, call from John Dean, then assistant to the deputy attorney general.
“He stated that both the deputy attorney general and attorney general are anxious to discreetly find out if Mary Jo Kopechne (deceased) had visited Greece in August 1968,” DeLoach writes in his report. John Mitchell was attorney general at the time.
Dean supplied Kopechne’s passport number. The subsequent report about the results of the check on any visit to Greece was blacked out.
Johnson reported from Boston. Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.