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Robert F. Kennedy’s Documents Should Be Open To Public, History’s Voice Should Be Known

August 5, 2012

These documents and papers that are not open to the public contain important historical records and insights that historians should have the right to scour and write about.  Not to allow access to these documents is an affront to the natural flow of information as the decades recede into the rearview mirror.

A trove of documents housed in a secure vault at the John F. Kennedy Library has long been described as Robert F. Kennedy’s private papers and been kept from public view by the Kennedy family. But many of the documents have little to do with personal matters and instead detail once-secret military and intelligence activities he helped manage as attorney general, according to an unpublished index of the collection obtained by The Boston Globe.

Scholars and government officials believe the 62 boxes of files covering Kennedy’s three years as attorney general during his brother’s administration could provide insights into critical Cold War decisions on issues ranging from the Cuban missile crisis to Vietnam.

Yet the Kennedy family, led by Robert’s widow, Ethel, has rarely permitted even limited access to the papers. Their expansive control of the RFK archive, which extends to dozens of Pentagon, State Department, and CIA documents, stems from a controversial agreement reached with the National Archives following Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

Numerous government archivists and historians maintain the family should never have been granted oversight of the official documents — only the files containing private information, such as correspondence with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and a collection of materials involving famous family acquaintances like Frank Sinatra.

“It was inappropriate [for the National Archives] to allow it,” said William J. Leonard, who recently retired as chief overseer of the government classification system. “Classified information by definition is information that is under the government’s control.”

Put another way, “Ethel has been given control of documents that she couldn’t even legally read because she didn’t have a security clearance,” said a former National Archives official who had the authority to handle top secret information regarding the RFK papers.

The Globe first reported in January 2011 that most scholars have been unable to get access to the documents. But the index reveals for the first time an overview of the contents of the collection and the fact that most of the documents are not personal papers.

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