In a long-forgotten chapter of his career, a young Charles Kuralt unexpectedly became CBS’s one-man news bureau in Latin America at the height of the Cold War. Newly released FBI documents show what a tough beat it was, and offer reminders that when national security concerns run high, even patriotic journalists can come under government scrutiny.
Parts of the story have already been told, after Kuralt’s 10-page FBI file was first released to the Independent in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. But the documents left many questions, because the FBI censored fully half the file prior to releasing it. Reading between the blacked-out paragraphs, the papers indicated that FBI agents investigated Kuralt’s travels abroad, and that Director J. Edgar Hoover himself reviewed and wrote secret memos discussing the reporter. (See www.indyweek.com/durham/2001-06-13/tri angles.html. )
After receiving the file, the Independent lodged an appeal asking the FBI to reveal more of the documents, most of which were written four decades ago. But the FBI refused to release so much as an additional word of the Kuralt file.
Now, unexpectedly, the veil has been lifted from key passages of the documents, after a Justice Department declassification review panel revisited the request and authorized more disclosures. The move comes as a welcome surprise, because Attorney General John Ashcroft has taken steps to reign in the Freedom of Information Act and expand official secrecy, even in regard to historical materials.
The newly released version of the file is still censored in places, but it does disclose important new details, such as the FBI’s use of “confidential informants” to collect information on Kuralt and a surprising revelation about why the bureau opened the file in the first place.
How did Kuralt, the Charlotte native and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus who would become famous for heartfelt reports from the heartland, wind up in secret documents about foreign policy matters? Kuralt was certainly no radical, but he reported from so many foreign flashpoints that the probing eyes of national security officials couldn’t miss him. Were he alive today, Kuralt, who died in 1997, probably wouldn’t be surprised to find that the FBI checked up on him. His CBS expense reports, on file with his personal papers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library, indicate that he regularly rubbed shoulders with shadowy operatives during his time in Latin America. Kuralt set up shop in Rio de Janeiro in late 1961 and traveled incessantly. While still in his 20s, he billed CBS for dinners and drinks with sources ranging from Soviet diplomats in Brazil to an undercover CIA officer in the Dominican Republic to Haitian exile coup-plotters.
It was Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the hottest of the hemisphere’s political hotspots, that brought Kuralt into some controversy. Kuralt had been there before, in the summer of 1960, when dozens of U.S. journalists were covering the young revolution next door. By the time of his second visit, in the spring of 1962, Cuban authorities were permitting only a handful of U.S. journalists to enter the country.
Doing his own camera work, Kuralt prepared a half-hour report, “An American in Cuba,” which aired in prime time on May 25, 1962. In it, Kuralt painted a mostly bleak picture of life in the new Cuba, reporting how inefficient bureaucracies were sprawling while personal freedoms were shrinking. He did take note of a few positives, such as the Castro government’s focus on literacy and learning.
Despite its anti-Castro thrust, the report did not play well in Miami, where hard-liners in the Cuban exile community denounced Kuralt as a pawn of the Castro regime for having gone to Cuba in the first place. It didn’t help when Bohemia, a widely circulated Cuban magazine, published an article on Kuralt’s visit that showed the grinning yanqui reporter chatting with a revolutionary youth group and swinging a machete at sugarcane in a government cooperative.
The cries of treason spread quickly from South Florida to the nation’s capitol. On July 19, 1962, the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security held hearings on “attempts of pro-Castro forces to pervert the American press,” and Kuralt’s report became a centerpiece of the discussion. “Kuralt endeavored to present a very rosy picture of Communist Cuba,” Carlos Todd, an anti-Castro Cuban journalist living in Miami, testified.
This charge put Kuralt on the FBI’s radar–but not, apparently, at the FBI’s impetus. Instead, it was the CIA’s curiosity about Kuralt that prompted the FBI paper trail, according to the new release.
A Sept. 14, 1962, memo from Hoover, which was almost entirely blacked out when first released, is now mostly declassified. It reveals the memo’s recipient–“Director, Central Intelligence Agency”–and its substance. Hoover wrote that he was replying to a CIA query dated July 19, 1962–the same day of the Senate hearing where Kuralt was discussed. Hoover didn’t have much to add, but he did inform the CIA that in August 1962, “Kuralt advised a confidential source abroad that he had been in Cuba and at one time had prepared a radio news script which contained the statement that there were 150 Americans working in Cuba in various capacities for the Cuban government.” Kuralt, however, had no list of the Americans’ names, Hoover reported.
Meanwhile, Senate investigators followed up on Todd’s allegations and concluded that Kuralt was no enemy sympathizer. In January 1963, the Subcommittee on Internal Security cleared Kuralt of Castro-boosting, publishing a detailed analysis of “An American in Cuba” that showed the charges were false.
Kuralt never returned to Cuba, but the FBI didn’t close its file on him. Several additional documents that remain mostly blacked out indicate that a year later, Hoover’s agents again took an interest in Kuralt. The new release declassifies just a bit of what these documents discuss. An Aug. 28, 1963, memo by the FBI’s Washington field office, for example, is titled “Charles Kuralt, Internal Security–Cuba.” The document begins, “On August 16, 1963, according to a confidential informant, who has furnished reliable information in the past,” but then it abruptly fades to black, obscuring the rest of the text. A cover sheet notes that “the enclosure is classified ‘Secret’ due to the highly sensitive nature of the source.”
Whatever the informant said about Kuralt remains classified. However, all but a few words of a contemporaneous memo by the Washington field office have been released. The Oct. 14, 1963, document reports that FBI agents reviewed Kuralt’s passport file at the State Department, and lists details about the reporter’s biography and travels. None of the information, however, appears to incriminate Kuralt in any wrongdoing, politically, journalistically or otherwise.
Meanwhile, Kuralt’s stint as a foreign correspondent was winding down. At the end of 1963, CBS brought him back to the United States, and most of his subsequent reports focused on his homeland.
In 1965, however, Kuralt helped produce a critical CBS report on the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, which briefly caught the FBI’s attention. A June 30, 1965, FBI report, the last in Kuralt’s file, summarizes what the bureau knew about Kuralt and other “newsmen alleged to be distorting the news” regarding the Dominican intervention. The document, which remains riddled with deletions, notes Kuralt’s Cuba travels and that he had been accused, and absolved, of having “slanted his reports in favor of Castro.” However, a short note at the end, under the heading “Observation,” notes that Kuralt and another reporter “appear to be the ones who have allegedly printed stories favoring anti-U.S. elements.”
And there the file ends, leaving some new answers and old questions, along with some indignation from those who remember Kuralt as a scrupulously balanced (and unabashedly patriotic) journalist. “Charles told it like he saw it, and I think that’s what good reporting is supposed to be,” his brother, Wallace Kuralt of Carrboro, said recently when told of the FBI file. “Today, so much of the reporting we’re getting is clearly driven to serve a political agenda. I find that very distressing, and I don’t think Charles would have gone along with that very long.”