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The Journalist and the G-men

More of FBI's file on Charlotte native Charles Kuralt released

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Charlie, we hardly knew ye. In a long-forgotten chapter of his career, a young Charles Kuralt unexpectedly became CBS's one-man news bureau in Latin America, a post he would hold for two years 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 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents began to explain why the broadcaster garnered a government dossier, but left many questions, because the FBI deleted 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 an early story on the file online at http://charlotte.creativeloafing.com/newsstand/2002-12-25/news_cover.html.)

The FBI then rejected an appeal, also under the Freedom of Information Act, to reveal more of what is in the documents, most of which were written four decades ago. But now, unexpectedly, the veil has been lifted from key passages of the documents, after a Justice Department declassification review committee revisited the request. The newly released version of the file is still obscured in places by deletions, but it discloses important 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 who would become famous for heartfelt reports from the heartland, wind up in secret documents about foreign policy matters? It was a sign of the times, and a story that in some ways parallels current concerns. Today, new legislation like the USA Patriot Act has granted the FBI greater powers to spy on Americans, and with the United States again involved in global power struggles, the government's relationship with front-line journalists is again a hot topic. While Kuralt was no "embed" -- and certainly no radical -- 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. In a 1994 retirement speech at UNC-Chapel Hill, he recounted an early brush with an FBI agent while he was student editor of the Daily Tar Heel, and his memoir, A Life on the Road, cites other encounters with shadowy government operatives as he reported from battlegrounds in the Congo, Laos and Vietnam. Kuralt's expense reports, on file with his personal papers at UNC-Chapel Hill's Wilson Library, indicate that in Latin America, more than anywhere else, he rubbed shoulders with the spy set. In 1961, Kuralt set up his headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, in an office across from the US embassy, and traveled incessantly. Though he was not yet 30 years old, 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 under the glare of government agents. Kuralt had been there before, in the summer of 1960, when dozens of US journalists were covering the young revolution next door. But by the time of his second visit, in May 1962, relations between Havana and Washington had turned hostile, and Cuban authorities were permitting only a handful of US journalists to enter the country. Upon his arrival in Cuba, an official informed Kuralt he'd been issued a visa by mistake -- a consular officer had assumed he was Brazilian.

The authorities permitted him to stay for three weeks, and Kuralt made the best of the opportunity. Doing his own camera work, he 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. "The Communist exhortations made the island seem like a dream out of Orwell," Kuralt commented in a voice-over. 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 Cuban exile hardliners 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 a lengthy 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 quickly spread from South Florida to the nation's capital. 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, charged in his Senate testimony.

This charge put Kuralt on the FBI's radar -- but not, apparently, at the FBI's impetus. According to the newly released file, it was the CIA's curiosity about Kuralt that prompted the FBI paper trail. A September 14, 1962, memo from Director J. Edgar Hoover, which was almost entirely blacked out when first released, now reveals the recipient: "Director, Central Intelligence Agency." The subject line of the memo reads: "Charles Kuralt; Miscellaneous - Information Concerning (Nationalities Intelligence)."

In the memo, Hoover wrote that he was replying to a CIA query dated July 19, 1962 -- the day Carlos Todd testified before the Senate subcommittee. Hoover informed 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 August 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, hiding 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, whose identity remains hidden, said about Kuralt remains classified. However, all but a few words of another memo by the Washington field office have been released. The October 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, Kuralt did help produce a critical CBS report on the US invasion of the Dominican Republic that 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" about 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." A short note at the end, under the heading "Observation," notes that Kuralt and another reporter "appear to the ones who have allegedly printed stories favoring anti-US 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 (if 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, NC, 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."

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