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Ted Kennedy FBI files: How serious were the death threats?

WASHINGTON — The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was the target of worrisome threats of violence throughout his adult life. That is clear from the thousands of pages of documents related to Senator Kennedy that the Federal Bureau of Investigation released this week.

But a close look at a number of the specific incidents described in the FBI files shows that many involved rumors or unsubstantiated information passed along by concerned citizens. Some were the rants of individuals so inebriated or disturbed that they appeared unlikely to constitute a danger to anyone except themselves.

On Jan. 10, 1966, for instance, a married woman from Rixeyville, Va., whose name is redacted in the files called the FBI field office in Washington, D.C., to warn of a plot to assassinate the Massachusetts Democrat the next day on the steps of the Capitol at 4 p.m.

“Mrs. [redacted] indicated she had been chosen to commit assassination by individuals she could not further identify. She admitted hearing voices and having a drinking and mental problem,” noted an FBI memo on this case.

The FBI forwarded the case to the US attorney in Richmond, Va., for further consideration. He declined to prosecute the case due to the “lack of intent” on the part of the woman, as well as her “obvious mental condition.”

On June 28, 1968, 23 days after Robert Kennedy was killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, a husband and wife whose name is redacted in the file contacted the FBI field office in Newark, N.J., to say that a few days prior, they had been having dinner at the Steak Pit in Paramus, where they overheard a man say, “All Kennedys will be killed.”

They acknowledged that this man may have been drinking, according to an FBI memo. They believed he was Canadian. With the assistance of the maitre d’, they obtained the threatening man’s American Express card number, which they deduced belonged to someone employed by the Wayne Supply Company in Wayne, N.J.

These amateur sleuths said they would be available for further consultation during work hours. The file contains no discussion of further action.

There were many threats and tips of a similar nature in the turbulent period following Robert Kennedy’s death. They continued, albeit at a slower pace, throughout Ted Kennedy’s life.

In May 1985, an unidentified person from Wayne, Mich., wrote FBI headquarters in Washington to say that he intended to shoot both Kennedy and President Reagan.

“Brass tacks, I’m gonna kill Kennedy and Reagan and I really mean it,” wrote the person in a four-page note filled with expletives.

This letter was forwarded to an FBI Psycholinguistics Center for further study. An analyst there judged the missive to be an “expressive extortion,” adding, “the author is merely ventilating her frustrations and projecting her inadequacies.”

The analyst judged the threat posed by the writer not serious.

“The message lacks the indicators of the resolve or the determination to carry out her threats,” concluded the psycholinguist.

During his political career, Kennedy still needed robust protection: Some threats were deemed serious. In any case, one unstable individual with a gun can change the course of US history, as the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy show.

The FBI has more Kennedy-related papers to release, which could reveal more substantive threats.

But the overall impression left by documents released this week may be as much about the doggedness of FBI agents, who cataloged and considered every tip, as about the dangers to Kennedy.

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