Raw Story reports that blogger Michael Petrelis filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Cronkite's file with the FBI, and got back a response that essentially said, "We destroyed a bunch of files a couple years back, and they may have been about Conkrite. We're not saying they were about Cronkite, but for some reason that we can't explain to you, we think they may have been about Cronkite, but anyway we threw them away, so thanks for asking."
As it happens, we filed the exact same request on the day Cronkite died—federal privacy laws don't extend to dead people, so the FBI is compelled under the FOIA to release its information on subjects after they pass away—and got the exact same response. We were puzzled—how many pages were destroyed? Why? What were they about—and called the FBI, which recommended that we file another FOIA looking for information about why the records were destroyed. We were told that, at the very least, there should be some record of the serial number on the destroyed file, which would indicate what sort of investigation generated the records—extortion, treason, etc. We just got back our response to that follow-up request yesterday, and guess what? No records. So we filed another FOIA request that just said, "Aw, come on guys!" Gotta love the FBI.
So what did the FBI destroy, and why? Raw Story asked Cronkite's friend Mark Ashford what he thought the files might have contained:
"He was routinely in the company of presidents and received clearance to enter secret places like a nuclear submarine," Ashford, who spoke at Cronkite's funeral, told Raw Story. "If there was anything on him, it probably said: 'He's a good guy and okay to have dinner with the president.' Walter was never fretting about the FBI following him around."
We're skeptical. The FBI routinely conducted surveillance on reporters during Cronkite's active years, and his influence made him a particularly tempting target for intelligence-gathering. We know that Richard Nixon directed the FBI to create a list of suspected homosexuals in the D.C. press corps, for instance, so it's not hard to imagine him ordering up information on the man credited with turning America against the Vietnam War. But it could have been anything: Cronkite may have received threatening letters, or been the victim of an extortion attempt, and called in the FBI for help. Or the bureau may have kept a file on its media coverage in which Cronkite was mentioned. The thing is, we'll never know.
As for why they were destroyed: The FBI can and does destroy basically anything it wants. There is a complicated document retention policy in place that has the nominal aim of keeping records of historical interest around long enough for some historian or reporter to find out about them, but it is ridiculously vague and allows for the bureau to cover its tracks at will. The Cronkite records were destroyed in 2007, at a time when everybody knew that the newsman was ailing—and therefore that they would soon be subject to FOIA requests. The fact that files about a man as influential and consequential to the history of the 20th century as Cronkite could be casually destroyed before they were even open to the public is scarcely believable, which is why we kind of suspect that their destruction wasn't so casual. Was there ugly information about his personal life uncovered through surveillance? Evidence of the FBI engaged in even more illegal shenanigans than we previously knew about? Like we said, we'll never know. Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.