The Story Behind Walter Cronkite's Destroyed FBI File

Last month, we found out the FBI destroyed a file on Walter Cronkite despite its obligation to retain historically significant records. Gawker has learned that the file involved an extortion investigation. What is it with CBS luminaries and extortion, anyway?

The revelation that the FBI had destroyed its records on Cronkite in 2007 came in response to Freedom of Information Act requests sent in after his death in July (everybody FOIAs the FBI files of public figures after they die, because dead people don't have privacy rights and the FBI must turn them over). The bureau routinely destroys files, but it's supposed to hold on to records that may have historical value—and Walter Cronkite certainly qualifies as a historical figure.

We filed a FOIA request to find out everything we could about the destroyed file—and got denied. But then USA Today piped up with a story on Cronkite's disappearing paper trail, and lo and behold, the bureau reconsidered and we got a packet in the mail with some pages (embedded below) indicating both the date of the file—it was opened in January 1974—and its number in the FBI's filing system. From that number—9-57023—we can deduce that it was an extortion investigation, because the first number corresponds to the bureau's code system for classifying crimes. A "9" means "Extortion, Extortion — Racial Matters, [and] Extortion — Nuclear."

So there you have it! Cronkite's name came up in a 1974 extortion investigation, and the FBI destroyed the file. Was Cronkite himself the victim? We don't know, but it appears from a screen printout from a search of the FBI's filing system turned over by the bureau that Cronkite was one of three subjects of the file (the other two names are redacted).

Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, says Cronkite's name merely came up in the missing file, that he wasn't the subject of it, and that it had no historical value. Not to get too much further into the weeds here than we already are, but Carter admits that he has no idea how he knows that—"That's my understanding from records management," he says, referring to the FBI's division for handling FOIA requests. The problem is, if there is information somewhere that confirms whether or not Cronkite was indeed the subject of the missing file, and how tangential or central he was to its contents, we should have it, since we FOIA'd those records and the FBI says it has turned over everything it found. So if Carter knows something we don't about that file—e.g., whether or not Cronkite was the subject—it means the bureau is holding out on us. All this would have been much simpler and less confusing if they had simply not destroyed the file.

We called CBS News and Cronkite's son Chip to see if anyone recalled an extortion attempt against Cronkite in the 1970s; a CBS News spokesman declined to comment, and Chip Cronkite didn't return a phone call.

The FBI's Carter also says the bureau has "at least two or three" other files on Cronkite that it is currently processing for release. That was news to us, since the bureau's Records Management Division told us back when we first got news of the file's destruction that it was the only thing they had on Cronkite. But a "search slip" released by the bureau to us seems to back Carter up, mentioning at least one other file in which Cronkite's name appeared. That file's number begins with 145, which is code for "Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter." You can bet we'll be FOIAing that one.

UPDATE: Chip Cronkite did call us back to say he has no knowledge of any extortion plots, but looks forward to hearing about anything else we find, "obscene or otherwise."

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