WASHINGTON — The FBI destroyed its files on former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite two years ago under a policy that has been criticized by researchers for allowing potentially valuable records to be wiped out.A search of the agency’s main index of the subjects of FBI investigations found some records tied to Cronkite’s name were destroyed in October 2007, the FBI said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by USA TODAY. Cronkite’s death in July at age 92 made any FBI files about him available for release under the federal law.
The FBI should have preserved records about Cronkite, who anchored CBS’ newscasts from 1962 to 1981, said Scott Hodes, a former top lawyer in the FBI’s records office. All FBI records on such a prominent person should have been saved under the FBI’s policies, Hodes said.
“You’re not supposed to destroy records that are historically valuable,” Hodes said. “Somebody should have known who Walter Cronkite was.”
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the agency works with the National Archives to try to ensure historically important records are preserved. He did not respond to requests for further information Tuesday.
The destruction of the Cronkite records illustrates the FBI’s policies on keeping and destroying records, which date to a 1981 lawsuit over public access to those records. Although the FBI’s rules call for preserving files with historical significance, researchers such as journalist Alex Heard have criticized the agency for wiping out too many potentially valuable records. The FBI destroyed a file on civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, The Detroit News reported in 2006.
Heard, who is researching a 1951 execution in Mississippi, said he was frustrated to learn the FBI destroyed records about one of the civil rights lawyers involved.
“They piled up the documents, and we (taxpayers) paid for it,” Heard said. “With a lot of that material, the simplest thing would be to just keep it.”
The fact that the FBI had records involving Cronkite doesn’t mean the FBI had investigated him, Hodes said. Celebrities’ files often consist of letters they wrote to FBI officials or investigations of extortion attempts, he said.
“When famous people’s files are released, a lot of times they’re the victims of crimes,” Hodes said.