The FBI amassed a dossier on the late journalist David Halberstam for more than two decades – keeping tabs on his reporting, tracking his marriage to a Polish actress and preparing background reports on the Pulitzer Prize winner for other federal agencies, documents show.
The feds appear to have paid particular attention to Halberstam in the mid 1960s when he was a New York Times correspondent in Poland during the Cold War – when that nation was closely aligned with the Soviet Union.
Halberstam married one of Poland’s top actresses, Elzbieta Czyzewska. He was expelled in 1967 for his coverage, including stories that cast doubt on public support for Poland’s Communist leaders.
Czyzewska, who left her homeland and moved with Halberstam to New York, also was tracked by the FBI. Halberstam’s FBI file includes magazine profiles of his then-wife, and stories about him being expelled from Poland.
Many Pages Withheld
Halberstam would go on to become a best-selling author of numerous books, including “The Best and the Brightest,” a sharp look at the leaders who guided the nation into the Vietnam War.
The dossier is 98 pages, but only 62 pages were released by the FBI, which said many of the documents should remain sealed because of national security, privacy and other reasons.
The documents were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, which calls on the agency to release certain documents to the public once the person has died. Halberstam was killed April 23, 2007, in a car accident in Menlo Park, Calif.
In one of the most famous moments of Halberstam’s long career, President John F. Kennedy called Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher, to complain about the journalist’s reporting in Vietnam. Kennedy suggested Halberstam be removed from the assignment. The Times refused. Halberstam would go on to win his Pulitzer for his reporting on the war.
The FBI records released do not document Kennedy’s request – but it’s unclear exactly when the agency started the Halberstam file, since more than a dozen of the file’s initial pages were not made public.
Critical of Vietnam Policy
However, in a memorandum dated April 19, 1968, the FBI noted “that articles written by [Halberstam] in the past, including those written about the Vietnamese War, had been critical of the U.S. participation in that conflict.”
FBI agents compiled the dossier through a wide range of methods, from mining telephone company records to reading Halberstam’s articles, including one in Playboy. The file includes stories from The New York Times and notations about his jobs with Harper’s magazine and National Public Radio.
Some of the communications were written by officials the main office of then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whom Halberstam once called the century’s “worst public servant.” Hoover’s long tenure at the FBI included building files on hundreds of public figures who had not committed crimes – a practice slammed by many critics.
The first entry in Halberstam’s dossier is dated September 1965. In October 1965, agents probed an anonymous letter that somehow cast Halberstam in a bad light. The details of the letter itself were redacted by the FBI.
‘No Derogatory Information’
The memorandum goes on to note that FBI files had “no derogatory information” about Halberstam. It also cast doubt on the veracity of the anonymous letter. It noted agents should treat the letter with caution, warning the missive could be “a provocation” by Polish intelligence agents or someone with “a personal vendetta” against Halberstam.
The FBI also talked with sources who provided information about Halberstam and his first wife, Czyzewska. On Aug. 11, 1969, the FBI was following a person who telephoned Halberstam. The FBI redacted the name of the person who dialed the number, though it did note that person was interested in Polish theater. The FBI did not listen in on the call, but the New York Telephone Co. told an FBI agent that the call was placed to Halberstam.
FBI Eyed Interview
On Aug. 28, 1971, the FBI weighed whether agents should interview Halberstam. The documents are unclear about why they were interested in talking to him.
The memo notes the FBI’s New York office had “no information which would preclude [an] interview with Halberstam” but would hold off interviewing him pending further instructions from the agency. There is no information from the files disclosing whether agents ever did talk with him.
The FBI prepared some documents about Halberstam for other agencies – documents known as “letterhead memorandum.” One document noted that a March 3, 1966 memo – not included in the dossier released by the FBI – was sensitive, and should not be released to another federal agency “without prior approval from the FBI.”
After Hoover died in 1972, documents concerning Halberstam thin out, though the file was added to at least through 1987. The later internal memos made public deal mainly about whether to declassify records on file.