WASHINGTON -- A watchdog group on Thursday sued the National Archives and Records Administration for failing to respond to repeated requests for sealed records of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, claiming the agency has violated the Freedom of Information Act.
The lawsuit, brought by the Washington-based Judicial Watch on behalf of a Kennedy researcher, stipulates that the National Archives has not heeded public disclosure laws regarding nearly a dozen boxes of Kennedy’s Justice Department files. Those files have been kept in a secure vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester for decades.
The records, whose existence was first detailed by the Globe last year, cover sensitive intelligence operations overseen by Kennedy during the presidency of his brother and Lyndon Johnson.
The contents of the requested boxes include subjects ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency to the minutes from meetings of the so-called “special group” that RFK chaired, and his personal notes on Cuba.
Robert Kennedy, as President Kennedy’s closest aide and confidant, was given unusual responsibility for overseeing covert operations against Communist Cuba and other sensitive national security and foreign policy matters.
A larger collection of his papers, of which the requested files are a part -- totaling nearly 60 boxes -- has long been sought by researchers and scholars.
But under an unusual agreement reached between the Kennedy family and the National Archives after RFK’s assassination in 1968, his heirs maintain some authority in deciding when the files can be opened.
According to that agreement, the Kennedy family must first deed the records to the National Archives.
RFK’s heirs have been accused of thwarting efforts to make them public, something they have denied.
A reason previously cited by the Archives for the complicated situation is that personal and public documents were originally co-mingled, leading the Kennedys to consider the files family and not government property.
But an index of the files obtained by the Globe shows most of them were government papers, many of them highly classified at the time. National Archives officials who were not authorized to speak publicly have said that all the files have been reviewed to prevent any unauthorized disclosure of state secrets.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis last year, portions of seven boxes were made public with the Kennedys’ permission.
But pressure has grown for the National Archives and the Kennedy family to resolve the status of the rest of what remains a highly sought-after -- and mostly hidden -- collection of American history.
“This lawsuit reflects the growing impatience of historians to gain access to a treasure trove of records which remain highly relevant some 50 years after they were written,” said Peter Kornbluh, an analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Citing the approaching 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, Kornbluh urged the Archives to step up efforts to make public the RFK records as well as any other Kennedy administration documents that remain secret.
“Fifty years later, it is time to have access to the complete historical record of this controversial and complex era in our nation’s history,” he said.
The Judicial Watch lawsuit is the latest attempt to shake loose more of them.
The National Archives “was required to respond in writing whether it would comply within 20 days of receipt of the request,” according to the complaint filed Thursday in US District Court in Washington. The lack of a response mean the Archives “is unlawfully withholding records.”
The National Archives and Records Administration was not immediately available for comment.