Penn Kimball, a journalist and longtime Columbia University professor who sued the federal government in the 1980s after he learned that he was secretly declared a security risk decades earlier, died Nov. 8 at the Brighton Gardens retirement facility in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 98.
A daughter, Lisa Kimball, confirmed the death, but said the cause had not been determined.
Kimball was a journalist in the 1940s and 1950s, with stints at Time, the New Republic, The New York Times and CBS-TV. He became a professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in 1959.
What he didn't know until decades later, however, was that the State Department, the CIA and the FBI had compiled secret dossiers in which he was called a "definite security risk." In 1977, under provisions of the relatively new Freedom of Information Act, Kimball filed a request for any materials the government had about him. After delays of months and sometimes years, the boxes began to arrive.
"I was stunned," Kimball wrote in his 1983 book, "The File." "I simply had no idea that for more than half of my life my name had been on file in Washington as a dangerous radical, a disloyal American, a national security risk, a subversive 'too clever' to be caught holding a membership card in the Communist Party." Kimball was the very image of a stalwart member of American society: an Eagle Scout, a bow-tie-wearing New Englander, a football player at Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, a Marine Corps captain during World War II, an Ivy League professor.
In 1946, Kimball took the Foreign Service exam and turned down a State Department assignment to Saigon, then the name of the Vietnamese capital, because he had already accepted an offer from Time magazine.
But the federal background investigations continued for years. As he pored over the heavily censored documents decades later, Kimball saw comments from unnamed sources suggesting that he had been cozy with communists when he was a journalist. His jobs with The New York Times and with two Democratic governors were cited as evidence of leftist leanings.
Kimball believed the secret files sank his chances for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s and for academic fellowships.
"There's nothing more precious to a man than his character and reputation," Kimball told The Washington Post in 1983. "And what the United States government did is take that away from me."
In 1987, the State Department, the CIA and the FBI agreed to purge their files if Kimball would drop his lawsuit.