Later this year President Joe Biden will face a decision about the disposition of the last of the U.S. government’s still-secret records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. With an April 26 deadline looming, federal agencies must inform the National Archives later this month about their plans to release the historic documents or continue withholding them. The Archivist is scheduled to make a recommendation by September 26 about the disposition of the records. The president must then decide by October 26 whether to accept or modify the Archivist’s recommendations.
Some 15,834 assassination-related documents remain partially or wholly classified, according to the National Archives. Most of these records were generated by the CIA and FBI. They include contemporaneous reports related to the murder of the 35th president in Dallas on November 22, 1963, files of CIA officers who knew about accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and interviews conducted by congressional investigators in the 1970s.
The legal timetable was established by an executive memo issued by President Donald Trump on October 26, 2017. After hearing from CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump stated that because “national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns. I have no choice — today — but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our Nation’s security.”
The release of the material is mandated by the JFK Records Act, passed by Congress in October 1992 in response to the furor over Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which depicted the assassination as the work of senior CIA and Pentagon officials. The act created the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), which oversaw the declassification of some four million pages of material related to the assassination of JFK and the various investigations into his murder.
The law also allowed government agencies to continue withholding material deemed too sensitive to make public. So, the ARRB released tens of thousands of JFK assassination-related records with “redactions” (blackouts) – sometimes only a name, sometimes entire pages. Thousands of records remained “withheld in full.”
The JFK Records Act mandated that, 25 years after the passage of the Act, all such records should be released in full, barring a determination by the president that “continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations” and “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
More than 34,000 unique documents were released, or re-released with fewer redactions, in seven batches in 2017 and 2018. But thousands of pages of material remained out of public view. Nearly 5 percent of the JFK records held by the National Archives remain redacted in some form.
The Mary Ferrell Foundation, a non-profit online archive of material related to the assassination of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has followed the JFK Records Act process for the last two decades with the goal of clarifying the causes of JFK’s murder, which are still shrouded in official secrecy. That could change in 2021, depending on Congress and the White House.
On April 26, 2018, another Trump memorandum authorized a process whereby the rest of the still-redacted documents would be reviewed by October 26, 2021. Trump’s memo effectively gave the CIA, FBI, and other agencies another four years of secrecy and handed the decision to his successor.
Judge John Tunheim, former chair of the Assassination Records Review Board, said in an interview that he was surprised at how much JFK material remained secret after the statutory deadline.
“My assumption was that 25 years was a sufficient length of time for the government to release everything,” said Tunheim, now chief U.S. district judge in Minneapolis. “The reasons we postponed information did not protect that information forever, especially in light of the public interest in full disclosure.”
Tunheim recounted that in the 1990s the State Department strongly objected to the release of information about CIA and FBI cooperation with the Mexican government in 1963. “They pushed us very hard, saying release of the information could bring about the downfall of the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional] government. The board accepted that argument at the time. But that government’s long gone. So the argument is irrelevant.”
The JFK Records Act is “passively in effect, with the National Archives being the shepherd of releasing information,” said Mark Zaid, national security attorney, in an interview. “But while the Archives is monitoring and building the JFK collection, it doesn’t really have the teeth to enforce the law.”
What’s in the Withheld JFK Files?
The National Archives has not published a listing of the postponed records, but the Mary Ferrell Foundation has examined a spreadsheet of “withheld in full” records shared by the National Archives to come up with a detailed accounting of what material remains secret.
We focused initially 3,598 records “withheld in full” which the National Archives declared would be released in 2017. The National Archives identified the records in response to a 2016 Freedom of Information request from Politico and JFK researchers. When we compared this list to the list of the records actually released in 2017 and 2018, we found only 2,447 of them were released in any form.
Based on the information provided by the National Archives, the Mary Ferrell Foundation identified 1,151 JFK records that were not put online as part of the 2017-2018 declassification effort. They include:
- 79 Lost Records– According to the National Archives: “These are RIF [Record Information Form] numbers that were captured in the JFK Database, but a corresponding document has not yet been found in the Collection.” They are an interesting assortment, including two Church Committee interview transcripts with unidentified witnesses. One concerns Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and another concerns Africa, probably about the CIA attempts to assassinate Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba.
- 10 Lost Audio Cassettes– The Ford Library was unable to locate 10 recorded interviews conducted by the 1975 Rockefeller Commission with persons including Robert McNamara, CIA officers William Harvey and Sheffield Edwards, and Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis. The National Archives notes that “The transcripts of the audio files are open and available in the Collection.” This cannot be verified in all cases because the metadata for three recordings does not identify the interviewee.
- 12 “Deed of Gift” Records—This material is withheld under Section 10 of the JFK Records Act, which exempts “deed of gift” material from mandatory release. Seven of these relate to William Manchester’s research for his exhaustive 1967 book Death of a President, including four May 1964 interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy (Tape 1, Tape 2, Tape 3, Tape 4) and two interviews with Robert Kennedy (May 16, 1964and January 12, 1965). These are all “closed by court order until 2067.” (Both Jackie Kennedy and Robert Kennedy privately expressed the belief that JFK’s accused killer “did not act alone.”)
Publicly Released—or Not
In response to the Mary Ferrell Foundation’s queries, the National Archives stated that 336 of these 1,151 unpublished records were mistakenly included on the list of scheduled releases in 2017 and had already been released.
In many cases, we could not confirm that claim. In May 2019, with the assistance of Archives staff, the Mary Ferrell Foundation conducted a spot-check of the missing or supposedly released records at the National Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland, where the JFK Collection is housed.
We attempted to physically access 27 documents said to have been released, to see if they were indeed publicly available. Here is what we found:
- Nine were available and open in full.
- Three were represented by a notification that these Warren Commission records were available only on microfilm. Since microfilming was done in 1982, they cannot be available in unredacted form.
- Fourteen of the supposedly released items could not be located.
- One had had a “referred” slip where the document should have been.
In short, the MFF spot check showed that more than half of a small sample of the documents that the National Archives said were “previously released” are not available for public inspection at the National Archives, and others were not in a form where they could ever be released in full.
Faulty JFK Spreadsheet
Even more disturbingly, the National Archives is offering the public a terribly incomplete record of its already public JFK assassination holdings. Its database of JFK records is currently non-functional but its web site offers a downloadable spreadsheet purportedly “listing every [emphasis added] item in the database to facilitate researcher access to the information in the system.” In fact, the Mary Ferrell Foundation had found that the spreadsheet omits most of the records of key agencies involved in the JFK assassination story.
As a result of these omissions, the National Archives is not presenting the full record of its own holdings to the public for download. In 2016, the Mary Ferrell Foundation obtained from an independent source a spreadsheet of the JFK Records collection which listed 319,106 unique JFK records, categorized by agency.
The public National Archives spreadsheet lists only 170,873 records. So a college student or historian using this spreadsheet will not be able to find 47 percent of the JFK collection.
The gaps are significant and seemingly selective.
- Ninety-six percent of the CIA documents in the National Archives’ JFK collection are not listed in the publicly available spreadsheet.
- Forty percent of the FBI records are not listed.
- None of the Secret Service, Office of Naval Intelligence, or Joint Chiefs of Staff’s assassination documents are listed in the National Archives’ public listing of “every” JFK record.
For example, scholars searching for records of Operation Northwoods, a top-secret Pentagon “false flag” plan to provoke a war with Cuba in 1963 by staging a spectacular crime in the United States and arranging for the blame to fall on the Cuban government, will find no records at all on the National Archives spreadsheet.
The faulty spreadsheet is probably the result of technical error, not deliberate distortion of the record of JFK’s assassination. But the mistake—if that’s what it is—indicates that compliance with the JFK Records Act is failing across the U.S. government.
An Archives official told Mary Ferrell Foundation that “discrepancies” in the public spreadsheet will be addressed. An Archives spokesperson said in an email that “We do not have a timeline for when the [JFK Records] database will be back up.”
The Need for Oversight
Larry Schnapf, a New York attorney and JFK researcher, has sent a detailed letter to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Oversight Committee, calling for hearings and enforcement of the JFK Records Act.
“President Trump’s certification for postponing the release of the remaining assassination records did not comply with the specific requirements of the JFK Records Act,” Schnapf said in email. “As chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Maloney has oversight authority over the JFK Records Act.”
Schnapf requests Congress:
- Conduct an oversight hearing before the April 26th deadline established by the Archivist for the agencies to request further postponement.
- Instruct agencies that requested in 2017 for records to be withheld that they are to comply with the April 26th deadline.
- Instruct any agency requesting further postponement to provide a Vaughn Index, setting forth specific explanations on a document-by-document basis why the particular record needs to be withheld as required by Section 4(3)(e) of the JFK Act. [Under the Freedom of Information Act, a Vaughn Index is a listing and description of all records withheld by a government agency.]
- Require all agencies to provide and publish in the Federal Register explanations for each and every postponed document (or portion of a document); and
- Investigate if certain records were properly categorized as “Not Believed Relevant” (NBR).
“Congress has failed to conduct proper oversight of a law that very few members may even remember,” national security attorney Mark Zaid said. “I don’t think there’s any earth-shattering documents in there but JFK’s assassination is still a vibrant living moment in U.S. history, like the Challenger Shuttle and 9/11 for later generations. These forthcoming deadlines can revive the life of [the] Act to allow the task started in 1992 to be finished.”
Completing the Record
The JFK Records Act, one of the strongest open government laws ever passed by Congress, has in many ways been a remarkable success at deepening and clarifying public understanding of Kennedy’s assassination with information not previously shared with the public.
Besides uncovering the Northwoods plans, the ARRB file releases rewrote the story of the formation of the Warren Commission, thrust into prominence Lee Harvey Oswald’s trip to Mexico City in the fall of 1963 and highlighted allegations of Communist conspiracy emanating from that city. One memo from FBI director Edgar Hoover to the Secret Service (and a now-erased presidential phone call) relayed the FBI’s conclusion that someone had impersonated Oswald there.
The JFK records up for review in October are unlikely to resolve the perennial conspiracy debate, but that was not the purpose of the JFK Records Act. The law, approved unanimously by Congress, mandated that the government share all of its records on a pivotal moment in American history with the public. That has yet to happen 29 years later.
“The law gives the president discretion, so President Biden can postpone the records again,” Judge Tunheim, former ARRB chair, said. Noting that Biden supported the JFK Records Act as a senator, he urged the president to order full JFK disclosure.
“He should just say after all these years, almost 58 years after the assassination, it’s time to release everything.” Tunheim went on. “He should tell the agencies, these are records of a bygone era that Congress wants released. All of them. It shouldn’t be complicated.”
But in the JFK assassination story, secretive U.S. agencies have resisted transparency and accountability since the day the president died. Whether the promise of the JFK Records Act is fulfilled this year is up to Biden and Congress.