Freeing the JFK Files
One of many previously secret JFK assassination documents (see larger 1980-era withheld page, and as released in 1997).
Free the JFK files! This has been a rallying cry for many citizens over the years. Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK closed with the following message:
A Congressional Investigation from 1976-1979 found a "probable conspiracy" in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and recommended the Justice Department investigate further. As of 1991, the Justice Department has done nothing. The files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations are locked away until the year 2029.
In the wake of the film, Congress was besieged by the public and quickly passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 to remedy this situation. What happened after that? Are the JFK files now all public? Was there a smoking gun in them? Is the government still hiding documents about the assassination, till 2029 or beyond?
Warren Commission Records and the Early Critics
Earl Warren presenting the Warren Report to President Johnson
The issue of secrecy in the government's handling of the Kennedy assassination has been present from the beginning. Before the Warren Commission deposed a single witness, Chief Justice Warren had surprised the press with this statement regarding when its documents might become public:
Yes, there will come a time. But it might not be in your lifetime. I am not referring to anything especially, but there may be some things that would involve security. This would be preserved but not made public.
The Warren Commission took its testimony in secret sessions, though the transcripts that testimony was published in November 1964, two months after the issuance of the Warren Report. The testimony was accompanied by thousands of pages of exhibits in an encyclopedic "26 volumes" that early researchers began to purchase for $76.
It was the contradictions between the Report and the mass of testimony and evidence in the 26 volumes which fueled the work of the early critics. Sylvia Meagher's landmark 1967 book Accessories After the Fact rebuts the Commission's conclusions largely based on evidence the Commission itself published.
Critics also discovered what was missing. The exhibits in the 26 volumes were culled from a larger set of numbered Warren Commission documents, and the Commission also left its working papers and transcripts of its executive sessions with the National Archives, unavailable to the public. While a project directed by President Johnson to declassify the Warren Commission documents was begun in 1965, many were deemed too sensitive to release.
At one point the National Archives mistakenly released a listing of the titles of the Warren Commission documents, including those which were still withheld. Among the intriguing titles were such items as: "CIA Helms Memorandum of 13 May 1964 re: Oswald's Access to Classified Information About the U-2" (CD 931) and "CIA Helms Memorandum of 27 May 1964 re: Khruschev-Pearson Discussion of Oswald" (CD 990).
The FOIA and the JFK Case
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966, requiring the government to respond to citizen requests for files unless those files were exempt from disclosure for certain particular reasons identified in the statute. JFK researchers, most notably Harold Weisberg, began to use the FOIA to try to pry withheld documents out of the hands of the FBI and National Archives.
In one such FOIA lawsuit, Weisberg in 1970 sued for release of the spectrographic analysis the FBI had done on bullet fragments, clothing, and other evidence. The FBI has admitted conducting such tests but refused to release their analyses, leading Weisberg to suspect that this was because the test results didn't support the single bullet theory. But the courts upheld the FBI's contention that the files could be withheld because they were "investigatory files compiled for law enforcement purposes," one of the exemptions allowed under the 1966 FOIA.
Another Weisberg lawsuit involved one of the Warren Commission executive session transcripts. In 1965 former Commissioner Gerald Ford published Portrait of the Assassin, in which he quoted at length from a particular transcript, revealing that the Commission had grappled with the allegation, brought to them by Texas authorities, that Oswald was an FBI informant. Weisberg sued to get the transcript. Weisberg and his attorney Jim Lesar demolished the government's claim that the Top Secret stamp on the transcript had any validity, but lost the case in the courts. Prior to the filing of an appeal, the Archives released the transcript. The story of the fight for the transcript is told in Weisberg's Whitewash IV; a chapter written by his attorney Jim Lesaar is available for reading online.
AARC President and FOIA attorney Jim Lesar.
In 1974 the Freedom of Information Act was amended, with the strong support of Senator Edward Kennedy, to close loopholes by which the FBI and other agencies were avoiding disclosure. The Weisberg "spectro" case was specifically cited by Congress when it amended the FOIA in 1974 to overturn the blanket refusals the FBI was issuing based on the investigatory files exemption. President Ford vetoed the bill on advice from his Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld's aide Dick Cheney, but Congress overrode the veto. Over the subsequent years, FOIA suits filed by Harold Weisberg, Gary Shaw, Mark Allen, Paul Hoch, and others forced documents out of the hands of the FBI and CIA.
The effort to free the files was of course part of the general citizen effort to solve the JFK assassination where the government seemed to have failed so badly. This effort was related to dismay and outrage over apparent cover-ups of other political assassinations, and was fueled by the disclosures of government wrongdoing in the Watergate and post-Watergate era. Where most of the public had faith in government institutions in 1963, a decade later that faith had unraveled.
More Secret Files From the Investigations of the 1970s
The most prominent post-Watergate investigation into intelligence agency abuses, the Church Committee, conducted a limited investigation related to the JFK assassination. A slim report with the bland title "The Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Performance of the Intelligence Agencies" belied its devastating critique of the FBI and CIA's relation to the Warren Commission. But, as is the custom for Senate investigations, the files upon which the Committee's conclusions were based were locked up for 50 years.
One of 12 volumes accompanying the HSCA's Report on the JFK Assassination. All other files were sealed from public view.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) picked up this work and conducted a two-year investigation which culminated in public hearings and an astounding conclusion of "probable conspiracy" in the JFK case, based largely on acoustics evidence for a grassy knoll shot. The Committee also produced a 1000-page volume on organized crime which rebutted the Warren Commission's claim that Jack Ruby was not mob-connected.
But the HSCA surprised many critics by upholding the single bullet theory - the Committee somewhat bizarrely concluded that there was a grassy knoll shot, but it missed. The Committee published in its Report tantalizing information about Oswald's trip to Mexico City in the fall of 1963, and reported all too briefly on a variety of testimony, including for instance that 8 to 12 Army intelligence agents may have been in Dealey Plaza.
The HSCA published a report and 12 volumes of appendices on the JFK case, and then the remainder of its voluminous files were sealed for 50 years. Besides hundreds of thousands of pages of transcripts and working papers, these files included a vast "segregated collection" of CIA records to which the Committee had been granted access.
Shortly after the Committee's dissolution, Mark Allen filed a FOIA suit for these CIA records and for FBI files which the Committee had seen. This suit spent more than 15 years in the courts.
The JFK Film and the JFK Records Act
The 1980s saw a bit of a lull in writing about the Kennedy assassination, though there were document releases through the FOIA and more books being written, prominent among them David Lifton's Best Evidence (1980), Henry Hurt's Reasonable Doubt (1985), Jim Marr's Crossfire (1989), and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins (1988). Oliver Stone purchased the rights to the latter and began work on a film entitled JFK.
Jim Garrison played Earl Warren in the film JFK.
The film was pilloried in the press even before it was ever shown publicly, thanks in part to a disgruntled Harold Weisberg's leaking of the script to George Lardner of the Washington Post. But the movie played powerfully across America, conveying the story of a large-scale domestic conspiracy to kill Kennedy turning on JFK's too-dovish foreign policy, particularly around Vietnam. The fury of letter-writing and phone-calling to Washington, responding to the film's closer regarding still-secret documents, resulted in Congress' determination to declassify those files as speedily as possible.
The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 was the result. This unprecedented law defined "assassination record" broadly, including for instance Kennedy-assassination records on Vietnam and Cuba, two foreign policy hotspots long believed to be related to the assassination. It also called for the creation of an independent board to oversee the declassification effort, with the power to direct agencies to release documents, with direct appeal to the President as the agencies' only recourse. President George H.W. Bush signed the act into law on October 26, 1992.
The Assassination Records Review Board
President Clinton meeting with the Assassination Records Review Board.
It was left to President Clinton to appoint the members of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). Five members, headed by John Tunheim. After a period of recalcitrance by the CIA and FBI, and destruction of documents by the Secret Service early in the Board's term, the ARRB went on to oversee declassification of millions of pages of formerly-secret records. It also conducted a number of interviews and sworn depositions in its search for records. The Board's mandate was to identify and declassify records, not reinvestigate the assassination, though sometimes the interviews crossed into a gray area between the two.
Among the more important of these interviews were those with the autopsy doctors and others involved in the medical side of the JFK case. Navy photo developer Sandra Kay Spencer told the ARRB in sworn testimony that the autopsy photos in the Archives were not those she processed on the weekend after the assassination. Autopsy photographer John Stringer similarly disavowed photos purported to be those he took of JFK's brain during a supplementary exam. Other medical interviews contained similarly astounding allegations.
The files themselves contained a number of revelations in many areas, including the medical evidence, Oswald's trip to Mexico City, JFK foreign policy secrets regarding Vietnam and Cuba. The latter included plans for complete withdrawal from Vietnam drawn up in the spring of 1963, and files on Operation Northwoods, a military plan to conduct terrorist activities which could be blamed on Cuba in order to justify an armed invasion of that country.
Many books written in the 1990s and since 2000 have discussed revelations in these files, among them John Newman's Oswald and the CIA, Peter Dale Scotts Deep Politics II, Larry Hancock's Someone Would Have Talked, William Davy's Let Justice Be Done, and many others. Probe magazine covered the work of the AARB and later produced The Assassinations, a compendium of essays informed by the new files.
The declassification of investigative files was accompanied by the release of Lyndon Johnson's recorded Presidential phone calls, which revealed in much more detail the story of the formation of the Warren Commission.
Beyond the Secret Service's document destruction, the declassification effort revealed some gaps. The first phone call between President Johnson and FBI Director Hoover was erased, though a transcript survived in the files. The ARRB was unable to resolve the significant and unexplained gaps in the tape recording of transmissions to and from Air Force I on its flight home from Dallas.
There are other gaps and omissions, though on the whole the ARRB successfully implemented the largest focused document declassification effort in history, one which has been touted by some historians as a model for the future. A general spirit of openness embodied in the JFK Act and a Clinton order that government files be generally opened after 25 years was reversed in the Bush years; in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush White House informed agencies that the Attorney General would back them in fighting FOIA requests, and a program was instituted to quietly reclassify files already available at the National Archives, some dating back to the Korean War.
The State of the JFK Files
So, are the JFK files now all free? Not quite. While voluminous previously-secret records are now available, study of them points the way to what is missing and potentially significant.
For instance, it was only late in the ARRB's term that it came across records for CIA project AMWORLD, a key 1963 program of moving Manuel Artime and other anti-Castro exiles offshore, and interpreted by author Lamar Waldron as being formed in support of a Kennedy coup plan for Cuba. The handful of AMWORLD records point to more.
CIA case officer and HSCA liaison George Joannides.
Another story which emerged toward the end of the ARRB's tenure involves CIA officer George Joannides, whom journalist Jefferson Morley discovered had been the case officer for the Cuban exile group DRE from 1962 to 1964. DRE delegate Carlos Bringuier had interactions with Oswald in the summer of 1963, and it was the DRE that first spread information about Oswald's purported leftist leanings in the immediate aftermath of the assassination (debate continues over whether this stance was genuine or part of an intelligence "legend"). Joannides operational role takes on extra significance due to the fact that the CIA had brought him out of retirement to serve as liaison to the HSCA, without telling the HSCA of his past role. Morley is engaged now in a lawsuit with the CIA over Joannides' records; so far the monthly reports Joannides must have filed on the DRE remain missing.
The Morley lawsuit operates under FOIA rules, not the more liberal disclosure policies of the JFK Records Act, and the CIA has reverted to its earlier stance against releasing the records.
Paragraph from the Final Report of the Review Board created by the JFK Records Act.
Many declassified records still contain "redactions," blackouts which hide the name of an informant or a method of operation. While each such document contains a schedule whereby each redaction will be lifted, with all of them scheduled to be removed as of 2017, in reality the National Archives has not devoted the resources needed to reprocess the records. The CIA did reprocess 8000 documents in 2003 and removed many redactions, but the fate of most of the rest is uncertain.
Still, it can safely be said that the vast majority of documents directly relevant to the JFK assassination which still exist in government files have been declassified. It is certainly quite possible that new records, such as the Joannides files, will shed significant light on the assassination and its aftermath. However, the bulk of the story told in the governments' files is now available. How much was known but never entered in government records, and how much was destroyed long ago, is uncertain. The meaning of what did make it into these files is still being debated. David Talbot's book Brothers showed that many government insiders, including no less than Attorney General Robert Kennedy, thought that the Warren Commission's investigation was a public relations exercise.
The Mary Ferrell Foundation's JFK Collection
This website holds over 1 million pages of these records, roughly 20% of what is held in the JFK Collection in the National Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland. The majority of MFF files come from the Assassination Archives and Research Center, headed by Jim Lesar. These were the result of several FOIA lawsuits over the years. The AARC's files have been supplemented by files in Mary Ferrell's collection and donations from various individuals and by trips to the National Archives.
Most of the AARC's government records relating to the JFK assassination, a subset of the National Archives' collection, are now available online on this website, though some smaller collections remain to be processed. Most of Mary Ferrell's document sets have also been scanned or superceded by more recent versions of those files supplied by other sources.
The only source for much of the remaining records is the National Archives, which makes these files available for copying and scanning at its facility. This is a time-consuming and laborious process. Donations to facilitate this work are welcome - either monetary donations to fund our trips, donations of paper records in your possession, or donation of time to acquire the records yourself and make them available to the MFF. One of the primary missions of the Mary Ferrell Foundation is to provide electronic access to these and other important documents to anyone with an internet connection. If you would like to help, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Rex Bradford, May 2019