Secret JFK Records to Test Conspiratorial Trump
In a season where conspiracy theories have loomed large, one pollster found that almost 50 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that “the government isn’t telling us all they know" about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Donald Trump tapped into such fears with a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory involving the father of Ted Cruz.
Unfortunately for those who dismiss Trumpian conspiracy theories, half of all Americans are indisputably correct that the government is not revealing all it knows about the murder of the liberal president 53 years ago. The U.S. government retains almost 3,600 JFK documents that have never been seen by the public, according to the National Archives. More than 1,100 JFK documents are held by the CIA. In addition, thousands of other partially declassified documents still contain significant redactions.
All told the government’s still-secret JFK records probably include more than 50,000 pages of material. While many of these files are not believed relevant to JFK’s assassination, others are certainly germane to understanding how the president of the United States was gunned down in Dallas and no one went to jail, or even lost their job.
These records might illuminate the question of who killed the 35th president. Of course, they might not. CIA and FBI records declassified in the last 10 years, while unnoticed by a decimated Washington press corps, demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the CIA’s counterintelligence surveillance of Oswald was much more extensive than investigators ever knew. That is not proof that senior CIA officers conspired to kill Kennedy, but it may indicate criminal negligence.
But the key issue today in 2016 is not conspiracy, it is accountability. Do the American people and their elected government—the Congress and the president—have the power to compel secretive agencies to come clean on JFK’s assassination? If Hollywood’s latest big-budget productions about Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are any indication, Americans can’t get enough of the JFK story. So why can’t we get all of it?
The CIA, NSA and FBI cite national security concerns. However, four million pages of JFK records have been made public without a single security compromises. The language of the law is precise. All JFK documents are to be made public in their entirety by October 26, 2017. That date is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the JFK Records Act. The law, enacted in the wake of Oliver Stone’s epic movie JFK, mandated “immediate” disclosure of all assassination-related records.
The National Archives is proceeding on the presumption of full disclosure. A team of seven archivists is working to complete online public release of these records by October 2017.
The intent of Congress was clear: to quell conspiratorial speculation with full disclosure. The JFK Records Act was signed by Republican George H.W. Bush and implemented by Democrat Bill Clinton. The declassified JFK records have been tapped by historians and journalists to broaden and deepen public understanding of JFK’s assassination, Kennedy’s presidency, Cuba policy, and the Cold War. The JFK Records collection is the single most used collection in the National Archives.
The JFK Records Act, however, has a loophole big enough for federal agencies to drive a JFK coverup through. Agencies can ask the president for permission to postpone release of JFK-related files beyond October 2017 to prevent “identifiable harm to military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement or conduct of foreign relations.”
In a message delivered to the White House last week, a diverse group of JFK authors and investigators called on the Obama White House to endorse full JFK disclosure before President-elect Trump takes office. The signatories range from Daniel Ellsberg and Oliver Stone to Howard Willens of the Warren Commission counsel and G. Robert Blakey, counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Whatever the contested legitimacy of the Trump presidency, the White House is going to have to make a decision on JFK secrecy within the year. If the White House Counsel agrees to an agency’s claim of “identifiable harm,” some or all of the last JFK files could remain secret indefinitely. If the next president wants to vindicate the people’s right to know, all the files will be made public and available online within the year. There would be no better tribute to JFK, who warned of the perils of secrecy and demagoguery.