|Dear Readers: While we usually focus on election-related topics, the University of Virginia Center for Politics and our director, Larry J. Sabato, have long taken an interest in the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy. Sabato and the Center produced the Kennedy Half-Century project in 2013, including Sabato’s best-selling book The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy and other resources. Sabato and other members of the Center for Politics team, as well as student interns, have been combing through documents related to Kennedy’s assassination, and we — like so many others — are eager to see the final JFK documents released. The piece below, by Center for Politics researchers Garland Branch and Eliot Sperling along with intern Natalie Gonzalez, sums up what we know about the government’s remaining unreleased JFK documents and ponders whether they will finally be released this fall.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The JFK Act passed in 1992 required that all government agencies send any records concerning the JFK assassination to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where they would be held for 25 years before released to the public on Oct. 26, 2017.
— Although the Act stated that no assassination records were to be destroyed, many documents, photographs, and audio files were destroyed or went missing both before and after the 1992 Act.
— Between July 24, 2017 and April 26, 2018, over 34,000 records were released from the JFK collection. However, many documents were redacted, while others were not released.
— On April 26, 2018, then-President Trump granted some agencies until April 26, 2021 to review the remaining documents and notify the NARA of any reasons why those should not be released.
— By this Sunday, Sept. 26, NARA will inform President Joe Biden of the agencies’ recommendations, and he will make a final decision whether the remaining records should be released on Oct. 26, 2021.
Waiting for the final JFK documents
The release of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK in 1991, which raised speculation as to who killed John F. Kennedy, led many in the public to voice their belief in a conspiracy and demand answers from the government. As a result, then-President George H. W. Bush signed into law the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act). The Act stated that “all Government records related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy should be preserved for historical and governmental purposes” in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The resulting collection includes over 300,000 records of more than 5 million pages of assassination-related documents, films, photographs, audio recordings, and artifacts.
The Act prohibited all assassination records from “being destroyed, altered, or mutilated in any way,” and any that had been previously released could not be “withheld, redacted, postponed for public disclosure, or reclassified.” It also included a 25-year sunset clause (Oct. 26, 2017) that required all records be released in full, unless the president determined releasing them would cause “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.” When the 25-year deadline arrived in October 2017, not all of the remaining records were released as former President Trump had promised. Although he stated that the “American public expects — and deserves — its Government to provide as much access as possible,” various government agencies convinced him to withhold over 15,000 records because of possible harm to “national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs.” Trump, therefore, allowed the agencies to review the records until April 26, 2018, at which time the remainder were to be released.
Various records were released throughout the 1990s, but not always in full. Many were partially redacted, with words or sometimes whole pages blank. Some of those released revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald had visited the Soviet and Cuban Embassies in Mexico City just one month prior to the assassination. It also told frightening tales of how far the U.S. government was willing to go to overthrow Fidel Castro. The files also include many irrelevant records, such as incomplete financial statements and duplicated documents.
From July 24, 2017 to April 26, 2018, over 34,000 documents were released or re-released with fewer redactions. Surprisingly, some re-releases had even more redactions than the originals. Several hundred remained sealed in accordance with Sections 10 and 11 of the Act, which prevented IRS and Social Security Administration records from being disclosed.
Like those released in the 1990s, as Larry Sabato has noted, some of the 2017-2018 documents offered further insight into the government’s desire to get rid of Castro — with the CIA recruiting the Mafia to assassinate him and even considering such James Bond-like devices as poison cigars, exploding sea shells, and a toxin-coated scuba wetsuit. Unfortunately, many of the released documents were little more than one-page invoices or routine memos.
The greatest frustration, however, is what can never be released due to records that have gone missing or were destroyed. From the 2016 inventory of documents to be released, 336 are missing. The NARA, however, stated that those were mistakenly listed and had been released in full prior to 2017. The Mary Ferrell Foundation, which maintains a vast archive of JFK files and information, estimated after extensive research that 224 of those 336 were not publicly available as the NARA claimed.
Although the JFK Act explicitly stated that all assassination-related records were not to be “destroyed, altered, or mutilated in any way,” that provision was ignored many times. Agents in the CIA, FBI, and other organizations intentionally destroyed documents. However, we have no idea how many files were destroyed, nor what was in those files. A memorandum found in Oswald’s CIA file states that the Office of Security destroyed most of the files on Oswald in April 1994 from its program, which monitored mail sent to and from Communist Bloc countries, including the USSR, China, and Cuba. And, even before the Act, government officials admitted to destroying records that might have shed light upon JFK’s assassination. According to the 1978 interview of former CIA Clandestine Services agent Joseph Burkholder Smith, “many files may have been destroyed in the CIA’s reaction to previous critical attacks on [Agency] operations…”
So when April 2018 arrived, we and others hoped that all of the remaining records at the NARA would be forthcoming as former President Trump promised. Unfortunately, the public had to wait yet again, as the president gave government agencies more time to review the records. Trump agreed that the agencies had until April 26, 2021 to review records and inform the NARA if the “records (or portions of records) satisfy the standard for continued postponement.”
It is not known if government agencies in April requested any records not be released. What is known is that by Sept. 26, 2021, the NARA will inform President Joe Biden “whether continued withholding from public disclosure of the identified records is warranted after October 26, 2021.” If President Biden decides that there is no further justification for withholding the remaining files, we hope that come the 26th, we will know more about the events that led up to and that followed the tragedy of Nov. 22, 1963.
It has been 58 years since John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and any reasons for withholding records have significantly diminished. As for concerns there may still be “an identifiable harm,” many of the individuals mentioned in those records have died, and intelligence gathering has drastically changed since the 1960’s. Whatever rationales there had been for withholding records from the public — whether identifiable harm or attempts to hide embarrassing failures — only led to a distrust of the government by the American people. It is uncertain what President Biden will do come Sept. 26. Releasing all of the remaining documents will not eliminate the belief of some Americans that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination. However, at a time when many believe that a vaccination program is a government ruse to inject monitoring microchips, or that John F. Kennedy, Jr. faked his own death to uncover a Deep State that killed his father, the greater harm is not providing full disclosure. To do otherwise only perpetuates a lack of public trust in the government and weakens its foundation.
The Center for Politics has been researching the newest records since their release in 2017, and we’ve reviewed approximately 20,000 files in nearly five years. It would not have been possible without the help of many hardworking UVA student interns, research assistants, and those who enrolled in Center for Politics Independent Study classes: Adam Kimelman; Aidan Parker; Alex Fedje-Johnson; Andrew Landicho; Andy Chambers; Ann Ashley Daniel; Audrey Hirshberg; Ben Gustafson; Blake Center; Bruce Garth; Cameron Cox; Charlie Begala; Charlotte Kiss; Cole DeLong; Connor Kelly; Dominique Lavorata; Ella Tynch; Ellis Champion; Evan Luellen; Hannah Gavin; Hayden McCall; Henry Seeliger; Hugh Jones; Hunter Brown; James Katz; Joel Thomas; Kevin Nguyen; Laura Alan; Lauren Ott; Logan Van de Water; Maddie Shaw; Mariam Eatedali; Mazzen Shalaby; Meghan Holub; Monica Marciano; Natalie Gonzalez; Nate Fata; Neale Butler; Omar Metwally; Rosie Hartwell; Sarah Delcoco; Sean Groves; Sean Kilduff; Shweta Watwe; Sophie Punke; Spencer Smith; Sydney Cubbage; Thomas Driscoll; Victoria LaCivita; April Gutmann; Chris Obolensky; Moses Abraham; Parker Anderson; Juliette Christian-Lewicki; Riley Clark; Tate Connors; Grace Deal; Zachary Diamond; Catherine Flaherty-Bergaust; Brooke Hagenbuch; Saajid Hasan; Victoria Kasonde; Camille Kielbasa; Micah Maglaya; Amanda Pickens; Zachary Precythe; Scarlett Saunders; Adi Srikanth; Lauren M. Stroupe; Casey Suliga; Tallulah Tepper; and Gordon Willis, Jr.