Frustrated JFK researchers say there is little new to learn in Wednesday’s release of previously classified documents collected as part of the government review into the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The vast majority of the almost 1,500 documents released by the National Archives as new appear to be duplicates of previously released documents with only a few redacted words now revealed, often the name of a CIA case officer or the location of an overseas agency station that investigators had already pieced together. Some have no changes whatsoever.
The release still leaves more than 10,000 documents either partially redacted or withheld entirely, which won’t be seen until December 2022 at the earliest under an order issued by President Joe Biden in October. It has prolonged the bitter debate between the federal government and JFK researchers, who argue that the CIA, the FBI and other national security agencies have continually stonewalled a congressionally mandated release.
“It’s always ‘the next time,’” said the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, a leading scholar of the assassination. He called the redactions that were removed in Wednesday’s release “minimal and worthless.”
“The reason it’s so important is not so much that we’re going to find a smoking gun that changes the entire theory of who killed Kennedy,” he said. “The lack of transparency and the fact that getting these documents after 58 years is like pulling a whole mouthful of teeth — it tells you why we have so many conspiracy theories.”
You can read the documents here.
Sabato and other researchers cautioned that it will likely take days to go through all 1,500 documents with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there are no new clues surrounding the assassination or novel pieces of historical information about CIA and FBI operations in the 60’s.
But for many lawmakers and transparency advocates, releasing all of the remaining documents, as mandated by Congress in 1992, is about restoring faith in the functioning of government. Public polling has long shown that a majority of Americans do not believe the Warren Commission’s official finding that Kennedy was killed by a single man, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone.
“Because it has taken [the government] so long to get these records out, no matter what comes out, no one is going to believe that that’s it,” said one official familiar with the classification concerns related to the documents.
In October Biden delayed a scheduled release to “protect against identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or the conduct of foreign relations that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in the immediate disclosure.”
He set two deadlines: Wednesday, for any documents that national security agencies have not proposed be withheld, and Dec. 15, 2022, to allow for the remaining documents to undergo a rigorous security review and then be released.
Some transparency advocates argue that another filing the government was scheduled to make on Wednesday will be more significant than the documents release – and, in fact, is a significant step toward transparency.
Agencies that wish to continue to withhold particular documents past December 2022 are scheduled to provide to the White House “an unclassified index identifying for each such record the reasons for which the agency is proposing continued postponement of information in such record,” according to Biden’s October order. That order dictated that those indexes should be made public along with the remaining documents in 2022.
“President Biden’s memo reinforces the strict standards established by Congress and holds agencies to a strict timeline and well-structured process,” Ezra Cohen, the chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a bipartisan advisory panel whose members are appointed by the president and Congress, said in a statement.
“The PIDB’s expectation is that, a year from now, most of the records currently withheld will be declassified and available to the public.”
Researchers frustrated with Biden administration approach
But even before Wednesday’s release, longtime assassination researchers expressed frustration with the Biden administration’s piecemeal approach. Larry Schnapf, a lawyer and assassination researcher, announced on Tuesday night his intention to sue Biden for failing to release the records in full.
Schnapf has previously sued for internal government communications underpinning the decision behind successive postponements by both former President Donald Trump and Biden.
“We will be seeking a court order instructing the President to release the remaining records or to disclose the specific identifiable harm posed by each document sought to be postponed and how such alleged harm outweighs the strong public interest in the release of these records – which were supposed to have been released by October 26, 2017,” Schnapf wrote in an email to reporters on Tuesday.
Since many of the documents in question involve covert Cold War intelligence activities, there are theoretically legitimate reasons why classified information dating to the 1960s should be withheld, said former CIA officer David Priess, the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets.”
It is “increasingly unlikely” but “possible” that a CIA source from that era could still be alive and at risk from disclosure, Priess said.
“It could be that there’s a source out there who is still in power or still connected directly to someone that would be dangerous for today’s intelligence collection,” Priess said. “Now, you have to balance that against the historical interest and the compelling public interest here.”
In 1992, Congress passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, in part prompted by furor caused by the conspiratorial Oliver Stone film “JFK.”
The act dictated that all assassination records should be publicly disclosed by October 2017, but Trump and now Biden have allowed multiple postponements on the advice of the FBI, the CIA and other national security agencies. Trump ultimately released tens of thousands of documents, the majority of which include at least some redactions.
Going into Wednesday, more than 90% of the records had been released, according to the National Archives – 15,834 documents that had been previously released but include redactions and 520 documents that had been withheld in full. The majority of those documents are tax records, according to the Archives, including Oswald’s tax returns. Those records are specifically exempted from the JFK records act.
CNN’s Tom Foreman, Chandler Schlegel, Ellie Kaufman, Ethan Cohen and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.