The nation’s conspiracy-theorist-in-chief is facing a momentous decision. Will President Donald Trump allow the public to see a trove of thousands of long-secret government files about the event that, more than any other in modern American history, has fueled conspiracy theories – the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy?
The answer must come within months. And, according to a new timeline offered by the National Archives, it could come within weeks.
Under the deadline set by a 1992 law, Trump has six months left to decide whether he will block the release of an estimated 3,600 files related to the assassination that are still under seal at the Archives. From what is known of the JFK documents, most come from the CIA and FBI, and a number may help resolve lingering questions about whether those agencies missed evidence of a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death. As with every earlier release of JFK assassination documents in the 53 years since shots rang out in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, it is virtually certain that some of the files will be seized on to support popular conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s murder; other documents are likely to undermine them.
There is no little irony in the fact that decision will be left to Trump, long a promoter of so many baseless conspiracy theories about everything from his predecessor’s birthplace to the notion that the father of one of his campaign-trail rivals was in league with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
For the first time, the Trump White House is acknowledging that it is focused on the issue, even if it offers no hint about what the President will do. A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Politico last week that the Trump administration “is familiar with the requirements” of the 1992 law and that White House is working with the National Archives “to enable a smooth process in anticipation of the October deadline.”
Under the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, the library of documents about Kennedy’s death must be made public in full by the deadline of this October 26, the law’s 25th anniversary, unless Trump decides otherwise. It is his decision alone.
The prospect of the release of the last of the government’s long-secret JFK assassination files has long tantalized historians and other scholars, to say nothing of the nation’s armies of conspiracy theorists, since no one can claim to know exactly what is in there.
Martha W. Murphy, the Archives official who oversees the records, said in an interview last month that a team of researchers with high-level security clearances is at work to prepare the JFK files for release and hopes to begin unsealing them in batches much earlier than October – possibly as early as summer.
Beyond releasing the 3,600 never-before-seen JFK files, the Archives is reviewing another 35,000 assassination-related documents, previously released in part, so they can be unsealed in full. Short of an order from the president, Murphy said, the Archives is committed to making everything public this year: “There’s very little decision-making for us.”
Many of the documents are known to come from the files of CIA officials who monitored a mysterious trip that Oswald paid to Mexico City several weeks before the assassination – a trip that brought Kennedy’s future killer under intense surveillance by the spy agency as he paid visits to both the Soviet and Cuban embassies there. The CIA said it monitored all visitors to the embassies and opened surveillance of Oswald as soon as he was detected inside the Soviet compound for the first time.
Other documents are known to identify, by name, American and foreign spies and law-enforcement sources who had previously been granted anonymity for information about Oswald and the assassination. At least 400 pages of the files involve E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA operative turned Watergate conspirator who claimed on his deathbed that he had advance knowledge of Kennedy’s murder.
The documents were gathered together by a temporary federal agency, the Assassination Records Review Board, that was established under the 1992 law. In an interview last month, its former chairman, Judge John R. Tunheim of the Federal District Court in Minnesota, said he “wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something important” in the documents, especially given how much of the history of the Kennedy assassination has had to be rewritten in recent decades.
He said he knew of “no bombshells” in the files when the board agreed to keep them secret two decades ago, but names, places and events described in the documents could have significance now, given what has been learned about the assassination since the board went out of business. “Today, with a broader understanding of history, certain things may be far more relevant,” he said.
Murphy, the Archives official, said she, too, knew of no shocking information in the documents – but she said her researchers were not in a position to judge their significance. “As you can imagine, we’re not reading them for that, so we’re probably not the best people to tell you,” she said. “I will say this: This collection is really interesting as a snapshot of the Cold War.”
The Review Board, created by Congress to show transparency in response to the public furor created by Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-minded 1991 film “JFK,” did force the release of a massive library of other long-secret documents from the CIA, FBI, Secret Service and other federal agencies, as well as from congressional investigations of the assassination.
Many showed how much evidence was withheld from the Warren Commission, the independent panel led by Chief Justice Earl Warren that investigated the assassination and concluded in 1964 that there was no evidence of a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death.
The documents showed that both the CIA and FBI had much more extensive information about Oswald—and the danger he posed to JFK—before the assassination than the agencies admitted to Warren’s investigation. The evidence appeared to have been withheld from the commission out of fear that it would expose how the CIA and FBI had bungled the opportunity to stop Oswald.
Under the 1992 law, agencies may make a final appeal to try to stop the unsealing of specific documents on national security grounds. But the law grants only one person the power to actually block the release: the president. The law allows Trump to keep a document secret beyond the 25-year deadline if he certifies to the National Archives that secrecy was “made necessary by an identifiable harm to military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement or conduct of foreign relations” and that “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
Both the CIA and FBI acknowledged in written statements last month that they are reviewing the documents scheduled for release; neither agency would say if it planned to appeal to the White House to block the unsealing of any of the records. “CIA continues to review the remaining CIA documents in the collection to determine the appropriate next steps with respect to any previously-unreleased CIA information,” said agency spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak. The FBI said it had a team of 21 researchers assigned to the document review.
According to a skeletal index of the documents prepared by the Archives, some of the files appear to involve, at least indirectly, a set of conspiracy theories that Trump himself promoted during the 2016 campaign – about possible ties between Cuban exile groups in the United States and Oswald. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly promoted an article published last April in the National Enquirer that suggested a connection between Oswald and the Cuban-born father of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination. The article was based entirely on a 1963 photograph that showed Oswald, a self-proclaimed Marxist and champion of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba, handing out pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans with a man who, the tabloid suggested, was Cruz’s father, Rafael.
The Cruz family denied that the senator’s family was the man depicted in the photo and that Rafael Cruz had any connection to Oswald; there is no other evidence of any connection.
The National Archives index shows that the documents to be released this year include a 86-page file on a prominent CIA-backed anti-Castro exile group that Oswald appears to have tried to infiltrate in New Orleans, his hometown, in order to gather information that might be of use to the Castro government.
Judge Tunheim said that Oswald’s trip to Mexico City in September and October 1963 figures directly or indirectly in many of the documents that remain under seal, including the internal files of CIA operatives who worked at the American embassy there.
Historians agree that the trip, which Oswald apparently undertook in hopes of obtaining a visa to defect to Castro’s Cuba, much as he had once tried to defect to the Soviet Union, has never been fully investigated.
“I still think there are loose threads in Mexico City that no one has ever explored,” Tunheim said. “It was a bizarre chapter – there’s no question about it.” Previously declassified CIA and FBI documents suggest that Oswald openly boasted to Cuban officials there about his intention to kill Kennedy and that he had a brief affair with a Mexican woman who worked in Cuba’s consulate. The American ambassador to Mexico at the time of the assassination said later that he believed the woman had probably been working for the CIA.
Tunheim said the Review Board agreed to keep the Mexico-related documents secret in the 1990s at the request of the State Department, the CIA and other agencies that warned that their release could do damage to relations with the Mexico government, which worked closely with the CIA and FBI during the Cold War. “Mexico City was where everybody spied on everybody else,” the judge said.
But given the chill in relations between the United States and Mexico following Trump’s election and early moves by his administration to build its long-promised wall along the Mexican border, a similar plea to keep the documents secret may not go very far with the new president. Said Tunheim: “I guess we don’t have much of a relationship with the Mexican government to protect anymore.”