The National Archives on Thursday released thousands of previously classified documents collected as part of the government review into the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The cache of over 13,000 documents is the second of two JFK assassination-related document dumps that President Joe Biden ordered last year when the White House postponed a public release because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“[T]he profound national tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination continues to resonate in American history and in the memories of so many Americans who were alive on that terrible day; meanwhile, the need to protect records concerning the assassination has weakened with the passage of time,” the White House said in a memorandum Thursday.
“It is therefore critical to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency by disclosing all information in records concerning the assassination, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.”
Biden said in the memo that the National Archives and other agencies have until May 2023 to review the remaining private documents. After that, “any information withheld from public discourse that agencies do not recommend for continued postponement” will be released before June 30, 2023.
Kennedy’s assassination prompted a whirlwind of questions from the public and researchers, plenty of conspiracy theories and reflexive secrecy from the government.
Researchers have cautioned that it will likely take days to go through the thousands of 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 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.
Larry Sabato, author of the “The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy,” told CNN that while there may be some hidden gems throughout the document release, there won’t be anything that changes what happened that day in 1963.
“It’s not going to change the story,” he said of the newly declassified documents. “It’s not. I guarantee you.”
He added that if people are looking for proof to back up conspiracy theories that Oswald didn’t act alone in killing Kennedy, or that the CIA was somehow involved, they won’t find that here.
“The truth is not that Oswald was part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy,” he said. “The truth is that this assassination was preventable and could have been prevented and should have been prevented if the CIA and FBI were doing their jobs. Really, that’s it. Now that’s serious, but you’re not going to find the names of other conspirators in here.”
And while there may not be any earth-shattering revelations about what happened on November 22, 1963, Sabato did note a document discussing Oswald’s time in Mexico City, which says the US was running a “highly secret” telephone tap center with the president of Mexico, not even known to Mexican law enforcement. He also identified a document from the National Archives and Records Administration that said as of this month, 28 records in the JFK collection remain “not located.”
Admissions like the latter are what fuel conspiracy theories, Sabato said.
“If you are of a conspiratorial mind, you go, ‘Aha! There were important documents with key information in there and they’ve conveniently ‘lost’ them.’ Now, it’s possible that’s true. But I would say the odds are enormous they just got lost. I mean, there’s so much paper,” he said.
Over the years, millions of documents have become public, offering researchers an opportunity to pore over not only records related to the Kennedy assassination, but also a variety of other topics, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and slaying to pivotal moments in the Cold War.
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 former President Donald 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.