Electronic Assassinations Newsletter
Democracy is showing some signs of life in the United States. At a time when a shrinking number of conglomerates control the media, fewer larger multinational corporations dominate the economy, the two major political parties depend on the same wealthy funders and get harder to tell apart, and class divisions are sharpening, it's refreshing to have some good news to share.
Oddly, the story began in Hollywood, where an ex-Republican maverick director named Oliver Stone decided to make a movie called JFK, stirring immediate media controversy in early 1991, and attempts to discredit the project even before filming began.
Following release of JFK, the major media continued to freak out, which may have increased it's success in theaters. Even more people saw the film on video, and on television. It ended with the message that many files on the Kennedy assassination remained secret. This shocked a great many people, who assumed almost everything had been released. Polls indicated that 80-90% of them also believed there had been a conspiracy.
Within a month of the film's release, members of Congress were told by large numbers of constituents, and many local newspapers, to pry those files out of the secret compartments of the national security state: the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the military, and many others.
Instead of simply making his next film, Oliver Stone took an active part in lobbying for release of the records. Intense pressure built so rapidly that Congress was forced to pass the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, over strong Bush administration opposition.
The major media were unenthusiastic, and have reported little of what has happened since: a rare Associated Press article in 1994 acknowledged that results of the Act "are almost unknown to the public,"then did little to increase public awareness. Other non-fans of the proposed Act included the CIA, whose director Robert Gates established an Historical Review Program to select documents for release, in an apparent attempt to forestall action by Congress. Among the first released was a 110 page pre-assassination file on Lee Harvey Oswald, most of which was already public.
The Act was passed in October, calling for appointment of an Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), and a two year life. Unlike the 1967 and 1976 Freedom of Information Acts, it established a clear bias in favor of full disclosure, but it specifically excluded the JFK autopsy photos and X-rays, which are controlled by the Kennedy family. Very shortly after, President George Bush lost his bid for re-election. He received recommendations for nominations to the Board, but took no action, and even took the list of proposed Board members with him when he left office. It was a few months into 1993 before President Clinton was able to acquire another copy of the list, and a new administration has other priorities in its early days.
Some agencies soon released records in compliance with the Act. In August 1993, the media announced that over 800,000 pages (one reporter said 1.5 million pages; and this was still only half of the total number of documents on the case) of CIA and FBI documents were opened by the National Archives, the largest record release in history. Oddly, the CIA had released only 90,000 pages, and the FBI and other agencies released none.
The major media, which apparently included in their total all records previously released, claimed to instantly analyze their contents ("no new evidence," as usual). They reported only 10,000 pages of CIA documents remained classified (actually, the volume was closer to 160,000 pages; in 29 years, the CIA had previously released only 11,000 pages), and accepted G. Robert Blakey's claim that "95%" of House Select Committee on Assassinations records were already public (414,000 pages remained closed). Less than half of FBI records had been previously released.
A new media campaign, with Gerald Posner and his book Case Closed in the vanguard, sought to discredit conspiracy theories on the assassination. The year's 37 critical books on the case were ignored or dismissed. After relatively brief research, Posner claimed to be "completely familiar with the public record in the case." President Clinton was heard to say good things about Mr. Posner, who suddenly appeared on every TV program about the case, and testified before Congress that November. In December, the FBI released 21,000 pages of files; they later released another 115,000 pages. Some had been released previously. Attorney General Janet Reno quietly established a policy of fuller cooperation with Freedom of Information Act requests.
Finally, after a year, President Clinton nominated five ARRB board members, but only after Congress recessed. In 1994, the Senate confirmed them, and the Board was sworn in April. In May, it held its first meeting in the room where the Warren Commission had convened; only one reporter attended.
Chairing the Board was John Tunheim, chief deputy attorney general of Minnesota. Other members were history professors Henry Graff, Kermit Hall and Anna Nelson, and librarian William Joyce. David Marwell, a former Justice Department Nazi-hunter who had crossed swords with Mr. Posner as head of the Berlin Documents Center, was appointed Executive Director in July.
Meanwhile, three assassination research groups came together to form the Coalition on Political Assassinations (COPA), to keep the pressure going.
In September, Congress extended the life of the ARRB for an additional year; it's term will end in October 1997. The Board, an independent federal agency, had to create itself from scratch, recruit staff, and await security clearances before it could begin working with documents. Its first public hearings were held in October and November. I testified at the second one, in Dallas, providing a list of places to look for documents, the product of a COPA workshop. Despite the media hype, the total number of new records voluntarily released by all of the agencies as of March 1995 was only 120,000. The Secret Service later admitted shredding two boxes of 1961-1963 protective records in January. COPA helped defeat attempts in 1994 and 1995 to eliminate the Board's funding.
From the beginning, in contrast to previous federal efforts on the assassination, the Board has had a good working relationship with the research community, a fact that has helped it to more quickly accomplish some of its work. Its first task was to define "assassination record," and this was completed in June 1995. The staff was divided into working groups to locate and collect federal, state, local and private records.
The Board has also received donations of private records, among them unseen film out-takes from a Dallas TV station, and files relating to the Jim Garrison investigation in New Orleans. Current D.A. Harry Connick Sr. refused to turn over files he promised to give the Board (Garrison's chief suspect Clay Shaw, and his supporters, contributed to Connick's early campaigns). Connick then gave Gerald Posner access to the still-secret files. Most recently, he ignored a court order to turn the files over to the Board, saying "they're not worth cooperating with."
Beginning last year, it began the laborious process of reviewing each of the still-unreleased records, deciding which to release. Agencies can appeal its decisions to President Clinton, who can veto them, but has made little use of this authority. Documents that remain classified are given a date upon which they will be released, instead of indefinite delays as in the past.
The first 16 documents, from the CIA, were released in July 1995, a small but historically significant step: for the first time, outside civilian reviewers were exercising power to release documents classified by the Cold War national security state, unobstructed by the President. 37 more were voted released in August, but the CIA blocked 19 of them. The releases gradually increased: 43 in September, 82 in October, 146 in November. In January 1996, the number released that month increased to 259, in June to 439, and in August to 698.
The records released so far have included important new medical evidence in the interviews conducted by the House Assassinations Committee; evidence of the pre-assassination CIA relationship to Lee Harvey Oswald (much of this is discussed in Oswald and the CIA by historian John Newman of COPA); as well as a variety of other subjects. As Board Chairman Tunheim stated: "The JFK Records Act has given the American public an extraordinary look inside their government." We will discuss this further in the next article.
For those unable to study records at the Archives, new information is regularly presented in research journals, newsletters and conferences, as well as a few of the newer books. Archives document descriptive sheets are accessible via the Internet at: http://www.nara.gov/nara/jfk/jfk_search.html
Public support is vitally important to the Board, and to the entire concept of open government information. Some agencies have still released very few of their records, others none at all. If disclosure isn't demanded, there are many bureaucrats who would happily to keep the secrets locked away. You can contact the Board as follows:
Assassination Records Review Board
600 E Street NW, 2nd Floor,
Washington DC 20530
Phone: (202) 724-0088
Fax: (202) 724-0457