State of the JFK Releases 2023
thousands of documents online
between 2017 and 2023, many of
which still feature redactions
On June 27 of this year, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) put 1,103 documents online, all of them updated versions of documents previously released, with some blacked-out areas ("redactions") removed to reveal the underlying text. The vast majority of these documents still feature some redactions, as do a few thousand other records in the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection (JFK Collection) that NARA maintains at its facility in College Park, Maryland.
This release was the fourteenth time since the summer of 2017 that NARA put JFK records online, in the wake of the triggering of a "sunset clause" of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Records Act). This clause mandated that, absent specific presidential action, all records in the JFK Collection would be released by October 26, 2017, 25 years after the JFK Records Act was passed. But instead of allowing full release, two successive presidents authorized agencies to postpone disclosure of certain records and presided over a process of release of some records and repeatedly kicking the can down the road on the remainder.
Apparently the can has now been kicked well down the road. Despite thousands of records remaining partially redacted, an order from President Biden decrees that further review and disclosure of withheld records will be done not in accordance with the JFK Records Act, but rather under "Transparency Plans" developed by each relevant government agency, and approved by NARA. The outcome is predictable, and the intent appears to be to kill off the stringent disclosure requirements of the JFK Records Act without bothering to try to officially terminate an act of Congress.
This essay starts with a bit of background on the history of revelations in the JFK assassination saga. It then reviews the last 6 years of document releases, and discusses where we are now, coming up on 60 years after the murder of a U.S. president in broad daylight at the height of the Cold War.
Background: A History of Secrecy and Revelations
Commission presenting their
report toPresident Johnson
From the vantage point of the 2020s, it is hard to appreciate the lengthy history of secrecy and the steady drip of revelations in the JFK assassination case which has occurred over the decades. The Warren Commission, the original investigation, took testimony in secret but then did publish that testimony and made public much, though not all, of its evidence. Chief Justice Earl Warren famously said regarding full disclosure: "it might not be in your lifetime."
It might have been far worse. The FBI initially intended to get by on a report which did not even deign to describe Kennedy's wounds, and was so embarrassing that the Warren Commission later apparently could not find room for it in its 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits. President Johnson was persuaded to form the Warren Commission to present a better face to the world; in the words of one Commissioner to "lay the dust" on the matter. While the Commission conducted all its testimony in secret, a few months after issuing its Report it did publish 26 volumes of this testimony and thousands of exhibits. The contradictions early researchers found between those 26 volumes and the Warren Report - resulting in an early critical crop of articles and books from Harold Weisberg, Vincent Salandria, and Sylvia Meagher among others - is in large part responsible for fueling the skepticism which persists to this day.
The steady drip of revelations over the years since then - some of it widely known and some not - has been impressive. The 1970s had a number of significant such events. The Zapruder film, shown on national TV in 1975, showed a stunned national audience Kennedy reeling "back and to the left" in response to a shot they were told came from the rear. Warren Commission executive session transcripts, released through the legal efforts of Harold Weisberg and Jim Lesar, showcased the Commission's intense fear of FBI Director Hoover regarding the "dirty rumor" that Oswald was an FBI informant. The Edwards Committee conducted an investigation into the FBI's destruction of a note alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had left at the Dallas FBI office days before the assassination of President Kennedy.
The "Katzenbach memo" came out, revealing the government's desire, as of November 25, three days after Dallas, that "the public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin", and further that "he did not have confederates who are still at large." FBI Director Hoover had written the day before, within hours of Oswald's murder, that "The thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin." Needless to say, very little real investigation had been completed by that point, and certainly there was no basis to conclude anything about confederates.
Attempts to shore up the autopsy report merely called more attention to its problems, including indications of missing autopsy photographs and the 1968 Clark Panel's declaration that the fatal entrance wound was 4 inches across the skull from where the autopsy report placed it. Then in 1972, the first outside forensic pathologist allowed to see the medical evidence discovered that the president's brain is missing. And so on. The books of Harold Weisberg - the Whitewash series and Post Mortem - tell some of this saga of continuing revelations.
The Church Committee shocked a more innocent nation by revealing CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders including Fidel Castro, plots concealed from the Warren Commission. A subcommittee also documented what Senator Richard Schweiker openly called a "cover-up" by high-level officials in the FBI and CIA.
The reporting of the Church Committee - including the FBI's CointelPro and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., domestic surveillance programs, covert operations in Chile, and much more - occurred in a post-Watergate atmosphere of press revelations about government misdeeds on many levels, including official lying during the Vietnam War. The belief that the government was not telling the truth about the Kennedy assassination was widespread.
The JFK Records Collection Act of 1992
The following decade of the 1980s was a relatively dormant period in the long saga of the Kennedy assassination. And then came Oliver Stone's film JFK, alleging a conspiracy and government cover-up in the case. The resulting public furor caused by the film, which brilliantly called attention to the millions of pages of secret files from the assassination investigations, resulted in the JFK Records Act, which established the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). The ARRB then spent the latter half of the 1990s implementing the Act, which "required the government to disclose whatever information it had regarding the assassination."
From 1994 to 1998, the ARRB released roughly four million pages of government records, some "in full" and some featuring redactions of still-sensitive information. The files of the 1970s House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) saw the light of day, along with extensive files of the FBI, CIA, and other government agencies. Church Committee files related to CIA assassination plots and their JFK assassination review were processed and made public. Due to the widespread belief that the Cold War hotspots of Vietnam and especially Cuba were related to the assassination, military files related to those conflicts were included. And the files of the Assassination Records Review Board itself became part of the millions of pages deposited in the National Archives, along with photos, audio recordings, and other evidence.
If the intent was to "dispel myths" about the assassination, things didn't quite turn out that way. A growing number of interested and informed citizens found that now-opened files contained yet more disturbing revelations. The ARRB declassifications included abundant evidence of a medical coverup - suppressed testimony and drawings of autopsy witnesses regarding a large rear head wound (incompatible with a shot from "sniper's nest" behind the limousine), missing autopsy photographs and suppressed failure to authenticate those in evidence, and much more. A memo even recorded JFK's White House physician's willingness to tell investigators that "others besides Oswald must have participated." The recorded phone calls of President Johnson showed him coercing members onto the Warren Commission by invoking the specter of World War III. CIA releases regarding Lee Harvey Oswald's trip to Mexico City in the fall of 1963 provided evidence of CIA deception and cover-up, and indications that Oswald was impersonated in taped phone calls there. Military plans drawn up in 1962 to create false-flag incidents which could be blamed on Cuba to justify an invasion came out, providing a stark context for military frustration with Kennedy's handling Cuban Missile Crisis just months later. Plans for a full withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam were drawn up in the spring of 1963, to be kept secret for 35 years. And on and on.
But while for many these and other revelations exploded the Warren Commission's story of "two lone nuts" (Oswald and Ruby), the government files did not solidify an alternative explanation for the events of Dallas. The 1990s still left us with more questions than answers.
2017: Full Disclosure?
When the ARRB went out of existence on September 30, 1998 it issued a Final Report, but the JFK Records Act remained in effect. Some documents were released in the ensuing years, though far far fewer than had in the 1990s. Also, tens of thousands of the documents released under the Act had not been released in full; they contained one or more redactions - blacked out information ranging from agent and informant names and codes to whole paragraphs about sensitive intelligence operations. With the ARRB out of business, when would those redactions be lifted?
The answer appeared to be 2017, specifically October 26, 2017. The JFK Records Act contained a statutory disclosure requirement to go into effect 25 years after the passage of the Act in 1992. Absent a written Presidential authorization to continue to withhold records, all redactions were to be lifted (except IRS and certain other files which the Act exempted from disclosure).
President Trump at first gave the impression he would release all the files. There was an early release of some documents in July 2017. Then, a few days before the October deadline, Trump issued a memorandum authorizing continued withholding of many of the records. On that day and in 5 more batches in 2017, the National Archives put online more declassified records from those that remained. Following a review period, another batch was released on April 26, 2018, along with a certification of postponement, kicking the can down the road for 3-and-a-half more years for the rest of the postponed records.
When it became President Biden's turn, the pattern repeated itself. In December of 2021 NARA released some additional documents; this had been preceded by yet another a memo, in October 2021, authorizing yet another year of review.
That October 2021 Biden memo which preceded the December 2021 releases also directed the National Archives to develop a plan to scan the entire JFK Collection, which NARA did create. The digitization project is apparently underway, though apparently not keeping up with the aggressive schedule laid down in the plan.
The same October 2021 instructed agencies to identify documents which they wanted to continue to withhold beyond December of 2022. After that year-long review, December of 2022 saw another batch of document releases, followed by 6 more small batches in 2023.
In December 2022, along with document releases, President Biden issued another memo which noted that, during the review period, agencies had developed "Transparency Plans," which would govern the review and future disclosure of any records not released by June 30, 2023. The CIA, FBI, State Department, Defense Department, and National Archives prepared Transparency Plans which became effective on July 1st. The memo further provided that the National Declassification Center - a division of NARA - and not the President would be responsible for reviewing postponed records with the agencies when certain milestones occurred. Some of the milestones for triggering disclosure review are less stringent than that required under the JFK Records Act.
On June 30, 2023 President Biden issued a third memo announcing that this presidential certification was “the last required under the Act”. This memo confirmed that future disclosures would be governed by the Transparency Plans, removing the President from the statutory role that Congress gave him under the JFK Act.
Note that section 12(b) of the JFK Records Act provides that the law does not sunset or terminate until the Archivist of the United States notifies Congress that "all assassination records have been made available to the public in accordance with this Act." However, the so-called Transparency Plans effectively nullify the JFK Records Act without the Archivist making the statutory-required congressional notification. Thus, Thousands of records remain redacted, under a new process whereby they are far less likely to be reviewed and released in a timely way.
2017-2023: By the Numbers
The National Archives maintains a database of metadata about the records released since 1994, currently available as a 6-part spreadsheet. It features 319,106 records, each identified by a 13-digit record number and accompanied by such information as title, date, record series, originating agency, subjects, etc. The Mary Ferrell Foundation (MFF) has created a sophisticated tool for searching this data called the JFK Database Explorer. This tool, which allows filtering and searching the collection metadata, also provides online viewing of the documents for which MFF has a scanned copy.
But NARA's database is incomplete - it is missing literally every record of the Secret Service, National Security Agency, National Security Council, and Army Investigative Records Repository, and additionally is missing many of the records released by the FBI and other agencies. Indeed, well over a thousand of the records put online by NARA since 2017 do not have corresponding entries in the database. So the actual number of released records is greater than 319,106, probably by several thousands. Its metadata is also not entirely current, particularly the "current status" field which records whether a record is withheld in full, open in full, or released with redactions.
Batches of Records Released Online
Prior to 2017, viewing NARA's JFK records meant a trip to College Park, Maryland. Since July of 2017 the National Archives has put online PDF copies of the newly-released documents, in 15 batches. The following table lists the number of documents released in each batch of records in the 2017-2023 period.
The numbers seem significantly larger than the reality, since many documents were re-released several times during this period, with minor differences between each version. It's also important to note that some of these documents were released in full, and others still feature redactions. Determining which is which requires reviewing every page of each document, and is further complicated by the fact that the PDF files supplied by the National Archives are often only portions of the document. Therefore, no numbers are provided here on which documents were released in full vs. in part.
Note: In the table below, the date is linked to an accompanying press release, and the document count number links to digital copies of the documents themselves available here at MFF.
|Jul 24, 2017||3,811||(from 8 agencies, plus 17 audio files)|
|Oct 26, 2017||2,891||(from 13 different agencies, primarily FBI)|
|Nov 3, 2017||676||(from 8 agencies, primarily CIA)|
|Nov 9, 2017||13,213||(CIA and NSA)|
|Nov 17, 2017||10,744||(all FBI)|
|Dec 15, 2017||4,217||(14 agencies, primarily FBI and HSCA)|
|Apr 26, 2018||18,884||(17 agencies, primarily CIA and FBI)|
|Dec 15, 2021||1,491||(14 agencies, primarily CIA and FBI)|
|Dec 15, 2022||13,251||(19 agencies, 70% CIA)|
|Apr 13, 2023||422||(7 agencies, primarily CIA)|
|Apr 27, 2023||355||(7 agencies, primarily CIA)|
|May 11, 2023||502||(9 agencies, primarily CIA)|
|Jun 13, 2023||290||(5 agencies, primarily CIA)|
|Jun 27, 2023||1,103||(11 agencies, primarily CIA and FBI)|
|Aug 24, 2023||21||(6 agencies, very modest changes)|
Some Caveats on the Numbers
Again, the number of unique documents released is far fewer than the 71,871 total of the numbers above, given multiple re-releases of the same document. The MFF has calculated the true number of released documents to be 37,133. Some documents were released just once, some as many as 4 or 5 times, usually further unredacted each time. The average document was released about twice over this period.
The table below shows the number of unique documents released by each agency between 2017 and 2023.
|Agency & Record Number Prefix||Unique Doc Count|
|Central Intelligence Agency (104-)||15,955|
|Defense Intelligence Agency (111-)||20|
|Department of State (119-)||33|
|Federal Bureau of Investigation (124-)||18,005|
|Internal Revenue Service (137-)||1|
|National Security Agency (144-)||253|
|National Security Council (145-)||47|
|Secret Service (154-)||6|
|Church Committee (157-)||494|
|Office of Naval Intelligence (173-)||1|
|JFK Library (176-)||309|
|US Information Agency (165-)||4|
|LBJ Library (177-)||51|
|Rockefeller Commission (178-)||136|
|National Archives (179-)||73|
|House Select Committee on Assassinations (180-)||1,226|
|Presidential Libraries (181-)||39|
|Army Investigative Records Repository (194-)||322|
|Office of Secy of Defense (195-)||7|
|Army Corps of Engineers (197-)||5|
|Joint Chiefs of Staff (202-)||77|
Note: The numbers given here and throughout this document may seem more precise than they really are; the exact counts can depend on how they are computed. Sometimes the Archives put two separate portions of the same document online, as one example of how counting records is not as simple as it seems. But any accounting should give results very close to the various tables shown in this essay.
Most of these records were released in full, but a few thousand remain with redactions, and only one-by-one inspection can determine which are which. Note that CIA and FBI records account for more than 90% of the records released since 2017, with the House Select Committee on Assassinations and Church Committee together accounting for about 40% of the remainder.
It should also be noted that some records remain withheld in full, in accordance with sections 10 and 11 of the JFK Records Act. These allow for withholding of IRS information or in case of a court order or deed of gift. The National Archives has a page listing more than 500 of these.
The most important "withheld in full" records may be the 5 "Very Personal Letters of Mrs. Kennedy" to President Johnson and the 7 tapes and transcripts of interviews of Jackie and Bobby Kennedy conducted by author William Manchester in 1964 and 1965. These are covered under a "deed of gift" and appear to be slated for release in 2067.
Fleshing out Existing Stories in the Kennedy Assassination Saga
What is in these tens of thousands of files? There is no one answer to such a broad question. Certainly these releases did not generally feature the kind of "bombshell" revelations of the 1990s, in part because most of the documents had already been released in some form; what was new was the lifting of various blackouts in them. But there was certainly new data for those studying the myriad stories within the Kennedy assassination saga.
"Hands off Cuba" leaflets in New Orleans
in the summer of 1963
For instance, there is new information about some of the many persons known to followers of this story. We continue to peel back the onion of Oswald's contacts with Cuban exiles in New Orleans in 1963, the site of Oswald's still-unexplained pro-Castro activities. One such contact was Arnesto Rodriguez Jr., who knew Oswald and whose mother told authorities that Arnesto had a tape recording of him. The 2017 releases saw more revealing information about the importance of contract CIA agent Emilio Rodriguez (AMIRE-1), Arnesto's brother. Emilio, since leaving Cuba in 1961, was "engaged in covert activities for JMWAVE" with a Top Secret clearance, and was in a position to keep Miami informed about Oswald's activities.
Speaking of New Orleans, among the files withheld in full prior to 2017 was the HSCA testimony of New Orleans bartender Orest Pena. It has been long known that Pena told the HSCA that both he and Oswald were FBI informants; the now-public testimony includes names he gave the Committee who could have been used to verify his story. There is a cost to the foot-dragging on public release of these files.
The name of the CIA officer who read Oswald's mail to and from the Soviet Union was finally revealed in April of 2023, and fills in one more piece of the slowly-enlarging story of Oswald's monitoring by U.S. intelligence.
Generally, the fleshing out of already-known stories is what the new documents provide, as well as context for them. The author of a memo describing CIA Miami Station's quiet investigation of potential Cuban exile involvement in the immediate aftermath of the assassination is now revealed, along with the identity of some of his interviewees. The results of this investigation are among the many missing records in this case. Another revealed document is a dispatch from 1962 showing the CIA's Mexico City station's willingness to falsify intercept transcripts, of interest to those trying to understand the tangled and contradictory story told by the CIA about its monitoring of Oswald's visit there. The MFF's ongoing project to decode cryptonyms and pseudonyms, which greatly helps in reading the CIA records in this case, is certainly aided by the peeling away of blackouts.
Actual audio from interrogation sessions with Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko, released in 2017, allows researchers a first-hand view into the CIA's struggle over the "bona fides" of the Soviet official who arrived in 1964 claiming knowledge of Oswald. While not part of government releases per se, a second copy of Air Force One audio from the estate of General Clifton features fewer edits than the one available for years from the LBJ Library. The frantic search during the flight for the whereabouts of Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay is a notable addition, and adds color to the story told to James Galbraith by Bill Moyers. Lyndon Johnson, according to Moyers, forlornly mused aloud on the ride back from Dallas "I wonder if the missiles are flying." Galbraith told me that Moyers knew LBJ was referring to American missiles.
What Remains Redacted: the Transparency Plans
How many documents remain redacted as of September of 2023? This is harder to calculate precisely than it seems; one answer is found in the new "transparency plans" whereby federal agencies created lists of records containing redactions they asserted control over, and the events and timetable by which those redactions would eventually be lifted.
As discussed earlier, the process provided for in these plans departs from the procedure Congress established in the JFK Records Act. The Act contains stringent criteria for postponement beyond 2017, requiring Presidential certification that: "continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the 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."
The five agencies that developed the transparency plans - the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the National Archives - each asserted jurisdiction over documents from one or more sources.
Document Counts in the Five Transparency Plans:
The following table shows the number of documents in each plan. The rows depict which agency a document comes from, and the columns are how many documents from that agency are controlled by each of the 5 transparency plans.
|Agency||FBI Plan||CIA Plan||State Plan||DOD Plan||NARA Plan||TOTAL|
|CIA (prefix 104-)||2,908||10||7||2,925|
|DOS (prefix 119-)||2||2|
|FBI (prefix 124-)||102||328||20||37||21||508|
|NSA (prefix 144-)||207||207|
|Church Cmte. (prefix 157-)||119||1||2||122|
|JFK Library (prefix 176-)||104||1||105|
|LBJ Library (prefix 177-)||20||5||25|
|Rock Comm. (prefix 178-)||26||2||28|
|Natl. Archives (prefix 179-)||1||1|
|HSCA (prefix 180-)||100||189||289|
|Army IRR (prefix 194-)||4||150||154|
|Corps of Eng. (prefix 197-)||3||3|
|Army (prefix 198-)||26||26|
|JCS (prefix 202-)||10||10|
Note that the CIA through its transparency plan exerts control over about 80% of the records still featuring redactions, and further that half of the agencies where records remain redacted are covered in no other plan besides CIA's. FBI files are the second-most featured agency holdings; all 5 transparency plans exert control over some FBI files. The National Archives' plan seems larger than may be warranted considering that the vast majority of its redactions are for social security numbers, most of them for HSCA staff members.
Totalling these plans gives 4,405 documents with redactions, but this is a significant overcount for two reasons:
- Double-count. Some records appear in more than one transparency plan, and so are double-counted. These appear to be fairly few.
- Post-plan releases. The plans were created in late 2022, and do not account for the 2023 releases, and perhaps some of the 12/15/2022 releases as well. Spot-checking showed that more than 40% of the Church Committee and HSCA records in the CIA transparency plan appear to now be open in full. Many CIA records in its transparency plan are also now open in full; the MFF has not attempted to do a full accounting.
For the reasons above, the true count of redacted records is difficult to determine. The NARA page accompanying the 2023 releases says there are 3,648 documents with redactions covered by the transparency plans. This number if difficult to verify but seems plausible.
What information is still redacted? The five different transparency plans are not cut from the same cloth.
National Archives Transparency Plan
The National Archives transparency plan is probably the most innocuous of the set. It covers mostly social security numbers of living persons, along with some fingerprints and bank and credit card information. Interestingly the JFK Records Act has no provision for concealing this sort of information, but most observers are not concerned with them. Interestingly, two records on NARA's list with HSCA record numbers are described thusly: "Two hi-yield typewriter ribbon cartridges require a review for classified equities and NARA lacks the capability to evaluate the information in its current format."
FBI Transparency Plan
The FBI's transparency plan is the only one which covers only documents from that agency itself. These are divided into a few categories:
- 37 "Social security number(s) of living individual(s)", to be released "Upon death, 100 y/o [years old], or December 16, 2042," whichever is earlier
- 44 "Living confidential source(s)", to be released "Upon death, 100 y/o, or December 16, 2042," whichever is earlier
- 21 "Sealed MLK information", slated for release on May 2, 2027
State Department Transparency Plan
The State Department transparency plan is the smallest in record count at 31 - 20 FBI records and 10 CIA (plus one more). One of the 20 FBI documents, however, is 1,400 pages long with many redactions. The State Dept. transparency plan cover letter describes them as relating to "joint intelligence programs" with these two agencies. There is also one Church Committee document, an interesting memo from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to JFK, discussed later in this essay. Unlike the FBI, the State Dept. gives no date by which these documents will be released, nor even any useful criteria beyond "risk assessment."
Defense Department Transparency Plan
The majority of the redactions identified in the DoD's transparency plan are marked "Identifies intelligence source" or "Would facilitate identification of intelligence source." Other less common reasons include "Foreign Government Information" and "Reveals SIGINT capabilities". The 262 records affected are mostly National Security Agency documents, but there are also FBI records and a handful from other agencies. The 5 criteria used for determining future release includes "From the date NSA determines the specific sources or methods detailed in the JFK records are no longer in use, and their release presents no risk or harm to national security." Most of the withheld records are tagged with this criteria, which does not inspire confidence in their declassification anytime soon.
Moreover, the DOD provides that records involving NSA partnership(s) or diplomatic relationship(s) may be released when these partnerships or relationships are "formally dissolved and the date the partner is no longer a party to a security agreement or leaves international organizations to which DoD is also a member." What is an example of a security agreement? Think NATO. So assassination records that may somehow involve our NATO partners (e.g., records originated from or by those countries) would not be disclosed until NATO itself is dissolved!
CIA Transparency Plan
The CIA's transparency plan accounts for about 80% of the total records still with redactions, exerting control over records from 13 agencies. About 80% of these are the CIA's own records, almost 10% more are FBI files, and the rest range across the Church Committee, HSCA, JFK Library, LBJ Library, Army, Rockefeller Commission, and others. Reasons for redactions include "People," "CIA Locations," and "Operational details," which can and does cover a lot of ground. In an accompanying letter to the president, the CIA defined these categories and stressed the importance of continuing concealment, and another document describes how and when the CIA will determine suitability for release.
What do the Transparency Plans Conceal?
What is left unrevealed in these few thousand documents covered by the five transparency plans? Beyond what the JFK Records Act says and whether these transparency plans violate the Act, are the agencies justified in asserting the need to protect these redactions?
While a detailed review of thousands of records is a daunting task, the MFF did a deep dive into the remaining redactions in a subset of these records, specifically those of the House Select Committee on Assassinations and the Church Committee.
The two cases are fairly different, as it turns out. In the case of the HSCA, it is perhaps worth noting how far we've come. If we put aside the NARA transparency plan, which is mainly concealing social security numbers and a handful of fingerprints and bank numbers, we are left with 100 HSCA records, all in the CIA's transparency plan. But this is an overcount. Many of these records turn out to be already open in full; it appears that only a little over 50 of these records remain redacted.
Of these, most feature light redactions, from a single name to a couple of phrases. The majority of them are in handwritten notes taken by HSCA staffers while reviewing CIA files. For example, the name of the CIA source who thought that journalist Priscilla Johnson "would cooperate with us" remains redacted. In another document relating to debriefing of defectors returning from the Soviet Union, a debriefer's name and some other detail is blacked out. The location of CIA stations, probably not very secret from US adversaries, is nonetheless redacted in several documents (for instance here).
Oswald's "best friend" in
There are a handful of HSCA documents with more significant redactions. These include notes of an interview regarding State Dept. security procedures, notes from an interview with David Atlee Phillips, portions of a transcript with CIA officer Robert Shaw about operating in Mexico, details on cover assignments of David Christ, and handwritten notes regarding Thomas Casasin, the CIA officer who said that there had been discussion of "laying on of interviews" on Oswald through KUJUMP when he returned from the USSR (KUJUMP is a cryptonym for the Domestic Contacts Division - Oswald's "best friend" George DeMohrenschildt said that he had discussed Oswald with the J. Walton Moore, head of the Domestic Contacts Division in Dallas).
The same Casasin document referenced above, it turns out, was released way back in 1995 with fewer and different redactions. Ditto with another set of notes on Casasin - the 2023 version has several pages completely redacted, after other slightly less redacted versions in 2022 and 2018. Super-secret stuff it seems, but then look at the version released more than 25 years ago, where those same pages are almost entirely open in full.
The CIA's letter to President Biden claims that public disclosure of remaining redactions "poses a substantial threat to the intelligence operations of the United States and, therefore, to the National Security." This is belied by the haphazard and inconsistent way in which these redactions are applied in practice. The example above is one of multiple cases where a document was subjected to several reviews over the last six years, re-applying redactions each time to information which has been already open to the public for years.
For example, one document in the CIA's transparency plan is the Church Committee's copy of an FBI memo written way back on November 27 of 1963, four days after Kennedy's murder. This 2-page memo was reviewed and new versions released on 4/26/2018, 12/15/2022, and 4/13/2023. Each successive version is slightly less redacted than the one before. What is so super-secret 60 years after Kennedy's death? Nothing! The CIA's own copy of this very same memo has been open in full for 25 years.
in 2018, 2022, and 2023. The fourth is the same FBI memo, from CIA files, opened in full in 1998.
former chair of the ARRB
The transparency plans have unfortunately made it far easier to keep redacting information which, even if not earthshattering by itself, fills in the gaps in the story of the assassination and its investigations, makes the connections between the persons in that story, and provides a base historical record from which, as the ARRB wrote, "the American public could draw its own conclusions as to what happened and why on that fateful day in Dallas in November 1963."
No less than former ARRB chair Judge John Tunheim believes that all the redactions should be immediately lifted. "It's time to do this, so that everyone can believe that all of the records that are in the hands of the federal government are released," he told CBS back in 2017.
The Church Committee & the CIA's Dirty Laundry
The previously-cited examples of arbitrary and inconsistent overclassification are cherry-picked, and it is certainly true that many of the Church Committee's remaining files feature information which is not already public, and that the CIA would rather not reveal. These documents concern a wider range of topics than the Kennedy assassination per se, as the Committee interviewed CIA officers on the plots to kill Fidel Castro and a variety of other topics it was investigating. The vast bulk of the Church Committee's records, by the way, remain completely sealed; about 50,000 pages from a much larger set were deemed relevant and included in the JFK Collection. Many of these Church Committee files in the JFK Collection are lightly redacted - the name of a source or a defector, a type of "cover," the location of a training site or interrogation center, budget and personnel size of a CIA station, etc. But more than 30% of the remaining documents feature redactions more extensive than just a few words or phrases, in some cases much more extensive.
Many of the more heavily-redacted documents are transcripts of testimony with CIA officers and others involved in intelligence, including Samuel Halpern, James O'Connell, Howard Osborn, David Phillips, Lawrence Houston, Howard Hunt, Robert Maheu, James Angleton, and other names familiar to many readers.
Some of the redactions in Church Committee records pertain to interference in foreign elections, CIA use of "proprietaries", contact with local police officials in the US, and other history the Agency would rather let lie. There are three copies of a draft report of the Committee's "Assassinations Report." The redactions in this draft all concern operational details and "naming names" in the Chilean military group which, on the day after "machine guns and ammunition were sent from Washington by diplomatic pouch," killed Chilean General Rene Schneider, thus paving the way the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the Pinochet regime which followed three years later.
If such details seem far afield from the Kennedy assassination, it is worth bearing in mind the players who keep reappearing in these disparate stories. David Phillips' redacted Church Committee testimony is all about Chile, for example, and the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954 (Operation PBSUCCESS) features several alumni who reappear in the Kennedy assassination saga, including Phillips, Howard Hunt, Anne Goodpasture, David Morales, Nestor Sanchez, Henry Hecksher, and others.
Some of the redactions appear to just be trying to blot out details of "embarrassing" operations. Robert Maheu's procurement of prostitutes for dignitaries visiting the US is one example; another is Samuel Halpern's involvement in a CIA plot to make a fake porno film for use in discrediting Indonesian president Sukarno. The latter has relevance to the Kennedy assassination in that it may shed light on the truthfulness of Halpern, one of the very few people in a position to know, who alleges that Robert Kennedy worked with the Mafia on Castro assassination plans.
in a 1961 memo from
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to
President Kennedy, titled
One Church Committee document over which the CIA retains control - an entire section longer than a page is completely redacted - is deeply ironic. It is a memo from White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to President Kennedy, written after the Bay of Pigs debacle and entitled "CIA Reorganization." Section 3 begins with "The Controlled American Source represents a particular aspect of CIA's encroachment on policy-making functions." The next page-and-a-half of Schlesinger's complaint to Kennedy about the CIA is blacked out to this day, its declassification schedule now placed under control of the Agency itself.
The HSCA and Church Committee files comprise roughly 10% of the still-redacted files in the JFK Collection. The remainder are mostly CIA records, though FBI, NSA, and Army Investigative Records Repository files are also present, plus a handful from a smattering of other agencies. The CIA transparency plans for instance include a report on the CIA'S JMWAVE station among the Rockeller Commission's files. The large number of files overall in the CIA's transparency plan covers wide ground, with redactions under the categories "people," "CIA locations," and "operational details." An example "people" redaction is one of many related the anti-Castro operations, in this case the identity of the DRE's chief in Santiago, Cuba in 1961. "Operational details" withholding covers a wide range; one example redacts details about what the Soviets knew about the U-2 spy planes, still a matter of some debate and relevant to the Gary Powers U-2 shootdown incident, and the possibility that Lee Oswald provided radar information to the Soviets.
Note that we are only talking here about what remains in the official JFK Collection, which is not the entire universe of relevant information. The ARRB was late in its term when it learned the identity of George Joannides, the CIA psychological warfare specialist in charge of the Cuban exile group that had run-ins with Oswald in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. Joannides was later brought out of retirement and made liaison to the HSCA - the fox guarding the henhouse? - without the CIA revealing his former role. And of course there are numerous instances of destroyed or missing records, many of which the ARRB sought without success: 1963 Secret Service presidential protection survey reports destroyed in 1995, missing Church Committee testimony, HTLINGUAL (mail opening) files on Oswald and others destroyed in 1990, a referenced but missing "Harvey Lee Oswald" file, portions of Air Force One audio edited out, among many more examples. Not everything made it to the Assassination Records Review Board.
Is the JFK Records Act Terminated?
In the face of these transparency plans, is the JFK Records Act now terminated? Officially the answer is no, despite the transparency plans' rewriting of the rules. Regarding all provisions not related to the ARRB, the Act states that "The remaining provisions of this Act shall continue in effect until such time as the Archivist certifies to the President and the Congress that all assassination records have been made available to the public in accordance with this Act." That day has not come, and it appears to be the government's desire to put that day off for a long time.
The Mary Ferrell Foundation filed suit in federal court last October over the failure of the Biden administration and the National Archives to follow the directives of the JFK Records Act. In July of this year a federal judge dismissed portions of the case and allowed others to go forward. The MFF maintains a page where the progress of this case may be followed.
in August 1963
Sixty years on, with most of the JFK Collection of documents opened and the government determined to close the chapter on the JFK Records Act, where are we? Are we any closer to solving the Crime of the (Previous) Century?
The citizen-led movement to find the truth about "Who Killed JFK?" is a remarkable and uniquely American story. The JFK Records Act was a signal achievement in the long struggle to succeed where the government itself failed. Government records are of course only part of the story - self-appointed experts and too few journalists and historians sought out witnesses and analyzed the evidence and wrote books over the decades, and in the process peeled away more of the seamy underbelly of the Cold War "national security state" than they might have expected. 1963 was a lightning bolt that struck American innocence directly, and the country has never been the same.
The Warren Commission published an impressive-looking encyclopedia of evidence yet never strayed far from its mission to convict Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole author of the assassination, even if this meant avoiding Jack Ruby until its report was already in draft form and refusing to acknowledge the existence of its most important medical witness. The House Select Committee on Assassinations, which went further, did not seriously investigate the possibility of a powerful domestic conspiracy (though Chief Counsel Robert Blakey has since become a scathing critic of the CIA's role in misleading the Committee).
Many people believe the Kennedy assassination can be traced to the plots to kill Fidel Castro, and the murderous milieu of Cuban exiles, organized crime, and hardline CIA officers furious at Kennedy for his failure to remove Fidel Castro. If so, perhaps it is unsurprising that we don't have all the answers. If it had not been for the dogged work of the Church Committee, the idea that the CIA plotted to kill Castro might still be a "conspiracy theory." The Kennedy assassination never got the same "no holds barred" treatment, at least after the first chief counsel of the HSCA was forced into resignation.
Castro has of course long been the "fallback culprit" of the assassination. The ultimately false stories about Castro's involvement, some of which predate the assassination, should give us pause. Among the released files of the Church Committee is a handwritten note on the ZR-RIFLE assassination program, authored by its head William Harvey. Besides the ironic phrase "never mention the word assassination," it contains the following: "Cover should include provision for blaming Czechs or Sovs in case of blow....Should have phony 201 in RI to backstop this, all documents therein forged and backdated." So the CIA's assassination program acknowledged the necessity of a false cover story of blame, and the need to forge internal files to fool those within the government itself. Investigators beware.
Author Josiah Thompson, a prominent private investigator for decades, has done more than most to master the intricacies of the ballistics, photographic, and film evidence in the Kennedy assassination. Yet even Thompson has said:
As if on cue, this year a new account of the finding of the "magic bullet" from Secret Service agent Paul Landis has arrived. For nearly sixty years the Single Bullet Theory has provoked incredulity, and Thompson and others also found that its appearance on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital was another aspect of its magical properties, and its "chain of custody" was basically non-existent. Onto the layers of doubt and confusion, Landis piles on yet one more layer.
Regarding the JFK releases discussed in this essay, the documents made public over the years have revealed much more about the government coverup which occurred in the wake of Kennedy's murder than they have about the conspiracy itself. Another author, Peter Dale Scott, foresaw that outcome. He has seen further than most for a long time on this and other topics. In the 1970s, Scott was almost alone in reading the tea leaves of gaps in the Pentagon Papers, and declaring that they indicated plans for Vietnam withdrawal. Decades later the documents proved him right. Regarding the millions of pages of JFK records and what they tell us about the Kennedy assassination, he was prescient again when he wrote this in 1995:
The internet age has brought new tools to bear on the voluminous files in this case. The Mary Ferrell Foundation's primary focus is making the JFK Collection and other relevant materials available online, with full-text search and other tools like the Cryptonym Project and the JFK Database Explorer to aid analysis. But the MFF has only roughly a third of the full JFK Collection in our archive. NARA's current project to digitize the entire collection holds promise that the other two thirds, which are available for viewing at Archives II in Maryland but only seen by a handful of people, will become available to all. There is more to be learned even among "already public" files.
We should not expect too much from the documents themselves. Certainly they contain a voluminous evidentiary base, as well as a rare window into the inner workings of the government during the crisis of Kennedy's murder. And as the record has grown, the hole left where records should exist but do not is itself revealing. But there is no Star Chamber report to be found which reveals "what really happened." These documents, after all, are the files of a government of which Charles DeGaulle said privately upon return from the Kennedy funeral:
The American government did as de Gaulle foresaw, but the public never got the memo. The search for answers undertaken in the wake of Kennedy's murder has not abated, after sixty years.
- Rex Bradford, September 2023