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Release the JFK Files
President Biden must end the CIA and FBI's nearly 60 years of secrecy
Joe Biden was a twenty-one-year-old political science major when JFK was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
“It was a Friday afternoon; I remember it vividly,” Biden recalled in 2013. “I was on the steps of Hullihen Hall on the mall at the University of Delaware. It was a warm day; we had just come out of class. As we were walking through the hallways, we heard that the president had been shot. I had a car on campus—I wasn't supposed to, but I had a car on campus—and three of us we went to my car, got in the car, and turned on the radio. It was disbelief. I remember it was almost like a frozen frame in time. Instead of everybody on campus running and saying, ‘Did you hear?’—there were these quiet groups of people saying, ‘Can that be true?’ You'd see five students in a corner. It was almost like if you said it out loud, he was going to die. Half an hour later, or almost an hour later, whatever it was, it was, ‘He's dead,’ and ‘How can that be? How is that possible in the United States of America?’”1
Biden thought that the election of Kennedy, the first Catholic president, “was about all possibilities . . . you had a sense that nothing was beyond our capacity.”
Little could that university student imagine that one day he would be the president of the United States and by serendipity, he would be the one with the sole authority to release the small number of remaining secret government files about JFK’s assassination. Biden could help answer his own 1963 question — “How is that possible in the United States of America?” — by releasing the still classified documents about the case. Unfortunately, he has so far deferred to the wishes of the CIA and the FBI to keep some sealed or redacted.
For those of us who have studied the assassination and long called for the release of all government files about the case, the latest developments are a dispiriting continuation of a storyline in which government secrecy usually trumps the public’s right to know.
How did we get here? Congress, in response to the furor over Oliver Stone’s masterful mixing of fact and fiction in his 1991 film JFK, passed a law that set a deadline of October 27, 2017, for all federal agencies to release their files relating to the assassination.
Donald Trump was president when that 2017 deadline arrived. A week earlier Trump had sent shivers through the CIA and FBI when he tweeted: “Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened.”
Incredibly, the two agencies pleaded that they needed more time. Fifty-four years had evidently not been enough. There was still a risk, averred the agencies, that unsealing the remaining files might disclose sources and means of gathering intelligence. Many assassination researchers thought it unlikely that Trump would pay much heed to the same excuses the CIA and FBI had spun for years to justify keeping the files from public view. Yet, at the last moment, Trump surprised almost everyone by giving the agencies a six-month extension.
The following April (2018), the National Archives released in full 19,045 documents. As for 15,000 of the remaining records, the Archives released them with redacted text. The CIA controlled about 70% of those, and the FBI controlled 23%. Many with missing text were only a page long. About half the CIA documents had limited redactions, a couple of words or phrases blanked out per record. What was usually hidden were identities of CIA employees, locations of Agency stations in other countries, and references to cooperation with foreign security services.
Besides the 15,000 with some missing text, the National Archives said 515 records had never been made public, not even heavily redacted. Of those, 499 are tax records, including filings from Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. Tax records are exempt from public release under the U.S. Tax Code.
The distinction between the records released with redactions and the small number withheld in their entirety was mostly lost in the ensuing public discussion. Many people were left with the impression that the CIA and FBI simply wanted thousands of assassination files to stay secret forever, fanning conspiracy theories about “who killed JFK.”
Trump gave another three-year extension for the redacted and sealed files to be reviewed and released in full. The new date, October 26, 2021, a month before the fifty-eighth anniversary of the assassination, seemed tailor made for Joe Biden. It was his opportunity to enter the history books by ordering the classified assassination documents finally be made public.
There was good reason to believe that Biden was the right person to free the files. On the first day of his administration, press secretary Jen Psaki, had vowed that the president was committed to “bringing truth and transparency” back to the government.
That was promising for many journalists who are regularly stymied by the bureaucratic thicket through which federal agencies delay and withhold their files from public release. Forty organizations signed an open letter to Biden in February 2021, highlighting serious problems with the Freedom of Information process and listing recommendations for fixing it. Included were common sense proposals that would require agencies to “prioritize the public interest” and to “proactively disclose records rather than waiting for FOIA requests or litigation.”
The letter highlighted in its conclusion what was at stake: “Transparency is foundational to a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The right to know what our government is up to is also one of the most fundamental checks and balances in our system of government—one that depends on the preservation of relevant information and public access to it. As our country’s history has shown us time and time again, when government secrecy proliferates, so do civil liberties violations and obstacles to democratic accountability. That is why we call on you to embrace open government as one of your administration’s most important priorities and one of the most consequential legacies that your presidency could bequeath to future generations.”
The signatories included some of the country’s leading progressive organizations and advocacy groups, including the ACLU, the Center for Media and Democracy, PEN America, the National Immigration Law Center, and the International Refugee Assistance Project.
What did Biden do?
He failed to act on any of the suggestions to reduce the myriad of loopholes by which federal agencies overclassify documents and then battle for years to keep them from public disclosure.
Although he had not shown interest in reforming FOIA to improve transparency and government accountability, there was hope he would use his presidential power to order the release of the still redacted or sealed JFK documents.
Biden issued a memorandum four days before the 2021 deadline. But it was not an order to open the files. Instead, blaming the Covid pandemic for creating delays, he said some documents that had been cleared for release would be released to the public in a few months, but most would stay secret and be subjected to an “intensive 1-year review.”
The new deadline was December 15, 2022. The Washington rumor mill has been in overdrive this summer, with variations of “insider accounts” that Biden will again acquiesce to CIA and FBI requests for more time. One non-profit archive of assassination documents, the Mary Ferrell Foundation, does not want to take a chance that the president will again endorse continued secrecy. That foundation sued last month to force a release of the files. The suit contends that both Biden and Trump had violated Congress’s 1992 statute by permitting delays and there was no justification for further postponements.
Unfortunately, a few legal experts told me privately they are skeptical of the suit’s chances for success. After Trump had delayed the release in 2017, an assassination researcher had also sued. An appellate court sided with the CIA.
Few who have studied the case expect a smoking gun document in the last batch stored in the National Archives. Much can be gathered, however, from a smattering of files still sealed, such as a 1961 memo suggesting a reorganization of the CIA after the agency’s fiasco at the Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as documents relating to the Castro assassination plot. I believe the files when ultimately released are likely to further embarrass both the CIA and FBI. My focus will be on whether either agency knew more than they have admitted about Lee Harvey Oswald’s state of mind and his radical, violent political views in the months preceding the assassination.
There is, as I wrote in 1993, in Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, a coverup by the CIA and the FBI. It is not a coverup of their role in the murder of the president, but rather an attempt to draw as much distance as possible between themselves and Oswald. The CIA and FBI have protected their own bureaucratic reputations at the expense of the public’s right to know. President Biden is their latest accomplice.
He can change that this December 15 with a simple directive. It is long overdue; Americans have a right to know what their government knows about the murder of a president.