The federal judge who oversaw the collection of government documents on John F. Kennedy’s assassination called it “disappointing” that President Donald Trump is holding back so many of the records while the CIA, FBI and other agencies review them.
“I just don’t think there is anything in these records that require keeping them secret now,” John Tunheim, who from 1992 to 1998 chaired a congressionally established board that reviewed all the files on the assassination, told POLITICO in a telephone interview Friday. He is now a U.S. district judge in Minnesota.
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Trump announced the partial delay Thursday night, just days after pledging to release the remaining collection. He instead granted agencies six more months to review many of the documents to ensure they do not reveal sensitive intelligence sources or practices — 25 years after Congress had set Thursday as the deadline for releasing them. The National Archives released about 2,800 documents Thursday while holding back an unspecified number.
The CIA said Thursday that the details it is concerned about include “the names of CIA assets and current and former CIA officers, as well as specific intelligence methods and partnerships that remain viable to protecting the nation today.”
Even so, “the President has demanded unprecedented transparency from the agencies and directed them to minimize redactions without delay,” the White House said in a statement. “The National Archives will therefore release more records, with redactions only in the rarest of circumstances, by the deadline of April 26, 2018.”
Dismayed assassination scholars and researchers assert that Thursday’s release encompasses only a fraction of what had remained undisclosed in the National Archives. The final batch that scholars have been waiting for total more than 3,100 files that had previously been “withheld in full,” and about 30,000 others that were partially released over the years with some information blacked out.
All those documents were collected by Tunheim’s Assassination Records Review Board, which Congress created in 1992 amid the public interest generated by the Oliver Stone film JFK.
Thursday’s released contained only 52 new documents that had previously been completely withheld — less than 2 percent of the total, said Rex Bradford, president of the nonprofit Mary Ferrell Foundation, which has digitized hundreds of thousands of the records related to Kennedy’s murder.
Meanwhile, he said, Thursday’s release of 2,839 previously redacted documents accounts for less than 10 percent of what had remained in the Archives’ files, he said.
“To borrow a phrase,” Bradford said, “sad.”
And many of the “new” documents aren’t even new, several noted authorities on the subject contend, despite some of the headlines they generated.
For example, the BBC and other news outlets reported the revelation Friday that a British newspaper had gotten an anonymous tip about “some big news” in the U.S. just 25 minutes before Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
But a British research organization had unearthed that report in other files in 1995.
Another document that generated early interest from the JFK assassination research community was an FBI memo from Nov. 24, 1963 — the day Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald — expressing worries about public perception of Kennedy’s murder. The memo related a remark by then-Director J. Edgar Hoover: “The thing I am concerned about is having something issued so that we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”
But several scholars pointed out that a document written by then-Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach — made public decades ago — revealed similar sentiments.
“So a lot of what is being reported is old news,” remarked Bradford.
Still, a number of researchers intimately familiar with the government paper trail on the Kennedy case were dumbfounded at the government’s inability or unwillingness to release more of the final documents by Thursday’s deadline.
The 1992 law establishing the Assassination Records Review Board set a deadline of Oct. 26, 2017, to automatically release all remaining records, unless the president ordered them kept secret to protect national security based on the recommendations of government agencies.
“Why did this delay have to happen at the last minute?” asked Richard Anderson, a historian who has research the Kennedy assassination. “The intelligence agencies have had 25 years to prepare.”
“The original JFK act law specified immediate release of JFK records and only in the most rarest of occasions should there be a postponement or redactions,” he added. “Even if postponements are legitimate they risk the public’s trust at this point by not releasing everything as promised.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) slammed the delay as “ridiculous,” tweeting: “YeGods u had fifty yrs NOW CIA WANTS FURTHER COVERUP/POTUS STOP.”
Tunheim said he believes that the CIA and FBI are probably most concerned that the documents could reveal secret relationships with foreign countries.
“They knew this deadline long ago,” Tunheim said. “It should have been done by Oct. 26, 2017.”