WASHINGTON – The world looks different when you sit behind the Resolute desk.
At the request of the CIA, FBI and others in the national security community, President Donald Trump made a last-minute decision to delay the release of thousands of pages of classified documents related to the John F. Kennedy assassination.
The president allowed the National Archives to publish about 2,800 records that the agencies did not object to making public. But about 300 additional records – the ones historians were most interested in seeing – will stay secret for now.
Federal agencies have known since 1992 that the midnight deadline was coming up. It was created by Congress, in a law signed by George H.W. Bush, after Oliver Stone’s “JFK” movie in 1991 suggested a broad conspiracy to kill the president that included the CIA, the FBI and the military.
But they were sending requests to the White House to withhold documents as late as midday Thursday. Trump acquiesced under the pressure.
Even as he holds back some of the juiciest stuff, the president wants credit from his base for releasing the documents. “I am ordering today that the veil finally be lifted,” Trump said in a statement. “At the same time, executive departments and agencies have proposed to me that certain information should continue to be redacted because of national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns. I have no choice – today – but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our nation’s security.”
Trump is probably the most conspiracy-minded president in U.S. history. At the very least, he is the most likely to buy into far-fetched conspiracy theories since Richard Nixon. He catapulted to stardom on the right by falsely claiming that Barack Obama is from Kenya – not Hawaii. He’s wrongly claimed that his predecessor didn’t attend Columbia University. He insisted that Obama personally bribed New York’s attorney general to investigate Trump University. He accused Obama of “bugging” Trump Tower after taking office.
He said there’s something “very fishy” about Vince Foster’s suicide. He suggested that Antonin Scalia may have been a victim of foul play after the Supreme Court justice died in his sleep. He said the IRS audits him because he’s a Christian. He’s peddled the dangerous falsehood that vaccines are connected to autism. He has never backed off his assertion that he watched TV footage of thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11 after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
He suggested before the final primaries in 2016 that Ted Cruz’s Cuban-born father, Rafael, was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination and knew Lee Harvey Oswald. After the Texas senator refused to endorse him at the Republican National Convention, he revived the silly claim again last summer.
Against that backdrop, no one can deny that the president’s impulse is to get all these files out. His longtime adviser and friend Roger Stone wrote a book alleging that Lyndon Johnson had Kennedy killed, and he’s been lobbying the president to open all the files.
Trump has already shown that he wants to make public anything that might back up his conspiracy theories or reflect poorly on what his supporters derisively call “the deep state.” Remember, after losing the popular vote last November by 2.9 million votes, the president began insisting that 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally. When every expert called that claim preposterous, Trump didn’t back down. Instead, he created a taxpayer-funded commission to look into it.
But the president was reminded again Thursday that it’s really hard to tell national security officials “no” when they’re warning you of potential dangers to the country and its intelligence apparatus if certain information goes out.
For example, CIA officials say that they pushed to withhold documents to protect their assets, the identities of current and former officers, intelligence-gathering methods and sensitive partnerships that remain in effect today. “Every single one of the approximately 18,000 remaining CIA records in the collection will ultimately be released, with no document withheld in full,” the agency said in a statement, adding that the redacted information in the 18,000 pages represents less than 1 percent of all CIA information in the Kennedy collection.
To varying degrees, every president finds himself persuaded by these kinds of arguments – no matter how spurious. The best example of this came in 2014 when Barack Obama’s White House aggressively worked behind the scenes to limit how much the public got to see of a Senate Intelligence Committee report documenting the CIA’s brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects. The effort to conceal the findings of the investigation was completely at odds with the spirit that animated Obama’s 2008 campaign. (He also never closed Gitmo.)
In the national security realm, Trump has already backed away from several commitments he made during the campaign. He escalated in Afghanistan after promising withdrawal. He explicitly endorsed NATO’s Article V after initially refusing to. He didn’t pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, instead settling for a middle-ground compromise pushed by his advisers. The list goes on.
The presidency has a way of warping a person’s perspective. George W. Bush said no more nation building during the 2000 campaign. After invading Afghanistan and Iraq, he did more of it than anyone since Harry Truman unveiled the Marshall Plan.
This is a tale as old as the presidency. A generation of presidents never tried to remove J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director because they worried what dirt he might have on them.
Trump’s decision to acquiesce to the CIA will only add to the cloud of public suspicion that hangs over the official story line – even 54 years later – that Oswald acted alone.
Secrecy corrodes public trust in government. The government’s refusal to be fully transparent and forthright has contributed to a climate in which few citizens trust institutions. The feds have long had an over-classification problem, erring on the side of marking files secret that really don’t need to be. It has become even worse since the 9/11 attacks.
A poll conducted last week by SurveyMonkey for FiveThirtyEight found that only 33 percent of Americans believe that one man was responsible for the Kennedy assassination, while 61 percent think that others were involved in a conspiracy.
“In pretty much every demographic, most respondents believed that Oswald didn’t act alone,” Harry Enten notes. “A majority of men, women, white people, people of color, registered voters, non-registered voters, old people, young people, Democrats, Republicans and so on all believe that more than one person was involved in Kennedy’s assassination. This is one of the few questions in this polarized age on which you can even find agreement among Hillary Clinton voters (59 percent believe in a conspiracy) and Trump voters (61 percent). . . . African-Americans (76 percent) and Hispanics (72 percent) are far more likely than whites (56 percent) to believe that Oswald didn’t act alone. The government, of course, has a history of lying to the black community, which may be why African-Americans are more likely to think the government isn’t telling the whole story about Kennedy’s death and other major news stories.”
What exactly is still being withheld? “Some of the material that assassination experts had been most eager to review was not included in the documents released Thursday,” The Post’s Ian Shapira, Steve Hendrix and Carol D. Leonnig report. “The missing records include a 338-page file on J. Walton Moore, the head of the CIA office in Dallas at the time of the killing, and an 18-page dossier on Gordon McClendon, a Dallas businessman who conferred with Ruby just before he shot Oswald. Several files on notorious anti-Castro Cuban exiles were apparently withheld, including those focusing on Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch, who had been accused of a 1976 airline bombing that killed 73 people . . .
“Researchers had hoped the release would shed new light on Oswald’s movements and contacts in the months before he shot Kennedy. Historians were particularly eager for new details of Oswald’s six-day trip to Mexico City, where he met with Cubans and Soviets two months before the assassination. None of those documents appeared to be in the batch released Thursday. Nor were there revelations on Watergate burglars E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, both of whom were longtime CIA operatives of interest to assassination theorists.”
What might the CIA be afraid of? “Since the Warren Commission concluded its investigation, historians and journalists have written extensively about how the CIA deliberately concealed information about Oswald’s interactions with Cubans or Soviets in Mexico City before the killing,” per Ian, Steve and Carol. “Philip Shenon, author of a 2013 book on the Warren Commission, interviewed one of the commission’s chief investigators, David Slawson, for Politico two years ago and showed him documents that had been declassified in the 1990s but that Slawson had never seen. Slawson’s conclusion: The CIA tampered with surveillance evidence of Oswald in Mexico City that would have revealed the agency knew of Oswald’s threat well before the assassination . . .
“Even the CIA publicly acknowledged in 2014 that John McCone, its director at the time of the assassination, participated in a ‘benign cover-up,’ according to a paper by agency historian David Robarge. His article said McCone was ‘complicit in keeping incendiary and diversionary issues off the commission’s agenda.’ The agency historian wrote that McCone purposely did not tell the commission about CIA-Mafia plots to kill (Fidel) Castro, some of which had been planned at the Mexico City station. ‘Without this information,’ Shenon concluded in a 2015 Politico story, ‘the commission never even knew to ask the question of whether Oswald had accomplices in Cuba or elsewhere who wanted Kennedy dead in retaliation for the Castro plots.'”
The White House insists that Trump remains committed to disclosure. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president has directed the agencies “to minimize redactions without delay,” and that redactions will only be made on the remaining documents “in the rarest of circumstances.”
But many Kennedy experts are dismayed about what they see as the president caving. They worry the final batch will still be heavily redacted and think the odds are high that the new six-month deadline will slip. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, for example, wrote a 2013 book on the assassination:
Sabato tweeted: “54 yrs since #JFK assassination, 25 yrs since mandated release TODAY, and we’ll have to wait another 6 months to MAYBE see the good stuff.”
— What is in the files that did come out? More than a dozen reporters and editors for The Washington Post combed through the 2,800 records after the went live at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. Here are some of the wildest nuggets they found:
“An FBI file contains information on the bureau’s attempt to locate a stripper named ‘Kitty,’ last name unknown. According to the file, another stripper named Candy Cane said Kitty had been an associate of Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Oswald on Nov. 24, 1963. Leon Cornman, business agent with the American Guild of Variety Artists in New Orleans, told the FBI that ‘the only stripper he knew by the name of Kitty who worked in New Orleans was Kitty Raville.’ He advised (that) Raville committed suicide in New Orleans in August or September 1963,’ the report states.
“Several documents summarize internal discussions within Communist Party meetings after the assassination, discussing whether Oswald was innocent and whether communists would be blamed for Kennedy’s death. Agents ran down rumors from prisoners and poets.
“The documents show that for years, the FBI used informants to monitor the Communist Party in Dallas – a group that consisted of 5 or 6 people – so small they could sometimes hold a meeting inside a car.
“An April 1964 memo from J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to check out a report that Jack Ruby and Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippitt – fatally shot by Oswald shortly after Oswald killed Kennedy – had met at Ruby’s strip club, the Carousel Club, sometime prior to the assassination. Hoover seemed skeptical.
“One memo described tensions between CIA and FBI officials that still exist today. It quotes FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saying, ‘more and more we are telling CIA about our domestic operations and always to our detriment. I want this stopped.’
“A 1964 FBI memo describes a meeting in which Cuban exiles tried to set a price on the heads of Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. ‘It was felt that the $150,000.00 to assassinate FIDEL CASTRO plus $5,000 expense money was too high,’ the memo noted. At a subsequent meeting, they settled on more modest sums: $100,000 for Fidel, $20,000 for Raul and $20,000 for Che.
“Some of the papers recounted the agency’s well-chronicled schemes to kill Castro. One document, a summary of the CIA’s plans to assassinate foreign leaders, recounted how the CIA tried to use Gen. William Donovan, the former head of the agency’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, for one plot. He would give Castro a contaminated skin-diving suit while the two negotiated for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. . . . Donovan didn’t go through it, instead presenting the Cuban leader with ‘an uncontaminated skindiving suit as a gesture of friendship.’
“A draft report by the House Select Committee on Assassinations found it unlikely that Cuba would kill Kennedy as retaliation for CIA’s attempts on Castro’s life. ‘The Committee does not believe Castro would have assassinated President Kennedy, because such an act, if discovered, would have afforded the United States the excuse to destroy Cuba,’ the draft states. ‘The risk would not have been worth it.’
“In an internal FBI report from May 1964, an informant told the FBI that the Ku Klux Klan said it ‘had documented proof that President Johnson was formerly a member of the Klan in Texas during the early days of his political career.’ The ‘documented proof’ was not provided.
“The records also reveal a deposition given before the presidential Commission on CIA Activities in 1975 by Richard Helms, who had served as the agency’s director.
After a discussion of Vietnam, David Belin, an attorney for the commission, turned to whether the CIA was involved in Kennedy’s killing. . . . Belin asked: ‘Is there any information involved with the assassination of President Kennedy which in any way shows that Lee Harvey Oswald was in some way a CIA agent or agent. . .’ Then, suddenly, the document cuts off.”
— How it’s playing elsewhere:
NBC News: “J. Edgar Hoover Said Public Must Believe Lee Harvey Oswald Acted Alone.”
Politico: “A Cuban intelligence officer told another Cuban that he knew that Oswald was a ‘good shot,’ because he ‘knew him.'”
New York Post: “Unsealed docs reveal KGB thought LBJ could have been behind JFK assassination.”
Dallas Morning News: “Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev believed Kennedy could not have been killed without complicity by Dallas police.”
The Guardian: “New JFK files reveal FBI warning on Oswald and Soviets’ missile fears.”
The Evening Standard: “Local UK newspaper warned of ‘big news’ by mystery caller 25 minutes before president shot dead.”
Washington Examiner: “WikiLeaks offers bounty for unreleased JFK assassination records.”