Source: PHILIP SHENON
The government is releasing thousands of long-secret files on Kennedy’s murder. Here are some tips for making sense of all the code names, redactions and confusing jargon.
If President Trump is true to his word, the American public is about to be flooded with thousands of long-secret documents that could help resolve at least some of the conspiracy theories about a turning point in the nation’s history – the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In a message on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, Trump announced that “the long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take tomorrow. So interesting!”
The president did not specify whether the still-secret library of assassination-related documents will be released in full on Thursday, or whether he will give in to last-minute appeals from the CIA and FBI to block the declassification of some of the files. Either way, this promises to be a mammoth document dump. The library at the National Archive is said to include about 3,100 files that have never been seen before, most of them from the CIA, FBI and Justice Department, as well as the full text of more than 30,000 other files that were previously released in part.
The files, which are supposed to be released on the Archives website, are being made public under a deadline set by a 1992 law, the JFK Records Collection Review Act. The law, which Congress hoped would help tamp down the raging conspiracy theories revived or created by Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” the year before, was responsible for the release of millions of pages of other documents in the 1990s. What has remained secret at the Archives until this week were documents that the CIA, FBI and other agencies felt might somehow damage national security if made public. But short of Trump’s intervention, all of those documents must be made public, too – every word – to meet the 25-year deadline set by the law. That is the deadline that arrives on Thursday.
How to begin to go through that massive document dump—tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of pages? It will be daunting even for historians, researchers and others who study the assassination and have been eagerly anticipating, for decades, the chance to see the files.
For most people who are not longtime students of the assassination, there will be almost instant frustration with the files because it will be impossible to make sense of most of the documents—at least not quickly. Many will be jam-packed with CIA and FBI codenames, pseudonyms and other jargon, while other documents will be in foreign languages or refer to people and places never previously connected to the assassination – probably because those people and places had nothing to do with JFK’s murder but got swept up in earlier investigations. And, based on past releases, some of the documents will be virtually impossible to read because—apparently—the ink on the paperwork had so faded by the time digital copies were made.
But if you’re reading this, chances are you’re undeterred by these obstacles and are eager to dive in to what is one of the most highly anticipated document dumps in American history. So what follows, based on years of research for my own 2013 history on the Warren Commission, is a list of 10 suggestions for armchair detectives who are planning to test their patience – and risk their eyesight and even their sanity – by digging into this digital mountain of paperwork:
1. Begin with the most secret documents. Start with the 3,100 assassination-related documents that the public has ever seen before. It is tantalizing to ponder what could be in a document linked to the president’s murder that is so sensitive that not a single word of it could be made public until now. In previous Archives releases, those documents, when declassified, were labeled the words: “Formerly Withheld in Full.”
2. Focus on Mexico City. Many historians, journalists and researchers who have studied the assassination, including this one, argue that the most important, and mostly unexplored, mysteries about the assassination involve the gunman Lee Harvey Oswald’s six-day trip to Mexico City in late September 1963, just weeks before JFK’s murder. The index released by the Archives shows that many of the soon-to-be-released documents are drawn from the files of the CIA station in Mexico City; that includes the paperwork of officers involved in the surveillance of Oswald during the Mexico trip. From what has already been made public, Oswald, a self-proclaimed Marxist who had once tried to defect to the Soviet Union, was in contact with Cuban and Soviet spies in Mexico and is reported to have talked openly there of his intention to kill Kennedy. The question has always been: How much did the CIA station in Mexico City know in real time about those contacts and a possible threat to Kennedy’s life – and was all that intelligence passed back to CIA headquarters?
3. Keep in mind that the crazy theory about an Oswald “imposter” in Mexico may not be so crazy. Oswald did indeed go to Mexico City and appeared at the Cuban and Soviet embassies – several witnesses confirmed it and there is other evidence – but many popular conspiracy theories focus on the possibility that a CIA agent or someone else impersonated Oswald in Mexico for at least part of the trip. After the assassination, there was special confusion within the FBI and CIA over reports that telephone calls in Mexico City—on phones tapped by the CIA—suggested that a man claiming to be Oswald in calls with the Soviet and Cuban embassies was someone else; the voice sounded different. Was the caller actually working for the CIA? That seems possible, if only because the CIA’s Mexico City station had a program of trying to intercept potential Americans defectors or spies who, at the height of the Cold War, regularly showed up at the door of Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico. Was it possible that the CIA, learning of Oswald’s arrival in Mexico, sent an agent to intercept him before some of his planned meetings with Cuban or Soviet agents, or that a CIA agent pretended to be Oswald in some of the phone calls? The CIA officer who ran operations directed at the Cuban embassy was the David Atlee Phillips, and his files are among the documents scheduled to be released this week. The CIA claimed to the Warren Commission it had no surveillance photos of Oswald in Mexico and had routinely erased tapes of his wiretapped phone calls there; CIA officers would tell Congress years later that photos and tapes had survived.
4. Credit Oliver Stone, Kevin Costner and the power of Hollywood. There is plenty of irony in the fact that it took a conspiracy-theorist filmmaker like Stone to create the uproar that led, ultimately, to the release of all of the government’s secret files about JFK. Nearly as ironic: that the final decision about releasing the files is left to President Trump, who has promoted unsupported conspiracy theories about throughout his adult life, including one offered during last year’s campaign that tied Senator Ted Cruz’s father to Oswald. And here’s a further irony: Costner played the film’s hero, the late New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, but history has shown that Garrison was no hero. He was a charlatan, whose allegations that a prominent New Orleans businessman part of CIA-directed conspiracy to kill Kennedy fell apart when the case was finally brought to a jury; Garrison’s tactics against another man in the case appear to have driven him to suicide. Fun fact: Among the champions of the 1992 bill: Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who first gained national fame in the 1960s as the Warren Commission staff member who developed the so-called single bullet theory – the theory that one bullet from Oswald’s rifle hit both President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, who was a passenger in Kennedy’s limousine. The single bullet theory, while almost certainly true, was ridiculed in the film, as was Specter, by name.
5. Don’t forget that the government has already admitted there was a JFK assassination “cover-up,” just not the one Oliver Stone imaged. In a once-classified 2013 report, the CIA’s in-house historian acknowledged that the spy agency had conducted a “cover-up” (albeit a “benign cover-up,” he said) to hide “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission that might have pointed away from Oswald as the man solely responsible for Kennedy’s murder. The CIA wanted the commission to focus solely on “what the Agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’ – that Lee Harvard Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone.” According to the report, the most important information withheld from the Warren Commission: The CIA had been trying, for years, to assassinate Fidel Castro. Without that information, the commission never even knew to ask whether Oswald had accomplices in Cuba, Mexico or somewhere else who wanted Kennedy dead in retaliation for the Castro plots.
6. Remember who wrote these documents. These will be, mostly, documents written by federal government workers to other government workers, using jargon that would mean little to anyone outside their agencies, even when discussing the details of a turning point in history like the Kennedy assassination. Previously declassified documents have demonstrated that embarrassing or explosive information about the assassination tended to be hidden in bureaucratic language found in the middle or at the bottom of the paperwork. An example of information buried in previously declassified files: a 1967 CIA memo that revealed tantalizing information about “the fact” of a brief affair between Oswald and a Mexican woman who worked in the Cuban consulate in Mexico City. “The fact” was characterized as insignificant and worthy of no one’s attention.
7. Bone up your Watergate history. The long-secret assassination files cite the activities of a remarkable number of CIA officials and American political operatives who later turn up as figures in the Watergate scandals of the Nixon administration. The files include an 84-page background file on Bernard Barker, a Cuban exile who was one of the Watergate burglars, as well as documents on Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer whose family has insisted that he may have had advance knowledge of the JFK assassination.
8. Find a good cheatsheet and other shortcuts. Several websites are dedicated to questions—and conspiracy theories—about the assassination. One is especially valuable: the website of the Mary Farrell Foundation, which has created a vast online archives of government files and other information about the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King. Last year, the foundation’s president, Rex Bradford, prepared a useful summary of the soon-to-be released documents. The website also has prepared an invaluable guide to the meaning of thousands of the CIA code names used to identify people and programs that figure in the history of the Kennedy assassination. Another valuable website for JFK assassination research: www.JFKfacts.org. The site is run by Jefferson Morley, a former journalist at the Washington Post and the author of a biography of Winston Scott, the CIA station chief in Mexico at the time of Oswald’s visit.
9. Remember the name James Jesus Angleton. Angleton was the CIA’s counterintelligence director at the time of the Kennedy assassination and controlled the flow of information to the Warren Commission. Angleton, a paranoid, delusional, duplicitous alcoholic whose legacy at the CIA is a uniquely disastrous one, appears to have intentionally withheld evidence and witnesses from the commission, all but guaranteeing its investigation would be flawed. Among the most intriguing documents scheduled for release this week is a top-secret 74-page transcript of a 1976 interview with Angleton by congressional investigators.
10. Forget the name of Rafael Cruz Sr. (probably). Cruz, the 78-year-old father of Senator Ted Cruz, is the subject of the conspiracy theory offered by Trump during last week’s campaign. President-to-be Trump repeatedly promoted an article in the National Enquirer that suggested ties between Rafael Cruz and Lee Harvey Oswald, based on a photograph from the files of the Warren Commission that showed Oswald and man who resembled Cruz Sr. in the streets of New Orleans. Both Senator Cruz and his father, who grew up in Cuba, adamantly denied any family tie to Oswald. And no other evidence has emerged to suggest any connection.