The CIA’s last assassination-related files might help us answer that question. These files constitute a significant body of material—more than 1,100 files containing up to 50,000 pages of material. As we have seen, these are the files of senior officers implicated in the JFK assassination story. My hunch is that this trove of long-secret intelligence files — if declassified in its entirety — will support the notion that the president was ambushed by enemies within his own government.
The qualifier is important—if declassified in its entirety—because it raises a tougher question: Can online civil society force top CIA officials to make public information they obviously would prefer to keep a secret?
That is the fundamental question raised—but not answered—by this book. “Who killed JFK?” is a fascinating and significant question, but I have to admit it can sound like so much banter in a Baby Boomer bar room. The JFK story has no particular urgency in millennial America. I’m talking about a single homicide that happened before most of you were born. But the CIA’s last JFK files raise a contemporary political issue that couldn’t be more timely and relevant for the millennial generation: the role of extreme secrecy in a democratic society.
We can debate the causes of November 22, 1963, until the bartenders turn up the lights but no one can dispute its effects on our American government today. JFK’s assassination inspired and justified the extreme and extraordinary secrecy measures that remain in effect today.
This veil of secrecy descended on the day Kennedy died, as senior agency officials concealed their ongoing conspiracies to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro and their pre-assassination knowledge of suspected JFK assassin Lee Oswald. This veil of secrecy impeded the investigations of the assassination by the Warren Commission in 1964, by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison in 1967–1989, by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1975–1976, by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976–’79, and by the Assassination Records Review Board in 1994–’98. In every investigation relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the CIA concealed information relevant to the JFK story that should have been made public.
In 2016, this veil of secrecy continues to conceal 1,100 files concerning the likes of CIA officials Bill Harvey, Howard Hunt, David Phillips, David Morales, Ann Goodpasture, and George Joannides, as well as the surveillance operations that picked up on Lee Harvey Oswald as he made his way from Moscow to Minsk to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas.
Rule of Law
The rule of law has not proven entirely ineffectual in piercing the veil of secrecy around the JFK story.
Public skepticism about the findings of the Warren Commission contributed to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in the 1960s. JFK researchers used the FOIA in the 1970s to open the records of the Warren Commission. The investigations of Jim Garrison, the Church Committee, and the HSCA forced more of the story into public view, but CIA stonewalling still kept much of it under lock and key.
Hollywood has played a role. In 1992, the box office and critical success of Oliver Stone’s JFK shamed the Congress into passing the JFK Records Act. The law required government agencies to make public any and all records related to JFK’s assassination. The will of the people could not have been clearer. The law was approved unanimously by a Democratic Congress in a vote of 435 to zero. President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, signed the bill into law and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, implemented it.
The CIA and other federal agencies were given the right to postpone the release of material for reasons of privacy and national security for up to 25 years. The law was passed in October 1992. Twenty-three and half years have passed since Congress acted. In October 2017, the last JFK files are supposed to become public.
Can the rule of law prevail? Unfortunately, the JFK Records Act has a proverbial loophole, which could prove fatal to the near-universal desire for full JFK disclosure. A provision of the law allows for federal agencies to petition the White House to delay the release of JFK material beyond October 2017. CIA officials quietly insisted on this provision in 1992 and I am personally convinced that they full intend to exploit it in 2017.
There is no reason to believe that the CIA’s institutional commitment to JFK secrecy has been curbed, controlled, or in any way affected by the letter and spirit of the JFK Records Act. The CIA has its loophole and they will almost certainly exploit it, the public be damned. Such is the state of American democracy.
Can the CIA’s arrogance and penchant for secrecy be checked, at least with respect to the Kennedy assassination?
The divided and dysfunctional Congress is not capable of holding the agency accountable. The shrinking Washington press corps is not willing or able to confront the CIA over what it considers to be an ancient issue. The men and women running for president have not addressed the issue.
The only check on those senior CIA officials who wish to continue the JFK assassination cover-up in 2016 is online civil society.
Online civil society consists of citizens of the United States (and the world) who are empowered by the Internet to find and share information. Thanks to the World Wide Web, all people everywhere now have access to the historical record of JFK’s assassination (via websites like MaryFerrell.org, JFKLancer.com and JFKFacts.org) and to powerful communications channels (like Facebook and Twitter).
The combination of 1) widespread public knowledge about how CIA secrecy works and 2) social media conversation about the continuing JFK cover-up could (emphasis on the conditional) raise awareness on the Internet, in Congress, in elite news organizations, and the presidential campaigns. Such public exposure might, in turn, affect the CIA’s calculations.
It won’t be easy. Those who favor full JFK disclosure confront a secretive government agency with an enormous budget, a stable of high-paid lawyers, and a cadre of experienced bureaucrats who will resolutely insist that their privileges of secrecy should not be pierced. But the very extremism of the CIA’s position is actually a weakness.
We can be sure that CIA will claim “national security” requires continuing secrecy around certain JFK files. The argument that release of such ancient material might threaten the safety of any American today is frankly preposterous. If John Brennan and other top CIA officials are forced to state publicly that they wish to continue concealing JFK assassination records to protect the lives of Americans from the Islamic State, they will risk public ridicule and shame. The prospect of personal and institutional embarrassment might—again with emphasis on the conditional—force them to respect the will of the public.
We the people have only two points of leverage, both grounded in the principle of the public’s right to know.
One point of leverage is the 2016 presidential election. If the leaders of the CIA want to keep secret any portion of the last JFK files, they will have to get the approval of the White House. The next president will have to listen to the legal issues as understood by his or her legal advisers and then make a decision before October 2017. Hence the pressing question for presidential aspirants, “Do you favor full disclosure of the CIA’s JFK files in October 2017?”
The other point of leverage is the October 2017 deadline itself. The CIA will be hard pressed to justify the continuing censorship of all 1,100 still-secret files. Most of this material is not historically important, so the CIA is likely to release some or most of it, probably with fanfare and self-congratulation. So news organizations and the blogosphere and social media channels will be paying attention to what is made public—and not to what the CIA seeks to conceal.
I think that speculation about what might be in the files is a big mistake. The overriding question is, why would the CIA insist on continued secrecy with respect to its JFK assassination-related files? The secondary question is, can the CIA be shamed or coerced or persuaded to obey the law and release all of the remaining JFK assassination files by October 2017 without exception?
The answer to the second question is yes. Please share this book with a friend and insist, via social media, that the CIA obey the law. (Hashtags #CIAObey and #JFK2017). If we, the American people, fail to take a firm public stand against the CIA’s continued secrecy, the JFK coverup will continue indefinitely. The October 2017 deadline for the release of the JFK assassination-related files looms as a test of American democracy.
Jefferson Morley is a former reporter for the Washington Post and the author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA and Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835. He also runs the website jfkfacts.org.