WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump ordered the long-awaited release Thursday of 2,800 documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but bowed to protests by the CIA and FBI by withholding thousands of additional papers pending six more months of review.
The papers were posted online by the National Archives and Records Administration around 7:30 p.m. Thursday in compliance with a 1992 law, and represent a treasure trove for investigators, historians and conspiracy theorists who have spent more than half a century searching for clues to what really happened in Dallas on that fateful day in 1963.
But following a chaotic last-minute campaign by intelligence agencies lobbying for selected redactions, Trump agreed to postpone the disclosure of other documents while officials screen them again for sensitive information.
In a memo to government agencies involved in the process, the president ordered officials to report back by March 12 with any requests to further withhold information in those documents, and set a deadline for releasing all files by April 26 except those for which a compelling case has been made for continued secrecy.
“I am ordering that the veil finally be lifted,” Trump said in the memo. But given the concerns raised by the intelligence officials, he said, “I have no choice — today — but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our nation’s security.”
Trump was irritated at the requests to hold back documents and went along only reluctantly, according to aides. In the days leading up to Thursday’s deadline, he had suggested he was looking forward to opening the files. “The long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take place tomorrow,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “So interesting!”
In his memo Thursday, Trump sternly instructed the agencies that they “should be extremely circumspect” in requesting redactions, noting that “the need for continued protection can only have grown weaker with the passage of time.”
His deferral to the CIA and FBI invariably will lead to suspicions that the government is still protecting sensational secrets about the case. Administration officials said there was no cover-up, just an effort to avoid compromising national security, law enforcement or intelligence gathering methods.
For conspiracy theorists, the Kennedy assassination has been the holy grail, one that has produced an endless string of books, reports, lectures, articles, websites, documentaries and big-screen Hollywood movies. It was the first murder of a U.S. president in the television age, touching off a wave of global grief for a charismatic young leader while also spawning a cottage industry of skeptical questioning of the official version of events.
Every government authority that has examined the investigation of his death, from the Warren Commission to congressional investigators, concluded that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired three shots with a mail-order rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository when the presidential motorcade passed by on Nov. 22, 1963. But that has never satisfied the doubters, and polls have consistently shown that most Americans still believe that someone other than Oswald must have been involved.
Did Oswald secretly work for the CIA or FBI? The Cubans or the Soviets? Or maybe the Mafia? Was there more than one gunman? Was the president actually shot from a grassy knoll in front of the motorcade? Did someone order Jack Ruby to kill Oswald? Did the CIA, FBI or Secret Service miss opportunities to prevent the assassination? Was Lyndon B. Johnson somehow behind it, as Roger J. Stone Jr., an adviser, to Trump has asserted? Was the father of Sen. Ted Cruz involved, as Trump alleged last year?
While the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone, the House Select Committee on Assassinations said in a 1979 report that Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy” but did not identify who those conspirators might have been. It specifically ruled out the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Cubans opposed to Castro, the Mafia, the FBI, CIA and the Secret Service, although it said it could not preclude that individuals affiliated with some of those groups might have been involved.
In theory, the release of documents Thursday marks the beginning of the end of the disclosure of the assassination archives. But historians warned that even the final batch of documents may not definitively satisfy the skeptics. And it may take weeks, months or even longer to fully examine the documents released Thursday.
The release of the documents owes as much to the moviemaker Oliver Stone as anyone else. His 1991 blockbuster movie, “JFK,” starred Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who pursued conspiracy theories about the assassination. While the movie was panned by many scholars, Stone included a title card at the end noting that records from the House committee investigation were closed until 2029, fueling suspicions.
Congress stepped in and passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on Oct. 26, 1992. The act mandated that all records concerning the assassination should be released no later than 25 years from that date, which was Thursday, unless the president at the time authorized further withholding for national security reasons.
The database that was created as a result of the law contains information on more than 319,000 documents, according to the archives. In the years since the law was passed, the archives has released 88 percent of those documents in full and an additional 11 percent with portions redacted. Until Thursday, just 1 percent had been withheld in full. Most remained secret because they were declared “not assassination related” or “not believed relevant.”
Officials said many of those were documents created as late as the 1990s to explain to members of the document review board how intelligence collection worked and were not specific to the Kennedy case, but could reveal methods that should remain protected.
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