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President Biden, release the JFK assassination files

Secrets are bad for democracy, whether they hide the truth about one president’s assassination or another president’s role in encouraging an insurrection.

In this footage taken by presidential aide Dave Powers and photographed from a television screen, President John F. Kennedy, accompanied by his wife, Jacqueline, waves from his limousine in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.Dave Powers

To research and write “The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy” (2009), historian David Kaiser scrutinized thousands of documents released during the 1990s by the FBI and CIA. There are thousands more he would like to take a look at, if only the government would let him.

“Every little piece of the jigsaw puzzle can help,” Kaiser told me.

However, with the release of files relating to the assassination delayed yet again — this time by President Biden — the truth remains a puzzle. What’s frustrating to historians should also concern the American public. On Nov. 22, it will be 58 years since Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. We still don’t know the full story behind a crime that changed history and shaped politics for a generation. To many Americans, that sounds like ancient history. But secrets are bad for democracy, whether they hide the truth about one president’s assassination or another president’s role in encouraging an insurrection.

As The Washington Post reported, under the 1992 John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, all assassination records were supposed to be disclosed in October 2017. However, Donald Trump postponed release, setting a new deadline of Oct. 26, 2021, which Biden just pushed off. According to an Oct. 22 memo issued by Biden, the national archivist recommended postponement because the coronavirus pandemic delayed the review of records necessary to protect against “an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or the conduct of foreign relations that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” According to the memo, some documents will be released on Dec. 15; others are slated for release in late 2022. But there’s reason to doubt that timetable too.


The foot-dragging continues, even as the memo from Biden points out that in 1992 Congress found that “only in the rarest cases is there any legitimate need for continued protection of such records.” If the records don’t need protecting, who does? Not those who still remember the elementary school classroom where they sat when the horrifying news that the president had been shot crackled over a loudspeaker. Those children now grown old have a vested interest in knowing as much truth as possible about a defining moment in history and their lives. Giving historians access to those records is the best path to learning it.


Kaiser, the author of 10 books, said that most JFK assassination analysis breaks down to “two churches” — “the church of the lone assassin,” whose followers are committed to the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he killed Kennedy, and “the church of the grand conspiracy,” whose acolytes believe elements inside the US government played a role in planning the murder. His book argues that Oswald committed the assassination as part of a conspiracy that involved organized crime figures who had been targeted by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He still would like to see the records “because so many things can give you a different perspective.”

Kaiser doesn’t believe there’s a smoking gun in the withheld files. Agencies like the CIA and FBI are reluctant to release information in general, he said, and even more reluctant to release information that makes them look bad. “I’d be very surprised if there were still documents that posed a real danger to anybody,” he said. “Basically, they don’t want to put anything out that’s embarrassing.” Fear of embarrassment does not justify secret-keeping. Neither does fear of being unable to convince the most extreme conspiracy theorists that what they believe is false. With enough transparency, reasonable people will reach reasonable conclusions. Unreasonable people will remain unconvinced; in 2021, that we know for sure.


Today, we also know more about Kennedy’s human failings. But even when myth is separated from reality, his death marked a passage in this country, away from idealism and trust to something more selfish and cynical. In today’s political world, the kind of appeal Kennedy made to Americans — to ask what they can do for their country — is a laughable exercise in futility, as Biden is discovering. Still, releasing the assassination files might be one way to restore a tiny bit of trust, at least to the generation that first started to lose it on Nov. 22, 1963.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.