After days of buildup, President Trump on Thursday kept hundreds of records about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy hidden from the public, but also ordered the release of another 2,800 documents.
Trump apparently bowed to pressure from the CIA, FBI, and other federal agencies, but he ordered the agency heads who had convinced him not to release the additional documents to conduct a six-month review of whether the information can be released.
“I have no choice — today — but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our Nation’s security,” Trump said in an executive order.
The decision came as a disappointment to many who had hoped to see additional clues to one of the enduring mysteries of American history, one that continues to capture imaginations and prompt doubts about the government’s official conclusion that a single gunman killed the 35th president.
“It’s a nightmare, certainly a logistical nightmare, and the sort of thing that just feeds the conspiracy theories,” said Philip Shenon, author of “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination.” “What can be so secret about this event 54 years ago that the government still has to hide something?”
Trump said he hoped people could “finally be fully informed about all aspects of this pivotal event. Therefore, I am ordering today that the veil finally be lifted.”
Senior administration officials said late Thursday that the vast majority of requests for continued secrecy came from the CIA and FBI. Some of that information relates to the identities of informants for intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the officials said.
Historians and scholars have long said they do not expect the remaining documents to fundamentally alter the understanding of the shooting.
But some have said they will likely reveal other clues, specifically that the CIA and FBI knew more about Lee Harvey Oswald’s background than they shared publicly at the time.
“There was certainly a criminal coverup after the assassination to hide what they knew about Oswald before the assassination,” Shenon said.
A CIA spokesperson said in an e-mail Thursday that the agency’s “current redactions were undertaken with the intent to protect information in the collection whose disclosure would harm national security — including the names of CIA assets and current and former CIA officers, as well as specific intelligence methods and partnerships that remain viable to protecting the nation today.”
Much of the public has remained skeptical about the veracity of the official explanation that Oswald acted alone, which was proffered by the Warren Commission in 1964. A poll commissioned by the FiveThirtyEight website and conducted by SurveyMonkey this month found that 61 percent of American adults believed others were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy and just 33 percent believe one man was responsible for it.
Conspiracy theories abound. Trump himself last year alleged that the father of Senator Ted Cruz was involved in the assassination.
Senior administration officials told reporters during a conference call that the sensitive information had been collected at various points, beginning around the time of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination and through the 1990s, when a special review board for assassination records examined the case again.
Passage of a 1992 law intended to increase transparency around the assassination set Thursday as the mandatory date of the records’ release. But the law allows leeway in the case of concerns such as those the administration cited Thursday.
Trump’s executive order said “each agency head should be extremely circumspect in recommending any further postponement of full disclosure of records” beyond the six-month deadline he set.
Shenon said that the continued resistance to a full airing of the documents hints that they will remain undisclosed after the six-month deadline.
“Some of these agencies have been aggressive in their appeals, and so I think there’s every reason to believe that ultimately these documents will not be released,” he said. “There must be concern at the CIA and FBI that some of these documents will be embarrassing.”
The CIA spokesperson’s e-mail said that under the 1992 law more than 87,000 CIA records had been identified as within the scope of the collection. More than 69,000 of them have been released in full with no redactions, the e-mail said.
“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 e-mail said.
Thursday’s announcement followed suspense around whether Trump would follow through on earlier indications that he would allow the documents to be released in full.
Some of the documents contain intimate, high-level conversations. For instance, in one 1966 memorandum, marked “top secret,” that appeared to have been unreleased in full prior to Thursday night, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover summarized the reaction of Soviet officials to news of Kennedy’s death for the White House.
“They seemed convinced that the assassination was not the deed of one man, but that it arose out of a carefully planned campaign in which several people played a part,” the memo reads. “They felt that those elements interested in utilizing the assassination and playing on anticommunist sentiments in the United States would then utilize this act to stop negotiations with the Soviet Union, attack Cuba and thereafter spread the war.”
A 1964 cablegram found that the FBI had closely monitored Oswald during the period he visited Mexico City in the weeks before the assassination, considered a key period by historians looking into his background. Oswald was watched so closely that the details include where he sat on a bus, and who sat near him.
A CIA document dated the day after the assassination reported that Oswald, according to an intercepted phone, was at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City on Sept. 28, 1963, less than two months before the assassination. Oswald called the embassy three days later and spoke in “broken Russian” and asked whether there was “anything new concerning the telegram to Washington.”
One document apparently withheld previously states that the FBI had received a phone call from “a man talking in a calm voice and saying he was a member of a committee organized to kill Oswald.”
The FBI warned Dallas police repeatedly of the threat. Dallas police assured sufficient protection.
“However, that was not done,” said Hoover. Oswald was shot dead two days after Kennedy by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.