A Half-Century Later, Papers May Shed Light on J.F.K. Assassination

 

WASHINGTON — Few seem as excited about the release of the final batch of secret documents from the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy as the current occupant of the Oval Office. “The long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take place tomorrow,” President Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “So interesting!”

Surely, then, it was just a coincidence that Mr. Trump posted that message while on Air Force One heading to, of all places, Dallas. Or was it? Fifty-three years and 11 months after the event that gave rise to a thousand conspiracy theories, the president even landed at Dallas Love Field Airport, where Kennedy’s body was brought for the final flight home, and his motorcade came within a few miles of Dealey Plaza, where the fateful shots rang out.

Somehow it feels only appropriate that the remaining papers from one of history’s most infamous mysteries would be made public by the administration of a president who dabbles in conspiracy theories himself. After all, it was Mr. Trump who during last year’s campaign suggested that the father of his Republican rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination. And one of his longtime advisers, Roger J. Stone Jr., wrote a book blaming the killing on Lyndon B. Johnson.

Moreover, this is a president who, unlike most of those who have occupied the White House over the decades, has been in open war at times with the agencies that seem most worried that the release of documents may embarrass them by disclosing evidence of mishandling or even, some suspect, collusion of some sort.

“Of all the presidents since 1963, this is the one who would mind the least if the release of these documents damaged the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., two organizations that he’s very angry at at the moment,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian.

The documents have either never been disclosed or been made public only in redacted form, and are due to be released by the National Archives and Records Administration on Thursday under a law passed in 1992 after the Oliver Stone movie “JFK” stoked interest in Kennedy-related conspiracies. The last of the documents were required to be released 25 years after the law was signed, but the incumbent president, in this case Mr. Trump, can order some withheld in response to concerns by the intelligence agencies. White House officials said he had not made up his mind whether to do so.

Historians and conspiracy investigators are eager to see what the documents may yet reveal about Lee Harvey Oswald and any ties he may have had to the Cubans, Soviets, C.I.A., F.B.I. or mafia. Some hope for a better understanding of Oswald’s trip to Mexico City, where he visited the Cuban Consulate in the weeks before the assassination at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Still, some specialists on the killing warned against expecting any stunning revelation. “I don’t think it will turn the case on its head,” said Gerald Posner, author of “Case Closed,” the 1993 book that concluded that Oswald indeed killed Kennedy on his own.

“We’re not going to find some secret memo from J. Edgar Hoover drawing out the escape path for Lee Harvey Oswald,” he said. “The public expectations are very high — they’ve heard about secret files, they know they’ve been locked up for all these years. The average person may think there’s a bombshell in there.”

But Mr. Posner said the files might draw a fuller picture of the early 1960s beyond the specific questions about the assassination. “This is all about the Cold War and spooks and spies and Mexico City,” he said. “This is about a time when we know the government was in league with the mob to kill Castro. Cold War scholars and historians may find this as interesting as Kennedy assassination researchers.”

According to the archives, 88 percent of the documents in the collection created by the 1992 law have been released in full and another 11 percent have been released with portions redacted. Just 1 percent have been withheld in full until now. Most have 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 describe how intelligence collection worked.

Jefferson Morley, an author who spent years suing the C.I.A. for documents related to the Kennedy assassination, said he thought it likely that Mr. Trump would defer to some agency demands and withhold a portion of the archive. But he said he nonetheless hoped it would answer some questions for researchers that linger after nearly 54 years.

“There won’t be any smoking gun,” said Mr. Morley, editor of the assassination website JFKfacts.org, who re-examined the period for his new book, “The Ghost: The Secret Life of C.I.A. Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.” “But it will fill in the picture of the pre-assassination surveillance of Oswald,” especially during his visit to the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City.

Mr. Morley said that the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. were well aware of Oswald, a former defector to the Soviet Union, before the killing. “The idea that Oswald came out of the blue and shot the president is false,” he said. “The C.I.A. had a deep file on him.”

Mr. Morley also said that with the potential release of what may total more than 100,000 pages, no one should expect instant answers on what they contained. “There will be good stuff in there, but you’re not going to find it in the first two hours,” he said.

Max Holland, a Washington writer and author of the 2004 book “The Kennedy Assassination Tapes,” said he believed expectations about potential revelations from the files were overblown.

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