Secret doors opening on JFK assassination Government files are made public

August 23, 1993|By The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON -- Today could be Jim Lesar's day.

This morning, the National Archives was scheduled to open hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of the federal government's most closely guarded secrets on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Lesar, a standard bearer of JFK assassination researchers, has worked toward this event for 23 years. He wants to believe that full disclosure will occur, but he sees pervasive signs of a letdown.

"Given half a chance, the government is going to screw it up. And that's, in fact, what will happen," the Washington lawyer said last week. "They [agency officials] are going to withhold great amounts of material."

Mr. Lesar predicted that the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies holding classified records on the assassination will defy the intent of a law President George Bush signed last October.

FBI and CIA spokesmen insisted that their agencies will comply with the law, releasing a large amount of previously undisclosed documents.

"The CIA will make every effort to make the maximum amount of material available to the public on this issue," said spokesman Peter Earnest.

Archives officials declined to estimate the number of JFK documents they would release, or say how many will be new disclosures. Officials have previously placed the total number of JFK-related documents at 3 million.

"We are doing our best to get out as many records as possible," said archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. She noted that the archives had until Sept. 22 to release JFK records but is beating the statutory deadline by a month.

The records law sprang from renewed controversy over the assassination generated by the movie "JFK." Sponsors touted the act as a way to debunk the film's charge of government complicity in Kennedy's murder.

The law requires federal agencies to declassify their assassination records and transfer them to the National Archives by Aug. 22.

Agencies can withhold records for privacy, national security or law enforcement reasons, but those decisions are subject to review by a five-member citizens' board appointed by the president.

The law required President Clinton to make nominations to the board by last Jan. 26, but he has not acted. A White House spokesman, David Seldin, declined to discuss the delay or when Mr. Clinton might announce his selections.

Mr. Lesar suggested that the absence of a review board will encourage government officials to err on the side of secrecy when deciding which assassination records to give the archives.

"Based on past experience, I think it's very likely the agencies are not going to properly implement the JFK Act," he said.

Mr. Earnest acknowledged that the CIA is withholding 160,000 of the 300,000 pages it generated on the assassination. The agency considered the documents exempt but would submit them to the review board, he said.

Last fall, the CIA released 12,000 pages of its personality file on Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin. The documents, most of which had been previously disclosed, shed little new light on him.

One of the biggest revelations to researchers was that the CIA did not open a file on Oswald until 13 months after he defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959 and threatened to reveal U.S. military secrets.

"You would have expected alarm bells should have gone off all over the CIA, and no alarm bells went off," said Dan Alcorn, a Washington-area lawyer and researcher who has read the CIA file on Oswald.

Terry O'Connor, the inspector in charge of declassifying FBI records on the assassination, could not be reached for comment. He said in May that the FBI expected to disclose "well over 90 percent" of its records.

The archives said the "Kennedy Assassination Records Collection" will include a mixture of previously opened and newly released documents.

Among the records listed are those of the Warren Commission, which decided in 1964 that Oswald alone killed Kennedy, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded in 1978 that Kennedy was "probably" the victim of a conspiracy involving organized crime.

Both investigative panels released lengthy reports, but thousands of supporting documents remained closed to the public. The bulk of those documents were expected to be included in the new release from the archives.

Researchers are hopeful that the new materials will include a report by House committee staff on a trip Oswald allegedly made to the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City two months before the assassination.

Some researchers believe the report could reveal important new facts about Oswald's alleged ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro, the KGB or the CIA. The Cuban leader and the two intelligence agencies have long denied any links to Oswald.

Also included in the archives' release were to be documents generated by the Rockefeller Commission, appointed by President Ford in 1975 to investigate allegations of widespread abuses by the CIA.

J. Gary Shaw, a longtime assassination researcher from Cleburne, Texas, suggested that the ultimate value of the new records will be that they reveal to the public the shoddy processes of the government's investigations.

"In my opinion, we are not going to find a smoking gun," Mr. Shaw said. "I think what we will find is very significant leads that were not pursued, whether it was because of time or choice or money."

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