Member of assassination review panel dismisses idea of 'smoking document'

February 29, 1996|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Kermit L. Hall thinks the Warren Commission probably was correct in concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald alone assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

But as one of the five members on the Assassination Records Review Board, created in 1994 to wade through some 1 million pages of classified material, he also has developed strong feelings about secrecy in American democracy.

"There are hundreds of millions of secret documents held by the government," Mr. Hall told a small audience at the University of Maryland School of Law last night -- so many, he said, they are "strangling some government agencies."

Government secrecy was his main topic in delivering the annual Judge Simon E. Sobeloff Lecture.

From the framers of the Constitution to the Freedom of Information Act, the United States struggled to balance sensitive matters against its citizens' right to know, said Mr. Hall, dean of the College of Humanities and professor of history and law at Ohio State University, who has written and edited several books on American law.

The sole task of the review board, he said, "is to make public the records of one epic historic event."

After the Kennedy assassination, a "veil of secrecy" thrown over sensitive, but often mundane, intelligence gathering fueled public mistrust -- and a conspiracy industry, he said. Revelations from Watergate and, more recently, Oliver Stone's movie "JFK," prompted a government decision to begin making documents public now -- instead of 2017.

The most unsettling idea, Mr. Hall said, "that the president was murdered by his own government, eats away at the foundation of public trust in government."

Mr. Hall offered several documents opened by the panel, showing how they reveal bits of sensitive information.

Among them was a Nov. 23, 1963, FBI report, from an infiltrator of New York's Communist Party, that notes a September 1963 letter from a party leader to Oswald -- indicating that Oswald was moving to Baltimore.

"There is no smoking document," Mr. Hall said, alluding to suspicions of conspiracy. "I know one thing with absolute certainty: Whatever we put out will put us ahead of where we were."

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