JFK Assassination
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  Executive Summary (cont.)
The JFK Act required all government agencies to search for the records in their possession concerning the assassination and place them in the National Archives. The Act provided for the appointment of the members of the Review Board within ninety days, but the transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations caused an 18-month delay between passage of the Act and the swearing-in of the Board members. Only then could the Board hire staff and arrange for office space. This delay had two ramifications. First, the Act stated that the work of the Board was to be completed in three years, an unrealistic goal since more than 18 months had already elapsed. (The Board's work was eventually extended to four years.) Second, agencies were sending documents to the National Archives before the Board established its guidelines for their release. Consequently and unfortunately, once the Review Board did provide guidance to the agencies, much of their initial work had to be revised, further slowing the processing and re-reviewing by the Board and its staff.

The Board's first task was to define the term "assassination record" in order to frame the search for relevant records. The statutory definition, a record "related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy," specifically included any record from the investigating agencies, and records in the possession of the federal government, and any local or state government that assisted in the inquiry into the assassination. But, as noted in the Senate report, "it is intended and emphasized that the search and disclosure of records under this Act must go beyond those records." Congress empowered the Board to determine whether a document was an assassination record and to cast a broad net for such records. Board members engaged in extensive discussion and sought advice from the public before finally issuing its broad definition. The definition enabled the Board to look beyond the narrower confines of the assassination to find and release valuable documents from the early 1960s that enhance the historical understanding of that era, and the political and diplomatic context in which the assassination occurred.

The Review Board overcame its early challenges and, with the help of its able staff, developed guidelines for the release of documents. These served as the yardstick for both its staff and the federal agencies.

The Board's most important task was to review the information the agencies wished to postpone rather than release and then to vote either to sustain the postponement or release the information. Since the Board was working in uncharted territory, it developed creative methods. Three review stages evolved over the four years of the Board's existence. At first, the Board scrutinized each document with infinite care, and by choosing to meet often, made decisions on a document-by-document basis working to understand both the body of information at issue and the balance required by the JFK Act. It eschewed the more generic issue approach which was preferred by the agencies.

During the second stage, the Board delegated some routine decisionmaking to its Board staff, which proceeded with such care that even the slightest question about a document brought it to the Board's attention. Finally, agencies recognized the voting pattern of the Board and for purposes of efficiency began bypassing the review process on their own initiative and releasing records under the Board's guidelines. The Board's review process ultimately ensured that the Review Board scrutinized each piece of withheld information so that the American public would be confident that assassination records were open to the fullest extent possible.

The JFK Act established a stringent standard for postponing the opening of a record. Its minimal list of required postponements and emphasis on the bias toward disclosure separated it from either the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or the Executive Order that provides for disclosure of national security information. The Board proceeded cautiously as it examined its first documents under the provisions of postponement in Section 6 of the JFK Act. In particular, the Board balanced evidence for postponement against the public interest in release, bearing in mind the Act's "presumption of immediate disclosure." Before agreeing to postponement, the Board applied the stringent requirements for the "clear and convincing evidence" required by the Act. Decisions had to be made on names, dates, places, crypts, pseudonyms, file numbers, sources of information and the method by which it was obtained. Ultimately, the Board created a set of principles, a kind of "common law," that could be applied to many of the documents. Although the agencies often objected to the Board's decisions, they accepted both the statute and the Board's interpretation of it and, for the most part, cooperated.

The JFK Act specifically instructed the Review Board to go beyond the scope of previous inquiries. Since both the Board and its staff had high level security clearances, no agency could prevent a search through every file. After locating files designated by the agencies, the Review Board staff members pursued new sources of assassination records. Most of the Review Board's additional requests for records went to the CIA and FBI, but there were also requests to the Secret Service, the Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Agency, and The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Given the massive volume of federal records, the search for additional records was time consuming and often frustrating. For every assassination record located and included in the collection, the staff literally reviewed hundreds of documents. The documents located through this search for additional records are among the most important in the collection – many were never reviewed by the prior investigations.

The Review Board, in its effort to make the JFK Collection valuable to historians, encouraged private citizens and organizations that possessed records of their own to donate them to the JFK Collection. The collection was significantly enriched by these donations. They included, for example, the desk diaries of former President and Warren Commission member Gerald Ford, the personal files of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans prosecuting attorney, notes taken during interviews with Lee Harvey Oswald by both a Dallas Police Captain and a former FBI agent, and films from individuals in Dallas and President Kennedy's aide, Dave Powers. They also include a donation of papers from the son of J. Lee Rankin, General Counsel of the Warren Commission, and the diary of Clay Shaw, the only person tried for the murder of John F. Kennedy (and subsequently acquitted). The Review Board added to the collection, too, information from state and local offices and officials who were tied to the Oswald investigation.

The JFK Act also encouraged the Review Board to work with the Department of State to include documents from foreign governments. The Board sought records from Russia, Belarus, Cuba and Mexico. For the most part, these attempts proved frustrating and fruitless owing to political and diplomatic constraints. Although many leads were pursued, only a few new records were obtained. Although this is a genuine loss to the historical completeness of the assassination records, work continues on these attempts and the Board is hopeful that eventually these records, particularly the voluminous KGB surveillance records on Oswald, will be added to the JFK Collection.

In the spirit of openness embodied in the JFK Act, the Review Board devoted a significant amount of time and resources listening to and corresponding with its various constituencies. It held a total of seven public hearings, one each in Dallas, Boston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles and three in Washington, DC. In addition, Board members participated in meetings of historical associations, spoke to countless public groups, and cooperated with assassination researchers and the Coalition on Political Assassinations. Over 100 press releases were issued, and Board members made themselves available for many media interviews.

Twice, the Review Board called together a group of invited guests who are "experts" in their fields. The first conference was held in May 1995. It provided the Review Board and the staff with the opportunity to discuss prior investigative efforts that were thwarted due to lack of access to records. The participants provided the Board staff with recommendations for further searches. The second conference, held in April 1998, focused narrowly on the issue of document declassification. This informative meeting helped Board members to formulate recommendations for this final report.

From time to time the frequent and sustained contact with the public diverted the staff from its primary responsibilities – identifying and releasing records. However, the benefits far outweighed the costs. The Review Board received valuable leads from the public about the existence of other assassination records and, more important, received donations that enhanced the collection at the National Archives.

Finally, the Review Board staff implemented a program to ensure, to the fullest extent possible, that each agency complied with the JFK Act. A signed declaration was required from each agency, under penalty of perjury. This compliance statement described the record searches that the agency completed, records that it located, and other actions it took to comply with the law.

Before agencies submitted their Final Declarations of Compliance, the staff worked with them to resolve outstanding problems. In the compliance statement, each agency addressed the scope and adequacy of its search, the adequacy of its response to the requests for additional information, and the timeliness with which it processed its records for release. The Board and staff also decided to depose officials of agencies with poor records systems and those that failed to comply with the spirit of the Act. The legacy of the JFK Review Board lies in the more than four million pages of records now in the National Archives and available to the public with remarkably few redactions. These records include critical documentation on the events in Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the reactions of government agencies to the assassination. They also include documents that enhance the historical understanding of that traumatic event in recent American history by placing it in the broader context of political and diplomatic events.

Page Three: Recommendations  


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