JFK Assassination Board Closes
on Critical Note
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 1998; Page A15
The Assassination Records Review Board, created out of a broad public conviction that the government was hiding important information, winds up its work this week after collecting and releasing thousands of previously secret records about President John F. Kennedy's murder -- and concluding that aggressive efforts are needed to pursue still more.
Required by law to close its doors Sept. 30, the small but independent agency said in a final 236-page report that its aggressive efforts frequently paid off, but that it is still worried that "critical records may have been withheld" from its scrutiny. The agency said it did not secure "all that was 'out there.' "
Headed by John R. Tunheim, a federal judge from Minnesota, the five-member board said it reviewed and released portions of more than 29,000 classified documents and secured the consent of various agencies, predominantly the FBI and the CIA, to release an additional 33,000.
It also declared the Zapruder film of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas to be public property, uncovered original notes of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's interrogation, sponsored new ballistics tests of an overlooked bullet fragment from Kennedy's limousine, and conducted lengthy depositions and interviews of doctors here and in Dallas to try to clarify the controversial medical record of Kennedy's autopsy.
Composed of legal, historical and archival experts appointed by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in 1994, the board was not established to draw conclusions about the assassination and it did not. Instead, the board explained, it was created to ferret out as many records as it could, using a broad definition of documents "related" to the assassination, "so that the public could draw its own conclusions."
As a result, the board dipped into subjects ranging from organized crime to the war in Vietnam, issues that various researchers and theorists have sought to tie to President Kennedy's death.
The board strongly recommended that a similar approach be adopted "whenever there are extraordinary circumstances in which continuing controversy concerning government actions has been most acute" and where an aggressive effort is needed to enhance historical understanding.
"The Review Board's experience leaves little doubt that the federal government needlessly and wastefully withheld from public access countless important records that did not require such treatment," the board said. "Change is long overdue."
At the same time, the board urged that any future effort avoid the shortcomings of the 1992 law that set it up. Among these, it listed uncertainties about the applicability of the law after the board terminates and problems stemming from its "rapid sunset provisions."
"It is all too easy to imagine that agencies and agency personnel not inclined to cooperate might simply have waited, using the JFK Act's sunset provisions by waiting for it to take effect and ending the need to cooperate," the report said. Formal presentation to President Clinton is expected Wednesday.
The records review board gave high marks to some agencies, such as the FBI, which the report depicted as unusually helpful after some early skirmishes over the identities of informants and other issues. The National Security Council was also praised as "fully cooperative."
The State Department, by contrast, drew scathing criticism for being inattentive to the board's efforts to obtain foreign government records, particularly from Moscow and Belarus. The Belarusan KGB, for instance, has an extensive file on Oswald, detailing more than two years of surveillance during the time he lived in Minsk.
Asked for comment, Pat Kennedy, assistant secretary of state for administration, said "we have pushed [the Belarusans] and they have chosen not to respond. I do not know what more we could have done." As for ignored cables, Kennedy said he knew of only one and that "frankly got lost. When someone asked for it, we located it and sent it over with abject apologies."
The board also scolded the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board for insisting that "unique information" in its files was not "assassination-related" and demanding an "unnecessary [and] burdensome" document-by-document justification.
The Kennedy presidential library in Boston was ranked as a disappointment for delays in sought-after papers from Robert F. Kennedy's files, even though they contain "a wealth of Cuba material." The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was described as a puzzle, if not a black hole.
Oswald was a Marine before he defected to the Soviet Union and the board said a former naval intelligence specialist recalled how ONI conducted a post-defection investigation that produced at least a dozen reports about Oswald that crossed his desk.
The specialist, Frank Reeves, said "the primary concern of the reports he read on Oswald was to ascertain what damage had been done to the national security by Oswald's defection." The board said it was unable to locate any such documents. Apparently the only ONI document on Oswald that the board mentioned was a Sept. 21, 1964, affidavit in the files of then-ONI Director Rufus Taylor, declaring that ONI "never utilized Lee Harvey Oswald as an agent or an informant."
In addition to Tunheim, who was chief deputy attorney general when he was appointed to the board, members were: Columbia University historian Henry F. Graff; Ohio State historian Kermit L. Hall; Princeton University associate librarian William L. Joyce; and American University historian Anna K. Nelson.
"The absence of any connection or allegiance to the agencies freed the Board to make truly independent decisions," they said in the report. "For any group charged with declassifying secret records, independence is an essential attribute."
The records the board compiled are housed at the National Archives in College Park and include private collections such as those of the attorney for New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, the only man ever tried, and acquitted, in Kennedy's murder. Under the law, federal agencies remain obliged to continue releasing assassination related records, but the board said it is unclear "who would represent the interest of openness" in any future disputes.
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