The JFK Assassination: A cast of characters
. Those who know William Bosanko know better than to ask his opinion about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Martha Wagner Murphy’s husband is under orders not to reveal details of what she does for a living.
The two of them have led the final efforts at the National Archives to make public all government records about the JFK assassination almost 55 years ago — a project that swelled to encompass five million pages spread across more than 300,000 documents.
It was all supposed to draw to a close last October, but President Donald Trump gave the CIA, FBI and other agencies another six months to argue for continued secrecy for some material. Then Thursday, the deadline day, the White House announced an unspecified number of documents would remain secret until Oct. 26, 2021. It cited “identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs ... that outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure.”
The National Archives said in a statement that 520 files remained secret because they involved sealed court matters that can only be opened under a judge’s order; were personal papers from former administration officials; or came from presidential libraries under stipulation that they remain secret for specified periods of time. In all, 19,045 documents were released but 15,584 have some information withheld through 2021.
Which isn’t going to help quash suspicions about JFK’s murder.
Few historical events have sparked conspiracy theories quite like the Kennedy assassination. Arm-chair experts argue with absolute conviction that the real perpetrator was not lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, killed days after the assassination, but the Russians, the Cubans, the mob, U.S. generals and their friends in the military-industrial complex, the CIA, the FBI, Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson or some combination. The material released over the last 25 years has put to rest some purported theories, but has helped fuel others.
When the declassification process began a quarter century ago, the digital world was in its infancy. Back in 1993, the internet as we know it didn’t exist, nor did the software tools now taken for granted. A handful of national internet service providers offered dial-up connections. The massive declassification effort began a few years before Microsoft introduced its web browser, Internet Explorer, in 1995.
“We’re kind of taking an analog world and shoehorning it into the digital age,” said Murphy, program manager for access to the JFK records at the Archives in a Maryland suburb of the nation’s capital.
A historian by training, Murphy joined the Kennedy project in 1998, the same year that the Assassination Records Review Board, which began operating in April 1994 and cleared tens of thousands of documents for release, shut down. The review board was created by legislation following director Oliver Stone’s 1991 hit movie JFK, which stoked public skepticism about what really happened on Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was struck down in Dallas by an assassin.
Before closing its doors, the review board set a final due date for all documents to be made public — by October 2017. By last fall 88 percent of the archive was completely open, but the CIA and FBI convinced Trump to wait further.
The 35,000 JFK-related documents released last year instantly became available online to researchers, the media and the public. Similarly, the final batch of newly declassified documents, including some that had been partially disclosed earlier, are found in a downloadable spreadsheet with live internet links and reference identifiers. It’s a far cry from when the process began decades ago.
“I was here when we used to do the old releases, and people would line up and fight over boxes,” said Murphy, who acknowledges the changing technology has been a blessing — though in the end the records still must be backed up with paper copies. “We have to go back to the paper and put it into the collection, because the record is the paper. What we have online are the digital surrogates of the records.”
During the early years of the project, the Archives would send documents to the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, State Department and other agencies. Each was given a diskette with operating software and then a bunch of disks with information contained in what was the predecessor of what today are PDF files. Paper was scanned into a computer file, and as many as 500 entries could be saved on a diskette.
“It was state of the art 1993 technology,” joked Murphy. “We’ve been challenged by the need to coordinate with so many different agencies and individuals … it’s been a unique question from the beginning and continues to be,” given the volume of and detail in the records involved, in addition to disclosure deadline pressures.
Everyone loves a good mystery, and interest in the material has been global, with even the Russian state-linked RT tweeting out about the declassficiation. Of course, the Kremlin itself may hold important clues because it has a vast trove of information, never made public, about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union as a defector.
With time, and the work of the Warren Commission, which wrapped up in September 1964, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, whose final report was issued in March 1979, it grew clear that the CIA and the FBI had withheld information and in some cases even destroyed it. For example, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered an agent in Dallas to flush down a toilet a hand-written threat Oswald had penned against the Dallas FBI office weeks before the assassination.
The Archives effort couldn’t always reproduce what was destroyed or went missing, but often in the voluminous documents, pieces of information in other files or at other agencies filled in some of the gaps or even mirrored what was missing.
Still, as enormous as the collection of documents is — its five millions pages take up about 2,000 cubic feet of space — Bosanko, the Archives’ chief operating officer, believes many secrets remain tucked away in unopened boxes.
“This is a very focused (Kennedy assassination) collection but to really tell the whole story, you have to look beyond it to the broader body of records that are here,” said Bosanko. “There are many boxes that have yet to be opened by a journalist or a historian that represents fascinating aspects, not just of our life as a nation but the efforts of our government and the actions of our government.”
In addition, a small number of documents under seal by grand juries or deeded to the Archives from presidential libraries may be made public at a later date.
While the planned final JFK release is, on one level, testament to a democracy’s commitment to transparency, it’s also a reminder that such openness often doesn’t come without a struggle — Exhibit A being the decades it has taken to screen and release the material. Author Jefferson Morley, a JFK assassination expert and author of a recent biography on longtime CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, has been locked in a 15-year lawsuit against the CIA for documents sought since 2003.
And we might not always like what’s revealed. The Kennedy-era documents have shown, said author Larry Sabato, that back then there really was a “deep state” that operated with some degree of defiance of both the White House and Congress.
“Far more than ‘solving’ the assassination puzzle — which probably isn’t going to happen — the release of these files sheds new light on the turmoil of the 1960s. We’re gaining some revealing transparency into the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the upper reaches of the White House that existed a half-century ago,” said Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“It was such a different time — the Cold War, the fear of communism, antipathy to the civil rights movement, and so on,” he added. “Secrecy was everywhere and many top agencies operated in isolation from each other and sometimes at cross purposes.”
Indeed, documents released last year included unnerving proof of how the FBI and CIA monitored leaders of the civil-rights movement and their families, including details of their sex lives.
“You’ve got the assassination which is the unique aspect, but people looking at it today are not just looking at it through the assassination lens but the broader knowledge of the activities of our government and our people over the last 55 years,” said Bosanko.
He and Murphy can talk for hours on the details on how millions of documents are accessed, obtained and stored. Just don’t ask them to weigh in on competing stories about whether JFK’s murder was anything other than the work of Oswald, a solo, deranged gunman.
“People feel strongly about the JFK assassination, and my husband is under orders not to let anyone know what I do … we’ve worked with a lot of researchers who really do want us to have an opinion,” said Murphy. “Generally I try not talk about it. Because so many people have so many opinions and we have no opinion. I feel very strongly about this, because if we did you wouldn’t trust us.”
Quipped Bosanko, “True friends know not to ask!”