WASHINGTON — Sketchy testimony from barroom drunks in New Orleans, accounts of parties in Mexico City attended by gunman Lee Harvey Oswald and squabbles between CIA officials and congressional investigators marked the release of the final batch of records Thursday related to the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
President Trump authorized the release of almost 2,900 document files through the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which set Thursday as the final deadline to release them. Others were kept secret because of requests from the CIA and FBI, which feared their release would compromise national security.
Long awaited by historians, journalists, researchers and conspiracy theorists, the final batch of secret files shed more light on the Kennedy assassination, which has fascinated Americans for almost 54 years. The 1964 Warren Commission, led by then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, was created by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, as a way to clear up questions about the murder, but it instead spawned multiple conspiracy theories.
While many of the documents pertained to the CIA and FBI investigations into the activities of Oswald, the 24-year-old former Marine sharpshooter identified as Kennedy's killer, many dealt with the multiple covert operations of the Cold War 1960s and 1970s, including Cuban exile groups, defectors from the Soviet Union and the espionage hothouse that was Mexico City.
Other files included notes from committees that investigated the original investigation of the assassination, as well as the 1968 killing of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Some of the notes were lists of newspaper articles or documents.
• Ledgers of payments to Cuban exile groups working to overthrow the government of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who defeated a brigade of CIA-backed exiles who tried to overthrow him through a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Kennedy had vowed to depose Castro.
• A Nov. 27, 1963, memo from a Secret Service agent who interviewed a man named Robert C. Rawls, who was in a bar in New Orleans a week to 10 days before the assassination and heard a man betting $100 that Kennedy would be dead within three weeks. Thought nothing of it until the assassination. But Rawls was drunk at the time and couldn’t remember the name of the man, what he looked like or what specific bar it was in.
• A 1975 history of U.S. attempts to overthrow Castro written by then-White House counsel Philip Buchen, a longtime friend and law partner of President Gerald Ford. It noted that the first attempt to kill Castro came in 1959, shortly after he came to power.
• A letter from longtime CIA official Tennent Bagley to the chief lawyer for the House assassinations committee arguing that he had been smeared by testimony about the agency's handling of Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko, who had monitored Oswald while he lived in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1962. Nosenko said the Soviet KGB did not try to recruit Oswald, because they considered him unstable. Bagley and other agents suspected Nosenko might be a Soviet double agent and interrogated him harshly for three years. In 1969, the CIA acknowledged Nosenko was a legitimate defector.
Despite his decision to keep some documents secret, Trump said his move provided a new look at old secrets.
"The American public expects – and deserves – its government to provide as much access as possible to the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records so that the people may finally be fully informed about all aspects of this pivotal event," Trump's memo said. "Therefore, I am ordering today that the veil finally be lifted."
Other records will be held back for further review, and released on a rolling basis with redactions in the coming weeks, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
Trump's memo says some agencies worried the release of some details would hurt U.S. national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs.
"I have no choice – today – but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our nation's security," Trump said.
Trump ordered agencies to review the proposed redactions and justify them. This process will take up to 180 days, and the agencies have to demonstrate why the blackouts are necessary to protect their sources and methods of intelligence gathering. The vast majority of the requested redactions came from the CIA and FBI, according to senior administration officials who spoke under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak ahead of Thursday's release.
At the end of the six-month period, the National Archives will release more records deemed to be in the public interest, Sanders said, with redactions "only in the rarest of circumstances" by the deadline of April 26, 2018.
The Assassination Records Collection Act, passed in the wake of Oliver Stone's conspiracy-minded film JFK, required the release of all records of the assassination investigation by the 25th anniversary of the bill's signing — Oct. 26, 2017 – unless the president decides there is a reason to withhold them. "Agencies who would like their information withheld for longer, need to file a formal appeal with the President," the National Archives said on its website ahead of the release.
This week, Trump himself appeared excited about allowing the release of the secret records, tweeting on Saturday that he would be allowing "the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened." On Wednesday, he said the "long anticipated" release the following day would be "so interesting."
The long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take place tomorrow. So interesting!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2017
Yet Trump's decision to continue withholding some records, said Philip Shenon, author of A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, is already fueling public suspicions. “What a mess. A new round of conspiracy theories are launched," he said.
Previous releases have not altered the government's initial conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he shot Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Historians anticipate that many of the records will deal with Oswald's activities in Mexico City, where he traveled two months before the assassination.
Gerald Posner, author of the 1993 book Case Closed, which supported the conclusion that Oswald was the sole killer, said the Mexico City documents could be embarrassing for people who will be identified as informants for the U.S. government during the 1960s and later.