Saturday, May 20, 2017

October Surprise

How the upcoming JFK assassination file release came to be


“Thanks to Oliver Stone, Thousands of JFK Assassination Files to Be Released!” screamed the headline. [1] 

The story refers, of course, to Oliver Stone’s December, 1991, film JFK which became the catalyst for the 1992 JFK Records Act which in turn mandated the release of approximately five million pages of assassination records, the last one-percent set to be released by October 26, 2017.

But, if it had been left up to Oliver Stone alone, none of this would have happened.

The true story of how the JFK Records Act came about hasn’t exactly been a secret – the account below was first published in 1998 – but the story has been forgotten, or ignored, depending on who you talk to. Time for a reminder, and give credit where credit is due.

Push for release 

There is little doubt that none of this would have happened without the tireless efforts of Kevin Walsh, a member of Mark Lane’s Citizens Committee of Inquiry which pushed for a Congressional re-investigation of the JFK assassination in the mid-1970s, and who later became a staff researcher, albeit briefly, for the resulting House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA).

Walsh, who died in 2012, became upset when he later learned that the HSCA’s files would be routinely classified for fifty-years. He subsequently co-founded the lobbying group ACCESS and worked diligently with Representative Stewart McKinney and others to get a bill introduced in Congress that would lift the restrictions on the HSCA’s records. Unfortunately, the bill stalled.

Filmmaker’s dream

Flash forward to Dallas, 1991: Oscar-winning director, Oliver Stone was filming his next epic, JFK in Dallas. On hand was veteran assassination researcher Gus Russo.

“…Walking with [Oliver] Stone one day,” Russo later wrote, “I heard him tell a tag-along press member about the sinister sealing of the Warren Commission records for seventy-five years. I was stunned.”

In reality, the records of the Warren Commission, while initially sealed for seventy-five years, as were all investigative records at the time, under a regulation of the Archives, had been freed of the restriction in 1965 pursuant to a request by President Lyndon B. Johnson. By the time of Stone’s filming, 98% of the Warren Commission’s files had been released. [2]

Russo pulled Stone aside and informed him of his error.

“Really?” Stone replied, quite surprised.

Russo told Stone that the records researchers really wanted were the ones that Walsh had been fighting to unlock – the coveted HSCA’s sealed files, as well as those of other federal agencies, whose files could be in the millions of pages.

Stone asked him to write the information down, which Russo did.

“I also suggested,” Russo wrote, “that Stone use the outcry his film was sure to generate to demand that these records be released. I proposed two things: first, that the last thing the movie audience should see was a statement informing them of the hidden records; and second, that pre-addressed postcards be handed out at theaters given to patrons wishing to lobby Congress for a law bringing all these documents to the public’s purview. I envisioned millions of postcards flooding Congressional offices.

“Next, I made a trip back east to confer with former HSCA investigator Kevin Walsh. Since his days with the HSCA, Walsh, now a private detective, had become a one-man lobby. For ten years, he had mounted a behind-the-scenes campaign to encourage legislation freeing the HSCA’s material. Kevin gave me a letter he had been trying to get to Stone that essentially corroborated what I had been telling the Oscar-winning director. Upon returning to Dallas, I hand delivered the letter to Stone. By now, he was convinced.

“The closing credit phrase was inserted, and while Warner Brothers printed up some postcards, the film’s distributor eventually backed out of this strategy. Instead of giving up, a few volunteers and I decided to stand outside theaters to hand out the few hundred postcards we managed to obtain.

Grassroots outcry

“As I had hoped, Stone’s film, while completely misleading, created a hurricane of controversy, and made the Congress see the political benefits of freeing the records. A number of us began working feverishly with the relevant politicians to draft legislation.

“Among those who deserve acknowledgement are Kevin Walsh, Jim Lesar, Eric Hamburg, and Mark Zaid. Oliver Stone himself should also be recognized for his travels to Capitol Hill. They encouraged the legislation’s passage. 

“As it turned out, public support for the bill was virtually unanimous; many on the outside of the policy-making loop were convinced that total disclosure would indicate the government’s role in JFK’s assassination, while the politicians they implicated were convinced the released material would vindicate them. The legislation (the so-called JFK Act) passed easily [on October 26, 1992].” [3]

The one-percent

Between October 1, 1994, and September 30, 1998, the five-member Assassinations Record Review Board (ARRB) created by the 1992 JFK Record Act, had released to the public approximately 4.5 million pages of previously classified documents – 99.9 % of all assassination-related documents.

According to the chairman of the ARRB board, Judge John R. Tunheim, only redacted material in some of the documents continues to be withheld to this day, and this redacted material, constitutes a “tiny fraction of 1 percent of the information in all the documents collectively.”

In fact, Tunheim told author Vince Bugliosi in 1999, that either he (Tunheim) or another member of the Review Board has personally examined all of the redacted material, and there was “nothing in any of the documents that was central to the assassination. There’s no smoking gun, and no substantive information was protected and not released by way of redaction.”

G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel for the HSCA, told Bugliosi the same thing in 1978.

“I personally looked at everything that was classified by the FBI and CIA, and therefore not made public,” Blakey said, “and I found nothing in them to indicate a conspiracy.” [4]

But, oh, how memory fades.

No bombshells

Two months ago, Judge Tunheim told reporters that he “wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something important” in the documents, especially given how much of the history of the Kennedy assassination has had to be rewritten in recent decades.

He said he knew of “no bombshells” in the files when the board agreed to keep them secret two decades ago, but names, places and events described in the documents could have significance now, given what has been learned about the assassination since the board went out of business.

“Today, with a broader understanding of history, certain things may be far more relevant,” he said.

Really? And what is it that we’ve learned in last two decades that has reshaped the assassination debate – exactly? 

Mr. Blakey too has also gone on record recently as feeling he’d been snookered by the CIA during the HSCA’s investigation where he served as Chief Counsel and Staff Director.

According to the National Archives, the final batch includes records related to the CIA’s station in Mexico City, where Oswald showed up weeks before JFK's death.

Other documents in the new release might provide information on a CIA officer named George Joannides, or so hopes author Jefferson Morley, who has spent decades trying to find a direct connection between Joannides and Oswald – without success.

“The records that are out there are going to fill out this picture,” says Morley.

Don’t bet on it

Martha Murphy, in charge of the release effort at the National Archives, warns that many of the documents may be of little value. She believes that any potentially revelatory information, like Oswald’s CIA file, has already been released – albeit with redactions (that text will be restored for the new release). [5]

A small army of conspiracy theorists, and journalists, have spent a considerable amount of time and money in an effort to pry documents from government hands only to find that the government’s tenaciousness wasn’t because they had anything to hide, but simply because they were – well, the government.

The so-called research community, largely populated with conspiracy-minded individuals, have been salivating for some time now, as October 2017 approaches. And despite the experience of the past, in which every newly unearthed document has so far only pointed to the “disappointing” revelation that Oswald did it alone, the hope for something big eternally beckons.

Most researchers agree that the best chance at conspiracy pay-dirt resides in the records related to Oswald’s trip to Mexico shortly before the assassination, but as I and others have said before, until we get our hands on the files kept by the other players – Cuban intelligence, the Mexico City police, and the KGB – there’s little hope that our own government’s files will satisfy the most curious of minds.

There will be, no doubt, some interesting history revealed in this so-called “final release.”

One file that will likely gather interest is the one on June Cobb, a Cold War Mata Hari who told her CIA superiors that she had learned that Oswald had been at a “twist” party in the company of two unidentified Americans at the home of Ruben Duran, brother-in-law of Sylvia Duran, the employee whom Oswald had encountered at the Cuban Embassy.

While the National Archives is preparing to release 221-pages of secret CIA documents on Cobb, the vast majority of the story is already well-know, according to author and researcher Gus Russo.

“Her story is a fascinating one,” Russo said. “I’m looking forward to the October release not because I’m going to learn anything new about Oswald, Mexico City, or the assassination – she already told us everything she knows about those things in 2008 [and published in Brothers in Arms the same year]. It’s the other details of her life as a spy that will make extraordinary reading.”

This last document release is getting lots of attention – perhaps too much attention – for no reason other than it is the expected last document dump. Given the past track record, and the repeated warnings from persons who have seen the coming release not to expect anything Earth-shattering, you would think those in the know would temper their enthusiasm.

Personally, I suspect that whatever we learn will insure that both the conspiracy-crowd and the Oswald-did-it-alone camps are left to battle it out for centuries to come.

Wishin’ and hopin’

The late Vince Bugliosi might have put it best when he wrote:
Three things are very clear: First, after an unprecedented and historic four-year scavenger hunt by the ARRB for all documents “reasonably related” to the assassination, no smoking gun or even a smoldering ember of conspiracy was found. The reason is that no such smoking gun or ember ever existed. Second, if it did exist, it would never have been left in any file for discovery. And finally, assassination researchers and conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied, not even when the cows come home. [6]


Mark A. O'Blazney said...

October surprise indeed. Thanks !

Barry Ryder said...

Hi, Dale,

Another good piece, many thanks for writing it.

Russo and yourself correctly identify the individuals who were primarily responsible for the release of the materials and Stone's film was only ever a small part of the process.

Would you agree that there was another very important factor; namely, the fall of the Soviet Union?

Judge John Tunheim was interviewed for the book, 'Before History Dies' (as you, yourself were, of course) and when he spoke of his work with the ARRB he said, "It was also due in part to the time in which we were able to work. The Cold War was over, so there was less concern about protecting old information, and it was before 9/11, so that the concern for protecting information to fight terrorism hadn't yet become a frontal assault on everyone like it did in 2001."

So, allowing for the judge's recent belief that they records may contain something after all, do you think that he's right about the crucial timing of world events enabling the releases to happen when they did?

Barry Ryder

Dale K. Myers said...

Great question, Barry. I don’t think it was world events as much as the way the statute was written (it gave the ARRB the teeth of enforcement), and the fact that President Clinton was a strong supporter of the ARRB’s work and stayed out of their way. I believe those factors were more important to the success of the ARRB’s efforts than the fall of the Soviet Union (whose files on Oswald and the assassination we have yet to see) or what Judge Tunheim describes in his interview with Jacob Carter as the pre-terrorism atmosphere of protecting information. All that said, Judge Tunheim does make a number of interesting arguments in Carter’s book, Before History Dies, that are worth noting. He reiterates that “there’s no hard evidence” for any kind of conspiracy. He also points out that despite the fact that it is “relatively easy to prove [a conspiracy], but in this case, you have no such evidence so we cannot even begin to try and prove it [in a court of law].” (emphasis added) And while Judge Tunheim encourages every rock to be overturned in search of evidence of a conspiracy, he adds, “I haven’t seen evidence yet that would prove that anyone but Oswald was directly involved.” And again, from the man who has personally seen the material that is about to be de-classified (or seen by one of his ARRB staff members who would surely have reported what they found), we have this comment: “I just don’t see any evidence of a conspiracy that would be persuasive with a jury today.” Even if the case for conspiracy were tried in a civil court case, in which the standard for conviction is much lower, Judge Tunheim says that “from all of the stuff that I’ve seen it’s hard to find evidence that’s going to be persuasive to a randomly selected jury.” In recent months, Judge Tunheim suggests that he might have missed something among all the documents the ARRB perused, given our “broader understanding of history.” Yet he offers nothing specific to the Oswald case. What broader understanding is he talking about? Is it that the CIA failed to disclose George Joannides’ role within the agency to the HSCA, which he mentions briefly in his interview with Carter? And what of it? Hasn’t he told us time and again that the documents about to be declassified - which he or one of his staff members saw - don’t contain anything that would even come close to demonstrating a conspiracy even under civil court rules? It seems clear to me that Judge Tunheim’s recent remarks about the documents about to be released potentially having greater significance than what he believed at the time of the ARRB is simply his way of leaving the door open, just a crack, for the remotest of possibilities that he and/or the ARRB staff missed something. Still, it’s hard to believe that the man who, even today, says there are “no bombshells” in the coming release (a point that has been emphasized by the National Archives staff) missed anything of significance. Incidentally, Judge Tunheim calls for more research to be done on the Soviet Union’s reaction to the assassination, what the KGB files reveal, and what Cuban intelligence knew about Oswald’s Mexico City trip. “These are the kinds of in-depth research that I think have the possibility of shining a greater light on what happened, rather than continuing to debate over the single bullet or the sound wave analysis from the police motorcade tapes. Those areas have been tread over so many times, I’m not really sure we’re going to gain any more information at this point in time. Let’s look at Oswald… That’s more interesting to me because you have all this evidence that he fired the shots on November 22, 1963, but the issue of why he would do something like this, what motivated him or who he was connected to, these are the issues that I find to be interesting and compelling, and still present open questions.” [Carter, Jacob, Before History Dies, Wordcrafts Press, 2015, pp.108, 110, 114-116 ]
I couldn’t agree more.

Paul C. said...

I just hope that with the AARB being back in the news in the coming year, the ridiculous 1998 report by AARB member Douglas Horne on the medical evidence doesn't get dusted off and trotted out by some clueless journalist. Bugliosi was right in calling that a dark blot on the AARB's otherwise excellent work.

Anonymous said...

I'm Hideji Okine,Japanese assassination resercher and author.
It's sad.
Japanese mass media reported "WARREN COMMISSION REPORT" itself still classfied.
The men and the women who interested JFK case are still believed "2039 sealed".
For me,so-called "assassination reserchers" didn't explain this case "fact".
In fact,"2039 sealed" by NARA,not a LBJ,not a WC.
But so-called "assassination resercher" sealed this fact.
Vincent Bugliosi and Henry Hurt expain this common-sence.
But only two men.
From 1967,NARA officer explain "Classified paper didn't contain smoking gun".
But assassination resercher didn't explain this fact.
I think assassiation resercher not reserch,not analyze JFK case.
They are only conspiracy believer.

MICHAEL said...

Well said Hideji.
The misleading of the masses by the "buffs" is a long, depressing,
sad tale.
I read my first JFK Conspiracy book in 1977(age 13) or so and have spent
thousands of hours reading and researching on and off ever since.

I now look back in anger, but more so a numb sense of sadness, at how I
was mislead and lied to by Authors who should have had either more sense...
or more decency.

Hideji Okina said...

Thanks Mr.MICHAEL.
I read my first JFK mystery mini-book(Magazin's appendix) in 1977 (age 14).
From my teenage days to over fifteen days,I read 520 books this theme.
I read WC,HSCA,ARRB,Charch-committee,Rockfeller-committee Report and
I studied ballistics,pathology,assassination or attacked of President or
President-candidate incidents in U.S history.
So-called assassination resercher's most misleading is "2039" sealed matter
half-truth method.
"2039" sealed is not "Until 2039 sealed" but "Before 2039 declassfied".
After the 1965,step by step,these material is classfied.
In Japan,nobody knows this fact,perhaps except me.