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]