An Open Letter to Martha Murphy and John Mathis at NARA
Re: Last Releases of the JFK Act
From: James DiEugenio, Editor and Publisher, kennedysandking.com
As both of you know, when the Assassination Records and Review Board closed its doors way back in 1998, they specified that after four years of operation, there were still many documents related to the JFK assassination that had yet to be declassified. That body had been set up as a direct result of the firestorm of controversy that swept the country as a result of the release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK. At the end of that film, a title card appeared which said that the files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations were classified until the year 2039. Stone’s film raised many questions about the circumstances of President Kennedy’s assassination. The most direct one was: Did Lee Oswald shoot the president? For about ten months in 1991-1992 the country was involved in a debate about this question which encompassed all forms of media.
Finally, due to this furor, the JFK Act was passed in 1992 and the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) was later established by President Clinton. After some initial delay, it got up and rolling in 1994 and lasted until 1998. In retrospect, the ARRB did not last long enough and it was also underfunded. I say this because it has become apparent that many of the documents now being released should not have been withheld in the first place. But the main point is, everyone involved in the field knew that the 2017 date for final release was coming.
The original date for final release was late October of 2017. NARA had announced previously that, for whatever reason, it would be releasing withheld documents prior to that date. And beginning on July 24th, with little advance fanfare, this is what you did. According to a previous announcement by Ms. Murphy, there was a team of four archivists and three technicians working on this project many months in advance. One would therefore have expected that you would only begin the advance release if you were ready to do so. You must have realized that there were many people interested in the subject and that these people were eager to begin going through the remainder of the documents. Why begin the process early if everything was not in place?
After one week of sorting through the initial release of last week, that is a question that hangs pregnant in the air. To put it frankly, this early release has been the equivalent of “jumping the gun”. There have been many complaints by many researchers. But to name just some of the more popular ones:
- Some of the documents are so poorly copied they are, quite literally, illegible.
- Some of the documents are related to the MLK case, not the JFK case.
- Some of the documents are being released with a withheld notice on them. That is, they are not declassified at all.
- Some documents have not been released but should be there, since the document was already known about.
- Some of the documents still contain redactions.
- Many of the documents in the index do not have titles.
As I noted above, many people in the JFK community, and some in the media, were eagerly awaiting the final release of the ARRB documents. The creation of the ARRB, as you know, was a very unusual act of Congress. In fact, I can think of no other body quite like it. Many, many important and revealing documents were finally declassified by that citizens’ panel. These documents had a profound impact on the information that informed people now have about the career and assassination of President Kennedy. Whole books have been written on the JFK case that have been largely based on those documents. It would not be an overstatement to say that those documents changed the calculus on that crucial historical episode. In retrospect, as beneficial as the ARRB was to the information database on the JFK case, it is clear that many of the documents released during the last week should not have been withheld either from them or by them. In my opinion, that is a matter for them to explain, not you.
But concerning the six points listed above, these are all matters that were up to NARA. The assassination of President Kennedy was perhaps the single most tragic event of the second half of the 20th century. According to polls conducted by author Larry Sabato for his book The Kennedy Half Century, that event had a profound impact on the course of history. Many people interviewed for that book said that the nation has not been the same since. This is one of the reasons that this case still haunts America. You should have been aware of this fact. In my opinion, and the opinion of many others, there should have been no redactions or no withholdings upon the July 24th release. And given that there are, there should have been no early release. That matter should have been resolved in advance. You also should have furnished a complete and thorough index to the documents prior to their release. That way there would have been no dispute about what was there and what was not. There should have been an explanation of why there are MLK documents in the JFK collection. And finally, you should have demanded from the originating agency that every document be readily legible.
This case has been prominent in the public’s consciousness for 54 years. It has caused much pain, confusion, debate, and deliberate obfuscation. In this regard, it deserved a first class resolution −− one which, for some reason, NARA has yet to provide. President Kennedy deserved better. I hope the situation is corrected, for his sake as well as others’.
James DiEugenio, Editor/Publisher of kennedysandking.com
Author of Destiny Betrayed, Reclaiming Parkland, co–editor, The Assassinations