By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Congress attempts to evaluate the year-old law that mandated the opening of government documents related to the killing sp.
CONSPIRACY THRIVES IN the darkness, and few events have led to as many conspiracy theories as the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. From CIA and FBI reports long withheld to autopsy and other medical records, the federal government's initial withholding of documents and information has bred 30 years of curiosity and mistrust. A year ago, however, President Bush signed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, a law mandating and setting up a procedure for collecting and opening government documents related to the killing. As Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Government Operations Committee's Legislation and National Security Subcommittee, explained, "A key purpose of the Records Act is to end the unjustified secrecy that has fed speculation about the assassination and undermined public trust in the institutions of government." Conyers noted that the "tragic loss of the president was compounded by the lingering suspicion that the government was not entirely forthcoming about the assassination." "Indeed," he added, "the 1964 Warren Commission conclusion that [Lee Harvey] Oswald, acting alone, was responsible for the death of President Kennedy has been questioned from the day it was first made public. And to this day, many Americans feel that something is being concealed in the secret files of their government." To evaluate the effectiveness of Public Law 102-526 a year after its enactment, Conyers' subcommittee recently heard from archivists and researchers who have explored some of the newly released documents. The reviews were mixed. At the time of the hearing, the National Archives had received "85 cubic feet of newly opened records" and "reviewed and opened 375 cubic feet of records already held by the National Archives," said Trudy Huskamp Peterson, acting archivist of the United States. Since the Kennedy collection became available Aug. 23, there have been more than 2,000 research requests for the approximately 840 cubic feet of records available, Peterson said. The act calls for all government agencies, departments and committees to release documents related to the assassination to the National Archives, where they are to be catalogued and made available to the public. Some witnesses complained that there is a considerable amount of material yet to be made public, but the biggest gripe was that the review board, which would make sure that documents not released really should be withheld, was not in place. The law gave the review board two years to go through such documents, but with the final member appointed only recently and not yet confirmed, it may run out of time before its work is completed. To alleviate the problem, a number of witnesses suggested an amendment to the act that would allow the board's tenure to be determined by when it starts work. "I strongly urge this committee to take whatever action is necessary, including but not limited to amendment of the act, to insure that the review board has adequate time to perform its work in a diligent and comprehensive manner," said Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Posner, whose book argues that Oswald acted alone in the assassination, did not use the recently released materials in his research ? they were not yet available ? but he said there is "more than enough information on the record" to support his deduction. "While the documents which will be released by Public Law 102-526 will not contradict that conclusion, they will help fill in many of the details for historians about the extent of the somewhat bungled investigations that were conducted by federal agencies after the murder. Full disclosure may also help to fill in many of the now missing details," he said. As sure as Posner is that the lone-gunman theory is supported by evidence in the documents, diagnostic radiologist Randolph Robertson is sure that medical information in the documents will support his theory that two gunmen killed the president. "There is no question in my mind that the medical evidence dictates that President John F. Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy. What is left to be found out is the how and why," Robertson noted. "The immediate release of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records may bring us closer to answers to these questions than we have been in the last 30 years." James Lesar, president of the Assassination Archives and Research Center in Washington, told the subcommittee, "At best, only 10% to 20% of the total universe of Kennedy assassination records has been released . . . . [And] at least a third of the documents supposedly freshly released were old hat." Lesar recounted the difficulties faced by AARC's research coordinator, Jonathan Meyers, when he attempted to see the documents. "The results of Mr. Meyers' endeavor are very discouraging," he said. "Of the 49 documents sought, only one document was properly identified, found in the correct location and available in full." Lesar criticized a number of agencies for their lack of cooperation, among them the FBI, "which has admitted that it possesses at least 499,000 pages on the Kennedy assassination [but] has yet to turn over even a single page to the National Archives." After the hearing, the Washington Times reported that the FBI was working toward clearing "well over a million pages" and was prepared to release a first batch of documents in December. But while the FBI was chastised at the hearing for its slow compliance, the CIA was singled out as the only agency that had made any substantial disclosure at the time. "I believe the Central Intelligence Agency is working hard to comply with the JFK Records Act," said Army Maj. John Newman Jr., author of Kennedy and Vietnam. "To those with a background in intelligence matters, it is immediately obvious that there is plenty in these CIA files which is embarrassing to the agency . . . . [T]he very fact that we are seeing such material is reason to believe that the agency is trying to comply in good faith with this legislation," Newman said. "There will probably always be a hard core of opinion on both sides of the issue, but if the other federal agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Defense, follow the CIA's lead, the American people will have reason to be satisfied that they have access to the same facts that have been in the possession of their government all these years. "The painful lesson in all of this is how damaging the withholding was to public confidence," he added. The Church Committee, a 1976 Senate committee that found that the Warren Commission report "was fundamentally flawed," is among those government institutions that is to release records. "The Records Act affords the public the opportunity to review the same secret documents on which the Church Committee based its conclusions," said James Johnston, who served as counsel to the committee. "Today, laws like the Records Act are bringing a refreshing change in attitudes about government secrecy," he said. "What we are learning from the Records Act is that the pursuit of truth is never served by secrecy."