WASHINGTON — Just months before President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Texas almost 55 years ago, an FBI field agent sent word back to headquarters on the activities of a Soviet sympathizer named Lee Harvey Oswald.
FBI agent James P. Hosty Jr. wrote to Washington that Oswald “reportedly drank to excess and beat his wife on numerous occasions.”
The memo, dated Sept. 30, 1963, is one of the 19,045 documents released Thursday in what was supposed to be the end of a declassification process that began the year after the Kennedy killing. A law signed in 1992 put it on a 25-year schedule to completion.
But after boasting on Twitter last year that he would release all the JFK assassination documents, President Donald Trump backpedaled last October, giving the CIA and FBI six months to work through the lifting of information still shrouded in secretary.
That didn’t happen, to the chagrin of researchers and historians. On Thursday Trump gave the agencies until Oct. 26, 2021, to fully lift the veil of secrecy – almost 58 years after the events in Dallas.
The delays have helped fuel doubts by some who are fascinated with this period in U.S. history that Oswald was a lone, deranged gunman. Various theories, aided by the partial release of documents, point to the Cubans, the Russians, the mob, the CIA and anti-Castro groups unhappy that Kennedy did not invade Cuba.
“The past 25 years have taught us much more about the cover up than the crime itself, in particular the ways in which scary but false information about Lee Harvey Oswald created what might be termed a national security cover-up,” said Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which runs a searchable online archive of JFK assassination documents.
The truth is, though, that much of what is likely to be known is already out. Researchers hoped to see previously redacted portions of documents to help them form a more complete picture of the tragedy and how it evolved; they didn’t expect a bombshell.
In the case of Hosty, there is a backstory that came to be known only through the release of documents from multiple agencies.
In 1975, just three years after the nearly 50-year reign of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover came to an end, the bureau looked into rumors that Oswald had penned a threatening note to the FBI office in Dallas shortly before the assassination. No records were found, but Dallas agents said that Oswald had indeed left a threatening handwritten message.
Congressional investigators established that Hosty’s boss, Gordon Shanklin, demanded that he rip up the letter and flush it down the toilet — reportedly under orders from Hoover, who was incensed that the Dallas office had embarrassed the agency by not seeing Oswald as a threat. The former Marine had defected to the Soviet Union, but returned a few years later.
The report by Hosty to headquarters, with little held from public view on Thursday, makes clear that Hosty did tell FBI bosses that Oswald was violent and had been living and working as a maintenance man in New Orleans before moving to Dallas in the spring of 1963. And it confirms Oswald was under surveillance at the time of the assassination.
Another Hosty document, which also had been partially released earlier, has Hoover gushing praise for Hosty in 1971 for work he did as a field agent in Kansas City.
“Your performance relative to a matter of considerable importance to the Bureau in the security field is worthy of praise and warrants commendation,” Hoover wrote.
Thursday’s new documents offer nothing more on Earle Cabell, the mayor of Dallas at the time of assassination. A single document among the roughly 35,000 released last year showed that he’d been listed in CIA files as an asset, an explosive revelation. Cabell’s brother Charles had been a top CIA leader until a year before the killing.
The documents do, however, fill in some blanks about a Soviet Embassy official in Mexico City who met with Oswald weeks before the assassination. Over the decades Oswald’s meetings in Mexico City with the Cuban and Soviet embassies, purportedly to get a visa to Cuba in hopes of returning to the Soviet Union, have gradually been revealed.
One of the Soviets he had contact with was Valeriy Vladimirovich Kostikov. Little was known about his role, but the CIA confirmed to the original assassination investigators that Kostikov was likely part of the feared Department 13 assassination unit of the Soviet spy agency, the KGB.
It is now known that, at minimum, Oswald had phone conversations while in Mexico with Kostikov. Among the further-released documents Thursday were references to Kostikov being “Oswald’s KGB handler.”
That’s found in a May 1982 memo from what appears to be an unidentified foreign intelligence agency or U.S. asset in the Middle East asking longtime CIA Soviet Division leader David Blee about Kostikov. The questioner notes that the Soviets were behind increased harassment of foreign embassies in Beirut — less than a year before a truck bomb leveled the U.S. Embassy there, killing 241 U.S. Marines and military personnel.
“The reason for our interest in KOSTIKOV will be obvious,” writes the official to Blee. That document was one of more than 15,000 that Thursday was left with some form of partial redaction.
A number of documents relating to the Miami-based anti-Castro group Alpha 66 were included in Thursday’s release, as well. One curious one, dated February 1971, documents how the group outsmarted the FBI a year earlier. The FBI had raided its Miami offices and taken files.
“Apparently Alpha 66 had duplicates hidden because today duplicates of the files which the FBI removed are in their filing cabinets,” the memo from the CIA noted.
Alpha 66 had been headed by Antonio Veciana, who still resides in Miami and is elderly and in frail health. In an interview with McClatchy last year he reasserted that a top CIA Latin America official, David Atlee Phillips, had been working with Oswald to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro. His implication was that Oswald was trained to take out Castro but turned on Kennedy.
Another Miami-related document quotes an American journalist who had been imprisoned in Cuba in 1963 as hearing from a fellow prisoner that Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald just days after the Kennedy assassination, had frequented Cuba and had mafia ties on the island.
The JFK saga: Even the (supposed) final release of murder-related docs has caveat
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Those who know William Bosanko know better than to ask his opinion about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Martha Wagner Murphy’s husband is under orders not to reveal details of what she does for a living.
The two of them have led the final efforts at the National Archives to make public all government records about the JFK assassination almost 55 years ago — a project that swelled to encompass 5 million pages spread across more than 300,000 documents.
It was all supposed to draw to a close last October, but President Donald Trump gave the CIA, FBI and other agencies another six months to argue for continued secrecy for some material. Then Thursday, the deadline day, the White House announced an unspecified number of documents would remain secret until Oct. 26, 2021. It cited “identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs … that outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure.”
The National Archives said in a statement that 520 files remained secret because they involved sealed court matters that can only be opened under a judge’s order; were personal papers from former administration officials; or came from presidential libraries under stipulation that they remain secret for specified periods of time. In all, 19,045 documents were released but 15,584 have some information withheld through 2021.
Which isn’t going to help quash suspicions about JFK’s murder.
Few historical events have sparked conspiracy theories quite like the Kennedy assassination. Arm-chair experts argue with absolute conviction that the real perpetrator was not lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, killed days after the assassination, but the Russians, the Cubans, the mob, U.S. generals and their friends in the military-industrial complex, the CIA, the FBI, Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson or some combination. The material released over the last 25 years has put to rest some purported theories, but has helped fuel others.
When the declassification process began a quarter century ago, the digital world was in its infancy. Back in 1993, the internet as we know it didn’t exist, nor did the software tools now taken for granted. A handful of national internet service providers offered dial-up connections. The massive declassification effort began a few years before Microsoft introduced its web browser, Internet Explorer, in 1995.
“We’re kind of taking an analog world and shoehorning it into the digital age,” said Murphy, program manager for access to the JFK records at the Archives in a Maryland suburb of the nation’s capital.
A historian by training, Murphy joined the Kennedy project in 1998, the same year that the Assassination Records Review Board, which began operating in April 1994 and cleared tens of thousands of documents for release, shut down. The review board was created by legislation following director Oliver Stone’s 1991 hit movie JFK, which stoked public skepticism about what really happened on Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was struck down in Dallas by an assassin.
Before closing its doors, the review board set a final due date for all documents to be made public — by October 2017. By last fall 88 percent of the archive was completely open, but the CIA and FBI convinced Trump to wait further.
The 35,000 JFK-related documents released last year instantly became available online to researchers, the media and the public. Similarly, the final batch of newly declassified documents, including some that had been partially disclosed earlier, are found in a downloadable spreadsheet with live internet links and reference identifiers. It’s a far cry from when the process began decades ago.
“I was here when we used to do the old releases, and people would line up and fight over boxes,” said Murphy, who acknowledges the changing technology has been a blessing — though in the end the records still must be backed up with paper copies. “We have to go back to the paper and put it into the collection, because the record is the paper. What we have online are the digital surrogates of the records.”
During the early years of the project, the Archives would send documents to the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, State Department and other agencies. Each was given a diskette with operating software and then a bunch of disks with information contained in what was the predecessor of what today are PDF files. Paper was scanned into a computer file, and as many as 500 entries could be saved on a diskette.
“It was state-of-the-art 1993 technology,” joked Murphy. “We’ve been challenged by the need to coordinate with so many different agencies and individuals … it’s been a unique question from the beginning and continues to be,” given the volume of and detail in the records involved, in addition to disclosure deadline pressures.
Everyone loves a good mystery, and interest in the material has been global, with even the Russian state-linked RT tweeting out about the declassification. Of course, the Kremlin itself may hold important clues because it has a vast trove of information, never made public, about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union as a defector.
With time, and the work of the Warren Commission, which wrapped up in September 1964, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, whose final report was issued in March 1979, it grew clear that the CIA and the FBI had withheld information and in some cases even destroyed it. For example, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered an agent in Dallas to flush down a toilet a hand-written threat Oswald had penned against the Dallas FBI office weeks before the assassination.
The Archives effort couldn’t always reproduce what was destroyed or went missing, but often in the voluminous documents, pieces of information in other files or at other agencies filled in some of the gaps or even mirrored what was missing.
Still, as enormous as the collection of documents is — its 5 million pages take up about 2,000 cubic feet of space — Bosanko, the Archives’ chief operating officer, believes many secrets remain tucked away in unopened boxes.
“This is a very focused (Kennedy assassination) collection, but to really tell the whole story, you have to look beyond it to the broader body of records that are here,” said Bosanko. “There are many boxes that have yet to be opened by a journalist or a historian that represents fascinating aspects, not just of our life as a nation but the efforts of our government and the actions of our government.”
In addition, a small number of documents under seal by grand juries or deeded to the Archives from presidential libraries may be made public at a later date.
While the planned final JFK release is, on one level, testament to a democracy’s commitment to transparency, it’s also a reminder that such openness often doesn’t come without a struggle — Exhibit A being the decades it has taken to screen and release the material. Author Jefferson Morley, a JFK assassination expert and author of a recent biography on longtime CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, has been locked in a 15-year lawsuit against the CIA for documents sought since 2003.
And we might not always like what’s revealed. The Kennedy-era documents have shown, said author Larry Sabato, that back then there really was a “deep state” that operated with some degree of defiance of both the White House and Congress.
“Far more than ‘solving’ the assassination puzzle — which probably isn’t going to happen — the release of these files sheds new light on the turmoil of the 1960s. We’re gaining some revealing transparency into the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the upper reaches of the White House that existed a half-century ago,” said Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“It was such a different time — the Cold War, the fear of communism, antipathy to the civil rights movement, and so on,” he added. “Secrecy was everywhere and many top agencies operated in isolation from each other and sometimes at cross purposes.”
Indeed, documents released last year included unnerving proof of how the FBI and CIA monitored leaders of the civil rights movement and their families, including details of their sex lives.
“You’ve got the assassination which is the unique aspect, but people looking at it today are not just looking at it through the assassination lens but the broader knowledge of the activities of our government and our people over the last 55 years,” Bosanko said.
He and Murphy can talk for hours on the details on how millions of documents are accessed, obtained and stored. Just don’t ask them to weigh in on competing stories about whether JFK’s murder was anything other than the work of Oswald, a solo, deranged gunman.
“People feel strongly about the JFK assassination, and my husband is under orders not to let anyone know what I do … we’ve worked with a lot of researchers who really do want us to have an opinion,” said Murphy. “Generally I try not talk about it. Because so many people have so many opinions and we have no opinion. I feel very strongly about this, because if we did you wouldn’t trust us.”
Quipped Bosanko, “True friends know not to ask!”
©2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Trump keeps some JFK documents sealed until 2021 as Archives release final batch
By Todd J. Gillman - The Dallas Morning News (TNS)
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump issued an order Thursday keeping some of the most sensitive records from the Kennedy assassination files sealed for another 3 1/2 years, as the National Archives released a final batch under a law meant to force most of the records into the light by last fall.
In 1992, Congress set a 25-year deadline for releasing remaining documents stemming from John F. Kennedy’s murder in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
When the deadline arrived — Oct. 26 last year — Trump gave federal agencies a six-month extension to plead the case for keeping selected records sealed, if they could assert a vital national security interest. The FBI and CIA in particular had pressed for more time.
Some 15,884 records that have now been partially released, some with heavy redactions, will be subject to yet more review over the next three years under Trump’s order.
The National Archives released 19,045 documents Thursday. Those can now be downloaded, along with previously released records, such as secret 1978 testimony from a former CIA station chief in Mexico City, David Atlee Phillips.
He called assassin Lee Harvey Oswald “loony” and insisted that as far as he could tell, Oswald had acted alone.
“God knows I would like for it to come out that Fidel Castro was responsible or that the Soviets were responsible,” Phillips testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, under questioning by Rep. Floyd Fithian, D-Ind. “But I know of no evidence to show that the Cubans or the Soviets put him up to it, and I just have to go along on the side that he was a kind of loony fellow who decided to shoot the president, and he did.”
The transcript of the four-decade-old testimony was in the batch of documents released Dec. 15. Historians, assassination buffs and conspiracy theorists are still digging through those and other previously secret files for insights into the investigation and countless unrelated topics, from the U.S. escalation in Vietnam to assassination plots and meddling with unfriendly regimes in Cuba, Chile and other nations.
According to the National Archives, 520 documents remain under seal under one of two provisions of the 1992 law. Some were sealed by a federal court and can only be unsealed by a judge. Others involve tax records. Of the 15,834 released only in redacted form, “most are currently less redacted than prior to October 26, 2017.”
Some of the newest documents have only the Social Security number of a witness blacked out, for instance.
Much of the latest release involves organized crime case apparently unrelated to the JFK killing or investigation.
Since last July, the archives has released 13,371 documents in full.
In a presidential memorandum Thursday, Trump wrote that the Archivist of the United States had, over the last 180 days, reviewed records that remained sealed in the collection that agencies had sought to keep sealed or redacted “because of identifiable national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns. The Archivist has reviewed the information agencies proposed to withhold and believes the proposals are consistent with the standard of section 5(g)(2)(D) of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. … ”
“I agree with the Archivist’s recommendation that the continued withholdings are necessary to protect against identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure.
“I am also ordering agencies to re-review each of those redactions over the next 3 years,” and to immediately release records that no long warrant ongoing withholding, Trump wrote.
The president signaled a willingness to allow some records to remain sealed beyond Oct. 26, 2021.
But, citing the 1992 law, he added, “ ‘only in the rarest cases is there any legitimate need for continued protection of such records.’ The need for continued protection can only grow weaker with the passage of time.”
Records released in the last year included FBI and CIA reports on Soviet spies, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Lee Harvey Oswald’s trip to Mexico City a few weeks before he murdered Kennedy.
For decades, debate has raged not only over whether Oswald acted alone but also whether the FBI and CIA could have stopped him. The voluminous record shows unequivocally that he was in their sights, though none of the records unsealed in the last year has fully put to rest conspiracy theories.
For instance, a 1975 CIA memo marked “top secret” shows that Oswald was on a “watch list” of people whose mail would be intercepted from Nov. 9, 1959, to May 3, 1960, and again from Aug. 7, 1961, through May 28, 1962.
The Phillips testimony from 1978, released Dec. 15, counts on the Oswald acted alone side of the ledger.
“The American public doesn’t want to believe that one man could murder Camelot,” he told House investigators.
©2018 The Dallas Morning News
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.