Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On the paper trail of the assassins

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At the climax of Oliver Stone’s JFK, a movie that has obsessed and exasperated me for the last quarter of a century, Kevin Costner, as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, delivers what by some measures is the longest courtroom speech in movie history. It goes on for something like forty minutes, interspersed with vivid recreations of the scene in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the closing argument, which ends with Costner looking directly at the camera, includes the following odd passage:

There’s a simple way to determine if I am paranoid. Ask the two men who profited most from the assassination—former President Johnson and your new President Nixon—to release the fifty-one CIA documents pertaining to Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby. Or the secret CIA memo on Oswald’s activities in Russia that was destroyed while being photocopied. These documents are yours. The people’s property. You pay for it. But as the government sees you as children who might be too disturbed to face this reality, or because you might lynch those involved, you cannot see these documents for another seventy-five years. I’m in my forties, so I’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil by then. But I’m telling my eight-year-old son to keep himself physically fit, so that one glorious September morning, in 2038, he can go to the National Archives and learn what the CIA and FBI knew.

As Costner makes his appeal, we cut to the young actor playing Jasper Garrison, who is actually Sean Stone, the director’s son. And there’s little doubt that Stone is speaking here with his own voice. (In fact, the date for the release of these records was 2039, not 2038, which raises the tragicomic image of eighty-year-old Jasper eagerly showing up one year early at the National Archives, only to be turned away.)

In the most surprising twist of all, JFK upset its own timeline, and the film’s success inspired the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which released the vast majority of the files related to Kennedy’s death and stipulated that the rest be disclosed within “twenty-five years after the date of the enactment of this act, October 26, 1992.” Well, that’s today. So what exactly does this mean? For answers, we can turn to the biggest book in the world, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is so physically huge that it includes a thousand pages of endnotes in a separate bonus disc. Freed up to talk about whatever he wants at length, Bugliosi spends close to fifteen pages of small type discussing the JFK Records Act, and he takes pains to debunk the notion that these records were deliberately “sealed” by the Warren Commission. In reality, at the commission’s last meeting on September 24, 1964, a motion was made and carried that “all of the remaining materials and records of the Commission shall be delivered to the National Archives to be held in perpetuity for the use and benefit of the people of the United States.” Two months later, over three hundred cubic feet of documents and numerous boxes of physical evidence, including Oswald’s rifle, were transferred to the archives. At the time, materials related to all investigations conducted by the executive branch were kept classified for seventy-five years, and the Warren Commission itself had nothing to do with it. In an interview with the New York Herald-Tribune toward the end of that same year, Dr. Robert Bahmer, the deputy archivist, explained that this period was chosen “because it is considered to be the life span of an individual…to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.”

The interview with Bahmer prompted the mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to write a letter to President Johnson protesting the classification of “off-the record testimony and exhibits” from the investigation. (Bugliosi points out that all of the testimony before the Warren Commission was actually on the record, and everything had been released in the fifteen volumes of the full report.) Johnson looked into making an exception, and Earl Warren himself advocated for “the fullest possible disclosure.” In consequence, as early as 1966, about eighty percent of documents from federal agencies had been released. Yet the notion persisted that the unreleased files would provide important evidence for the existence of a conspiracy. Bugliosi has some choice words for this notion:

In the first place, the belief that any alleged conspirators who plotted Kennedy’s assassination would commit to paper anything that expressly, obliquely, or in any other way referred to the murderous plot is ridiculous on its face. Moreover, even if we make the assumption that one or more of these documents did exist, the only reason why anyone would want to suppress their existence would be if they were involved in the conspiracy to murder Kennedy…But you see, if that were the case, these people would simply destroy these documents, not leave them in any file. If they were immoral enough to murder Kennedy, or do whatever they could to cover up for those who did, surely they would eliminate an incriminating document. To suggest otherwise is to say that they would have, in effect, the following state of mind: “It’s one thing for me to be a part of the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy or to be an accessory after the fact to his murder, but don’t expect me to throw away any incriminating document. That’s just going too far. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. How immoral do you think I am?”

Bugliosi concedes that it might be possible for incriminating information to be overlooked and uncovered by a diligent search, but at the time that he wrote his book, ten years ago, virtually all the documents had already been released. His source at the National Archives estimated that about five thousand pages remained, which were withheld because they contained such information as the names of intelligence agents or details about investigative methods. Bugliosi concludes:

Three things are very clear: First, after an unprecedented and historic four-year scavenger hunt by the [JFK Assassination Records Review Board] 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.

But the real punchline, as the New York Times has pointed out, is that after all these decades, an accident of timing means that these files will be released “by the administration of a president who dabbles in conspiracy theories himself.” (One of the categories of documents specifically exempted from the JFK Records Act, by the way, is income tax returns. I don’t really have anything to say about this—I’m just pointing it out.) And in at least one respect, the fears of the truly paranoid might turn out to be justified. It’s hard to imagine a moment in history when these documents would seem less interesting. The obsessions of aging conspiracy theorists can only seem quaint compared to the outrages unfolding in plain sight every day. Trump has inadvertently done what no genuine coverup could possibly have accomplished. He’s made all of the old conspiracy theories seem boring.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2017 at 8:21 am

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