In the persistent, probably eternal whirlwind of conspiracy theories about the November 1963 assassination of President John F Kennedy, there is one conspiracy theory that is no longer just a theory – and hasn’t been for years.
That wide-ranging conspiracy was for real. And proof of its existence will almost certainly grow more solid on Thursday with the imminent release of tens of thousands of pages of long-classified, assassination-related documents from the National Archives – supposedly the last of the government’s secret files on Kennedy’s murder.
What conspiracy? Not one involving a second assassin in Dealey Plaza. (All of the most credible evidence continues to point to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman in Dallas.) Not some sort of mafia plot that resulted in the silencing of Oswald two days later by Dallas strip-club impresario Jack Ruby. (Really, what half-way competent Mob boss would choose a delusional blabbermouth like Ruby to carry out a second Crime of the Century by murdering Oswald?) Not a sprawling coup d’état involving everyone from President Lyndon Johnson to the Pentagon architects of the Vietnam war to a cabal of gay rightwingers in New Orleans. (See Oliver Stone’s hit 1991 film JFK.)
I’m referring to the well-documented, proven conspiracy within the highest reaches of the US government – a criminal conspiracy from the start, involving the destruction of top-secret documents and photographs, the silencing of witnesses and whistleblowers, and the wholesale suborning of perjury – to cover up the truth about what the government had known in advance about Oswald and the clear threat he had posed to one man: President Kennedy.
The word “cover-up” is not hyperbole. Remarkably enough, it is the word that the CIA itself applies to what happened immediately after the assassination. In a once-classified internal report that became public in 2014, the spy agency’s in-house historian acknowledged that the CIA had engaged in a “cover-up” (albeit a “benign cover-up”, he insisted) to hide evidence from the Warren commission and later government investigations. The cover-up was intended to keep investigators focused exclusively on evidence that proved “what the Agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’ – that Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing Kennedy”.
I certainly don’t see the cover-up as benign. And in conspiring to hide evidence of their bungling before the assassination – a conspiracy exposed document by document over the last half-century – the CIA and FBI helped launch the much larger wave of conspiracy theories that followed and are likely to plague us forever. Since the late 1960s, opinion polls have shown consistently that a majority of the American people are convinced that the government has never told them the full truth about the murder of their president. And their skepticism, the evidence shows, has always been justified.
After falling down the rabbit hole of the national debate over the Kennedy assassination – my first book was a history of the 9/11 commission, so I made the grievous mistake of thinking it would be easy to follow up by writing a similar history of the Warren commission – I was saddened and surprised by a central conclusion that I reached by the end of my research: the Kennedy assassination did not have to happen. It could have been prevented – easily – if the CIA and FBI had just acted on the intelligence in their own files in November 1963. Yes, Oswald was a violent, delusional misfit. But he was not the pure “lone wolf” portrayed by the initial government accounts of the assassination – the image that the government was desperate to present after Kennedy’s murder, since it suggested nothing could have been done to stop him.
In fact, both the CIA and FBI had Oswald under aggressive surveillance in the months before the assassination – and knew he was talking to people who, at the height of the cold war, might also have wanted to see Kennedy dead.
Both agencies had strong reason to believe that Oswald, a self-proclaimed Marxist who had years of rifle practice in the Marine Corps, would be a danger when Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dallas on 22 November 1963. In what I believe was a horrifying coincidence, Oswald had just begun a new job as a laborer in a book warehouse that overlooked Dealey Plaza – the Texas School Book Depository.
The evidence gathered by the CIA and FBI before the assassination about Oswald should have put his name in “red lights” as a threat to Kennedy, former FBI director Clarence Kelley admitted reluctantly after his retirement. If the FBI had just acted on the information, he wrote in his own memoirs in 1987, “without doubt JFK would not have died in Dallas and history would have taken a different turn”.
Instead, immediately after the assassination, panicked officials at both the CIA and FBI tried, desperately, to cover up evidence of the extent of their knowledge of Oswald, fearing their bungling of the intelligence about JFK’s assassin might be exposed – and that they would be blamed for the president’s murder.
All of which brings us to today. It is no surprise that the CIA and FBI are, ultimately, the source of most of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pages, of classified documents that are scheduled to be released by the National Archives on Thursday.
From the bare-bones index of the documents provided by the archives, many of the 3,100 never-before-seen files will reveal new details about the extent of the voluminous information that the CIA and FBI gathered about Oswald in the months and years before Kennedy’s death; previously declassified CIA documents show the agency was monitoring Oswald as early as 1959, the year he tried to defect to Moscow.
This week’s massive government document dump, which Donald Trump has said he does not intend to block unless he sees “compelling and clear” last-minute proof that some documents could damage national security, fulfills a deadline established under a 1992 law passed by Congress to try to stem conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination.
The authors of the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act said they were alarmed, in particular, by the cloud of suspicion kicked up by Stone’s film, which was released the year before. Under the law, all government files related to the assassination must be released, in full, within 25 years of the law’s passage – a deadline reached this Thursday, 26 October.
Many historians and researchers, including this one, will be most intrigued to see the still-secret files that, according to the Archives index, are related to an event that was the focus of so much of the cover-up by the CIA and FBI – Oswald’s six-day trip to Mexico City just weeks before the assassination. He had apparently gone there to try to obtain a visa to defect to Cuba.
Immediately after the assassination, the CIA and FBI acknowledged they had been aware that Oswald had visited the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico. But the agencies insisted they had no information to suggest that Oswald had done anything in Mexico to hint that a plot to kill Kennedy had been hatched there – or anywhere else.
But declassified files from both agencies would become public years later that showed that, during the trip, Oswald met in Mexico with Cuban and Soviet spies, including – incredibly enough – a KGB assassinations expert. He appears to have had a brief affair with a Mexican woman employed at the Cuban consulate there.
Another document declassified in the 1990s: a top-secret June 1964 FBI memo prepared by its director, J Edgar Hoover, for the Warren commission that revealed that Oswald had apparently spoken openly in Mexico City of his intention to kill Kennedy.
In what appears to be another, particularly brazen part of the cover-up, that memo appears never to have reached the commission. While Hoover’s memo eventually appeared in the panel’s digital records at the National Archives, surviving commission staff lawyers told me for my book they never saw it during the commission’s investigation in 1964. They said they would have remembered such a “bombshell” document, and it would have prompted an urgent investigation in Mexico to determine who else heard Oswald talk about killing Kennedy – and if anyone there had offered to help.
In Dallas, the FBI cover-up began the weekend after the president’s death. The first act came on Sunday 24 November, the day Ruby gunned down Oswald at Dallas police headquarters, when an FBI agent in the bureau’s field office across town was ordered to destroy a threatening handwritten note that Oswald had hand-delivered to the office earlier that month – apparently a protest over the FBI’s aggressive surveillance of his family.
What did Oswald write in the note? We’ll never know, because the agent took the note into the men’s room, tore it into pieces and flushed it down the toilet. Years later, the agent admitted to congressional investigators that he and his supervisor had panicked at the thought that the note would been seen as proof that that the FBI had botched the opportunity to save the president’s life.
• Philip Shenon, a former Washington and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination
• We’d like your help. The JFK files will be published online on Thursday here. If you’re reading through the documents and you spot an interesting fact or snippet you think we’ve missed, it would be great if you could let us know. We’ve set up a form here for contributions.
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