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A newsstand with papers and magazines with headlines about JFK's death

Why hasn't the US government released all of the JFK files?

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To mark the 60th anniversary of his assassination, Kennedy explores the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This series takes an intimate look at JFK's early years, his time in World War II, his journey onto the political scene and the dramatic twists and turns of his presidency. Kennedy starts Tuesday, 28th November on Sky HISTORY.

There’s never been a decade quite like the 1960s. Socially, culturally, economically and politically, the rulebook was ripped up, burnt and its ashes trampled into the ground. It was a time of enormous change and upheaval, especially in the United States.

There was the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Space Race and the Moon landing, the Civil Rights Movement, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and much, much more. Stir all that into a heady cultural mix including the hippie movement with Woodstock, the Beatles and the Manson Family and it was quite the potent brew.

Huge news stories had to fight with one another in order to achieve headline status in the daily and weekly newspapers of the 60s. Something guaranteed to hold the front pages back then, however, were assassinations; brutal incidents that happened all too frequently. Amongst other prominent political figures shot dead in the decade, there were Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and - most famously of all - John F. Kennedy. The 35th President of the United States of America.

2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. All these years on, as the shock wore off and the official narrative began to be questioned, the sniper murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy has gone on to signify something else. The assassination is now intrinsically entangled with the concept of governmental obfuscation, lies and cover-up.

For years, the US government promised that it would, one day, release all of its many classified files on the much-debated shooting. Researchers, historians, patriots and those fascinated by what happened waited with bated breath. They waited and waited and waited.

Despite promises to uncover all the many secrets it holds about Kennedy’s death, the full picture is still withheld from the public. The question is… why?

The official story

The official account of the shooting has it that a man called Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting Kennedy from a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. The investigation into JFK’s assassination, led by the Warren Commission, concluded that Oswald fired all three shots and did so because he desired notoriety for his extreme political ideology.

According to the Warren Commission, Oswald was a disgruntled and politically motivated individual with heavy communist sympathies, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and returned to the United States in 1962. The Commission concluded that Oswald's act was a result of his personal discontent and a desire to make a political statement.

Oswald was apprehended but killed two days later by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could stand trial. The Warren Commission's report, published in 1964, stated that there was no evidence of a conspiracy and that Oswald had acted entirely alone. This conclusion has, of course, been the subject of much criticism and controversy.

The alternative theories

The number of US residents who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone fluctuated across the years. A 2013 survey put the number at 61%, while in 1976, that number was a not insubstantial 81%.

Ideas about who recruited Oswald to be their shooter vary wildly. The main culprits that people point to include:

  • The CIA, because Kennedy would meet them with resistance and planned to curb their powers
  • The Mafia, as payback for JFK letting them down on promises to give organised crime an easy ride
  • Lynden B. Johnson, as part of a coup for the presidency
  • The US Military-Industrial Complex, who were angered at Kennedy’s policies regarding war and overseas military involvement and intervention
  • Anti-Fidel Castro Cubans, because of the President's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The landmark law which looked like the end of the secrecy

In 1992, a huge piece of legislation was passed by Congress which appeared to put an end to the clandestine approach to Kennedy’s assassination. The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act was put into law, in part, to dispel some of the rumours and theories bubbling up from Oliver Stone’s hit film JFK, which was made the previous year.

It mandated that the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection be established by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It specified that all US government materials pertaining to President Kennedy's assassination would be included in the collection, kept in the NARA Archives building in College Park, Maryland and be accessible to all.

Any materials produced, made available for use, acquired or otherwise coming into the custody of any state or local law enforcement agency that helped, supported, or worked in connection with a federal investigation into the assassination were also included in the collection.

While thousands of records were made public, it soon became clear that authorities were withholding many thousands of relevant documents and pieces of information.

The 2023 files

Recently, it looked as if United States authorities would finally be true to their word and release all of the secret files they held about the assassination. This was not to be the case, however. The rug was pulled on the American public once again.

President Joe Biden’s administration finally unveiled a giant cache of records to the public in October 2023, with more than 13,000 documents being made available. JFK assassination enthusiasts poured over the information, but none of it proved anything conclusively either way. The data fleshed out some parts of the story but provided no smoking gun.

US intelligence agencies claim that just 3% of the records pertaining to the assassination of JFK remained unseen by the public. One can only surmise that these are the most interesting 3%.

What’s stopping them from declassifying all the files?

So here we reach our central question. Why won’t the United States government release everything they have on the assassination of JFK?

Well, perhaps the Pentagon might argue that they - effectively - have. 97% is a rather high percentile. It could be suggested that the 3% that hasn’t been released cannot be because it overlaps with other material, cases and files which are sealed and not required to be released.

The names and personal information of still-living law enforcement and intelligence informants from the 1960s and 1970s were included in papers that the CIA and FBI pushed to remain secret because they might be the target of intimidation or even violence. Some of these are foreigners who reside outside of the country, making it more challenging for the US government to defend them against any possible threats or danger.

That could well be the case, we don’t know. Without confirmation, we’re left merely to guess as to exactly why the various US intelligence agencies are not entirely open with the public. As we’ve seen over the past 60 years, cover-ups lead to speculation and conspiracy theories. Which of those theories turns out to hold the most amount of water, we’re yet to find out.

What would happen if all the files were released unredacted?

Let’s imagine that, at some point in the future, those remaining 3% of files are released and the various tens of thousands of documents are made available without any redaction whatsoever. Then what?

Would the mysteries of JFK’s murder all be solved? If everything American intelligence knows about the shooting were laid out on the table for all to see, would we all learn some great answers? Would it reveal his true killer, their motive and the names of those who conspire to cover up the truth? Would it tell us why it was decided that the POTUS was killed? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Sometimes mysteries remain mysteries forever.