JFK was killed 60 years ago. Why are his assassination records still sealed?

By Brendan Rascius, McClatchy Washington Bureau

Sixty years have now passed since President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. But despite the passage of time, records related to his assassination remain sealed by the government, fueling conspiracies that question the official telling of events.

Multiple organizations and individuals have pressed for the documents to be released, including the Mary Ferrell Foundation — the largest online repository of JFK assassination records — which is suing President Joe Biden, demanding the documents be made public.

John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy travel in the presidential motorcade in Dallas shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/TNS) 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a presidential candidate and nephew of the former president, has also called for the files to be released.

“What is so embarrassing that they’re afraid to show the American public 60 years later?” RFK Jr. said in a Nov. 20 statement unveiling a petition demanding Biden release all remaining records.

When contacted by McClatchy News, a spokesperson for RFK Jr.’s campaign said “Mr. Kennedy is not doing any interviews on the anniversary of his uncle’s death.”

What are the documents?

Millions of pages of documents were created by a number of government agencies — including the CIA and the FBI — on the subject of John F. Kennedy’s killing, Rex Bradford, the president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, told McClatchy News.

They were later compiled by various investigative bodies, including the Warren Commission, which looked into the assassination and wrote the Warren Report, the government’s official narrative of what transpired in Dallas.

In 1992, following the release of Oliver Stone’s film “JFK,” which popularized a belief that the government was involved in the assassination, Congress passed the JFK Records Act to identify and release these documents.

“Huge amounts of this stuff was declassified over about a five-year period,” Bradford said, though some documents remained sealed or were released with redactions.

President John F. Kennedy stands on a platform for his inauguration as 35th president on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C., with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to his left. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/TNS)
President John F. Kennedy stands on a platform for his inauguration as 35th president on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C., with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to his left. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/TNS) 

The publication of the volumes of records was “unprecedented” for the government, Kaeten Mistry, a professor of American history at the University of East Anglia in England, told McClatchy News. “Yet it will never satisfy everyone.”

All remaining withheld documents were supposed to be released by 2017, according to the act, but Presidents Donald Trump and Biden — using a provision in the law — ordered some of them to remain under wraps, Bradford said.

Biden further prolonged their release when he ordered federal agencies to establish their own criteria and timelines for publishing the documents in July, Bradford said.

“Those criteria translate to: not bloody soon,” Bradford said.

What documents remain sealed?

As it stands, about 3,500 documents, the majority of which are held by the CIA, remain unpublished or published with partial redactions, Bradford said, citing a National Archives estimate.

“This information at this point, a lot of it is informant names, agent names, the location of CIA bases, some of it’s sensitive information, embarrassing information,” Bradford said. “At this point there’s very little about Lee Harvey Oswald per say.”

Lee Harvey Oswald
John F. Kennedy’s murderer Lee Harvey Oswald during a Nov. 22, 1963, press conference after his arrest in Dallas. Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby on Nov. 24 on the eve of Kennedy’s burial. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)