Foreign Affairs

Conference on the Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History



Session VI
Nontraditional Resources and Research Opportunities

The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection
National Archives, Special Access Life Cycle Control Unit

by Martha Wagner Murphy

Although the Special Access Life Cycle Control Unit has custody of many interesting records, I am here today to speak to you about the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection. First let me say that I am not here to discuss who shot President Kennedy. For our purposes, who shot President Kennedy is less significant than when he was shot. The fact that the assassination occurred during the Cold War has influenced the various conspiracy theories and led to the release of documents which may be of interest to historians who study this period.

The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection is small in relation to the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. However, what makes the Collection of interest to Cold War historians is its scope and the legislation which governs its access.

Today, I will provide you with a brief overview of the circumstances around which the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection was created and the legislation governing the Collection. This legislation determined which records are included and to what degree they are open to the public. I will then spend more time outlining those records which may be of most interest to a Cold War historian and give you some guidance as to the descriptive resources available.

Our story begins in Hollywood. There would be no John F. Kennedy Assassination Collection if there was not first a John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act. The Act was itself a response to public pressure which was building due to the fast approaching 30 year anniversary of the assassination and the publicity generated by the movie JFK. Regardless of the accuracy of the history portrayed, this film succeeded in spurring the public to vocal outrage over the fact that records relating to the assassination were still closed after nearly 30 years.

Congress passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.Note 1 This law mandated that all assassination-related material should be identified, opened to the greatest degree possible and housed in a single collection at the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA officially established the Collection on December 28, 1992.

In compliance with the legislation, the President appointed the Assassination Records Review Board (which I will refer to hence as the ARRB or the Board). The Board is composed of individuals who are not government employees. The Act mandated the ARRB to ensure that the agencies identify all assassination-related records and open the documents to the greatest extent possible using the guidelines in Section 6 of the Act.

The Collection is as rich as it is due to the broad definition of an "assassination-related record" used by the Board. Although the Act specified the inclusion of the records of certain organizations such as the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (commonly known as the Warren Commission), and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (the HSCA), the definition of assassination record allowed the Board some latitude.Note 2 In addition to records documenting the investigation of the assassination the Board also included records which were considered assassination-related because they dealt with topics which are addressed in commonly asserted conspiracy theories. Due to the ARRB's approach, the records in the Collection provide a snapshot into the of United States Cold War policy in 1963.

Equally important to the inclusiveness of the Act, as it was interpreted by the ARRB, are the guidelines the Act provided as to regarding access to the records.

The provisions under which records can be withheld under the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act are more narrow than those used under the Freedom Of Information Act. For example, the Board has the power, regardless of classification, to open a record if the Board does not believe that its content fits into one of the five narrow provisions outlined in Section 6 of the Act. This is unique since under the FOIA only the agency that classifies a document can order its declassification. Furthermore, the Act states that in order to use exemptions protecting privacy, confidential sources, and presidential security or protective procedures the harm caused by revealing this information must be balanced against the public interest. An agency's only source for appeal, as outlined in Section 9(d) of the Act, is to the President. To date, the White House has not overturned any decision made by the ARRB. Even documents which had been identified and released in some fashion under FOIA may be available in a more open version in the Collection. For this reason, a researcher would be remiss not to at least peruse the files, even if he viewed the series prior to the Kennedy Act.

Records which that would be of most interest to Cold War researchers in the Collection fall into two main categories. First are those which were created or compiled as a result of an investigation either into the intelligence community or the assassination. Second are files the creation of which was unrelated to an assassination investigation, but which have been deemed assassination records because they relate to an issue commonly believed by the research community to relate to the assassination.

Among the records in the first category are the files of the Commission to Investigate Central Intelligence Agency Activities Within the United States (commonly called the Rockefeller Commission) and the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee). These records are in the Collection due to the fact that, among other topics, the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission examined the performance of the CIA and FBI in conducting their assassination investigations and the degree to which they failed to communicate all relevant information to the Warren Commission.

The assassination related Rockefeller Commission records reside in the files which that the Ford Library transferred to the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection since all Rockefeller Commission documents reside in the Ford Library. Note 3 The series consists of approximately 2.5 cubic feet and is arranged by the Commission staff person's last name. The records are somewhat fragmentary due to the fact that the Ford Library staff extracted the "assassination related" materials from the larger files. Although the majority of documents appear to relate directly to the assassination, there are a small number of records relating to CIA activities in Cuba. The files include correspondence on this subject with the CIA and National Security Council (NSC) as well as some original CIA and NSC documents. There are numerous documents which have been or are in the process of being declassified under the guidelines of the Act so that there is a possibility of some interesting new information. This is a small group of records and can be examined thoroughly fairly quickly.

A more extensive group of records concerning a similar investigation are the records of the Church Committee. Note 4 These records consist of 20 cubic feet of letters, memorandums, reports and transcripts of testimony. Also included are State Department, FBI and CIA documents. Again, the records have no arrangement and consist of documents selected from the larger Church Committee files because they were considered assassination-related.

Book Five of the Church Committee Report places particular emphasis on the effect that the CIA Cuban Operations had on the investigation of the Kennedy Assassination.Note 5 The records selected for the Collection also reflect this emphasis. Many of the records concern Operation Mongoose, the United States efforts to de-stabilize the Castro government. The records also discuss Cuban exile leaders, and certain individuals such as Rolando Cubela whose codename was AMLASH. AMLASH was an operative in Cuba who proposed the assassination of Castro as part of a coup. Among the transcripts are the testimony of Richard Helms, William Colby, Roswell Gilpatrick, Harold Swenson and Andrew Goodpaster, all officials in the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations.

This is a unique opportunity to examine Church Committee records which that normally would not have been opened until at least 2030. Under Senate Resolution 464 96th Congress, which governs access to Senate Records, investigative records are routinely closed for 50 years regardless of classification. In response to the Act and at the urging of the ARRB, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the successor Committee to the Church Committee, reviewed the Church Committee records and began the process of referring assassination-related records for declassification. We can safely assume therefore, that these records have never been released and are entirely new to the research community.

Another series which has never been released are the records of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Although all of the HSCA records are potentially helpful to Cold War historians, the Segregated CIA Collection holds the greatest potential.

The HSCA, which was created on the heels of the Church Committee, took up the job of reinvestigating the assassination. The HSCA Report clearly notes that the new, potentially significant evidence alluded to in the Church Committee Report gave "substantial impetus" for the creation of the HSCA. Note 6 This emphasis is reflected in the Segregated CIA Collection. Although the records reflect the HSCA's investigation into the assassination, in this case records of interest to assassination researchers can be of interest to historians whose main focus is on the CIA actions of the CIA at one of the hottest points of the Cold War.

The Segregated CIA Collection consists of CIA files examined by HSCA staffers and dates from 1963 through 1978. Note 7 The records are in three series. The first includes 67 cubic feet of CIA documents viewed by the House Select Committee Staff. A related series is the 35 cubic feet of paper print-outs of CIA microfilm which HSCA Staff also examined. Finally, the records include 16 cubic feet of notes taken by the HSCA Staff and retained by the CIA. The records are arranged by subject, and include numerous files on individuals, organizations, and CIA operations. The records consist of memorandums and correspondence with the Warren Commission and the HSCA, cables, and overhears.

An example of some interesting records are the files relating to Yuriy Nosenko, the Soviet defector who met Lee Oswald during Oswald's time in the Soviet Union. You can imagine an assassination researcher's interest in these files. Yet, Nosenko's story has also been of interest to historians as for its insight into the CIA of the 1960s. Although much has already been written about Nosenko, there is a possibility that new information could have been released under the guidelines of the Act.

Once again, a researcher will find information regarding CIA operations in Cuba. The HSCA examined CIA records relating to Cuba due to because of the theories relating to Cuba's potential involvement in the assassination, referred to above. Yet, the story of Cold War relations with Cuba certainly has wider interest beyond the assassination. Among the records of the CIA Segregated Files are files regarding Rolando Cubela and numerous other individuals relating to this issue.

Many of the names on folder titles in the Segregated CIA Files are also evident in the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, HSCA Subject Files series.Note 8 Just as the HSCA requested to view CIA records relating to certain topics, so they also requested that the FBI compile all information regarding certain individuals who they believed might be relevant to the Committee's investigation. The HSCA Subject Files series includes records on nearly 300 individuals. Although some of the files are paltry, consisting only of miscellaneous references to individuals in other files, those described by the FBI as main files are quite substantial. This series deserves at least a quick perusal.

Due to the prominence of the subject of U.S. efforts to destabilize Cuba in the investigations of the HSCA and Church Committee, the Assassination Records Review Board sought out high level Army and Joint Chief of Staff documents relating to this subject. This has resulted in the declassification and release of 4 cubic feet of records culled from JCS and Army records which had been recently transferred to NARA in a routine accession. These records reflect the broadest interpretation of the term "assassination-related" since they were not created in the process of an investigation of the assassination or an investigation into the intelligence community, but rather address the need Board's intent to clarify the historical record regarding U.S. policy and actions in Cuba.

Like many of the records in the collection, these files have only a vague arrangement. They are filed with Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Record Group 335, Records of the Secretary of the Army. The JCS Records come from four series, the JCS Central File and the files of General Lyman Lemnitzer, General Maxwell Taylor and Lieutenant General Earle Wheeler.Note 9 They date from 1961 through 1963. The records consist of high level documents, primarily memorandums, on U.S. policy toward Cuba. They often outline various contingency plans from the perspectives of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the State Department.

The Army records consist of the files of Joseph Califano, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The records date primarily from 1963, with a smaller number from 1962 and 1964. Many of the documents are of a similar type to those described above, with memorandums outlining possible contingency plans and policy proposals relating to Cuba. However, the files also include Cuba related intelligence information. These intelligence records generally consist of either memorandums to Califano from other intelligence sources, or memorandums from Califano to the JCS relaying intelligence information.

Although not related to Cuba, the ARRB also declared one box of JCS records relating to Vietnam as assassination related,. This decision was prompted by conspiracy theories which that implicate the military in the assassination. These records, dating primarily from 1963, include policy memorandums with contingency plans relating to Vietnam.

You will find similar Cuba and Vietnam policy papers in the National Security files transferred to the Collection by the Kennedy and Johnson Libraries. Many of these files were declassified and opened for the first time in compliance with the Act and are new to the research community.

Since these are such high level files, it is possible that some documents have been released through the State Department Foreign Relations of the United States Project. Similarly, the records of the JCS and Army may have been released previously in some form prior to now under FOIA guidelines. We are assuming that these same documents, if subsequently reviewed under broader guidelines stipulated by the Kennedy Assassination Records Act, would be less restricted in content. For this and other reasons, we are assuming that there is new information within the National Security, Army, and JCS files of the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection. However, none of these records were reviewed under the broader guidelines of the Act. We are assuming that there is new information among the files.

I have thus far offered you a very brief summary of the records among the Kennedy Assassination Records collection that we believe may be of most interest to Cold War Historians. As you may have gathered from the descriptions above, the one constant among many of the records in the Collection, is their lack of a standard filing scheme. With the exception of the records of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, many of the records are compilations of files, where only the assassination related information was culled and put in a rough filing order. For this reason, it is fortunate that the Act mandated the creation of an electronic index to those documents not opened and available at the National Archives when the President signed this legislation into law.

In compliance with the Act, NARA created the JFK Assassination Collection database. We created a program and provided guidelines to agencies as to explaining how to enter information into the system. Since the agencies still had custody of the files, each agency entered data into the system about its own records. The agencies then transferred their data disks to the National Archives which entered the data into a master system which that NARA manages. Although NARA has not yet received the data disks from every agency,; but, with the closing of the Assassination Records Review Board at the end of this month, we anticipate the receipt of all of the relevant data disks. All of the records discussed here either are already on the database or will be included in the database once the disks are received.

It is possible to search the system in a variety of ways, such as by subject, date, and agency creating the records. The database is available to researchers from the NARA Home page at www.archives.gov. As is true with all finding aids, there are limits to this database. Primarily, the subject parameters used by the agencies differ to a great degree. For this reason, NARA has created a lengthy list of subject terms used in the database, which we have located in the finding aids room in of the textual records reading room here at the College Park facility.

For those records received into the Collection prior to receiving data disks, NARA created folder-title listings. NARA has textual finding aids for the records of the FBI, the Segregated CIA files, the records of the Kennedy and Johnson Libraries, and the records of the Church Committee, which should aid the researcher in narrowing down the boxes to view. All of these finding aids are available in the textual records reading room here in College Park and most are also available as text files through the Kennedy Collection Home Page. As always, our archival staff is also ready to aid any research endeavor.

Whether or not you have a personal interest in the assassination of President Kennedy, we can all benefit by the records which that have been opened in accordance with the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act. The records reflect the fact that the story of the Kennedy Administration, the assassination, and subsequent conspiracy theories is a story of the Cold War. This is a small collection of records compared to the vast holding of the National Archives and Records Administration. However, since many of the records in the collection were classified prior to the Act and derive from agencies such as the CIA and FBI from which the NARA generally has received few other records, it is a collection that deserves the attention of Cold War Historians.

End Notes

  1. PL 102-526. [Back]

  2. PL102-526, Sec.3(2). [Back]

  3. Records of the Commission to Investigate Central Intelligence Agency Activities Within the United States; Kennedy Assassination Records Collection; National Archives, College Park, MD. [Back]

  4. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 94th Congress; RG46 Records of the U.S. Senate; Kennedy Assassination Records Collection; National Archives, College Park, MD. [Back]

  5. Senate Report 94-755; Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities; Book V; 1976. [Back]

  6. House Report 95-1828; Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations; 1979; p.9. [Back]

  7. Segregated CIA Collection; House Select Committee on Assassinations, 94th-96th Congresses; RG 233 Records of the U.S. House of Representatives; Kennedy Assassination Records Collection; National Archives, College Park, MD. [Back]

  8. HSCA Subject Files; RG 65 Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Kennedy Assassination Records Collection; National Archives, College Park, MD. [Back]

  9. General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Maxwell Taylor, President's Military Representative from July 1961-; Lt. General Earle G. Wheeler, Director, Joint Staff Organization, JCS. [Back]

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