Newly released documents from long-secret Kennedy assassination files raise startling questions about what top agency officials knew and when they knew it.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the CIA appeared eager, even desperate, to embrace the version of events being offered by the FBI, the Secret Service and other parts of the government. The official story: that a delusional misfit and self-proclaimed Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president in Dallas with his $21 mail-order rifle and there was no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic. Certainly, the CIA’s leaders told the Warren Commission, the independent panel that investigated the murder, there was no evidence of a conspiracy that the spy agency could have foiled.
But thousands of pages of long-secret, assassination-related documentsreleased by the National Archives last week show that, within a few years of Kennedy’s murder, some in the CIA began to worry internally that the official story was wrong—an alarm the agency never sounded publicly.
Specifically, key CIA officials were concerned by the mid-1970s that the agency, the FBI, the Secret Service and the White House commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren had never followed up on important clues about Oswald’s contact with foreign agents, including diplomats and spies for the Communist governments of Cuba and the Soviet Union, who might have been aware of his plans to kill Kennedy and even encouraged the plot. (There is no credible evidence cited in the documents released so far that Cuban leader Fidel Castro or other foreign leaders had any personal role in ordering Kennedy’s murder.)
The CIA documents also offer tantalizing speculation about the chain of events in late 1963 that explained Oswald’s motives for killing Kennedy, which have previously never been established with certainty—how he may have become enraged after reading a detailed article in his hometown newspaper in New Orleans in September suggesting that his hero Castro had been targeted for assassination by the Kennedy administration. According to that theory, Oswald, who had rifle training in the Marine Corps, then set out to seek vengeance on Castro’s behalf—to kill Kennedy before the American president managed to kill the Cuban leader.
If that proved true, it would have raised a terrible question for the CIA: Was it possible that JFK’s assassination was, directly or indirectly, blowback for the spy agency’s plots to kill Castro? It would eventually be acknowledged the CIA had, in fact, repeatedly tried to assassinate Castro, sometimes in collusion with the Mafia, throughout Kennedy’s presidency. The CIA’s arsenal of weapons against Castro included a fungus-infected scuba suit, a poison-filled hypodermic needle hidden in a pen—and even an exploding cigar. The Warren Commission, never told about the CIA’s Castro plots, mostly ducked the question of Oswald’s motives, other than saying in its final report that he had expressed a “hatred for American society.”
JFK historians and the nation’s large army of private assassination researchers are still scrambling to make sense of the latest batch of tens of thousands of pages of previously secret CIA and FBI documents that were unsealed last week by the National Archives. The documents—441 files that had previously been withheld entirely, along with 3,369 other documents that had been previously released only in part—were made public under terms of a 1992 law that requires the unsealing of all JFK assassination-related documents by October, the law’s 25-year deadline.
Since the release last week, researchers do not appear to have identified any single document that could be labeled a bombshell or that rewrites the history of the assassination in any significant way. Many of the documents, which were made public only online, are duplicates of files that had been released years earlier. Other documents are totally illegible or refer to CIA and FBI code names and pseudonyms that even experienced researchers will take months to decipher. Several documents are written in foreign languages.
Still, the newly released documents may offer an intriguing glimpse of what comes next. The National Archives is required to unseal a final batch of about 3,100 never-before-seen JFK-assassination files by the October deadline, assuming the move is not blocked by President Donald Trump. Under the 1992 Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, the president is the only person empowered to stop the release. (Congressional and other government officials have told us in confidence that at least two federal agencies—likely the CIA and FBI—are expected to appeal to Trump to block the unsealing of at least some of the documents. Even after 54 years, some government officials apparently still want to keep secrets about this seminal event in U.S. history. The CIA and FBI acknowledged earlier this year they are conducting a final review of the documents, but have been unwilling to say if they will ask the president to block some from being released.)