Calling all conspiracy theorists! The National Archives is set to release the last remaining top-secret files about John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, in a process that could begin by this summer. The trove of some 3,600 files, mostly from the FBI and CIA, were part of the collection assembled and sealed by the Archives, on the condition that they all be made public by October 2017. But there’s a catch: According to the same law, President Donald Trump has the ability to block the release of any or all of the documents—if he certifies that keeping them secret is a matter of national security.Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy during a 1960 campaign stop. (Credit: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Under the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law back in 1992, the National Archives established a single collection of all records relating to Kennedy’s assassination. The law also set up a plan to declassify the records, stipulating that they would all be made public by the law’s 25th anniversary: October 26, 2017.
But as Philip Shenon, a longtime New York Times reporter and author of “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” wrote recently in Politico Magazine, the Archives could begin the process of releasing the estimated 3,600 files still under seal within weeks. As most of the files come from the FBI and CIA, the hope is that some of them may shed light on whether those agencies missed evidence of a conspiracy involving Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Martha W. Murphy, an official at the National Archives, told Shenon that researchers with high-level security clearance were working to prepare the files for release and hoped to do so in batches. The release process could start as early as this summer—unless President Trump steps in to stop it.
Under the same 1992 law, the FBI and the CIA can appeal to the Archives to keep the remaining files secret on national security grounds, but only the U.S. president can block their release. To do so, Trump would have to certify to the National Archives that keeping the records secret is “made necessary by an identifiable harm to military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement or conduct of foreign relations,” and that the harm in question is greater than the public interest in disclosing the records.
By the time the JFK Records Act was passed, widespread doubt about the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted on his own to kill Kennedy had endured for some three decades. Many people believed the government either didn’t know or was hiding the real truth behind the assassination, and conspiracy theories abounded (as evidenced by Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK”).