New Lawsuit Demands the Release of Unseen JFK Assassination Records

John F Kennedy

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About 16,000 documents are still under wraps.

This November marks 59 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, but there are still thousands of records related to his murder than haven’t seen the light of day — and now, a lawsuit against the government is demanding their immediate release.

JFK’s untimely death was one of the defining events of the 20th century, and it’s served as the inspiration for innumerable books, films, and television shows. And even though we know that U.S. Marine veteran Lee Harvey Oswald is the one who fired off the shot that killed the president, conspiracy theories about whether he acted alone and who else may have been involved have captured the national imagination for decades.

Here’s the scoop on this latest tussle over the investigation and what could be lurking in these unreleased records.

How many documents from the JFK investigation still haven’t been released?

About 16,000 records have never been made public. That’s a high number, especially considering it’s been nearly 60 years since the event in question, but the entire archive of JFK assassination records amounts to more than 5 million pages, including documents, photographs, videos, audio recordings, and more. So in the grand scheme of things, this unreleased batch represents a small percentage of what’s available, but some researchers say they could contain some of the juiciest material in the collection. (More on that in a minute.)

The most recent release of JFK-related records happened last December, when nearly 1,500 documents were declassified by the National Archives. (You can see those for yourself right here.) Unfortunately, they were received as mostly unremarkable. Though they contained a few new details about Oswald’s dealings with Cuba and the Soviet Union, none of the information was particularly notable — and in many cases, the “new” documents were duplicates of content that had previously been released.

Why haven’t they been released yet?

To answer that question, we need to take a brief step back. The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, signed in 1992, declared that the National Archives would be required to release all documents related to the investigation of JFK’s death within the next 25 years. Interestingly, a report from the Assassination Records Review Board at the time partially credited the popularity of Oliver Stone’s film JFK and the subsequent public interest in the case for motivating the passage of this law.

According to that statute, the records should have been completely public by Oct. 26, 2017. The final release would’ve happened under the administration of President Donald Trump, who did authorize the release of nearly 3,000 records. But he also announced he’d be holding back much of the remaining collection, due to requests from national security agencies. “I agree with the Archivist’s recommendation that the continued withholdings are necessary to protect against identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure,” Trump said at the time.

Trump imposed a new deadline of 2021, which kicked the can to President Joe Biden, who did oversee the release of those 1,500 documents back in December of last year. But he also pushed the deadline for the complete release, citing Covid-19 complications that slowed down the document review. The next release is tentatively scheduled for December 2022.

Who is behind this lawsuit against the government?

The case has been brought by the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which describes itself as “a non-profit organization engaged in an ongoing effort to bring accessible and interactive history to a new generation of critical thinkers.” The suit alleges that Biden and the National Archives are in violation of the 1992 law directing all records to be made public by 2017, and it seeks to have a judge void Biden’s decision to delay the final batch of documents last year.

“It’s high time that the government got its act together and obeyed the spirit and the letter of the law,” the foundation’s vice president, Jefferson Morley, told NBC. “This is about our history and our right to know it.”

The suit also has the support of at least some members of the Kennedy family. NBC spoke with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of JFK’s brother (and a well-known anti-vaxxer), who described the delay as “a crime against American democracy.“ He added: “The law requires the records be released. It’s bizarre. It’s been almost 60 years since my uncle’s death. What are they hiding?”

What, exactly, is in the remaining 16,000 documents?

Well, that’s the big question — and, obviously, it can’t be precisely answered until they’ve been publicly declassified. But the Mary Ferrell Foundation believes they could contain crucial information about the case. Morley told NBC the remaining records are among the most sensitive in the entire collection, and according to his calculations, 70% belong to the CIA while another 23% are controlled by the FBI.

The lawsuit also specifically calls out a handful of records that it claims the government has illegally redacted. They include personnel files for several CIA agents who were connected to Oswald, documents about a plot to assassinate Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, a memo about the CIA’s response to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and more.

Also in question are records that the foundation alleges are “known to exist but that are not part of the JFK Collection.” One example is the audio from conversations with a man named Carlos Marcello, a mob boss from New Orleans who reportedly told a prison cellmate that he was involved in the assassination.

What is the government saying?

Biden and the White House haven’t commented on this suit, but on Wednesday the National Archives released a statement saying it recently completed a review of the records that remain, and have made recommendations about their release — though it’s still unclear whether that recommendation is to declassify everything.

“NARA and the pertinent agencies have conducted both a document-level review and a redaction-level review of information not yet released under section 5 of the Act, and NARA has made its recommendations to the president,” the statement said. “The results of those reviews will be made public in December.”