Classified Federal Records and the End of the Cold War: The Experience of the Assassination Records Review Board
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In the fall of 1992, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (PL102 -526, codiaed as 44 U.S.C. 2107) (ARCA) in an attempt to address the suspicion that the federal government had been involved in a cover-up of the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Soon after taking oface and eager to reassure the public, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission to investigate the slaying of the president, the President’s Commission to Investigate the Assassination of President Kennedy, more commonly known as the Warren Commission . The commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald , acting alone, was responsible for the president’s murder. Government ofacials sowed suspicion of this conclusion by withholding information from the Warren Commission, a fact that gradually became known to the American public over the following decades. Within a few years of the release of the commission’s andings, 65 percent of Americans disagreed with its andings. By the 1980s, this number had grown to more than 80 percent. In 1991, Oliver Stone claimed in his movie JFK that a conspiracy of the “military-industrial complex,” together with unnamed government ofacials and elements of organized crime, were responsible for Kennedy’s death. At the conclusion of the alm, Stone noted that many government records concerning the assassination were closed and that a good many were scheduled to remain unavailable for examination until as late as 2029. These facts, together with the suspicion directed at the Warren Commission report, motivated Congress to pass ARCA. In this essay, I will discuss the act’s provisions and the work of its creation, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), some problems that the board encountered , and the principal results of its efforts. Finally, I will provide some recommendations for addressing the problem of excessive secrecy in government. The efforts of the board led to the declassiacation of thousands of documents and the opening of more than 4 million pages of material now located in the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives . However, the board’s greatest accomplishment arguably lies in demonstrating the effectiveness of a federal body independent of those who classify documents. As suspicions grew about the Warren Commission’s conclusions, several other ofacial efforts sought both to review the commission’s work and to progress beyond it. The most notable effort was the investigation undertaken by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in the mid-1970s. In addition, the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee), the Rockefeller Commission (formally the President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States), and the House Select Committee on Intelligence (which produced the Pike Report) to varying degrees included the assassination of the president among their mandates. These investigations did little more than document that government agencies had been less than fully forthcoming to the Warren Commission about events surrounding the assassination. Indeed, the HSCA’s report suggested 237 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Classiaed Federal Records and the End of the Cold War The Experience of the Assassination Records Review Board William L. Joyce ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ that there was reason to believe that a conspiracy had in fact existed, but the committee ran out of funds—and possibly political will—before its work could be carried to its conclusion. The fact that so many people saw the government as participating in a conspiracy only heightened suspicions about the closed records concerning the event. A public policy problem inhered in the facts surrounding the assassination and its aftermath: the assassination and the government ’s response to it introduced issues of secrecy in government; accountability; the importance of a knowledgeable , informed citizenry; and the urgent need for a new, more generous declassiacation policy by which to regulate government secrecy and to do so with a greater degree of openness in government. Continuing secrecy regarding the assassination of JFK seemed, especially after the passage of more than thirty-ave years, less justiaable in a period of relaxed international tensions following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Indeed, one wonders whether the act could have been passed at all without the extraordinary events that unfolded in the late 1980s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the accompanying unprecedented relaxation of international tensions. The collapse of Soviet dominion over Central and Eastern Europe also loosed a veritable bood of information from Soviet archives and from former ofacials that has...