JFK was killed 60 years ago. Why are his assassination records still sealed?

Sixty years have now passed since President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. But despite the passage of time, records related to his assassination remain sealed by the government, fueling conspiracies that question the official telling of events.

Multiple organizations and individuals have pressed for the documents to be released, including the Mary Ferrell Foundation — the largest online repository of JFK assassination records — which is suing President Joe Biden, demanding the documents be made public.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a presidential candidate and nephew of the former president, has also called for the files to be released.

“What is so embarrassing that they’re afraid to show the American public 60 years later?” RFK Jr. said in a Nov. 20 statement unveiling a petition demanding Biden release all remaining records.

When contacted by McClatchy News, a spokesperson for RFK Jr.’s campaign said “Mr. Kennedy is not doing any interviews on the anniversary of his uncle’s death.”

What are the documents?

Millions of pages of documents were created by a number of government agencies — including the CIA and the FBI — on the subject of John F. Kennedy’s killing, Rex Bradford, the president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, told McClatchy News.

They were later compiled by various investigative bodies, including the Warren Commission, which looked into the assassination and wrote the Warren Report, the government’s official narrative of what transpired in Dallas.

In 1992, following the release of Oliver Stone’s film “JFK,” which popularized a belief that the government was involved in the assassination, Congress passed the JFK Records Act to identify and release these documents.

“Huge amounts of this stuff was declassified over about a five-year period,” Bradford said, though some documents remained sealed or were released with redactions.

The publication of the volumes of records was “unprecedented” for the government, Kaeten Mistry, a professor of American history at the University of East Anglia in England, told McClatchy News. “Yet it will never satisfy everyone.”

All remaining withheld documents were supposed to be released by 2017, according to the act, but Presidents Donald Trump and Biden — using a provision in the law — ordered some of them to remain under wraps, Bradford said.

Biden further prolonged their release when he ordered federal agencies to establish their own criteria and timelines for publishing the documents in July, Bradford said.

“Those criteria translate to: not bloody soon,” Bradford said.

What documents remain sealed?

As it stands, about 3,500 documents, the majority of which are held by the CIA, remain unpublished or published with partial redactions, Bradford said, citing a National Archives estimate.

“This information at this point, a lot of it is informant names, agent names, the location of CIA bases, some of it’s sensitive information, embarrassing information,” Bradford said. “At this point there’s very little about Lee Harvey Oswald per se.”

Oswald, a Marine veteran, was concluded to have acted alone in shooting Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository Building, according to the Warren Commission Report.

“The vast majority of records that remain secret, or were recently released, will relate to national security matters,” Mistry said. “The government is always more cautious when it comes to releasing those to the public.”

The bureaucratic process of releasing them is also inherently time-consuming, Mistry said.

Will they be released?

While a handful of the documents may be made public in the coming years, “absent any changes or particular public will on this matter, I expect much of the rest of it is unlikely to be released,” Bradford said.

That said, it’s doubtful that the withheld materials contain a smoking gun, indicating one particular group orchestrated Kennedy’s death, Bradford said.

However, Bradford said, people who have researched the assassination have found circumstantial evidence indicating a “murderous milieu” of “Cuban exiles, organized crime and the CIA” appeared to have had ties to Oswald.

“It’s unlikely that somewhere in a CIA vault they have a document that says we did it,” Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor specializing in the study of conspiracy theories, told McClatchy News. “So, I’m not exactly sure what people think they’re going to get.”

Even if additional documents were released, the American public — the majority of whom believe there was a broader conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, according to a Gallup poll of 1,009 U.S. adults — would likely remain skeptical, Uscinski said.

“If the government released all the documents today, are all the people who believe conspiracy theories about it going to suddenly change their mind?” Uscinski said. “The answer is probably not.”

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