The world will soon have more insight into a case that has captivated historians, government officials, reporters, and conspiracy theorists for more than a half century—the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 mandated that the National Archives and Records Administration release all documents relating to the 1963 assassination to the public within 25 years. The president was the only official authorized to stop the release, on national-security grounds. With the 25-year deadline due to expire this Thursday, Oct. 26, US president Donald Trump tweeted Saturday that he will not block the release, with one caveat:
The National Archives has been releasing records relating to the assassination since the 1990s. The resulting five-million-page library of documents has reshaped some of the official narrative around JFK’s murder, making public information withheld by the CIA and FBI from the Warren Commission, the presidential panel that investigated the assassination in 1963-64.
There are still about 3,100 documents that have never been seen by the public, and 30,000 files that have been only partially released. As Politico reports, the final release will likely be a logistical nightmare. In July, when the archives put out a small amount of previously unseen documents, its computers crashed and the material was unavailable for days. (The National Archives had decided to release all the files at once instead of in pieces, citing “processing delays.”)
This release will be the last batch of previously classified documents related to the assassination, though some information will remain redacted or obscured by code names that are impossible to decipher. Congress defined an “assassination record“ as including, but not limited to, “all records, public and private, regardless of how labeled or identified, that document, describe, report on, analyze, or interpret activities, persons, or events as reasonably related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and investigations or inquiries into the assassination.”
The 1992 law was partially a response by Congress to question the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, a movie that suggested a government conspiracy was responsible for the murder of the 35th president. Despite the law’s best intentions, this week’s final document release will likely fuel more speculation, along with a suspicion, maintained by conspiracists everywhere, that we’ll never, ever know the full truth.
Here are some of the best guesses of what we may learn, from two of the biggest contingents of interested parties: historians and conspiracy theorists.
Experts generally don’t think there will be a bombshell that significantly alters the official FBI view of the assassination, that gunman Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Some do believe the documents could provide more insight into why the CIA was so reluctant to challenge the FBI’s version in any way that night become public, as well more details surrounding the mysterious trip Oswald took to Mexico City in September 1963, just month before Kennedy was killed by rile fire in Dallas, Texas.
“There’s going to be no smoking gun in there,” Gerald Posner, author of the definitive book Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, told CNN. “Oswald did it alone, but what the files are doing and why they’re important to come out is they fill in the history of the case and show us how the FBI and CIA repeatedly hid the evidence.”
The July record release showed the CIA was worried that FBI’s official story, that former US marine Oswald was an loner who murdered the president unaided because of his Marxist delusions, was incorrect. The intelligence agency never made its suspicions public because it was determined to keep the Warren Commission from finding out about US attempts to assassinate Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.
The final release could bolster the theory that Oswald shot Kennedy in retaliation for US attempts on Castro’s life. An Associated Press article published in Oswald’s local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, in September, 1963 reported an interview with Castro in which the Cuban leader warned the US he was aware of assassination plots against him and other Cuban leaders. “US leaders would be in danger if they helped in any attempt to do away with leaders of Cuba,” the article quoted him saying. An internal CIA memo, released for the first time in July, suggests Oswald could have made the trip to Mexico with this idea in mind, but the article wasn’t mentioned in the Warren Commission’s final report.
Some experts also believe there could also be information in the new release about the US-sanctioned coup of South Vietnamese leader Ngô Đình Diệm in 1963.
There is additional evidence the CIA intentionally misled the commission to hide the fact it had failed at adequately surveilling Oswald in Mexico prior to the murder. On his six-day trip, Oswald was tracked by the CIA’s Mexico City station as he met with Cuban diplomats, Soviet spies, and a KGB assassination expert. Previously released FBI documents suggest Oswald spoke openly about his assassination plans in Mexico (Oswald’s wife claimed he traveled there to get a visa that would allow him to defect to Cuba).
According to Axios, Trump tweeted about allowing the release after talking to Roger Stone over the phone, the notorious political operative who helped Trump launch his campaign. Stone is also a JFK conspiracy theorist who wrote a book claiming Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, orchestrated the assassination. Axios reports Stone believes the documents will reveal that Oswald’s connections to the CIA and FBI were “longer and more extensive” than has been shown.
Unsurprisingly, the r/Conspiracy subreddit is sure the release is a conspiracy in of itself, cautioning “free thinkers” not to trust any information from the government, claiming that the term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the CIA in the 1960s as a pejorative meant to ridicule anyone who sought “the truth” about the assassination.
Some are convinced Trump is being foiled by the so-called “deep state.” On the alt-right site InfoWars, Alex Jones published a video titled “Deep State panics as Trump readies JFK file release.” Its theory goes that the CIA and FBI originally falsely claimed Oswald was working for the Russians, and now those agencies are doing the same by trumpeting claims that the Trump administration has colluded with the Russians. By allowing the release of the documents, Trump, enemy of the deep state, will be able prove once and for all exactly how little federal intelligence agencies can be trusted.
Conspiracy theories are typically relegated to the extreme margins of US public debate. Yet as The Atlantic points out, the problem of separating conspiracy from legitimacy gets much more complicated when there is a conspiracy theorist sitting in the Oval Office. He has been known to make unsubstantiated claims, in this case regarding the father of his Republican primary rival Ted Cruz, as reported by the National Enquirer:
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being—you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said in May 2016, during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it…What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting? It’s horrible.”