Historians and conspiracy theorists have been given an early Christmas present: the release from US National Archives of 13,173 documents relating to the official investigation into the 1963 assassination of President John F Kennedy.
From barely legible memos filled with the crabby handwriting of CIA agents, through reports on secret meetings with Russian diplomats, to painstaking detective work on the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald, the trove of documents will keep JFK assassination obsessives busy for months. Few expect bombshells among the pile, however.
The newly declassified materials are unlikely to disturb the conclusion of the 1964 Warren commission charged with getting to the bottom of the outrage. It found that Oswald, a former Marine and communist who defected to the Soviet Union, had killed Kennedy, acting alone, by firing three shots as the 46-year-old Democratic US president rode in an open-top limousine through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.
One of the newly released documents, dating from September 1964, underlines that point. At the request of the commission, the CIA had searched its own files for any connection between Oswald and Jack Ruby, the local nightclub owner who shot and killed Oswald on live television in the basement of Dallas police headquarters two days after the Kennedy assassination.
“Examination of Central Intelligence Agency files has produced no information on Jack RUBY or his activities,” the document states. “The Central Intelligence Agency has no indication that RUBY and Lee Harvey OSWALD ever knew each other, were associated, or might have been connected in any manner.”
Thursday’s release of thousands of documents means that 95% of the CIA’s records on the assassination are now available to the public. As a final step there will be an “intensive one-year review” of any remaining closed files before a complete opening of the books by 30 June 2023.
The unveiling of the CIA documents has been delayed for years. In 1992, Congress ordered their full release by October 2017, but the deadline was pushed back by presidential decrees from both Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Such postponements have allowed conspiracy theories to flourish. An opinion poll commissioned by the FiveThirtyEight US website in 2017 found that only a third of Americans believed the official line that Oswald was solely responsible.
Some of the most instantly intriguing material in the newly-released stash concerns the proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation around the assassination. Over the years there have been umpteen lurid suggestions of who was responsible, ranging from the Cubans, the Soviet Union and the Mafia to the Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa – and the CIA itself.
A file marked “secret” from September 1964 gives clues as to how lurid stories spread quickly in the months after Kennedy died. CIA agents in Stockholm reported back to HQ on their quizzing of an unnamed subject who had been reported in the Swedish newspapers to have said that he had lived in Cuba for many years and had advance knowledge of the assassination.