November 24, 2009

Kennedy Assassination

This past Sunday, November 22nd, my thoughts turned as they do each year to that day in 1963 when President Kennedy was murdered.  I was in the sixth grade and can remember clearly that I was in class when one of the teachers came in with a concerned face and reported that the president had been shot.  We left class, and I can remember watching Walter Cronkite (on one of those big televisions on a wheeled cart) as he reported in a shaken voice that the president was dead.

Thirty years later, I was appointed Executive Director of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB).  This independent federal agency was established in the wake of the Oliver Stone film to identify, locate, and make available all records related to the Kennedy assassination.   To accomplish this challenging task, the ARRB was given a range of powerful tools.  The Review Board, composed of five members appointed by the President and confirmed by the senate, included two historians recommended by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, a librarian recommended by the Association of American Archivists, an attorney recommended by the American Bar Association, and a member at large.  The ARRB was ably led by Judge John Tunheim of Minnesota.  I was appointed as staff director and hired the staff, located and constructed our offices, and established the procedures and policies to carry out the unusual and daunting task that Congress has set out for us.    

Normally, agencies have the power to release their records to, or withhold their records from, the public. The public has recourse through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to challenge an agency's decision.  Moreover, certain records, like the operational records of the CIA, are exempt from FOIA.  In the case of the ARRB, the decision on access to assassination-related records (as defined by the ARRB) rested with the ARRB.

Under the Act that established the ARRB, all assassination-related records were presumed to be open, and the agencies had the burden to prove why they should continue to be classified.  The Act provided several provisions under which an assassination record, or a part of an assassination record, could continue to be withheld. These provisions included personal privacy, presidential security, and intelligence sources and methods.  The Review Board ruled on the agency requests, and the agency's only appellate recourse was to the President, who had the non-delegable  authority to overturn a decision of the Review Board.  We had the power to grant immunity and issue subpoenas. The staff all were granted the highest level of national security clearance and we had daily dealings with all of the relevant federal agencies.  We also extended our reach to state and private records, and interpreted our mandate to include the clarification of existing records.

In the end, we opened a vast collection of records at the National Archives and set release dates for those records,and portions of records,  that the ARRB agreed should continue to be withheld.  Our final report was issued in September 1998, after I had left the ARRB.

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