The Fathers' Day Gift of Cologne

by Chris W. Courtwright


Imagine the reaction of U.S. officials when Russian President Boris Yeltsin comes waltzing (okay, limping and in poor health, according to some reports) into his G-8 sideshow meeting with President Clinton in Cologne, Germany on Fathers' Day to discuss US-Russian relations and all of a sudden whips out a surprise "gift" --- a thick file of documents reportedly related to Lee Harvey Oswald and other aspects of the Kennedy assassination. (Why can't I shake this wonderful image in my head of a bunch of guys fumbling through their $1,500 suits for antacids at that moment?)

The handling of this unexpected incident by the assembled throng of U.S. and international media, of course, provided yet another lesson in just how little the press really knows about the assassination itself, not to mention the institutional history of assassination records and the status of federal declassification law. But more importantly, Yeltsin's "goodwill gesture" cries out all the more definitively for the need for some sort of successor entity to the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) to provide assurances that the provisions of the President John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act) will continue to be administered.

Anatomy of A Gift: Initial Media Coverage
Here is what we learned in the first 48 hours (before the leaks began) when we were relying solely on press reports describing the documents and their transfer in Cologne and statements officials made publicly about the contents:

(A) Yeltsin turned over a "thick" file said to contain about 80 to 85 documents. [1]

(B) The documents are in Russian [2], and although a National Security Council spokesman continued to insist on as late as Monday the 21st that the U.S. delegation had not had time to translate and/or digest the contents [3], U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who reads Russian, had time to look over at least half of the documents in one day while traveling with the US delegation to the next stop in Slovenia. [4]

(C) US National Security Adviser Sandy Berger told the media at a press conference that Yeltsin had issued a sweeping order just "several" years ago that all JFK material be collected from all Russian agencies, as well as "military, civilian, and private" archives. [5]

Taking these reports at face value, we have to conclude that Yeltsin's material is NOT --- I repeat, NOT --- the same material from KGB surveillance files that ABC (temporarily) had access to in 1991 or that Norman Mailer had access to in the mid 1990s. Sadly enough, many of these same press reports go on to give the confusing impression that the Yeltsin release is limited to just such material. (According to Izvestia, these KGB surveillance files on Oswald were shipped from Moscow to Minsk in 1991 for review by Belarusian officials. Reformist Russian intelligence chief Vadim Bakatin had been blocked from releasing the files by "veteran spies" who feared disclosure. [6]) We also learned that Yeltsin's files are said to include information on the Soviet government's internal reaction to the assassination AS WELL AS information on Oswald. [7] Finally, former ARRB chair John Tunheim said that he had been led to believe that some of the documents include intelligence reports from Soviet agents stationed in the U.S. at the time of the assassination! [8]

So while there certainly seems to be the high probability of some overlap between records in the Yeltsin release and the KGB material, we must be left with the impression that these latest documents are (a) from a far broader range of sources; (b) the result of sweeping document searches which occurred just within the past few years; and (c) involve a wider range of subjects than just surveillance of Oswald. In other words, these 80-plus documents could turn out to be far more interesting than hundreds (or thousands?) of pages of transcripts of Oswald and his wife squabbling at their apartment in Minsk.

Another interesting satellite issue is the extent to which the new Yeltsin material may or may not overlap with outstanding U.S. requests for assassination-related information. The ARRB in its Final Report referred to extant documents in Moscow as "sets of files" and also noted that the "extensive" KGB surveillance and analysis files which ABC and Mailer had at least partial access to could not be obtained because of deteriorating U.S.-Belarus relations. [9]

Analysis of Initial Media Coverage
Scattered among the expected quotes from people like former ARRB member Kermit Hall [10] and authors David Lifton [11] and Gerald Posner [12] about how the new materials could help fill in the historical record on Oswald, we can find several fairly astonishing items in the media coverage of the Yeltsin release.

A Reuters report of June 21 identifies Oswald as "Kennedy's assassin" (no "alleged" or "accused" necessary --- Case Closed) and blandly asserts that, "Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963." [13]

Gus Russo helped add to the confusion between the KGB files and what may be in the Yeltsin papers by announcing that the release would turn out to be "very anti-climactic" and added that surveillance files he had seen contained "zero" evidence that Oswald was a spy. [14]

Several of the more fascinating quotes were obtained from the House Select Committee on Assassination's Robert Blakey by Ben Fenton, the London Daily Telegraph's Washington correspondent. Blakey told Fenton that, according to intelligence reports available to the HSCA, Oswald told the Cubans in Mexico City that he was going to kill Kennedy and wanted to escape to Havana after the deed was done. Blakey goes on to muse that while the Cubans denied Oswald said this, it was possible that uncensored reports of traffic between the embassies and Moscow could "confirm our intelligence." [15]

Can Blakey, of all people, really believe at this point in time that the REAL Lee Harvey Oswald, while at the Cuban embassy (for that matter, "if"at the Cuban embassy), made a serious offer to kill Kennedy and that this so-called threat wasn't just a post-assassination CIA smokescreen? One has to wonder if he fully digested the implications of the HSCA's own Hardway-Lopez report or is even remotely familiar with John Newman's or Peter Dale Scott's work. Fenton, for his part, must have been largely ignorant of this material, since it apparently did not occur to him to ask Blakey any follow-up questions.

Scott, of course, goes to great length in "Deep Politics II" to distinguish "evidence" of a legitimate offer or threat (a scenario concocted by Gilberto Alvarado and the CIA) from the actual report in CD 1359 paraphrasing Castro, which suggests only that Oswald (or the Oswald imposter) had made a spontaneous remark in frustration over the visa request. But whether the comment was a calculated offer or spontaneously made in frustration, Scott hits the nail on the head when he writes, "The fact that Oswald's 201 file was opened and maintained by CI/SIG, the CIA's mole-hunting unit, strengthens the hypothesis that Oswald's provocative behavior in embassies, in 1959 and again in 1963, was grist for a counterintelligence operation, and intended to provoke a leak." [16] Too bad Fenton could not have asked Blakey to comment on this crucial issue...

Blakey goes on to assert that it is the "consensus among historians of the assassination" that Oswald killed Kennedy but that there is "some" evidence of a conspiracy involving a second Mafia gunman.[17] Once again, it apparently didn't occur to Fenton to ask Blakey exactly which "historians of the assassination" he has been hanging out with of late...

The Leaks Begin...
By Wednesday, June 23, the inevitable leaks had begun, and sources in both the United States and Russia claimed to have been given inside information on the Yeltsin materials. In a commentary on National Public Radio, Daniel Shorr, who was said to have been "briefed on the contents" of the documents (which, maddeningly, are referred to in the singular as a "KGB file" throughout the commentary), reported that they contained things like reports on Oswald's allegedly boorish behavior with women at factory social events; his poor marksmanship as a member of the hunting club; and an internal post-assassination investigation ordered by Khrushchev to determine to his satisfaction that no elements of the KGB had participated in any way in the assassination. Without addressing just how he managed to get "briefed" on the documents while the entire US delegation was still abroad or who may have leaked him the information, Shorr concluded by soothingly reassuring everyone that, "Over the years, there have been many --- including, at one point President Johnson --- who believed a communist conspiracy lay behind the assassination of President Kennedy. No credible evidence of that has emerged, nor is there any in this KGB file." [18] What a RELIEF! I suspect that most thinking people in 1999 weren't betting on the likelihood of Soviet involvement in the assassination (let alone that they would have left any smoking guns in their files), but thanks just the same, Dan, for clearing THAT one up!

On the same day, Russian reporter Maxim Zhukov published in the newspaper "Kommersant" three of the documents he was said to have obtained. One was a letter Oswald wrote in 1959 while seeking asylum; a second was said to be a Soviet Foreign Ministry document discussing internal reaction to the assassination; and a third provided details on plans for attendance at JFK's funeral. Zhukov wrote that he had been told the Yeltsin documents "can be divided into two parts. One about the time Oswald spent here, the other, Soviet documents about official reaction to the killing of Kennedy." He also said that transcripts of meetings with Oswald could be included. [19]

Soviet Foreign Ministry official Vladimir Sokolov told Russian television that a number of previously secret cables were among the documents, including one from longtime Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. [20]

Former KGB colonel Alexander Feklisov also went on Russian TV and revealed that a number of the KGB documents had already been given to the U.S. government - immediately after the assassination!

"We photographed the documents - there were no Xerox machines back then - and gave the (photos) to the State Department," he said. "I'm surprised that the Americans asked for more documents," he added, apparently referring to the ARRB requests. "To find the culprit for the 'crime of the century," Americans would be better off looking inside themselves." [21]

Access to the Yeltsin Documents
Turning to the issue of our ultimate access to the Yeltsin documents, Berger told the post-summit press conference that after the documents had been translated and reviewed "all interesting elements" would be made public. Sorry, Sandy, but the law requires everything that does not otherwise qualify for an exemption under the JFK Act [22] be made public --- whether you or anyone else deems it to be "interesting" or not.

Several press reports have indicated that the White House has been "in touch" with the National Archives, and NARA officials have said that they have been told they will receive the documents after review by the CIA, State Department, and other government agencies. [23]

But the nature of this review prior to release sparked immediate and loud protest from former ARRB Chief Analyst for Military Records Doug Horne [24]; a private research group known as the National Security Archive [24]; and the Lancer Independent News Exchange [26]. (Horne, of course, was instrumental in helping release groundbreaking medical evidence during the ARRB' tenure and in developing evidence that two different brain exams may have occurred at Bethesda [27] ).

Tunheim said he hoped the documents would be released within several months [28]. But the fact of the matter is that he no longer has any power to offer us such an assurance. More to the point, what if the CIA, State Department or another agency wants certain documents redacted or totally withheld because U.S. national security would be "demonstrably impaired" by the release (one of the exemptions enumerated in the JFK Act)? What entity is to make a finding on the validity of the exemption claim now that the ARRB no longer exists?

The ARRB in its Final Report recommended that NARA, in conjunction with an "oversight" Task Force comprised of representatives of the four professional organizations that made the original ARRB nominations, continue to administer the ongoing provisions of the JFK Act. [29]

Of course, I have strongly suggested in a paper I presented in Dallas in November [30] and in letters to NARA, the White House, and the four professional organizations, that transitional legislation would be necessary to assure that NARA and the task force would in fact assume these responsibilities. But to date nothing has happened on the legislative front.

I asked Tunheim at Jim Fetzer's conference in Minneapolis in May about the legal limbo which exists because the ARRB had sunset while the JFK Act has not. He admitted that he was "concerned" that nothing had transpired with respect to the ARRB recommendations and then sort of volunteered to be of any assistance he could in terms of helping agencies interpret the JFK Act provisions. But with all due respect to Judge Tunheim and his generous, good-faith offer, I have to point out several things: (A) He would have no force of law behind him (like he did when the ARRB existed) if he wanted to bang heads with a federal agency over some outrageously bogus exemption claim; (B) The judge is a busy man, and I think it only appropriate that the government would PAY him for his services, just as it did when the ARRB existed --- especially if he would be traveling from Minnesota to Washington, D.C. to confer with NARA or various agency officials.

In other words, a real entity needs to exist --- with a real budget and appointments of people from the four professional organizations who have the time to help administer the JFK Act. The Yeltsin release and how the JFK Act applies is NOT a one-time issue. The ARRB Final Report said that the Mexican government is believed to have additional records on Oswald which it has refused to release and that a number of J. Edgar Hoover's personal files on the assassination also may still exist. [31] Moreover, what if someone previously unknown in assassination circles comes forward at this late date with some additional information about Oswald or the assassination (or if Yeltsin's files identify someone who may have additional information)? Under the law, all U.S. government records relating to such a person are now "assassination-related" records subject to release. All the issues with respect to who will rule on exemptions and enforce the JFK Act will arise time and time again.

Movement at NARA?
While I have been writing to John Carlin, the Archivist of the United States, since the demise of the ARRB last fall and have been in touch several times with NARA General Counsel Gary Stern about my call for transitional legislation, all I had been told was that NARA was "preparing a response" to the issues I had raised. Of course, the ARRB was the one "raising the issues" with their Final Report; I was simply inquiring about what steps NARA was planning on taking to see that those recommendations were going to be implemented.

I did receive an encouraging response in November from one of the professional groups designated to help form the oversight task force, the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The SAA's executive director informed me that former ARRB member William Joyce "agreed that the matter needed to be pursued" and that the SAA Governing Council formally had placed the item on their agenda for discussion in February, when they planned to raise the issue personally with Carlin, who was scheduled to be in attendance. [32] I have not heard what transpired at that meeting.

The executive director of another one of the professional organizations, the American Historical Association (AHA), also informed me in November that the AHA agreed that there was a "need for on-going federal monitoring to ensure that federal agencies continue to comply with provisions of the JFK Act." That letter also indicated that at that point in time, the AHA was still "exploring various options about how such monitoring might be carried out." [33]

In any event, my most recent contact with NARA leaves me guardedly optimistic that they are finally about to get involved in all of this in some capacity. NARA Assistant General Counsel Amy Krupsky called me on June 23 to tell me that the task of responding to my call for clarifying legislation had been handed off to her. She indicated that one reason they had been so slow was that they had been "thinking and talking a lot" about many of the post-ARRB issues over the winter as they unfolded. She said that one issue which had been discussed internally at some length among the NARA legal staff was whether NARA had inherited the ARRB's subpoena powers. She also agreed that the furor over procedures regarding the Yeltsin documents had generated a great deal of interest in the status of the law and its grey areas. So I am starting to get the sense that NARA may be ready to seek some additional certainty with respect to its role in the post-ARRB universe. But it remains to be seen whether NARA and/or the Clinton administration are willing to weigh in behind a legislative solution to provide that certainty.

Speculation on Yeltsin Files' Content
Since there has been no shortage of speculation about what may or may not be in the files, I won't be shy about offering my own observations. If they do indeed contain internal Soviet government reaction to the assassination, I think the information could be quite fascinating. Even more illuminating would be reports from Soviet intelligence agents in the U.S. (Here's betting names won't be released.)

Who knows? Maybe some sort of internal memo on Oswald will surface wherein the Soviets are wondering internally if he was (yet another) dangle in the U.S. false defector program, confirming its existence.

But whatever the files do or do not show, I think we need to let Stanislav Shushkevich, (former speaker of the Belarusian parliament) who helped teach Oswald Russian at the radio plant in Minsk, have one of the final words on Oswald as a lone-nut assassin. Shushkevich told Vremya last fall that he did not think Oswald could have killed Kennedy. He also questioned Oswald's intelligence and said he believed he had been "a puppet in someone's hands." [34]


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Notes

1. AP story of June 21, 8:25 am ET cites Interfax news agency as claiming there were 80 documents. The 80 document figure also was reported on CNN report of June 21, 10:19 pm and in USA Today, June 23 story by Richard Benedetto. Subsequent AP stories of June 24, 1:37 am, and June 27, 9:22 pm, said there were about 85 documents.
2. AP story of June 20, 12:09 pm; Reuters story of June 21: USA Today, June 23.
3. AP story of June 21, 6:53 pm by Karen Gullo
4. CNN report, June 21, 10:19 pm
5. AP story of June 20, 12:09 pm; Reuters story of June 21; States News Service, June 20
6. AP Story of June 20, 12:09 pm
7. AP story of June 21, 8:25 am cites Interfax
8. CNN report, June 21, 10:19 pm
9. ARRB Final Report, available on-line at http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/arrb98/index.html
10. AP Story of June 21, 6:53 pm by Karen Gullo
11. CNN report, June 21, 10:19 pm
12. USA Today, June 23 story by Richard Benedetto
13. Reuters story of June 21
14. AP story of June 21, 6:53 pm by Karen Gullo
15. London Daily Telegraph, June 22, by Ben Fenton
16. "Deep Politics II: Essays on Oswald, Mexico, and Cuba," Peter Dale Scott, Green Archive Publications, Skokie, Illinois, 1995
17. London Daily Telegraph, June 22, by Ben Fenton
18. Shorr commentary on NPR's "All Things Considered" on June 23.
19. Washington Post story by David Hoffman, June 23, quoting Zhukov in Kommersant
20. Washington Post story by Hoffman quoting Sokolov on Russian TV
21. AP story of June 27, 9:22 pm, by Angela Charlton quoting Feklisov on Russian TV
22. http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/arrb98/part15.htm
23. AP story of June 21, 6:53 pm by Karen Gullo; CNN report, June 21, 10:19 pm; USA Today, June 23 story by Richard Benedetto
24. http://jfklancer.com/LNE/LHOdocs.html
25. AP story of June 24, 1:37 am by Karen Gullo
26. http://jfklancer.com/LNE/LHOdocs.html
27. See, for example, Washington Post, November 10, 1998, story by George Lardner, Jr.
28. CNN report, June 21, 10:19 pm
29. http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/arrb98/part12.htm
30. gopher://freenet.akron.oh.us:70/h0/SIGS/JFK/FP/fp.back_issues/.26th_Issue/new_legis.html
31. http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/arrb98/index.html
32. November 23 letter from SAA Executive Director Susan E. Fox
33. November 25 letter from AHA Executive Director Sandria B. Freitag
34. Reported in Transitions Online, January 1999, http://www.omri.cz/transitions/jan99/notesfro.html


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