In response to the National Archives’ call for public comment on declassification priorities, a faithful reader wrote to Gary Stern, general counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration, urging declassification of the 1,100 assassination-related records that remain hidden from public view.
Stern’s response was an all-too predictable insult to the public interest in these records and an obsequious bow to the CIA.
In an email response Stern described the 1,100 records as s “small number of records,” a curious assessment given that these records include anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 pages of material. This effort to downplay the scope of CIA withholding is a tip off
Stern usefully acknowledged that these records are “the most sensitive” in the JFK Records Collection but he declined to question the CIA’s standing claim that “logistical reasons” prevented the CIA from reviewing the records before 2017.
As bureaucratic excuses go, this is unconvincing at best..
The CIA had the logistical capacity review and release records related to the Katyn Forest massacre of 1942 in which Soviet army liquidated the Polish officer corps. Making public the record of that forgotten tragedy (which involved no Americans and happened more than 70 years ago) was a higher priority for the CIA than releasing records of the murder of a sitting American president at a time of massive media interest in JFK’s assassination.
Here’s the key passage of Stern’s message:
“Your email refers to a small number of CIA documents that the Review Board determined could be postponed from release until 2017. At the request of researchers, NARA asked the CIA to look into whether that release could be moved up to 2013 for the 50th anniversary of the assassination. For logistical reasons, the CIA determined that it could not move up the release date. Accordingly, these remaining records will still be subject to release in 2017.
What Stern knows — but avoids mentioning — is that the CIA has the right to request further postponement of the release of the records. He is giving the public impression that the records will be made public in four years when in fact, that may well not happen.
Stern also avoids mentioning that the Archives’ own online data base indicates that the CIA is withholding records on undercover CIA officers who are implicated in the JFK assassination story.
See Top 7 JFK files the CIA still keeps secret” (JFK Facts, Oct. 11, 2013)
Stern’s non-response illuminates the power of the secret government. The Archives solicited public comment on declassification priorities, but since the CIA had already decided that JFK records are NOT a priority, and the Archives is committed to not challenging the Agency, what the public thinks is actually irrelevant to the priority of declassifying JFK records.
It didn’t have to to be this way. The Archives cannot force the CIA to do anything but it could have the decency to state the facts publicly — that there is considerable public support for making declassification of JFK records a priority.
9 thoughts on “National Archives repeats CIA talking points on secret JFK files”
President Obama promised greater transparency in his government. One of his first acts as president was to issue an executive order on transparency. The last I saw, he still exercises control over the CIA. He ordered the flags be at half-mast on the 50th anniversary to honor the memory of JFK. This turns out to be just another one his half-measures that have so characterized his presidency.
If he really wants to honor his memory, he should order the CIA to release the remaining JFK records. He has the authority to do so. Maybe someone in the White House correspondence corps can raise this question at the next briefing? Perhaps we need to mobilize an out-reach effort directed at the White House to embarrass the President to make the CIA respond to his order?
Addendum: I should clarify that President Clinton’s precedent
was to approve, in the final days of his administration, the challenged release of Foreign Intelligence Review Board
records (which includes the CIA).
Professor Joan Mellen of Temple University found a 1992 CIA memorandum from J. Kenneth McDonald, Chief, CIA History Staff to the CIA Director on the topic of how to handle the CIA’s JFK assassination records. McDonald recommended that these records be transferred to the National Archives still classified so that CIA could say it was not covering them up. Then McDonald recommended that CIA fund the personnel positions at the National Archives to handle these records at the Archives. Is the CIA funding personnel at the National Archives today? I would note that the chief of the National Declassification Center was a career CIA officer before heading the NDC.
Kudos to JFKFacts.org for keeping the spotlight on the CIA’s effort to withhold 1100 Kennedy assassination-related records. But this criticism of NARA General Counsel, Gary Stern, seems a classic case of shooting the messenger–and in this case an ally for transparency on this issue.
Being responsive to concerns and pressures from right-to-know community, and to the excellent work of Jefferson Morley on this issue, more than two years ago NARA officials went to the CIA and formally requested that they come clean on these records for the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The CIA refused. As the above column concedes, NARA does not have the power to force the CIA to comply–no other agency except the White House itself has that power–but can only ask. NARA did ask, and deserves credit for that initiative which puts the public onus on the CIA.
The fact that NARA does not publicly challenge the CIA’s explanation is not necessarily indicative of any agreement with it, or lack of internal action, past, present and future, to advance the cause of eventual declassification of these records.
As the JFKFacts critique rightly points out, the CIA does have the statutory option of attempting to cover up these 1100 records beyond 2017–but only through a direct appeal to, and approval from, the President. Precedent, however, runs against the agency on such appeals. At the end of the Clinton administration, CIA securocrats attempted to obtain approval for exempting certain ARRB records. The president denied their appeals. Should the agency try again in 2017, it will be up to transparency advocates such as those who are part of this fascinating website, to keep the public pressure on for full disclosure. Hopefully NARA will have an effective role to play as well, even if it is not a public one.
Today we have a President who promised the most transparent administration ever. We do not know who the President will be in 2017 to rule on a CIA request to keep these records secret forever. I realize that accountability is a virtually unknown concept in Washington, but not in the rest of the country. What you are hearing is the strong desire of a lot of Americans that this administration live up to its promises and release these records.
The CIA is like any bureaucracy in one respect: its central purpose is to protect and perpetuate itself.
I blame the president and congress for letting the CIA get away with this stuff.
In December 1991, then CIA Director Robert Gates wrote a memo which stated that the CIA’s Public Affairs Office, “… has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network in the nation. This has helped us turn some intelligence failure stories into intelligence success stories, and it has contributed to the accuracy of countless others. In many instances, we have persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests or jeopardized sources and methods.”
Perhaps the agency has similar “relationships” with certain personnel at the National Archives.
In 2012 the CIA said, “They lacked the time and resources to review the 1,100 documents.” Today, Stern tells us that it’s a “small number of records” to reduce their significance. I’m confused? The CIA of today is no better than they were 50 years ago!
What is very disturbing is that Stern speaks for what is supposed to be the most pro-transparency administration ever, yet nothing has changed and secrecy prevails. A pro-transparency administration would take up this issue to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of information and transparency.