The narrative of Libra, Don DeLillo’s lucid novel about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is propelled by the ruminations of one Nicholas Branch,a mid-level CIA man in post-60s America. A civil servant, Branch is ordered by anonymous superiors to pull together everything the Agency has on “the six seconds that broke the back of the American century.”
As Branch takes on this Sisyphean task he marvels at the enormity and complexity and opacity of the CIA’s record related to the events that culminated with the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas. As he sifts through the case officer reports, the fitness evaluations, the budgets, and the op plans, the story of Libra unspools.
Russ Holmes, whose death in December was recently announced, was a real-life Nicholas Branch.
In 1975 as the CIA faced multiple investigations from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to the House Selection Committee on Assassinations, the agency’s leadership knew it had to get ready to answer JFK questions–serious JFK questions.
In January 1975, the CIA’s multiple conspiracies to assassinate Fidel Castro were revealed for the first time. In March 1975, Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the gunfire that killed the president was shown on national TV for the first time. The CIA faced a moment of crisis. Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress expressed outraged and demanded explanations.
The leaders of the CIA could see the case of the murdered president was going to be re-opened. And they knew that unlike in 1964, the questions were not going to be coming from the polite, up-and coming-Ivy-League attorneys of the Warren Commission. They were going to be coming from the pissed-off, somewhat self-righteous attorneys of the Senate Select Committee, headed by liberal crusader Frank Church.
So the CIA called on Holmes, a trusted career officer. He took on the gargantuan task. With the cooperation of all components of the agency, Holmes collected all CIA files that might be relevant to the causes of JFK’s death. The result was a mountain of paper known as the Russ Holmes Work File.
These documents contain a wide range of materials spanning a time period beginning before the assassination and extending into the 1990s. While a variety of subjects are represented, there is particular focus on Lee Harvey Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and the Jim Garrison investigation of the late 1960s. Holmes’ collection is a central piece of the historical record of JFK’s assassination.
Most of the Russ Holmes work file was declassified in the 1990.
But not all of it. The 1,100-plus JFK assassination records that the CIA is still keeping secret came from material collected when Russ Holmes went to work. Six of the top 7 JFK files that the CIA still keeps secrets are found in the unreleased portions of Holmes’ collection. The thousands of JFK files that Politico says “could embarrass the CIA” when they are released in 2017 were gathered by him or wound up in collection.
The archivist has passed on but the JFK secrets he tended endure.