A First Look at the New JFK Assassination Documents

JFK, files

Rex Bradford is the president and archivist of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, a nonprofit entity that has collected millions of documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other major events.

Just last week the National Archives released another batch of such documents. By law, all the records related to the assassination have to be released later this year, unless President Donald Trump blocks their publication.

With this new release, 88% of the National Archives store of Kennedy assassination material is now available to the public. This consists of 3,369 documents, some previously released with portions redacted and 441 formerly withheld-in-full documents. Most of these documents originate from the FBI and CIA.

Bradford talks with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about what these records reveal. He says the documents that have been examined so far do not point to a consistent and verifiable counter-narrative to the official story that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone-wolf assassin. But they do provide a valuable, behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of American foreign policy in the 1950s and 60s.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to radio WhoWhatWhy I’m Jeff Schechtman. Not since JFK have we had a president so at odds with the intelligence community and with what so many call the deep state. For many, this has reanimated discussions of the JFK assassination and once again brought to the surface all the unanswered questions that have haunted us for the past 54 years.
Just last week, the National Archives released a significant number of previously unseen records related to the JFK assassination. The story of the release received little coverage and the content of the documents even less.
Our guest today, Rex Bradford perhaps more than any other American understands those documents. Rex Bradford has become the self-appointed electronic archivist of the assassination of JFK. He began scanning relevant documents and making them available all the way back in 1999. He founded History Matters to make them freely available. He’s also written several essays and given talks at conferences, particularly on the Oswald-Mexico trip. He is now president of the Assassination Archives and Research Center. He is the consultant and analyst archivist for the Mary Ferrell Foundation and he’s undertaken even larger scale document archive projects.
It is my pleasure to welcome Rex Bradford to the program. Rex, thanks so much for joining us.
Rex Bradford: Hi Jeff, thanks for your kind words.
Jeff Schechtman: How did you get involved in all of this archival research, particularly as it relates to JFK?
Rex Bradford: My advice to people is: “Watch out for your hobbies, because they can get away from you.” I am a late comer compared to many people actually. I never saw the JFK movie when it came out in 1992 and then saw it I think about six years later on television, and I was intrigued enough that I went off and bought a book. I’m an avid reader and then I bought another book and another book and so down I guess the same rabbit hole that many people before me had.
I decided to go to one of the conferences that they were still holding in Dallas at that time. In fact still are. That’s when, this is now 1999 and the documentary releases, that had come out in large part because of the JFK movie and the furor after it, were coming out of the archives and people were passing around photo copies of some of the more amazing finds in them.
I’m a computer programmer by training and so my first question was: have you guys heard of scanners and the internet? Not too many people had. That sort of got me intrigued. I met Jim Lesar, who runs the Assassination Archives and Research Center in DC, shortly after that. We got together and started scanning some of the records and making CD-Rom’s available and then that quickly turned into internet ventures of putting them online.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the way these documents were originally archived and how it was setup that there were certain specific release dates for this material?
Rex Bradford: Sure, well, I mean, most of the documents, well a large number anyway, come from the various investigations. The Warren Commission conducted the first major federal investigation of the Kennedy Assassination but there were several others. The biggest of which was, late 1970s, House Select Committee on Assassinations which did a full re-investigation and their Church Committee and others. A lot of the files basically are from those investigations. They tended to do their work, write up their report and then seal the documents.
That is not strictly true, the Warren Commission actually published the now famous 26 volumes of evidence but they still put files away that were not released to the public at the time. Then in the wake of the Oliver Stone movie and the passage of the JFK Records Act that mandated not only that all those files be processed for potential public release and most were but not all. But, several agencies of government, particularly the CIA and the FBI and others, were tasked with going through their records to identify relevant holdings that they had that weren’t in the hands of the investigations per se. Literally, you’re talking like five million pages, roughly, which is an amazing amount of material for a crime supposedly committed by a lone guy with a gun in a building, but there you are.
Jeff Schechtman: Going back to the original, even the Warren Commission documents and the Select Committee documents. How was the determination made, as best as we can tell today, as to what was public and what would be held back?
Rex Bradford: Originally, the Warren Commission, to take an example, published a 900-and-something page report and then were intending to do just that. But, then there was discussion within the Commission and a decision made to not only publish the report but to back it up with an impressive array of evidence behind it. The so-called 26 volumes, which is about half or actually more than half transcripts of interviews they conducted and the rest documents and other kinds of evidence. This is really what opened the Pandora’s box. Allen Dulles, who was on the Commission, said no one will read this stuff. What happened was, a small number of people actually did read the entire 26 volumes and what they found was all kind of stories that contradicted the 900-page report. That is what really got the ball rolling in the mid 60s of people questioning the Warren Commission’s findings.
In the case of the House Committee, they published 12 volumes of reports but then sealed all the rest of their records, hundreds of thousands of pages of interviews and files. None of that was made public until the passage of the JFK Records Act in the 90s.
Jeff Schechtman: These documents that were released last week, talk a little bit about what they represent?
Rex Bradford: Sure, so what happened is, in the wake of the 1992 JFK Records Act, a review board was put together to basically collect the documents from the files of the investigations as well as directly from other agencies like CIA and FBI, in particular and process them for release. The understanding was that some of them, particularly intelligence agency files would have information too sensitive to release. This review board from basically 1994 until 1998 went through these files and also conducted searches themselves and tried not to investigate the case per se but investigate the location of files. They made determinations of what things to make public, what things to keep withheld, and what to publish in redacted form with an agent name blacked out or that sort of thing. In many cases, larger pieces blacked out.
Originally, the CIA and FBI both pushed back on that Commission. The way the law was written any disagreement between the board itself and agencies would basically go to Presidential review. President Clinton at that time sided with the review board and the agencies backed down and cooperated. Although, there was an incident where the Secret Service destroyed files before the review board was able to get their hands on them.
Jeff Schechtman: Which really begs the larger question, what do we know or what information do we have with respect to any files and/or documents that have been destroyed over the years?
Rex Bradford: Well, it’s hard to know. There are known cases of that. The review board itself in their report wrote about the destruction of the Secret Service documents for instance. There’s another case in the 70s where the House Committee determined that Army Intelligence had destroyed a file on Oswald that they held.
In other cases, it’s just inferred. For instance, I took it upon myself, a few years back, to look into Church Committee records. This was the Senate investigation into intelligence agency abuses in the mid-70s post-Watergate, which took a brief look at the Kennedy Assassination as well. Specifically, to what extent the intelligence agencies supported or hindered the Warren Commission’s work.
What I discovered is that simply going through two of the Church Committee’s public volumes, which directly related to this matter, one on the Kennedy Assassination itself and the other on the CIA’s plots to kill foreign leaders and just looking at all of the footnotes and collecting the references to all of the transcripts of interviews on which the reports were based, which they identified by who was interviewed on what date and discovered that even though over 100 transcripts of the Church Committee had been released, more than 40 that were literally footnoted in these reports were not. Long story short, I discovered that the Review Board had tread this path before me and discovered that dozens and dozens of interviews were simply missing from the Church Committee’s files when the Review Board went to go collect them.
There’s other indications like that and many more. In some cases there may very well be innocent explanations, it’s a large volume of material and things go missing. But, the pattern of what’s missing is itself interesting. The more these documents come out, the more you sort of see what should be there that isn’t. That’s another aspect of all of this.
Jeff Schechtman: And what is that pattern tell us from what you’ve looked at, what does it lead you to when you look at what specifically is missing?
Rex Bradford: It’s a broad topic. A couple of things in particular that jump out is that, one topic, which we could fill up a whole long conversation with and hopefully won’t, is the subject of Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged trip to Mexico City seven weeks before the assassination. That is a huge black hole of information and there are clearly withheld records on that that are part of this set that’s going to be released and is being released and indications of missing records there as well.
Another case and a completely different area, I don’t know if this qualifies as missing records so much, but there is an amazing story of the President’s personal physician who was the only medically trained person present both at Dallas when they were trying to save his life at Parkland Hospital and at the autopsy later that night. Without getting into details there’s been an ongoing controversy of why the descriptions of President Kennedy’s wounds differ so markedly between those locations. The one person medically trained to answer that question was a guy named Admiral Burkley, who was the President’s personal physician, rode in the motorcade, etc., etc. and he was never interviewed by the Warren Commission.
In the files of the House Committee in the 1990s what was discovered, not released originally, was a letter that his lawyer wrote to the House Committee saying that his client, Admiral Burkley, had a story to tell the House Committee. The gist of which others besides Oswald must have participated. About a week after that letter was delivered, the House leadership team that was leading the investigation was removed from the case and new leadership put in. Basically, Burkley, for another year, wasn’t interviewed and then finally got a pro forma phone call on other matters and that was that.
The Review Board actually tried to obtain the files of his lawyer, Burkley now being deceased in the 90’s. They initially got permission from the family and then the permission was later withdrawn so they never received the lawyer’s files to see if they could learn more about it.
Jeff Schechtman: And these documents that were released last week?
Rex Bradford: Sure, the Review Board released, it’s hard to get an exact number, but something over 90% of the documents that they went through, well over 90%. But a significant number remain. There’s by the National Archives accounting, roughly 3600 documents that were still withheld in full as of a week ago. As well as a much larger universe of documents that have blacked out areas in them. By the law, the reason this is coming up all at this time is the 1992 law had a sunset clause, which said that after 25 years all the material, even withheld in the 90s, would be released. That is what this is all about because the 25 year anniversary is this October.
What the National Archives did last week is, before the October deadline, do a partial release of what they have. Out of the 3600 documents withheld in full, they released a little over 400 of those, a little over 10% and they also released some documents, a few 1000 in full, that had redaction’s in them and there is many, many, more of those to go. This is on the order of 10% to 15% of what is supposed to come by this October.
They come from different agencies, primarily CIA and FBI, although also from the House Committee’s files and some other places. They range in a variety of areas. They’re not all even documents, some are actually tape recordings, audio. For instance, without getting into details, there was a Soviet defector named Yuri Nosenko, who’s part of this story. He was imprisoned by the CIA, in the 1960s, for three years and the interview tapes of at least some of the interviews that they conducted with him while he was held captive are part of this release for instance.
There are also things like financial documents related to the financing of Cuban exile groups. Because, many people believed that the assassination is fundamentally tied into Kennedy foreign policy, specifically, the so-called secret war against Castro as well as potentially the Vietnam War. The Review Board cast a wide sloth of documents related to Kennedy foreign policy, particularly around Cuba and Vietnam. Many of those were released in the 1990s. A few bombshells actually in the sort of larger foreign policy and the administration policy sphere not perhaps directly related to the assassination. Some of those were withheld at the time because of things like agent names and stuff like that.
There is a large number of financial documents related to the funding of Cuban exile groups in here. This is true of the assassination records at large. There’s much there for people who are trying to figure out who killed Kennedy in there, but there’s also a large amount of material that helps fill out our knowledge of what was going on in the 1960s and the Kennedy administration, particularly some of the senior aspects of intelligence work.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there any things that are particularly surprising or that have been surprising to you out of this last release of documents last week?
Rex Bradford: This particular release I’m sorry to say I have not been reading too much of it. It’s been a busy week and this weekend is actually when I was intending to start going through it some. I’ve cherry picked and looked at a few things. In general, I would say I’m a person who, I’m not sure of the right word for it, but I’m not expecting bombshells in any of these new releases now or in October. I could easily be wrong on that.
Certainly there is many things from what came out in the 90s that I think qualifies as that. In some cherry picking I’ve done, what I’ve seen in many of these things, certainly, in many of the ones that are released that were formerly redacted is things that you might expect. There are agent codes and agent names and things like that.
Things like these financial records of Cuban exile groups, which are fairly voluminous. I’m not expert enough to even interpret those well. I expect they will be of great interest to some people that are into that in particular.
The Nosenko tapes, a lot of it is in Russian. I’d be very interested if someone comes along and makes English language transcripts available of those. I expect they will be quite interesting to listen to. In part because there is an ongoing controversy as to the so-called bona fides of Nosenko whether the story he came over from Russia with saying we had nothing to do with him and didn’t know anything about him is true or not.
I think it is too early to tell. I think this is stuff that’s at the detailed enough level that it will take a bit of time before we really learn what’s in them because, there’s a lot of detail.
Jeff Schechtman: While there may be no bombshells in this material, do you get the sense that they will shed some light on areas that have been previously explored?
Rex Bradford: They certainly will, for instance, I’ve already come across new cryptonyms. The CIA records are full of buzz words, so-called cryptonyms, and CIA records are much more readable if you understand what those cryptonyms mean. They’re names of people, names of agents, names of agencies, names of projects and in fact at the Mary Ferrell Foundation, we have an ongoing project to use in the public record to decode them and have several hundred that are either well established or reasonably inferred from documents. I think that this treasure trove will help unlock sort of more readability in those records.
There may be some very interesting stuff about Oswald. I don’t believe, although I haven’t really gone through enough to check, whether this set has it. Give you an example of a record, which I can’t imagine why is still withheld, unless, either government idiocy or there is something interesting in it. That is the testimony, to the House Select Committee, of a guy named Orest Pena. He ran a bar in New Orleans. It’s well known that he told the investigators that Oswald was an FBI informant and palled around with Federal Agents including in his bar. His testimony to the House Committee, even though they summarized it, it’s withheld in full to this day.
I’m curious to read that for instance. Again, it’s too early to tell, there may very well be highly interesting things in these, I really don’t know at this point.
Jeff Schechtman: How are all of these materials released, what is the method by which they have been kept and how have they been released to the public when these various release times like last week come about?
Rex Bradford: This one is a brand new thing for the Archive. These documents were released in PDF form online. That’s new to them. One of the problems with access to this voluminous record is that the way it works normally is the paper originals are stored at the National Archives in Maryland, at National Archives II facility in College Park.
I’ve taken several trips there to review and liberate documents from there. Although, it’s back breaking and time consuming because you have to use a high speed photocopier a page at a time or bring your own flatbed scanner a page at a time or photograph them with a camera, which doesn’t come out so good and that’s back breaking work.
I was very fortunate to meet Jim Lesar of the AARC that I mentioned early on. Because over 80% of the documents we have online at the Mary Ferrell Foundation come from the files of the AARC through the Freedom of Information Act lawsuits where the AARC was given paper copies of them so that we could pull the staples out and run them through sheet fed scanner, which you can’t do at the National Archives, which speeds up the process by a huge amount.
Several thousand pages of what we have has been done by back breaking trips to the Archives but it’s a problem. I’m very glad to see that the National Archives is putting these things online. Well, they put them in a form that’s not super accessible. You can download zip files and they have individual PDFs and you can read them so that’s fine but there’s no mechanism for searching them for instance.
My intent and I have not gotten to it yet, it has only been a few days, is to take these PDFs and integrate them as part of the Mary Ferrell searchable collection so they’re more accessible than they are in the current form for people doing research.
Jeff Schechtman: Come October when the balance of these documents have been released and there are no more, are we convinced that, that really will be it, that, that really will be all of the documents?
Rex Bradford: I view this whole process as peeling layers of the onion. One thing that the National Archives hasn’t highlighted too much is that they’re actually not making all of them public. They are reserving exceptions for IRS records, which there’s a fair number, so some of Jack Ruby’s tax returns for instance will remain sealed and some others. Ruth Payne, a woman who housed Marina Oswald in Dallas, I think her tax returns were part of what was in this collection but will also be sealed. Oswald’s tax returns themselves were released in the 90s by Marina Oswald so they’re not private even though I think they are part of this collection because they were never officially released.
Another one of great interest but will remain withheld for different reasons is William Manchester’s interview with Robert Kennedy in 1965, which was donated under a deed of gift, which seals it for, I don’t know how long, another 50 or 75 years or something. The National Archives is respecting that. There’s certainly a handful of things, mostly IRS records that will remain released.
Then you get to the question what is the universe of these things? I’ll give you one example, a colleague of mine named Jeff Morley who runs JFKFacts.org stumbled several years ago on the story of a guy named George Joannides who was the House Committee’s liaison, he worked for the CIA. He was presented to the House Select committee as the archivist who would help them process requests for CIA records when they’re doing their work.
It was not until Jeff Morley’s work more than a decade after the House Committee was done that they found out that George Joannides was in fact somebody who was in charge of the DRE Cuban exile group in the 1960s at the time of the assassination. When House Committee staffers, including a guy named Robert Blakey, who ran the committee heard about this, they were flabbergasted. Because, it’s the fox guarding the hen house, here is somebody who was in charge of Cuban exile groups that had had dealings with Oswald and he’s presented as just a guy who’s going to help you with records requests. This happened unfortunately so late in the Review Board’s lifetime in the 1990s, that they basically never got Joannides records to find out more about what he was up to. The name had been unknown before really. Morley has had an ongoing lawsuit with the CIA. They have claimed that his reports from the 17-month period in question when he was the head of that group are just missing or never created, which is not plausible so they’re missing. Again, there is an ongoing legal battle so those records are not part of this because the Review Board wasn’t aware of it and didn’t collect them from the CIA.
The battle for transparency sort of writ large in America in respect to this particular affair it sort of goes on, the JFK Records Act and these documents was a huge significant part of that. It’s really part of a larger story of people trying to get relevant material out of their own government.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s also so interesting that with millions and millions and millions of pages of documents in all of this that there are still so many questions to this day?
Rex Bradford: I mean, it is amazing. There are certainly people who take the position oh cripe, you’ve five million pages and you still can’t put together a counter narrative, it’s Oswald, get over it. I don’t take that position. I think that:
A. You have to understand that, I don’t know how to describe without someone who is sort of familiar with all these documents, sort of what they’re all about. Take the Warren Commission, for example. My personal view of the Warren Commission is that these guys were basically whistling in the dark. The CIA and FBI who they’re relying upon for all their documents were sort of leading them down the garden path of the pre-ordained conclusion. The Commission itself was more than happy to do that. I think actually in the documents of the 1990s we learned a lot about why. Johnson’s selection of Earl Warren to head the Commission was a stroke of genius. Warren was highly respected among a wide swath of America, particularly liberal groups, who might otherwise be not too keen on believing a Dulles Commission for instance.
The big question why would Earl Warren lie come up? One answer to that came out in the 1990s, Lyndon Johnson taped many of the phone calls he had in office. Those came out as part of the 1990s releases. There was a fascinating one, among many, that he had with Richard Russell, his old Senate mentor, Johnson’s old mentor in the Senate, who he also appointed to the Commission. On the day that he appointed him to the Warren Commission, which Russell vehemently did not want to serve on, Johnson told him in this tape recording the story of how he got a reluctant Warren to serve.
Warren had said he was head of the Supreme Court, he was not appropriate, it was not appropriate for him to sit on the President’s Commission and he apparently turned down. Robert Kennedy went over to talk to him, that’s a whole other story.
Johnson tells the story to Richard Russell, well, I brought him down here, he told me no twice in the oval office and then I pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City. I told him now I want you to serve on this Commission. He basically gave him the 40 million Americans will die story. That there were swirling allegations of Oswald being in league with Castro and Khrushchev. That’s a whole subject in its own right. I believe ultimately it’s false but it was a big deal in government that week at the highest levels. Warren, if you listen to this story and read other things, it becomes highly plausible that Warren was led to believe that he needed to lead this Commission and they needed to find Oswald guilty and tamp down any speculation that this was a Communist plot in order to save us from World War III. Johnson was literally talking about World War III in these phone calls.
Jeff Schechtman: If people are interested in doing their own research and reading and looking at some of these documents, Rex, what’s the best way for the laymen to do that today?
Rex Bradford: Well, there’s many avenues, I will certainly plug the foundation I run. The Mary Ferrell website at maryferrell.org, m a r y f e r r e l l.Org is certainly the premier online home for primary source documents. There’s certainly many other avenues, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet, there’s many good books for people that like to read paper or electronic books as well. The documents though, really there’s only a couple of places, there’s these few websites, primarily the Mary Ferrell Foundation and then there’s the paper copies at the National Archives themselves.
It’s not for the faint of heart. This is a story, which is now over 50 years old that has become so layered that I guess the good news is there is so much information online that it is easier to get started than it might have been 30 years ago.
Just learning the history of the assassination aftermath alone is just a vast, vast topic, which is sort of important to understanding what went down.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think you’ll ever get to the point where you’ll have seen all of this and/or listened to all of this?
Rex Bradford: I don’t think anyone person can do 5 million pages. Maybe if you’re a speed reader I guess. There’re certainly many of us that sort of feel like we’ve seen enough that we kind of get it although many people get it in a different way than other people. I don’t know what to say about that.
One thing, I find them interesting in a different respect. There’s the whole who killed Kennedy part. I think there’s two other respects in which I find this document collection fascinating.
One, which I touched upon briefly, is just the window into foreign policy in the Kennedy administration. It was the height of the cold war, the war against Castro was a huge undertaking, there were other crises particularly Vietnam brewing at the time. These documents are a treasure trove for learning the details of that stuff. There’s taped phone calls and will not get transcripts of the same secret meetings that you might in a more modern administration now. There’s just a lot for historians of that period.
I guess the second thing I would say is that I guess I would be one of the people who says that yes Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy and yes there was coverup. But, I think coverup is one of these sort of broad overly used words that sort of bring up the image of a bunch of people conspiring in a room together to bury the truth about something. I think what I’ve learned from all of this is that’s not how the mechanism worked at all. There were all kinds of honest people involved in the investigation of these things that had limited roles and didn’t have any sense of the big picture. The field guys and the FBI and that sort of thing. At the higher levels I think you learn about how people who are in positions of authority can, I don’t know what to say, avoid the truth rather than have to actively cover it up.
I don’t know how to summarize it, but the mechanism by which our country has failed to come to an understanding of the Kennedy assassination, that mechanism itself can be learned from these records and it’s highly revealing.
Jeff Schechtman: Rex Bradford, thanks so much for spending time with us here on radio WhoWhatWhy.
Rex Bradford: Great, happy to do it. Thank you.




Thank you.

Thank you for listening and joining us on radio WhoWhatWhy.  I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on Itunes. You can also support this podcast by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from JFK (JFK Library) and National Archives.

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