Few events in American history have been the subject of as much intrigue as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That morbid fascination has stemmed not only from from what is known by the public, but—even more centrally—what isn't. The long-murky record around the event has made it fertile ground for conspiracy theories and historiographic debate, in part because a number of intelligence agency documents surrounding the assassination have remained classified. Last week, the National Archives and Records Administration substantially expanded the public record of the assassination, with a surprise release of 3,810 previously classified or redacted documents from the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation related to the assassination. The document dump should help clear up the mystery, at least a little.
Through fits and starts over decades, the availability of these intelligence agency records to historians and the American public has inched ever closer to transparency. In 1964, a commission headed by then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren published a report on the assassination, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. The Warren report included with it a few thousand pages of supporting documents, but several million pages of records pertaining to the assassination were ordered sealed for 75 years. The year 1991 saw the release of Oliver Stone's controversial film JFK, which suggested that American intelligence agencies might have played an important role in Kennedy's murder. The film and surrounding media hysteria renewed interest in the assassination's narrative, and eventually resulted in the passage of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992. This act forced the release of 88 percent of the previously sealed records over the next few years. The remaining roughly 70,000 pages were to remain fully classified or heavily redacted for 25 years, when all of the documents were to be released in full, barring the intercession of the president. Though the 25-year deadline for full release is October 26th, 2017, about a quarter of the remaining files were released early last week.
For John Newman, like many JFK record-watchers, the early release came as an unexpected Christmas in July. Newman is a retired major in the United States Army, where he served for 21 years as an intelligence officer in China, Thailand, and Japan, often working closely with the National Security Agency. A chance meeting introduced Newman and Stone, and resulted in Newman working as a consultant for the JFK screenplay. He says he wrote nine scenes for the film—"all the Vietnam stuff." As Newman tells it, the NSA attempted to suppress the publication of his history Ph.D. dissertation, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue,and the Struggle for Power (which served as source material for the Stone film). Now a professor of political science at James Madison University, he has published four history books related to the Kennedy assassination (with more on the way). His work has long been considered relatively hawkish with respect to its conviction regarding CIA involvement in the assassination, a hawkishness that he says has been continually vindicated by each release of more documents.
To understand the significance of last week's release, Pacific Standard caught up with Newman, after he and his team had already blazed through several thousand pages of the newly released and un-redacted documents.
How did the popular response to the Stone film lead to the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act?
After the media firestorm around the Stone film, those in Congress who thought Oswald had acted alone said, "Let's open the files and show everybody!" And those in Congress who thought it was a conspiracy said, "Let's open the files and we'll show everybody it's a conspiracy!" So, for different reasons everybody agreed. But the upshot of it was, the CIA and the FBI and the other government agencies were no longer allowed to make the decision about what could be released and what couldn't. They would have to go through this Assassination Records and Archives review board that was five civilians that had never worked in government. They had a stack, they prepared the stuff that the agencies didn't want released, and then they would come and make the decisions every couple of months. But the presumption was that it would be a full release of the documents. It was a very interesting thing to watch, and we got six million pages of records out of it.
Why were certain files held when the rest were released in 1992?
The intelligence agencies didn't want to release hardly any of them, but they were forced to by the review board. If a document's release was really going to result in the imprisonment or death of somebody who had actually risked their lives for the United States, or embarrass a foreign government that had cooperated with us, the review board agreed that that stuff should still be classified, and if it was giving away national technical means like satellites, and intercepts that the NSA does, they were willing to work with them, but the rest of it, they wanted all of it out, and the agencies didn't, especially the CIA.
Another tactic the agencies used to withhold documents—and the review board was doing their best; they were really, really hard at work, with a really small budget—was the argument of "Not Believed Relevant," which said "it's just not relevant, doesn't matter what's in it, shouldn't be released." Now, today, we know that a whole lot of the NBR stuff is very relevant, and the former head of the review board, Judge [John R.] Tunheim gave a press conference at the National Press Club just a couple of months ago, told the world that they're sorry, they were wrong about that. And the final thing I would mention about the JFK records act is that the statute said that everything else that has never been released on the assassination record, and even the documents that had been released that had redactions, sections blacked out, everything had to be released 25 years later, and that would be the 26th of October, 2017.
Why was a big chunk of those documents released last week, three months early?
Everybody got surprised last week. The agencies thought they had more time, and if they appealed to the president, it would stop the [October] release, and we got about a quarter of it on Monday. The rest will still be released later this year, barring President [Donald] Trump blocking it.
There are a couple of reasons for the early release. First of all, the National Archives had to hire over 30 people over the last year to scan this stuff. And they're still working at a feverish pace to finish the job. The other thing is that the government agencies haven't said anything. And NARA has warned them twice: "We're going to release this stuff!" And they haven't said anything. And they're not going to be very happy to have done all this work and spent millions of dollars to have somebody say on October 24th, "Excuse me, we're going to stop the release." So this is a shot over the bow. In one way, it's saying to these agencies, if you want something to be stopped, you'd better say so now, because they're going to keep doing this before the release date.
Are there any remaining compelling reasons for still keeping the documents classified?
Almost none. There are two common justifications. The first is that somebody could be outed by the documents. They're all dead! If they're alive, they're 95 years old. The second is that the documents could reveal our intelligence sources and methods. The only people who don't understand very much about CIA sources and methods are the American people. All of the other governments and intelligence agencies around the world have known for a long time.
So there's no reason, no source or method, that the CIA, FBI, Army intel, or Air Force intel has that can't be released, with the exception of some intelligence technical platforms that cost billions of dollars. But the records about all these people involved in the case, especially the [Fidel] Castro story, and the Soviet spies, and the moles that we had over there—and that they had over here—it's all related to this, and we need it all. The fact of the matter is that you and I own these documents. They don't belong to the CIA.
I think a lot of Americans know a lot about the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, but aren't sure what most historians believe is supported by the available evidence. What do we know about the assassination with decent certainty?
When the Stone film came out, it triggered the passage of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992. And we went from something like 40,000 documents previously made available by the Warren Commission, to about six million pages of records in the early '90s. And that's just a huge amount of information. And that was still quite some time ago.
And in the 20 years that have passed since then, our understanding of the Kennedy assassinations has moved significantly. My latest book contains definitive proof that Lee Harvey Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union was a false defection, and it was part of a larger hunt for a mole inside of the CIA. A Soviet mole.
The Bay of Pigs was going to overthrow Castro and get rid of him, and it failed miserably. And what I've come to recognize with a lot of work in this book is that it was designed to fail in order to put Kennedy in a box. The intelligence agencies lied to him repeatedly about the chances of an uprising on the island and repeatedly about the chances of success of the exile invasion. Because what they wanted was to have the exiles on the Cuban beachhead being slaughtered to get Kennedy to change his mind and send the military to Cuba. Kennedy told them he would refuse to send the American Marines and Air Force in there, and they didn't believe him. It's an awful thing that those people died in that invasion, because it was part of a plan to get the president to change his mind and go in and invade the island with conventional American forces. And that led to the hatred of JFK among Pentagon chiefs, senior CIA people, and the Cuban exiles. And so that is where that story begins and it goes through the Cuban Missile crisis, and it ends up with the cover up after Kennedy is killed in 1963 (which is completely related to the Cuban story.) And that's where I think we stand today, with some firmness in these judgments and hypotheses.
You wrote on your Facebook that you uncovered a couple of "big bingos" in the new release.
The previously released documents that are now no longer redacted, across the breadth of those 3,000 documents, are hundreds and hundreds of cryptonyms and pseudonyms that are now uncovered. Before, we had the cryptonym that pertained to another country, and they had the first two letters, but they were always covered up, so you never knew where the darn document was coming from or going to. So all that is in the clear now. And it's just, I'm like a kid in the candy store!
Could another historian justifiably read the files pertaining to the CIA cover up as evidence that the intelligence agencies failed to do enough to stop the assassination, but were not actively complicit? That they were covering their shoddy work, rather than their malice?
There is a group of people who were involved with lies and the cover up, but were not involved before the fact. And the reason that they cooperated in the cover up (like Earl Warren and others) was because they thought World War III was going to break out. Because [in the files, it had been made to look like] Castro and the Kremlin had just killed our president. And Warren has actually said that on public television here, that [President Lyndon Johnson] had told him to stop World War III we had to disconnect Castro and the Kremlin from the plot. Which it looked like in the files. The first thing that Johnson asked Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, as he was on the plane coming back that night, was how many Americans would die if we had a nuclear war, and 40 million was the answer. And Johnson was asking the question that night. And that's what he told Warren too.
And we have hard evidence from these document releases of people who conspired to kill JFK?
Yes. When I first wrote my  book Oswald and the CIA, which used many of the documents that came out during the first release, I caught them red-handed, putting fake statements into the cable traffic between Mexico City and headquarters, especially from headquarters to Mexico City, lying about what they knew about Oswald, and what made them interested in him, and this took place before the assassination. There would be no reason why the CIA would make up lies about Oswald when the station asked, "Hey, this guy Oswald is here, what do you know about him?" There's no reason not to tell the truth. And so things like that, pre-assassination cover-up, and done in a way, so that when the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, and people go running down the hallways to open up their triple combination safe on Saturday morning they're going to find stuff that they didn't act on. It makes it look horrible.
Oswald had gone and met with the head of assassinations for the Western Hemisphere in Mexico City six weeks before the murder. This is a job that made it look like Oswald is working for Castro and the KGB. And it was done very effectively. A lot of people were spooked high up in the intelligence agencies, when they saw what was in the files, and they asked them: "Why didn't we know this? How do we explain this?" None of this was allowed to go in Oswald's regular file. It was put in a separate place where people wouldn't know to look, especially the guy who had to answer the cable from Mexico City saying, "Who's Oswald?" And the poor guy who had to answer that, who was at the Mexico City desk, opens up the file, and there's nothing in there. He didn't lie! The file lied to him. It was fixed before that.
If all the stuff that they knew about him had been in that file, Oswald would have been put on the security index. They wouldn't have let the limousine be anywhere near him. They would have taken him off the roof in Dallas. Even though there were probably one or two FBI and CIA agents who were involved, it's still a plot, where, in a way, the CIA and FBI are victims. And so they want to cover it up. They want to cover up their own negligence, that they didn't protect the president. It looks terrible! So that's part of the genius of the plot. Everybody needs it to go away.
Do you think that the continued withholding of these files has contributed to an erosion of trust from the American public toward government?
Absolutely! And the longer we do this, the more that is. More than solving the case, the most important thing is releasing the documents. However bad people were back then, the last thing we want is to walk around thinking that anybody in our government today is still covering up this case. No matter how bad that is, I think we're capable of handling the truth. And we've got more important things to do than to be worrying about the Kennedy assassination forever.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.