Researchers who spent Thursday slogging through 19,000 newly declassified U.S. government documents on the Kennedy assassination learned little, except that the government's ideas about what needs to be secret, and what doesn't, are cryptic and unpredictable.
Some stuff in the documents that had been open for years is now classified again, and some stuff that had been classified and is now open is so innocuous that nobody can figure out what the point was.
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"You have things going back to the 1950s that were just declassified today, things that were probably of marginal importance even back then," said Gerald Posner, the Miami Beach author whose book "Case Closed" argues strongly against a conspiracy in the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The documents revealed Thursday were supposed to be the final batch of a phased roll-out set by Congress in 1992 for the release of all government documents related to the assassination. But in the face of fierce argument from the CIA, FBI and other security organs, President Trump backed down.
Nearly 16,000 of the documents released Thursday still contain passages — in some case many pages long — that have been blacked out. And 520 files remain altogether secret.
And locating anything at all in the newly released documents, whether redacted or not, was proving a formidable task for researchers on Thursday. Though the documents are posted online, where anyone can look at them, the National Archives didn't provide any digital tools to search them. "Little instant gratification for those who will ask this afternoon, 'what’s in there?' " tweeted University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato early in the day.
"Even seasoned JFK researchers are finding it very frustrating," added Posner. "It's an archival dump of 19,000 documents. Searching it is virtually like throwing a dart into a giant pile of paper in hopes of hitting something meaningful."
What was apparent from early efforts to excavate the documents was the government's standards on classification range from ephemeral to nuts. One document was a complaint from one part of the federal government to another about the slowness with which office keys were being issued.
Another listed the salaries of the staff of the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979. If you're interested in lawyer-salary porn, the committee's chief counsel, G. Robert Blakey, was making just $47,500 a year at a time when young Wall Street attorneys just of law school were starting their jobs at $30,000 to $35,000.
In some cases, the documents re-redacted material that had already been declassified in previous versions. Often that seemed to reflect Trump administration sensitivities to the feelings of foreign governments. A 1975 CIA report on the surveillance of shooter Lee Harvey Oswald during his visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City just a few weeks before Kennedy's death was released years ago identifying a particular photo as coming from "a Mexican police surveillance camera." In the same document, re-released Thursday, the words "Mexican police" had been covered over.
Similarly, the transcript of an interview of former CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton contained odd deletions. Angleton, talking in 1975 to a presidential commission investigating the CIA, recounted how he had persuaded Israeli intelligence to post a skilled spy in Havana who would cooperate with the short-staffed CIA station there.
That information was plainly visible in an earlier release of the transcript. But on Thursday, government censors had blocked out portions of six sentences to cover up the nationality of the Israeli spy.
Angleton, a professional paranoid whose job assignment was to prevent penetration of the CIA by foreign intelligence agencies, played key roles in some of the most cryptic episodes following the Kennedy assassination. He was involved to some degree in CIA surveillance of Oswald in Mexico. He is believed to have removed and destroyed some documents from the CIA station there. And he also retrieved and burned the diary of one of Kennedy's paramours, the ex-wife of a senior CIA official.
So the transcript of his interview with the presidential commission has long been one of the most sought-after of the documents scheduled for release. Parts of it have been released before, but more than half remained redacted. Yesterday it was re-released, this time including much fascinating new information — but almost none of it having anything to do with the assassination.
The new material included Angleton discussing some of the great failures of Western intelligence during the 1950s, when the upper echelons of the British spy agency MI-6 were riddled with Soviet agents. There's also a lengthy conversation between Angleton and the commission members in which he strongly implies — but never states plainly — that he suspects two New York Times reporters were working for a foreign intelligence service.
The two, Polish-born Tad Szulc (who died in 2001) and Pulitizer-prize-winning Seymour Hersh (still based in Washington and writing for the London Review of Books), were asking questions about an operation code-named Easy Chair, a top-secret CIA attempt to plant bugs in the home of the Soviet ambassador to the Netherlands.
One of the investigators bluntly asked if Angleton believed Hersh was a Soviet agent. "I am not saying that," Angleton replied. But, he added, he would like to see the CIA's files on Szulc and Hersh. You've got files on them? an investigator replied in seeming surprise. Yes, Angleton confirmed, and on other reporters, too.
"And on other Americans?" the investigator asked.
"A lot of them," Angleton assured him.