Release of Kennedy records is one small step for transparency

On Oct. 26, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) publicly released thousands of records regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However, thousands of additional records were withheld from the public pending further review.

The front of the national archives building

Photo by Wknight94

The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act required federal agencies to provide all records related to the assassination to NARA. The law further required all such records to be disclosed to the public within 25 years unless the President certifies it necessary to postpone disclosure. The law was signed on Oct. 26, 1992, which set the 25-year deadline on Oct. 26 of this year.

The legislation was a response to the decades-long delays that often occur before previously-classified information is made available to the public. As then-Sen. John Glenn (D-OH) noted at the time, “Although certain records related to the assassination of President Kennedy have been made available over time to the public, the legislation will create opportunities for the public to review records which might otherwise not be possible for several decades”(142 Cong. Rec. 19499, 1992).

The legislation has resulted in vast amounts of information being made available to the public. According to NARA, the collection “consists of approximately five million pages of records. The vast majority of the collection (88 percent) has been open in full and released to the public since the late 1990s.”ALA recognized the significance of this reform effort by presenting its James Madison Award to the bill’s sponsors and those implementing the law.

As the 25-year deadline approached, only a small percentage of information remained withheld. Perhaps, as the saying goes, nothing focuses the mind like a deadline: On Oct. 4, several members of Congress, led by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), introduced resolutions calling for the remaining records to be disclosed. On Oct. 21, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would not prevent the disclosure of the remaining records “subject to the receipt of further information.”

Ultimately, though, the deadline would bring only partial disclosure. On Oct. 26, President Trump issued a memorandum, stating:

I am ordering today that the veil finally be lifted. At the same time, executive departments and agencies (agencies) have proposed to me that certain information should continue to be redacted because of national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns. … To further address these concerns, I am also ordering agencies to re-review each and every one of those redactions over the next 180 days. At the end of that period, I will order the public disclosure of any information that the agencies cannot demonstrate meets the statutory standard for continued postponement of disclosure…

It seems appropriate to recognize this partial release as partial progress for transparency. By the end of President Trump’s additional six-month review period, hopefully further records will be released. If librarians and the public continue to demand transparency, eventually, it may rewrite the history books.

About Gavin Baker

Gavin Baker is an assistant director of Government Relations. He advocates for library priorities on government information and transparency issues. Previously, he worked at California Common Cause, the Center for Effective Government / OMB Watch and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. Gavin earned his M.S. in library and information studies from Florida State University and his B.A. in political science from the University of Florida.

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