More than 50 years after President John F. Kennedy was killed, the National Archives has released some of the records – believed to be mainly FBI, CIA and Justice Department files – related to his assassination.

The release was mandated by the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, and Legal Current is looking at the legislative history and Executive Orders surrounding it.

Inspired by Oliver Stone

Within a week of the assassination, President Lyndon Johnson established a commission to investigate, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Warren Commission concluded, a year later in 1964, that gunman Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the killing.

Yet for decades countless conspiracy theories questioned the commission’s conclusion. In 1991, Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” explored some of these theories, casting even more doubt on what really happened.

The public outcry led to several Congressional hearings, where Mr. Stone testified, and in 1992, Congress enacted the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act. President George H.W. Bush signed PL 102-526 into law on Oct. 26, 1992.

The two purposes of the Act were to:

  • Create the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives and Records Administration; and
  • Require the expeditious public transmission to the archivist and public disclosure of such records.

A key provision of the law established: “Each assassination record shall be publicly disclosed in full, and available in the Collection no later than the date that is 25 years after the date of enactment of this Act, unless the President certifies, as required by this Act, that –

(i) continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations; and

(ii) the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Rules of classification

The provision has given President Trump discretion in determining how much of the collection to release. His decision also may be influenced by classification rules, which are set up by Executive Order rather than the legislative bodies.

The JFK Records Act found that legislation was necessary because Executive Order No. 12356 had eliminated declassification and downgrading schedules relating to classified information across the government. It was then revoked by Executive Order 12958 in 1995, which was revoked by Executive Order 13526 in 2009.

Executive Order 13526 is the most current for the classification rules, which hold that government information may be classified at one of three levels: top secret, secret or confidential. Additionally, the rules for classification are determined by the President only, and no other act, according to H.R. Rep 112-689.

Senate Report 102-328 also included key provisions around classification standards and the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. Its Rules of Construction state: “It is particularly important that all such records, especially when classified, are considered ‘assassination records’ under the Act so that any declassification review is done under the new standards of this Act, and not the more restrictive standards of the Freedom of Information Act and the executive order on security classified information.”

Some have argued the files should remain sealed, and parts of the collection have been withheld pending six more months of review. Even though the files release was incomplete, historians and conspiracy theorists alike will be scrutinizing documents to learn more about what happened that day in Dallas in Dealey Plaza – and on the grassy knoll.