Few JFK slaying documents merited secrecy, reviewer says

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

ARLINGTON, Va. — Only a relative few of the
thousands of records about the John F. Kennedy
assassination that were withheld for decades from
public view turned out to be too sensitive for
release, a member of the assassination review
board said yesterday.

“We found really very little that would harm
national security,” said Anna Kasten Nelson, a
member of the history department at American
University and a leading advocate for openness of
government records.

The Assassination Records Review Board ended a
years-long look last September at classified
records held by the FBI, the CIA and other federal
entities. The board was created by Congress in
1992 and given the authority to examine all hidden

“I think the agencies were appalled,” Nelson said,
mimicking the reaction: “We have always closed
this.” Some, she said, “were besides

She said the board’s mandate was so strong that
“if we wanted to open something no one could
overturn us, except the White House.”

And although the board was successful in opening
records, “we did protect certain things,” she said
without elaboration. “We were seeing documents
that would enhance understanding of the

Nelson was on a panel at a National Freedom of
Information Day conference, “Access to
Information: Strategies and Solutions.”

The review board got more than 60,000 documents
from the FBI, the CIA and other federal entities
and private collections. It concluded that the
government “needlessly and wastefully” withheld
millions of records that did not require such
treatment, and that such secrecy “led the American
public to believe that the government had
something to hide.”

The documents are held at the National Archives.
Many have to be opened in five years, some in 10
and all by 2017. Remaining blacked-out sections on
some records will come to light.

Panelist Steven L. Katz, a lawyer with expertise
in information access, disclosure and
dissemination, drafted the legislation that became
the law to release the Kennedy records. “The
agencies didn’t like it too much, but it worked,”
he said.

Scott Armstrong, an award-winning investigative
journalist who is executive director of
Information Trust, said he was skeptical of the
board when it started its work but “the fact of
the matter is, they did it.”

He said that the government’s practice of secrecy
is so ingrained that “the minute disclosure is
over, it’s back to secrets.”

He said he “no longer tries … has given up
trying” to get information through the 33-year-old
Freedom of Information Act, which requires
government agencies to make all but specifically
exempt files accessible to the public. “Most
journalists have given up on FOIA.”