Was it a conspiracy? Historical records available on JFK assassination
Some documents, recordings still not open to public, despite requests
(Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. ECM Political Editor Howard Lestrud, an avid JFK item collector for more than 50 years, is writing a series of articles on Kennedy leading up to the assassination observance in November. The first in the series was on Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, and his father, Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture under Kennedy. In the second segment, Lestrud talked to former Dallas Police Detective James R. Leavelle, the man handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. In the third segment, Lestrud discussed the upcoming special observances planned for Nov. 22 by the city of Dallas and by the Sixth Floor Museum. In the fourth installment, former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh shared his story of being in the president’s motorcade during the shooting. Judge John Tunheim of Stillwater talks about the work of the Assassination Records Review Board in the fifth in the series.)
by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Many of the most closely held government records on the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy have long been declassified, yet even today, 50 years after he was gunned down in Dallas, Texas, it remains one of the most actively debated events in U.S. history.
Books on the Kennedy assassination have been spawned by the work of the Assassination Records Review Board, which was chaired by U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim, of Stillwater. He is chambered in Minneapolis.
Even Tunheim has considered authoring a book on the work of the ARRB and his role in helping declassify many records associated with the JFK assassination. He currently has been working on international development of the rule of law.
“I must slow down and try to do it (writing a book) in a way for the average, curious citizen to try to clear up as many of the mysteries as I can,” Tunheim said.
Tunheim believes that the many records that were declassified have helped researchers and others gain more of a true perspective of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.
“It is what it is, and I might argue about the underlying facts, but it is good people who are interested in the subject and want to know why the president of the United States was killed,” Tunheim said.
The work of the ARRB has long been completed and was turned over in 1998 to then President Bill Clinton. Since that time, Tunheim has still been working independently to gain the release of other records pertaining to the assassination.
The final report of the Assassination Records Review Board is available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/arrb98.
Accessing additional records
Some of the records Tunheim would like to see made available include a large cache of records held by the KGB of Russia on alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Many of these records are held in Minsk, Belarus, the area where Oswald spent much of his time when he was in Russia, Tunheim said.
Tunheim said he has read about 500 pages of those records.
“Every time we got close (to release of the records in Minsk), the price went up,” Tunheim revealed. Tunheim hinted that if there ever were a revolution in Minsk, the U.S. would be there in minutes to get access to the Oswald files.
Just recently, prosecution files were found relating to the case of Jack Ruby, who was convicted of shooting and killing Oswald two days following the assassination of Kennedy.
Other records Tunheim would like to see released pertain to records of the Kennedy family that were turned over as a deed of gift to the National Archives. Today, many of these records would be a crime record, Tunheim said.
Another set of records not yet released are audio tape recordings of interviews between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy with William Manchester, the family’s chosen author for “Death of a President.”
The Kennedys and Manchester were involved in litigation on the release of items in the book manuscript. The book was finally released with changes.
Tunheim said he has listened to the tapes, which have been sealed against release until 2067. The recordings are held by President Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline.
Tunheim said Manchester “is more sharp” in his questions than was author Theodore White in recorded interviews with Jackie Kennedy soon after the assassination in 1963. The interviews with Manchester contain mainly impressions, Tunheim said.
He said he didn’t hear anything to change the public viewpoints but the recordings still represent a complete record of time in December 1963. Caroline has control of releasing these tapes and may be saving them for a book, Tunheim suspects.
Tunheim has given presentations to various service organizations in recent months and said his message to his listeners is to look at the evidence and go from there. “If there is something wrong, dig in further,” he says.
Many people still believe there was a conspiracy in the death of Kennedy, Tunheim said.
“If you ask them what it was, it breaks down because the public is confused as to what the conspiracy is,” Tunheim continued.
Tunheim said he will not take sides in the debate of what happened on Nov. 22 and the days following.
“Get everything out there and let the public decide,” he said. “I am a judge and my view is to look at the hard facts, the evidence,” he added.
All the hard evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin, Tunheim said. “Oswald had the opportunity and had the means” to commit this act, Tunheim continued.
Many of the conspiracy books have been developed because of the more than 5 million pages of records made available by the ARRB, Tunheim said.
“People want to believe that something greater than just a 24-year-old who was a self-important misfit could kill the president of the United States,” Tunheim said. “President Kennedy lives on in mythology terms these days,” Tunheim said, “and that happens when you have a presidency with lots of promise cut down before it can deliver on promises.”
Many then embrace the belief that “a great, giant conspiracy felled him,” Tunheim said.
Some say Kennedy was killed because he was going to remove troops from South Vietnam, Tunheim said. He said the ARRB then pulled all Kennedy administration records on Vietnam and released them.
Another supporter of conspiracy theories has been former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who just authored a book, “They Killed Our President.”
Ventura’s basic belief is that the CIA orchestrated the Kennedy assassination.
“He stirs up the pot and gets people thinking,” Tunheim said. Tunheim said Ventura will find a conspiracy in just about everything, “and that is what is endearing about him.” The idea that the CIA could cover up this conspiracy for so long “is beyond plausibility,” Tunheim said.
On the ARRB
Tunheim was nominated for a position on the ARRB after his name was submitted by the American Bar Association. He was one of 20 recommended by the Bar. After being appointed to the ARRB, he was named chair by the board.
“I heard about the possibility and thought it would be an interesting project, even though I didn’t know too much about the subject at the time,” Tunheim said.
Tunheim, a native of New Folden, Minn., in Marshall County, near the Canada border, was 10 years old and a fifth-grader on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated.
“I remember what I was doing at the time, as do many other people around the world,” said Tunheim. He said his class had just come inside from recess. He and his classmates were told of the assassination by their teacher and by a public address announcement from their principal.
“I was shocked and sat in front of the TV set for the entire weekend,” Tunheim said. He said he remembers vividly the shooting of Oswald by Ruby on television.
Tunheim and the ARRB have had their critics, some saying the board rubber-stamped the Warren Report. The Warren Report was an 889-page report from the Warren Commission established by then President Lyndon B. Johnson on Nov. 29, 1963, to investigate the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy.
“We didn’t rubber-stamp anything,” Tunheim said. “We were asked to find the records and we did a good, comprehensive job of that,” he continued. “We didn’t take sides,” he re-emphasized.
Many of the records came from agencies including the FBI, CIA, Secret Service and others. Tunheim said the CIA is currently fighting a Freedom of Information Act request case.
The board also released records of doctors at Parkland and pathologists who did the autopsy on Kennedy. Lots of old photos were digitized, Tunheim said.
“We tried to enhance the record and are telling people the records are all here. Our search was far and wide,” he said.
Three of the five AARB members are still living: Tunheim; Dr. Henry F. Graff, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University; and Dr. William L. Joyce, associate university librarian for rare books and special collections at Princeton University. Dr. Kermit L. Hall, Ohio State University, and Dr. Anna K. Nelson, adjunct professor of history at The American University, have died.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected].