Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

What's New And Not New In The JFK Documents

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, the government released a trove of files on the assassination of JFK - nearly 3,000 memos, interview transcripts and surveillance photos. But of those records, only 53 have never been seen before. Thousands more are locked away, pending further security review. Late last night, President Trump tweeted that he will release all of the files without the names or addresses of any living person - in his words - to put any and all conspiracy theories to rest, though it's not clear when that release would happen. There are still many unanswered questions for longtime investigative reporter Philip Shenon. He's author of "A Cruel And Shocking Act: The Secret History Of The Kennedy Assassination."

PHILIP SHENON: Well, there's a lot of material in there about what I've always considered the secret chapter of the Kennedy assassination story, which is, what was Lee Harvey Oswald doing in Mexico City just several weeks before the assassination, where we know, from previously declassified files, he's meeting with Cuban spies and Russian spies and other people who have - may have wanted to see Kennedy dead? And we know, too, that the CIA had Oswald under aggressive surveillance while he's in Mexico City. And, apparently, Oswald during this trip may have talked openly about killing Kennedy. You have to wonder if people at the CIA didn't know that and if they didn't fail to share that information with Washington.

BLOCK: Which would be a huge - obviously huge - breakdown in intelligence.

SHENON: Absolutely.

BLOCK: And is that sort of the main loose thread for you at this point - is what exactly was known at the time that Oswald was in Mexico City?

SHENON: Well, that's the most important mystery to me. You know, I think all of the most credible evidence points to Oswald as the shooter in Dealey Plaza. But I think there's always been this question as to who else he might have told about this. He doesn't appear to have been the pure lone wolf that the FBI and the CIA wanted to portray. They wanted to portray him as somebody who never could have been stopped. In fact, it looks like the agencies of government - the CIA and the FBI in particular - knew a lot about Oswald before the assassination. And I think it's pretty clear that if the CIA and the FBI had just acted on the information in their own files, President Kennedy would have survived his trip to Dallas.

BLOCK: So no great revelations in these documents. But what has been especially intriguing to you as you've looked through them?

SHENON: Well, a lot of these documents really bolster the idea that the FBI in particular was absolutely desperate after the assassination - just within hours of the assassination - to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin and that there was no conspiracy, foreign or domestic. J. Edgar Hoover, the director at the time, was panicked. He thought that the FBI would be blamed for the assassination because it had failed to detect the evidence about Oswald's background.

BLOCK: Well, doesn't that desperation that you're talking about then feed into the conspiracy theories of those who believe that there's no way he could have acted alone, that this was a cover-up?

SHENON: Absolutely. Because it looks like the government had a rush to judgment about what had really happened here - that they were going to convict Oswald without any real investigation conducted.

BLOCK: This release of documents was set by law 25 years ago. It was after Oliver Stone's film "JFK" came out and revived a lot of conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. And the question has been, look, will the release of these documents put any of those conspiracy theories to rest? What do you think?

SHENON: I think it is going to resolve some of the crazier conspiracy theories. But at the same time, I don't think we're ever going to be rid of conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. It's just too ingrained in the national psyche at this point. And, of course, what we have learned since the Kennedy assassination is that a lot of basic evidence about Oswald, about the assassination itself, was destroyed or disappeared over the years, so we'll never have the full record that will allow us totally to be without the conspiracy theories that are produced by that vacuum of information.

BLOCK: Philip Shenon, former Washington and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's the author of "A Cruel And Shocking Act: The Secret History Of The Kennedy Assassination." Mr. Shenon, thanks again.

SHENON: Thank you.

SOUNDBITE OF BLKTOP PROJECT'S "KEEP ON PUSHIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.