In retrospect, it all feels so familiar.
A gunman fires into a crowd and warps history. Millions of shocked Americans demand answers. The photographs and videos and bystanders give a thousand accounts from a thousand inconclusive angles. A suspect is psychoanalyzed for motive, the investigation lags, dread spreads, conspiracy infects the culture. The dead are dead, and closure is a rumor. Modern paranoid life.
“In a way,” said Ken Hughes, a researcher with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, “that era began in Dallas in November of 1963.”
On Thursday, the federal government released nearly 3,000 secret documents about the assassination of President Kennedy, tantalizing scholars and conspiracy theorists who hoped the records might tease loose new insights — or unveil new plots — involving one of the 20th century’s most shocking events.
President Trump promised on Twitter this week that the documents (“So interesting!”) would be released as mandated by the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.
“The American public expects — and deserves — its government to provide as much access as possible to the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records so that the people may finally be fully informed about all aspects of this pivotal event,” Trump said in a memo Thursday.
But under pressure from officials at the FBI, the CIA and other agencies, Trump agreed to temporarily withhold some documents that contain sensitive national security and law enforcement information.
"I have no choice — today — but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our nation's security,” said Trump’s memo.
Some of the documents were created as recently as the 1990s and include information related to confidential informants and help from certain foreign governments, White House officials said Thursday.
“Every single one of the approximately 18,000 remaining CIA records in the collection will ultimately be released, with no document withheld in full,” a CIA spokesman said, adding that the redacted material made up less than 1% of the agency’s files related to the assassination.
“CIA’s current redactions were undertaken with the intent to protect information in the collection whose disclosure would harm national security — including the names of CIA assets and current and former CIA officers, as well as specific intelligence methods and partnerships that remain viable to protecting the nation today,” the spokesman said.
Trump issued a memo instructing officials to review the withheld documents and try to release as many as possible by April 26, 2018, said the officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
The new records released Thursday are just a drop in the ocean of 5 million pages of assassination-related documents held by the National Archives, most of which had been open for research before Thursday’s release, and most of which tell a similar story.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy sat in an open-topped convertible with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Gov. John B. Connally Jr. and Connally’s wife, Nellie, as their motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
Several shots rang out. Kennedy was shot in the neck and then the head, fatally. Officials zeroed in on the Texas School Book Depository building and then on a worker in the building named Lee Harvey Oswald, whom they arrested.
Oswald, a former Marine who called himself a Marxist and tried to become a citizen of the Soviet Union, would become one of history’s most enigmatic figures. He was assassinated two days later during a perp walk being broadcast on live television.
He was shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who, like Oswald, would become an enigma dissected for decades to come.
The government concluded both men acted alone, but theories proliferated for decades — that there was a second gunman, that the CIA was involved, or Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, or the Mafia, or the Cubans.
Trump confidant and political consultant Roger Stone, whose preferred conspiracy theory involves Johnson’s involvement, tweeted this week that an “eye witness” now “identifies” Ted Cruz “as part of Lee Harvey Oswald's crew.”
(Cruz, the Texas senator who was born in 1970, has been similarly unable to shake internet memes alleging that he prenatally murdered several people as the Zodiac killer in Northern California in the late 1960s.)
During the Republican presidential primaries in 2016, when Cruz was a competitor for the nomination, Trump claimed that Cruz’s father, Rafael, was photographed with Oswald before the assassination.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump told Fox News during the campaign. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.” (Cruz’s campaign called Trump’s remarks “garbage,” and the fact-checking website PolitiFact rated it as a “pants-on-fire” false claim.)
In any case, the new records aren’t likely to contain major bombshells.
“While [the National Archives] cannot comment on the content of the records, we assume that much of what will be released will be tangential to the assassination events,” the agency said on its website.
Meaning the mysteries will probably live on.
To experts like Hughes, who studies the presidency, the records when they are released are likely to reveal juicy tidbits about American history that are unlikely to have much to do with the assassination itself.
“The main thing I get out of these documents is great information about covert operations during the Kennedy administration,” Hughes said. “These covert operations were to overthrow and assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba. They weren’t to overthrow and assassinate the president of the United States.”
Hughes added that the trauma of the shooting naturally prompts people to want “to find some grand explanation for why it happened, but unfortunately the explanation that is best backed by evidence is that one person with a gun can do a lot of harm.”
Brian Bennett contributed to this report from Washington.
5:40 p.m.: This story was updated with a statement from the CIA.
4:50 p.m.: This story was updated with news that a number of documents have been made public.
3:55 p.m.: This story was updated with excerpts of President Trump’s memo.
3:10 p.m.: This story was updated with news that some of the documents would not be released immediately, along with additional comments.
1:05 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This story was originally published at 7:30 a.m.