Fifty-four years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the U.S. intelligence community finally released its files on his death. Only it didn’t release all the files – it urgently appealed to the president to hold the release of some of them. The intelligence agencies claimed that the files contained highly sensitive material that would damage national security and that they needed time to review and remove this information. Given that they had known from the beginning that the files would be released someday, and that they had known for years when that day was coming, the request was doubly extraordinary: First, that more than half a century after the assassination there was still material so sensitive it had to be withheld, and second, that they hadn’t yet identified all the critical information.
This is the point at which a reasonable person would assume that there is something amiss. The intelligence community wants the public to believe that the material is highly sensitive and that the complexity of removing said information is beyond the public’s grasp. The public takes this to a logical conclusion: that the intelligence community is hiding something important. Speculation grows about what that something is. And why not? This is called a conspiracy theory, and anyone who subscribes to conspiracy theories is ordinarily described as being “nuts.”
Yet there are reasonable questions to be asked about the Kennedy assassination – the mystery that started it all – but also in other cases. Let me give two examples.
Lee Harvey Oswald defected to the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent him to Minsk to work in a radio factory. While there he met Marina, who lived with her uncle, a colonel in the MVD, the security arm of the Soviet Interior Ministry. He married her after knowing her for six weeks, then applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union and received it for Marina and himself. This was at a time when exit visas from the Soviet Union were as rare as hen’s teeth. Yet the niece of an MVD colonel was permitted to marry an American defector and leave with him because he was dissatisfied with life in the Soviet Union. Upon returning to the U.S., the Oswalds were apparently not subjected to extensive debriefing.
James Earl Ray, who shot Martin Luther King Jr., was an escaped convict who had spent much of his life in prison. Between his escape and the shooting, he acquired a car and traveled about. After the assassination, he went to Canada, where, in addition to obtaining a U.S. passport, he obtained a Canadian passport. According to many reports, he was found with about $10,000 on him. By all accounts, Ray was not the brightest bulb, and getting forged passports under other names took some savvy. I would also doubt that he had ever in his entire life had $10,000 on him prior to his capture.
If these facts are true – and they seem to be, according to the Warren Commission report and published reports on Ray – then they raise questions that ought to be answered by the intelligence community half a century after the fact. Perhaps the investigations couldn’t find answers, or perhaps the official stories – strange as they seem – are the truth. What is clear is that the intelligence community’s handling of the conspiracy theories – dismissed with contempt but not answered in any way – does not build the community’s credibility.
I find the lone gunman explanation in both cases insufficient, but for the most part the intelligence community does not appear to me to be engaged in a vast conspiracy – they merely look clueless. It is only when I consider that the people in that position are not clueless that I fill the blanks with speculation. Let me emphatically state that I might have no idea what I’m talking about. But given what I think I know, these are not unreasonable things to question.
Starting with the handling of the Kennedy assassination, the intelligence community has done substantial damage to the stability of the United States. It has systematically created the sense that it knows more than it is telling about the assassination, one of the most traumatic events in American history. There’s a contradiction between telling the public that Oswald was a lone gunman but that sharing all the facts would be dangerous. If he operated alone, then there can’t be anything very important to reveal: He shot the president and that’s that. But then why the secrets?
The sense of mystery that the intelligence community generated about Kennedy’s death spread to other assassinations. If there is a hidden truth to the Kennedy assassination, why not to King’s killing four years later? If we can’t trust what we are told about those deaths, should we trust what we are told about 9/11? And if we are in doubt about those things, then perhaps Donald Trump is a Russian spy or Hillary Clinton was working for the Saudis. Kennedy’s assassination became the foundation of a worldview in which the truth is hidden and “reality” is an illusion. The belief that we are being lied to has gone from the margins of society to the mainstream. And the intelligence community, intentionally or not, has fueled this movement.
It’s the job of the intelligence community to find secrets and to protect how it collected them. But the need to protect secrets and sources can easily appear to be an attempt to keep the truth about how the world works away from the public, or even to lead the public to believe that the real secret is that the intelligence community is using its secrets to accumulate power for itself. This can be dismissed as crazy talk for only so long before the view legitimizes itself. “The CIA does not comment on its operations” frequently translates to “mind your own business” and can lead the public to assume that the business of governance is no longer the province of the people. And that, in the end, will destabilize the country.
The belief that there is a hidden world that governs the one we see, a world that is out of our control, is fatal to democracy. The intelligence community has as its primary duty “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic.” At this point in history, the main threat to the Constitution is the growing conviction that the government can’t be trusted because it conceals the truth: that democracy has been supplanted by secret powers.
The intelligence community is far more concerned with the security of its foreign operations than with the state of American democracy. So it perpetuates the belief that there’s a frightening reality behind Kennedy’s assassination by insisting that revealing all the files would hurt American security. But national security is also about the Constitution, and the republic can’t stand if the public doesn’t trust the government. Right now, protecting clandestine operations overseas may not be as important as healing the breach between the American public and its government. The intelligence community needs to look around its own country and recognize that “trust me” at this moment in history only increases distrust and further rattles the country.
This is obviously not something the intelligence community will solve itself. Elected officials must do that, which means the public must elect trustworthy leaders. But with half the electorate believing that the president is linked to Russia and the other half believing that the “deep state” is trying to destroy him, this is unlikely to happen. The trail of distrust that began in 1963 and mushroomed into a political culture of fear and loathing is at the root of the problem. The intelligence community’s demand that the Kennedy files not be fully released is another small step down a dangerous path.