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Few JFK slaying documents merited secrecy, reviewer says

By Harry F. Rosenthal
Special to freedomforum.org
03.17.99

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 records.

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

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 event.."

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."


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