How the CIA & FBI’s handling of JFK’s murder created modern conspiracy culture
In November of this year, QAnon supporters gathered at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, awaiting John F. Kennedy Jr.’s resurrection. Many media outlets portrayed the event as a sign of today’s absurd political climate, but such conspiracies belong to a proud American tradition. This lineage includes the events of November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated. The questionable handling of the events following the killing contributed to a massive decline in trust in the US government—from 77 percent in 1964 to 36 percent just 10 years later. A majority of Americans are conspiracy theorists on this topic, rejecting the official story that Kennedy’s killer acted alone; today, 61 percent of the populace believes others were involved. The only group in the country where a minority hold conspiratorial views on JFK are college-educated white people.
The federal government maintains a strategic interest in the assassination: On October 22, 2021, President Biden once again postponed the final release of the JFK assassination records. This decision continues a nearly 60-year-long effort by the CIA and FBI to suppress information relating to JFK’s death. Their latest success is a timely reminder of why the United States will never be rid of conspiracy theories so long as the national security state wields unchecked power.
In 1992, Congress passed the JFK Records Collection Act, which ordered all branches of government to provide any assassination-related records to the National Archives for public inspection within 25 years. The move was spurred by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, an Oscar-winning blockbuster that portrayed the killing as a conspiracy by radical anticommunists in the CIA, FBI, and military. The law aimed to appease renewed controversy, stating that “most of the records…are almost 30 years old, and only in the rarest cases is there any legitimate need for continued protection.”
Another 30 years later, roughly 88 percent of the estimated files have been released. However, 11 percent were released with sensitive portions removed, the CIA illegally destroyed others, and at least 15,000 remain unpublished, according to the National Archives.
The status of these files seems unlikely to change. While President Trump tweeted his intent to release the remaining files days before the 25-year deadline in October 2017, he succumbed to last-minute pressure from the CIA and FBI and issued an executive order approving a six-month delay. In 2018, he extended the delay by four years, citing the JFK Act’s provision for withholding documents that pose an “identifiable threat” to national security. Four years later, President Biden cited the same clause to postpone the release to December 15, 2022, claiming the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted a “final” review which had ostensibly started three years ago.
There’s an understandable impulse to shrug. Even assassination researchers think there’s little hope for a bombshell revelation. And given a resurgence of dangerous conspiratorial beliefs nationwide—from vaccine disinformation to claims of election fraud— reopening a half-century old controversy might seem counterproductive. Respectable mainstream outlets have warned against a “sickness” dragging millions of Americans down conspiratorial rabbit holes and have accused their economic competitors of harboring weapons of mass disinformation.
But the intelligence community’s ongoing and effective opposition to public will in this case points to an underlying problem. Historian Steven M. Gillon recently argued that the assassination’s legacy shows how conspiracy theorists undermine democracy: “Conspiracy advocates have peddled myths distorting Kennedy’s life and death for far too long, thereby fueling cynicism about American institutions that has opened the door for Trump to lie with impunity.” After countless revelations of government crimes and cover-ups—the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Church and Pike Committees, Iran-Contra, Chelsea Manning’s Afghanistan Diaries and Iraq War logs, the Snowden Archives, and the Drone Papers, to name the most publicized—it is disingenuous to place the blame for mass disaffection solely on conspiracy theorists rather than American institutions. As we now know, the government, especially the CIA and FBI, did distort Kennedy’s life and death. They destroyed evidence, such as tapes of Lee Harvey Oswald from September 1963; intimidated witnesses like Silvia Duran, who was Oswald’s Cuban embassy contact; and deceived federal investigators, for instance, by concealing Operation Mongoose. Not even Lyndon B. Johnson, who commissioned the Warren Report in 1963, accepted its conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin. This effort to muddle the truth has created a national conscience, filled by conspiracy theories and bereft of clear information.
We may never know if JFK’s death was the act of a lone shooter or a CIA coup d’état. But we do know that the intelligence community helped manufacture this uncertainty and will continue to suppress information. Even our most powerful elected officials—including Trump and Biden—have proven unable or unwilling to challenge intelligence officials, regardless of strong public support for releasing the documents. Legislative response to 9/11 gave the intelligence community extraordinary powers such as rendition, torture, and mass electronic surveillance. Now, as Congress is warming up for a new domestic war on terror in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection, it’s worth asking if the country’s intelligence agencies really need more power.