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Uncovering A Trove of Previously Secret JFK Data Through Decades of Successful FOIA Requests and Litigation

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This article was originally the forward to the   JFK Assassination Archive, a powerful research engine on a USB disk, containing over a million pages of declassified JFK records and accompanied by next-generation searching and browsing tools. For more information see: here 

A.  Preliminary Remarks

   In 1992, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act ("JFK Act"). which promised immediate release of all records related to the assassination.  The result is a monumental archive now said to include more than 5 million pages of records.  Rex Bradford, President of the Mary Ferrell Foundation ("MFF"), head of History Matters ("HM"), and a member of the Board of Directors of the Assassination Archives and Research Center ("AARC"), has now put over a million pages of JFK assassination-related records on a 4 gigabyte Disk Drive, potentially enabling instantaneous access to any researcher anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost that it would take to obtain these records from the collection at the National Archives and Research Administration ("NARA") in College Park, Maryland.  It is a magnificent achievement.

   But why is it needed?  After all, the JFK Act promised that the American people would by now have all the information necessary to evaluate the controversies over the JFK assassination and the multiple federal, state and local investigations of it.  So why is the Disk Project needed?  Why is it so important?

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   Of course, the Kennedy assassination has become an extremely complicated matter involving a seemingly endless stream of documents, new, mind-bending revelations, and never imagined twists in the story line.  But on a practical level, the answer is that there are multiple obstacles to providing quick and easy access to records at NARA's JFK Act Collection.  One is cost.  Although the JFK Act provides for a waiver of costs, as does the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), NARA insists on a substantial copying fee or a visit to NARA's College Park facility ("NARA II") which requires a great expenditure of funds for most researchers.   It is true that NARA does have a website which maintains a JFK Act database of some records housed in the Collection, but this only gives a requester access to RIFs or "Research Identification Forms."  These contain only a document identification number, the subject(s) of the document, the number of pages it contains, and usually (but far from always) a date, and some other data.  They do not provide the document itself.  Moreover, there is a substantial problem in idendifying all records pertaining to a particular subject, due in part to variant spellings of names and typing errors made in filling out the RIFs.

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   The AARC/MFF/HM's JFK Act Disk eliminates these problems.  The documents themselves, more than a million pages of them, are provided.  They are word searchable and indexed in all kinds of ways.  This facilitates instantaneous access to a digital library of unprecedented magnitude. 

   The JFK Act Disk is the culmination of a long process involving public access to JFK assassination records which intertwines the development of open disclosure legislation, such as the FOIA, the Privacy Act, and the JFK Act, and anti-disclosure measures, such as the Central Intelligence Agency Information Act of 1984 ("CIA FOIA") with the history of the AARC and its predecessor, the Committee to Investigate Assassinations ("CTIA").  It is a novel and significant history of how unrelenting endeavors of these activist organizations helped produce the changes in American law which led to the JFK Act disclosure contained on the new JFK Act Disk. 

   Having played a personal role in that historical process, I set forth here my recollections regarding the events which led to this unique development in history of America's disclosure law.  I conclude by now describing the goals which I believe researchers now need to focus on.

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B.  The Philosophy of Open Disclosure of Government Information

   The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech.  It does not guarantee the right of citizens to receive information which government agencies possess.  However, the fundamental principle that in a democracy government information is owned by the people, not governmental authorities, was eloquently stated by one of the founding fathers, James Madison, who was chairman of the committee which drafted the First Amendment:  "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.  A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a tragedy or a farce or perhaps both."   Thus, unlike Karl Marx, who saw the ownership of the means of production as the key determinant in political and social relations, Madison viewed control of information as the pivotal factor in democratic rule.

   In the 20th Century, as the scope and power of American government expanded exponentially through industrialization, the critical nature of access to and control over government information greatly increased.  After

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World War II, two developments occurred which presaged the political struggle which took place over the next half century (and beyond) to provide access to, and to control, government information.  The first was the passage in 1946 of the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), which sought to regulate the activities of the federal government.  Section 3 of the APA   provided a nebulous and totally ineffectual provision for access to the records of federal agencies.  The National Security Act of 1947, sought to  tighten control over the release of information thought to be protectable on grounds of national security.

   In 1966, the APA would be amended by the FOIA, and the FOIA would impact on the power of agencies to withhold information on national security grounds.  But making the FOIA effective proved to be a very rocky road.  How this happened is a fascinating story which involved the AARC and its predecessor, the CTIA.

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James H. Lesar is an attorney licensed in Washington, (more...)
 

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