President Biden Issues Memorandum on the Public Release of Withheld JFK Assassination Records, Sets New Disclosure Deadline

On October 22, 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum that sets new deadlines for the public disclosure of about 14,000 records that remain classified in the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection (JFK Records) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Originally scheduled for release on October 25, 2017, then-President Trump certified agency requests to extend disclosure postponements until October 26, 2021, as permitted under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act).

President Biden’s memorandum set the first release of records for December 15, 2021. NARA is required to digitize them and make them available on its website on that date. The President certified the extension of all other records until December 15, 2022. His memorandum requires each agency proposing to extend the delay in public access of JFK Records beyond that date to create an unclassified index for each document. It also requires each agency head to submit an unclassified cover letter with the index describing the information, the reasons the agency requests continued delay, and proposed declassification dates. These agency letters and indices must be completed by December 15, 2021.

The President’s memorandum temporarily delays the release of all those JFK Records for which agencies continue to request postponement from public disclosure until December 15, 2022. President Biden wrote that these records will be subject to “an intensive review of each remaining redaction to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency, disclosing all information in records concerning the assassination, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.”

Significantly, the memorandum establishes a detailed process for adjudicating agency requests for delaying public disclosure to ensure each one meets the standards of the JFK Act. Such a process has not existed since the Assassination Records Review Board ceased its operations in 1998. Specifically, the memorandum requires NARA to review each redaction by September 1, 2022, evaluating whether each proposed delay in disclosure continues to meet the JFK Act standards for delaying public release. It also requires NARA to consult with officials from four agencies (Department of Defense (DoD), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Department of Justice (DoJ), and Department of State) and then decide whether to agree or oppose each request. Importantly, this process does not include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the two agencies with the greatest number of requests for delay.

As the JFK Act requires the eventual public disclosure of all JFK Records, the repeated disclosure postponements over many years have focused public interest on how President Biden would advance the process. As recently as October 7, 2021, seven members of the United States House of Representatives led by Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA) submitted a letter to President Biden asking that he “release all remaining classified documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy pursuant to the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-526) (“the JFK Act”).” In addition to Rep. Eshoo, the letter is signed by House members Steve Cohen (TN), Jim McGovern (MA), Jamie Raskin (MD), Sara Jacobs (CA), Joe Neguse (CO), and Raúl Grijalva (AZ). 

The Congressional letter quotes the Public Interest Declassification Board’s (PIDB) September 28, 2021, letter to the President  supporting “the maximum public release of the remaining classified records subject to the JFK Act.” A PIDB blog post discussing that September 28, 2021, letter on Transforming Classification advocated “the declassification of as much information as possible,” and stated that the PIDB will monitor the proper application of JFK Act release postponement criteria.

The PIDB, an independent and statutory board established by Congress, believes President Biden’s memorandum will lead to improved public access to currently withheld JFK Records. Under the new process, by September 1, 2022, NARA will consult with DoD, ODNI, DoJ, and the Department of State regarding all further postponement proposals—and then decide if it agrees with each proposal. Depending on NARA’s decisions, the four agencies may either withdraw the proposed redaction, or appeal any of NARA’s decisions to the President through the Counsel to the President. By giving NARA a central role in expediting review, this process should lead to significant declassification decisions in 2022.

The president’s memorandum advances a promising framework for effectively implementing the standards of the JFK Act in the year ahead. Indeed, as a recent Politico article quoted PIDB Chair Ezra Cohen, President Biden’s decision represents: “a step in the right direction,” but “we will know more regarding agency and [National] Archives implementation come December. Nevertheless, the President has identified a path towards maximum transparency related to the JFK assassination. In the short term, the Archivist [of the United States] will need to work hard to keep agencies on track with the President’s guidance.” As NARA and the agencies begin to implement the processes detailed in the President’s memorandum, the PIDB will continue its advocacy for maximum transparency and limiting any delays in public access.

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