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Final Word on the JFK Assassination: There Will Never Be a Final Word

Some people may know where bodies are buried; Rex Bradford knows where all the papers are buried. The leading archivist and historian of the records of the JFK assassination has a lot to say in his talk with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman.


00:15 Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Last week, the National Archives released 19,000-plus files that were previously unseen records related to the JFK assassination. Even while Trump headed off the release of additional materials under the guise of national security, the story of the release received little coverage, mostly about what was not released. The content of those 19,000-plus pages got even less coverage.

00:42 JS: Our guest today, Rex Bradford, perhaps more than any other American understands these documents. He has become the self-appointed electronic archivist of the assassination of JFK. He began scanning relevant documents and making them available online and on CDs all the way back in 1999. He founded History Matters to make them freely available. He’s also written several essays and given talks at many conferences. He is now the Vice President of the Assassination Archives and Research Center, and is a consultant and analyst at the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which has undertaken an even larger scale document archive project, along with other materials, including essays, photographs, and multimedia presentations. It is my pleasure to welcome Rex Bradford back to Radio WhoWhatWhy.

01:31 Rex Bradford: Sure. Happy to be here.

01:33 JS: First of all, in a broad general sense, talk a little bit about what this 19,000 pages represents.

01:42 RB: Sure. Without going into too much history, back in 1992, Congress passed a law in the wake of the Oliver Stone movie and the furore over it, basically mandating that the government review and declassify as much as possible the secret records, most of which related at the various investigations of the murder of President Kennedy. Not just the Warren Commission, but a major investigation in the 1970s, by the Congress, and then FBI files, CIA files and files of many other government agencies that either have files on Oswald or files related to the investigations. And so in the 1990s, the government set up an Assassination Records Review Board which declassified a huge number of documents. There’s up to five million pages in the JFK collection at the National Archives, which is a whole lot for a murder supposedly carried out by some guy in a window in a building. But what happened is when they re-boarded that work, many of these documents indeed touch upon sensitive materials. The FBI, for its part, just hates to release things about investigative files.

02:51 RB: But there are story… There was a lot of hidden information about surveillance of Oswald, and a variety of other topics that touched upon CIA files, and tapped telephone lines, and all kinds of things. And so there was a lot of resistance from many of the agencies to actually come clean on the documents that they provided to the investigations. And there was actually some battles over that. The Secret Service destroyed some files in the 1990s rather than hand them over. But in the end, a quite an unexpectedly large collection of documents emerged. But at the end of that process, in the late 1990s, when the review board went out of business, many, many documents were withheld either completely or partially with redactions in them. And so the act that set up the whole process in 1992 mandated that after 25 years, all these documents would be fully released completely to the public unless the President authorized otherwise.

03:56 RB: And that date was last October 26th. And when the date came, President Trump, in a press release, talking about the spirit of openness, basically kicked the can down the road, and said, “No, we’re gonna have to keep many of these documents secret.” What happened since then over the last six months is that the archives did begin re-releasing documents, some with fewer redactions than previously, but still with redactions. And then finally after this six month review process, on Friday, the bulk, but not all, of the documents that were still withheld got re-released. Although again, a great many of those were still with redactions in them. So it’s been this kind of an unsatisfying process. There’s literally been seven releases since last July when this process began, and we’re still not done yet. And in fact, now there’s a new date, three years from last October, two and a half years from now, to re-review the 15,000-plus documents which still feature redactions today.

05:06 JS: Is there any reason to think that we’re ever gonna see what’s in those redactions, that even if more pages are ultimately released, that there isn’t enough pressure or enough interest at this point to ever see what’s in those redactions?

05:22 RB: Yeah. I don’t know. Many thoughts on that matter. I mean, for one thing, we are… At least the good news is we’re approaching the point where what’s being redacted are, what was sort of touted all along as being the reason, like agent or informant names, name of a person in a foreign government where it would be embarrassing to the CIA just to acknowledge it leads on that sort of thing. We’re not there yet, but it’s being reduced to a smaller collection of withheld information than where we were even a few months ago of having documents with hundreds of pages just completely whited out. So I guess that’s the good news. Whether we’ll get to the full disclosure on this matter? Good question. I’ve been unable to predict successfully each step of the way along here, so we’ll see what we’ll see. Public pressure certainly does help. It’s why this law got passed in the first place. So public attention on the matter makes a great deal of difference.

06:26 RB: I don’t know what to predict. The Mary Ferrell Foundation, all of our board members including myself wrote a letter to the Chief Archivist of the United States about six weeks ago, recommending, basically, full disclosure and some other things, and also asking some questions about anomalies and issues in the documentation of what’s been released. And we could talk about that a little bit, just, basically, records falling through the cracks, and that sort of thing. And I did get a reply from Arthur Murphy, who heads up the collection there, a partial reply. And I’ve tried to communicate with them and tried to get some clarity on some of the questions, because one of the good pieces of news is, unlike previously when you had to travel to the National Archives to collect these pieces of paper, for the first time, with this set of releases the archives themselves have been putting PDF files online.

07:32 RB: So the good news and bad news is now that they took that role upon themselves, the number of errors and problems with that process in their online listing are legion, and I’ve been trying to get some resolution on where they have two record numbers that point to the same document or the link that it points to is just a bad link and on and on and on. But we’re getting closer, I guess.

07:55 JS: Do you have a sense that in any of the documents that were released back in October or this current tranche of documents that were recently released, that if nothing else, it points the way to other files and other information that we haven’t seen?

08:11 RB: Yeah, I know a very wise person named Peter Dale Scott, that some of your listeners may know of. And way back, when he wrote Deep Politics and the Death of JFK in the early ’90s, before all these declassifications, he put in the preface of that book, that first of all, the government records will tell us more about pre-assassination intelligence operations and post-assassination cover-up, than they do about the murder conspiracy itself. But he wrote that, quote, “This oblique path to the truth about the murder is the best hope which the documents give us.” And I think that’s been born out in spades. And coupled with that, he also made the point at one point, I don’t have a quote here, but that basically, the negative template, the pattern… That the more of these documents come out, the more a pattern emerges of what should be there and is missing. And those are actually interesting clues for the murder. So for example, we now know that the Church Committee, which probably had what I would consider the most honest government investigation into these matters, they did a huge amount of work on CIA plots to kill foreign leaders, as well as a limited investigation of the Kennedy assassination, and they were more no-holds-barred than any investigation that we’ve seen before since.

09:35 RB: And it turns out that dozens upon dozens of interview transcripts that they conducted are just plain missing. The review board was aware of this fact, and tried to find them, and discovered that these records just could not be located. Another example is the President’s personal physician, a guy named George Berkeley, who was the only medical trained person both at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where Kennedy was treated with failed life-saving measures, and at the autopsy in Bethesda, and by many accounts running the autopsy. And so he was the guy that knew everything. He actually apparently took control of the brain afterwards, and all this stuff. So he was all over the medical evidence, and the one trained person who would have been able to resolve the questions the Warren Commissioners faced where the autopsy report didn’t match the observation of the Dallas doctors. And he’s the one guy you won’t find in these records. The Warren Commission acted like they’ve never heard of him. The House Committee, 13 years later, had a nine-member medical panel and they forgot to talk to him, and it’s just remarkable. And so you sort of, at least in terms of the cover-up more than the murder itself, perhaps you learn about what’s too sensitive; where the bodies are buried, I guess.

10:55 RB: Another example of that, actually, where we finally did get it released, is the House Committee interviewed a guy named Ora Spina, who was a New Orleans bar owner, who was a sometimes informant to the FBI, and told the House Committee that Lee Harvey Oswald was in fact an informant of the FBI, and he gave the name of the agent that he informed to, and that they met at his bar sometimes, and on, and on. And what the House Committee did was they wrote up a brief summary of these allegations, and then dismissed them, and then his testimony was sealed, and only released a few months ago. And some of the documents that have been withheld all this time are sort of for, what at least some people would consider legitimate national security reasons. They were tapping phone lines in Mexico or that sort of thing, and we don’t wanna let the details out. But in this case, it’s simply a guy with an allegation and he’s being interviewed and there’s nothing national security-sensitive whatsoever in the interview. And when we finally read it now, I think the problem is two things.

12:00 RB: One is he’s very credible-sounding, and the second is that he starts naming other people that should be talked to, that could corroborate what he said. And I’m not familiar enough with every single record of the House Committee to say that they didn’t talk to any of these people. I’m not sure of that, but they didn’t write about any follow-up, certainly. And now the secrecy works in this case right now, it’s so many years later, these people are all dead. And so allegations like that, just kicking the can down the road works in terms of avoiding unpleasant truth.

12:39 JS: One of the areas that you’ve talked about before, and I’m curious if there’s any new information in that regard, is regarding Oswald’s trip to Mexico, seven weeks before the assassination.

12:53 RB: There’s a little bit new. In particular, there is something some listeners may be aware of, called The Lopez Report, which is a write-up on that trip that Oswald took to Mexico City seven weeks before the assassination. Or maybe allegedly, Oswald took… There’s a lot of confusion about that trip and what actually happened there. And so this report is something that actually was secret until the 1990s, and then released with a great deal of redactions in it. Again, because it covers sensitive issues like liaison with Mexican officials, agents in Mexico, informants working inside the Cuban embassy, surveillance techniques like tapped telephone lines, and other techniques. So this is exactly the kind of thing that you’ll see tons of blackouts in.

13:41 RB: A version of that came out on Friday with far fewer redactions than previously. There are still some, but it’s 99%, maybe, in the clear at this point. And I’ve only skimmed it at this point, so I can’t tell you details. They certainly did release cryptonyms, the names where there’s a codename for an informant or agent, and now it shows the actual person. Or in fact, just names of CIA officers who could be questioned, except for they are probably all dead right now. But their names are finally revealed. It’s kind of ironic, in looking through it. I did a little bit of comparison with the version that came out in 1995, 23 years ago. And while a great many redactions have been lifted, there’s been a few new ones added. So whereas the year 1969 was public 23 years ago, now it’s apparently too sensitive to be revealed in a few instances in this document. I’m not kidding. I think a lot of this, there’s a certain amount of just idiocy. There’s probably a guy reviewing this document for release at the CIA now who never even knew what was released 23 years ago, or couldn’t be bothered to look and compare. And so they decided, “Oh, the time range for this operation is too sensitive,” even though it’s been public for 23 years. I don’t know.

15:10 JS: That’s really another part of this. Who’s making these decisions now with respect to what’s redacted and what is actually released?

15:18 RB: The agencies themselves make them. And again, it’s only a Presidential Authorization that allows that to continue at this point by law. So in some sense, President Trump is the one determining that information shall not be seen by the public. ‘Cause by the stroke of a pen, he could inform those agencies that we are abiding by the letter of the 1992 law, done. If he had gone golfing on October 26 last year, instead of signing a document, they would have all been released.

15:54 JS: And is it your sense that when they are all released at some point, even with the existing redactions, that we’re gonna know a whole lot more? Or is the real answer in what, as we talked about before, in what we’re not seeing and in the material that’s been either lost or destroyed over the years?

16:16 RB: I don’t wanna make too many predictions because I have met a lot of very bright people and I’ve been so impressed by the work they’ve done sifting through things and getting to truths that I couldn’t see reading documents. And so I won’t second guess the dedicated researchers out there. I’m personally in the big picture, somewhat. I’m certainly pessimistic that we will reach national closure on this, and come to any kind of consensus view of things. There is no document in the National Archives that is like the secret codebook that tells you what the plot was and who was in it. The government officials, many of them investigating, probably would have loved to know. Not all of them, but some [chuckle] And so at this point, the documents that we’re on, they are filling in pieces of stories that are already partially known. I certainly do not expect any major bombshell. It’s basically for people that know about stories like Oswald’s trip to Mexico, or many other aspects of the case. They’ll learn new information from these documents and get a little, sort of… The people that are doing the detailed work will certainly have much more to work with. But I don’t believe at this point that these things are gonna be game changers in any larger sense. I could be proven wrong, but I don’t expect it.

17:38 JS: In many ways, it seems there’s almost too much at this point, too many documents, that 5 million you were talking about before, that to really understand it now, it’s a question of starting to pull things out.

17:51 RB: That’s certainly true. For me personally, and other people look at the same material and reach different conclusions, and so be it. But for me personally, what I see in the broad range of these records is the incredible reek of cover up. And there’s many reasons for a cover up, by the way. I think one of the things that we learned, and I was very interested to dig into this, when Lyndon Johnson’s phone calls came out in the 1990s, what you got to hear for the first time, literally, and literally hear it yourself by listening to them was Johnson pulling the Warren Commission together, invoking the specter of World War III. And the issue here was that things like this Oswald trip to Mexico and other secret government were causing some people in the government to allege falsely, I believe, that Oswald was hired by Castro and Khrushchev to kill Kennedy.

18:47 RB: And this was a big deal inside the government, right, in the days after Oswald was killed in the police basement in Dallas. And the Warren Commission… And you now have Lyndon Johnson’s own words bragging about how he got Earl Warren put onto the Commission. Again, invoking the specter of World War III. And so I think it’s become very clear that the purpose of the original investigation, the Warren Commission, was to prevent World War III, to basically do whatever it took to tamp down suspicions and get this behind us. And my viewpoint is that Earl Warren conducted a knowing cover-up, for the good of the country as he saw it.

19:27 RB: And I think that answers, for me, anyway, it answered the question, “Why would Earl Warren lie?” Because this was a master stroke on Johnson’s part to put Warren as the head of the commission, because nobody would’ve ever believed the Alan Douglas commission, whatever conclusion they came to. And there have been many investigations since and documents come out and all this stuff. But I think we’re still living with the legacy of that initial choice by the government to say, “There’s too many scary alternatives here. We’re just gonna pin it on this guy and move on.”

20:00 JS: What do you think is the greatest misconception that people have about all of this?

20:06 RB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have a good answer for it. I don’t know if there’s even any single misconception. I guess if there’s one, I would say that there’s a lot of people that are not into this in a big way, but just might pay attention to a news story or whatever. And to me, the biggest misconception is that this thing has been investigated and they determined it’s probably Oswald. And so who am I to judge otherwise? And I think, in fact, if you look, people are always quoting the polls saying that the public disbelieves the Warren Report.

20:48 RB: Well, actually, that number keeps going down. And I think it’s partly because this is your grandfather’s conspiracy or your father’s conspiracy now, maybe not your grandfather. And for the people coming of age now they see the FBIs and [21:06] ____ on TV all the time and on and on. And there’s been no alternative narrative to who killed Kennedy that has really stuck, that has a compelling story to it. The Oswald did it story is a story you can write down and explain and has a billion holes in it. But it’s a semi-coherent story, false as it is. And there’s no real compelling counter-narrative that you could write down in a way that says, okay, this person did this, or this person did this, and this person hired that guy and whatever.

21:38 RB: There’s basically still more questions and more, I don’t know, circumstantial evidence, I guess, than a counter-narrative. And so I would say it’s a roundabout way of saying, I think a big misconception that people might have is that this thing was honestly investigated, or at least semi-honestly investigated in the first place. And I think that’s the biggest thing that these documents have proven to be false, that both major investigations, the House Committee, as well as the Warren Commission, basically were set up not to find out the truth. And so the government documents which relate to those investigations; again, and in Peter Scott’s words, are “an oblique path to the truth,” because they weren’t a no holds, barred straightforward, let’s get to the bottom of this, orientation.

22:30 JS: If there’s no Rosetta Stone to be found in all of these 5 million pages, is there anybody alive today that knows more?

22:44 RB: It probably depends on what aspect you’re talking about. I mentioned Peter Scott, and for me, he’s been one of the leading lights in the big picture stuff about what’s been going on. He was so prescient about what we were to find out about the Vietnam War, to name perhaps a mildly related topic, that when everyone knew that Kennedy and Johnson were like two fingers on the same hand when it came to Vietnam. And he was pointing out, reading the tea leaves and showing how we’d discover down the road that in fact Kennedy was pulling out of Vietnam and the whole situation changed when Johnson came into power. And that’s been now been proven out by history. And on the Kennedy assassination, he has had a lot of prescient things to say about what we would find out about the Mexico documents when they came out, and what we would find out about Oswald as an informant to the federal agencies. And so he’s been one of the people that I’ve looked to for a big picture or pointing a flash light in the right direction. But there are others as well. The Kennedy assassination has a, perhaps well deserved, reputation for being an arena that has a lot of strange people in it. But I have also met some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my life through this work.

24:09 JS: I guess the question also is is there anybody that was involved in the cover up, or that was involved in the events that transpired that might still be alive today and be able to provide more information?

24:22 RB: Yeah, another good question. I am trying to think. You know there are certainly some people are still alive, if they were in their 20s. Now, this is, what, 55 years later? People that were in any senior roles, like in government officials in the FBI or in the White House or whatever, they’re dead at this point. There are people that are alive that know a lot about the assassination from the inside. Robert Blakey, who ran the House Committee investigation, is still alive. I think there’s even some still Warren Commission staffers who are alive, although a staff member of the Warren Commission isn’t necessarily somebody I would put in that category of that. And in fact, their investigation was pretty compartmentalized. So there were guys, I thought that did good work on the Commission like Griff and Dell, but they were totally sidelined. He was on the Ruby material only, and not privy to the bigger pictures, and even when it came time to interview Ruby they left him and his partner on the tarmac, and Earl Warren and a couple of others went down to Dallas and interviewed Ruby in his jail cell without the two Ruby experts that they had on their staff, and I think that was obviously on purpose as well. They didn’t forget that they had two Ruby experts on their staff when they booked a plane flight without them.

25:49 JS: Is it frustrating for you and many others that have worked on this and looked at this and studied this for so long to know, perhaps, as you’ve said before, that there’s never gonna be an answer?

26:07 RB: Yeah. Compared to other people it’s both a blessing and a curse, I guess. I tend to have lower expectations than other people may have. I got into this, I was very, very excited in the first several years and started scanning all these documents, with the hope that it would be part of the group of people that were gonna get this thing, not only figured out but also what was already well-known, communicated to the public at large better. And I’ve gotten a little more philosophical over time. I still with the Mary Ferrell Foundation, the primary mission of the Foundation, is really dissemination of what’s already known, both in terms of good essays and writings on the case, but probably also our sort of core feature at this point is taking these declassified documents and putting them in a searchable database online for people to study. So I guess for me personally at this point, I view my role as being a facilitator. I’m a computer programmer by training. This is what I know how to do and it’s the biggest contribution that I can make personally rather than trying to become a super duper researcher and write a book or whatever. It’s saddening in some sense.

27:32 RB: The bigger… It’s very sad, and the bigger picture, the 1960s was an era where the leading liberal lights of a generation were gunned down one after another, and the Vietnam war and other tragedies followed that. It was a major turning point in the direction that America took. And the fact that so much lying went on in the aftermath about what that was all about. It was something that I found upsetting and still do in a sense. That’s part of the motivation. My personal motivation is more around just trying to have some service toward truth telling, as opposed to mystery solving per se.

28:22 JS: Rex Bradford, we thank you so much for spending time with us, for your ongoing contribution to all of this.

28:28 RB: I will say, if I may, that the Mary Ferrell foundation website at maryferrell.org. We are right now, I’m later today putting up some information on our project page we have about these documents, and over the coming weeks we’ll be taking the PDF files which are online, that the National Archives put online, and reprocessing them into our archive to make them searchable and integrated with archive, so if people wanna see what these documents are about and read some for themselves, they can go to National Archives and look at PDF files, but also we have an archive that’s more integrated into other discussion of the topic as well. So I encourage people to have a look.

29:10 JS: Give that website address one more time.

29:12 RB: Sure, it’s Mary Ferrell, that was the name of the person for whom the Foundation is named. She has a whole story about her in its own right that we don’t have time for. But M-A-R-Y F-E-R-R-E-L-L.org, maryferrell.org.

29:27 JS: Rex, I thank you so much.

29:29 RB: Thanks, sure happy to talk to you.

29:30 JS: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.