An important responsibility of ethical government agencies is the ability to provide documentary evidence of viable importance for later historical study. To occlude, purposefully withhold files, and even destroy evidence is the antithesis of government transparency and provides reasons to doubt official intentions regarding any matter of controversy. Official concerns about the public reaction to noted violations of law are irrelevant and do not provide a legal reasoning for destroying records. Yet by nineteen sixty-seven the Dallas Police investigation, FBI Investigation, Warren Commission, and Garrison Case had left several questions in the public mind regarding assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was also during this period that military intelligence was undertaking several illegal programs that further incentivized the need for destroying files.
During the nineteen sixties military intelligence sought to destabilize and counter the demonstrations of Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War groups within the United States. A DOD statement regarding the need for a future oversight program reveals that United States Army units required intelligence gathering to perform their missions and teamed with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to surveil threats. The required information exceeded the ability of the Bureau and thus Army intelligence began to domestically collect information. The Defense Department notes “Eventually, DoD intelligence personnel were using inappropriate clandestine and intrusive means to collect information in a nationwide data bank, and sharing this information with law enforcement authorities.” Officials reported that several targets were not “legitimate DoD targets…” and “posed no foreign threat” but instead were “U.S. persons who were exercising their First Amendment rights”. Varying types of communications used by military targets were intercepted and using media cover military intelligence had even “infiltrated the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago”.[i] Obviously the unintended expansion of military projects or “mission creep” had taken hold and morphed from just limited subjects to include nearly anyone who fulfilled the vague definition of a domestic threat.
President Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was appointed during nineteen sixty-nine and several programs that later decried by Congressional officials continued unabated. These military problems were inherited from the actions of his predecessors under past administrations. A United States Army officer would order the destruction of files regarding any “non-DOD affiliated persons and organizations” during 1971 and this vague classification would allow future damage to important evidence. House Select Committee on Assassinations counsel Robert Blakey stated amongst the impropriety occurring was the aforementioned destruction of military intelligence files. One interview of Blakey states “In 1972, largely as a result of the investigations into military intelligence…the Defense Department destroyed all the military intelligence files they had about American citizens”.[ii] It notes that all the officers involved in related evidentiary destruction were interviewed but Congressional officials retained only testimony and never actually reviewed the material in question. This purge according to the interview was attributed to bureaucratic mistakes that rendered unintended damage to the evidentiary record. Yet this quaint prior repeated excuse to avoid responsibility does not explain the destruction of evidence in this matter because documentary obliteration continued past this claimed date. The destruction of these files was largely masked in the political upheaval of the summer of 1972 as public’s eyes were first drawn to the arrest of the Watergate burglars.
Later that same year Richard Nixon would reportedly attempted to force the Central Intelligence Agency to impede the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate matter. He instructed Agency Director Richard Helms and his subordinate Vernon Walters to cover up the facts based on the advice of his staff. This command was ignored by Helms and for a time the CIA would remain outside the machinations of Nixon to bury the truth.[iii] Amidst January of nineteen seventy-three the embattled Nixon fired Agency Director Richard Helms, likely due to his noncompliance with orders to obstruct related legal investigations. During the same period former FBI agent George Gordon Liddy and former CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, the last two Watergate burglars, were found legally guilty. Just a day before the month ended Nixon would appoint the new Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson and less than six months later the President had replaced the DOD’s leader two additional times.
“February 5, 1973, Senator Edward Kennedy” put forth a Congressional resolution to “establish a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities…related to the presidential election of 1972.”[iv] The US Senate quickly approved the idea and Senator Sam Ervin was named the chair of the committee’s investigation. This would immediately signal to all related intelligence groups a potential reckoning which could target any of the organization related to illegal domestic activities. Further, this investigation began a series of inquiries which touched upon of several matters of historical importance that included the Kennedy investigation files. However, despite the beliefs of prior investigators and reporters, all the files related to the Kennedy case were not destroyed in the time period they believed.
The destruction of files would be ongoing under multiple Defense Department leaders and the uncertain nature of the DOD’s lead position seemingly added to already existing confusion. While the highest level of the Defense hierarchy was repeatedly shifting amongst 1973, those lower ranking officials intent on destroying select files among the DOD’s evidentiary holdings were more enduring. An official file regarding Lee Harvey Oswald’s records held by the DOD states “Access to Oswald’s Military Intelligence file, which the Department of Defense never gave to the Warren Commission” was also denied to the subsequent House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). According to Defense Department officials they destroyed the Oswald file as part of a program to eliminate all files pertaining to nonmilitary personnel begun with an Army directive years prior to eliminate such documents. Yet Lee Harvey Oswald’s files did not fit the criteria for destruction based upon the Army’s order.
Lee Harvey Oswald was enlisted with the United States Marines before he defected and in time was given his infamous official status as President Kennedy’ alleged murderer. Oswald had multiple issues while serving and faced military punishment for his disobedient conduct and ignoring military procedures. He clearly was a past DOD related personality of historical significance and based upon official records it was military procedure to hold the records of those with derogatory information for “twenty-five years”.[v] The Department of Defense should have maintained Oswald’s file until at least the 1980s if regular procedure were followed and would have been among the documents legally protected from deletion by later investigations. Instead the Defense Department states “Dossier AB 652876, Oswald, Lee Harvey, was identified for deletion from IRR (Intelligence Records and Reports) holdings on “(1 March 1973) as stamped on the microfilmed dossier cover.” Lyndall E. Harp was the IRR clerk identifying Oswald records and named them for removal but officials could not offer when or who exactly eradicated these files but they guessed “that the destruction was accomplished within a period not greater that sixty days following the identification…”.[vi] Harp would transfer later that year to the Defense Investigative Service and remained a civil service employee until at least the nineteen seventies. Notably the stated reasoning for several past evidentiary removals does not explain the targeted attacks upon files related to just the Kennedy investigation. As evidence has prior demonstrated, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), a subordinate of the DOD, would later not excise just files regarding unrelated people in the manner claimed but specifically tore apart all of its holdings regarding the Kennedy assassination case.
When paired with the actions of DOD subordinate groups we can observe the destruction of Oswald’s files preceded a growing attempt to scrub the legal record which violated the Department of Defense’s own protocols. While investigators noted the Army did not have specific requirements for the destruction of files, the Defense Department clearly did as evidence proves. Just months following the destruction of Oswald’s files, a fire struck the Army’s National Personnel Records Center and destroyed “16.5 million files on Army Personnel who served before 1960.” Quite the happy coincidence, as elements of the Defense Department had already begun the destruction of several files before procedure would have allowed it. This immense loss of intelligence and information was largely brushed aside into historical events with the public’s attention largely directed elsewhere.
The Kennedy case evidence would again be requested in the course of nineteen seventy-five as official inquiries began to materialize with creation of the Rockefeller Commission. The Church and Pike Committees soon followed and congressional investigations by each were ongoing in the course of nineteen sixty-six. The same year an executive order by Gerald Ford demanded greater accountability regarding prior military operations in violation of law. The Department of Defense subsequently established the office of Inspector General and launched its Oversight Program amid nineteen seventy-eight to combat the overreaching actions of its personnel. They sought to analyze and report about conducting multiple domestic surveillance and intelligence operations targeting US citizens in violation of constitutional law. The same year the HSCA would be informed by the DIA that it had destroyed all of its files related to the assassination of President Kennedy. Yet investigators remained unaware of the enormous scope of evidence the DOD and its subordinates destroyed before their investigation had even begun.
[i]. United States Department of Defense, n.d., History of the Department of Defense Oversight Program, dodsioo.defense.gov
[ii]. Bill Rockwood, November 19, 2013, Interview of G. Robert Blakey, Frontline, PBS, pbs.org
[iii]. Nixon Admits Asking CIA to Block Watergate Inquiry, Says It Refused, March 25, 1990, Los Angeles Times, latimes.com
[iv]. United States Senate, n.d., Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, senate.gov
[v]. House Select Committee on Assassination, April 20, 1978, Numbered Files, Department of Defense, p. 4 archives.gov, United States National Archives and Records Administration Number: 180-10084-10094
[vi]. House Select Committee on Assassinations, n.d., Communications, The Mary Ferrell Foundation, maryferrell.org, pp. 104-106, NARA No: 180-10147-10163