How to Read (And Actually Understand) the Boatload of Documents Released on JFK's Assassination

Conspiracy theorists, get excited for answers to your burning questions.

Getty Images / Tom Pennington

On Thursday, the National Archives released a load of secret files on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as mandated in a bill 25 years ago. The dozens of conspiracy theories surrounding his death could hopefully be resolved, but probably only for those willing to scour thousands of records.

To make matters more complicated, it was reported late Thursday that the administration would only allow the release of 2,800 documents, while tens of thousands more would be held for an internal review.

In 1992, lawmakers passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act after the groundbreaking movie JFK fueled conspiracy theories nationwide. The bill requires the government to make available all assassination-related records by October 26, 2017. And since Pres. Trump tweeted he would move forward with the release despite objections from CIA and FBI officials citing security concerns, all eyes are on the National Archives’ website, home of the government’s public records.

Officials had been expected to release more than 3,500 records that have been “withheld in full,” as well as about 35,000 documents that have been partially classified thus far, according to the Mary Ferrell Foundation, a nonprofit that maintains an extensive collection and database of JFK-assassination files. This group of files represents only 11 percent of all the documents on JFK’s assassination, which gives some perspective on just how many records exist.

At the least, the government was forced last year to provide a list of the soon-to-be released records in response to a Freedom of Information request. The documents are only identified by subject, but they do break down to about two-thirds from the CIA and FBI, and one-third from various federal agencies.

Even the most expert conspiracy theorists and researchers would have a difficult time sifting through all of that material, especially given the CIA and FBI jargon and codes that will be necessary to translate. Despite the news that we may need to wait to see the entire dossier, here are some the key files and topics to look out for when the documents are finally released:

Lee Harvey Oswald’s ‘201 File’: Personality Profile

This 63-page assessment of Lee Harvey Oswald is important to expand on his motive, means and opportunity in killing JFK. Remember that the FBI’s official stance on the situation is that Oswald was a lone gunman with Marxist beliefs and did not act on behalf of a bigger group or country.

Mexico City is Important

Officials apparently looked closely into a trip that Oswald took to Mexico City weeks before he fatally shot Kennedy in Dallas. The CIA office in Mexico City tracked Oswald during his trip, and many of the documents are drawn from the bureau, Politico reported. Oswald’s trip included meetings with Cuban diplomats and Soviet spies, and FBI documents hint that he may have shared with people his intention to kill Kennedy. However the CIA didn’t take action on their surveillance, and later tried to deter the investigating group, called the Warren Commission, from looking too closely into Oswald’s trip and potentially putting the CIA at fault.

Did Cuba Play a Role in JFK’s Murder?

The CIA had doubts about the FBI’s theory, but apparently didn’t voice their concerns because they didn’t want the Warren Commission to find out about their long-standing plot to assassinate Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro. A theory with noticeable traction has emerged from this that Oswald shot Kennedy on behalf of Cuba in retaliation for planning to kill Castro.

Trump’s Theory: Ted Cruz’s Father was Responsible

During Trump’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly floated the notion that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz Sr., had ties to Oswald before before he shot JFK. Trump’s evidence is apparently a photo of Oswald with a man that draws some resemblance to Cruz Sr., who grew up in Cuba. Of course, there’s no evidence to support this.

Search for Files “Formerly Withheld in Full”

In the past, the National Archives has labeled which documents have not yet been released at all to the public. These are the pieces of information officials deemed the most sensitive and classified, and likely have some of the most compelling and secretive information on the JFK assassination. There are more than 3,000 of these though, so this is still a daunting task.

What’s Not Released?

What the federal government decides to withhold from its document dump will be extremely crucial. Trump had said he would allow the release of files in full, but the Washington Post reports that the White House may hold allow officials to not disclose some records if “agencies provide a compelling and clear national security or law enforcement justification.” Pending this internal review, it’s easy to wonder if some documents will never see the light of day.

This story has been updated to reflect the news late Thursday that some of the JFK files will not be released on October 26.