October 22, 2017–The Big Bad Wolf, in this case, is the set of documents related to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, long kept secret, which by law must be released–declassified in full–by a date certain that is coming later this week. The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, passed in 1992, provided a 25-year extra shield for those documents that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and others could convince a board were so sensitive and so secret they should continue to be classified. That protection runs out this week. There is a narrow exception provided in the law for agency heads to appeal to the president for continuation of secrecy. Yesterday in a tweet, Donald J. Trump declared that he was going to open the files. With typical Trumpian two-facedness the president made that declaration “subject to the receipt of further information.”
By several accounts CIA director Mike Pompeo has been lobbying Prresident Trump almost daily to keep up the secrecy. What’s so secret? Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter who has written about the Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy’s assassination, provides a fascinating clue. As reported by Ian Shapira in today’s Washington Post, Shenon believes CIA is especially concerned to keep secret papers written in the 1990s. Of course, Kennedy’s murder took place in 1963. The various permutations of evidence, and chains of logic bearing on the CIA, the FBI, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination, and the rest have been burbling around for years, even decades. In the 1990s Langley–the CIA–sought extra secrecy for its operations against Fidel Castro, in Mexico and Central America, it’s private knowledge of what Cuban exile plotters were up to, and so on. Langley’s paladins fought hard–the Kennedy Records Board could hardly get the agency to admit there was such a thing as a “station.” Ultimately Langley conceded the existence of several individual ones but burped at admitting the whole.
In 2017 such issues are moot. What are Langley’s concerns about documents originating in the 1990s? Those are the papers that concern CIA’s dealings with the Kennedy Assassination Records Board. The documents show that the agency’s Office of General Counsel initially advised CIA components that they had a statutory responsibility to produce a wide range of records to the Board, which would decide what to open or keep secret. Langley’s fiefdoms, especially the Directorate of Operations balked. Soon the CIA lawyers, gunslingers, were narrowing the scope of their cooperation with a Board that had lawful access to those records. During the later phase of this scorched document policy Langley’s point man in its fight with the Kennedy Board was none other that Robert J. Eatinger, who has recently acquired notoriety in the CIA torture scandal. Eatinger, whose name reportedly was mentioned more than 1,600 times in the Senate torture report, was the person who attempted to get the Justice Department to investigate the Senate for secrecy violations, and who supervised CIA’s countersurveillance operation against the Senate’s own investigators of Langley’s torture program.(Read more about Eatinger in my book The Ghosts of Langley.)
Basic regulation of the secrecy system in the United States is accomplished by presidential regulation. The current authority here is Executive Order 13526 of December 2009. Only a few categories of information qualify for secrecy protection. These include intelligence activities, sources or methods; and cryptography. Information can only be considered for classification if “unauthorized disclosure could reasonable be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” of the United States. Moreover, no information can be kept secret for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment to an agency or concealing illegal activity. The CIA’s dealings with the Kennedy Board fall precisely into that category.
It is not national security Langley seeks to protect. In 2017 the CIA wants to hide the extent to which it disputed the mandate of a lawfully constituted national board that had the power to open secret records. Plus there is the direct connection, in the person of Robert Eatinger, between that series of events and Langley’s struggle to suppress the Senate torture investigation. These are not security issues, they are fundamentally political. You cannot find national security grounds to justify this secrecy. The Big Bad Wolf of final declassification is barking at the door and the CIA is donning the costume of national security anyway, thinking everyone will fall into line. Don’t be fooled.