JFK assassination: Minnesota judge has heard the theories, but he’s sticking with evidence
By Bill Salisbury
Twin Cities Pioneer Press
JFK assassination: Minnesota judge has heard the theories, but he’s sticking with evidence
In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrive at Love Field airport in Dallas, as a television camera, above, follows them. (AP Photo/File)
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this week — in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — a government investigation concluded he was killed by a lone gunman, but polls show a majority of Americans still believes the 35th president was the victim of a conspiracy.
The Warren Commission asserted 10 months after Kennedy’s death that sniper Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone.
But suspicions created by the secrecy of the government agencies that investigated the assassination triggered conspiracy theories that abound to this day.
The Minnesota judge who headed a federal panel that subsequently released the government records about Kennedy’s death doesn’t buy those theories.
“I’m a judge. I deal in hard evidence and what’s admissible in court,” U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said during an interview last week while seated on a Kennedy Rocker in his Minneapolis chambers.
“I think the only hard evidence — in this case, the only evidence that’s admissible in court — points all of its fingers toward Oswald,” he said.
He stopped short, however, of ruling out a conspiracy. “I’d never say never,” he said.
From 1994 through 1998, Tunheim was chairman of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, an independent federal panel that Congress created to declassify intelligence and law enforcement records that government agencies still considered too sensitive to release to the public.
The board was made up of five citizens trained in history, archives and the law and who were not federal employees. It was the first outside group ever to have the power to order agencies to declassify government documents. Only the president could overrule its decisions, and Bill Clinton never did.
Board members wanted to build the largest collection of assassination records possible, Tunheim said. It rejected most agencies’ requests to withhold information.
U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, pictured in his Kennedy Rocker, led the federal panel that released government records about the Kennedy assassination from 1994 to 1998. “I think the only hard evidence – in this case, the only evidence that’s admissible in court – points all of its fingers toward Oswald,” he says. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)
It removed only sensitive data, he said, if it was needed to protect the president, national security, privacy or intelligence-gathering methods.
Initially, some agencies resisted disclosing records.
The FBI, for instance, appealed to Clinton to overturn the board’s decision to make public 400 documents that the bureau recommended keeping secret. Those appeals were withdrawn and no more were filed, Tunheim said, after he and FBI director Louis Freeh met with the White House counsel, who made it clear that Clinton favored releasing as much information as possible.
The CIA also was cautious at the start because no outside group had ever declassified their intelligence records, he said.
A copy of “Final Report of the Assassination Records Review Board” sits in a display case in the chambers of U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)
But agency officials started helping the board when they realized it could release information it wanted made public.
“The CIA never wants to release records on their own because that would set a precedent for something in the future,” Tunheim said. “The fact that we could release records without setting a precedent was helpful.”
The panel released about 5 million pages of documents that are now available to the public in the National Archives. They include records about the events in Dallas, Oswald and the reactions of government agencies to the assassination.
GAPS IN THE RECORD
Tunheim believes they compiled a “complete collection of what is there to be had from the Kennedy assassination.”
But he acknowledged gaps. Some records were destroyed, and others are missing. Some foreign governments have refused to turn over their investigative files.
The KGB, for instance, maintained a massive surveillance file on Oswald in the Kremlin and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, Tunheim said. He was allowed to see some of those records and had others read to him. Russian and Belarusian officials turned over some documents, he said, “but not very much.”
The board’s staff found the files of the prosecutors of Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, the gunman who killed Oswald before he could stand trial, hidden in a closet in the Dallas district attorney’s office. But Tunheim said he is disappointed they couldn’t locate the files of Ruby’s defense lawyers.
There’s some evidence that Ruby was involved in a conspiracy, he said. “That’s why I’d like to see what he told his lawyers about this whole situation.”
In an event shrouded in secrecy, Oswald traveled to Mexico City just a few weeks before the assassination and met with Soviet agents while seeking a visa so he could return to Russia. Tunheim said the FBI and CIA recorded Oswald’s phone calls while he was there, but the tapes have disappeared.
The U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 investigated Oswald’s Mexican journey, and 20 years later the review board released the committee’s records “detailing every step of his trip,” the judge said. “Documents like that help fill out the historical record.”
He recalled the committee’s chief of staff telling him: “We are convinced there was a conspiracy. All of us believe it. We think organized crime was involved, and all of us to a person agree that we can’t prove it.”
In addition to releasing records, the review board had fading photos of Kennedy’s autopsy digitalized to make them clearer, and it acquired the most complete film of the shooting, shot by citizen Abraham Zapruder, “so it remains the property of the American people forever,” he said. “It’s the most important piece of evidence in one of the most heinous crimes of the century.”
While Tunheim doesn’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories, he said the board dug up some “mini cover-ups” by government agencies.
“I think they (the Secret Service) tried to cover up mostly what they failed to do before the assassination,” he said. But they weren’t very good at it. The board got the withheld information from the FBI, CIA and other agencies.
The FBI was tailing Oswald months before the assassination because he was a suspect in another shooting in Dallas. Oswald wrote a threatening note to an FBI agent assigned to the case. After the assassination, Tunheim said, the agent’s supervisor forced him to flush the note down a toilet “and cover up the fact that they had been trailing this guy who then killed the president.”
He characterized the cover-ups as minor attempts to hide “their own failures to do their jobs well.”
‘YOU DECIDE WHAT HAPPENED’
Tunheim, 60, was an unlikely choice to lead the records review.
On that day 50 years ago, he was a fifth-grader in Newfolden, a small farm town in the far northwest corner of Minnesota. He vividly recalls his teacher, Emma Haagenson, walking into the classroom and telling her students the president had been shot.
Two days later, he watched as Ruby shot Oswald on live television in a Dallas police station.
But while those images are seared into his mind, the judge said he never read any of the more than 40,000 books written on Kennedy or his assassination.
He was Minnesota chief deputy attorney general in 1994 when the American Bar Association recommended him for the assassination records review board. When a White House aide called to ask him to take the post, Tunheim said, he replied, “Tell the president I’ve never even read a book on the subject, so I’m not an expert.”
Perfect, the aide responded. Clinton, he said, “didn’t want someone who thought he knew exactly what happened.”
Tunheim said he’s not surprised that most Americans believe Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. Hundreds of books have been written alleging a plot, he noted, and those books are more interesting than the ones that try to debunk the conspiracy theories.
The investigations immediately after the assassination were not particularly well done, he said, and that spawned more doubts.
“I think people don’t want to believe that a 24-year-old misfit with deluded notions of grandeur of some kind could walk into an awful, below-minimum-wage job with a rifle, poked it out a window and shot the leader of the free world in the head,” he said. “People want to believe that somehow some large conspiracy in some way enhances the mystique of President Kennedy.”
He believes the records the review board made public have helped dispel some of the myths and mysteries about the assassination.
But that wasn’t the board’s objective. Its goal was to open records that the government had hidden from Americans.
“Our job was not to figure out what happened,” Tunheim said. “Our job was to find the records wherever they were and make them available as publicly as possible … so people could go in, look at them and make up their own minds …
“Have at it, American people. Read this stuff. You decide what happened … because that’s your right as an American citizen.”