Updated at 8:15 p.m. ET
The National Archives has published more than 2,800 records related to the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. Journalists and history aficionados are digging through the files to see what — if any — new information can be gleaned.
Earlier Thursday, President Trump had issued a memo to executive agencies ordering the release of the records.
The files are among the last to be released by the National Archives under a 1992 law that ordered the government to make public all remaining documents pertaining to the assassination. There has long been a trove of conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's death in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, including doubts about whether assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, as the Warren Commission determined in its report the following year.
Other files are being withheld owing to what the White House says are national security, law enforcement and foreign policy concerns. The vast majority of what's being withheld is at the request of the FBI and the CIA.
The remaining redactions are going be reviewed over the next 180 days, and any not sufficiently demonstrated to need withholding will be released on April 26, 2018.
Following Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK, which posited several theories about the assassination, Congress approved the law, forming the Assassination Records Review Board. It required the government to release all its files on the assassination in 25 years, unless doing so would harm national security, giving the president authority to block the release.
President Trump had indicated he would not stand in the way and in fact tweeted on Wednesday, "The long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take place tomorrow. So interesting!"
Trump sent that message while flying to Dallas' Love Field, the airport where Kennedy landed just before he was shot.
Trump had been urged by his friend and adviser Roger Stone to allow the release. Stone has promoted the conspiracy theory that Kennedy's vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson, was behind the shooting, though there is no reliable evidence to support that.
But CIA Director Mike Pompeo had been arguing for a further delay, according to Stone, who told the website InfoWars — which promotes various unfounded conspiracy theories — that the documents "must reflect badly on the CIA even though virtually everyone involved is long dead."
The Washington Post reported that a National Security Council official said government agencies were urging Trump to block some of the files from being released.
A pair of GOP lawmakers have been pushing for a full release.
"After 54 years, there is no reason, for the sake of honesty and integrity in America, that the facts of the JFK assassination should not be made public," Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., said in a statement announcing legislation introduced earlier this month calling for a full release. "Virgil once said, 'Evil is nourished and grows by concealment.' It's time to reveal what happened that awful afternoon in 1963," he added.
Companion bills were introduced in the House and Senate by Jones and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It's unclear whether the files released on Thursday will quell the remaining doubts or add to the skepticism. A 2013 Gallup Poll found only 30 percent of Americans believe Oswald acted on his own, with theories about other actors ranging from the CIA to the Mafia to Fidel Castro.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump himself accused the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, of associating with Oswald, citing a cover run by the National Enquirer tabloid.
Most of the newly released files are believed to be CIA and FBI documents.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The government is releasing some of the last of its files on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. History buffs and conspiracy theorists are among those who have been eagerly checking the National Archives website all day. The White House says it's making some 2,800 documents available. Most of them have been kept classified ever since Kennedy's murder in Dallas almost 55 years ago. But some documents are being withheld for the time being.
Joining me now is NPR's Brian Naylor. And Brian, which records are being released, and which aren't?
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Well, Robert, there are a lot of documents, so it's going to take a while to wade through them to figure out just what's in there. So maybe it's easier to say which aren't being made available. Administration officials say they're mostly FBI and CIA files, and leaders of those agencies urged President Trump to withhold them, saying that they contain material that is still deemed sensitive relating to law enforcement, intelligence and foreign policy.
SIEGEL: Let's look a little bit further at that. The killing was in 1963. Why would the FBI and the CIA still want to keep those records secret?
NAYLOR: Yeah, that is the question. I spoke with Barbara Perry, who is director of the University of Virginia's Miller Center which studies the presidency, and she believes in part it's because the agencies had been watching Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot Kennedy, and that there may be still some secrets the agencies don't want revealed. Here's what she said.
BARBARA PERRY: We think there will be documents that indicate that he was on the radar screen of the CIA and the FBI, that they did trace him to Mexico City and this visit that he made in the months leading up to the assassination with the Soviets and with the Cubans. We just don't know to what extent these documents will reveal what was going on in those trips to Mexico City or after.
NAYLOR: And so the agencies are arguing that there are still some sources that are too sensitive to reveal and some activities involving foreign partners that they don't want to reveal.
SIEGEL: Let's assume that they - that that's what those agencies think. Do they have the authority - the FBI and the CIA - to stop the release of these documents?
NAYLOR: So it's up to the president by law. And interestingly, the president twice tweeted about the planned release, kind of promoting it yesterday on his way to Dallas, of all places, where he appeared at a fundraiser. He anticipated the long - he the tweeted the long-anticipated release of the JFK files will take place tomorrow. And he added, so interesting.
But administration officials say that agency leaders made their case to retain some of the documents, and the president acknowledged that their concerns were valid. Officials say the president does want to ensure this information gets out as soon as possible. So they now have six months to comb through these remaining unreleased documents and to make redactions if needed before they're released.
SIEGEL: I mentioned conspiracy theorists earlier. There are a lot of conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Are these documents, do you think, likely to put any of those theories to rest?
NAYLOR: Well, yeah, probably not. There have been conspiracies ever since the findings of the Warren Commission the year after Kennedy's death that Oswald was the lone gunman. There were some who said that there was somebody on the grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza, others who've said that the Soviet Union or Cuba or organized crime was involved.
In fact the president himself during last year's campaign accused the father of Republican Senator Ted Cruz of associating with Oswald, citing a cover in the National Enquirer. Barbara Perry says it's part because it's been hard for people to accept that Kennedy was killed by someone that his biographer Robert Dallek called so inconsequential.
PERRY: He did inspire people. And to be taken at such a youthful age, leaving behind a beautiful wife and two beguiling children was just more than the country could bear to contemplate at the time. And I think that's what's made this raw feeling so open to conspiracy theories.
NAYLOR: And so, you know, undoubtedly given the delay in the release of all of the records today, there will still be those who believe the government is covering something up. We'll have a better idea next spring.
SIEGEL: NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, thanks.
NAYLOR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.