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JFK, Trump and the Minnesota connection(s)

Minnesota has played a prominent role in matters relating to the unfolding document declassification and disclosure.

Absent a sudden change of course, the government will soon reveal the remaining records about the JFK assassination.
REUTERS/Larry Downing

The announcement by President Donald Trump last weekend that, absent new “information,” he will support the release by the government scheduled for this Thursday, Oct. 26, of the final tranche of documents related to the assassination of one of his presidential predecessors, John F. Kennedy, recalls some of the Minnesota connections to that determination.

Marshall H. Tanick

The president does not actually have the authority to divulge the documents, which have been classified as secret for more than five decades. A federal law enacted in 1992 —  spurred by Oliver Stone’s award-winning movie “JFK,” which with great dramatic license strung together many of the conspiracy theories that had been circulating for years — provides for declassifying the remaining documents and releasing them this month unless barred by presidential fiat.

Declaring that he will not exercise his right to prevent the disclosure, the president, with characteristic immodesty, suggested that he was in the vanguard of transparency in government.

Some closure — or more skepticism?

Regardless of self-aggrandizement, the prospective waiver of objection is prudent; it may bring some closure to the continuing doubts about the mysterious events and personages involved in the assassination. But it is equally likely, if not more so, to fuel even more skepticism about the conflicting official governmental determinations, first from the Warren Commission in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the slaying, to that of a special bipartisan committee of the House of Representatives more than a decade later that the assassination “probably” was the product of some unknown conspiracy, possibly under the auspices of organized crime.

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The upcoming document dump also is timely, coming barely four weeks before the 54th anniversary of the horrific events in Dallas beginning shortly after noon on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

Trump left himself a little wiggle room. He said he might bar disclosure if he receives “further information” reflecting that revelation would constitute a “compelling and clear” threat to national security or law enforcement practices.

A number of government agencies are willing to take him up on that prospect — especially the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), whose director, former Rep. Mike Pompeo, is reportedly livid over the imminent placement into the public domain of thousands of records that have been concealed for decades as well as others that have been partially released or heavily redacted over the years. The concern is said to center on intelligence surveillance of Oswald when he purportedly was in Mexico, consorting with Cuban officials and Russian agents, less than two months before the assassination, and the inaction by the CIA and some other agencies regarding the threat posed by Oswald.

Whether there is a last-minute reprieve for the withheld documentation remains to be seen. It surely would not be the first time — nor probably the last — that Trump changes his mind and course of action.

But if some late intervention occurs, pressure will undoubtedly mount for the release of the materials, which probably will make their divulgence inevitable.

Minnesota matters

Regardless of if — and when — that occurs, Minnesota has played a prominent role in matters relating to the unfolding document declassification and disclosure.

Minnesota had little connection with the assassination itself; there were no significant Minnesota-related events, individuals, or groups associated with it. But, after it transpired, Minnesotans have been near the forefront of the continuing controversy.

The head of the government unit assigned responsibility over the documents still withheld, in whole or in part, in the 1990s was a Minnesotan. Thief River Falls native John Tunheim, a highly regarded federal court judge in Minnesota, was picked to lead the unit, known as the JFK Records Review Board. Created by Congress, and approved by the first President George Bush, a former CIA director, the organization occasionally declassified bits-and-pieces of withheld materials, leaving several thousands still secret, pending the upcoming revelations.

Tunheim has since been elevated to chief judge of the local federal court and has long ceased involvement with the JFK Records Board.

Before Judge Tunheim took over those record-keeping reins, another federal jurist with a Minnesota background played a central role in the JFK brouhahas. William Webster, a judge with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, served as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for nearly a decade and then as chief of the CIA for four more years from 1978-1991, a time period when both agencies were struggling with the aftermath of the on-going JFK investigations, conspiracy claims, and cover-up criticisms. Prior to that, he sat on the appellate court, headquartered both in St. Louis and in St. Paul, that oversees federal litigation in Minnesota and six surrounding states, frequently heard cases in the federal courtrooms in the Twin Cities, and adjudicated many Minnesota lawsuits.

Another, less mainstream Minnesotan has been associated with the assassination controversy by beating the conspiracy drums for years. James Fetzer, a retired emeritus professor of the philosophy of science at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota, has been one of the most vocal, if not convincing, purveyors of conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination, along with other cataclysmic events including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Iron Range airplane crash that took the life of Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, and others a year later; and the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting massacre, among others.

Although his hypotheses have been more incredible than insightful, he has been among those who stirred the pot undermining the credibility of the Oswald-acted-alone proposition of the Warren Commission and its adherents. Fetzer’s outlandish views paved the way for the acceptability of JFK assassination conspiracy buffs more tethered to reality, including a passel of them here in Minnesota, ranging from “A” attorneys to “Z” zealots. 

‘Four Days in November’

A nearby native Iron Ranger, the late Vincent Bugliosi, played a counterbalancing role in the JFK assassination legacy. The famed Los Angeles prosecutor of Charles Manson and his cabal, and later best-selling author of numerous books, was born and raised in Hibbing. His 2008 book entitled “Four Days in November” represented an epic undertaking in support of the Oswald did-it-alone theory propounded by the Warren Commission. Although not free from flaws, the book meticulously targets and shoots down many of the arguments of the conspiracy crowd, including Fetzer and others.

All of these characters, from President Trump to zany conspiracy groupies and their opponents, have converged as the government prepares, absent a sudden change of course, to reveal the remaining records about the JFK assassination. It’s an unforgettable event that continues to resonate more than five decades later in no small part due to the contributions of Minnesotans.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney, historian and amateur JFK assassination buff. 

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