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Russian gift of JFK papers stirs assassination theorists

The Russian documents contain information on Lee Harvey Oswald, the man the Warren Commission concluded shot Kennedy to death in 1963

CNN's Bruce Morton looks at the significance of the JFK documents from Russia
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The Oswald papers

June 21, 1999
Web posted at: 10:19 p.m. EDT (0219 GMT)

In this story:

Documents described as both captivating, unremarkable

Oswald aimed at place in history


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The chairman of the disbanded John F. Kennedy Assassination Review Board, a federal government entity, tells CNN he was "pleasantly surprised" that Russia has given the United States declassified intelligence documents relating to the Kennedy assassination.

John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minneapolis, said he did not expect Russian officials to release the documents as soon as they did, although U.S. officials have been trying for years to gain the release.

Tunheim said he expects the newly acquired documents to be released by the United States publicly "in the next several months." However, U.S. officials say the documents will be made public at an undetermined point in the future.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin handed over the 80 documents about the murder of Kennedy and his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, to U.S. President Bill Clinton while both men were in Cologne, Germany, for the Group of Eight summit.

"Yeltsin had made this part of his internal effort to get many of these documents declassified, and I think these represented the ones that they felt were relevant to the Kennedy file, and that's what they passed over," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters.

"I don't know if there are more that exist that they are holding back," said Lockhart.

Documents described as both captivating, unremarkable

The documents from Russia's intelligence agency concern information gathered on Oswald, the man the Warren Commission concluded shot Kennedy in 1963.

Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, lived in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

Tunheim said he understands some of the documents released are intelligence reports by Soviet agents operating in the United States.

Tunheim said the review board had been trying for years to secure the release of the Russian documents. He says he personally met with then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1998 to make the request.

And Tunheim said the board had pressed administration officials to raise the issue during the recent G-8 summit.

The review board disbanded last fall after releasing its report and thousands of declassified U.S. documents on the Kennedy assassination. The National Archives has now taken over as the agency handling future release of assassination documents.

So what's in the documents?

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who reads Russian, has looked at about half and found nothing remarkable -- but, according to a senior administration official, still calls them "captivating given the subject."

Oswald aimed at place in history

Others have had glimpses of the documents over the years. ABC's "Nightline" examined some back in 1991 -- mostly about Oswald when he lived in Minsk.

Author Norman Mailer also saw some documents when researching a book about Oswald.

Mailer said he believed that Oswald "thought he was going to be one of the world's great men" and if that involved assassination, "he wasn't going to stop short at that," the author told CNN in 1995.

The documents, which will eventually be sent to the National Archives, won't end the arguments about the assassination.

David Lifton is writing a book about Oswald.

"If you believe he's not the assassin, which is my belief, then I certainly want to know everything about him, and since he was in the Soviet Union from a week or two before his 20th birthday until he was about 22 and a half, these are very important years," he said.

Historian Robert Dallek is writing a book on Kennedy.

"What's important to people is that they can't imagine that someone as consequential as Kennedy was killed by someone as inconsequential as Oswald," he said.

The Eternal Flame still burns at Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. The arguments about who killed the president still burn as well.

Producer Bill Mears and Correspondent Bruce Morton contributed to this report.

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Arlington National Cemetery
National Archives and Records Administration
    • National Archives To Open Additional JFK Materials (May 27, 1999)
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