White House

Clinton Files: White House worried that Russia would doctor JFK assassination files

Among the 4,000 documents released online Friday by the Clinton Presidential Library is a trove of records relating to the work of the Assassination Records Review Board, which was created in 1992 -- amid the furor over Oliver Stone's film "JFK" -- to fast-track the release of certain federal records relating to President Kennedy's assassination. 

President Clinton's aides faced requests from the board's members to elevate the issue in U.S.-Russia relations, with an eye toward persuading the Russians to release more of their own files relating to Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin who had defected to the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962. 

But the newly released files show the president's White House aides were wary of expending Clinton's capital on the subject -- and also worried that any documents the Russians turned over might be spurious. 

"I am a bit concerned at the likelihood that the Russian intelligence agencies will have doctored [the aging files'] contents," wrote Stuart J. Kaufman, a National Security Council staffer, in a June 21, 1999 email to an NSC colleague, William H. Leary. "[E]ven worse than their probably having removed information that makes them look bad is the possibility that they might have inserted some disinformation to try to embarrass USG [the United states government]. Some of the Russian intel folks are unreconstructed Cold Warriors. We'll have to think about how to handle that." 

When an opportunity had arisen for Vice President Gore to raise the subject with his Russian counterpart, a year earlier, White House aides quietly nixed the idea. "We already have way to many 'little' items to keep on the screen," emailed Jonathan Elkind, the NSC director for Director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs, to Richard Saunders, an aide to the vice president, in July 1998. "We simply cannot be all things to all people." 

Elkind, now an assistant secretary of energy, added that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had advised in a June 2 cable that "this would require direct POTUS-Boris intervention to move." 

The next month, the NSC's Neil Kingsley related in an email to Carlos Pascual, another NSC aide, that Russian officials had told the review board's chief that the only way the Russian security and intelligence services were "going to cough up documents is if Yeltsin orders it." Kingsley allowed as how the Kennedy assassination "could be an issue POTUS would be interested in," and that the matter could become a "hot button on the Hill if word gets around we didn't care." 

However, two days later, while relating that still another aide had advised that the Kennedy assassination "should not be a front-burner issue for POTUS," Kingsley added in parentheses: "No sh**." 

As it happened, then-President Boris Yeltsin did present Clinton, on an overseas trip in June 1999, with a trove of records relating to Oswald.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).