On June 22, 1962, an intelligence official drafted a memo summarizing an intercepted letter between Lee Harvey Oswald and his mother. The memo was made public a long time ago. But for 60 years the name of the letter opener was kept secret.
Now it can finally be said: According to an unredacted copy of the memo recently released by the government, the official who intercepted Oswald’s mail for the CIA in the months leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was named Reuben Efron.
And that means… what, exactly? A tantalizing lead to unravel a complicated conspiracy that the government has been trying to cover up for decades? Further evidence that the CIA knew more about Oswald than initially acknowledged? Or a minor detail hidden all this time due to bureaucratic imperatives irrelevant to the question of whether Oswald was the only gunman on the fateful day?
The mystery of Reuben Efron, who has been dead for three decades, may never be solved to the satisfaction of some who devote themselves to studying the assassination. Thirty years after Congress ordered the documents relating to the murder to be made public with limited exceptions, President Biden said he had done the « of him »final certification” of files to be released, even if 4,684 documents remain withheld in whole or in part. Going forward, the agencies will decide on any future disclosures that may be warranted by the passage of time.
The president’s certification, released at 6:36 p.m. on the Friday before the long July 4 holiday weekend, when it wouldn’t attract much attention, has frustrated researchers and historians still focused on the most sensational American murder of the 20th century. But they suffered a setback on Friday when a federal judge refused to block Biden’s order.
Jefferson Morley, the blog editor Get JFK and author of several books on the CIA, said Efron’s belated identification indicated that intelligence agencies still had something to hide from the American public.
« If they’ve been hiding this guy’s name for 61 years and they’re still hiding other things, I’d say they’re still hiding sources and methods around Oswald, » said Mr. Morley. “Why else was the name kept secret for 61 years? The CIA is trying to slam the door now, and Biden is okay with that.
On the other side of the spectrum, Gerald Posner, the author of « Case Closed, » a 1993 book that concludes Oswald single-handedly killed Kennedy, said he doubted there was hard evidence in the remaining files.
« Everyone is focused on the still hidden CIA documents, » he said. « What we’ve learned from the CIA files released this year is that they either have nothing to do with the assassination or are only tangentially related. »
While he and Mr. Morley differed on the historical evidence, Mr. Posner agreed that Mr. Biden’s decision was « an abrogation of accountability under the 1992 law » which required the release of the documents. Trusting the government to be what it is, he said, the public will never accept official assurances that there are no stunning revelations in the papers.
« I don’t think it’s there, » he said, « but you’ll only know when you have all the files available. »
Intense interest in Kennedy’s conspiracy theories prompted Congress to pass a 1992 law requiring that documents relating to the assassination be released within 25 years, except for those that could cause « identifiable harm » to national security that exceed the value of disclosure. When the deadline hit in 2017, President Donald J. Trump, who has dabbled in conspiracy theories himself, caved to pressure from intelligence agencies to allow more time. After taking office, Mr. Biden signed two memos doing the same.
Of the approximately 320,000 documents reviewed since the law’s passage, 99 percent have been disclosed, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. But 2,140 documents remain in whole or in part as a result of Mr. Biden’s action, officials said, while another 2,502 remain withheld for reasons outside the president’s purview, such as court-ordered seals, secrecy rules grand jury hearings, tax privacy limits, or restrictions imposed by people who donated documents, and 42 for a mix of both.
The vast majority of the barred documents were indeed released but with some portions redacted, officials said, including names of people still alive, addresses, telephone or Social Security numbers or locations of intelligence facilities. Officials said they were confident that none of the withheld information would change the essential understanding of the assassination.
While Mr. Biden’s June 30 order means it’s over, files and agencies have instituted « transparency plans » so that remaining drafts can be revoked in the future, such as upon the death of someone whose identity was protected. .
The Mary Ferrell Foundation, an organization that has previously sued the government over the files, has sought an injunction against Mr. Biden following his latest order. But Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern California federal district court dismissed it Friday night and dismissed other parts of the original lawsuit, although he has allowed some claims to proceed.
Lawrence Schnapf, an attorney for the foundation, denounced Biden’s action. « It is simply unfathomable to me that a man who has a bust of RFK in his office and who voted for the law could give in to the national security bureaucracy’s incredulous claims that 60-year-old documents pose such a national security risk. » security that cannot be released,” he said.
The Justice Department declined to comment, but argued in its documents that the government had complied with the law. The CIA did not respond to requests for comment. « This completes the document review requested by Congress and fulfills the president’s commitment to maximize transparency regarding President Kennedy’s assassination, » said Adam Hodge, White House spokesman.
The assassination still has enormous power to arouse suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has embraced conspiracy theories about vaccines and other issues and is now challenging Mr. Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently said the government had orchestrated a « 60-year cover-up » into the killing of his uncle.
« There is overwhelming evidence that the CIA was involved in his assassination, » he told radio host John Catsimatidis in May. « I think it’s beyond a reasonable doubt at this point. »
Mr. Trump, for his part, has promised to do in a second term what he didn’t do in the first. “I published a lot, as you know. And I will release everything else,” he said in an interview in May with The Messengera new online news site.
The last 1,103 documents released days before Biden’s order and those made public in the previous months offered new information hardly worth keeping under wraps that long. In April, for example, a file was released with the names of employees of the CIA station in Mexico City, mostly secretaries and translators. Another document listed the names of 27 unpublished CIA staffers; for what it’s worth, CIA Director John McCone’s secretaries were named Marguerite Beard, Betty Davis, and June Irish.
It is unknown if any of the hidden documents can shed any light on Reuben Efron. His name on the postal intercept note intrigued Mr. Morley. The memo was sent to Betty Egerter at a CIA unit known as the « office that spies on spies. » On the day of the assassination, Egerter’s boss told the FBI that the CIA had no information on Oswald, that in fact he had been monitored when he moved to the Soviet Union. A document released long ago showed that the agency opened Oswald’s correspondence from November 11, 1959 to May 1, 1960, and again from July 1, 1961 to May 25, 1962.
Curiously, Efron had previously been listed as being present in the room when the Warren Commission interviewed Marina Oswald, his Russian-born widow, in February 1964, the only one present whose title and role were not explained. Mr. Morley suspects that Efron was monitoring the commission’s investigation for James Angleton, the legendary CIA official, essentially his « eyes and ears inside the room. »
Efron was born in Lithuania in 1911 as Ruvelis Effronas and came to the United States via Cuba in 1939, according to immigration documents that described him as a 5-foot-3, 135-pound « merchant-seller. » In addition to English, he spoke Russian, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Yiddish and German and served in the Air Force during World War II as an interpreter. His obituary said that after the war he was « a specialist in the Soviet Union and adviser on foreign affairs » without saying for whom.
In a harmonious convergence of conspiracy, Efron reported seeing a UFO in 1955. He was traveling with Senator Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia, and an Army colonel on a train ride across the Soviet Union when all three they noticed what a CIA report called two « flying saucers ». Skeptics later suggested they were Soviet aircraft. Russell was among the members of the Warren Commission in the Marina Oswald interview room that Efron attended in 1964.
As it happened, Efron died on November 22, 1993, the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. His wife also died and she had no known children. Efforts to reach out to other family members were unsuccessful.
« People say there’s nothing significant in these files? » said Mr. Morley. “Bingo! Here is the guy who was reading Oswald’s mail, a detail they hadn’t shared until now. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think it’s suspicious.
Mr. Posner finds this less suspicious, but understands why others might. « Many of us have made up our minds, » he said. “Some of us decided there was a conspiracy, and some of us decided it was Oswald.
« But ultimately, we all want to see these files. »
Alain Delaqueriere contributed to the research.