Release JFK assassination files
Earlier this week the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, in which President Abraham Lincoln speculated, “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here…”
Today marks another important anniversary. It is doubtful, however, whether many people 50 years ago could have imagined how the assassination of John F. Kennedy, traumatic and gruesome as it was, still would be such a fixation for many Americans in 2013. A veritable industry has grown up around the events of that day in Dallas, with countless books, movies, symposia and studies being spawned by conspiracy theories that, if all were true, would have had the street outside the Texas Schoolbook Depository virtually lined with snipers.
No doubt, the reasons for this fixation are many and varied. Many Americans who lived through that day mourn for more than a young president who seemed so full of life and energy. To them his sudden death was an end to boundless idealism, just as it seemed to mark the beginning of a series of events that tarnished their trust in government and political leaders.
Even Kennedy himself has suffered in ensuing years as the truth about his dalliances and his cold political calculations on civil rights and other key issues have come into focus. Fifty years ago, the office of the president commanded respect and dignity. Even those who showed up in Dallas that day with signs protesting the president's policies were tame compared with what his successors — beginning with Lyndon Johnson and the anti-war protestors and carrying on through Barack Ohama and the vitriol of talk radio — have had to endure.
Americans have seen many wars and scandals in the ensuing years, including the resignation of a president and the impeachment (and acquittal) of another. They have seen runaway spending jeopardize the nation's credit rating following the near collapse of the economy.
There are plenty of reasons to regard 1963 as a happier time.
But there is one overriding reason why the fixation continues. Thousands of pages of documents related to the investigation of Kennedy's death remain classified and off-limits to researchers.
As an Associated Press report noted this week, author Jefferson Morley, former House investigator G. Robert Blakey and others have joined in a lawsuit to try to get the CIA, which controls most of these documents, to release them. Surely, after a half-century, whatever national security issues these documents might concern have dissipated. Surely, the nation has more to gain from their release than would be protected by their continued obscurity.
As British author Anthony Summers told the AP, “By withholding (Kennedy-related documents) the agency continues to encourage the public to believe they're covering up something more sinister.”
Perhaps these puzzles will be solved four years from now. A law passed in 1992 set up a review board charged with releasing assassination records. The law requires all remaining documents to be released by 2017 unless agencies can successfully argue that doing so would pose a danger.
Something tells us the intelligence community won't be so eager to let go.
For an older generation, the 50th anniversary has brought many old emotions to the surface. The filmed and televised murder of a president and the subsequent public mourning of a wife and two small children presented the nation with a trauma it can't soon forget. For Americans who lived through those events, Nov. 22always will tug at the heart.
But for the federal government, the never-ending barrage of questions and theories should be a constant reminder that the nation finally needs to know as much about what happened to its president as possible.
Kennedy assassination: How it changed TV forever
by Chuck Barney
In life, John F. Kennedy was the first American president to embrace the power of television. In death, he forever changed the medium and the relationship we have with it.
During the hours and days after those fateful gunshots rang out in Dallas, television news did something it had never done before: cover a seismic national tragedy in real time, on a nonstop basis.
Veteran newsman Dan Rather believes that was when the medium came of age.
“The Kennedy assassination was the day that television became the new national hearth around which people gathered when there were important events,” says Rather, who was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, reporting for CBS. “And from that moment on, television became dominant as a news source of the country.”
The tragedy also threw open the door to a frenetic, messy and unfiltered form of coverage that has only been amplified in today's ultracompetitive era of 24-hour cable news stations and social media.
“Up until that weekend in Dallas, what people saw was the finished news product — the edited story and the cropped photo in their newspapers, or the packaged stories that appeared on television,” says longtime CBS journalist Bob Schieffer, who covered the slaying for the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth. “This was the first time people had ever seen the news being gathered. They discovered that it wasn't all that dignified. There was pushing and shoving and shouting. A lot of people did not like what they saw.”
The seminal event took place at the dawn of a brave new media world. Only two months before the assassination, television's three broadcast networks expanded their nightly newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes. Working with film rather than instant video, correspondents in Texas expected to cover Kennedy's visit via carefully prepared segments on their evening broadcasts.
Instead, they scrambled — and often struggled — to cover a heart-wrenching story as it unfolded.
Robert MacNeil, then the White House correspondent for NBC, was on the media bus with the presidential motorcade when shots were heard in Dealey Plaza. He yelled for the driver to stop and bolted outside.
“The air was filled with the most intense sound of collective screaming,” he recalls. “It was like nothing I ever heard before.”
After learning the president had been shot, MacNeil ran into the Texas School Book Depository searching for a telephone. There he encountered a man hurriedly leaving the building. He would later suspect the man was accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
At CBS headquarters in New York, production personnel rushed to get anchor Walter Cronkite on the air, only to discover that there wasn't a camera in the news studio. As they scrambled to retrieve one from another part of the building, Cronkite's initial bulletins were audio-only reports, delivered from a radio booth and breaking into the afternoon soap opera, “As the World Turns.”
There were similar obstacles elsewhere. MacNeil recalls being at Parkland Hospital and having trouble getting his telephoned updates on the air during NBC's telecast anchored by Chet Huntley and Frank McGee.
“They couldn't patch my voice through to the air,” MacNeil says. “There's some ridiculous footage of Huntley trying to hold the microphone to the phone, but it didn't work. Finally, I just had to talk to them, and they repeated what I said to the audience.”
When official confirmation came that the president was dead, Cronkite, who had ascended to the CBS anchor seat just a year before, delivered the pronouncement that became the defining TV-news moment of the tragedy. His eyes moist and voice cracking, he told America that “... Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
“For that one moment, his humanity showed,” says Father Michael Russo, a professor of communications at Saint Mary's College who, in the late '60s, worked as a desk assistant for Cronkite.
“He wasn't yet the so-called most trusted man in news,” Russo says of his old boss. “He was basically inventing the role of anchorman as he went along. And that moment became iconic — played over and over and burned into our memories.”
Viewers were transfixed. Over the next four days, the three networks dumped regularly scheduled programming and suspended commercials to provide uninterrupted news coverage. During that period, 96 percent of TV-owning households tuned in for an average of more than 31 hours apiece, and a record-setting 41.5 million television sets were in use during Kennedy's funeral Monday afternoon, according to Nielsen.
And in the end, a president who had found a great ally in television would help the medium assume a greater role in the lives of America. From his magnetic performance in his debate with Richard Nixon, through his camera-friendly news conferences, where his wit and charm were on constant display, Kennedy was a made-for-TV leader.
“You had this young, vigorous, active president and his beautiful wife and these lovely children,” Schieffer says. “We came to know so much more about them because of television. We had never known a president and his family as intimately as we thought we knew the Kennedys, which made it all the more shocking when this president was shot down in seconds by the bullets fired by a mad man. That day, America felt a new kind of vulnerability that it had not felt before.”
It's telling that the most emblematic footage of the assassination — captured by spectator Abraham Zapruder, with his home movie camera — didn't air for more than a decade, largely because it was considered too disturbing for public consumption. However, a handful of reporters were allowed by Zapruder's attorney to view the footage shortly after it was shot. The group included Rather, who was “absolutely dropped-jawed and bug-eyed” before gathering himself and going on the air to describe what he saw.
“Obviously, that would not happen today,” says Rather, who now works for AXS TV. “(It) probably would have been on the air almost instantly because it more likely would have been videotaped, or (shot) with an iPhone.”
That said, it is tempting to wonder what coverage of Kennedy's assassination might have looked like had it been conducted with the diffused instant-media frenzy that now exists. Envision relentless high-def replays, from every angle, not only on the 24/7 cable stations, but on YouTube, along with rampant speculation on Twitter and elsewhere.
“One can only imagine,” Schieffer says. “In those days people generally got their news from news organizations that had reputations, who were very careful not to print or broadcast something unless they were sure it was true. If this had happened today just imagine how many unsubstantiated stories would have gone out because everyone there would have had their own version. I think it would have been total chaos.”
Alabama grants posthumous pardons to Scottsboro Boys
Nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931.
by Brian Lyman
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama's parole board voted Thursday to grant posthumous pardons to men known as the Scottsboro Boys from a 1931 rape case.
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted full and unconditional pardons to three of the nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in northeast Alabama in 1931.
The board unanimously approved the pardons for Haywood Patterson, Charlie Weems and Andy Wright after a short hearing in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday. The three men were the last of the accused to have convictions from the case on their records.
"This decision will give them a final peace in their graves, wherever they are," said Sheila Washington, director of the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro, who helped initiate the petition.
Patterson, Weems and Wright, along with defendant Clarence Norris, were convicted on rape charges in 1937, after a six-year ordeal that included three trials, the recantation of one of the accusers and two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions on legal representation and the racial make-up of jury pools. Eight of the nine men were initially convicted by all-white juries; one, Roy Wright, was considered too young to receive the death penalty.
Alabama ultimately dropped rape charges against five of the accused. Norris received a pardon from then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1976.
Last spring, the Alabama Legislature unanimously passed a law to allow the parole board to issue posthumous pardons for convictions at least 80 years old. The law was specifically designed to allow the pardon of the Scottsboro Boys to go forward.
In October, a group of scholars petitioned the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant pardons to the men. The petition was endorsed by the judges and district attorneys of the counties where the initial trials took place.
"This is a different state than it was 80 years ago, and thank God for that," said state Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican from Decatur where the second and third round of trials took place. "It's an important step for our state to take."
Under Alabama law, pardons can only be granted to those who have felony convictions on their record. The petitioners had initially hoped the board would review the status of each of the defendants.
In a statement Thursday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley praised the parole board's decision.
"While we could not take back what happened to the Scottsboro Boys 80 years ago, we found a way to make it right moving forward," the statement said. "The pardons granted to the Scottsboro Boys today are long overdue."
The board's decision led to a round of applause Thursday morning, but many of those who worked on the pardon called the news bittersweet. Patterson died of cancer in 1952, and many of the other defendants, including Weems and Wright, moved out of Alabama and kept a low profile after their release from prison.
University of Alabama professor John Miller, who helped prepare the petition, said at the time of his pardon, Norris was living in New York under his brother's name.
"With some of them, we really don't know if they died with their right name, or a different name," Washington said. "They no longer wanted to be known."
Most of the Scottsboro Boys vanished from history after their releases from prison. Weems moved to the Atlanta area after his release, but like all but three of the Scottsboro Boys, his date of death is unknown.
"It's tragic in that those young men's lives were destroyed, all by a very biased and unfair judicial process," Orr said. "The place where you seek justice did not dispense justice for these young men. It ruined their lives, some more than others, and it affected them to their graves."
James Miller, a professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University and author of Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial , said in a phone interview Thursday that the pardon was "long overdue," but added that "retrospective indignation" did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Scottsboro Boys.
"I'm very cautious about hailing this as a significant stride," said Miller, who contributed to the pardon petition. "I think it provides an opportunity for deep reflection on the vagaries of race in the criminal justice system, especially in United States and in the South. I'm very happy this occurred, but the people who would benefit from it are no longer with us, and they have very few descendants left."
License plate readers spark privacy, public safety debate
by Maggie Clark
Police have used cameras that read the license plates on passing cars to locate missing people in California, murderers in Georgia and hit-and-run drivers in Missouri.
The book-sized license plate readers (LPRs) are mounted on police cars, road signs or traffic lights. The images they capture are translated into computer-readable text and compiled into a list of plate numbers, which can run into the millions. Then police compare the numbers against the license plates of stolen cars, drivers wanted on bench warrants or people involved in missing person cases.
Privacy advocates don't object to police using LPRs to catch criminals. But they are concerned about how long police keep the numbers if the plates don't register an initial hit. In many places there are no limits, so police departments keep the pictures—tagged with the date, time, and location of the car—indefinitely.
The backlash against LPRs began in earnest this year, as three more states limited law enforcement use of the systems and in some cases banned private companies from using the systems, for example, to track down cars for repossession. So far, five states limit how the cameras are used, and the American Civil Liberties Union anticipates that at least six other states will debate limits in the upcoming legislative session.
In New Hampshire, police and private companies (with the exception of the tolling company EZ Pass) are forbidden from using license plate readers. Utah requires police to delete license plate data nine months after collection. In Vermont, the limit is 18 months and in Maine it is three weeks. Arkansas police have to throw out the plate numbers after 150 days and parking facilities are the only private companies allowed to use the technology.
"It's been surprising to find out how license plate readers are being used and how long the data is being kept," said Michigan state Rep. Sam Singh, a Democrat, who is sponsoring legislation to limit police in his state from keeping license plate numbers for longer than 48 hours. Police are using the cameras in a handful of Michigan cities, including Detroit and East Lansing.
Singh's legislation would also make the license plate data exempt from public records requests so that, for example, divorce attorneys couldn't request license plate reader data to confirm where a spouse was at a particular time. The bill, which is still in committee, also would limit how private companies can use license plate readers to track down cars for repossession.
"We just fundamentally believe that Americans don't need to be watched unless there's probable cause of wrongdoing," said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the Michigan ACLU, which supports Singh's bill. "We don't need a 'just in case' database. That just turns democracy and our sense of due process on its head."
The debate over license plate readers and other law-enforcement technologies is a local expression of a national wariness about government spying in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency's far-reaching data collection on ordinary citizens across the world.
"People are saying, 'I can't control the NSA, but I can rein in what local law enforcement agencies are collecting,'" said Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist at the ACLU. Last July, the ACLU released a report warning about the lack of policies for license plate reader programs. The group also has promoted model legislation to limit how long police can keep license plate data.
For proponents of the technology, the timing of the NSA leaks couldn't have been worse. "I would hate to see that because of bad timing, a great technology is banned or didn't rise to the level it could have," said Todd Hodnett, the founder and chairman of Digital Recognition Network, a license plate reader manufacturer which sells the cameras to private companies, including towing firms, banks and insurance companies. An LPR system, which typically includes four cameras, costs between $15,000 and $18,000.
Lumping license plate readers in with the NSA surveillance system creates a false equivalency, according to Hodnett. "The NSA revelations have created an environment that has people on edge, but it's unfortunate and quite scary that someone could compare listening to a phone call to photographing a publicly visible license plate," he said.
Hodnett also argued the focus on data limits is misplaced, because matching a license plate to a person's DMV records or driver's license record is a two-step process governed by the Driver's Privacy Protection Act passed by Congress in 1994. When law enforcement officers want to make a query of DMV records using a license plate number, they have to show a "permissible purpose," which includes public safety, motor vehicle theft, court proceedings or notifying owners of towed or impounded vehicles.
Until a license plate number is matched to DMV data, it's as anonymous to officers as it is to a person standing on a street corner. That two-step process is what keeps the technology from infringing on privacy, said Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and the retired police chief of Livonia, Mich.
"There's an additional step that has to be taken to find out who the drivers are," said Stevenson. "People's pictures and names don't just pop up when they drive past license plate readers."
The U.S. Supreme Court and multiple federal courts have affirmed there is no expectation of privacy for a publicly visible license plate. Hodnett is building a case to argue that prohibiting license plate readers from taking photographs of publicly visible license plates is a violation of the First Amendment.
Tracking the Marathon bombers
In the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, police used license plate reader data to establish where the Tsarnaev brothers had traveled and where they might be headed, based on places they'd already been. Police used license plate readers to track Dzokhar Tsarnaev to Watertown, Mass., where police found him hiding in a boat in a resident's backyard.
Even though LPR data was used in that investigation, Watertown's state representative is pursuing legislation to limit license plate readers. Under Democratic Rep. Jonathan Hecht's legislation, police would be required to delete license plates collected after 48 hours, but they could hang on to data longer if it was specifically part of a criminal investigation, like the search for Tsarnaev.
"Public safety is very important and we want to use new this technology for safety," said Hecht. "But as has been true throughout our history, public safety has to be balanced against other important privacy values. In wake of the revelations about the NSA, people are concerned that we're letting technology get away from us."