John Tunheim '75 chaired the Assassination Records Review Board charged with releasing secret government files relating to the Kennedy assassination to the public.
He has held one of the fatal bullets, examined the dried blood on the president’s coat and peered through the scope of the rifle alleged to have been used by Lee Harvey Oswald. These are three key pieces of evidence in what may be the greatest unsolved mystery of the century: Who was responsible for the assignation of John F. Kennedy?
Examining those artifacts from 1963, kept in a cardboard box in the National Archives, is part of 1975 graduate John Tunheim’s search for truth. His job is to release to the public thousands of secret government files relating to the Kennedy assassination. More than three decades after an event that changed the course of history, dozens of federal agencies are still refusing to release up to 2 million pages of information.
“It’s not our responsibility to decide what happened in Dallas,” says Tunheim. “It’s simply our responsibility to find records, wherever they are, and make them available to the public, to let people decide for themselves.”
Tunheim, who is Minnesota’s chief deputy attorney general, is chair of the five-member U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, appointed by President Clinton under a special law passed by the Congress. This independent agency has subpoena and immunity powers not available to the Warren Commission or numerous other boards that looked into these matters in the past.
The CIA and the FBI have already released massive files of documents, but Tunheim’s group must decide if there are legitimate reasons to keep the remaining secret information under wraps. Documents already made public indicate there were photographs, autopsy records and X-rays of the president that were never examined in previous investigations and are now missing.
With the cold war over, the CIA under new leadership and the death of Kennedy’s widow, Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis, Tunheim believers the time is right to find the material and lift the veil of secrecy.
“It’s a project that can go beyond the issue of the Kennedy assassination. It gives a very important window into secrecy issues in our federal government and hopefully will prove there is no need to hide everything away from the American public for decade upon decade,” says Tunheim.
His dedication to the principles of open government was formed in early political science and history classes at Concordia. He remembers hearing from one of the first conspiracy buffs during a lecture on campus. “I was always taught that openness was the best policy,” says Tunheim. “Americans were denied what would have been the trial of the century; it would have given some finality to the issue. The public needs to have access to information about the past. If you don’t understand what happened in history, you’re bound to repeat those mistakes.
“I think it is a fascinating window on that era of history. I possess a great appreciation for the value of these materials to scholars and researchers,” says Tunheim. Committee staff members are traveling the world, hunting for files in Washington, Dallas, New Orleans, Cuba and Russia for material never before released. Tunheim would like to see these historical documents carefully organized and widely distributed using CD-ROMs and other modern technology.
The massive job of finding and reviewing the documents must be completed by Oct. 1, 1997. So, rather than spending this summer at the family cabin on Minnesota’s Lake Lizzie, Tunheim will be in Washington under tight security surrounded by the pages of history.
This story ran in the Spring 1995 issue of Concordia Magazine.
Editor’s note: In March 1995, Tunheim was nominated by U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone for a federal district judgeship in Minnesota. The panel released about 5 million pages of documents that are now available in the National Archives.