WASHINGTON -- Long-sought KGB files on Lee Harvey Oswald just handed over to the U.S. government could provide fresh information about whether Oswald plotted to shoot President Kennedy while he was a defector living in the Soviet Union, historians say.
The papers, a surprise gift from Boris Yeltsin to President Clinton, are a "monumental breakthrough," said Kermit Hall, a former member of the Assassination Records Review Board, a now-defunct federal panel that tried but failed to obtain the documents in 1996.The review board, which went out of business last September, was created to locate, gather and eventually release to the public all known assassination records.
Hall said the Russian records -- declassified papers containing information gathered by Soviet intelligence agencies about Oswald -- could show what Oswald was thinking and doing in the years leading up to the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas.
"This could tell us if he was scheming to do anything," said Hall, an Ohio State University historian.
Oswald, a former Marine, defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. That attracted the attention of the KGB, which bugged his apartment in the Belarus capital city of Minsk, paid neighbors to inform on him and kept Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, under constant surveillance.
The KGB amassed a six-volume file on Oswald's activities in Minsk, Hall said.
Disenchanted with his life in Russia and his menial factory job, Oswald returned to the United States in 1962, settling in Dallas with his wife and baby. Some assassination researchers concluded that Oswald did not decide to kill Kennedy until he moved to Dallas.
The Warren Commission, which conducted the official U.S. government investigation of Kennedy's slaying, concluded that Oswald was the sole gunman.
Two days after the assassination, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald to death as police transferred him from the city jail to the county jail.
In Moscow, the Interfax news agency said Yeltsin gave Clinton 80 documents, which also detailed the Soviet government's reaction to Kennedy's assassination.
Although the assassination review board members were turned down when they sought copies of the files in 1996, writers Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller were allowed to examine some of them and used them for their 1995 book, "Oswald's Tale." The book traces Oswald's life but sheds no light on his plot to kill Kennedy.
U.S. officials said the files are in Russian. Yeltsin gave them to Clinton when they met Sunday in Cologne, Germany, for the Group of Eight summit.
It is uncertain what the files contain.