Congressional Investigation Records Under 30-Year Seal

Records of the congressional investigation into Peoples Temple and the deaths in Guyana on 18 November 1978 will not be released until 2008 or 2009 at the earliest, according to the committee which has custody of the records.

The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs – now known as the Committee on International Relations – investigated the assassination of Rep. Leo Ryan and the deaths of Peoples Temple members that followed. The committee’s May 1979 report contains a short description of the events and a superficial analysis of the performance of U.S. government agencies, both before and after the deaths. The bulk of the 782-page committee report includes congressional correspondence authorizing the investigation, lists of the Jonestown dead, lists of Social Security checks recovered at Jonestown, reprints of the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act, and newspaper and magazine coverage of the deaths in Guyana.

Throughout the volume, however, are notations of material in the “classified version” of the committee report. Items in the classified report include: “Tactics” and “Motivation” of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple; “Conspiracy” against Jones and the Temple; “Opponents and media intimidated; public officials used”; and “Awareness of danger, predicting the degree of violence.” According to a committee staff member, the classified material fills upwards of 20 to 25 boxes of documents in the committee’s possession, with much of that material coming from federal administrative agencies which cooperated with the committee in its probe.

Scholars of new religious movements initially petitioned for release of the materials in 1998, twenty years after the Jonestown deaths. However, according to another committee staff member, the general rule which governs most confidential investigations blocks release of any material for 30 years after the event. Whether the date for potential release is November 2008 – the thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown deaths – or May 2009 – the thirtieth anniversary of the completion of the congressional report – is unknown at this time.

According to Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), the congresswoman for the editors of the jonestown report, the 30-year rule guarantees neither instant nor complete access to the documents when the time has elapsed. The purpose of the 30-year rule is for “reasons of privacy,” said Ms. Davis in a letter of 15 October 2002, and that consideration “may well apply to at least some of the documents.”

The chair of the International Relations Committee will be “the only person authorized to release official documents to the public,” Ms. Davis added. “Further, the Freedom of Information Act does not apply in this case, since the records of Congress are exempt from requests made pursuant to this Act.”