Access to Congressional Records

The call for Congress to open its secret files on Jonestown is back before several committee and individual members’ offices. The request, first made on the twentieth anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown, asked the House Committee on International Relations to declassify the contents of several boxes of material collected during the congressional investigation of Leo Ryan’s assassination. As the table of contents to the May 1979 report indicates, the classified material includes information on the “Tactics” and “Motivations” of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, the question of “Conspiracy against Jim Jones and Peoples Temple,” and the Temple’s use of benefits from “Social Security and foster children.” The secret documents also explore the “Awareness of danger, predicting the degree of violence,” presumably within the U.S. government, as well as the question of “Conspiracy to kill Representative Leo Ryan.” Among the agencies with secret documents in House committee files are the U.S. State Department, Customs Service and the Social Security Administration.

Scholars of new religious movements who have studied Peoples Temple, including Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Dr. Massimo Introvigne and Dr. Mary Maaga, used the occasion of the twentieth anniversary in 1998 to ask Congress to lift the veil of secrecy. Having heard no answer from Congress in the meantime, the editors of the jonestown report renewed the request in June 2000. “The documents’ release might well put to rest a number of conspiracy theories that have arisen concerning the deaths of Ryan and those in Jonestown,” Rebecca Moore wrote in a letter to committee staff members and several congressional offices. “Moreover, they are critically needed by scholars trying to write accurate accounts of what happened over twenty years ago. As more of the key players die, and as government records are routinely destroyed, it is vital to recover and review the documents generated by House investigators.”

Several of the offices contacted in June have agreed to review the request, but none have yet given any substantive reply.