September 1964: The Last Debates


THE RELEASE DATE OF THE REPORT WAS SET FOR SUNDAY EVENING, SEPtember 27. The White House agreed to give us three extra days to accommodate printing. We received galley proofs of most of the chapters in early September and I distributed them by hand to commission members and staff in Washington. Even this late in the process, I knew that we still had a lot of work to do.

By this time, the 1964 election campaign was in full swing. In office for less than a year, President Johnson wanted the personal endorsement that an overwhelming electoral victory would provide. Reports circulated that Robert Kennedy tried to force his way on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, leading to a Johnson announcement that no cabinet members would be considered for that slot. Shortly after Senator Hubert Humphrey was selected as the vice-presidential choice, Kennedy resigned as attorney general to run for the US Senate in New York. Meanwhile, Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, from Arizona, had alienated moderate Republicans shortly before the party’s convention by voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a signature piece of President Johnson’s legislative program in the aftermath of the assassination. Johnson led in the polls by very large margins during the entire campaign.

None of these political developments affected our work at the commission. Kennedy’s decision to run for the Senate certainly came as a surprise and produced a new wave of Kennedy publicity. Katzenbach formally became the acting attorney general, and remained the official most informed about the commission’s efforts to complete its assignment. Most of us were too busy to do more than glance at the daily headlines and exchange casual comments about the political campaign. The White House announcement of a late-September publication date for the report managed to quiet, at least temporarily, those critics charging that President Johnson wanted to delay the report until after the election. I welcomed the fact that the media were preoccupied with matters other than our work.

image The Final Debate on the Single-Bullet Theory

The commission had not yet approved the final wording of its conclusion on the path of the first bullet that hit Kennedy. Governor Connally had been adamant in testifying, based on his memory of the gunfire he heard, that he was not hit by the same bullet that struck the president. He was a man of considerable self-confidence and was obviously not persuaded by the expert testimony that his wounds would have been different and more serious if he had been struck by a pristine bullet. The commission members held him in high regard, and Senator Russell and others were reluctant to sign off on this question if it conflicted with Connally’s testimony. They were also concerned that Connally would criticize their report if it rejected his testimony, which might in turn adversely affect the report’s acceptance by the public. I had hoped that Warren and Rankin would be able to avoid any dissent among the members to the conclusion compelled by the facts—that a single bullet wounded both men.

Out of deference to Connally and in pursuit of unanimity, the commission produced a compromise statement on the single-bullet question. At its last meeting on September 18, the commission decided to adopt this conclusion:

Although it is not necessary to any essential findings of the Commission to determine just which shot hit Governor Connally, there is very persuasive evidence from the experts to indicate that the same bullet which pierced the President’s throat also caused Governor Connally’s wounds. However, Governor Connally’s testimony and certain other factors have given rise to some difference of opinion as to this probability but there is no question in the mind of any member of the Commission that all the shots which caused the President’s and Governor Connally’s wounds were fired from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.1

By coincidence, President Johnson called Senator Russell on the evening of September 18 to discuss some disturbing events in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. Russell had returned to Georgia after the last commission meeting. Russell told the president that he “was just worn out, fighting over that damn report.” He said that “they were trying to prove that the same bullet that hit Kennedy first was the one that hit Connally … went through him and through his hand, [and] his bone, into his leg and everything else.…” He told the president that it didn’t “make much difference” which bullet hit the governor, but “Well, I don’t believe it.… And so I couldn’t sign it. And I said that Governor Connally testified directly to the contrary, and I’m not gonna approve of that.” Russell said to Johnson that “I tried my best to get in a dissent, but they’d come ’round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old thread of it.” President Johnson asked whether the report was unanimous, and Russell replied that it was.2

This result should come as no surprise to those familiar with the ways of Washington. I knew that Warren thought that a unanimous report was very important. But Russell—and the commission members who deferred to him—were indisputably mistaken. There were no “certain other factors” in addition to Connally’s testimony and it did, in fact, make a difference which bullet hit Connally.

The problems with the commission’s equivocation are obvious. If the members were certain that all three shots came from the depository’s sixth floor but also rejected the single-bullet theory, it left critical questions unanswered. If the first bullet to hit the president did not also cause Connally’s wounds, and we knew an additional bullet that hit Kennedy did not hit Connally, then there must have been a further bullet (either second or third) that did hit Connally. Considering his wounds and the trajectory of the bullet that hit him, the bullet necessarily came from behind. However, the assumption of a separate bullet hitting Connally raised a different question not considered by the members: Could Oswald have fired such a second shot within the assumed time interval between Kennedy showing a reaction to being hit and the point at which Connally could not have suffered the wounds he did incur? In wrestling with this question, the commission would have to acknowledge there was no evidence that any bullet fragments in the car came from a rifle other than the one fired by Oswald.

Furthermore, the possibility of such a separate shot would leave us with the question that stimulated the staff’s inquiry in the first place: Where did the bullet go after exiting the president’s neck on a downward trajectory? It also invited further debate about whether Connally’s wounds were caused by the bullet found on his stretcher or a pristine third bullet, raising the question where that bullet—also on a downward trajectory—came to rest. As discussed earlier, the commission’s investigation revealed no evidence that a third bullet hit the vehicle, anyone in the vehicle, or anywhere else in the vicinity.

I was disappointed and angry—as most of us were—by this clumsy effort at compromise that endangered the credibility of the whole report. Rankin made an effort to explain it to Redlich and me, but we could not accept the excuses that he offered on behalf of the commission. It was incredible to us then—and to me some fifty years later—that the members would reject persuasive scientific and other evidence in order to avoid suggesting that a single prestigious witness may have been incorrect in assessing, from memories of a traumatic event, which bullet hit him.

In retrospect, Warren (and to a lesser extent Rankin) failed to exercise the leadership necessary to avoid this outcome. They—or perhaps Dulles or McCloy—should have ascertained long before September 18 that Russell was going to insist on not contradicting Connally. If they had done that, we could have urged our most knowledgeable lawyers to again present the evidence supporting the single-bullet conclusion and the problems inherent in any compromise like the one they adopted. It is unlikely that these discussions would have dissuaded Russell. But a powerful staff explanation to the commission might have persuaded Warren and other commission members that the single-bullet conclusion was the only supportable interpretation of all the evidence and the implications of not saying so might have led to a more defensible compromise.

image Resolving Some Oswald Facts

Although the commission’s deliberations about the single-bullet conclusion focused on our proposed conclusions in Chapter 3, they also related to our findings about Oswald as the assassin in Chapter 4. In September we pursued some allegations about Oswald’s activities before the assassination, including his appearance at a rifle range or a car dealership, but developed no new evidence of importance. When we learned from Marina Oswald that she still had some items in her possession related to her husband’s trip to Mexico, we quickly requested the FBI to get the items and add them to the commission’s inventory of all the property possessed by Lee and Marina Oswald as of November 22, 1963. We wanted to be assured that no such property remained in the possession of Marina Oswald or anyone associated with the Oswalds.3

Liebeler got the galley proofs of Chapter 4 on September 4 and submitted detailed comments two days later. Although Liebeler was aware of the controversy about this chapter and the decision to treat the shots from the depository in another chapter, I do not believe that he had reviewed earlier drafts of Chapter 4. Liebeler had a passion for detail, a keen eye for lack of clarity, and a deep love of identifying potential improvements in the work of his colleagues, especially Redlich and me. With Chapter 4 already in galley proofs, it was a very difficult time to deal with the range and detail of his suggestions. But Liebeler’s concerns—ten pages’ worth—were important. They did not challenge the conclusions reached about the assassin, but instead the evaluation of the evidence and the clarity of the writing.4

This was the first of several memos about galley proofs that Liebeler wrote in September. His memos have been widely circulated by commission critics as evidence of the report’s deficiencies and Liebeler’s disagreement with its conclusions. When questioned about these memos in 1978 by a congressional committee, Liebeler unequivocally supported the commission’s conclusions and expressed confidence that his memos were taken seriously by those at the commission responsible for putting the report in final form.5

I did not realize at the time that this was the first of four such memos that Liebeler would be delivering to me and Rankin, who expected me to manage this project and bring it to a successful conclusion on time. The accumulated pressures and emotions after eight months did not promote reasoned and calm deliberation. I was not pleased with Liebeler’s last-minute decision to be the staff gadfly who would bring me detailed criticisms of chapters that had already been approved by Rankin and the commission. I am quite sure that I expressed my frustration.

But even at this eleventh hour, I knew it was essential to carefully consider all of Liebeler’s suggestions. I made changes responding to about fifty of his eighty comments. About fifteen of his eighty suggestions required no changes, either because they were not substantive or had already been addressed. The remaining fifteen involved questions of judgment on which reasonable observers might disagree, and I decided to stick with what had been written.

Some of his changes could be readily accomplished because they involved substituting just one or two lines. Others were more difficult to accommodate in a way that did not disturb the already “set in metal” galley. Sometimes we were able to modify the language in a less disruptive way that still met his concerns. But some of Liebeler’s concerns did not require any changes because they simply reflected his views on nonsubstantive aspects of the chapter, such as the use of headings, length of particular sections, or small changes in language not affecting the analysis or conclusions in the chapter. In any group project like this one, there are as many possible variations in structure and language as there are participants. There comes a time—and this certainly was the case in September 1964—when individuals have to subordinate their personal preferences and support a final product that incorporates the judgments and styles of many other contributors.

About fifteen of Liebeler’s eighty comments included substantive aspects of the chapter where Liebeler would have preferred a more extensive, or modified, discussion of the evidence. He raised questions, for example, with respect to the photograph of Oswald with a rifle and whether the commission could reasonably conclude that the rifle in the picture was the assassination weapon, even though the FBI expert testified he could not make a positive identification of the rifle. He questioned aspects of the “curtain rod story” with respect to Oswald’s transport of the rifle to the depository, urged more discussion of Oswald’s capability with the rifle, and thought the commission should acknowledge that luck may have played a role in enabling Oswald to hit the president with two shots in what might have been a short period of time. I did not make these proposed changes because I believed that commission members and other staff members, if presented with these suggestions in plenty of time, might have reasonably decided not to change the chapter’s language.

I was impressed with Liebeler’s request for a more nuanced statement of the facts, and I would have supported some further editing if I had gotten the suggestions before we had galley proofs in hand for final approval. But they would only have added nuance, not substance, and by this time I limited changes to those that significantly clarified the commission’s conclusions.

image More Work on Assessing Potential Conspiracies

In September, the commission examined two more witnesses on conspiracy questions. The first was Revilo Oliver, a University of Illinois faculty member who had “recently leveled accusations against a member of the President’s cabinet” in connection with the assassination in a conservative magazine. The commission decided that Professor Oliver’s fulminations justified taking his testimony in order to dispel any false rumors he was spreading. Bert Jenner arranged for his deposition in Washington.6

At the beginning of the deposition, Jenner summarized Oliver’s article. It contended that the “assassination was a part of a Communist plot engineered with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency; that Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist agent trained in sabotage, terrorism, and guerilla warfare, including accurate shooting from ambush, in a school for international criminals near Minsk, Russia, [and that] under order from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the U.S. Army began to rehearse for President Kennedy’s funeral more than a week before the funeral actually took place”—in short, before the assassination. The exhibits produced by Oliver at the deposition—and relied upon for most of his conspiracy allegations—were principally news articles. Oliver was unable to offer any new information or analysis that challenged the facts upon which the commission was relying.7

The second witness was Marina Oswald, called to testify before the commission for a third time. Commission members Russell, Cooper, and Boggs, accompanied by Rankin, traveled to Dallas on September 6 to interview her. The session lasted from 3:20 in the afternoon until 8:00 P.M. Robert Storey, who was acting as special counsel to the Texas attorney general, and two interpreters were present to assist. Rankin had requests from our lawyers (including Liebeler and Slawson) for subjects they wished to have covered, and Rankin did his best to do so.8

Russell, serving as chairman at the session, began by asking Marina Oswald about her husband’s reason for coming to the Soviet Union. She recalled that he had told her “that the Soviet Union is the outstanding Communist country and he wanted to see it with his own eyes.” However, he later told her that he had declined citizenship in the Soviet Union “because he said that in case he did not like the way they do things in the Soviet Union, it would be easier for him to leave the country than if he did become a citizen.” After their marriage, she said he did complain about many aspects of his life in the Soviet Union. He did not like his job or his living quarters. He felt he was not paid enough and that the prices of goods were too high. He resented the restrictions on his travel within the country and the need to report every three months to the government.9

On the subject of his association with Cuban friends, she testified that he and Erick, a medical-student friend, had some Cuban friends, but she did not know any of them. She confirmed that her husband was interested in Cuba and Cuban matters, but had no details to provide about the nature, or extent, of that interest. When asked whether he had Cuban friends in New Orleans or Texas when they returned to the United States, she responded: “No. I don’t think he had.”10

She told the commission about the couple’s experience with Colonel Aksenov in trying to exit the Soviet Union. Although her husband was not permitted to see the colonel, she met with him on a later occasion. She testified that her uncle worked for the Soviet government, although not in the same area as Aksenov, but did not discuss the matter of exit visas with Aksenov or any other government official. She told the commission her uncle “would have been afraid to talk about it. When my uncle knew that Lee and I were planning to go back to the United States, my uncle was afraid for his own job and his own welfare.” She said she had heard of another Russian woman married to an American who had difficulty leaving the country and that “to the very last moment we did not believe that they would let us out of the Soviet Union.” She testified that she was not questioned about her reasons for leaving the country, other than the fact that her husband wanted to return to the United States, and filled out the requisite questionnaire stating she was leaving for permanent residency in the United States. She said she found this lack of questioning “surprising.”11

About her husband’s trip to Mexico, she testified that she did not know definitely when he left New Orleans, but believed that she and Ruth Paine left for Texas one day before he went to Mexico. Oswald told her that he intended to visit the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico. She said he was very anxious to get to Cuba. After the trip, he complained that both embassies were bureaucracies and that he did not get any good results from the visits.12

Russell asked her whether Lee was a “good” or “bad” husband and whether she had been truthful in her earlier commission appearances. She asserted that all her previous testimony about him was true and that he was a “good” husband when he helped with the children and the housework, but a “bad” husband when he beat her. Although she had previously testified about only one such beating, she now told the commission that he beat her on several occasions. She thought his suggestion that she return to the Soviet Union was made before the attempt on Walker’s life, and she was unsure what his motivation was, because it was obvious that she would have taken the children back with her. On the one hand, she took his expressions of love in their domestic life as evidence that he did love her and the children, but “the fact that he made attempts on the lives of other people showed to me that he did not treasure his family life and his children, also the fact that he beat me and wanted to send me to the Soviet Union.” Her basic assessment of her husband: “Frankly, I am lost as to what to think about him.”13

Marina explained how she found the ticket stub for her husband’s trip from Mexico to Dallas and why the FBI had missed some of his possessions at the Paine residence. She testified that she took a small suitcase with her after the assassination when she went to stay at a hotel, and she included in that suitcase some of her old magazines and books in English for the children and the stub was found in one of them.14

Cooper asked her about her feelings after the Walker attempt and whether she thought, or feared, that he would use the rifle on a future occasion against a high government official. She responded that she “was afraid that he did have temptation to kill someone else.” She reaffirmed her earlier testimony that her husband never expressed hostility to President Kennedy. She volunteered for the first time that she believed that her husband was shooting at Connally rather than Kennedy, because the governor had approved Oswald’s dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps Reserve. But she went on to say that he never expressed “displeasure or hatred” for the governor. She stated that she had no doubt that her husband killed Kennedy. She did not know whether her husband knew that Connally would be in the motorcade on November 22. We later added a paragraph to Chapter 7 of the report about the unreliability of this testimony and why it was unlikely that Oswald had the governor as his target.15

Near the end of her testimony, Rankin returned to some of the subjects raised by the staff. He probed further about her knowledge of her husband’s activities in New Orleans after she and Ruth Paine had left. She said that he spent the first night in the house where they had lived and then he stayed one or two nights with his Aunt Lillian. She could not identify anyone in the photograph of her husband handing out leaflets for his pro-Cuba committee. She also knew nothing of any meeting that her husband might have had in Dallas with Sylvia Odio. In New Orleans, her husband spent most of his evenings at home; he never discussed meeting Cubans or others at bars in the city; and she said she was surprised that he would have been in bars because he never showed any signs of drinking.16

Our recent investigative requests dealing with Chapter 6 had not produced any information requiring revision of our proposed findings. On September 1, Rankin distributed to the commission a section of Chapter 6 discussing whether Oswald had any accomplices in the planning and the execution of the assassination. This section also considered Oswald’s defection and residence in the Soviet Union. By September 4, I had a complete draft of the chapter, which I hand delivered to Liebeler, Slawson, Griffin, and Laulicht, who were still in our Washington office, and mailed copies to Jenner and Coleman. Everyone responded quickly as we had few loose ends or outstanding questions at this point.17

The revised Chapter 6 was approved by the commission on September 8. Galley proofs of the chapter appeared a few days later. When Liebeler looked at the proofs, he focused quickly on the fact that none of his proposed language had been included. Liebeler sent me three separate sets of comments on the galley proofs—on September 14, 15, and 16—just days before our entire report had to be finished. During these last weeks, Rankin was preoccupied with the members as they discussed the conclusions and supporting evidence. He expected comments on the galley proofs from the members and staff and his instructions to Redlich and me were clear—regardless of timing or substance, they needed to be evaluated carefully.

In his first memo on September 14, Liebeler commented on three subsections dealing with Oswald’s background, including whether he had been an agent for the United States government and an analysis of his finances. Again, most of his estimated fifty comments were directed at the substance of the discussion, usually with specific editing proposals, but sometimes he simply raised questions to be checked before the galley proofs were returned to the printer. On a few occasions he referred to suggestions written on the galley proofs but not summarized in the memo, so without his copies of the proofs, I cannot determine whether his recommended changes were made.18

I made changes in the final text that were responsive to twenty-two of his comments. In thirteen cases I concluded that no action was required—usually because he raised a question regarding the evidentiary support for a proposition, which could be checked without making any change in the text, or because he simply made a comment for my information. In ten instances, changes were not made in the text as Liebeler suggested, including specific proposals related to the commission’s investigation of the Sylvia Odio testimony and its detailed summary of Oswald’s finances. In both instances, I thought Liebeler’s comments were reasonable, but I also believed that the commission could legitimately conclude that the text was accurate and supported by the evidence.19

As discussed earlier, the commission had concluded that there was “persuasive evidence” that Oswald had not been the “Leon Oswald” that Sylvia Odia believed she met in Dallas in late September 1963. Liebeler now was questioning the commission’s judgment that the evidence was “persuasive.” Unless one believes that “persuasive” evidence must meet the test of “beyond a reasonable doubt” applicable in criminal prosecutions, I think the commission was justified in reaching this conclusion based on the evidence before it.

Likewise, Liebeler’s comments about the treatment of Oswald’s finances illustrate a reasonable difference in judgment. The main issue here was the amount of detail on this subject in the commission’s report. The study of Oswald’s finances from his return to the United States on June 13, 1962, until November 22, 1963, concluded that he had income of $3,665.89 and disbursements of $3,501.79, leaving a balance of $164.10. This estimated balance was within $19 of the $183.87 in Oswald’s possession at the time of his arrest. Liebeler thought the discussion was “too long and detailed” and ran the risk of it being “too apparently precise to be readily believable.” But one could also conclude that this was one of those instances where detailed information was necessary to make the main point under examination; namely, that if Oswald were a part of a conspiracy or an agent of any government, either his income or expenditures would likely show more financial resources than this very careful analysis revealed. In fact, Liebeler made this exact point in his 1978 testimony before a congressional committee.20

Liebeler’s next set of comments regarding the chapter’s galley proofs came on September 15 and covered the portion of Chapter 6 entitled “Circumstances Surrounding the Assassination,” and the subsections about Oswald’s residence in the Soviet Union and his associations in the Dallas-Fort Worth Russian-speaking community.21

Of the sixty-three suggestions in this memorandum, about thirty-three resulted in revisions in the galley proofs. For example, Liebeler recommended eliminating all references to Oswald’s wife by her first name only, correcting the spelling of a Russian official, and eliminating long clauses separated by semicolons. I did that. Many were more substantive: editing of the chapter’s introduction to describe more accurately the nature of the commission’s investigation, correcting factual errors regarding the evidence described, and shortening the description of Oswald’s and his wife’s relations with the Russian-speaking community in Dallas and Fort Worth. I made these changes too.22

But many of Liebeler’s suggestions didn’t work or were unnecessary at this stage. In some cases, his comments suggested only that a particular fact or citation be checked to confirm its accuracy, which I did. In other instances, he simply expressed a view about the need for a particular discussion in the chapter or a stylistic change. Much more difficult were his recommendations that several portions of the chapter be substantially reduced in length. These sections of the report had principally been written and reviewed by lawyers who did not share Liebeler’s emphasis on brevity. Because his suggestions did not involve any criticism of the conclusions reached, I concluded that they should not be implemented at this late stage in the printing of the report. In no case, though, did I reject a suggested change that was necessary to clarify or support the report’s findings.23

I am sure there came a time in this process when I insisted that Liebeler expedite, and hopefully end, this flow of critical comments. Liebeler’s third and last memorandum about Chapter 6 considered the discussion of Oswald’s political activities upon his return to the United States. It contained twenty numbered paragraphs, some of which advanced more than a single suggestion. Of these comments, about ten of them resulted in changes in the text of the chapter. On several occasions he suggested that a footnote was required, but in some of these instances I disagreed. My disinclination to add new footnotes was definitely influenced by the fact that this would require renumbering of all the subsequent footnotes. The commission’s assertion that Oswald acted “purportedly” on behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee seemed like a fair characterization, given the range of his unauthorized activities in the name of the committee, despite Liebeler’s reservation about the use of the word.24

Liebeler’s comments were more numerous than those of his colleagues, but no one should make the mistake of interpreting Liebeler’s memos as reflecting his disagreement with the conclusions of the commission. The lawyers on the commission staff were trained to challenge each other’s ideas and assessment of the evidence that had been developed in our investigation. Liebeler’s memos exemplify how this process worked within the staff and improved the quality of the report.

My association with Jim Liebeler on the commission staff led to a close personal relationship over the decades before his death in 2002. We did have some intense discussions about the commission’s work in 1964, as we did in later years on other topics. He and his wife stayed at my home for weeks, occasionally months, at a time when they were consulting, or considering employment, with federal agencies during the 1980s.

I know from my many personal discussions with Liebeler over the years that he firmly supported our work. In addition to his testimony before a congressional committee in 1978, he reaffirmed it in his 1996 manuscript comparing the conclusions of the commission with those of the same congressional committee eighteen years later. He often said that the questions raised in his memos were to be expected in a project of this complexity and importance. He acknowledged the differences of judgment within the staff about how best to present the commission’s conclusions. But he became one of the most eloquent and effective defenders of the commission’s work, which had benefited greatly from his persistent, specific, and substantive contributions.

image The Commission’s Conclusions on Possible Conspiracies

In the final text, the commission “concluded that there is no credible evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.” It made the same finding about Ruby. The commission emphasized that these findings were based on the evidence developed by the commission’s own investigation. According to Ford, the members wanted to be clear that they were not saying, “there was no conspiracy,” but were saying that “there was no evidence of a conspiracy.” None of us on the staff objected to this phrasing of the commission’s conspiracy conclusions. It seemed reasonable under the circumstances.25

To make this point even more emphatically, the commission pointed out: “Because of the difficulty of proving negatives to a certainty, the possibility of others being involved with either Oswald or Ruby cannot be established categorically, but if there is any such evidence it has been beyond the reach of all the investigative agencies and resources of the United States and has not come to the attention of this Commission.” In support of its conclusion that the available evidence did not reveal a conspiracy, the commission listed those officials of the United States government who endorsed this conclusion, including the secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury; the attorney general; the director of the FBI; the director of the CIA; and the chief of the Secret Service.26

On August 4, Robert Kennedy signed the letter to Warren that I had left with Katzenbach several weeks earlier. He said that he had received “periodic reports about the work of the Commission from you, Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach and Mr. Willens of the Department of Justice, who has worked with the Commission for the past several months.” He concluded: “In response to your specific inquiry, I would like to state definitely that I know of no credible evidence to support the allegations that the assassination of President Kennedy was caused by a domestic or foreign conspiracy.”27

When he appeared before the commission, Hoover had testified about a possible conspiracy:

I know of no substantial evidence of any type that would support any contention of that character. I have read all of the requests that have come to the Bureau from this Commission, and I have read and signed all the replies that have come to the Commission. In addition, I have read many of the reports that our agents have made and I have been unable to find any scintilla of evidence showing any foreign conspiracy or any domestic conspiracy that culminated in the assassination of President Kennedy.

Hoover assured the commission that “so far as the FBI is concerned, the case will be continued in an open classification for all time. That is, any information coming to us or any report coming to us from any source will be thoroughly investigated, so that we will be able to either prove or disprove the allegation.”28

Hoover did not refer to organized crime in his testimony before the commission, and no one asked him specifically about the topic. What Hoover chose not to divulge was that the FBI was engaged in an illegal electronic surveillance program directed at organized crime. Because of my position at the criminal division, I was personally aware of the program, but had no knowledge regarding its scope or results.

When the transcripts of this surveillance were reviewed by an independent expert in the field fourteen years later, they revealed no evidence that the national organized crime syndicate was involved in the assassination of Kennedy. Under those circumstances, Hoover could justify his failure to discuss organized crime during his commission testimony. If there had been information implicating organized crime, I believe that Hoover would have provided it to the commission under terms similar to what Treasury negotiated regarding the Rowley report. If he elected not to, I believe that other officials in the FBI who had close relationships with Robert Kennedy, Jack Miller, or other Justice Department officials would have revealed it in confidence to one of them.29

Years later, Rankin was pressed on whether he would have requested information obtained through the FBI’s electronic surveillance program if he had known of its existence. He responded:

Well. I don’t know. That is highly speculative. I will tell you my problem with that would be that I would have on the Commission the Chief Justice of the United States [and] all of these other Government officials who would be involved in using material that was in my opinion highly illegal, violation of people’s constitutional rights and whether I should put them in that kind of position knowingly would be a serious question. I don’t think that their duties as Commissioners would require that they step up and violate the Constitution. I have not ever thought that a man in public office had a duty or a right to violate the law in order to carry out his official position.30

When the committee lawyer suggested that these materials might have helped in the investigation, Rankin tersely replied: “Yes; I think that is just like saying it would have been a good thing not to have Castro around and, therefore, you should proceed to assassinate him regardless of what laws you are breaking.”31

image Closing Off Possibilities Regarding Oswald’s Motives

We had the galley proofs of Chapter 7 before we got the comments of the three outside psychiatrists consulted in July about Oswald’s personality and possible motives. We asked them to review the current draft of Chapter 7 and each responded in early September.

Dr. Cameron from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington complimented Liebeler for “what appears to me to be a very unemotional, straightforward presentation of factual material about Lee Harvey Oswald.” He agreed with the “decision to draw no ultimate conclusions about Oswald’s motivations to be the best possible course.” He suggested some language changes relating to Oswald’s feelings for his children, the possible existence of a conspiracy, and clarification of Oswald’s transfer from active to inactive duty followed by his discharge under undesirable conditions. These changes were made.32

The comments from Dr. Rothstein of the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners produced two changes to the galley proofs of Chapter 7. The commission decided to include in its report the findings of a New York Youth House psychologist based on Oswald’s drawings and additional language from Oswald’s letters to his brother after his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959.33

When Oswald was thirteen years old and examined by Youth House professionals in New York City, a psychologist interpreted a human figure drawing test as follows:

The Human Figure Drawings are empty, poor characterizations of persons approximately the same age as the subject. They reflect a considerable amount of impoverishment in the social and emotional areas. He appears to be a somewhat insecure youngster exhibiting much inclination for warm and satisfying relationships to others. There is some indication that he may relate to men more easily than to women in view of the more mature conceptualization. He appears slightly withdrawn and in view of the lack of detail within the drawings this may assume a more significant characteristic. He exhibits some difficulty in relationship to the maternal figure suggesting more anxiety in this area than in any other.34

In a letter of November 26, 1959, Oswald tried to explain to his brother Robert his defection to the Soviet Union and his desire to see the US government overthrown. Oswald complained about various aspects of American life and then stated:

So you speak of advantages. Do you think that is why I am here? For personal, material advantages? Happiness is not based on oneself, it does not consist of a small home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world and the world in general. I never believed I would find more material advantage at this stage of development in the Soviet Union than I might of [sic] had in the U.S.35

The letter from Dr. Rome from the Mayo Clinic contained a twelve-page analysis of Oswald’s reading disability. He suggested that Oswald’s misspelling of names, apparently on a phonetic basis, was caused by a reading-spelling disability. The report added a new paragraph referring to this disability.36

image Final Debate on Presidential Protection

At their last meeting on September 18, the commission unanimously agreed not to recommend transfer of any of the responsibilities of the Secret Service to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Treasury Secretary Dillon’s testimony on September 8 was influential in persuading all the members to reach this result—even Dulles and Ford, who had previously argued for some reallocation of responsibilities. Dillon told the commission that, among other changes he was instituting, his department had established an interagency committee to develop more effective criteria for reporting information to the Secret Service and he had requested funds for five additional agents for the Protective Research Section to serve as liaison with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. A day later, Warren wrote Dillon seeking financial information for fiscal years 1960 through 1965, including the Secret Service budget request to the Treasury Department; the Treasury Department budget request for the Secret Service as submitted to the Bureau of the Budget; the presidential budget for the Secret Service as submitted to the Congress; and the Secret Service budget approved by the Congress. The secretary’s prompt response contained all the requested information.37

Chapter 8 was revised to incorporate this information. The commission endorsed the increased use by the Secret Service of agents from other federal law enforcement agencies, which Dillon had successfully tried recently. It also urged the Bureau of the Budget to promptly review the budgetary requests of the Secret Service and to authorize a request for the necessary supplemental appropriations as soon as it could be justified.38

image The Commission Concludes Its Work

During nearly ten months, the commission members had met in executive session more than twenty times; heard the testimony of ninety-four witnesses at more than fifty hearings; considered dozens of drafts reviewing the evidence; debated seventy-two specific questions central to their conclusions; and approved 469 pages of text for their report to the president.

The commission members understood their assignment. Several members, especially Russell and Boggs, failed to attend most of the hearings at which the commission heard witnesses.39 To most of us on the staff, the failure to attend more hearings was indefensible. However, each commission member received a copy of the testimony of every witness who appeared before the commission and most of them had staffers who assisted them. President Johnson did not select the commission members because he expected them to have an admirable attendance record. He wanted them to use their experience and best judgment in reaching, and supporting, the conclusions resulting from the largest criminal investigation in the nation’s history.

The process by which the commission put together its report provided one of the most convincing, although rarely explained, bases for the accuracy of its facts and the undeniable support for its conclusions. After four months of basic investigation by staff, the commission approved a proposed outline of the report at its April 30 meeting. From then through mid-September, the members received a steady flow of memos, reports, and drafts. The members consistently focused on how their conclusions on the seventy-two questions would be expressed and how the evidence to support them would be most effectively explained. Throughout the commission’s work, Warren and Rankin talked at least two or three times each week about the investigation, schedule of witnesses, interagency problems, and much more. As should be evident, there was no “rush to judgment” here. The commission supervised Rankin’s handling of the investigation on a regular basis and considered every part of the report carefully during the three months from mid-June to mid-September.

On September 21, 1964, Rankin distributed his last memorandum to the staff regarding the final steps before publication of the commission’s report. For each chapter and appendix he identified the person (or persons) responsible for any final changes “which are essential” to the text and appendices. Our first order of business was to revise the galleys containing all our footnotes and return them to the printer. We needed to include all the footnotes in the volume of the report that we submitted to the president. We were trying to get all of the changes in the text of our report to the printer by the close of business on Tuesday, September 22. Although this may seem like we were asking all the commission members and staff to read the entire report overnight, the only sections that needed scrutiny were those we had changed in the final day or so. At this point, we could make only those changes that were absolutely essential to ensure the accuracy of our work. Mercifully, these were very few in number.40

I wrote my last memo to Rankin on September 21 dealing with administrative matters that had to be addressed after submission of our report. We had discussed many of these issues before, and the memo was a record of some major tasks to be done after President Johnson got the report. We had to provide for careful review of the exhibits before they were published to ensure that all classified materials had been cleared by the responsible agency before publication. I expressed concern about the manner in which the exhibits had been identified and the possibility that mistakes may have been made in their designation and description.41

Another substantial question related to the handling of the physical evidence that had been used by the commission. I suggested that the Justice Department might be formally requested by the commission to help deal with these questions—in particular, which items could be returned to their owners and which should be retained and, if so, by whom and where. I ended the memo by advising him that “I will be here tomorrow until the Report is completed, at which time I shall return to my responsibilities at the Department of Justice.”42

We did not have any formal farewell meeting of the staff at the end of our work on September 22. I have the impression that each of us made our own individual departure, expressing thanks and good wishes to those around us. However fatigued we were by the intense work of the past many months, I think that we left with the sense that collectively we had undertaken a project of national importance and we had done our best to honor President Kennedy by investigating his assassination with integrity and professionalism. We knew that history would have the last word on our efforts.

image Presentation of the Report to the President

On Thursday, September 24, 1964, the seven members of the commission delivered their report that told “the whole truth” about the assassination of President Kennedy to his successor at the White House. Each conclusion had the support of all seven members. According to one account, President Johnson’s first comment about the report was “It’s pretty heavy.” The report was going to be made public at 6:30 P.M. on Sunday, September 27.43

After the required photographs of the commission members circling Warren and Johnson, the members left the White House. Asked whether he was glad the job was over, Warren “replied with emphasis, ‘Yes!’ and strode on.” On behalf of the commission, Warren stated that, although federal agents would continue to trace down every new lead that might shed further light on the case, the commission would not involve itself in any follow-up or supplemental investigation. Perhaps by coincidence, Governor Connally was at the White House when the Warren Commission submitted its report. When asked by reporters whether he had recovered from his injuries, Connally reported that he was in good shape but his wrist still was “a little stiff.”44

After receiving the report on Thursday, President Johnson gave it to his assistant Horace Busby to read and digest before reporters got hold of it on Sunday. Johnson probably felt confident that he knew the gist of the report because of his conversations with Senator Russell. Busby, a fellow Texan, had been a speechwriter and self-described “idea man” for Johnson for some time before the assassination. Johnson brought Busby to the White House and installed him as a deputy to McGeorge Bundy, but Busby was intent on leaving to go back to Texas after the November election, now only a few weeks away. Busby promptly generated all the necessary paperwork for the release and circulation of the report within the government.45

In a letter to Warren released after the report’s delivery, President Johnson promised that he would give the report careful study and stated that he had given instructions “for the prompt publication of this report to the American people and to the world.” The president said that he knew the commission “has been guided throughout by a determination to find and to tell the whole truth of these terrible events. This is our obligation to the good name of the United States of America and to all men everywhere who respect our nation—and above all to the memory of President Kennedy.” He expressed his appreciation for “the readiness of outstanding Americans to respond to calls for service to their country. There has been no more striking example of this great American strength than the service of the seven extraordinary distinguished members of your commission.”46

Johnson also signed a letter to Rankin expressing his appreciation and thanks for the work that Rankin had done in bringing the commission’s work to successful completion. He stated that “there remains the task of winding up its affairs, preserving essential records, and bringing administrative matters to an orderly conclusion.” Apparently Rankin had agreed to undertake the responsibility for such duties, and the president’s letter thanked him for his “willingness to continue for a short period to work with the Administrator of General Services to accomplish this task and by this letter I authorize whatever help and support may be necessary for this purpose.” Al Goldberg, Rankin’s secretary, Julia Eide, and other secretaries and administrative personnel had agreed to help Rankin during this period. One additional chore was to oversee the production of the twenty-six volumes of testimony, exhibits, and other materials that the commission had scheduled for prompt publication.47

Upon release, the Warren Commission report was an immediate best seller. The Government Printing Office reported that it had sold twelve thousand copies of the report from its three local outlets within a day after its release—a total described as “phenomenal.” There was virtually unanimous support for the recommendations of the commission aimed at improving the protection of American presidents. Congress was already well on the way toward approving a proposal to make the assassination of the president and certain other federal officials a crime.48

The initial coverage of the commission report was very favorable. The New York Times reported that historians and archivists described the commission’s work as “the most massive, detailed and convincing piece of detective work ever undertaken.” Labeling the statistical summary as “monumental,” the Times reported that the commission’s volume of testimony from 552 witnesses was “more than 100 times the roster of the 42 witnesses called before the Joint Congressional Committee on the investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1945–46.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the favorable comments about the report “ranged from general praise to agreement with specific conclusions, such as the commission’s recommendation of stricter security measures for the President, and its criticism of the performance of Dallas officials and news media in the period between the assassination and Oswald’s death by Jack Ruby.” Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois weighed in to praise the “unstinting efforts” of the commission staff, which he described “as one of the ablest and most competent groups ever assembled.” The only immediate dissents to this praise came from Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother and, of course, Mark Lane.49

Robert Kennedy, who was now the Democratic nominee for the Senate from New York, stated that he had not read the report and did not intend to do so. He issued a statement referring to his comment in Poland that Oswald “was solely responsible for what happened and that he did not have any outside help or assistance.” He said he had been briefed on the commission report and that he was “completely satisfied that the commission investigated every lead and examined every piece of evidence. The commission’s inquiry was thorough and conscientious.”50

In November, the Government Printing Office published the twenty-six volumes of transcripts and exhibits.51 Rankin, Goldberg, and other staff contributed significantly to this effort. Goldberg recalled an issue involving publication of FBI reports that identified relatives in Cuba of witnesses who had provided information to the commission. When Goldberg asked the FBI about this, the bureau authorized him to go forward and publish the reports without any deletions. Goldberg checked further with the CIA, which took a different position out of concern that some form of retaliation might result from the exposure of this information. Goldberg chose to follow the CIA advice. Unlike the commission report, these volumes were not commercially popular. The twenty-six volumes were being sold at a price of $76—about $565 in today’s dollars. By the end of the first week, only eighty-six sets of the volumes had been sold over the counter at the printing office and 294 had been sent to individuals or groups that had ordered them by mail.52

image Implementation by the Dillon Committee

As might have been anticipated, the embargo placed on release of the commission’s report until 6:30 P.M. on Sunday was breached by the AP and UPI wire services earlier in the day. The initial stories focused on the commission’s criticisms of the Secret Service and the FBI and the need for substantial improvement in protecting our presidents.

Upon hearing of these premature releases of the report shortly after noon on Sunday, McGeorge Bundy called the president and strongly urged him to take some action in response to the commission’s recommendations. Bundy suggested that the president “can get ahead of the curve by announcing formation of a committee to study the Commission’s recommendations.” President Johnson was reluctant to take any such action without discussing it with Abe Fortas and knowing more about the commission’s exact recommendations. Bundy suggested that such a committee might consist of the treasury secretary, the attorney general, and perhaps himself from the National Security Council.53

When the president commented that he did not understand that the report “was as drastic as you indicate,” Bundy read extensively from the commission’s findings on the performance of the Secret Service and the FBI. He referred specifically to the commission’s recommendation of a special cabinet committee for reviewing and overseeing the protective activities of the Secret Service and other federal agencies. He made clear, however, that he was not asking that the president approve that particular approach, but instead that Johnson appoint his own committee to look at that recommendation and others made by the commission. By the end of this conversation, Johnson and Bundy were discussing possible candidates for such a committee. Bundy concluded the telephone conversation by asserting that “what I really think, myself, is that the Secret Service needs an injection of brains at the top, and that they just don’t have it. But how to get that in a tactful, diplomatic, and effective way is very much of a different question.”54

Later on Sunday, President Johnson created a committee to study and implement the recommendations of the Warren Commission. He appointed Dillon, Acting Attorney General Katzenbach, CIA director McCone, and Bundy. Although Johnson named no chair for the committee, it was understood that Dillon would have general supervision over the group. The “key question” on the agenda of this committee would be “whether all or part of the protective functions of the Secret Service should be turned over to some other agency.”55

Johnson called Senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, early Monday morning to advise him of this action. Although it was his general preference to advise congressional leaders in advance on matters that might involve them, he had acted so rapidly on Sunday that this was not possible. Johnson explained that he wanted the committee to be predominantly Republican, people who “would be fair to Kennedy but they wouldn’t be vulnerable to Kennedy, and [it] wouldn’t just be a Democratic National Committee document.” He went on to say that for that reason he put McCone on it, “who loves Kennedy—was] very close to him, but who’s [an] ultra Republican; Bundy, who also loves Kennedy, but who is a Republican, too; and Dillon, [a] Republican; and Katzenbach, [Nicholas] Katzenbach, who’s not anything. I mean, he’s just a good civil servant and a dean of a law school.” Mansfield approved of the president’s committee.56

The president’s new committee could not meet immediately because McCone was out of the country. As soon as he was appointed, Katzenbach asked me to assist on the matter. I soon learned that Dillon had asked Robert Carswell, whom I knew from the commission’s dealings with Treasury, to do likewise. Bundy appointed one of his assistants, Gordon Chase. Although I did not know it at the time, Chase was a Latin American specialist on the National Security Council staff and had been the staff member most intimately engaged in quiet efforts behind the scene since March 1963 to improve relations between Castro and Kennedy.57

I remember that the three principals (absent McCone) met on a few occasions at which we three staffers were also present. Pursuant to these discussions, Carswell, Chase, and I had a few chores dealing with the commission’s recommendations that were not very demanding or controversial. Bundy had proposed this committee as a means of providing the president with a justifiable deferral of the date when he needed to decide whether to implement the commission’s recommendations. Dillon had persuaded the Warren Commission not to move any function of the Secret Service from Treasury and wanted further support for his efforts to get increased funding for Secret Service operations. Katzenbach had a full docket of responsibilities at this time, not the least of which was persuading the new president that he could depend on Katzenbach’s loyalty despite his close relationship with Robert Kennedy. Five months after Kennedy’s departure from Justice, President Johnson nominated Katzenbach to be attorney general. He was easily confirmed.

Absent any controversy, the committee was able to complete its business quickly and report its conclusions in late November. The committee rejected the commission’s proposals that the head of the Secret Service be elevated to a higher position in Treasury or that a new inter-cabinet group play a role in the presidential protection function. Most important, the committee decided not to move the investigative function regarding presidential protection from the Secret Service to the FBI. No one on the committee seriously considered such a move, although both Katzenbach and Bundy were aware of the limitations of the Secret Service. They were hopeful that the reorganization of the Secret Service under consideration at Treasury, supplemented by the increased funds that the department was seeking, would enable the department to address the major deficiencies identified by the Warren Commission. Johnson reportedly agreed with keeping these two functions together and was quoted as telling Dillon “that he was very pleased with the efficiency and smoothness of the present protective system as well as with plans for its expansion.”58

With this committee assignment behind me, I concentrated on my responsibilities at the Justice Department, which seemed relatively tame and manageable compared with my duties at the commission. Like my commission colleagues, I was pleased with the initial favorable coverage of our work. But as the months and years unfolded, we were ill prepared to respond to the unexpected and severe criticism of the Warren Commission report.

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