CHAPTER 10

Aftermath

image

FROM ITS FIRST PUBLICATION ON SEPTEMBER 27, 1964, THE WARREN COMmission report has generated a massive outpouring of commentary within the United States and abroad. At this writing, more than one thousand authors have produced book-length works, and thousands of essays have been published in print or video form. Most of it has been critical, and in almost all cases the critics have focused on their conviction that somewhere, somehow, there must have been a conspiracy. Some of the theories that came out of the criticism are incredibly imaginative—resulting in passionate debate at the annual sessions of the conspiracy theorists as to exactly which conspiracy theory is the most persuasive.

Much of the criticism pointed to alleged errors and omissions by those who conducted the investigation and drafted the report. Of course, it is difficult for me and my former colleagues not to take that personally. However, notwithstanding the views and intensity expressed by a diverse range of critics, I remain deeply satisfied that the commission and its staff got it right.

In our nine-months-long investigation, we found no credible evidence of a conspiracy involving Oswald or Ruby and, close to fifty years later, no one else has found any such evidence either. Over that entire span of time, not a single person with firsthand knowledge has come forward to present any fact that contradicts the commission’s conclusions that Oswald was the assassin and that he and Ruby each acted alone. By “firsthand knowledge,” I mean facts provided by a person who saw or heard something with his or her own eyes or ears that is relevant to one of the issues we addressed. As a former prosecutor, I am convinced that if there had been a conspiracy, someone would have disclosed that information since 1964.1

Additional information has surfaced about facts withheld from the Warren Commission by the FBI and the CIA, but none of that information contradicted or invalidated the commission’s conclusions. Protecting their own institutional interests, these agencies tarred their reputations by failing to fully assist the commission. Full disclosure of the facts known to these agencies and mobilization of their specialized resources would undoubtedly have produced relevant information that would have extended our investigation. But these failures and their consequences have been fully explored by congressional committees since our report, and no facts have come to light that challenge our fundamental conclusions regarding the identity of the assassin and the absence of any conspiracy.

A fair evaluation of the Warren Commission after nearly fifty years needs to consider three major subjects. First, the strong and unanimous response of commission members and staff to the criticism of their work over the decades speaks volumes. The reputations of the members were well established at the time they approved the report. All of our “senior” lawyers were respected in the communities from which they came and most were nationally recognized in the profession. All of the “junior” lawyers on the staff went on to distinguished careers. Even a fervent conspiracy theorist should pause for a moment to consider the independence and accomplishments of these commission lawyers, individually and collectively, before attacking their competence or integrity.

A second essential element is recognition of the few, but important, books over the years supporting the commission’s conclusions or contributing to our understanding of Lee Harvey Oswald. These include Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (1993) and Max Holland’s The Kennedy Assassination Tapes (2004), as well as two other books—Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee (1977) and Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale (1995)—which provide important details and insights about Oswald’s background and personality. Most recently, Vincent Bugliosi, one of the nation’s most prominent prosecutors, reported the results of his twenty-year investigation in his 2007 book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Bugliosi tackled all the major issues that had been raised about the commission’s report and evaluated virtually every conspiracy allegation. His monumental 1,600-page book and its additional 1,000 pages of notes show in excruciating detail why none of the conspiracy theories is supported by any credible evidence.

Third, and perhaps the most important development in appraising the commission report, are the results of the four extensive “official” investigations since 1964 that touched on the Kennedy assassination—the Rockefeller Commission in 1975, the Senate “Church” Committee in 1975 and 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations from 1977 to 1979, and the Assassinations Records Review Board from 1992 to 1998. Although their missions varied, none of these investigations produced documents or reached conclusions challenging the essential findings of the Warren Commission. One possible exception is the separate conspiracy theory developed by the staff of the House Select Committee in 1979, which was adopted by seven of the twelve committee members and produced several strongly worded dissents. As we shall see, this contention was flawed from the beginning and was proven to be unsupportable by later scientific analysis by impartial and highly qualified experts.

image Commission Members and Staff Respond to Critics

By the time Lee Rankin finally closed the doors at the commission’s offices in November 1964, Warren and the other commission members had long since returned to their commitments on the bench, in the Congress, and in their law firms. My colleagues on the staff returned to their firms, law schools, or government agencies and in many instances began to consider new careers. I returned to the criminal division promptly because Bill Foley, the other deputy, was waiting for my return so that he could move to the Administrative Office for the US Courts as its newly designated executive director. I was promoted to his position and was the only deputy in place for a short time to assist Jack Miller in running the division.

The ink was barely dry when the FBI reacted to the report in two dramatic—and inconsistent—ways. Assistant Director Gale promptly reported to Hoover that the commission “has now set forth in a very damning manner some of the same glaring weaknesses for which we previously disciplined our personnel such as lack of vigorous investigation after we had established that Oswald visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico.” He identified several other instances where he believed that the testimony of FBI agents before the commission or its lawyers made the FBI “look ridiculous and taints its public image.”2

Hoover’s immediate response to the commission’s criticism was to take additional disciplinary action on September 28 against eight of those disciplined in December 1963 and three other employees. In so doing, Hoover again rejected advice from Belmont, who suggested that Hoover was making a tactical error by taking this disciplinary action at a time when the FBI was “currently taking aggressive steps to challenge the findings of the Warren Commission insofar as they pertain to the FBI.” Hoover disagreed. “We were wrong,” he said, “The administrative action approved by me will stand. I do not intend to palliate actions which have resulted in forever destroying the Bureau as the top level investigative organization.” A few days later, he made a handwritten notation on a memo from Assistant Director Cartha DeLoach discussing the criticism of the FBI in connection with the assassination investigation and how best to deal with it. “The FBI will never live down this smear which could have been so easily avoided if there had been proper supervision and initiative,” Hoover wrote.3

The fact that Hoover’s disciplinary actions confirmed the validity of the commission’s criticism did not deter him from complaining about the commission’s treatment of his agency. Twice Hoover publicly dismissed the commission’s criticism as a “classic example of Monday morning quarterbacking.” In a September 30 letter to the White House and Acting Attorney General Katzenbach, Hoover advised that “the Commission’s report is seriously inaccurate insofar as its treatment of the FBI is concerned.” Perhaps the most offensive step taken in this dishonest campaign was a telephone call to Rankin in New York by FBI Inspector James Malley, the former FBI liaison officer to the commission, on orders from “a senior Bureau official,” in which Malley told Rankin that he “did the Bureau a great disservice and had out-McCarthyed McCarthy.”4

Newspapers throughout the world treated the commission’s report as a major event. Most of them “displayed the story under their biggest, blackest headlines and devoted page after page to summarizing the report’s conclusions. In the major capitals, some papers began publishing full or abbreviated translations of the text.” Many commentators approved the commission’s report, but expressed doubt that the report would be sufficient to rebut the worldwide rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.5

Reactions to the commission’s conclusions around the world were mixed –often reflecting the political orientation of the country involved. According to one report in the Washington Post: “The Communist press flatly called the report a whitewash. In Western Europe and elsewhere, however, most newspaper editorials expressed satisfaction with the report and accepted [the] conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed the President. But the reaction did not follow political [lines] uniformly. Several pro-American papers in France and elsewhere expressed continuing skepticism, saying many questions remained unanswered.”

The questions included the obvious ones: How could the security forces have failed so completely to protect the president? How did it happen “that a shabby night club owner was given the opportunity of shooting and killing Oswald while in the midst of scores of policemen”? In a summary of press comments from around the world, the US Information Agency reported that there were numerous references to charges by the distinguished philosopher Bertrand Russell “that facts were suppressed” and that “[t]he most frequent theme is that many remain unconvinced and that history will have to provide the definitive account.”6

Many domestic critics quickly challenged the commission’s conclusion that Oswald fired the two shots that killed Kennedy and wounded Connally. That led to a proliferation of “second gunman” theories. An even larger number of critics found fault with the commission’s conclusion that there was no persuasive evidence of a conspiracy of some sort. The theories regarding possible conspirators implicated organized crime, Hoffa and the Teamsters Union, the Cuban government, anti-Castro groups, pro-Castro groups, the Soviet Union, and various federal agencies and spawned a still-growing literature—with no end in sight.7

Although I read and heard occasional reports of these criticisms, at the time I was completely absorbed with other responsibilities at the Justice Department and the Dillon Committee. After the November 1964 election, Katzenbach summoned me and a few others to his office to help prepare a new federal program aimed at reducing crime in the United States. He told us that President Johnson, notwithstanding his overwhelming victory in the election, was concerned with the impact of the “crime in the streets” issue that got so much attention during the campaign. In a few weeks, we canvassed the alternatives for possible federal action and developed a program for Katzenbach to present to the White House. It included new legislation providing for substantial federal assistance to states and localities to improve their criminal justice systems and two presidential commissions—one to deal with national issues and the other to address crime in the District of Columbia.

While engaged in other professional responsibilities, my past service on the Warren Commission staff became a matter of public debate with the publication of three critical books in 1965–66: one by Harold Weisberg, a Washington investigator; one by Edward Epstein, a graduate student at Cornell; and another by Mark Lane.

Weisberg’s book, Whitewash, argued that the commission’s own records refuted the single-bullet theory and therefore undercut its claim that Oswald was the sole assassin. Unlike other writers, he did not adopt any particular conspiracy theory but charged: “The superficial and immature manner in which the Report deals with the possibility of a conspiracy or of a different assassin is only one of the ways in which the Commission may have crippled itself.”8

Lane’s book, Rush to Judgment, was, in general, a rehash of the arguments and accusations he had made during the commission’s investigation. Even in this book, Lane presented no evidence to support his claims of Oswald’s innocence. Lane basically stated that “the case against Oswald as the lone assassin is refuted by the very witnesses upon whom the commission relied” and that he has “no theories as to who killed the President or why it was done.” He wrote many other books on the subject, including one in 2011 in which he alleged that the CIA killed the president.9

I read neither Whitewash nor Rush to Judgment at the time. In early August 1965, I left the Department of Justice to serve as the executive director of the President’s Commission on Crime in the District of Columbia. In my opinion, no one in his or her right mind works for two presidential commissions. One is quite enough. But I was greatly indebted to the new commission chairman, Jack Miller, for the opportunities he had provided for me to learn and grow as a lawyer, and another temporary assignment for a year (or sixteen months, as it turned out) provided an excuse for delaying the decision as to whether I would return to private practice or do something else. And, as a resident of the District of Columbia, I thought this commission could definitely improve the quality of life in my community.

At some point during 1965, I did agree to be interviewed by Edward Epstein, whose book Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, published in 1966, was more troubling than the Weisberg and Lane books. Five commission members (Cooper, Boggs, Ford, Dulles, and McCloy) and nine other staff members (Rankin, Redlich, Goldberg, Adams, Ball, Eisenberg, Liebeler, Specter, and Stern) agreed to be interviewed by him. I was concerned about Epstein’s intentions and tried to be very careful in my responses to his questions—especially when he invited me to be critical of commission members or staff colleagues.

Epstein’s work was inaccurate and unfair in dealing with the commission’s investigation and conclusions. After criticizing the commission members and some lawyers for lack of attention to their assignment, Epstein challenged the single-bullet theory and, therefore, that Oswald was the only assassin. He relied on the first (and incorrect) report of the FBI that a bullet had entered the president but had not exited; the mistaken statements by physicians at Parkland Hospital; Connally’s conviction as to which bullet hit him; and the testimony of the autopsy doctors and others regarding the likelihood of one bullet causing both Kennedy’s neck wound and all of Connally’s wounds. A few days after Epstein’s book was featured in the Washington Post, Rankin, Redlich, and Specter all defended the commission’s conclusions by reference to the testimony and exhibits. Up to this point, most of the commission staff had declined to comment about the report or respond to public criticism, believing that this was the preference of Chief Justice Warren.10

After Epstein published his book, virtually every member of the staff who was interviewed stated that Epstein had misquoted him. I firmly rejected a quotation attributed to me criticizing some of my colleagues for periodically returning to their law firms and expressing a preference for “forty law drones, fresh out of law school, not a handful of high-priced consultants.” Eisenberg recalled that he complained to the publisher about several errors in the book and that corrections were made in a subsequent edition. On the other hand, Richard Goodwin, a former aide to President Kennedy, was so impressed by Epstein’s work that he proposed that Congress should establish an independent group to reevaluate the conclusions of the Warren Commission and seek new evidence, with a staff that would have more experience in digging up the facts than the commission staff possessed.11

An editor’s note in Earl Warren’s Memoirs, published in 1977, reported Redlich’s efforts to deal with the inaccuracies in the Epstein book:

New York attorney Norman Redlich, an assistant counsel for the Commission, wrote to Warren to advise him that he, Redlich, had provided some information which had been grossly falsified by author Edward Epstein in a book called Inquest. Inaccuracies and distortions were claimed, and Redlich then proceeded, point by point, to refute key parts of Epstein’s book. He got back from the Chief Justice a letter of sympathy. It included a line that became almost a Warren theme song as the Oswald theoreticians proliferated: “We can expect much writing of this kind from charlatans and lazy writers who will not take the time to analyze all the papers to determine what the facts actually are.”

Another theme characteristic of Warren’s views regarding the critics was captured in his response when Joe Ball called in 1965 to complain that the “critics of the report are guilty of misrepresentation and dishonest reporting.” According to Ball, Warren replied: “Be patient, history will prove that we are right.”12

Congressman Gerald Ford and former CIA director Allen Dulles issued separate statements in early October 1966 defending the commission’s conclusions. They emphasized that the critics had produced no new evidence to cast doubt on the report’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone in assassinating the president. Ford suggested that using speculation of this kind “to undermine the conscientious and thorough work of the Warren Commission and members of its staff is to do a disservice to all of the American people and to the memory of the late President Kennedy.” According to his aides, Ford became the first commission member to speak out in defense of the report because of the pressure from the press for comment on the commission’s critics. Another reason for speaking out was the recent finding of the Louis Harris Poll, published a few days earlier, that by a ratio of three to two the American people rejected the commission’s principal finding that Oswald was the lone assassin.13

Liebeler, then a law professor at UCLA, decided to mount his own effort to deal with the growing controversy over the commission’s report. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Liebeler designed a project for twenty third-year law students to examine the commission’s records on seventeen specific fact issues, analyze the evidence on both sides, and suggest what the commission should have investigated more thoroughly. The article reported that Liebeler fully supported the commission’s conclusions, although he was critical of some of the work done by the staff in writing the report. He described Lane’s work as “dishonesty” and Epstein’s as merely “incorrect.” He argued that what was needed was “one piece of work which sets forth both sides objectively. Lane doesn’t. Epstein doesn’t.” He challenged Epstein’s conclusion that the commission took only ten weeks for its work; Liebeler said it actually lasted at least seven months—“and some further investigations were carried on even beyond that.”14

The third anniversary of the assassination, in 1966, prompted extensive discussion in the press about the challenges to the Warren Commission’s findings. Early in November 1966 President Johnson weighed in to support the commission’s conclusions, saying that he knew of “no evidence that would in any way cause any reasonable person to have a doubt” about its findings and that the commission deserved “high marks” for its “thorough study.” At about the same time, Alexander Bickel, a distinguished professor at Yale Law School, joined the chorus of doubters about the single-bullet conclusion of the commission. Life magazine called for a new investigation based on its analysis of the Zapruder film and Connally’s testimony that he was not hit by the same bullet as hit the president. Commission members commented that there was nothing new in the magazine article and the White House referred reporters to Johnson’s earlier endorsement of the commission’s conclusions.15

Although Warren was still declining public comment, Newsweek magazine quoted him as telling a Johnson Administration official: “I was a district attorney in California for 12 years, and I tried a number of murder cases (an average of 15 a year). If I were still a district attorney and the Oswald case came into my jurisdiction, given the same evidence I could have gotten a conviction in two days and never heard about the case again.”16

In late November 1966, Ball and Liebeler participated in a panel discussion in San Diego with commission critics Lane and Epstein before the Associated Press Managing Editors Convention. Epstein suggested that the X-rays and autopsy photographs turned over to the National Archives by the Kennedy family might address his principal concern—that the Warren report had failed to discuss persuasively its reasons for rejecting the initial FBI report and developing its single-bullet theory. Lane complained about the commission’s failure to call several witnesses he considered critical, the secrecy of the commission’s proceedings, and the likelihood that its documents would not be available for seventy-five years or more. He insisted that a new investigation was necessary.17

Ball pointed out Lane’s many distortions of the available evidence concerning the proper identification of the assassination rifle and the source of the shots that hit Kennedy and Connally. Liebeler told the audience that he had corrected Lane’s earlier assertions regarding the palm print on the rifle but that Lane persisted in his distortions of the facts. Liebeler made his views about Lane clear: “his book is a tissue of distortion and a masterwork of deceit … I did say to Mr. Lane’s face—that which Mr. Ball was too much of a gentleman to say—and that is that Mr. Lane is going around the country telling lies for money. And Mr. Lane’s response to that was to threaten to sue me for libel and I’ve been waiting anxiously for those papers ever since.”18

Despite the controversy and the calls for a new investigation, none of the commission members supported such a move in the absence of any new evidence to consider. One equivocator was Russell, who began to yield somewhat in light of the ongoing debate. He declared himself “not satisfied” with some of the report’s conclusions. He complained that “access to some evidence dealing with the most oft-repeated questions was barred either by the Iron Curtain or Fidel Castro, or perished with Oswald.” He also made public his agreement with Connally in rejecting the theory that a single bullet struck both men. However, Russell said he saw no “hard testimony” which would produce different findings and expressed the view that any new investigating body would reach the same conclusions in the absence of additional testimony.19

On a Sunday television talk show, Commission member Boggs agreed with his colleagues that no new investigation was required, but suggested that the attorney general or another appropriate authority might name a group of doctors or others to examine the autopsy photographs and X-rays that had been seen only by Warren during the investigation. With the increasing focus on the autopsy, commission lawyers and others came forward with their recollections regarding the reasons why the autopsy photographs and X-rays had not been made part of the commission’s records. The articles discussed the roles of Warren and the Kennedy family, but also pointed out that the testimony of the autopsy doctors precisely located the wound on the president’s neck. The headline in the Washington Post article on this subject was “The Autopsy: The Warren Commission Did Make a Mistake. It Had Compassion.”20

In a January 1967 speech in Los Angeles before an audience of four hundred, Ball supported Boggs’s suggestion of a special panel to examine the autopsy materials. In 1968, the current attorney general, Ramsey Clark, acted on this suggestion, after soliciting my opinion and, I assume, that of other commission members and staff. After an examination of the photographs and X-rays, a panel of four independent experts confirmed the testimony of the autopsy doctors and the commission’s conclusions regarding the wounds suffered by Kennedy and Connally.21

Also in January 1967, Chief Justice Warren learned from columnist Drew Pearson that the CIA had enlisted the assistance of organized crime in the early 1960s to assassinate Castro, which may have motivated retaliation against President Kennedy by Castro, and that he intended to make this information public. Pearson had notified President Johnson of this information three days earlier. The FBI had initially refused to pursue these allegations, notwithstanding Hoover’s repeated assurances to the Warren Commission that its investigation file on the Kennedy assassination would remain “open” and that all leads would be aggressively pursued. Once President Johnson heard of these rumors, he directed the FBI to fully investigate the matter and report to him.22

Although Pearson had not authorized its publication and was traveling out of the country at the time, his associate Jack Anderson published the column on March 3, 1967. The column reported that “President Johnson is sitting on a political H-bomb” based on “an unconfirmed rumor that Senator Robert Kennedy may have approved an assassination plot [against Castro] which then possibly backfired against his late brother.” Because of its sensational nature and lack of documentation, the column was rejected by the Washington Post and the New York Post, but was published by hundreds of other papers. Three days later, the FBI gave President Johnson its report on the subject. As summarized by Max Holland, the bureau’s information was accurate on three critical issues: “The CIA did try to have Castro assassinated from 1961 to 1962 and possibly into 1963; the agency engaged members of the criminal syndicate in the United States in this effort; and Attorney General Robert Kennedy knew about the plots, and Cosa Nostra involvement, contemporaneously.” The information leading to the Pearson column was provided by a Washington lawyer who represented one of the organized crime participants in the CIA plans.23

A week later, President Johnson and Chief Justice Warren met at the White House to discuss this matter. Although Warren had heard about the allegation from Pearson earlier, he did not know that it was accurate until this meeting with the president. These developments and the meeting between Johnson and Warren influenced the history of the Warren Commission report in three significant respects.

First, the chief justice had to reassess the validity of the commission report in light of this new information. When pressed for public comment on the subject, Warren for the first time publicly defended the conclusions of the commission. Second, Warren had an opportunity to educate the president about the validity of the commission’s findings, including the reasons why Governor Connally was mistaken in his recollections. Third, President Johnson directed Richard Helms, now the CIA director, to give him a full report on the allegations in the Pearson column. In early May 1967, Helms met with President Johnson to report on the findings of the CIA inspector general about the history of CIA assassination plots directed at Castro. This information remained within the executive branch of the US government until congressional investigations in 1976 forced its public disclosure.24

The experience with misquotes and misrepresentations in the Epstein book led many members of the commission staff to be leery of further public discussion of the commission’s report or in providing assistance to aspiring authors. Rankin and Redlich adhered to a decision not to participate in any interviews or public debate about their work on the commission, or to write anything in defense of the commission’s conclusions. Eisenberg agreed with this position, but recalled that once, when he was visiting McGill University, he agreed to speak about his work at the commission.25

In January 1967, I joined a Washington law firm where my commission colleague Sam Stern was a partner. I practiced law there until 1995. In my first several years with the firm I assisted in representing American automobile manufacturers in complying with recent legislation imposing new safety standards on the industry and in resolving a major antitrust lawsuit instituted by the Department of Justice. In 1972, I acquired three new clients: the Ford Motor Company, the Educational Testing Service, and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific. These clients, and several others for occasional assignments, kept me fully engaged during the 1970s and into the 1980s, leaving little time for defending the Warren Commission report or even communicating with my former commission colleagues.

I admired the efforts of my commission colleagues who stepped forward over the years to defend our report. Specter initially chose not to discuss the commission’s work, believing that this was Warren’s wish, but changed his mind after the Epstein book was published and he was challenged to respond to its criticisms. Because he was a recently elected district attorney, Specter believed he had no alternative and agreed to be interviewed for two major magazine articles in 1966. Specter joined with Belin in traveling to London in January 1967 to debate Lane on BBC, a program that lasted for almost five hours. On a much later occasion, Specter—by then a US senator—attended the annual convention of Warren Commission critics and exhibited great patience under cross-examination by the group.26

Griffin also participated in occasional panels to defend the commission. He recently estimated that he publicly explained the commission’s work on about eighty to one hundred occasions since 1964, including two appearances at the annual meeting of critics. Griffin recalled that he was courteously received at these meetings and felt that in smaller groups he was able, at the very least, to encourage them to believe that the Warren Commission and its staff were well-intentioned and reasonably competent—a modest but still worthwhile accomplishment.27

Liebeler was frequently invited to debate Lane or other commission critics, and did so with characteristic vigor and enthusiasm—especially in front of the students at UCLA. Slawson joined Liebeler in one of these Los Angeles panel discussions. Slawson also recalled being so angered by Oliver Stone’s JFK film in 1991 that he went home immediately to address its many factual errors, which resulted in an article in a University of Southern California journal. Mosk also responded on occasion to explain (and defend) the commission’s key findings. Sam Stern and I on one occasion participated in a Canadian television program on the Warren Commission.28

Other commission and staff members wrote about our work in articles, books, or autobiographies. One issue that frequently came up was the effect of Oswald’s death on the commission’s procedures and conclusions. It was generally recognized that some of the evidence relied upon by the commission, such as Marina Oswald’s testimony, would not have been allowed in a trial of her husband. A more difficult question is whether a public trial of Oswald, if he had lived and been found guilty, would have reduced the flow of conspiracy theories.29

Warren apparently thought so. In his Memoirs, he defended the commission’s finding that there was no evidence of a conspiracy at the time. Based on Oswald’s background, Warren thought that Oswald was incapable of being the key operative in a conspiracy. He thought that a high-level government conspiracy seemed equally improbable, with no one willing to break the silence. He believed that the large number of doubters, except those deliberately profiting from the doubts, were led astray because no trial of Oswald had taken place. With such a trial, Warren believed doubts would have been defeated and purged.30

Perhaps the most significant staff commentary on a potential conspiracy was Goldberg’s paper, Conspiracy Interpretations of the Assassination of President Kennedy, published in 1968, which was the result of two seminars that he gave for the Security Studies Project at UCLA. Goldberg observed that the potential consequences of international involvement in the assassination have “generally been overlooked and neglected because of the intense concentration in recent years on the domestic conspiracy aspects.” Goldberg pointed out that, if the assassination had occurred a year earlier, during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, “the consequences for the world would have been far more fateful—plot or no plot. In November, 1963, there was time to investigate, to deliberate, and to determine that no foreign nation was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy. This was a constructive contribution to the maintenance of stability and trust in the international order.”31

Turning to the domestic aspects of the assassination, Goldberg sought to put the conspiracy theories into an appropriate historical context—the climate of opinion that nurtured them and the circumstances that made a whole generation receptive to these hypothetical schemes. He then commented:

And so, we must finally come to the point where we ask whether there is a conspiratorial hypothesis—any single consistently reasonable theory—that is more probable than the findings and conclusions of the Commission’s Report. Do the evidence of the assassination itself and the logic of the context make it more probable that there was a conspiracy and at least two assassins or that there was no conspiracy and only a lone assassin? It is the totality of the evidence and of the context that must be considered recognizing that the individual elements are uneven in many ways—in terms of weight, significance, reliability, and probability. There are obviously elements of chance occurrence in the Commission’s reconstruction of the assassination. But the perfect case is likely to be a fraudulent one. Had the Commission’s purpose been to conceal the real truth and to present only a political truth, it would have hardly presented the data and the documents which are not in accord with its basic findings and conclusions. But it not only presented them—it discussed and analyzed them.32

Belin became the commission’s most persistent defender. He often left his law practice in Des Moines to debate the merits of the commission’s report with its critics. Meanwhile, he worked on a more substantial rebuttal, entitled November 22, 1963: You Are the Jury, published in 1973. This 504-page book relies on lengthy excerpts from the actual testimony before the commission or by deposition, and on the actual exhibits, to demonstrate how the commission evaluated conflicting testimony and reached its conclusions.

His book was favorably received by those with an interest in learning more about the commission’s conclusions. Harrison E. Salisbury of the New York Times wrote a complimentary introduction to the book. Salisbury recognized that the Belin book “will not crush the mystique of the Kennedy assassination. But for anyone who wishes to know how the crime of this century actually occurred and why it could have occurred in no other way than that which the Warren Commission described, this work tells the story better than it has been told at any time before.”33

I generally followed the Rankin-Redlich practice for many years, with occasional departures that served only to convince me that reasoned discussion about the Warren Commission was nearly impossible. Out in the Western Pacific, where I was working around the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination in 1993, I agreed to appear on a talk show on a Guam radio station early on a weekday morning because the interviewer was an old friend. I thought this was a location sufficiently far from Washington—8,500 miles—and a time sufficiently inconvenient for most listeners that it would not generate much interest. I was completely wrong. My wife, who was outside the studio listening with the equipment operators, saw the switchboard light up immediately with calls from listeners as soon as the host mentioned the topic of the day. Every line was jammed for the entire show. I fielded questions from people on the beach, in their offices, in their cars, and in cafes having coffee with friends. Many of them were familiar with the details of the commission’s report and demanded explanations of what I regarded as quite minor points. It was an eye-opening experience.

Hundreds of books and even more articles followed the Weisberg, Lane, and Epstein arguments in the ensuing decades. Nearly all gained publication traction by rejecting one or more of the commission’s principal conclusions. Web sites are available for those who wish to examine documents and testimony about the Kennedy assassination. Other sites provide opportunities for similarly inclined critics of the Warren Commission to exchange views, to hold conferences, and to raise money to support efforts to rebut the findings of the Warren Commission and, in some cases, the official findings on other assassinations as well. Lists of hundreds of JFK assassination books are available on the Internet, with recommendations from aficionados as to which five or ten conspiracy books are the most useful or persuasive. Bill O’Reilly, a popular Fox Network commentator, published his book Killing Kennedy in October 2012 and watched it rise immediately to the top of the best-seller list.

image Vincent Bugliosi’s Treatise Rejects All Conspiracy Theories

Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy reported the results of twenty years of research about the assassination. His unique contribution to the literature is his almost fanatical attention to detail in addressing each of the conspiracy theories. He concludes, in 1,600-plus pages of text and another 1,000 pages of notes delivered on a CD, that none of the conspiracy theories has any basis in fact.

Bugliosi is a career prosecutor in Los Angeles with a stunning record of 106 felony trials and 105 convictions, including convictions in all 21 murder trials. Early in his career he began to write about his most significant cases—and his book Helter Skelter in 1976 about the Charles Manson case became a national best seller.34

Bugliosi became interested in the Kennedy assassination in 1986 when he was invited to London to participate as the prosecutor in a mock trial of Oswald. Famed defense attorney Gerry Spence came to defend Oswald. Jurors flew in from Texas, as did actual witnesses to the events surrounding the assassination. Bugliosi won a guilty verdict, and the experience set him on a twenty-year mission to produce a single volume that would answer every lingering question about what happened in Dallas. His discussion, in more than four hundred pages entitled “Delusions of Conspiracy: What Did Not Happen,” completely refutes the attempts to implicate organized crime, the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Soviet KGB, right-wing political fanatics in the US, President Johnson, Cuba, pro-Castro and anti-Castro exiles in the US.

In his forty-six-page introduction, Bugliosi provided the background for his undertaking this monumental effort. He did so more briefly—and more entertainingly—in his standard book-tour speech before interested audiences and prospective book buyers. In explanation of the unusual length of the book, he pointed out the “two realities” of the case, the first being that this “is a very simple case, very simple.” He agreed with Chief Justice Warren’s view that “if this had been a murder case in Oakland or L.A. and the victim was not the President, it’d be a two, three-day murder case. Very simple case—Oswald killed Kennedy and acted alone.” But the other reality—and the main reason for the length of the book—is because of

thousands upon thousands of assassination researchers, and conspiracy theorists, who have examined every single conceivable aspect of this case for close to forty-four years, splitting hairs and then splitting the split hairs, making hundreds upon hundreds of allegations. This simple case, which remains simple at its core, has been transformed into its present state.… The Kennedy case is now the most complex murder case, by far, in world history.35

When he turned to the question of Oswald’s guilt, Bugliosi set forth fifty-three separate pieces of evidence that point to Oswald’s guilt. He maintained that “Only in a fantasy world can you have 53 pieces of evidence pointing towards your guilt and still be innocent.” He cited the following evidence to illustrate his point: (1) Oswald owned and possessed the murder weapon; (2) he was the only employee who fled the Texas School Book Depository after the assassination; (3) forty-five minutes later, he shot and killed Officer Tippit—an action which Bugliosi characterized to the London jury as bearing “the signature of a man in desperate flight from some awful deed”; (4) thirty minutes later he resisted arrest and pulled a gun on the arresting officer; and (5) during his interrogation by the police immediately after his arrest, “he told one provable lie after another, all of which showed a consciousness of guilt.”36

On the issue of conspiracy, Bugliosi told his audience that there is no credible—and he stresses that word—evidence that any of the suspected organizations was associated with Oswald. In simple language, he summarized his reasons for reaching this conclusion. First, after nearly forty-four years “not one single word, not one syllable, has leaked out about any conspiracy.” Second, there’s no evidence that Oswald ever had any connection with any of these groups believed to be behind the assassination. Third, if any of these groups had decided to kill the president, “Oswald would’ve been one of the last people on the face of this earth whom they would have gone to,” among other reasons because he was “notoriously unreliable—extremely unstable.” Fourth, if one of these groups had engaged Oswald to assassinate the president, there would have been a car waiting for him outside the depository after the shooting—either to help him escape or, more likely, “to drive him to his death.”

Bugliosi concluded his San Diego Library presentation by addressing two of the main issues “that have been used very successfully by conspiracy theorists to convince Americans that there was a conspiracy in the assassination, and/or that it wasn’t Oswald who fired the shots that killed President Kennedy.” The two issues were the reported head snap to the rear and the so-called magic bullet supporting the commission’s single bullet theory.

On the first issue, he explained that a careful examination of the two key frames on the Zapruder film refute the widely publicized claim that Kennedy’s head snapped back in response to the head shot—therefore suggesting a shot from the front rather than from behind. Bugliosi made the point that only the Warren Commission report and his book contained the two important frames (312 and 313) bearing on this issue. In frame 313 after the shot to the head, the film shows the president’s head pushed slightly forward—indicating a shot from the rear—and then the following frames (314–321) show the head snap to the rear, “which the pathologists say was a neuro-muscular reaction.”37

On the subject of the “magic bullet,” Bugliosi recounted his cross-examination of Dr. Cyril Wecht, the coroner of Alleghany County and Pittsburgh who was called by Oswald’s defense counsel at the London trial to refute the commission’s single-bullet theory and thereby raise reasonable doubt about Oswald’s guilt. Bugliosi asked Wecht what he thought happened to the bullet that entered Kennedy’s upper right back on a downward trajectory and then exited from the front of his throat, and specifically “how come it didn’t tear up the interior of the limousine or hit the driver or anyone else? Wecht responded: “I don’t know.… I didn’t conduct the investigation in this case.” Bugliosi suggested to Wecht that he had his own “magic bullet.” He told Wecht: “If it did not hit Governor Connally and did not tear up the interior of the limousine, did not hit anyone … it must have zigzagged to the left.” Wecht responded: “No, it need not have zigzagged to the left.” Bugliosi asked: “Did it hop, skip, and jump over the, the car?” Wecht said: “No, it need not have performed any remarkable feat like that.” Bugliosi said: “Well then tell this jury, Doctor, what, what happened to that bullet?” Wecht said: “I don’t know.”

Bugliosi concluded from this exchange that the conspiracy theorists apparently believe that “when this bullet exited from the President’s throat it vanished into thin air without leaving a trace. Right? Now that is a magic bullet. And yet the conspiracy theorists have, have hung that magic bullet around the neck of the Warren Commission for close to forty-four years, and we find out that it was they—not the Warren Commission—with the magic bullet.”38

image Subsequent Official Investigations Developed No Facts | That Challenge the Commission’s Conclusions

Over the thirty-four years that followed the issuance of the commission’s report, four official investigations raked meticulously over the same ground—a special commission appointed by the president, a Senate committee, a House committee, and a special board created by Congress. They identified areas in which they thought perhaps the commission could have done better, but not one finding of these investigations casts any significant doubt on the commission’s conclusions that Oswald was the assassin and there was no credible evidence of a conspiracy involving either Oswald or Ruby.

image The Rockefeller Commission (1975)

In January 1975, President Gerald Ford created the Commission on CIA Activities within the United States. The New York Times in December 1974 had reported massive domestic spying by the CIA—contrary to its charter—and Ford directed this commission to determine whether any domestic CIA activities exceeded the agency’s statutory authority and to propose appropriate recommendations. He asked his vice president, Nelson A. Rockefeller, to serve as chairman and appointed seven additional members. Ford appointed David Belin from the Warren Commission staff to serve as the commission’s executive director.39

As recounted by Belin several years later, the Rockefeller Commission got off to a difficult start. After the members were appointed, the press challenged their readiness to aggressively investigate these charges against the CIA in light of their extensive government experience. Belin recommended at the commission’s first meeting that it hold as many meetings as possible open to the public, and that its internal meetings be recorded by a court reporter—as had been done by the Warren Commission. Belin’s new client rejected both recommendations.40

The Rockefeller Commission rejected four specific allegations about the CIA’s involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy41:

(1) Two employees of the CIA (E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis), who were both convicted of burglarizing the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate in 1972, were supposedly in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and one of the shots that struck President Kennedy was alleged to have been fired from the grassy knoll where the two men were present. The commission concluded that Hunt had been an agency employee for many years and continued to be associated with the CIA until his retirement in 1970, but that Sturgis had never been a CIA employee. Both men denied they were in Dallas on November 22, and their testimony was supported by other witnesses with no significant conflicting testimony.

(2) Many conspiracy theorists still believed that at least some of the shots came from the front. The Rockefeller group assembled its own five-member special panel, which concluded that both shots came from behind—as had the commission and Attorney General Clark’s panel in 1968. As to the movement of Kennedy’s head, “they were also unanimous in finding that the violent backward and leftward motion of the President’s upper body following the head shot was not caused by the impact of a bullet coming from the front or right front.”42

(3) A few witnesses claimed to see an assassin with a rifle in the area of the grassy knoll on the Zapruder film. After examining the specific frames alleged to show an assassin or rifle, the Rockefeller Commission concluded that “the alleged assassin’s head was merely the momentary image produced by sunlight, shadows, and leaves within or beyond the foliage” and that the same was true of the “rifle” seen in another frame.43

(4) Oswald or Ruby have been repeatedly cast as CIA operatives, but the Rockefeller group found no credible evidence to support this allegation in either case. Addressing the contention that Hunt could have had contact with Oswald in New Orleans during the spring or summer of 1963, the Rockefeller Commission concluded that Hunt never met Oswald, was not in New Orleans in 1963, and did not have any contact with any New Orleans office of the Cuban Revolutionary Council.44

During this inquiry, Belin came across the CIA’s efforts directed at assassinating Castro and became determined to obtain the agency’s records regarding assassinations of foreign officials. The commission urged the CIA to cooperate promptly, as the presidential order creating the commission required. Belin threatened to use polygraph examinations to ensure that agency officials complied with the commission’s requests. Perhaps sensing a losing battle, the CIA submitted voluminous material in early February, including the detailed results of the agency’s internal investigation in 1973 ordered by director James Schlesinger.45

Belin was, in fact, getting far out in front of his client. Some members, including Rockefeller himself, objected to any further investigation of CIA assassination plots. But now Belin was supported by press coverage about possible American plots against foreign leaders. In early March, the commission authorized Belin to go forward with this investigation and he did so.46

Key CIA and other administration officials testified about the agency’s plans from 1960 to 1964 to assassinate Castro. As this testimony unfolded, Belin reported “there were knowing looks from several members, who referred to the ‘amnesia syndrome of much of the leadership of government during the Kennedy and Johnson years, particularly with reference to Cuba and Vietnam.’” Based on this record, Belin prepared a draft chapter for the commission’s report. Although most members supported this chapter, Vice President Rockefeller was opposed.47

Late in May—a few weeks before the commission’s deadline for finishing its work—President Ford through Secretary of State Henry Kissinger requested that the chapter not be published. The State Department had concluded it would be “inappropriate for a presidentially appointed commission” to report that the CIA had been involved in assassination plots directed at foreign leaders in peacetime. Belin was angry, especially because it was President Ford who had announced in March 1975 that the commission was investigating assassination plots. According to Belin, the commission’s debate on this question was intense:

Rockefeller made his case. I made mine. I asked the commission to ask the White House to reconsider and not bend to Kissinger. I pointed out that Dillon had already told the press we had the facts. I argued that the real issue was that the United States had engaged in shocking conduct. I argued that it would be far better to bring it out in the open now rather than to turn it over to Congress. I was joined by Peter Clapper, our press officer, who thought press reaction would be very bad. The press had already been led to believe that a final report would include a chapter on assassination plans directed against foreign leaders, he noted. But Clapper and I lost to Rockefeller and Kissinger.

A compromise solution emerged. The foreword to the commission report stated that the commission had undertaken an inquiry regarding the involvement of the CIA in assassination plans, “but time did not permit a full investigation before this report was due. The President therefore requested that the materials in the possession of the Commission which bear on these allegations be turned over to him. This has been done.”48

Belin was “particularly upset with the decision, because it was wrong. I felt that American people should know what we found.… I knew the people eventually would find out, because the material we had would be delivered to the Senate Select Committee under the chairmanship of Sen. Frank Church.” Belin was also “very upset that the CIA in 1964 had deliberately withheld from the Warren Commission evidence that the CIA had been engaged in assassination plots against Fidel Castro.” These developments, coupled with the increasing volume of conspiracy theories regarding the Warren Commission, persuaded Belin on the twelfth anniversary of the assassination, in 1975, to request a reopening of the Warren Commission investigation, because he believed that “it would greatly contribute toward a rebirth of confidence and trust in government.”49

image The Church Committee (1975–76)

The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (“Church Committee”) was created in early 1975. As was the case with the Rockefeller Commission, the Senate was driven to action by news reports of illegal domestic intelligence operations by the CIA. The committee was a bipartisan panel of eleven members chaired by Senate Frank Church (D-ID) and was given a broad mandate to investigate the CIA. The Church Committee published fourteen reports in 1975 and 1976 about the formation, operation, and abuses of US intelligence agencies. One of these reports examined whether and to what degree the CIA and the FBI withheld relevant information from the Warren Commission. Its conclusion was that “for different reasons, both the CIA and the FBI failed in, or avoided carrying out, certain of their responsibilities” regarding the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy.50

The committee did not attempt to duplicate the work of the Warren Commission. It did not review the commission’s conclusion that Oswald was the assassin. The committee pointed out that its discussion of investigative deficiencies and agency failures “does not lead to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.” Rather, its detailed reports of operations directed at Castro were intended to illustrate why they were relevant to the Warren Commission’s investigation. The committee cautioned “that it has seen no evidence that Fidel Castro or others in the Cuban government plotted President Kennedy’s assassination in retaliation for U.S. operations against Cuba.”51

The Church Committee summarized the extent to which the CIA and FBI were engaged in operations against Cuba in the years just before the assassination, in particular, their involvement with groups opposed to Castro—Cuban exiles in the United States, other Americans opposed to Cuba’s communist regime, businesses whose property had been expropriated by the Castro government, underworld interests who had lost their profitable gambling enterprises, and virtually all the major departments of the US government. The intelligence agencies were assiduously collecting information on Cuban pro-Castro and anti-Castro activity. They were also conducting covert operations against Cuba, ranging from propaganda to paramilitary action, including the invasion at the Bay of Pigs.52

If both agencies had disclosed such information, the commission would have investigated whether the anti-Castro groups might have had some association with Oswald or Ruby. For example, the Church Committee traced the CIA’s involvement with American organized crime figures from 1960 until early 1963, when the responsible agency official advised them that the CIA was no longer interested in assassinating Castro. It described armed attacks by Cuban exile groups in 1963 against two Soviet vessels off the northern coast of Cuba, which prompted concern within the US government and concerted efforts by federal agencies (including the FBI, CIA, Coast Guard, Customs, and Immigration and Naturalization) to reduce the risk that such efforts would lead to a confrontation with the Soviet Union.53

Relationship of the FBI with the Warren Commission

Hoover and other top officials at the FBI were aware that underground figures were discussing Cuba with CIA and FBI field offices in New Orleans and Miami. They were also aware of the anti-Castro armed efforts, but they did not provide any of this information to the commission, notwithstanding our specific requests to the FBI for information about the pro-Castro and anti-Castro groups in New Orleans. However, the agents and supervisors in the FBI’s general investigative division, which had responsibility for investigating the assassination, were not aware of this information.54

The Espionage Section within the bureau’s domestic intelligence division was in charge of Soviet matters and had supervised the security case on Oswald before the assassination. This division was reportedly responsible for the possible pro-Castro or anti-Castro aspects of the assassination case, but it did not conduct any meaningful investigation of a possible foreign conspiracy. Its director, William Sullivan, knew of the earlier CIA efforts to use underworld figures to assassinate Castro. But he could not recall any specific measures that his division took to explore the possibility of a foreign conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.55

The Nationalities Intelligence Section in this division would have been responsible for the investigation of any foreign conspiracy involving Cuba. However, the leading Cuba expert in this section was never informed of any CIA assassination attempts against Castro, had no recollection of any FBI investigation of Cuban involvement in the assassination, and was never informed of Castro’s warning of retaliation. If he had been aware of this warning, this official believed that a typical reaction by FBI headquarters would have been to instruct the key field offices to alert their sources and to be particularly aware of anything that might indicate an assassination attempt. But no such notice was sent by FBI headquarters.56

The section expert on anti-Castro exiles within the United States was never asked to investigate whether any Cuban exile group was involved in the assassination. FBI headquarters never instructed field agents to contact informants or sources familiar with Cuban matters to determine whether they had any information concerning Cuban involvement in the assassination. The FBI explored only those Cuban issues relating solely to Oswald and Oswald’s contacts, rather than the larger issue whether subversive activities of the Cuban government or Cuban exiles were relevant to the assassination. It never initiated or discussed any counterintelligence program, operation, or investigation to pursue these questions.57

After summarizing the respects in which the FBI failed the Warren Commission, the Church Committee stated: “Senior Bureau officials should have realized the FBI efforts were focused too narrowly to allow for a full investigation. They should have realized the significance of Oswald’s Cuban contacts could not be fully analyzed without the direct involvement of FBI personnel who had expertise in such matters. Yet these senior officials permitted the investigation to take this course and viewed the Warren Commission in an adversarial light.”58

Relationship of the CIA with the Warren Commission

The Church Committee described the sporadic contacts by the CIA with a high-level Cuban official, code-named AMLASH, who was ready to assassinate Castro, as well as the deliberations within the US government about whether, and how, Castro might retaliate against any further covert activity in Cuba. On September 7, 1963, Castro in an interview with an AP reporter warned the United States against plots directed at Cuban leaders: “We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. United States leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.” Although the commission was aware of Castro’s threat of retaliation, the CIA did not advise the commission of its deliberations about this threat, which might have prompted some additional investigation by the commission.58

The Church Committee concluded that none of the CIA officials assigned to work with the commission knew of the agency’s plans during 1960–63 to initiate covert actions directed at Castro, including assassination plots. The assigned officials were experts in KGB and Soviet matters and the CIA’s investigation therefore concentrated on the significance of Oswald’s activities in the Soviet Union. Our commission lawyers never worked with or received information from the CIA Cuban affairs staff (the Special Affairs Staff, or SAS). According to the Church Committee, the chief of SAS Counterintelligence testified that SAS had no “direct” role in the investigation of the assassination and “there is no evidence whatsoever that SAS was asked or ever volunteered to analyze Oswald’s contacts with Cuban groups.” Although the CIA had considerable links to Cuba and Cuban exiles, it did not utilize these capabilities to assist the commission. The Church Committee concluded that “all the evidence suggests that the CIA investigation into any Cuban connection, whether pro-Castro or anti-Castro, was passive in nature.” The committee determined: “There would seem to have been some obligation for the CIA to disclose the general nature of its operations which might affect the Commission’s investigation.”60

Although the Church Committee concluded that Ray Rocca, one of our principal CIA contacts, was not aware of any assassination plots, Deputy Director Helms knew all about them. In testimony before both the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee, Helms denied seeing any connection between the AMLASH operation and the investigation of the president’s assassination. Helms told the Rockefeller Commission that he never perceived that Oswald’s pro-Cuban activities could figure in any retaliation plans that Castro may have had. Before the Church Committee, Helms denied that he was “charged with furnishing the Warren Commission with information from the CIA, information that you thought was relevant.” Instead, he was instructed only to provide information requested by the commission. Because the commission failed to ask for information about CIA assassination plots directed at Castro, he was not obligated to provide it. He added that the Warren Commission could have relied on public knowledge that the United States wanted “to get rid of Castro.”61

The Church Committee concluded that the CIA should have investigated any Oswald involvement with pro-Castro or anti-Castro groups. It rejected the excuse that such an investigation was not warranted by the facts known at the time or that the FBI had primary responsibility for the investigation. The committee stated:

Even if CIA investigators did not know that the CIA was plotting to kill Castro, they certainly did know that the Agency had been operating a massive covert operation against Cuba since 1960. The conspiratorial atmosphere of violence which developed over the course of three years of CIA and exile group operations, should have led CIA investigators to ask whether Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, who were known to have at least touched the fringes of the Cuban community were influenced by that atmosphere. Similarly that arguments [sic] that the CIA domestic jurisdiction was limited belie the fact CIA Cuban operations had created an enormous domestic apparatus, which the Agency used both to gather intelligence domestically and to run operations against Cuba.62

The Church Committee also concluded that “the AMLASH operation seems very relevant to the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination. It is difficult to understand why those aware of the operation did not think it relevant, and did not inform those investigating President Kennedy’s assassination.” The desk officer, initially in charge of the CIA’s investigation, testified that knowing of the AMLASH plot “would have … become an absolutely vital factor in analyzing the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination.” The CIA analyst who replaced him felt the same way, stating that he was not aware of the plots until 1975 and expressing “concern about the Warren Commission’s findings in light of this new information.”63

The Church Committee concluded that “[w]ith the exception of Allen Dulles, it is unlikely that anyone on the Warren Commission knew of CIA assassination efforts.”64 Senator Cooper told the committee that the subject never came up in the commission’s deliberations. Rankin, Griffin, Belin, and I all advised the committee that we were not aware of the CIA assassination plans. Both Belin and Griffin told the committee that knowledge of the assassination plots was certainly relevant to the work of the Warren Commission.65

Most of us associated with the commission were disappointed and angered when we learned of the FBI and CIA failures to assist the commission. Several of us testified to that effect before a House Committee in 1978. Katzenbach testified that he was “appalled” that the CIA did not inform the commission about its anti-Castro activities.66 In 1963–64, we believed that agencies would marshal their full resources to assist the commission in light of the president’s mandate to do so. Such a belief—from that pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate period—today seems hopelessly naïve. When CIA Counterintelligence chief James Angleton called David Slawson to check his reactions to the Church Committee’s disclosures, Slawson frankly told Angleton how disappointed he was with his agency’s failure to disclose this vital information, but assured him that Slawson would honor his commitment to preserve the confidentiality of other CIA secrets.67

When asked by the House committee whether such full disclosure would have changed the conclusions of the commission, Katzenbach testified:

Well, I think obviously things would have been investigated that were not investigated or investigated in more depth than they were investigated. I have no way of knowing whether what light would have been cast. I have been personally persuaded that the result was right and I do not think that it would have changed any of the evidence that they had that led to that result. But I suppose that one has to say, an investigation that did not take place, it is impossible to know what would have come out of it.68

I am confident that such additional investigation would not have changed the key conclusions of the commission. The commission’s “ground up” approach, which focused on Oswald and Ruby and their associates, would not have been significantly different even if we had full disclosure by the two agencies. As one knowledgeable student of the commission commented: “Collectively, the Warren Commission might not have known about contemporaneous American-hatched plots to kill Castro. But it certainly examined Oswald’s links to Cuba as carefully and minutely as possible—indeed, as if it did know.”69

On the other hand, such additional investigation based on our knowledge of the CIA’s plans might have had other important consequences. Burt Griffin has suggested, for example, that an aggressive investigative effort directed at the pro-Castro and anti-Castro groups to explore any relationships with Oswald might have altered our thinking about Oswald’s motive.70 In addition, he posits some even more significant consequences if the Warren Commission was the means by which the CIA’s assassination plans became public in 1964—more than a decade before the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee. That would certainly have reshaped the next decade of the CIA’s activities in ways that we can only speculate about. It seems to me, however, unlikely that the Warren Commission would have decided—faced with opposition by the agency and likely President Johnson– to disclose the CIA plans to assassinate Castro. President Johnson kept his knowledge of such plans secret after he learned of them from Helms in 1967 and President Ford intervened in 1975 to prevent the Rockefeller Commission from issuing its report on CIA’s assassination plans. But regardless of the potential consequences of such disclosure, the CIA’s deliberate failure to advise the Warren Commission fully about its assassination plots against Castro ignored the presidential mandate creating the commission and was a serious disservice to the nation.

image The House Select Committee on Assassinations (1977–79)

The movement to reopen the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination gained momentum in the mid-1970s. In 1973, Carl Oglesby, a sometime instructor at MIT, formed the Assassination Information Bureau in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He and his associates “spoke to increasingly large audiences on hundreds of college campuses, from Maine to Hawaii and parts in between, urging a reopening of the investigation.” In March 1975, a program on ABC national television showed for the first time the Zapruder film and the head snap to the rear, which created “a whole new wave of Warren Commission critics and conspiracy theorists” urging a new investigation.71

The disclosures by the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee about CIA’s illegal activities, supplemented by the failures of the FBI and CIA to cooperate with the Warren Commission, fueled the demands for action. At a 1975 appearance at the University of Virginia, Robert Groden, whose pirated copy of the Zapruder film had been used by ABC, spoke to an audience that included the son of Congressman Downing, who brought it immediately to his father’s attention. After he saw the film and arranged for more than fifty of his fellow congressmen to do likewise, Downing stepped forward to support the effort to get a congressional investigation of all three assassinations in the 1960s—JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King.72

In September 1976, the House of Representatives established a Select Committee on Assassinations to conduct “a full and complete investigation of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” After its reauthorization in early 1977, the Select Committee had two years, until January 3, 1979, to complete its work. Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio was named chairman. Stokes approved the hiring of Professor G. Robert Blakey to head the staff, and Gary Cornwell, one of Blakey’s deputies, directed the Kennedy investigation. Both had served several years in the organized-crime section of the Justice Department.73

The House Select Committee was the only government-funded investigation of the Kennedy assassination that challenged the finding of the Warren Commission that there was no credible evidence of a conspiracy. Four aspects of its 1979 report regarding Kennedy’s assassination and the Warren Commission are especially significant. The Select Committee’s criticisms of the commission’s procedures and the scope of its investigation were mostly wrong or insubstantial and, in any event, were not shown to have affected the commission’s conclusions. The Select Committee confirmed the commission’s findings identifying Oswald as the person who fired three shots from the Texas School Book Depository, two of which resulted in the president’s death and Connally’s wounds. The Select Committee confirmed the commission’s findings that the available evidence did not reveal any involvement in the assassination of the president by the Soviet Union, the Cuban government, anti-Castro Cuban groups, the national syndicate of organized crime, the Secret Service, the FBI, or the CIA.

In the final week of its work, the staff recommended a new draft conclusion about a second assassin, which was adopted by seven of twelve committee members. The Select Committee had unanimously agreed a few weeks earlier that there was no credible evidence of any conspiracy. The new conclusion stated that a second assassin fired a fourth shot at Kennedy from the grassy knoll located in front and to the right of the president’s car. The staff relied solely on recently developed acoustics evidence to support its conclusion of a conspiracy—without any physical evidence or eyewitness testimony of a second shooter, a second rifle, a fourth bullet, or the identity of any conspirators.

Criticism of the Warren Commission’s Methods and Investigation

In its report, the Select Committee criticized the Warren Commission for its inadequate staffing, failure to hire independent investigators, dependence on federal investigative agencies, unrealistic time deadlines, need to respond to political pressures, inadequate investigation of potential conspiracies, and the phrasing of its conclusions.

These charges have no substantial basis in fact. I have explained earlier why the commission rejected the alternative of hiring non-government investigators. We used federal agents, but we verified the facts through our own staff work in generating the record of sworn testimony on which the commission based its findings. Time after time, Select Committee counsel invited commission members or staff appearing before the committee to testify that the commission was subject to one or more of these deficiencies. All of us who testified—three commission members and eight from the staff—challenged the apparent belief of the committee staff that we worked under unrealistic time pressures and succumbed to political pressures in writing our report.

If there was grumbling by some of our lawyers about the need for more help as we finalized the report, that was par for the course. Near the end of any major project, there is always the sense that more help would be desirable. But the commission lawyers in 1964 did what lawyers always do under these circumstances—they worked harder and longer until the report was done to their satisfaction. They did not cut corners.

The committee’s report identifies nine areas where, in their estimation, “the performance of the commission was less than complete.”74 Three of the areas related directly to information withheld from the commission, including the concealment of the CIA’s assassination plots against Castro and the FBI’s failure to disclose the disciplinary actions taken by Hoover in December 1963. There was, of course, no way that the Warren Commission could have investigated these areas without information that was deliberately withheld.

The other six areas identified by the committee included Oswald’s activities and associations in New Orleans, the two and one-half years he spent in the Soviet Union, his visit to Mexico City, and Ruby’s background and associations, particularly with regard to organized crime. The committee also cited the commission’s failure to consider “the violent attitude of powerful organized crime figures toward the President and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, their capacity to commit murder, including assassination, and their possible access to Oswald through his associates or relatives.”75

In many of these areas the committee staff had access to sources of information that were not available to the Warren Commission. For example, the CIA had finally concluded that Soviet defector Nosenko was a bona fide defector, so that the Select Committee was free to evaluate his credibility about the Soviet Union’s interest in Oswald. In addition, the committee staff retained an organized crime expert to review the extensive material generated by the FBI’s unlawful electronic surveillance of organized crime.

The Select Committee may well have conducted a more thorough investigation into some of these areas than the Warren Commission. They deserve credit for doing so. But the critical point is that the Select Committee reached the same conclusions as the Warren Commission: Oswald was the assassin and there was no credible evidence of a conspiracy in which either Oswald or Ruby was involved.

Confirmation of the Warren Commission’s Findings

Regarding Oswald

On the most important facts demonstrating that Oswald was the assassin, both committee and commission agreed:

·     Kennedy was struck by two rifle shots fired from behind him, based principally on a unique approach developed by the committee.

·     The shots that struck Kennedy were fired from the sixth floor window of the southeast corner of the depository, based on scientific analysis, witness testimony, and firearms evidence.

·     Oswald owned the rifle that was used to fire these shots based on handwriting analysis and photographs.

·     Oswald had access to and was present on the sixth floor of the depository building shortly before the assassination based on the testimony of depository employees and the physical evidence of his presence.

·     Oswald’s other actions tend to support the conclusion that he assassinated President Kennedy, in particular his murder of Officer Tippit.

Not surprisingly, Warren Commission critics were disappointed that the Select Committee had rejected virtually all of their theories in reaffirming the commission’s conclusions about Oswald.76

The committee determined the source of the shots that hit Kennedy and Connally using a different approach than we had. The commission looked at the trajectory question from the sixth-floor window looking down, starting with the proposition that at least some shots had been fired from this window. The committee’s Photographic Panel assumed nothing about the source of the shots. As Liebeler later described the panel’s approach: “Using medical and photographic evidence it attempted to locate the wound paths in the President and in Governor Connally in the space of Dealey Plaza. If they could do so accurately they could then trace a trajectory backward to the point from which the shots had been fired.” The panel created three trajectories—two based on the president’s two wounds and the third based on the governor’s wounds. Although the trajectories were not identical and did not land right in the window, each of them intercepted the southeast corner of the depository. That permitted the panel to conclude that “it is highly probable that the bullets were fired from a location within this section of the building.”77

The Select Committee joined in the widespread criticism of the Warren Commission’s failure to get access to the autopsy photographs and X-rays. The committee’s Forensic Pathology Panel obtained these materials and subjected them to a full range of tests. To make certain that the photographs and X-rays were those of President Kennedy and had not been altered in any way, the panel used experts in anthropology, forensic dentistry, photographic interpretation, forensic pathology, and radiology. Based on the wounds suffered by both men, the panel concluded that the bullets causing the wounds were fired from behind. After examining Connally’s back wound and the holes in his coat and shirt, the Forensic Panel agreed (with only Wecht dissenting) “that the wound in Governor Connally was probably inflicted by a missile which was not aligned with its trajectory but had yawed or tumbled prior to entry into the Governor.” As is obvious, this analysis provided support for the single-bullet theory.78

After reviewing the medical and other testimony pertaining to the single-bullet theory, the Select Committee confirmed that both men were hit by a single bullet. As Liebeler said in 1996: “In spite of all the criticism the single-bullet theory is stronger today than it was at birth. On the basis of analytical techniques not available in 1964 and using approaches quite different from those used by the Warren Commission, the House Committee has unequivocally reaffirmed the single-bullet theory.”79

Confirmation of the Warren Commission’s Conspiracy Findings

The Select Committee agreed with the commission that, on the basis of the available evidence, none of the “usual suspects” of the conspiracy theorists was involved in the assassination of Kennedy. This included the Soviet government, the Cuban government, anti-Castro Cuban groups in the United States, the national syndicate of organized crime, the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Elimination of all these candidates left little room for a new conspiracy theory. But the committee’s staff created a narrow window of opportunity that was embraced by a majority of the committee members. While concluding that neither the anti-Castro Cuban groups, “as groups,” nor the national syndicate of organized crime, “as a group,” were involved in the assassination, the staff wrote “that the available evidence does not preclude the possibility that individual members may have been involved.”80 This sentence can only be characterized as meaningless (if not foolish) because no amount of evidence could ever preclude such a possibility. This was the same issue that I had discussed with Hubert and Griffin about our Ruby investigation in 1964.81

There is simply no precedent for the use of such a standard of proof in the American legal system. The courts will not find a criminal defendant guilty because “the available evidence does not preclude the possibility” that he was guilty of the crime charged. A civil plaintiff cannot prevail in a breach of contract case because “the available evidence does not preclude the possibility” that the defendant may have breached the contract. And a plaintiff in a negligence case cannot recover damages attributed to a car driven by the defendant because “the available evidence does not preclude the possibility” that the defendant was negligent. In all these instances, the prosecutor or plaintiff must meet an affirmative standard of proof—beyond a reasonable doubt in the criminal case and by a preponderance of the evidence in most civil proceedings. The standard must be met by affirmative (and admissible) evidence presented in court by the prosecutor or plaintiff. The same is true of presidential commissions or congressional committees asked to determine what happened—or did not happen—unless the commission or committee concludes that its investigation was so limited (for any variety of factors) that it was unable to make a positive finding one way or the other.

The House Select Committee’s Conspiracy Theory

On December 18, 1978, the Select Committee members unanimously approved a draft report, which concluded: “There is insufficient evidence to find that there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.”82

In recent months, the committee had been evaluating acoustics evidence based on a tape of police communications in Dallas with motorcycle officers in the motorcade on November 22, 1963. This particular tape contained sounds that were not conversations, apparently because the transmitter on one of the motorcycles was stuck in the “on” position on one of the two channels and was recording every sound around the motorcycle. An expert witness, Dr. James Barger, first told the committee that he could not be certain that the sound spikes on the tape were gunshots and that the differences between the spikes might represent a total of either three or four shots. To resolve these questions, Barger said he would need to pinpoint the location of the motorcycle officer with the open microphone.

After conducting some tests in Dallas, Barger appeared before the committee in September 1978. He testified that he still could not say with absolute certainty that the spikes were gunshots and that there was a fifty percent chance that the last two spikes represented either one or two shots. He also advised the committee that he had located the approximate position of the motorcycle with the open transmitter, namely, 120 feet behind the presidential vehicle.83

As reflected during his testimony and in news reports, the committee members were frustrated by Dr. Barger’s insistence on emphasizing the limitations of his analysis of the sound spikes. He stressed the many variables involved with the testing that had been done in Dallas, including the lack of certainty as to which motorcycle radio was stuck in the open position, where it was located, and whether the muzzle of the assassin’s rifle was inside or outside the window from which it was believed to have been fired. Representative Samuel L. Devine (R–OH), a member of the committee, said at one point: “I would hate to sue or to prosecute anyone on this kind of evidence.’”84

Cornwell and Blakey were also disappointed in Dr. Barger’s testimony, hoping for a more conclusive determination that would support their view that a conspiracy existed. Up until the night before Barger’s testimony, Cornwell and Blakey “were convinced the acoustics expert would report the fourth shot.” Instead, Dr. Barger said under oath the he could only confirm that there was a “fifty-fifty probability” that the tape contained the noise of an additional gunshot. “I think at the last minute he realized that his whole professional career would come to be identified with this report and he wanted some corroboration for it,” one committee member said.85

Based on the uncertainties in Barger’s testimony and the novelty of the acoustics evidence, the committee members in mid-December relied on the physical and other evidence to support their finding of no conspiracy. They specifically declared in the draft report: “The committee finds that the available scientific evidence is insufficient to find that there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.”86

The Select Committee staff was determined to pursue the matter, even at this late date. Cornwell secured more conclusive testimony from two members of the faculty of Queens College, New York: Dr. Mark Weiss and Dr. Ernest Aschkenasy. Without adding any new data to the discussion, Weiss on December 29, 1978, testified that there was a ninety-five percent or greater degree of certainty not only that the third amplitude burst of sound on the tape constituted two separate noises but that they were in fact two shots, each from a high-powered supersonic rifle, and that the first of the two was fired from a point on the grassy knoll determined within a margin of error of only ten feet. Weiss and his colleague determined that Barger had accurately fixed the location of the motorcycle with the open transmitter in Dealey Plaza.87

When Barger appeared before the committee again and endorsed the ninety-five percent-certainty figure, he was questioned as to how, and why, he had changed his position from his earlier testimony that there was only a fifty-fifty probability that the third impulse was a shot. He explained that the Weiss team had narrowed the match time (between impulses on the tape and the reenactment results) and maintained a high correlation coefficient and this “resulted in our independent calculation of the expectancy that they could have achieved the match they got only 5 percent of the time by random if it had just been noise on the tape and not a gunshot from that place.”88

Based on this reassessment of acoustics evidence only a few days before the committee’s expiration on January 3, 1979, committee lawyers persuaded a majority of the members to discard their earlier findings and to conclude that Oswald was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the president. Their report, issued with four written dissents, says:

B. Scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy. Other scientific evidence does not preclude the possibility of two gunmen firing at the President. Scientific evidence negates some specific conspiracy allegations.

C. The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee is unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy.89

Several committee members were concerned by this “last-minute” effort to turn a “no conspiracy” finding into a “conspiracy” finding based solely on acoustics evidence that had been so surprisingly improved without any additional data or determining with certainty the location of the motorcycle with the open transmitter. They had invited some independent observers to hear the testimony of the acoustics experts on December 29, 1978. Two of their comments are found in the dissenting views of committee member Representative Robert Edgar (D–Pa).

In a letter dated January 2, 1979, Marvin Wolfgang, professor of sociology and law at the University of Pennsylvania, advised the committee:

I think the works of Barger and Weiss and Aschkenasy have been exciting from a scientific perspective. I hope their studies will be published in traditional scientific journals where they will receive the usual form of scrutiny. However, I think it is premature and inappropriate for a Federal group, like your committee, to make a major policy decision on the basis of their findings90

Francis Davis, Dean of Science at Drexel University, advised the committee:

Lacking something like that [a scientific report] to look at critically, I certainly think that the 95 percent confidence claim is grossly exaggerated, and it would take considerably more scientific evidence to convince me and most other scientists that their conclusions were valid. As it is, I believe that their chi-square probability test indicates a 95 percent probability that certain events on the tape could not occur by chance, but not that there is a 95 percent probability that a shot came from the grassy knoll.91

In a joint dissenting statement, Representatives Samuel Devine (R–OH) and Robert Edgar stressed that the experts were simply offering their opinion, which had to be weighed against other evidence, to determine whether a second assassin fired at the presidential vehicle from the grassy knoll. Most significantly, they emphasized that a key assumption underpinning the newly revised acoustics evidence was probably wrong. Reliance on the acoustics evidence depended entirely on the assumption that the motorcycle transmitter broadcasting the sounds recorded on the tape was in a very particular location—no more than 120 feet behind the president’s car. The only motorcycle near that location was ridden by Dallas police officer H. B. McLain. If the transmitter that recorded the sounds was not on McLain’s motorcycle, then the entire acoustics evidence analysis fell apart.92

Devine and Edgar’s dissent pointed out that Officer McLain was not offered the opportunity to hear the tape before he testified at the hearing. He did listen to it upon returning to Dallas and asked what Devine and Edgar described as “a very simple, but important, question: ‘If it was my radio on my motorcycle, why did it not record the revving up at high speed plus my siren when we immediately took off for Parkland Hospital?’”93

Edgar elaborated on his reasons for dissenting in a separate statement. He summarized the lack of evidence supporting the conspiracy theory based on the acoustics experts: “We found no gunmen or evidence of a gunman. We found no gun, no shells, no impact of shots from the grassy knoll. We found no entry wounds from the front into any person, including President John Kennedy and Gov. John Connally. We found no bullets or fragments of bullets that did not belong to the Oswald weapon.” Reviewing the recollections of the 178 persons in Dealey Plaza who were available to the Warren Commission, Edgar pointed out that only four of these individuals believed that shots had originated from both the grassy knoll and the Texas School Book Depository. Based on this evidence, the committee had been prepared to conclude that there was no conspiracy. The staff persuaded the committee majority to reject their earlier decision and accept the “scientific evidence” of the acoustics experts by emphasizing that “Other scientific evidence does not preclude the possibility of two gunmen firing at the President,” and ignoring the otherwise persuasive “nonscientific” evidence that supported a finding of no conspiracy.94

Edgar had no reservation in observing that the events in December 1978 “clearly demonstrate a rush to conspiratorial conclusions.” Without blaming anyone in particular, he concluded: “I believe the Members of Congress did not have sufficient time or expertise to ask the tough questions. I believe the committee failed to properly consider how much weight to assign this evidence due to our own limitations of time and familiarity with the science. I believe we rushed to our conclusions and in doing so, overshadowed many important contributions which other aspects of our investigation will have on history.” Edgar continued to hold these views when I spoke to him in early 2012.95

Representative Harold Sawyer, a Republican from Michigan, also filed a strongly worded dissent from the majority’s conspiracy finding. He started with a crucial point:

As a threshold premise, it should be noted that I believe it is important that despite the lapse of 15 years and at least two independent investigations, one by the Warren Commission and the other by this committee, which by any investigatory standards were exhaustive, no other evidence or even what might be termed a “scintilla” of evidence has been uncovered which would substantiate a conspiracy or which tends to negate the fact that Oswald operated alone.

Sawyer added that all the various conspiracy theories challenging these facts “have been, in my opinion, totally discredited or explained beyond any reasonable doubt by evidence developed by this committee.”96

Sawyer identified several other facts that he believed raise serious and unresolved questions about the acoustics evidence.

·     The tape (or Dictabelt) was fifteen years old and contained only the noise of a motorcycle, at one point the faint noise of sirens and at another the faint ringing of chimes. No expert testified that he could hear any noises suggesting gunfire. The experts maintained “that because of the ‘cutoff point’ of a radio transmitter, the full amplitude of loud sounds would not have been transmitted to and recorded on the dictabelt.”

·     Officer McLain denied that he had the motorcycle with the stuck transmitter and stated that he was receiving communications over Channel 2, the channel dedicated to the motorcade. It seemed unlikely that an officer who is part of the motorcade would have maintained an open transmitter during the entire motorcade and “remain oblivious to the fact that he was receiving constant and totally extraneous communications … over Channel 1.”

·     McLain and all the other officers in the motorcade activated their sirens after the shots were fired, but there was no indication of that on the tape until “a full 2 minutes following the last of what is interpreted by the acoustical experts as the shots.”

·     The sounds on the tape were more consistent with a transmitter being on a motorcycle located somewhere between Dealey Plaza and Parkland Hospital. In this connection, the Dallas police monitor or dispatcher within minutes following the shots instructed a squad car to go to an area between Dealey Plaza and Parkland Hospital “and have a motorcycle officer in that vicinity turn off his transmitter which was stuck in the transmit position on Channel 1 and was interfering with central police communications on that channel.”

·     Although there were no chimes in Dealey Plaza, one set of chimes known to exist at the time of the assassination was located in the area beyond Dealey Plaza and toward Parkland Hospital.97

Sawyer found the presentation by Weiss and Aschkenasy to be “unpersuasive.” He was offended by their suggestion that the committee “would not be able to find a qualified acoustics expert who would disagree with either their conclusions or the degree of certainty of these conclusions.” Weiss also testified that his conclusions were based on the position of the motorcycle with the stuck transmitter as determined by Barger. But when asked whether his conclusions were dependent on the accuracy of this location, Weiss told the committee “that unless he were shown an exact replica of Dealey Plaza elsewhere in Dallas that his computations had confirmed or independently verified that correctness of Dr. Barger’s motorcycle location.” An experienced trial lawyer, Sawyer found this last conclusion more than he could accept without comment: “While I am acquainted with ‘bootstrap’ scientific analytical procedure, it would appear to me that there are far too few, if any, established or verifiable facts in this entire acoustical scenario to permit the use of bootstrap analysis to determine or sufficiently verify a given predicate to permit even reasonable reliability of the conclusions.”98

The findings of the Select Committee were welcomed by the conspiracy theorists but treated less warmly by the press. The reversal of the committee’s position in its last hours was seen by one reporter as “in keeping with the halting, often unsure nature of its two-year history.… And by the time that intriguing new lead came along, the committee was on its last financial legs and was under the stern eye of a Congress unwilling to pay for further inquiry.” Many legitimate questions were raised: “Why did the testimony come only as the committee was going out of business? Why was not more than one outside expert called to corroborate it?… Why did the motorcycle patrolman contradict his own testimony last week and claim the recording couldn’t have been his?” Newsweek’s story about the committee’s “pell-mell U-turn in the Kennedy case” pointed out that the committee’s conclusion of a fourth shot from the grassy knoll ignored the evidence “that Oswald fired the only shots that hit Kennedy or anything else; the fact that the supposed second gunman, gun, and bullet all evanesced without a sighting or a trace, [and] that only four of 178 known earwitnesses thought they had heard shots from both the Depository and the knoll.” Some of the reports concentrated on the dissents filed by committee members who disagreed with the conspiracy finding and complained that relevant information had been withheld from them by the committee staff.99

On March 29, 1979, the divided Select Committee issued its report along with the statements of four of the five dissenters. The report acknowledged that the committee was unable to identify the second assassin who fired at the president from the grassy knoll “or the extent of the conspiracy” proved by the acoustical evidence. Blakey had no such reservations. “I am now firmly of the opinion that the Mob did it,” he told the press. “It is a historical truth.” Then he quickly added: “This Committee report does not say the Mob did it. I said it. I think the Mob did it.”100

After an initial review by the FBI of the acoustics evidence, but before it issued any report, the Justice Department contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to examine the acoustics evidence. The National Academy established the Committee on Ballistic Acoustics, a panel of twelve scientists headed by Harvard University professor Norman F. Ramsey Jr., who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1989. The Ramsey Committee issued its report in 1982, concluding that the noise spikes (or impulses) on the tape (Dictabelt) occurred about sixty seconds after the assassination of the president and therefore did not result from either the three shots from the depository or a shot from any other source. The Ramsey Committee reached this conclusion after pursuing a lead provided by an outsider, Stephen Barber, who heard what he believed was “crosstalk” on Channel 1 of instructions issued on Channel 2.101

Even before the Ramsey Committee issued its report, Blakey reported to Chairman Stokes that Barger had seen drafts of the report. Blakey said he believed that the panel would conclude that Barger’s analysis did not adequately explore “non-shot” alternatives for the four events he considered shots and that the Barber “crosstalk” demonstrates that the four events could not have been the shots of the assassination. Blakey said: “In short, Mr. Chairman, the news is not good. It appears that the Panel has set out to refute our work, not find out what happened. They have, for example, totally ignored the eye witness and ear witness testimony of shots from the knoll; they have not, moreover, considered how improbable it might be for all of our shots to be wrong and yet match the Zapruder film so well. Nevertheless, that is apparently what is going to happen.” He proposed a statement that the chairman might issue upon the release of the Ramsey Committee report and call for further congressional hearings on this matter.102

When the panel report was issued several months later, Blakey made certain that a copy was sent to Barger. He followed up with a letter seeking Barger’s technical and other comments. Blakey said: “Frankly, I am disappointed in its tone, almost deferential with the FBI, hostile with us, dogmatic in its conclusions, close-minded to the possibility of alternative views, and seemingly ignorant of contradictory evidence. I trust you are angry enough—I am—to want an opportunity to respond publicly to what has all the characteristics of a hatchet job.”103

He urged Barger to prepare an estimate of what it would cost to undertake further analysis of the issue, complaining about the Ramsey Committee assertion that any further work on the question would not justify its cost. Referring back to Barger’s change in testimony in December 1978, Blakey wrote: “Just as I believed that it was essential to move the 50-50 off dead center before, I think it is crucial to finish all analyses that can be done at reasonable costs, both to confirm (or not) what we did and to test what our new found friends have done.” No further analysis was ever done under congressional sponsorship.104

The Ramsey Committee report conclusively demonstrated that the Select Committee’s conspiracy conclusion was wrong. After examining the issue thoroughly, Vincent Bugliosi documented numerous other failures by the Select Committee that led to this unsupportable conclusion. Bugliosi concluded that “the HSCA’s finding of a fourth shot from the grassy knoll has been so thoroughly discredited that it has become an indelible stain on its legacy, a very large asterisk to its otherwise excellent reinvestigation of the assassination.”105

image The Assassination Records Review Board (1992–98)

Congress created the Assassination Records Review Board in 1992. The law aimed at ensuring that virtually all records generated by previous investigations or held by government institutions related to President Kennedy’s assassination would be turned over to the National Archives. Its enactment resulted from the continuing debate about the conclusions of the Warren Commission and other investigative bodies that gained in intensity and public acceptance with the release in 1991 of Oliver Stone’s JFK.106

Congressional Hearings on the Need for Legislation

The Review Board acknowledged the significance of Oliver Stone’s film in providing the impetus for the law creating the board. It reported that the film “popularized a version of President Kennedy’s assassination that featured U.S. government agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the military as conspirators.” Although the Review Board described the film as “largely fictional,” it endorsed Stone’s message in the film’s closing trailer “that Americans could not trust official public conclusions when those conclusions had been made in secret.” Therefore Congress passed legislation—the JFK Act—“that released the secret records that prior investigations gathered and created.”107

The Review Board’s characterization of the film as “largely fictional” was certainly correct, if understated. Members of the commission staff were offended (but not really surprised) by the liberties taken by Stone in inventing facts surrounding the assassination. Although including in his film some of the more familiar conspiracy contentions dealing with the number of shots and the “magic bullet,” Stone portrayed Oswald as a “patsy” who did not fire any shots at the president. Instead, the whole scene in Dealey Plaza was staged to make it seem like he did, in order to conceal the fact that several gunmen were shooting at Kennedy from different directions—a crossfire.

David Belin spoke before the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on March 26, 1992, about the movie in a speech entitled “The Assassination of Earl Warren and the Truth.” Belin began his attack on Stone’s film by quoting Warren to the effect that “one person and the truth is a majority.” He characterized Stone’s film as an effort to impeach “the integrity of a great Chief Justice.” “Earl Warren is not the only victim,” he went on to say, “Stone calls the assassination a ‘public execution’ by elements of the CIA and the Department of Defense, while President Lyndon B. Johnson is called an accessory after the fact.” Because Stone had cited the Select Committee’s report as support for the “facts” dramatized in the film, Belin itemized the respects in which that report corroborated the conclusions of the Warren Commission.108

What angered Belin even more than Stone’s lies, omissions, misrepresentations, and manufactured facts was the massive amount of money spent by Warner Brothers and Stone to rewrite history. He said: “One of the most dangerous aspects of the disinformation of JFK is how the television networks in their quest for ratings have helped promote the lies about Earl Warren and the Warren Commission.” Belin urged the press to “expose the corporate incest between huge Hollywood empires and the television networks and the danger that this poses to our democratic society as they rewrite the truth to fit their own mold.” Referring to his Rockefeller Commission experience, he said: “No one knows better than I the dangers to a free society that are posed by a CIA out of control. But from my perspective, I see an equally great, or perhaps even greater, long-range danger to our democratic institutions of government with the increasing control by the entertainment industry over our national media, particularly television.”109

Stone’s movie, Belin’s speech, and the likelihood of congressional action prompted several commission lawyers to discuss how we might best respond to the movie and support legislation making assassination records public. Burt Griffin recalled that he, Liebeler, and a few others met with me in Washington, and we also communicated with Mosk in Los Angeles and Redlich in New York. In early 1992, more than a dozen staff members signed a letter to the National Archives urging release of all Warren Commission materials, emphasizing the commission’s (and our) desire back in 1964 to make all of our records available for public inspection, except those with a national security classification. In an accompanying press statement, we reaffirmed our confidence in the commission’s conclusions about Oswald and the lack of any credible evidence of a conspiracy.110

Early in January 1992, Congressman Stokes, the chairman of the former House Select Committee on Assassinations, introduced H.J. Res. 454 with forty sponsors that would mandate the release of assassination records. I appeared on April 28 representing the commission staff at the first hearing on this legislation. Building on the staff’s earlier public statement, my prepared testimony expressed strong support for making public all of our commission’s materials as well as those of the House Select Committee, which were being withheld from publication for fifty years. I emphasized that only two percent of our commission’s records (about three thousand pages) remained undisclosed and would be subject to review by any agency created by Congress for this purpose.111

The hearing was conducted by the Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations chaired by Congressman John Conyers (D–MI), a friend of Congressman Stokes and a powerful advocate of the conclusions reached by the former House Select Committee. It was held in a large hearing room featuring a full battery of TV cameras and spectators competing for the available seats. It was clearly the congressional event of the day in Washington for one reason only—the most prominent supporter of the bill was Oliver Stone. Hoping to avoid the penetrating glare of the TV cameras, I sat down on the far end of the table for scheduled witnesses and studiously examined my prepared statement. My desire for anonymity failed with the entrance of Oliver Stone, who sat at a small table about twelve feet directly in front of me, so that the cameras immediately focused on him and I was part of the background.

The hearing began with a brief statement of its purpose by Chairman Conyers and testimony in support of the legislation by Stokes. When he welcomed Oliver Stone as the next witness, Conyers said: “Welcome, Mr. Stone. We have your prepared statement. You are probably the reason that we are all here today.”112

In his prepared comments Stone described the two conspiracies that led to the assassination of President Kennedy and the cover-up that had prevented the members and the American public from knowing the truth. According to Stone, the second and broader conspiracy involved President Johnson, whose “appointment of the Warren Commission was a means by which to derail a serious homicide investigation which was never accomplished.” As one Washington Post reporter described Stone’s film: “Stone mixes fact and fiction at dizzying speed, stomping on presumptions of innocence, cooking up fake admissions, ignoring contrary evidence, and giving a conspiratorial tone to inconsequential facets of the tragedy that were explained long ago.” His testimony did likewise.113

After Stone’s prepared remarks, the committee members eagerly sought the opportunity to express their fascination with his presentation and their admiration for his courage in bringing these conspiracies to the committee’s attention. They solicited further details regarding Stone’s conspiracy theories and, needless to say, Stone was not reticent in responding to their questions. Not one committee member felt obligated to ask whether Stone had any factual support for his views or his rejection of the conclusions reached by the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee.

By the time I was called to the podium, I had decided that my staid presentation in support of the legislation had to be amended to deal with Stone’s presentation and the committee’s apparent lack of interest in the facts. Early in my comments, I suggested that Stone was a far better film producer than a historian. I went on to defend the conclusions of the Warren Commission. But I never had the courage to ask the committee members whether any of them had read the Warren Commission report.

When Chairman Conyers asked for my “theory of the JFK assassination,” I stressed once again my view “that there are no facts, as distinct from allegations and suspicions, that undercut any of the major conclusions of the Warren Commission.” He responded: “You don’t have any nagging doubts?” I mentioned the commission’s emphasis on the lack of credible evidence of any conspiracy, and he repeated, “So you do have some nagging doubts.” After my further defense of the commission’s conclusions despite the failures of the FBI and the CIA, we had this exchange:

MR. CONYERS: But you still have nagging doubts.

MR. WILLENS: If you are suggesting I have nagging doubts about the conclusions –

MR. CONYERS: No, I am asking you. I am not trying to put words into a trial counsel’s mouth. You either have nagging doubts or you don’t have nagging doubts. It is a free country.

MR. WILLENS: That is why Mr. Stone could make his movie.

MR. CONYERS: Right. And that is why you may have your nagging doubts.

MR. WILLENS: And I have my reservations about what the future will display. But I want to reiterate there have been no facts that have come to light in the last 28 years that have undercut any of those conclusions.114

After Chairman Conyers and I continued this exchange to our mutual dissatisfaction, Representative Shays intervened: “Mr. Willens, I love your spirit, and I think I love your spirit more because it is not as popular to take your view. So I thank you for being true to your beliefs and expressing them so strongly.” He then proceeded, very cautiously, to probe whether I might be comforted if and when more information about the assassination was released to the public. I agreed that would be useful and then said: “And to the extent that I have spoken with passion and vigor, I apologize. It is a characteristic flaw. I think that I wanted to draw a distinction between facts on the one hand and allegations, rumors, and suspicions on the other.”115

My critical comments of Stone’s movie and spirited defense of the commission led, somewhat surprisingly, to comments from the audience. When I reminded the committee that the Select Committee’s reliance on acoustics evidence had been rejected by the prestigious committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, a voice from the audience shouted “It has been refuted!”—or something to that effect. While I was being challenged by one committee member, my young nephew from rural Western New York, attending his first congressional hearing, urged me on by shouting from the rear seats in the room, “Eat his lunch, Howard!” When I finally ended my testimony with one more declaration that not one fact had come to light since 1964 that undercut the commission’s conclusions about Oswald and the lack of any conspiracy, committee members responded with quiet smiles of sympathy for my deluded state of mind.116

The Collection of More Records

The Review Board was successful in identifying additional records for inclusion in the JFK Collection at the National Archives. These included some preassassination CIA records regarding Oswald and a smaller number of such records at the FBI. After a review of documents from the CIA’s Office of Operations and operational histories, the Review Board staff “found no evidence of contact between Oswald and [the Office of Operations] either before or after his time in the Soviet Union.” The Review Board devoted several pages to describing its effort to identify previously undisclosed records regarding Oswald’s trip to Mexico six weeks before the assassination. The Review Board reported that the CIA was never able to locate photographic evidence of Oswald’s visit to either the Cuban or Soviet consulate. The CIA also informed the board that it did not retain any tapes of calls believed to have been made by Oswald, including one to the Soviet consulate, because the tapes had been erased in accordance with the agency’s standard procedures.117

The board was aggressive and persistent in its pursuit of assassination records. Among its major accomplishments, the Review Board reported that it had considered and voted on more than 27,000 previously redacted assassination records and obtained agencies’ consent to release an additional 33,000 plus assassination records. It also had ensured that the famous “Zapruder Film” of the assassination belonged to the American people, made public all FBI and CIA documents from previous official investigations, and permanently preserved all the autopsy photographs of President Kennedy in digitized form. The board’s report stated that its legacy “lies in the more than four million pages of records now in the National Archives and available to the public with remarkably few redactions.”118

The Review Board made a major contribution to resolving lingering doubts and criticisms about what is shown in the documentary and physical evidence relevant to the assassination. Bugliosi concluded in 2007 that among the documents released by the Records Board not one item “remotely resembling a smoking gun was found that would call into question the findings and conclusion of the Warren Commission.”119 Under the JFK Act, all assassination records not released by the board are to be opened to the public no later than 2017—twenty-five years after enactment of the law—unless the president certifies that continued postponement is necessary to prevent harm to an identified national interest and that “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”120

Even before the law was enacted, we recognized that the extensive disclosure of information that might result would never be sufficient “to still those who want to add to the conspiracy literature.”121 That has proved to be the case.

image A Few Final Words

The work of the Warren Commission was an extraordinary professional experience. I was fortunate to have had this opportunity to witness and shape the aftermath of what was surely a defining moment in the middle of the twentieth century. Having written this book, it no longer seems so distant.

Looking back to 1963, President Johnson made the correct decision in appointing the Warren Commission. In the absence of a trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, the American public deserved a thoughtful effort to develop the facts regarding the assassination of President Kennedy and those who were responsible. The commission conscientiously assumed this obligation and produced a report that reflected accurately the results of the most extensive criminal investigation ever conducted.

We achieved one of the other objectives motivating President Johnson—to avoid the uncertainties and conflicts that would have resulted from having multiple investigations of the assassination at the state and federal levels. Texas and Dallas officials accepted the commission’s conclusions and saw no need to mount their own investigations. The commission’s report also defused potential congressional investigations at the time.

But the commission did not achieve another of its objectives—to address and satisfy the endless conspiracy theories. Was there more that the commission might have done to have a greater impact on rebutting these conspiracy theories? Was this even an achievable objective? I do not think so. Consider the unending flow of books about the Lincoln assassination. Nevertheless, we had an obligation to address those theories challenging us in 1964 and we tried hard to do that effectively.

I do believe—as Chief Justice Warren predicted—that history has proved us right. The approaching fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination encouraged me to return to my journal and files and tell the story of who we were, how we worked, the problems that we faced together, the critical decisions we made along the way, and the pride that we have in our report. Yes, there were gaps unfilled and mistakes along the way, which I have acknowledged in this account. But after nearly fifty years, no one with firsthand knowledge has emerged to dispute our basic conclusions that Oswald was the assassin and that neither he nor Ruby was part of any conspiracy.

Our historian, Alfred Goldberg, offered these thoughts in support of our work:

And what is the alternative to the Warren Commission’s reconstruction of the assassination—this distressing, banal, ambiguous event that has all the earmarks of real life which are familiar to all of us, but which we often refuse to recognize or accept as true of events of great import also? The alternative is some nebulous conspiracy hypothesis seeking some sanction of fact or reality that has thus far escaped it. The element of chance in this hypothesis is confined to Oswald. All of the elements of the event that have to be supplied by the imagination—the conspirators, the other assassin or assassins, the physical circumstances of the deed, the escape of the other assassins, the keeping of the secret—all of these are presented in one-dimensional terms. There is no allowance for the chance and ambiguity of real life. There is no evidence, there are no eyewitnesses, no one talked or betrayed the conspiracy. And yet with each additional assassin and conspirator the element of chance would have been all the greater—the loose ends, inconsistencies, and contradictions. But none has come to light. To accept the mountain of improbabilities inherent in these conspiracy hypotheses required a far greater suspension of logic and judgment than does the Warren Commission with its imperfections. Indeed, it is the presence of the real life imperfections which is one of the strongest arguments for the fundamental honesty and soundness of the Report.122

My commission colleagues and I recognize the common human feeling that great events must have great causes. We share the sense of implausibility that someone like Oswald could have assassinated our president acting alone. Over the decades since 1963, however, we have experienced in the United States and elsewhere assassinations of public figures and wanton killings of hundreds of innocent people by single individuals motivated by hatred, political or religious conviction, racism, or unknowable personal reasons. We seem to accept readily the fact that, for the most part, these individuals acted alone, without really knowing why they did what they did. We do not routinely look for a conspiracy that might help to place the killing in some context that might better explain the killers’ motives. I wonder why after several such decades so many smart and thoughtful people still insist that Oswald could not have acted alone—for one or more of the several reasons identified by the Warren Commission and elaborated upon in subsequent books by perceptive authors.

I suspect that this resistance has something to do with the unfulfilled promises of our young president in the early 1960s, before that decade became consumed by the Vietnam War and inflamed by new assassinations, racial strife, and massive urban disturbances, and by later decades that provoked increased distrust of our institutions of government. We on the commission staff lived through these years and shared these experiences. I remain convinced that we were, and those of us still here are, fair-minded persons who would have acknowledged any new evidence from any source that could withstand critical analysis. Over the past nearly fifty years, none of us has seen such evidence. I think I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that we did our work with integrity, and that work has withstood the test of time.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!