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A Nation Still Divided
More than fifty years after President John F. Kennedy was slain in broad daylight among hundreds of witnesses, the nation's mainstream media still insist on dividing JFK researchers into two camps – those who rely on conspiracy "theories" and "circumstantial evidence" to answer their own persistent questions and those who rely on "facts" and "hard evidence" to arrive at the highly circumscribed conclusions of the Warren Commission. But is a bullet found on an empty stretcher in the basement of Parkland Hospital – its origins and handling unknown – harder evidence than a respected reporter having seen and talked with Jack Ruby at Parkland in the hours after the assassination? Is a rigged simulation by CBS illustrating that Lee Harvey Oswald may have been able to fire three shots in the requisite 5.6 seconds with his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle harder evidence than Oswald associate and New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw's position on the board of directors of a shell corporation publicly accused of financing political assassinations? Is the testimony of witnesses who say they saw Oswald murder Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit harder evidence than those who say they encountered phony Secret Service agents in Dealey Plaza who blocked them from pursuing the source of shots they had just heard from the grassy knoll?
Anyone who has delved deeply and with an open mind into the assassination is forced to acknowledge that the line between theory and evidence grows increasingly blurred the closer one looks at both the surrounding circumstances and the publicized facts of JFK's death. Writing in Time magazine for the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, reporter David Von Drehle concludes that "the search for meaning in the hideous brutality of Dealey Plaza long ago became as much about faith as forensics. Not religious faith, necessarily, but that set of beliefs that frames our approach to data and mystery. Each of us must have some sort of faith because we can never have perfect knowledge, no matter how much information we accumulate. Faith fills in the gaps."
Von Drehle's finely spun prose, however, blurs another distinction – between what he calls "faith" and what I will call an "investigative lens." A lens, unlike faith, does not demand that we leave logic behind when trying to determine which set of "facts" best explains a mystery. A lens can be focused more tightly or more widely to discover and analyze an array of evidence. It can also be filtered or unfiltered to ignore or trace the connections among the evidence in its view. An investigative lens is therefore highly subjective; its view is focused and/or filtered according to one's theories, prejudices, and even intuitions, often without the investigator's awareness. Regardless of their subjectivity, some investigative lenses are clearly superior to others in making sense of past events for which there is imperfect knowledge – an argument that has perhaps been advanced best by historian John Lewis Gaddis. But before we can begin comparing the effectiveness of different lenses in probing the JFK assassination, we must look at the major assassination theories that have shaped those lenses and, in turn, been shaped by them.
In September of 1964, after deliberating nine months, the Warren Commission concluded that a lone marksman, Lee Harvey Oswald, armed with a bolt-action rifle on the sixth story of the Texas School Book Depository, shot the president as his limousine passed on the street below. The commission claimed to have found no evidence of a conspiracy, but sealed most of the documents related to the assassination until 2039. The commission's stated aim, General Counsel Lee Rankin told the New York Times in January 1964, was to "reassure this country and the world not only that we can protect our President but that accused criminals can be treated fairly."
Twenty-five years later, in 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) released its own report criticizing the commission for a slap-dash investigation and determining that there probably was a conspiracy in the assassination. The panel found that 1) organized crime as a whole was not involved in the conspiracy but that individual members may have been, 2) that the Soviet Union and Cuba were not involved, 3) that the CIA and FBI were not involved, and 4) that a second gunman had fired from a position in front of the motorcade. The committee's finding of a second gunman was based on a recording of police radio transmissions during the assassination that has since been discounted. Experts at the time concluded that the recording contained evidence of four shots, including one from the front of the president. However, more recent research has shown that the police radio that picked up the alleged shots was two miles from Dealey Plaza where the assassination occurred. The committee declined to speculate on exactly who might have been involved in the conspiracy or why, citing a lack of funds to continue the probe.
Defenders of the Warren Report have argued that the elimination of the acoustical evidence of a second gunman in the House committee investigation nullifies the HSCA report and reinstates the Warren Report to its primacy as the government's official version of the assassination. But Rep. Louis Stokes, the Ohio congressman who chaired the House committee probe, has said that is far from the case, noting that the Warren Commission began with the conclusion that Oswald had acted alone. "Our committee did pursue a theory that there may have been a conspiracy," Stokes said on ABC's Nightline in 1992, soon after the release of Stone's JFK. "We also found that some of the information that was not given to the Warren Commission was part of what did lead us to our conclusion (of a conspiracy.) That is, the CIA ... withheld certain information from them, and so they could not have pursued a conspiracy investigation."
Rather than following up on HSCA leads pointing to a conspiracy of organized crime figures and anti-Castro activists in the JFK assassination, the Washington Post and especially the New York Times did their best to pooh-pooh the two-and-a-half year congressional investigation. The Times previewed the release of the committee report quoting unnamed officials that there was little chance of identifying and prosecuting the conspirators given that so many suspects in the case were now dead or missing. The Times then followed the release of the HSCA findings with a long magazine piece defending the Warren Commission Report, written by the commission's former counsel, David Belin. The Washington Post chose to summarize the progress of the committee in a skeptical piece written by George Lardner Jr., beginning with this dismissive lede: "Having satisfied itself that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy and Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the House Assassinations Committee yesterday began concentrating on more difficult questions. Now in the final week of its public inquiry into the president's assassination, the committee served up a potpourri of tantalizing but inconclusive leads ..."
In the last half century, the Warren Report, named after commission chair Chief Justice Earl Warren, has been discredited by both independent and government researchers for having distorted, overlooked, and suppressed evidence in the case. Even researchers who support the essential conclusions of the commission – that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the president entirely on his own – concede that its work was a rush job aimed at quelling rumors of a Castro- and/or Soviet-backed conspiracy and heading off a possible nuclear war. President Lyndon Johnson himself feared that America's Cold War enemies were behind the assassination. He later revealed to his former press secretary and distinguished journalist Bill Moyers his thoughts soon after that horrific day in Dallas: "What raced through my mind was that, if they had shot our president driving down there, who would they shoot next and what would they – what was going on in Washington and when would the missiles be coming?"
A memo by Walter Jenkins, an aide to Johnson, quoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as telling the new president just hours after Ruby had killed Oswald, "The thing I am most concerned about, and [Deputy Attorney General] Mr. [Nicholas] Katzenbach, is having something issued so that they can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin." The next day, just three days after the president's assassination, Katzenbach issued a memo on behalf of Johnson and Hoover to Moyers:
It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy's assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told and that a statement to this effect be made now. The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial. Speculation about Oswald's motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists.
"Unfortunately," Katzenbach added, "the facts on Oswald seem too pat – too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.)."
The very makeup of the Warren Commission fails to inspire confidence in its conclusions. Among LBJ's seven appointees was Allen Dulles, the former CIA chief fired by JFK for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The CIA's liaison to the commission was the longtime head of the agency's counterintelligence division, James J. Angleton, whom many JFK researchers believe was at the center of the conspiracy and its cover-up. Another appointee, Republican Congressman and later President Gerald R. Ford, was so close to the FBI that he secretly, and illegally, fed the FBI classified information while he served on the committee.
The work of the commission has been criticized by both lone gunman and conspiracy theorists over the years for a wide range of issues: 1) deferring to the investigations of the FBI and CIA rather than launching its own, 2) failing to pursue Lee Harvey Oswald's and Jack Ruby's possible ties to organized crime, the anti-Castro community, the FBI, and the CIA, 3) discounting the testimony of scores of credible witnesses, and, 4) being deceived by the CIA on at least one subject known to be relevant to the probe – U.S. attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The litany of doubts raised by critics of the report has become part of the nation's cultural iconography. Among them are the oft-ridiculed Single Bullet Theory that accounts for seven wounds in two men while remaining essentially intact, the backward snap of Kennedy's exploding head during the fatal shot captured in the Zapruder film, and the numerous eyewitness accounts of shots from the grassy knoll in front of the advancing motorcade. Further muddying the commission's findings were Oswald's insistence that he was a "patsy" – an innocent man set up to take the blame for others – and, of course, his subsequent execution-style murder by Ruby. Top government officials, past and present, have privately and publicly expressed their doubts about the Warren Report. They include Texas Governor John Connally, who was wounded while riding in the limousine with the president; President Johnson, who organized the commission; and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who secretly conducted his own investigation into his brother's murder until he, too, was assassinated in 1968. More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have come forward publicly to add their voices to the chorus now questioning the lone gunman theory. Robert Jr. told a Dallas audience in 2013 that his father thought the Warren Report "was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship," then added his own comment that "the evidence at this point, I think, is very, very convincing that it was not a lone gunman." When asked if the plot might have involved the mob or Cubans, Robert Jr. added, "Or rogue CIA agents."
Many legal experts doubt that Oswald, if he had lived, could have been convicted at trial. JFK researchers point out that little of the crime scene evidence from the murders of both the president and Oswald would have been admissible in court. Secret Service agents cleaned the president's limousine before bullet fragments and tissue could be photographed and collected as evidence. No photographs of Kennedy's clothing were taken in their original condition after the shooting, discounting them as evidence for entry and exit wounds. An unfired bullet in the chamber of the rifle allegedly used by Oswald was never photographed or checked for fingerprints. While Dallas police could find only smudges on the outside of the rifle, they did claim to find Oswald's palm print on the barrel inside the rifle's stock. The FBI later found no trace of the palm print or of it having been lifted from the rifle barrel. Not a single witness can verify that Bullet 399, the so-called Magic Bullet entered into evidence as the one that wounded both Kennedy and Connally, was the same bullet found on a stretcher in the basement of Dallas's Parkland Hospital and assumed to have fallen from Connally's body. It is little surprise then that both U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski have said nearly all the evidence gathered in the assassination would have been disallowed in court because of its mishandling.
The Warren Commission ignored or discounted scores of well-placed witnesses whose testimony did not fit its lone gunman thesis. Of the 126 witnesses questioned by the commission, fifty-one placed the shots as coming from the grassy knoll, thirty-two said they came from the Texas School Book Depository, and five cited more than one location. Thirty-eight witnesses had no opinion, but most were not asked.
Discounted testimony included that of journalists and law enforcement officers. Four employees of the Dallas Morning News, all of whom were standing north of Elm Street as the president's limousine approached them as it traveled west, told the press that they had heard shots behind them and to their right in the area of the grassy knoll. None was called as a witness by the commission. Seth Kantor, a Scripps-Howard reporter who knew Ruby personally and later wrote a book profiling Ruby and his extensive links to organized crime, told the commission that he had seen and talked to him at Parkland Hospital just hours after the assassination. But when Ruby denied being there that day, the commission ruled that Kantor must have been mistaken. However, after reading Kantor's 1978 book on Ruby, Warren Commission attorney Burt W. Griffin changed his mind. Now a retired Cuyahoga County, Ohio, judge, Griffin conceded that "the greater weight of the evidence" indicates that Kantor did see Ruby at Parkland.
In 1975, while researching his book on Ruby, Kantor learned that the record of one of his phone calls from Parkland – to Scripps-Howard Florida correspondent Harold "Hal" Hendrix – was still classified for reasons of national security. Kantor had been told by his editor that day to call Hendrix for details on Oswald. Indeed, Hendrix had more information on Oswald, who had just been arrested in Dallas and named the chief suspect in the assassination, than anyone at the scene of the crime. Hendrix, who had earned the nickname "Spook" from his journalistic colleagues, had long been part of the CIA's network of journalists-propagandists known as Operation Mockingbird.
Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig claimed that when he arrived in Dealey Plaza after hearing shots, he saw a white male he later identified as Oswald run from the direction of the Texas School Depository and hop into a light green Rambler station wagon being driven by a dark, Latino-looking man. Craig said heavy traffic prevented him from stopping the vehicle before it sped away but that he related his story to a man at the scene who said he was with the Secret Service. Craig and other reliable witnesses said they had talked to or encountered several Secret Service agents in Dealey Plaza immediately after the assassination. The Secret Service, however, denies that any of its agents had remained in the area after the shooting.
To a lesser extent, the credibility of the HSCA report has also been questioned by JFK researchers, including most recently the committee's former chief investigator, G. Robert Blakey, an expert on organized crime who says he learned decades later that the CIA had withheld information from the committee. Documents released through the JFK Assassination Records Act of 1992 revealed that CIA officer George Joannides had been involved in a disinformation campaign to link Oswald to Castro – a CIA ruse that was withheld from both Warren Commission and HSCA investigators.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "See No Evil"
Copyright © 2018 Jim DeBrosse.
Excerpted by permission of Trine Day LLC.
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Table of Contents
Introduction - "Something Stinks about the Whole Affair" 1
1 A Nation Still Divided 21
2 Marginalizing the "Conspiracy Buffs" 49
3 Consensus through Propaganda and Fear 75
4 The Lens Is Everything 105
5 The Firewall 139
6 Lost in the Master's Mansion 159