"Bertrand Russell’s penetrating question, one of sixteen he asked at the time of the Warren Commission Report, remains unanswered after forty years. That should trouble Americans, but then again there are many things around national secrecy today that should trouble Americans.
The most timely lesson to be taken from the fortieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination concerns secrecy and the meaning of democracy in the world’s most powerful nation. Perhaps no event better demonstrates the existence of two governments in the United States, the one people elect and another, often far more influential, as capable of imposing false history about large events as the fabled Ministry of Truth.
Since the time of the Warren Commission we have had the investigation of the House Select Committee and, in the last decade, the release of truckloads of previously-secret documents.
These documents were suppressed originally in the name of national security, but the fact is, despite their release, much of their content is heavily blacked out, and dedicated researchers know many documents remain unreleased, particularly documents from the CIA and military intelligence. Would any reasonable person conclude anything other than that those documents are likely the most informative and sensational?
Was it ever reasonable to believe that material of that nature would be included in document releases? Just a few years ago, records of some of the CIA’s early Cold War activities, due for mandated release, were suddenly said to have "disappeared," and that declaration was pretty much the end of the story for a press regularly puffing itself as the fourth estate of American society. You do not have to believe in wild plots to recognize here the key to the Warren Commission’s shabby job of investigation. As it was, several members of the Commission expressed private doubts about the main finding of Oswald as lone assassin.
There is a sense in these matters of being treated as a child sent to his or her room for not eating the spinach served. This is not so different to the way the American government treats its citizens about Cuba: it restricts them from spending money there so they cannot freely go and judge for themselves what is and isn’t.
As it happens, the two things, Cuba and the assassination, are intimately related. Almost no one who studies the assassination critically can help but conclude it had a great deal to do with Cuba. No, I don’t mean the pathetic story about Castro being somehow responsible. That idea is an insult to intelligence.
No matter what opinions you may hold of Castro, he is too clever and was in those days certainly too dedicated to the purpose of helping his people, according to his lights, ever to take such a chance. Even the slightest evidence pointing to Castro would have given the American establishment, fuming over communism like Puritan Fathers confronting what they regarded as demon possession, the excuse for an invasion.
There never has been credible evidence in that direction. Yet, there has been a number of fraudulent pieces of evidence, particularly the testimony of unsavory characters, claims so threadbare they have come and gone after failing to catch any hold, remaining as forgotten as last year’s fizzled advertising campaign for some laundry detergent.
The notion that Castro had anything to do with the assassination is like an old corpse that’s been floating around, slowly decomposing, periodically releasing gases for decades. And it is still doing so, Gus Russo’s Live by the Sword of not many years ago being one of the most detailed efforts to tart-up the corpse and make it presentable for showing.
Any superficial plausibility to the notion of Castro as assassin derives from the poisonous atmosphere maintained towards him as official American policy. Researchers in science know that bias on a researcher’s part, not scrupulously checked by an experiment’s protocols, can seriously influence the outcome of an otherwise rigorous statistical study. How much more so in studies of history on subjects loaded with ideology and politics?
When you consider with what flimsy, and even utterly false, evidence the United States has invaded Iraq, it is remarkable that an invasion of Cuba did not proceed forty years ago. But in some ways the U.S. was less certain of itself then, it had a formidable opponent in the Soviet Union, and there was an agreement with the Soviets concerning Cuba’s integrity negotiated to end the Cuban missile crisis, an agreement which deeply offended the small army of Cuban exiles, CIA men, and low-life hangers-on who enjoyed steady employment, lots of perquisites, and violent fun terrorizing Cuba.
Considering America’s current crusade over the evils of terrorism, you’d have to conclude from the existence of that well-financed, murderous mob in the early 1960s that there was a rather different view of terror then. Perhaps there is good terror and bad terror, depending on just who does the wrecking and killing?
If you were a serious, aspiring assassin, associated with Castro and living in the United States during the early 1960s, you would not advertise your sympathies months in advance as Oswald did. You would not call any attention to yourself. It is hard for many today to have an adequate feel for the period, a time when declaring yourself sympathetic to Castro or communism could earn you a beating in the street, quite apart from making you the target of intense FBI interest. Oswald was physically assaulted for his (stagy) pro-Castro efforts in New Orleans, and he did receive a lengthy visit from the FBI while held briefly in jail, but this was not new interest from the agency since he was already well known to them.
Whatever else you may think of Castro, he is one of the cleverest and most able politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. He survived invasion, endless acts of terror and sabotage from the CIA and Cuban exiles, and numerous attempts at assassination, and he still retains a good deal of loyal support in Cuba. A man of this extraordinary talent does not use someone like Oswald to assassinate an American president. And if Castro had made such a mistake, he quickly would have corrected the error when Oswald made a (deliberate) fool of himself, over and over, in New Orleans well before the assassination, his actions there looking remarkably like the kind of provocateur-stuff a security service might use to elicit responses and identify the sympathies of others.
Oswald’s (purported) visit to Mexico and clownish behavior in New Orleans laid the groundwork for the myth of Castro’s involvement, and that almost certainly was one of the purposes of the activity, laying the groundwork for an invasion of Cuba. The motive for the assassination is likely found there. It is just silly to believe Castro risked handing the U.S. government a new "Remember the Maine."
In recent years, we’ve had Patrick Kennedy say he believes Castro was responsible, but his views on this matter are more like built-in reflexes than informed judgment. Besides broadcasting a tone agreeable to America’s political establishment, his statement comes steeped in de’ Medici-like conviction that Castro’s success stained the honor of his ferociously ambitious family. Cross that family’s path, and you earn a lifetime grudge. That’s the way the family fortune’s founder always behaved.
Robert Kennedy hated Castro (just as he hated other powerful competitors including Lyndon Johnson), and he took personal oversight of efforts to assassinate him. Robert also hated certain elements of the Mafia, who, after supporting his brother with money and influence in the election, felt betrayed by Robert’s legal actions against them. The killing of Castro would have made all these people much happier, Havana having been one of the Mafia’s gold mines before Castro. Interestingly enough, it appears that the FBI, under pressure from Robert, was at the same time making efforts to crackdown on the excesses of the Cuban refugees. Their excesses , including insane acts like shooting up Russian ships and killing Russian sailors in Cuban ports, threatened relations with the Soviet Union.
One of the centers of the FBI’s crackdown effort was New Orleans, and that is where it appears clearest that Oswald worked for them. His defector background made him a logical candidate for provocative activities like handing out leaflets about Castro. At the same time he was offering his services as an ex-Marine to at least one of the refugee groups.
Oswald almost certainly had a minor role in American intelligence, an assumption that explains many mysterious episodes in his life. We know the Warren Commission discussed this in closed session. We also know Texas authorities believed they had discovered such a connection. And we know the FBI in Dallas destroyed important evidence.
If you’re looking for Cuban assassins, why not some of those nasty refugee militia groups, armed to the teeth by the CIA and trained to terrorize Castro’s government? They also terrorized their critics in Florida. The extensive preparations necessary for assassinating the President might have raised little suspicion from the CIA or FBI at a time when these groups, subsidized and protected by the CIA, were carrying out all kinds of violent, lunatic acts. There are strong parallels here with the suicide-bombers of 9/11, who undoubtedly eluded suspicion because the CIA had been regularly bringing into the country many shady characters from the Middle East to train for its dark purposes in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Cuban extremists in Florida were furious over the Bay of Pigs and felt betrayed by Kennedy’s terms for settling the missile crisis. You couldn’t find a better explanation for the CIA’s unhelpful behavior over the years since. Imagine the impact on the CIA, already badly damaged by the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s great anger over it, of news that some of its subsidized anti-Castro thugs had killed the President?
I don’t say that is what happened, only that there is at least one conjecture with far more force and substance than the official one. Assassination-theorizing is not one of my hobbies, but I have contempt for the official explanation, and it seems rather naive to believe that the American security establishment would have been satisfied with the insipid conclusions of the Warren Commission.
Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that the vast resources of American security and justice employed at the time – that is, those not concerned with kicking up dust into the public’s eyes – were not able to identify the assassins and their purpose. Documents covering a surreptitious, parallel investigation almost certainly exist because what we know includes suggestions of two investigations intersecting at times. Perhaps, the best example of this is around the autopsy (discussed below).
Kicking-up dust around the assassination is an activity that continues intermittently to this day. In a piece a few years ago in the Washington Post about new Moscow documents on the assassination, a reporter wrote, "Oswald…defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and renounced his American citizenship."
Oswald never renounced his citizenship, although he made a public show of wanting to do so. This was one of many theater-of-the-absurd scenes in the Oswald saga. We now know that on one of his visits to the American embassy in Moscow, Oswald was taken to an area reserved for sensitive matters, not the kind of business he was there to conduct.
The Soviets let him stay, never granting him citizenship, always treating him as an extraordinary outsider under constant scrutiny.
The Washington Post reporter also wrote, "Historians have expressed hope that the documents could shed light on whether Oswald schemed to kill Kennedy when he lived in the Soviet Union…." That begs the genuine question of whether Oswald killed Kennedy and kicks-up more dust. No historian of critical ability could think that way. The Soviets went out of their way at the time of the assassination to reassure the U.S. government that they had no connection with it. Any credible evidence they could produce, we may be absolutely sure, was produced. The stakes were immensely high.
The testimony of many Soviet citizens who knew Oswald agreed that he was a man temperamentally incapable of killing anyone. An exception was his (estranged) wife, Marina, who found herself, after the assassination, a Soviet citizen in a hostile country, able to speak little English, the mother of two young children with absolutely no resources, and hostage to American agents who could determine her destiny.
Even so accomplished and discerning a journalist as Daniel Schorr has assisted in kicking-up dust, writing some years ago at the release of more than a thousand boxes of memos and investigative reports from the national archives that there wasn’t much there. Somehow, Schorr had managed to digest and summarize that monstrous amount of information in a very short time. Then again, in view of all the blacked-out information, maybe Schorr’s assertion owed less to incredible skills at reading and digesting information than to serene confidence in the methods of the establishment.
Schorr went from the merely silly to the ridiculous with his assertion, "There remains no serious reason to question the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the death of the president was the work of Oswald alone." How re-assuring, but, if you think about that for a moment, it is the equivalent of saying what never was proved has not now been disproved, so we’ll regard it as proved – absurd, yet characteristic of so many things written about the assassination.
Schorr went on to praise Gerald Posner’s new book, Case Closed, as "remov[ing] any lingering doubt." We’ll come back to Posner’s book, but Schorr also saw fit to trot out the then obligatory disparaging reference to Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. Why would a piece of popular entertainment be mentioned in the same context as genuine historical documents? Only to associate the movie with Schorr’s claim that the documents had little to say.
Every handsomely-paid columnist and pop news-celebrity in America stretched to find new words of contempt for the Stone movie, miraculously, many of them well before its release. The wide-scale, simultaneous attack was astonishing. You had to wonder whether they had a source sending them film scraps from the editing room or purloined pages from the script. When Stone’s movie did appear – proving highly unsatisfactory, almost silly, in its explanation of the assassination – you had to wonder what all the fuss had been about.
I was never an admirer of President Kennedy – still, the most important, unsolved murder of the 20th century, apart from the lessons it offers, is a fascinating mystery for those who’ve studied it.
The President’s head movement at the impact of the fatal shot, clearly backward on the Zapruder film, a fact lamely rationalized by the Warren Commission, is not the only evidence for shots from the front. In the famous picture of Mrs. Kennedy reaching over the back of the car, she was, by her own testimony, reaching for a piece of the President’s skull. Equally striking is the testimony of a police outrider, to the rear of the President’s car, that he was struck forcefully with blood and brain tissue.
The doctors who worked to save the President at Parkland Hospital in Dallas said that the major visible damage to the President was a gaping wound near the rear of the skull, the kind of wound that typically reflects the exit of a bullet with the shock wave generated by its passing through layers of human tissue. We’ve all seen a plate glass window struck by a B-B where a tiny entrance puncture results in a large funnel-shaped chunk of cracked or missing glass on the opposite side.
The President’s head wound, as described in Dallas, is not present in published autopsy photographs. Instead, there is a pencil-thin entrance-type wound in an unknown scalp. Although the Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, who climbed aboard the President’s car after the shots, testified to seeing a large chunk of skull in the car and looking into the right rear of the President’s head, seeing part of his brain gone, the autopsy photos show no such thing.
The wound at the front of the President’s neck, just above his necktie, which was nicked by the bullet, was regarded by those first treating him in Dallas as an entrance wound since it had the form of a small puncture before a tracheotomy was done. But the throat wound in the published autopsy photos is large and messy.
The nature of the pathologists forcefully raises Russell’s question. Why would you need military pathologists, people who must follow orders? Ones especially that were not very experienced in gunshot wounds, far less so than hospital pathologists in any large, violent American city? Why conduct the autopsy at a military hospital in Washington rather than a civilian one in Dallas? Why have the pathologists work with a room full of Pentagon brass looking on? The President’s body was seized at gunpoint by federal agents at the hospital in Dallas where the law required autopsy of a murder victim. Why these suspicious actions and so many more, if the assassination, as the Warren Commission and its defenders hold, reduces to murder by one man for unknown motives?
The autopsy, as published, was neither complete nor careful, rendering its findings of little forensic value. There is some evidence, including testimony of a morgue worker and references contained in an FBI memo, pointing to autopsy work, particularly work to the President’s head, done elsewhere before receipt of the body for the official autopsy, but no new documents expand on this. We do learn the relatively trivial fact that the expensive bronze casket, known to have been damaged at some point in bringing it to Bethesda, was disposed of by sinking in the ocean, but the morgue worker said the bronze casket arriving with Mrs. Kennedy was empty and that the body, separately delivered in a shipping casket, displayed obvious signs of work done to it. The FBI memo, written by two agents at the "earlier stages" of the official autopsy, states that the unwrapped body displayed "surgery of the head area." The same FBI agents also signed a receipt for a mysterious "missile removed" by one pathologist.
The official autopsy avoided some standard procedures. For example, the path of the so-called magic bullet through the President’s neck was not sectioned. A mysterious back wound, whose placement varies dramatically from the hole in the President’s jacket (a fact officially explained by an improbable bunching-up of the jacket), was probed but no entrance into the body cavity found. The preserved brain – what there was of it, and with its telltale scattering of metal fragments – later went missing. One of the pathologists admitted to burning his original draft before writing the report we now see.
The Warren Commission did no independent investigation (it did not even examine the autopsy photos and x-rays), adopting instead the FBI as its investigative arm at a time when the FBI had many serious matters to explain. The FBI had failed to have Oswald’s name on its Watch List even though they were completely familiar with him, seeing him at intervals for unexplained reasons. His name even had appeared earlier in an odd internal FBI advisory memo signed by Director Hoover. The FBI also had failed to act appropriately on an explicit threat from a known source recorded well before Kennedy went to Dallas. And the agency destroyed crucial evidence.
With a lack of independent investigation and the absence of all proper court procedures including the cross-examination of witnesses, the Warren Report is nothing more than a prosecutor’s brief, and a sloppy one at that, with a finding of guilt in the absence of any judge or jury. The only time the skimpy evidence against Oswald was considered in a proper court setting, a mock trial by the American Bar Association in 1992, the jury was hung, 7 to 5.
Oswald’s background is extraordinary. By the standards of the 1950s and early 1960s, aspects of his life simply make no sense if viewed from the official perspective. Here was a Marine, enlisted at 17, who mysteriously started learning Russian, receiving communist literature through the mail, and speaking openly to other Marines about communism – none of which in the least affected his posting or standing.
He became a defector to the Soviet Union, one who reportedly threatened to give the Soviets information about operations of the then top-secret U-2 spy plane. Some even assert he did provide such information, making it possible for a Soviet missile to down Gary Power’s U-2 plane just before the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit. Unlikely as that is, for Oswald would certainly have been treated harshly on his return to the United States were it true, he did know some important facts about the U-2’s capabilities, because this Russian-studying, communist literature-reading Marine was posted at a secret U-2 base in Japan as a radar operator before his defection.
At a time when witch-hunting for communists was a fresh memory and still a career path for some American politicians, Oswald returned to the U.S. with a Russian wife, one whose uncle was a lieutenant colonel in the MVD, the Ministry of the Interior, but the CIA and other security agencies supposedly took little interest in him. Oswald’s source of income in the U.S. at critical times remains a mystery. A mystery, too, surrounds the connections of this young man of humble means to some well-heeled, anti-Soviet Russian speakers in Dallas after his return from the Soviet Union. His later ability to get a passport for travel to Mexico in just 24 hours – with a personal history that must have ranked as one of the most bizarre in the United States – is attributed to "clerical error."
Oswald, so far as we know, was a patriotic individual when he joined the Marines. There is no evidence that he was ever actually a communist or member of any extremist organization. In fact, there is striking evidence suggesting he did work supporting the opposite interest after his return to the United States. Thus the address on some of the "Fair Play for Cuba" pamphlets he distributed in New Orleans was the office of Guy Bannister, a former senior FBI agent and violent anti-communist, still well-connected to the agency.
Oswald’s connections with the FBI have never been satisfactorily examined. There are many circumstances suggesting his being a paid informant for the FBI, especially during his time in New Orleans. A letter Oswald wrote to a Dallas agent just before the assassination was deliberately and recklessly destroyed by order of the office’s senior agent immediately after the assassination with no reasonable explanation.
One way or another, all the major police or intelligence agencies were compromised during the assassination or its investigation. The Secret Service performed abysmally, in both planning the motorcade and responding to gun fire. Some of the agents on duty had actually been out late drinking the night before, as it happens at a bar belonging to an associate of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s own assassin. The performance of the Dallas police suggests terrible corruption. The FBI failed in vital respects before and after the assassination. The CIA failed to cooperate on many, many details of the investigation. These facts understandably encourage the more farfetched assassination theories.
The CIA has never released its most important information on Oswald, importantly including documentation of his supposed activities in Mexico City at the Cuban and Russian embassies where every visitor was routinely photographed and identified by the CIA. We may speculate what a thorough vetting of CIA files would show: likely that Oswald was a low-grade intelligence agent during his stint in the Soviet Union, perhaps working for military intelligence to collect information on day-to-day living conditions and attitudes there, one of several men sent for the purpose at that time; that he was trained at an American military school in basic Russian and encouraged to build a quickie communist identity by subscribing to literature and talking foolishly before defecting. We would also likely find that he was serving American security, probably the FBI, during the months before Dallas in the murky world of CIA/FBI/Cuban refugee/Mafia anti-Castro activities; and that in the course of that anti-Castro work, he was sucked without realizing it into an elaborate assassination plot, offering the plotters, with his odd background, a tailor-made patsy. The CIA assessment of Oswald would likely show, just as testimony from his time in the Soviet Union shows, that Oswald was not capable psychologically of acting as an assassin, lone or otherwise.
The case against Oswald is a flimsy tissue. It includes a poor autopsy of the victim offering no reliable evidence; a rifle whose ownership is not established; a rifle never definitively proved to have actually killed the President; a claim that jacketed bullets were used, a type of ammunition that could not possibly cause the kind of wounds to which many testify; the accused’s record of mediocre marksmanship in the Marines; a parafin test which showed no residue on his cheek despite his supposedly firing three shots from a bolt-action rifle; a single palm print claimed to have been obtained from the rifle after earlier failed attempts; gimmicky, suggestive photographs of Oswald with a rifle declared montages by several experts; a completely unacceptable evidence chain for the shell casings from the site of Officer Tippit’s shooting, those submitted as evidence being almost certainly not those found at the scene; a bizarre history for the bullets supposed to have killed Tippet; an illogical weighting of witnesses who told different stories about Tippit’s shooting; plus many other strange and contradictory details.
Moreover, Oswald had no motive, having expressed admiration for Kennedy. And Oswald was promptly assassinated himself by Jack Ruby, a man associated with the murky world of anti-Castro violence, someone whose past included gun-running to Cuba and enforcer-violence in Chicago.
There is a kind of cheap industry in publishing assassination books, most of which are superficial or silly. This fact makes it easy to attack credible efforts to question the official story, but in this respect the subject is no different from others. Just look at the shelves of superficial or trashy books on psychology, business management, or self-help available in bookstores.
Russell’s question echoes again and again down the decades as adjustments are made to the official story. Employing techniques one expects to be used for covering up long-term intelligence interests, various points raised by early independent researchers like Joachim Joesten or Mark Lane, have been conceded here or there along the way without altering the central finding. This is an effective method: concede details and appear open to new facts while always forcefully returning to the main point.
A significant writer along these lines is Jacob Epstein, an author whose other writing suggests intelligence connections. His first book on the assassination, Inquest, conceded numerous flaws in the Warren Report. Epstein went on in subsequent books, Counterplot and Legend to attack at length – and for the critical reader, quite unconvincingly – ideas of conspiracy, Oswald’s intelligence connections, and his innocence.
The Report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, 1979, was the grandest effort of this type. The Committee was used for selective leaks and plants, as for example the publication of some bootlegged autopsy photos, which ended by raising only more questions. Leads often were not followed-up, greatly frustrating some of the able investigators employed. The Committee squandered the last opportunity to pursue an independent, well-financed investigation – last, in the sense of never again being able to overcome the inertia against assembling the needed resources and authorities and in the sense that with passing time evidence deteriorates, memories fade, and witnesses die. Despite the Committee’s attention-getting conclusion from technical analysis of an old Dictabelt recording that a shot probably was fired from the front, it also concluded that the shot missed, a truly bizarre finding that welds hints of conspiracy to yet another assertion that Oswald was the only killer.
Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, 1993, was another of these. You couldn’t help noticing this lamentable book being widely reviewed and praised. Why would that be? Because, without producing any new evidence and despite a number of errors, it freshly re-packaged the main speculations of the Warren Report, but no repackaging of the Report’s jumble of partial facts, guesses, and accusations can strengthen its conclusions. You can’t build a sound house with large sections of the foundation missing.
Priscilla Johnson’s Marina and Lee,1980 , was another kind of book, one of several resembling the kind of quickie books churned out to discredit Anita Hill in the Judge Clarence Thomas confirmation. Ms. Johnson managed to interview Oswald in Russia – I wonder what connections might have made that possible? – and later used that fact to gain access to Oswald’s widow, Marina. Impressing many who had heard her as a distracted and confused person, Marina was a woman who had been subjected to immense, frightening pressure from the FBI and other security services after the assassination. The book is an almost unreadable hatchet-job on Oswald’s character, effectively diminishing the image that comes through many photographs and anecdotes of a rather naÃ¯ve, brash, sometimes rude but not unlikable young man caught up in events he incompletely understood.
The official story of the assassination remains pretty much unchanged from just a few days after events of forty years ago: one man with an almost broken-down rifle, no expertise, no resources, and no motive killed the President, and he was himself killed by a man with the darkest background simply out of sympathy for the President’s wife. Those with no vested interest and critical faculties intact can never accept such a fable explaining the brutal work of a well-planned conspiracy.
Now, the really horrifying possibility is that the security agencies never discovered the assassins despite vast efforts. That means officials hold tenaciously to the Oswald story to cover national nakedness. The FBI has a long and shabby record of blunders and going after the wrong people, and when you think of the CIA’s many failures assessing the capabilities and approaching demise of the Soviet Union, the many failures in Vietnam, and its miserable failure around 9/11, that is not a farfetched possibility. The answer to Russell’s question then becomes that national security indeed applies, if only in the unexpected form of hiding miserable failure.
But if you can write false history of an event so large as a Presidential assassination, what truly are the limits?