JFK and the Lone Gunman

jfk-dallas-350As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy grows nearer the inability of the Establishment news media to consider fairly the facts in the case remains as pronounced as it was during previous commemorations. In trying to explain why opinion polls have shown for decades now that a majority of Americans do not accept the Warren Commission’s “lone gunman” theory, historians and journalists have often fallen back on what has become a familiar (yet unconvincing) narrative about the meaning of those horrific events in Dallas in November 1963.

The dominant storyline goes something like this: The American people could never accept the notion that a high school drop-out loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could single-handedly kill such an inspiring public figure as JFK, therefore they’ve embraced “conspiracy theories” to give meaning to what was essentially a meaningless act.

The historian Robert Dallek, in his biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life (2003), offers a concise version of this common interpretation: “In 1992, fewer than one-third of Americans accepted the Warren Commission’s findings as persuasive,” he writes.

“The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people. The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential – as powerful and well guarded – as Kennedy. To accept that an act of random violence by an obscure malcontent could bring down a president of the United States is to acknowledge a chaotic, disorderly world that frightens most Americans.” (Dallek 2003, 699)

Dallek also defers to the work of the “former Wall Street lawyer,” Gerald Posner, as being “authoritative” on the assassination. In his inordinately praised 1993 book, Cased Closed,(which was aimed to discredit Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK), Posner puts forth the same idea:

“The notion that a misguided sociopath had wreaked such havoc made the crime seem senseless and devoid of political significance. By concluding that JFK was killed as the result of an elaborate plot, there is the belief he died for a purpose, that a powerful group eliminated him for some critical issue.” (Posner 1993, x)

This assertion about people needing to affix meaning to the Kennedy assassination where there is none can sound persuasive at first glance. Yet it’s really just psychobabble that seeks to ascribe an emotional affect to “the American people” that has the added benefit for those making the claim of being impossible to prove or disprove. One could just as easily argue that since the accused suspect in the killing was murdered himself two days later, and never stood trial in any court of law, it’s perfectly logical that “the American people” would be skeptical about the “facts” the Warren Commission presented in the case relating to Oswald’s guilt or innocence (or something in between). As early as December 1963, a majority of Americans told pollsters they believed there had been “some group or element” behind JFK’s assassination, and by January 1967 it had risen to 64 percent. (Dallek 2003, 698)

Then came about thirty years of torrid revelations about the illegal activities of the United States’ national security state that were unknown at the time of the Warren Commission, and public opinion hardened against the lone gunman theory.

The 1970s brought the Church Committee revelations of the CIA’s assassination capabilities aimed at Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. Before that, the Watergate scandals uncovered lies and distortions at the highest levels of government, which included cash payouts to criminals from a White House safe. And before that, the Pentagon Papers exposed the lies surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which became the pretext for the Vietnam War.

During the 1980s, the Iran-Contra scandal unmasked what Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii called a “shadowy network” of former military and intelligence officials, profiteers, CIA cut-outs, Swiss bank accounts, and front companies that committed multiple felonies. New research on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover details grand abuses of power against civil rights leaders and unveiled his elaborate domestic spying operations, COINTELPRO. More recently, the George W. Bush administration lied about the existence of Iraqi WMD in order to bring the nation to war, and whistle blowers have brought to light everything from war crimes to the vast NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens.

This sordid behavior by the federal government, all done in the name of “national security,” has become part of the historical record. Yet after all of this history, a half-century after President Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, we are expected to accept the conclusions of a 1964 report written by a deeply flawed governmental panel.

Three-Part Series by Joseph Palermo:

JFK Assassination: Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald

JFK and the Lone Gunman

Had John Kennedy Lived

The Warren Commission

After the dual murders of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, on November 22 and 24, respectively, there were loud demands in the Senate and the House for a congressional investigation. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois and New York Representative Charles Goodell called for a joint House-Senate committee to look into the bizarre events in Dallas.

To silence the demands for a congressional investigation, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11130 on Friday, November 29, 1963, establishing what would become known as the Warren Commission. Its charge was “to satisfy itself that the truth is known as far as it can be discovered.” The Commission’s powers superseded any other inquiry, “including those by the FBI or any state agency.” (Robert Caro, The Passage of Power, 2012, 442)

Johnson wanted to control the appointment of personnel and the timing of the report to ensure that the investigation did not become a campaign issue in 1964. The origins of the Warren Commission itself were political in nature and had as its main goal a public relations effort.

The Commission, named after Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren who headed it, was from the start, like Johnson, more concerned with wrapping up the “investigation” before the 1964 elections and to stave off other inquiries. The Commission worked largely behind closed doors and all of its members rarely met at all. It was dependent upon evidence from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Richard Helms of the CIA. It included a former CIA director, Allen Dulles, (who Kennedy fired after the Bay of Pigs invasion), who directed much of the inquiry. Some people called it the “Dulles Commission.” (Mark Lane, Last Word, 2011, 7)

President Johnson named five Republicans and two Democrats. In addition to Dulles and Warren, Democratic Senator Richard Russell of Georgia agreed to serve (after some arm-twisting from LBJ). Russell was highly critical of the final report. Republican Senator Sherman Cooper of Kentucky joined Russell, and from the House of Representatives were Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan and Hale Boggs, the Louisiana Democrat. John McCloy, a Republican businessman whose illustrious resume led some in the press to dub him “chairman of the Eastern establishment,” also joined the Commission. (David Talbot, Brothers, 2007, 281) Chief Counsel and staff director, J. Lee Rankin, would play the role of gatekeeper between Commissioners and investigators, filtering information and deciding what evidence to pursue and what to drop.

In a November 25, 1963 memo written by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to Johnson’s Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, Katzenbach summed up the public relations angle of the Warren Commission’s assignment:

“1. The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.

2. 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 the facts on Oswald seem about too pat – too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.).” (Quoted in James Douglass JFK and the Unspeakable 2009, 82)

On December 9, 1963, only four days after the Commission’s first meeting, FBI Director Hoover sent its members a summary report concluding beyond any doubt that Lee Oswald acted alone when he killed the President and Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald. Nine months later, that same outcome, embroidered with thousands of pages full of smoke and mirrors, would become the Warren Commission’s final word on the assassination. The whole exercise, all twenty-six windy volumes and the 800-pageWarren Report, was just an overblown amplification of Hoover’s original conclusion.

To make matters worse, Hoover leaked his report to the press, (a common practice for Hoover), which angered Warren and other Commissioners, and set the template for the public’s understanding of the crime even before the “investigation” got off the ground.

Moreover, the Commissioners were totally dependent on whatever evidence the FBI and CIA wanted them to see or not to see. According to one of the staff lawyers assigned to look into Jack Ruby’s background, Burt Griffin, staff director Rankin, “was fearful that our own investigation of the assassination could be interpreted by the FBI or CIA as an attempt to investigate them.” (Kantor The Ruby Cover-Up 1978, 174)

The famous internal memo from Katzenbach, along with the FBI’s publicly leaked summary report that followed, established firm parameters for the inquiry and explains why Rankin and others were not interested in pursuing leads that would get in the way of the pre-ordained conclusion of a lone gunman.

Meanwhile, a transcription of a January 27, 1964 meeting reveals Allen Dulles rather nonchalantly informing the Commissioners that both Hoover of the FBI and CIA Director John McCone “should be expected to lie to the Commission to protect the identity of their operations and undercover agents.” (Kantor 1978, 187) Hence, the evidence would be fixed to fit the outcome that both Katzenbach and Hoover articulated before the Commission even called its first witness. The Warren Commission operated on the same old “trust us” level we’ve heard for decades whenever our government lies to us.

In a subsequent interview, a working-level lawyer for the Commission complained:

“We never had any significant dialogue, any structured dialogue among the staff members on the question of conspiracy. There never were any series of hypotheses set up that we were all supposed to check into. In fact, we never really had a structured system of meeting and exchanging information so that various theories could be checked out. These two points were problems caused by Rankin – either because he was incompetent and way over his head, or because he knew something the rest of us didn’t know.” (Quoted in Kantor 1978, 171)

There are examples of Hoover withholding information, including the fact that a few days before the assassination Oswald had contacted the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge in Dallas, James Hosty. It wasn’t until 1975 when the public learned about the Oswald-Hosty meeting, as well as Jack Ruby’s extensive ties to organized crime. Hoover did confide to Rankin (“for your information”) in a February 27, 1964 memo that the FBI had contacted Ruby nine times in 1959, from March 11 to October 2, “to furnish information” on criminal matters.

The American people were kept in the dark about the extent of the FBI’s (and the CIA’s) relationship with both Oswald and Ruby just as they were unaware of the Bureau’s harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. that was going on at the same time. The Commission didn’t even bother to interview the FBI agent, Charles W. Flynn, who served as Ruby’s contact in Dallas. (Kantor 1978, 175-177) Keep in mind that after they were arrested and jailed, both Oswald and Ruby said they had been manipulated: “I’m a patsy,” said Oswald. “I’ve been used for a purpose,” said Ruby. (Kantor 1978, 397)

Strangely, the Warren Commission also never took issue with the fact that Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry’s homicide unit, along with the FBI, after holding Oswald in custody for nearly three days, never bothered to take down any of the words that flowed from his mouth, which could have been used against him at trial. The Warren Reporta cknowledges that Oswald was “interrogated” for about twelve hours but notes feebly: “There were no stenographic or tape recordings of these interviews.” (Douglass 2009, 284)

Another peculiar action of the Warren Commission (there are many) was its intentionally substandard reproduction of the famous photo taken by Dallas Associated Press photographer James Altgens. The Warren Report’s reprinted version of the photo is a “reduced, cropped, indistinct printing of an FBI copy of a magazine copy of the originally crystal-clear picture.” (Douglass 2009, 285) Captured in the background of the unspoiled version of the photograph is a man resembling Lee Oswald standing in the doorway of the Texas School Book Depository calmly watching the presidential motorcade.

“By deliberately using a smaller fourth-generation print,” James Douglass writes in JFK and the Unspeakable, “the government made the image of the man too tiny and blurred to be recognizable. The Report’s deliberately flawed reproduction of the Altgens photo changed the man in the doorway from a challenging image into abstract speculation, which could then be disposed of without making any visual comparisons to pictures of Oswald taken later that day in strikingly similar clothing.” (Douglass 2009, 285)

Like its treatment of the Altgens photo, another weird decision on the Commission’s part was to suppress the results of the nitrate test administered to Oswald that indicated he had NOT fired a rifle on November 22, 1963. The nitrate test results were withheld for ten months only to be called “unreliable” when they were finally revealed to the public in the Warren Report. (Jim Garrison On the Trail of the Assassins 1988, 116)

The Warren Commission might not have been curious enough to question the FBI agent who had met up with Jack Ruby for the better part of a year, but it was keenly interested in other aspects of Ruby’s life. In viewing Commission Exhibit No. 1281 in Volume 22 of the Commission’s findings — released by the FBI on February 18, 1964 – a dogged researcher will learn, based on records from Elgin State Hospital in Illinois dated January 15, 1938, that Ruby’s mother, Fanny Rubenstein, wore false teeth. The Commission furnished a diagram showing thirty-two teeth with a notation by Dr. W.J. Hoeft, the staff dentist, who examined Mrs. Rubenstein: “Patient states she has teeth but not wearing them.” (Kantor 1978, 177-178) So among the countless leads the Warren Commission investigators failed to look into, they nonetheless got to the bottom of the condition of Fanny Rubenstein’s choppers — twenty-five years before the Kennedy assassination.

The Warren Commission showed less interest in Jack Ruby’s numerous contacts with Dallas police officers than it did with his mother’s oral hygiene. The issue of whether or not someone from inside the police station had let Ruby into the basement to dispatch Oswald (as he did on national television), in the words of Mark Lane, “required a radical inquiry.” (Lane Rush to Judgment 1966, 230) But the Commission blandly accepted at face value without further questioning a short statement from Chief Curry, the official who was responsible for the botched transfer of the world’s most famous prisoner. Curry claimed that Ruby knew “no more than 25 to 50 of Dallas’ almost 1,200 policemen.” (Quoted in Lane 1966, 230)

It might have been beyond the Warren Commission’s reach to interview patrons, employees, bouncers, strippers, and others at Ruby’s Carousel Club, but the path-breaking assassination investigator, Mark Lane, found dozens of witnesses who testified that Ruby’s nightclub was a veritable after-hours hangout for practically the entire Dallas Police Department. Also, the police gave Ruby special treatment; he always managed to avoid going to trial even after multiple arrests, and his privileged position appears to have been in exchange for slaking the officers’ thirst for alcohol and female companionship. (Lane 1966, 230-238)

joseph palermoGiven its epic flaws and omissions, it’s little wonder that the Warren Report, which the Commission presented to President Johnson with great fanfare on September 28, 1964, has been over the years widely condemned as a monumental government fraud. Privately, even Robert F. Kennedy dismissed the Warren Report as nothing more than an exercise designed to reassure the public. (Talbot 2007, 278-280) And in late 1975, the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, Richard Schweiker, who was a key participant in the Church Committee’s inquiry into CIA wrongdoing, called for a congressional committee to reopen the assassination case. Schweiker told the press: “I think the Warren Commission is like a house of cards. It’s going to collapse.” (Talbot 2007, 232)

Joseph Palermo
Political Commentary

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on November 9, 2013
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).