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Proof the FBI Changed Documents, and Vincent Bugliosi Was Wrong

by Pat Speer, 13 Apr 2009

In 2007, the legendary true crime writer Vincent Bugliosi released Reclaiming History, a Bible-sized book designed to answer all the questions regarding a possible conspiracy in the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, his “answers” provoked more questions. This short essay examines both the way Bugliosi dealt with one controversial matter, and the truth about this matter, as recently discovered by the author.

Although it is not mentioned in the text itself, on Reclaiming History's accompanying CD-ROM Bugliosi tackles a particularly troublesome question related to a pair of conflicting FBI reports. Intriguingly, these reports were written on the finding of a paper bag in the Texas School Book Depository (TSBD), the workplace of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The Warren Commission had concluded that Oswald had made this bag from paper materials available in the shipping room of the building, (Warren Report, p. 136) and had then used this bag to carry his rifle into the building. But the Commission had failed to uncover and reveal an important problem with the purported match between the paper used to create this bag, and the paper then in use in the building. Bugliosi compounds this mistake. On page 405 of his endnotes, Bugliosi discusses this problem and offers an explanation:

In a 1980 article in Penn Jones Jr.’s conspiracy newsletter, Continuing Inquiry, critic Jack White claimed that the FBI had “sanitized” a document relating to the FBI’s examination of the paper and tape used to construct the bag found in the Depository, and hence, was part of the “cover-up” to hide the truth about the assassination. White reported that two nearly identically worded FBI documents, found by a researcher at the National Archives, offered two opposite conclusions regarding the source of the paper Oswald allegedly used to construct the bag. One version stated that paper samples obtained from the Depository shipping area on November 22 were found to have the same observable characteristics as the brown paper bag recovered from the sixth-floor sniper’s nest. A second version said that the paper samples were found “not to be identical” with the paper gun sack discovered at the scene of the shooting. (Jack White, “The Case of Q-10 or the FBI Cover-Up Is in the Bag”, Continuing Inquiry, February 22, 1980, pp.1–2)

Paper bag being carried from TSBD

Paper bag being carried from TSBD.

Although White crowed that the documents “cast doubt on the credibility of the official story,” and his allegations have subsequently been used by a parade of critics in many conspiracy books, magazine articles, and Internet postings as “proof ” of the FBI’s willingness to alter evidence in the Kennedy case, the two documents are no doubt examples of a misunderstanding that was cleared up by the Warren Commission in early 1964. In a March 12, 1964, letter, Warren Commission general counsel J. Lee Rankin asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to settle the two ostensibly contradictory FBI reports. Rankin wrote, “We are in doubt. Please submit a report . . . as to the tests made and the conclusions drawn.” (FBI Record 124-10045-10081, Letter from J. Lee Rankin to J. Edgar Hoover, March 12, 1964, p.1; see also FBI Record 124-10022-10200) A week later, on March 19, Hoover responded that both reports were correct. The first report, dated January 7, 1964, referred to samples obtained from the Depository on December 1, 1963 (nine days after the assassination). By then, the shipping department had replaced its roll of wrapping paper with a fresh roll, since the fall period was its “heavy shipping season.” Consequently, the samples obtained by the FBI in December did not match the characteristics of the paper bag found on the day of the shooting. The second report, dated January 13, 1964, related to samples taken from the Depository on November 22, the day of the assassination. These samples were found to be “similar in color to [the bag recovered from the sixth floor]” and were “similar in appearance under ultraviolet fluorescence, as well as in microscopic and all other observable physical characteristics.” However, Hoover noted that while the paper bag found on the sixth floor could have been made from the materials available at the Depository, the paper and tape did not contain any watermarks or other significant, unique, identifying features. Consequently, the paper bag could have been constructed from similar materials “obtained from many paper dealers, or from other users.” (FBI Record 124-10022-10199, Letter from J. Edgar Hoover to J. Lee Rankin, March 19, 1964, pp.1–2; see also FBI Record 124-10045-10082; CD 897, pp.157–168; CE 1965, 23 H 816)

Bugliosi's explanation is both incredibly deceptive and incredibly wrong.

11/30/63 FBI report on paper bag

11/30/63 FBI report on paper bag, stating that it had the "same
observable characteristics" as TSBD-furnished paper. CD 5 p.129.
Click image to view full document page.

This is easy to see, once you know where to look. The article to which Bugliosi refers is a February 22, 1980 essay on the probable changing of a document provided the Warren Commission as part of an 11-30-63 FBI report (see Commission Document 5, p. 129, shown at right). What Bugliosi either fails to notice or fails to tell his readers, however, is the first thing he should have noticed: the date on the document. As displayed on the cover of the 1980 article dismissed by Bugliosi, and therefore presumably read by Bugliosi, both versions of the document were dictated on 11/29/63. This date is problematic. By Bugliosi's own account, the paper samples that did not match the characteristics of the paper bag were obtained on 12-1-63. So...how can a report refer to the results of a test that has not yet been performed, on an object that has not yet been procured? It can't. One might venture then that Bugliosi's "explanation" is little more than smoke, and that he really has no clue how to refute Jack White's article.

Alternate 11/30/63 FBI report discovered in National Archives

Alternate 11/30/63 FBI report discovered in National Archives by
Gary Shaw, stating that the TSBD-furnished paper was "found
not to be identical with the paper gun case."

Reprinted in Henry Hurt's "Reasonable Doubt."

But, if so, he's not the first to run from this issue. Although it's widely presumed the document saying the paper and bag were not identical was first discovered in 1980, it was actually found years earlier, and brought to the government's attention at a time when it could easily have been investigated. Courageously, the discoverer of this document, J. Gary Shaw, discussed the document’s existence at a 9-17-77 conference sponsored by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and suggested they interview FBI agent Vincent Drain, the author of the documents.

While the HSCA, sadly, failed to heed Shaw's request, we can still take comfort that Shaw found some outside interest, and that a series of researchers were able to ask and answer many of the questions the HSCA ignored. In 1981, researcher Ed Tatro, inspired by Jack White’s 1980 article on Shaw’s discovery, contacted the FBI seeking an explanation for the two conflicting documents. The Bureau's initial response explained nothing. In 1984, however, Tatro asked again, and this time received what is as close to an “official” explanation as we are likely to receive. As recounted by Tatro in an article in the January 1985 issue of The Third Decade, the FBI’s Assistant Director of the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs, William Baker, offered that the document discovered by Shaw was found to be “inaccurate” upon review at FBI headquarters, and that “The Dallas office was instructed to make corrections at that time.” To the question of how Shaw was able to find an uncorrected copy in the files, Baker explained further that the FBI sent two copies of the 11-30-63 master report to the Warren Commission, one on 12-20-63 and one three days later, and that the first copy had the uncorrected copy of page 129 later discovered by Shaw. As Shaw confirmed to this writer that he found the document in the Warren Commission’s files, and not the FBI’s files, this actually makes sense.

But this explanation also raises some questions. In 1980, after the appearance of Jack White’s article in The Continuing Inquiry, journalist Earl Golz asked the supposed author of these reports, FBI agent Vincent Drain, about the two conflicting reports bearing his name. Now, if Drain’s words were consistent with Baker’s subsequent explanation, one might reasonably conclude that the “mystery” surrounding the conflicting documents had mostly been solved. As reported by Jerry Rose in the March 1985 issue of The Third Decade, however, Drain’s answers were at odds with what Baker told Tatro. While Drain, in order to align with Baker’s subsequent explanation, should have admitted something along the lines of “I screwed up, and was asked to rewrite my report” he instead “expressed shock at seeing” the documents and “said he was as ‘puzzled’ as Golz about them.” Even more problematic, in light of what Baker was to reveal, Drain “expressed certainty that the copy saying the materials tested were the same was the original document,” and speculated that the document discovered by Shaw, and subsequently acknowledged by the FBI’s Assistant Director to be the de facto original document, was a “fake.”

If Drain, who had no way of knowing what Baker was to tell Tatro, was deliberately deceiving Golz, he was at least consistent. In 1984, author Henry Hurt asked Drain about the documents a second time, and gave him a second chance to admit he’d mistakenly written an “inaccurate” report, as later claimed by Baker. But Drain once again held firm. According to Hurt, Drain responded "I am certainly as perplexed as you are" and then claimed the report saying the paper bag and paper sample had the same observable characteristics was correct. (p. 98 of Reasonable Doubt, by Henry Hurt, Henry Holt and Co., 1985). (As a conclusion that the bag and sample were not identical would have cast doubt on the "official story" holding that Oswald created the bag at his work, Drain's proposal that the correct document was the one claiming the bag and sample matched was not exactly a surprise.)

The smoking file: 12-18-63 airtel from Shanklin to HQ

The smoking file: 12-18-63 airtel from Shanklin to HQ.
Click image to view full document page.

Buried deep within the FBI’s files, however, there was a surprise. In the first part of Rose’s article in the March 1985 issue of The Third Decade he revealed that researcher Paul Hoch had uncovered a document demonstrating once and for all that Drain had indeed originally wrote that the paper sample and bag were "found not to be identical", and that this had later been changed upon orders from headquarters. This "smoking gun" document, so to speak, can be found in FBI File 105-82555, section 39, page 7. It is a 12-18-63 airtel from the Dallas Special-Agent-in-Charge, J. Gordon Shanklin back to FBI Headquarters, reporting that he is replacing page 129 of the FBI's 11-30-63 report with a different page, and is sending out additional copies of this page so that the page can be replaced in every copy of the report.

Should that document have not proved fatal to Drain’s story, however, two documents subsequently uncovered by Jerry Rose helped bury it completely. As revealed in the May 1985 issue of The Third Decade, the first of these documents, a 12-6-63 airtel from FBI Director Hoover’s office to Dallas, makes note that Drain’s report on page 129 of the 11-30-63 Report contains an “inaccurate statement” and orders the Dallas Special-Agent-in-Charge Shanklin to “handle corrections.”

The second document, from 12-11-63, is an airtel from Dallas back to Washington reporting Shanklin’s progress, and notes that the “necessary actions to correct inaccuracy” are “being taken.”

From these documents, then, one can only conclude that Drain, who’d only escorted the first day evidence from Dallas to Washington, and then flown it back, had either inaccurately represented the FBI Laboratory’s findings on an important piece of this evidence, or had accurately represented the Laboratory’s findings after a decision had been made not to do so. The former is suggested by reports and testimony claiming that the paper bag and sample had “the same observable characteristics.” The latter is suggested by the strange fact that Drain, for what would have to have been considered a monumental mistake, apparently received no reprimand, and that Hoover and Shanklin, in their correspondence on the “inaccurate statement” in Drain’s report, expressed no interest whatsoever on how he came to make such a statement.

While one could go on from here to discuss which version of Drain’s report was actually “accurate”, we’ll stop here instead and focus on the simple, unavoidable fact that the three documents just cited prove beyond any doubt that the FBI did, at least on occasion, change reports, even after they had been signed, dated, typed-up, and circulated.

For those studying U.S. history, this creates a problem. Historians, of all stripes and shapes, operate under the assumption the documents they are studying are written on the day they are dated, and are written by those signing the document. If Vincent Drain, when given the chance, had simply admitted he'd screwed up, and that his superiors had forced him to rewrite an inaccurate report, and that this was the only time this happened, perhaps we might still feel confident this holds true of FBI documents. Drain's initials, after all, appear on the revised document. But he did not. He either lied or forgot entirely about what would have to be considered a major mistake on his part.

As a consequence, we are left to wonder...did the paper sample have the "same observable characteristics" as the bag, or were the paper sample and bag "found not to be identical"?

And, more importantly…what other archive documents have been re-written weeks or months after the fact, and re-inserted in the record as if they were the original documents?

We await Bugliosi’s “answer.”

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