The JFK Assassination
Who killed JFK? Was there a government cover-up? What was revealed when formerly-secret files were declassified? Why has this event gripped the nation for so long? What relevance does a nearly 60-year-old murder have to the 21st century?
President Kennedy was murdered at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. While the mythology of a lost Camelot developed in the years since his death, the Kennedy era was marked by a variety of tensions and crises. The civil rights movement gathered momentum in the early 1960s and clashed with resistance, particularly in the South. Kennedy's brother Robert, as Attorney General, launched an unprecedented war on organized crime. Cuba was the most intense foreign policy hotspot - Castro had come to power there during the Eisenhower era and plots to overthrow and assassinate him continued in the Kennedy era. Vietnam was a simmering problem that would only bloom into full-scale war during the Johnson presidency.
These domestic and foreign policy issues divided both the country and the Kennedy administration. There were many individuals and groups - Cuban exiles, mob figures, virulent racists, CIA and Pentagon hardliners - with a motive for murder. Over the years, document declassifications and personal accounts have added to the picture of a presidency beset from within and without.
But the question remains with no consensus: which of these motives, if any, turned into an actual murder plot to assassinate President Kennedy?
President Kennedy was murdered while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas at 12:30 PM CST on Friday, November 22, 1963. Several photos and films captured the assassination, including the famous Zapruder Film. JFK was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where a tracheostomy and other efforts failed to keep him alive. After he was pronounced dead around 1 PM, his body was removed against the wishes of Texas authorities and flown back to Washington aboard Air Force One with his wife Jackie and his successor, President Lyndon Johnson. An autopsy was performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetary on Monday the 25th.
sworn in aboard Air Force One.
Meanwhile, Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and defector to the Soviet Union, was arrested around 2 PM at the Texas Theatre in the Oak Cliff suburb of Dallas and charged with murdering a police officer named J.D. Tippit. Protesting that he was "a patsy," Oswald was paraded in front of the world's gathering cameras and accused of murdering President Kennedy as well. Oswald's defection and Marxist sympathies were quickly covered in the nation's newspapers, in part because his curious pro-Castro activities during the summer in New Orleans had brought him to the attention of local Cuban exiles. Oswald was interrogated throughout the weekend, though no recordings or transcriptions were made. During an intended transfer to county facilities on Sunday morning the 24th, Oswald was shot and killed on live television in the basement of the Dallas Police station. His murderer was a local nightclub owner with connections to organized crime named Jack Ruby.
Orleans arrest photo.
Within hours of Oswald's murder, federal authorities including the powerful FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover moved to close the case. Others pushed for a blue-ribbon commission. Assistant Attorney General Katzenbach wrote a revealing memo which stated "The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial." The memo also noted the rumors of a Communist conspiracy based on Oswald's sojourn in Russia, but also noted: "Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat--too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.). The Dallas police have put out statements on the Communist conspiracy theory, and it was they who were in charge when he was shot and thus silenced."
Were government officials merely acting to reassure the public and put a good face on terrible events? Or was the rush to "consign the whole business to oblivion as soon as possible," as a Soviet official put it to his superiors, indicative of something deeper? For instance, while no proof has never surfaced, there is circumstantial evidence to support the allegation brought by Texas officials that Oswald was an FBI informant, and possibly an agent of U.S. intelligence as well. The idea that such a person had killed the President would be embarrassing enough to cause a cover-up. And if instead there was a plot sophisticated enough to skillfully frame such a person, high officials might prefer to let sleeping dogs lie rather than take on such powerful forces.
deliver their report to
Advocates of a blue-ribbon panel won the day, and on November 29 President Johnson signed Executive Order 11130 creating a President's Commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Soon dubbed the Warren Commission. this body's other members included Senators Russell and Cooper, Representatives Ford and Boggs, former High Commissioner of Germany John McCloy, and Allen Dulles, CIA Director for several years until forced into resignation by Kennedy following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
The Warren Commission relied on the FBI and other agencies, particularly the CIA, Secret Service, and State Dept., using a staff of lawyers but no field investigators. Transcripts of executive sessions revealed problems with this approach, such as the Commission's failure to investigate the allegations that Oswald was an FBI informant.
The Commission's seeming thoroughness has been challenged by critics who have pointed out the many important witnesses never interviewed, including Dealey Plaza witnesses who saw smoke on the grassy knoll. The President's personal physician, George Burkley, was never interviewed despite being the only physician capable of resolving clear discrepancies between the medical reports from Parkland and the Bethesda autopsy. Most disturbingly, Jack Ruby, arguably the Commission's most important witness, was interviewed but once in his jail cell, in June 1964 after the Report was already being written. Ruby's pleas to be taken to Washington to talk more openly were rebuffed by Chief Justice Warren.
What would not emerge until later was the extent to which the FBI and CIA withheld important information from the Commission. This included - but was not limited to - CIA plots, some involving the Mob, to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The Warren Commission delivered its Report to President Johnson on September 24, 1964. It found that Oswald had killed Kennedy, alone and unaided, and similarly that Jack Ruby's killing of Oswald was an impulsive act and not part of any conspiracy. Media pundits immediately hailed it as a thorough and credible examination of the Kennedy assassination, and declared the matter closed.
However, a small group of private citizens read not only the Warren Report but also the 26 volumes of published testimony and evidence upon which it was supposedly based. What they found was a host of contradictions, implausibilities, and stories which never made it into the 888-page report.
Many witnesses had heard gunfire emanating from the grassy knoll to the right front of the motorcade, whereas Oswald was allegedly in a sixth floor window behind the President. Indeed one policer officer had rushed up the hill and confronted a man behind the fence, who then identified himself as Secret Service and flashed a badge. The problem, as the Warren Commission uncovered, was that all Secret Service agents were accounted for and none were in that area.
Many important matters - credible questions about evidence tampering, misidentification of the rifle and handling of other items found in the "sniper's nest," how Oswald's description happened to be sent out on police radio, how Oswald managed to teach himself Russian, defect to the Soviet Union, and return with State Dept. money, the handling of the "Odio Incident," and many more - raised questions which the Commission didn't adequately address. Some issues, like differing descriptions of wounds reported in Dallas (originating from the front) and Bethesda (originating from behind) were "resolved" though tortuous leading questions designed to elicit a particular answer. In general, it appeared to the early critics that the Commission had made its mind up early and molded the evidence and its investigation to fit a pre-ordained outcome.
Speeches by Mark Lane and early essays were followed by a crop of books in 1965-67 critical of the Warren Commission. These included Harold Weisberg's Whitewash, Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact, Edward Epstein's Inquest, Josiah Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas, among others.
A particular focus was the Commission's recreation of the shooting. With the Zapruder film as a "clock" of the assassination, and a bolt-action rifle that the FBI determined could only be fired every 2.3 seconds even without careful aiming, the Commission was forced to explain how Governor Connally could have been wounded so soon after JFK. This necessitated the creation of the "single bullet theory," which posited that both men were hit by the same bullet, and Connally suffered a delayed reaction despite having a rib broken and wrist smashed. Even more incredible, the bullet assigned to this task was Commission Exhibit 399, a "magic" bullet featuring nary a nick that had been mysteriously found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital an hour or so after the shooting.
The unbelievability of the single bullet theory, along with many other questions that critics raised about Oswald, Ruby, the Dallas police, and more, caused the public to question the Warren Commission's findings. By 1967, publications such as Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post were questioning the Commission's conclusions and raising the idea of a new investigation. Then came New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.
The Garrison Investigation
In late 1966, the New Orleans District Attorney, whose office had briefly detained an Oswald-connected pilot named David Ferrie on the weekend of the assassination, began quietly reinvestigating the New Orleans aspect of JFK's assassination. Oswald had spent the summer of 1963 in that city, engaging in strange pro-Castro activities which many have interpreted as "building a pro-Castro legend" rather than genuine.
Local reporters soon discovered and announced Garrison's investigation, and the world's media descended on New Orleans. By early March 1967, intriguing leads had been developed, Ferrie was dead, and Garrison had indicted a businessman named Clay Shaw for conspiracy to commit murder. The DA boasted about making further arrests and solving the case - much to his later regret.
The film JFK presents Garrison as an earnest hard-working DA who famously remarked "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall." By the summer of 1967, however, the national media was portraying him as a charlatan, even accusing him of bribing witnesses and other abuses. Garrison fought back in the media with some success, but the damage had already been done.
In the end, the case against Shaw connected him only tenuously to Oswald, and the murder plot came down to a single star witness, Perry Russo, who alleged a meeting where Shaw, Ferrie, and Oswald had plotted the assassination. It took the jury only an hour to return a verdict of not guilty.
Some of Garrison's charges - for instance that a number found in both Oswald's and Shaw's address books was a coded form of Jack Ruby's unlisted telephone number - were irresponsible or downright silly. But Garrison had uncovered many suspects and leads. For instance, it was Garrison who discovered that the address stamped on some of Oswald's pro-Castro leaflets was the same building that housed the office of virulent anti-Commuist Guy Banister. Banister's wife and secretary later said that Banister had told them that Oswald was connected to the office. Garrison also produced witnesses tying Oswald to Shaw, and uncovered some of Shaw's connections to the CIA. Declassified files now show that the CIA was worried enough to hold meetings devoted to tracking Garrison's activities, and that the Justice Department and a close aide of Robert Kennedy's went to extraordinary measures to stop the D.A., and to later prosecute him in retaliation.
Views of Garrison among assassination researchers were divided at the time and have remained so. But not in question is that the controversy and ridicule directed against Garrison had the effect of ending mainstream media calls for a review of the Warren Commission, at least for a time.
Church Committee and the Castro Plots
The downfall of Richard Nixon and the ushering in of a "reform" Congress launched investigations into the abuses of not only the White House but also the intelligence agencies. President Gerald Ford - formerly a Warren Commissioner - tried to control these with the Rockefeller Commission, but that was soon superseded by Congressional investigations, most prominently a Senate Committee headed by Frank Church.
showing a poison dart gun.
The Church Committee conducted a far-reaching investigation of intelligence agency abuses, among them CIA-sponsored coups, illegal mail opening and wiretapping, the FBI's harassment of Martin Luther King, and much more, including most famously CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders including Fidel Castro. The Committee was unable to reach conclusions about whether Kennedy or any other President had authorized the plots to kill Castro, running into a wall of "plausible deniability."
A subcommittee headed by Richard Schweiker and Gary Hart looked into the JFK assassination, focusing primarily on how the FBI and CIA worked with the Warren Commission.
The Schweiker-Hart report described what they found: "The Committee has...developed evidence which impeaches the process by which the intelligence agencies arrived at their own conclusions about the assassination, and by which they provided information to the Warren Commission. The evidence indicates that the investigation of the assassination was deficient..." Former FBI Assistant Director Alex Rosen told the Committee that the FBI was not actively investigating conspiracy, but was "in the position of standing on the corner with our pockets open, waiting for someone to drop information into it..."
Schweiker was more blunt, saying that the Warren Commission had "collapsed like a house of cards," and that the Kennedy assassination investigation was "snuffed out before it began" by "senior intelligence officials who directed the coverup." The Schweiker-Hart Report focused on evidence and allegations that Castro was behind the JFK assassination, but also uncovered indications that these were part of a frame-up.
During the tenure of the Church Committee, a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film, which had been kept from public view by its owner Life Magazine, was shown on national television for the first time. The American public was stunned to see Kennedy driven backwards from an apparent shot from the front of the limousine.
House Select Committee on Assassinations
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), charged by Congress with investigating the murders of JFK and Martin Luther King, got off to a rocky start. Famed prosecutor Richard Sprague, brought in to head the probe, quickly ran afoul of the CIA with his refusal to sign secrecy oaths and his aggressive investigation into covered-up aspects of the Oswald in Mexico saga, particularly around supposedly-erased tapes of phone calls involving Oswald or an imposter. Then Dr. Burkley, the President's personal physician whom the Warren Commission had never interviewed, had his lawyer contact the Committee with "information in the Kennedy assassination indicating that others besides Oswald must have participated." Within days, Sprague had been ousted from his job.
G. Robert Blakey.
His replacement, G. Robert Blakey, had been a Justice Department lawyer specializing in organized crime. Blakey pursued that angle, developing circumstantial evidence of a Mob role in the murder. The Committee demolished the Warren Commission's depiction of Ruby as a nobody who was "keenly interested in policemen and their work."
But some of the Committee's investigators were dismayed that Blakey failed to pursue trails which led to CIA agents and assets. When it was revealed many years later that the CIA's liaison to the Committee had actually been in 1963 the case officer of the very group Oswald had dealings with in New Orleans, Blakey denounced the CIA. Regarding CIA's possible association with Oswald, he wrote in 2003: "I do not believe any denial offered by the Agency on any point."
The HSCA created several expert panels to examine the scientific evidence, and conducted a more thorough examination of the physical evidence, including photos and films. Special teams analyzed a police dictabelt on which the gunfire of Dealey Plaza, and determined that it had indeed captured more than 3 shots, and one of them had emanated from the grassy knoll. This "acoustics evidence" was a prime factor in the Committee's finding that JFK had been "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."
The Committee's conspiracy conclusion was not accepted by many mainstream pundits. The Committee's finding was actually that there had been a grassy knoll shot, but it missed. This bizarre outcome was forced by the medical panel's insistence that all shots had struck JFK from behind. Much to the dismay of many observers, the medical panel also reaffirmed the single bullet theory, despite having determined that the Warren Commission had misrepresented the location of the back wound, and the path of the bullet was anatomically upward from back to front!
Middle: HSCA drawing by FBI agent James Sibert.
Right: HSCA recreation of JFK autopsy photo.
(no autopsy photo shows rear head wound described
by Dallas doctors and autopsy participants)
Could this prestigious panel of experts be wrong? When the HSCA's files were declassified in the 1990s, it was shown that the interviews and drawings of Kennedy's wounds - statements and drawings which differed sharply from those of the autopsy doctors - made by several medical witnesses were withheld from the panel, and further that the HSCA's report misrepresented them. Unpublished HSCA records offered confirmation for groundbreaking interviews with autopsy participants conducted by David Lifton for his 1981 book Best Evidence; which alleged deception in Kennedy's autopsy including alteration of the body itself.
Additionally, an important authenticity test of the autopsy photographs failed, and that test was also withheld from the panel and misrepresented in the report. Could this seemingly incurious panel of experts, relying primarily on autopsy photographs and X-rays, have been fooled by them? Have these materials even been tampered with?
The HSCA's acoustics findings were later challenged and remain in dispute, and the HSCA's confused conclusions helped it fade into history in the long shadow of the Warren Commission.
JFK Records Act and the ARRB
Then in 1991, Oliver Stone's film JFK retold the Garrison saga, reviving the case and inflaming the media like few other films, receiving condemnations before the movie even hit the theatres. Newsweek blared The Twisted Truth of 'JFK': Why Oliver Stone's New Movie Can't Be Trusted.
with Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison.
The film's postscript noted the million of pages of classified government documents on the assassination, prompting a grassroots efforts to "free the files." This resulted in the passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, sometimes called the JFK Records Act. This legislation mandated the creation of an independent review board to work with government agencies to speedily locate JFK assassination records and review them with a "presumption of immediate disclosure."
The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) operated from 1994 to 1998, and declassified millions of pages of formerly-secret records from the FBI, CIA, HSCA, Warren Commission, and many other government bodies. While not mandated with re-investigating the assassination, it did conduct many depositions and interviews, including some stunning testimony from medical witnesses, and negotiated the government's purchase of the Zapruder film. The ARRB's fairly short Final Report provided basic information on the Board's activities but failed to convey the magnitude of some of its work.
The Declassified Files
What is in this huge volume of declassified files? As one essay put it, there appears to be "no smoking gun, but something smells." Certainly anyone expecting an internal government report detailing what "really happened" was in for a disappointment. But the released files included a great deal of interesting stories and revelations, some of them quite startling. These include a number of surprising documents and interviews which support the idea of a medical cover-up of a shot from the front, much more detail on Oswald trip to Mexico City, revelations on CIA's monitoring and fear of the Garrison probe, and much more, including a wealth of detail on many of the characters known to JFK assassination researchers.
A few samples from the released files:
- A transcript of a phone call between President Johnson and FBI Director Hoover from the morning after the assassination, wherein Hoover informed LBJ that Oswald was impersonated in Mexico City. The tape of this phone call has been erased.
- In response to a cable reporting Oswald's call to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, CIA HQ cabled back false information about Oswald to its own CIA station there. One of the cabling officers said in 1995: "I'm signing off on something I know isn't true," and said this indicated "a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis."
- Acknowledgment by the CIA that at least one defector to the Soviet Union was part of a false defector program.
- Revelations of CIA relationships with many of the "independent" writers on the case, including Priscilla Johnson, Hugh Aynesworth, writers at the Miami Herald, and others. In New Orleans grand jury testimony, Marina Oswald stated that the Secret Service warned her to stay away from Ruth Paine, who was "sympathizing with the CIA. She wrote letters over there..."
- Capt. Will Fritz' contemporaneous notes of an interview with Oswald on Nov 22, in which Oswald provided an alibi for his whereabouts at lunch.
- A contact report from Dr. Burkley's lawyer to the HSCA, saying that his client (JFK's personal physician) had information that "others besides Oswald must have participated."
- Documents showing that the HSCA had tested the Navy camera which was supposed to have taken JFK's autopsy photographs, and it failed the authenticity tests.
- HSCA interviews of autopsy witnesses directly contradicting the depictions of wounds presented by the medical panel; the interviews were suppressed and misrepresented by the HSCA.
- A sworn interview with Saundra Kay Spencer, who developed the JFK autopsy photos, in which she declared that the photos in the Archives are not the ones she developed. Autopsy photographer John Stringer similarly disavowed the supplemental autopsy brain photographs.
- Papers on "Operation Northwoods," a proposed program to initiate real and simulated attacks on the U.S. and blame them on Castro, as a pretext for invading Cuba.
- Plans for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam drawn up in the spring of 1963.
The declassification of tapes of Lyndon Johnson's phone calls, along with other documents, provided an explanation for why the Warren Commission might have engaged in a cover-up: to prevent World War III. Johnson continually refers in phone calls to "foreign complications" (allegations of Communist conspiracy, mainly emanating from Mexico City) and that the lives of "40 million Americans" were at stake. He told Senator Russell that he had finally convinced Earl Warren to head the Commission because of "what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City." (audio)
Who KIlled JFK?
TSBD is in upper-middle of
photo. Grassy knoll is to its left.
Who killed JFK? For some, the case against Oswald is open and shut. A whole bullet and fragments were traced to Oswald's rifle, found in the Texas School Book Depository building. He worked in the TSBD, and and left the scene after the crime. He murdered a police officer while eluding capture and had months earlier taken a shot at General Walker. Medical evidence shows that all shots came from above and behind the motorcade. Similarly, the Warren Commission showed that Ruby's killing of Oswald was indeed impulsive, not an effort to silence him.
Most of the above "facts" are passionately disputed to this day. Expert marksmen were unable to duplicate the feat attributed to Oswald - an out-of-practice mediocre shot firing an archaic rifle with a misaligned scope. Paraffin tests on Oswald's cheek tested negative for having fired a rifle. The (incorrect) description of Oswald broadcast on police radio after the assassination - attributed to Howard Brennan - did not originate with Brennan and happened to match the description of Oswald in FBI files. There were multiple sightings of an individual or individuals impersonating Oswald in incriminating circumstances. And the medical evidence, far from proving the lone gunman theory, is awash with evidence of a cover-up of a shot from the front.
Skeptics point to the lack of hard evidence proving any other scenario than "Oswald acted alone." The problem here is that it is well-documented that authorities were wedded to the lone gunman scenario at the outset, and failed to adequately investigate any other possibilities. The claim that other alleged criminals in our society are found guilty on less evidence may speak more to the failings of the criminal justice system than to Oswald's guilt.
So, who killed JFK? Was Oswald part of a conspiracy or an innocent patsy? And who were the conspirators? Here the evidence remains circumstantial, and problematic due to the fact that many people and groups had motive to kill JFK, making proving motive no more than a starting point. Another dilemma for those who study the case in search of answers is the need to separate acts of coverup from the conspiracy itself.
One clue is the pre-assassination events which served, after the assassination, to focus blame on Fidel Castro - particularly the impersonation of Oswald in Mexico City. Far from showing Castro's guilt, this is a red flag pointing in the direction of those who despised JFK for his perceived inaction on Cuba. Some of the earliest researchers focused their suspicions on the coalition of Cuban exiles, mob members, and CIA officers who conspired to eliminate Fidel Castro. Many of the circumstantial leads, and indeed confessions of guilt, still lie in that direction.
CIA files declassified in the 1990s provide tantalizing clues in regards to the compartmentalization of knowledge about Oswald and actions which would later be used to spin the "Communist assassin" angle. Oswald's records were tightly held in James Angleton's CounterIntelligence division, shielded from other parts of the CIA - which were fed false information. Legendary CIA propaganda artist David Phillips recurs in this story in unexplained ways, as do others involved in the CIA-Mafia plots, such as Johnny Roselli.
The old adage "someone would have talked" may not apply to professional killers and sophisticated organizations. The Church Committee, with full Congressional backing and subpoena power, was still unable to get to the bottom of some basic questions about the plots to kill Fidel Castro, including the simple question of whether Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy actually authorized them. The Committee ran into a system of "plausible deniability," cut-outs, and need-to-know information handling that made that task simply impossible. If it weren't for this unusual Committee, CIA plots to murder Castro might still be regarded as a "conspiracy theory."
The records left by the inadequate investigations of the JFK assassination are at best only an oblique path to the truth of the assassination, to paraphrase one author. In addition, parts of the record are suspect, particularly the completeness of pre-assassination CIA records on Oswald. William Harvey, who ran the ZR-RIFLE program's attempts to murder Castro, left behind a memo describing the need to “backstop” the record with "forged and backdated" files, to foil later investigative attempts.
There is little reason to doubt that the JFK case fell victim to such a policy.
Faith vs. Transparency
during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
McNamara pursued JFK's Vietnam
withdrawal plans, and then in the
Johnson administration reversed
course and oversaw a widened war.
Perhaps after 45 years what is more important than "who killed JFK" is the effect the murder has had on our society. While the major institutions of society quickly lined up behind the Warren Commission's "men of unimpeachable reputation," the public smelled a rat. The oft-cited decline of faith in government can be traced to the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War which followed it.
The questions raised by the assassination echo today. Declassified files now show that Kennedy was actively engaged in a plan to fully withdraw from Vietnam in 1963, and was also engaged in peace feelers with Fidel Castro behind the back of his own State Department. Were these and other 1963 moves toward lessening Cold War tensions the motive for his public execution? From JFK to his brother Robert to Martin Luther King to more modern victims such as Yitzak Rabin and Benazir Bhutto, the pattern of murder is too familiar. And whether this pattern indicates "state crime" or not, the killing will never stop until there is transparency and honesty in the investigations of these political murders.
- Rex Bradford, February 2021