Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Investigation That Never Was

The controversy that has plagued the assassination of John F. Kennedy has its genesis in the Warren Commission. The very name of this body lives in infamy as the first official government investigation of the Kennedy assassination. Formed rapidly after the death of the president, it operated for nine months before its conclusions were presented to the press and public in a 912-page book and twenty-six volumes of evidence and witness testimony. The mainstream press, then as now, largely accepted the Warren Commission’s conclusion. However, trouble started when independent researchers began going through the twenty-six volumes and uncovered information that contradicted the main report. Before long, a flood of books and articles began appearing questioning the Commission’s conclusion on the death of John Kennedy that has not abated to this day.

The fact of the matter is it was not a real investigation, in any sense of the word. It was confined from the onset with considerable political intrigue. Commission members leaked confidential information to government agencies. FBI director Hoover exerted acute and relentless pressure to restrict the Commission to the FBI’s initial report declaring Oswald as the lone assassin. Earl Warren proved himself such a spineless leader that lead lawyer J. Lee Rankin had to set the agenda, earning the nickname, “The Rankin Commission Report.” Other issues, such as destruction of material evidence, conflicting witness testimony, irrelevant evidence and witness testimony, inter-governmental turf wars, and leaks to the press, only added to the struggle. Ultimately, they feared they were going to learn more than they needed to know, without an ability to resolve these matters, and settled for a politically expedient narrative of a lone gunman early on, before any witnesses were called to testify.

The Hoover Problem
The Warren Commission had a list of powerful players to deal with. The main one was FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Any attempt to do independent investigation or interview witnesses was viewed by the Director as interlopers invading his turf. He was highly insulted. He worked stridently to protect his image and that of the FBI. In one row with the Commission, he threatened to deny them access to the FBI crime lab, considered the best forensic lab in the world. Warren Commission lead council Lee Rankin had to constantly patronize Hoover to get out of these tight spots. Then Hoover would complain about having his ass kissed too much!

Much early debate centered on whether or not Oswald was an FBI informant. After much hand wringing they finally decided to let Hoover settle the case by submitting pro forma affidavit. It was basically Hoover, giving his “word” that Oswald was never employed by the Bureau for any investigative work. Not other evidence needed. Legally, a worthless document, but an important one politically. It left everybody off the hook and gave the impression of having resolved an issue—one that nobody wanted to deal with. The same thing would be done later with the Deputy Director of the CIA, Richard Helms, to resolve the issue of Oswald being a CIA operative.

The Secret Meeting and the Telltale Tapes
And this basically is what they did on January 22, 1964, in a closed-door meeting, before the first witness was ever called to testify. This executive meeting was hastily called and the issues discussed so sensitive that all the members present, including lead council Lee Rankin, decided to destroy all records of the meeting. There was just one problem—some honest soul out there did not follow orders and destroy the stenographer’s tapes. Somehow, they were deposited in the National Archives where eventually, a FOIA lawsuit pried them loose. We now know what happened in that closed-door meeting that the Commissioners did not want the public to know—Lee Harvey Oswald was too hot to handle. They had been discussing rumors that Oswald may have been an FBI informant. Their fear was that if it were ever known that Oswald was a government agent then the public would never believe the official story—that Oswald was the lone gunman and no conspiracy was in play. They decided to rubber stamp the FBI report at that moment. Any attempt at an objective investigation died here.

Curious though. Lead husky Rankin wrote a memo, unclassified, giving a brief synopsis of this January meeting. In it, he mentioned discussion of Oswald’s possible involvement with the FBI and further stated that the Commission had decided to peruse all leads on this. That was a lie! They had no intention of doing any investigation of Oswald as an informer or government agent and in fact were headed in the opposite direction. Obviously, Rankin wrote the memo for self-serving purposes thinking it would be the only historical record of this meeting for all time.

Oswald—Wrong Place, Wrong Time
That wasn’t the only hot potato the Warren Commission ran into. Another hot potato involved Oswald’s location at the time of the assassination. Oswald told the Dallas police, the Secret Service, and the FBI that he was on the first floor at the time of the shooting. Shortly thereafter, two men came in claiming to be Secret Service agents requesting to use the phone. Oswald made note that one of the men had a crew cut and carried a briefcase. Later, the Secret Service got in contact with the two men, Pierce Allman and Terrance Ford, who turned out to be program directors for the local TV station, WFAA. They said they had indeed asked a bystander to use the phone moments after the shooting but had not identified themselves as Secret Service agents. The also could not recognize Oswald from photographs they were shown. However, they did independently corroborate Oswald’s account of being on the first floor of the building moments after the assassination. Also of interest, one of the program directors did have a crew cut and was carrying a briefcase.

The Secret Service dropped any further investigation of the incident. Oswald was clearly at the wrong place and the wrong time in the “official” scenario of events even with two corroborating witnesses to prove his account. This dropping of investigative leads for political reasons is common throughout the whole period of the Warren Commission’s existence.

The Lone Bullet Theory
Without a doubt, the most controversial part of the Warren Commission is the lone bullet theory. Initially, they had it right. The first shot hits Kennedy in the back, the second bullet strikes Connally in the back, the third shot, the kill shot, strikes Kennedy in the head. Both John and Nellie Connally testified to this fact and never wavered for the rest of their lives. If they had left it at that, perhaps we wouldn’t be discussing this forty plus years later. But into history steps James Tague, with his scratched cheek.

Tague was watching the motorcade on Commerce street, when a bullet ricocheted off the curb, dislodging a concrete fragment that scratched his cheek. Tague is officially listed as the third person wounded on that fateful day. He was not brought in and interviewed till months after the Warren Commission was in progress. His testimony created new challenges to the official version of events. The scenario of three shots and three wounds ended with Tague’s cheek scratch. How would the Commission handle this new issue? No problem is you have lawyers to make up stuff. Now one bullet was needed to perform double-duty.

Entering the mix is the (not so) pristine bullet found on a Parkland Hospital gurney, known as CE 399. It is supposed to have slipped out of Gov. Connally’s thigh after passing through his chest and wrist.

This can never be known for sure. Even the finding of this bullet is controversial. It is not properly documented—there is no FD 302 form on this piece of evidence, as the FBI would file. The FBI agent, Odom, stated he did not recover this bullet, nor even being at the Parkland Hospital and interviewing the witnesses that recovered it. Consequently, the witnesses can’t identify the bullet in photos as the one they discovered. Was CE 399 possibly a plant? We’ll never know for certain but one thing is undeniable—CE 399 was fired from a long bore firearm and is slightly bent and twisted.

It wasn’t long before Arlen Spector invented the single bullet theory (which he now likes to call a “fact”) to explain the inherent problems. That is a whole book unto itself, which I shall pass on here. The important point is the Warren Commission was in need of an expert witness to decide if CE 399 could do all the damage it was reported to do and arrive appearing in such good shape. They found their best expert in Joseph Dolce, chairman of the Army’s Wounds Ballistic Board. Using Oswald’s rifle fired by a top Army marksmen, they test fired bullets into the wrists of ten cadavers. Their results were conclusive—all of the 10 bullets fired were in Dolce’s words, “markedly deformed” showing the mushrooming shape that bullets display when striking dense objects such as bone. None of them resembled CE 399.

Dolce was never subpoenaed to testify under oath for his findings nor was his evidence included in the 26 volumes of data. The Warren Commission was forced to ignore expert witness testimony like that of Dolce to make their version of events work. (Even mainstream WC defender Vince Bugliosi in Reclaiming History ignores Dolce’s work.) Eventually, they brought in three more experts to qualify that CE 399 was capable of causing all of the wounds in Kennedy and Connally. (One of the experts, Dr. Alfred Olivier was a veterinarian. Just how much of a ballistic wounds expert would he be? Well, it was a dog and pony show at this point, might as well bring in a vet.)

The Magic Moving Bullet Holes
The Single Bullet theory is mess. Since James Tague came forward with his account of the bullet strike on the curb, and they had decided that only three shots were fired, one bullet now has to do double-duty. Much has been written about how improbable all of this is, but the most egregious action was Gerald Ford moving the bullet hole from Kennedy's back to the back of the neck. Kennedy's back wound was as the "third thoracic vertebra." That is, the upper back near the shoulder blade. The President's shirt and jacket both show the bullet hole in the same position, as clearly shown in the autopsy photographs, the sworn testimony of the pathologists, and the death certificate. This shifting of bullet holes and the presenting of it as a fact to the public is so outrageous it boggles the mind and common sense. It is the misrepresentation of evidence in a murder investigation. And they wonder why we are debating this issues decades later!

Ford would defend his actions years later by saying, "My changes were only an attempt to be more precise." Perhaps more precise in the fiction they were writing? As can be seen, a political solution was obtained by doing this. The truth…that’s a different story.

Ultimately, the Warren Commission veered into a political resolution to explain the Kennedy assassination. And by doing so they had to play loose with the facts. Here is a brief list of offenses committed by the WC:

• Failed to objectively investigate the murder of President Kennedy in a good faith manner by establishing Lee Oswald as the lone gunman in a secret meeting on January 22, 1964.
• Did not hire independent investigators in fear of offending Hoover.
• Ignored expert witness testimony when it contradicted the official version of events. Dolce for his bullet experiments, the Oak Ridge Labs spectrographical analysis of bullet lead and Oswald’s paraffin tests, and so on.
• Failed to adequately investigate Oswald’s background out of the fear of uncovering him as a government agent.
• Failed to adequately investigate any leads on possible conspiracies. (Six main areas of inquires were established. Four involved Oswald only.)
• Deliberately misrepresented evidence (i.e., Kennedy’s back wound positions.)
• Failed to subpoena important witnesses, such as Admiral Buckley, the President’s personal physician who was present in the motorcade, at Parkland Hospital when the President died, and at the autopsy in Bethesda Naval Hospital. Buckley signed the death certificate, which listed the neck wound as entry wound—not exit. His name is never mentioned in the 912-page report, nor is the death certificate reprinted in the 26 volumes of complied evidence.
• Had a liar for a lead counsel in J. Lee Rankin. His record of deception and suppression of facts corrupted the whole process. The most egregious lie was in telling Sen. Richard Russell that his dissenting opinion on the lone bullet theory could be in the final report. Rankin made sure it was not included.

In Summary
The Warren Commission decided early on that if they looked too much into Lee Oswald’s past they might open a can of worms that could never be contained. They quickly went for the long gunman scenario before they had called the first witness. The very fact that they wanted to precede in this manner, and deciding it behind closed doors, with all documents of the meeting ordered destroyed (which were not), is a conspiracy in itself. And it is right to point out that the Warren Commission members are not the only conspirators. They are joined by Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, J. Lee Rankin, Arlen Spector, the FBI, the CIA, Justice Department, Secret Service, and Office of Naval Intelligence, just to name a few.

I could go on and on about the how whacked this whole thing became but Gerald McKnight did an excellent job of documenting that in his book, Breach of Trust. It is an excellent examination of the shenanigans and political manipulation that went on.

They never wanted to uncover what the truth was. They were too afraid.

Sources: McKnight, Breach of Trust. Scott, Deep Politics. Bugliosi, Reclaiming History.