JFK Document Release—The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

As you can imagine, I’ve been asked to comment on the declassified documents related to John F. Kennedy’s assassination that were released on October 26 in compliance with the 1992 Congressional legislation known as The JFK Act. Of course, in these few days I have not had a chance to review all 2,891 records for myself. If I do find anything of note in the next few weeks, I will comment here, but I do have some thoughts on the initial coverage of the release.

The Good

First, let’s consider the positive impact that this news has made. It returns the subject of JFK’s assassination to the headlines and reminds us all that the American public has never been given a satisfactory accounting for one of the most significant events in our nation’s history. Second, there is one thread that ties most of these bits and pieces together, which is that there were several indications of conspiracy in the days after the assassination. From what I see initially, these indications were not necessarily followed up but tamped down instead, especially in regards to Jack Ruby’s connections with the Chicago mob. (As the House Select Committee on Assassinations later revealed, J. Edgar Hoover intentionally kept his Organized Crime experts inside the FBI off the JFK investigation.) Another theme in this release is the panic initially felt by the military and intelligence agencies that Lee Harvey Oswald was indeed a KGB agent or Castro sympathizer. I believe that this was the major impetus behind the government cover up. If Oswald was really a KGB agent with additional confederates would the U.S. have to strike the Soviet Union in retaliation? Or, if the Soviets believed we thought he was an agent, would they have to strike us first? This thinking is further confirmed in an interview with John McCone, who was the Director of the CIA during the assassination. In this document, which was only declassified in 2014 (and is far more important than anything I’ve seen in the recent release), McCone also revealed that the agency could not contact Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the hours after the assassination and assumed  he was “either hunkering down for an American reprisal, or possibly preparing to strike at the United States.” It was in this period of uncertainty that the government took extreme measures to tamper with any evidence which would show that Oswald was not the lone assassin.

The Bad

Nothing says more about the mindset of those government officials who were investigating the assassination than the comments made by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, which were put in a memo by LBJ’s aide Walter Jenkins. “The thing I am concerned about,” Hoover said, only a few hours after Ruby killed Oswald, “is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.” That something turned out to be the Warren Report, and obviously its conclusion was predetermined by the chief investigator from the start. According to the Washington Post and the New York Times, this quote from Hoover was one of the most significant piece of new information to come out of last week’s release. While I agree about its significance, here’s the rub: If you saw Assassination Theater, you would have seen that memo with Hoover’s quote. It’s been in the public domain for decades and was part of the House Select Committee on Assassinations’ final report (Volume III, p. 471-473).

I should add that a few paragraphs were redacted from the HSCA version. They covered Oswald’s journey to Mexico City and movements in the weeks thereafter. But none of this is new and the fact that it was redacted is more significant that the substance of Hoover’s comments. Nevertheless, none of this was noted in the press coverage.

For me, the Jenkins memo underscores what’s been bad about the last week. First of all, the ignorance of the reporters covering the event has been breathtaking. Over and over again, they cite the certainty with which it was proven that Oswald fired the fatal shots. Only a few have left open the door to the idea that he might have had co-conspirators (like the mob), but they have dismissed the various legitimate conspiracy theories in slapdash fashion.

In truth, there is absolutely no forensic evidence that Oswald either fired the Mannlicher Carcano rifle found on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository or that the fatal bullets even came from that gun. Now there was a time when some FBI experts claimed that they could use “neutron activation” with “bullet-lead analysis” to track bullets to the same carton from which they were sold. This science supposedly tied the lead fragments taken from Connolly’s wrist to the fragments taken from JFK’s head wound and the Mannlicher Carcano. But bullet-lead analysis was debunked by the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, the FBI stopped using it thereafter and cases where it was used as primary evidence were overturned. Even though the death of bullet-lead analysis was covered by major media outlets like the Washington Post and 60 Minutes, that news has never reached the conspiracy nay-sayers or at least to the reporters who are interviewing them.

The Ugly

But even worse than the recitation of the misinformation in last week’s coverage was the reliance on the most disreputable of the conspiracy deniers, Gerald Posner, who wrote Case Closed, a  monument to intellectual dishonesty about the assassination (Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History is another). First of all, much has happened to Posner since he wrote the book in 1993, including his participation in a scheme to hoodwink Harper Lee out of her royalties from To Kill A Mockingbird. Also, a fairly outrageous act of plagiarism that got another of his books pulped and him fired as chief investigative reporter for The Daily Beast. It should be no surprise that Posner calls “neutron activation” the most “significant scientific experiments” supporting the Single Bullet Theory. In regards to the mob, he cites one agent who claims he listened to all the wiretaps of organized crime figures in the early sixties and surely would have heard something if they had participated in the assassination. Forget that it’s patently ridiculous for any one agent to hear all of those wiretaps, but if they were really so good, wouldn’t he have also heard about the mob illegally skimming money from casinos on the Las Vegas strip, or absconding with Teamster pension funds to build them? Both cases weren’t broken until the eighties.

Although Posner dodged Vanity Fair when they asked about his role in the Mockingbird scam, he made himself readily available to talk about the JFK files and his name appeared over and over again in media reports. Was he truly the only expert available? What about David Lifton, whose book, The Best Evidence, first raised significant questions about JFK’s autopsy or Douglas Horne, the military analyst assigned to assassination records by the National Archives who has written Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, a definitive four-volume tome that took Lifton’s thesis to another level with documents he reviewed before their release in the nineties. Another expert could have been Jefferson Morley, who has written about Winston Scott, the CIA Mexico City station chief during Oswald’s sojourn there. He’s a former WaPo reporter who also runs JFKFacts.org, one of the best sites on the assassination. Maybe I missed the articles where these people appeared, but to see Posner emerge as the most “eminent” authority was even more depressing than the measly morsels that have emerged so far from the document dump.


Stephen King, 11.22.63, and the Oswald Presumption Part II

The Warren Commission did not just overlook material that suggested a conspiracy in JFK's assassination. It also actively suppressed or altered evidence. While these efforts to cover up may seem indefensible today, they are also like highlighters, pointing to the information that most disrupts the commission's Lone Assassin theory. A prime example is the testimony of Victoria Elizabeth Adams. In November 1963, she was Lee Harvey Oswald’s co-worker at the Texas School Book Depository. According to the Warren Commission, Oswald -- and Oswald alone -- shot at JFK's motorcade from a window on the sixth floor of the depository. But if Adams is correct in her account of what happened in the moments before and after the assassination, then there is no way Oswald was even on the sixth floor when the shooting began. She was literally in a position to know because she was looking out the window on the fourth floor as JFK’s motorcade was making its way through Dealey Plaza. Immediately upon hearing gunfire, she and her two friends ran down the stairs to see what happened. This same narrow stairway was the only one that Oswald could have used to make his exit. He would have had no time to hide the rifle and dash down before her and he did not squeeze past her. It’s also certain that he didn’t wait for her to leave, because he was already in the building’s lunchroom on the second floor by the time she passed it. Moments later Oswald would be challenged there by police officer Marrion Baker and was still holding a Coke bottle that he had bought from the lunchroom vending machine. The building superintendent told Baker that Oswald worked there and he was quickly released.

The implications of what Adams told investigators cannot be overstated. Her story exonerated Oswald as a shooter which would have meant that there was a much wider conspiracy to kill the president. Such an ideal witness should have been welcomed by Warren Commission investigators. Instead, she infuriated them. Over the course of several interviews she was berated and belittled by Commission counsel and Dallas detectives who kept insisting that she had her timing wrong. But she stuck to her story. If her interrogators truly doubted what she had to say, they could have questioned the two friends who were with her at the window during the assassination, but they never even bothered to contact them. Instead, they rewrote Adams’s testimony to discredit her. At the end of her affidavit, they grafted on one more sentence which had her seeing two other co-workers at the bottom of the stairs. Both men had testified that they returned to the building five to ten minutes after the shooting. If she had really seen them, then her chronology would have been flawed, but in fact, she had never mentioned their names.

Adams did not see what was done to twist her testimony until thirty-five years later when she was shown the official documents by reporter Barry Ernest. He had spent three decades tracking her down and then wrote about her story in his 2011 book, The Girl on the Stairs: The Search for a Missing Witness to the JFK Assassination. Besides learning what Adam really told investigators, Ernest also found more evidence to bolster it. While looking through Warren Commission files in the National Archives he discovered a letter from her employer which confirmed Adams’s timeline before and after the shooting. For good measure, Ernest also located one of the friends who was at the window with her and she, too, corroborated Adams’s story.

Of course, as Assassination Theater shows, there is plenty of other evidence which proves that Oswald was not the Lone Assassin, and the play is about who was really responsible. But if anyone still presumes that only Oswald was at fault, I would recommend The Girl On the Stairs to entirely disabuse him or her of that notion. It’s too bad that no one put the book on Stephen King’s reading list while he prepared to write about the assassination. As mentioned in my previous post, Hulu is showing a movie based on his book 11.22.63. The premise is that his hero goes back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald on that fateful day and thus saves the life of John F. Kennedy. Of course, you may say, there is no reason to get worked up about a work of fiction. But I would argue that fiction has more influence on popular culture than non-fiction and can be quite effective in distorting the public’s perception of history (case in point: Gone with the Wind). At a time when we should finally be waking up to the fallacy of the Lone Assassin theory, King’s fable puts the matter to rest.

Stephen King, 11.22.63, and the Oswald Presumption -- Part I

Over the last few years, as I’ve researched John F. Kennedy’s assassination, nothing has bothered me more than the casual presumption from otherwise bright people that – yes, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. In fact, this presumption is the basis for Stephen King’s novel and multi-part Hulu movie, 11.22.63.The hero goes back in time to stop Oswald which will presumably save JFK. Of course, King's book is science fiction, but I’m always surprised at the respectable non-fiction where the LHO presumption also crops up,.

One example is a recent issue of the New Yorker, where Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Dexter Filkins, reports on Killing a King, a book about the assassination of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. At the very top of the piece, Filkins writes, “When Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy…” For me, the very certainty of that statement is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard. However, it’s no accident that Filkins puts the JFK presumption in this article, because Ephron’s book investigates a prominent conspiracy about Rabin’s assassination propagated by right-wing Israelis. He also reported on this theory in a segment for the NPR radio show, This American Life. Let me say from the top, that like Ephron, I don't believe the Rabin conspiracy theory. But unfortunately, to debunk it, Ephron turns to Lucien Haag, a frequently cited resource for those who believe Oswald was JFK's lone assassin. Haag is not a forensic scientist. Instead, he dubs himself a “Criminalist — Firearms and Trajectory Examiner,” and yet he has been used as an authority on JFK ballistic evidence by other distinguished programs like PBS’s Nova. He takes the bullet fragments pulled from the President and matches them with the nearly whole bullet that had been fired from Oswald’s Manlicher-Carcano rifle and then was mysteriously found on a stretcher at Parkland Memorial Hospital. To link the Manlicher fragments together, Haag repeatedly cites Neutron Activation Analysis and makes it the equivalent of a ballistic fingerprint. However, this analysis was itself thoroughly debunked in two research papers by real scientists: first in the Journal for Forensic Sciences in 2006 and then in The Annals of Applied Statistics in 2007. Besides removing a linchpin of the Lone Assassin theory, these papers upended convictions for hundreds of prisoners across the nation (see “FBI’s Forensic Test Full of Holes,” Washington Post, November 18, 2007). Yet, incredibly, this thoroughly discredited science remains alive with conspiracy deniers like Haag and those otherwise credible but credulous reporters who use him as a resource. Neutering Neutrino Activation is not the only way to exonerate Oswald as the shooter. There’s also compelling witness testimony that was either altered or suppressed by Warren Commission investigators and I’ll get to that in my next post.

Do you care?

"What gets you the most upset about the JFK assassination?" 

It was a very good and obvious question that my director, Kevin Fox, asked while we were reviewing the script and comes to mind again as we commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the event. Of course, a lot of things about the assassination get me upset--in particular that the real culprits (i.e. not Lee Harvey Oswald) still remain unknown to the vast majority of Americans. 

But I also get upset over why the mere discussion of a conspiracy is considered beyond the pale for a host of serious thinkers in this country--from academics to acclaimed authors, newspaper columnists and TV pundits. It's a remarkable show of willful ignorance for a number of very intelligent people. Even a cursory examination of the evidence--how many shots were supposedly fired, from where, their impact on the bodies of JFK and Governor John Connolly (who sat in front of him)--puts in doubt the conclusions of the Warren Commission. The idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin is no slam dunk under any analysis. So why should discussion of a conspiracy be treated with such contempt? That's a fascinating question which I'll explore here in greater detail over the next few weeks.

Still, getting back to Kevin's question, the willful ignorance of the cognoscenti is not what most makes me upset. What makes me the most upset are the people who say that Americans don't really care who killed JFK. I've heard this from law enforcement officials and publishing executives--even some people involved in the theater. I could not disagree more. I think that most people do care and they care passionately. Until this point in time, my evidence has been anecdotal: whether in casual conversation, in a plane or at dinner, I have found people of all ages and backgrounds very interested in what I have to say and anxious to finally have the great mystery solved.

ASSASSINATION THEATER extends to January 31

12 Added Weeks of Performances!


Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century

at Museum of Broadcast Communications

 CHICAGO (October 15, 2015) – Due to popular demand, the hit production ASSASSINATION THEATER: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of The Century, which has been intriguing Chicago audiences all summer long, is pleased to add 12 additional weeks of performances, extending through January 31, 2016 at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St. in Chicago.Even after 50 years, Americans still question who shot President John F. Kennedy and why. Investigative reporter and author Hillel Levin reveals the most persuasive proof to date – and sheds light on the Windy City’s pivotal connection – in this intriguing world premiere directed by Kevin Christopher Fox. Tickets for all performances, including newly-added Wednesday matinees, are currently available at assassinationtheater.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.   

ASSASSINATION THEATER features Michael Joseph Mitchell as Hillel Levin and Mark Ulrich as Zack Shelton with Ryan Kitley and Martin Yurek.

This talented ensemble of actor, along with a panoply of projections, takes the audience back in time with original documentation based on secrets revealed by retired FBI agents and evidence that the mob – in particular the Chicago mob – killed President John F. Kennedy. ASSASSINATION THEATER reveals their motivation and even names the shooters, including the self-confessed gunman who fired the fatal shot (and still survives in an Illinois prison). Whether the audience goes in familiar with the details or not – they will emerge with a dramatically different view of an event that has been seared into the nation’s consciousness.

“The origins of Assassination Theater go back to 2007, when I wrote a story for Playboy magazine about the burglars who broke into the home of Tony Accardo, Chicago's long-time mob leader,” explains Levin. “After the article was published, I was approached by Zack Shelton, one of the FBI agents featured in the story, who asked, ‘Why don't you do the real story about the mob?’ When I asked what that was, he replied, ‘How they killed JFK.”  And so began a seven-year odyssey in which Levin did the extensive research necessary to confirm what Shelton and other agents revealed. “For me,” Levin says, “the assassination was a kind of theater, staged to put the blame on only one actor in what was, in fact, a much larger production.”

The production team includes: Anthony Churchill (scenic and projections design), Victoria Carot (costume design) and Matt Kooi (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Calyn Swain (stage manager), Sarah Geis (assistant stage manager) and Pat Fries (production manager).


Title: ASSASSINATION THEATER: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century

A theatrical investigation by: Hillel Levin

Directed by: Kevin Christopher Fox

Cast: Michael Joseph Mitchell (Hillel Levin) and Mark Ulrich (Zack Shelton) with Ryan Kitley (Hoover, LBJ, RFK, Ruby) and Martin Yurek (Bugliosi, Files, Specter, Warren).

Dates: Wednesday, August 19, 2015 – Sunday, January 31, 2016

Curtain Times: Wednesdays at 2 pm; Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays at 5 pm & 8:30 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm. Please note: there will not be performances on Wednesday, November 25, Thursday, November 26 (Thanksgiving), Thursday, December 24 (Christmas Eve), Friday, December 25 (Christmas Day), Thursday, December 31 (New Year’s Eve) and Friday, January 1 (New Year’s Day).

Ticket Prices: $49. Student/seniors: $39. Tickets are currently available at assassinationtheater.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.

About the Playwright:

Hillel Levin is an investigative reporter and author who has written extensively about organized crime. His books include When Corruption Was King and In With the Devil. Both are in development to become major motion pictures. His magazine articles have appeared in New York magazine, Metropolitan Detroit, Chicago magazine (where he was also editor) and Playboy. For additional information, visit www.HillelLevin.com.

About the Director:

Kevin Christopher Fox is an actor and director based in Chicago. Recent Chicago directing highlights include: world premieres of Graveyard of Empires by Elaine Romero and The Gun Show by EM Lewis (16th Street Theater), Lay Me Down Softly and Hughie (Irish Theatre of Chicago/ Seanachai), Widowers' Houses and Androcles and the Lion (ShawChicago), St. Crispin's Day (Strawdog, four Jeff nominations including Best Production), Arms and the Man and Betrayal (Oak Park Festival), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Gift Theatre Company), Beggars in the House of Plenty (Mary-Arrchie), Widowers' Houses (TimeLine) and his debut Buicks (Precious Mettle). Regional highlights: world premieres of The Spiritualist by Robert Ford and Sundown Town by Kevin Cohea, and The Fall of the House and Macbeth (TheatreSquared, Fayetteville, Arkansas); Macbeth (Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, Shakespeare in the Schools, adapted and directed); The Study by EM Lewis (William Inge Festival and Center for the Arts). For additional information, visit www.kevinchristopherfox.com.

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