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.