November 21, 2007
This year marks the forty-fourth anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination. What is most remarkable about this is the stunningly simple fact that, despite innumerable books and several official investigations, we still do not know what happened in 1963.
Not understanding what happened is no mere curiosity of history. It tells us something profound about the nature of government in America today, all of it running against the received notion of a free and open society.
I might not say that were the assassination a simple, straightforward matter that had occurred with few witnesses, but it was an event with many witnesses, many of whom were ignored by the Warren Commission with some of the most credible discounted. And it was anything but simple, although the conclusions of the Warren Commission are just that, simple.
At least some of the key parties involved – Lee Oswald, Jack Ruby, and David Ferrie, for example – are subjects of voluminous government records about their bizarre or criminal activities, and forty-four years later, parts of these essential records remain secret.
I might not say that about the free and open society also, were there not a long history of government secrecy around the event, and at times deliberate misrepresentation. Yes, there was finally in the 1990s a big opening of files held secret for decades, but these files – at least the parts not blacked-out – tell us little of importance that is new. Indeed, to the thoughtful inquirer they only raise the issue of why most of them were ever considered worthy of being labeled secret in the first place.
Most importantly, though, a good many files still have not been released, a critical point not treated carefully by many writers on the subject. Certain CIA and FBI files on Oswald are key examples.
You must ask yourself, why, if the assassination is just a simple murder by one misfit, has there been so much secrecy? Indeed, why, if it was a simple murder, was the President’s murder not investigated in Dallas, the scene of the crime, instead of from Washington? All the evidence and most witnesses were located in Dallas. Federal agents at the hospital actually drew their guns against local police and officials to seize the President’s body for shipment to Washington, instead of allowing the perfectly normal procedure of the local jurisdiction autopsying the body. Why? Why was the autopsy conducted by the military with military doctors who were rank amateurs at shooting investigations?
There is no such thing as a free and open society where great matters of empire are concerned, and this is something no less true of the United States than any past imperial power. The people are never consulted on imperial matters, whether war, assassination, or overthrowing other governments, and they are, sadly, frequently deliberately misinformed about them, their own resources being used against them, just the latest examples being around the invasion of Iraq.
Although elements of the CIA truly hated Kennedy, and J. Edgar Hoover would have spat upon his grave given an unobserved opportunity, I do not subscribe, for many reasons, to the idea that an arm of the American government killed Kennedy. It is highly probable that individuals in some government agencies did understand what had happened and worked to blur and confuse the investigation afterwards. I also consider it possible that, owing to these intense hatreds, glimmers of intelligence in advance of the assassination were deliberately ignored or buried. This seems most likely in Hoover’s case.
Motives for hiding any knowledge of events are unknown, but almost certainly they have to do with hiding genuinely embarrassing or compromising information concerning secret operations and relationships. Embarrassment is more often than not, certainly more often than genuine national security, the reason for imposing secrecy in the American government.
Assassinations at this level in a large advanced society are always the result of conspiracies and complex plans, the plans providing for the certainty of success and the safe distancing of conspirators.
There are, I believe, three plausible candidates for organizing the assassination, all quite powerful groups, all selected for their extreme motives, resources, and opportunity.
The first candidate is a branch of the American mafia, a number of whose members had been deeply hurt by the Attorney General’s aggressive organized crime-fighting activities. After all, Kennedy had received handsome secret contributions in cash from the organization when he ran for office. He had also had at least the seeming cooperation of some senior mafia leaders in his efforts to assassinate Castro, and here he was letting his brother conduct a ruthless campaign against the interests of some families. A mafia family leader and the leader of the Teamsters Union at the time, a known mafia associate, are on record as having made threats against Kennedy. Some members of the Congressional investigations came to favor this candidate although they failed to prove it.
The second candidate is one of the many Cuban refugee groups armed, trained, and paid by the CIA in hopes of invading Cuba again, hurting its economy through terrorist activities, and assassinating any of its leaders. Few Americans today appreciate the extent of these government-subsidized terrorist camps then, operations that make Osama’s camp in the mountains look insignificant.
Kennedy was loathed by the most violent of these groups in his last days because he agreed not to invade Cuba as part of his settlement with the Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba. After that pledge, Kennedy had the FBI raiding the operations of some of these previously catered-to groups as a show of good will towards the Soviets. It is in connection with these very raids that Oswald had some not-well-understood but certain connection with the FBI. These refugee groups were ruthless, angry men who didn’t hesitate to kill or cripple those in their way. They had even conducted a number of terrorist attacks in Miami.
The third candidate is Israel, whose secret efforts at developing nuclear weapons were underway at the time and had become known to Kennedy. He made it unpleasantly clear in private communications that he would not allow Israel to go nuclear, something not widely known in America. But the people running Israel considered it essential that the country become a nuclear power, and we have all seen over many decades how Israel has not hesitated to assassinate or attack where it regards its interests are involved.
Just a few years after Kennedy’s assassination, during the Six Day War, Israeli planes made a two-hour attack on the U.S.S. Liberty, a spy ship operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, killing many of its crew. Israel’s motives have never been explained adequately or investigated openly, but likely had to do either with suppressing information of atrocities in the Sinai – the Liberty being an intelligence-gathering ship – or with trying to trick the United States into entering its war against Egypt. In either case, we see ruthlessness compatible with eliminating a hostile, powerful leader.
I don’t claim to know the truth because the truth would require new evidence. And the candidates are not all mutually exclusive. One might well expect the mafia or Mossad to manipulate and use people like the violent Cuban refugees.
Each of these groups had great motives, more than adequate means, and ample opportunity. By comparison, Oswald stands out as a ridiculous figure with no motive, virtually no means, but a seeming opportunity arranged for him by others at the Texas Book Depository. He was, almost certainly, the patsy he said he was in police custody shortly before his death, having been duped by forces he didn’t understand into certain activities that would mark him before the assassination. We have ample evidence of Oswald’s lack of serious interest in things military, his having been pretty much a flop at being a Marine, and of his temperamental inclination in other directions. While he had a temper (who doesn’t?), he was not a violent man, indeed Russian observers who recalled his years in Russia said he was temperamentally incapable of murder.
If you want to understand why the Warren Commission Report is so wrong, just spend some time yourself reading it with a critical eye. You can find an old copy at a used bookstore for a dollar or two. Parts of it are laughable, much of it is fragmentary, and all of it is a prosecutor’s brief. There is no voice for the defense. Our Western traditions of law require the clash of defense and prosecution before a jury can arrive at guilt. There is no other way, although so much of the public is today conditioned by mystery books and television shows where a detective wraps everything up neatly by the end of the book or show.
Perhaps even more importantly, as few younger readers will know, the Warren Commission did no investigation. Its investigative arm was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. He personally kept tight control of these investigations day by day. Hoover’s FBI committed many blunders and genuine crimes over the years of his being director, from trying to send Einstein, a Jewish refugee from Nazism, back to Germany (he hated Einstein’s free thinking) to carrying out an elaborate plan to discredit Martin Luther King with secretly recorded tapes in the hope he would commit suicide. These great men, and many other notable figures, Hoover privately regarded as dangerous communists.
Hoover more or less blackmailed many members of Congress and several presidents with his secret files obtained by spying on their private lives. After his death these files were whisked away never to be seen again. As I said, Hoover hated the Kennedy brothers, surely giving him a total lack of impartiality as an investigator. Hoover, too, spent many days at resorts and racetracks over his career paid for by mafia figures he should have been investigating. Communism, even though it never had any large presence in the United States, was always Hoover’s obsession, and Oswald had the (false) reputation of being a communist. It was not a promising arrangement for the Warren Commission from the beginning, and the poor results show.
With a few special exceptions of genuine investigative journalism and analysis, there are two general categories of books about the Kennedy assassination, both biased in their information. There are the various “theory” books which do not accept the Warren Commission and attempt to promote some particular theory of the crime based on (necessarily) incomplete evidence. Examples of these include a book on Hoover himself as suspect, one on the Secret Service having an accident with automatic weapons, and a number on various CIA figures such as Howard Hunt.
Some of these “theory” books suggest almost paranoid fantasies and have given Kennedy assassination books a bad name in general, making easy targets for those wishing to support the Warren Commission. But we must not conflate honest skepticism and lack of belief in the Warren Commission with the theories of people who promote specific concepts of how things were done. This is a trick, conflating honest doubt with unsubstantiated or far-out theories, used over and over again by those promoting our second category of Kennedy assassination books.
The second category includes books that work towards showing the Warren Commission was right, at least in its major conclusions, attempting to restate old material in new words, neglecting to tell readers clearly that they have no new evidence of any great significance with which to work their glib magic. There is an equally long series of these with some of the notable ones along the way being Edward Epstein, Gerald Posner, and, very recently, Vincent Buglosi.
In general, if you go back to examine press reviews at the time of the release of each of these books, you will find a large consensus buzz in the mainstream press about how we finally have the case resolved. That very statement has been made time and time again. This was almost embarrassingly true of Gerald Posner’s book some years ago, a book that added nothing of consequence to our understanding of the crime but used aggressive new language to restate old stuff. It is now being said of Vincent Bugliosi.
People impressed by big fat books will be impressed by Vincent Bugliosi’s recent book on the Kennedy assassination, Reclaiming History, but in a sense its very size is a judgment against it. It is no great feat for an experienced court prosecutor to churn out a voluminous document. They do it all the time in their court briefs, taking pages of legalese to say what should take paragraphs of good, clear English.
It is fitting in more than one way that Bugliosi is a prosecutor, for his book is a prosecutor's brief, just a fatter one than the ones produced by Bugliosi's predecessors.
But size here serves another purpose, what I would call intimidation. How could you possibly argue with this massive pile (1,600 pages) of evidence and argument? The truth is that it is not hard at all to argue with it.
Bugliosi follows his predecessors who used pretty much the same evidence to reach the same conclusions which any independent-minded student of the assassination understands is impossible, that is, that Oswald killed Kennedy and acted alone. Bugliosi had no new evidence of any significance with which to work. He simply looks at the same old stuff ad nauseam, coming up here and there with prosecution tricks to make old stuff seem fresh or different.
But a key fact of the assassination is that the existing evidence is not adequate to convict anyone, and certainly not Oswald. There is, of course, other evidence in existence which has never been released. The CIA and the FBI have files they have never opened.
We know this from many bits of evidence, including references in documents we do have and from situations about which we can positively conclude evidence must exist by the nature of things. A good example of the last is the CIA surveillance photos and recordings of Oswald, or someone pretending to be Oswald, in Mexico City. An obviously incorrect photo was released and the claim was made recordings were erased.
Oswald's connections with the FBI have never been satisfactorily examined. There are many circumstances suggesting his being a paid informant for the FBI, especially during his time in New Orleans. A letter Oswald wrote to a Dallas agent just before the assassination was deliberately and recklessly destroyed by order of the office's senior agent immediately after the assassination with no reasonable explanation.
Oswald had no motive for killing Kennedy, having expressed admiration for the President. Bugliosi cannot get around this fact, only pursuing the typical path of all his forerunners in attacking Oswald's character. There has been another series of books over the years, pretending to be biographies of Oswald but only serving to attack his character, giving assassination writers material to cite. These include works by writers who clearly had CIA connections: notably Priscilla Johnson, someone all students of the assassination know was conveniently in Moscow when Oswald was there, and the late Norman Mailer, a man who could not have written his own big, fat book on the CIA without agency cooperation.
Oswald's being promptly assassinated himself by Jack Ruby, a man associated with the murky world of anti-Castro violence, someone whose past included gun-running to Cuba and enforcer-violence in the Chicago mafia, is a gigantic fact that sticks in the throat of any author. It has never been explained satisfactorily and is not by Bugliosi.
One trouble with all such books is that we have every two decades a new generation of people, most of whom do not know enough about the case to begin to argue with such an exposition. One cannot help but believe that those who prompt the periodic publication of these books have just this fact in mind. Posner is old, stale, and forgotten. This generation gets Bugliosi.
We must always remember Bertrand Russell's profound, unanswered question after he had reviewed an advanced copy of the Warren Report: "If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?" Russell's question goes to the heart of the matter, as you would expect from one of the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th century. It has never been answered, and certainly not by Bugliosi.
It must be at least somewhat embarrassing for Bugliosi that Italian authorities recently, near the release of his book, conducted a series of tests with Oswald's ridiculous choice of weapons, a 1940 Mannlicher-Carcano, one of the last rifles in the world a determined assassin would choose. Italian Army sharpshooters could not come close to Oswald's supposed feat of loading the crude bolt-action rifle and firing it three times, let alone hitting anything while doing so.
Moreover, in other tests conducted by the Italian Army using animal parts, it was shown impossible for a bullet to emerge from Kennedy virtually intact as the Warren Commission claimed "the magic bullet" did. One thinks of the lost opportunity in 1993 to discover something new when permission was refused by the widow of the dead John Connally to extract known bullet fragments from his wrist, fragments supposedly from “the magic bullet.” The evidence was buried, literally.
Of course, when we limit ourselves to three times loading and shooting for the rifle, we are already playing the Warren Commission's own game. There were in fact at least four shots as a closely-analyzed recording clearly showed. Recent analysis at Texas A&M University showed that the ballistics evidence used to rule out a second gunman later had been misinterpreted.
The Kennedy assassination and its inadequate investigation and secrecy mark an important turning point in modern American history. Elections are still held, and more groups of people can vote today than over most of the country’s not particularly democratic history, but government in the dark world of international affairs behaves often as though there were no electorate to which it is responsible. This seems a paradox, but if you think about it, you will see its truth.
You don’t have to be an obsessive, conspiracy-minded person to be concerned about the state of affairs in America. Have Americans been told the truth about the CIA’s great failures leading up to 9/11? Have they been told about the abuse of the CIA leading up to the Iraqi invasion, including what really happened in the Plame affair? Have Americans been told the truth about 9/11 itself, including the virtual certainty that the fourth flight over Pennsylvania was shot down by the military? Have Americans been told the simple truth about the invasion of Iraq? Have all the lies that were told, including rubbish about terror and weapons of mass destruction, been corrected? Have they learned how many Iraqis their government has killed and crippled?
No, not at all, not any more than they have been told who killed Kennedy and why.
So how is this great democracy different in the dark business of international affairs compared to the autocrats with whom it so often allies itself? Not at all.