Originally appeared in Salon.com on November 6, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
Fifty years later, a complicit media still covers up for the security state. We need to reclaim our history
We'll never know, we'll never know, we'll never know. That's the mocking-bird media refrain this season as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of America's greatest mystery -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson hijacked a large chunk of her paper's Sunday Book Review to ponder the Kennedy mystery. And after deliberating for page after page on the subject, she could only conclude that there was some "kind of void" at the center of the Kennedy story. Adam Gopnik was even more vaporous in the Nov. 4 issue of the New Yorker , turning the JFK milestone into an occasion for a windy cogitation on regicide as cultural phenomenon. Of course, constantly proclaiming "we'll never know" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the American press. It lets the watchdogs off the hook, and excuses their unforgivable failure to actually, you know, investigate the epic crime. When it comes to this deeply troubling American trauma, the highly refined writers of the New Yorker and the elite press would rather muse about the meta-issues than get at the meat.
All this artful dodging about the murder of President Kennedy began, of course, nearly 50 years ago with the Warren Commission , the blue-ribbon panel that was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson -- not to get at the truth, but to "lay the dust" (in the words of one commissioner) on all the disturbing rumors that were swirling around the bloody events in Dallas . Two new books take us inside the Warren Commission sausage factory, and show in often shocking detail how the august panel got it so terribly wrong. Soon after the Warren Report was released in September 1964, polls began showing that the American people rejected its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of the president -- and nearly a half century later, the report remains a notorious symbol of official coverup. [This does not prevent Abramson from blithely declaring that "the historical consensus seems to have settled on" the lone gunman theory -- there is no such consensus, only a deeply fractious ongoing debate.]
" A Cruel and Shocking Act " by former New York Times investigative reporter Philip Shenon has been soaking up most of the media spotlight in recent days. The book proclaims itself to be a "secret history of the Kennedy assassination." Based largely on interviews with Warren Commission staff lawyers, the book reveals how the investigation was immediately taken over by the very government agencies -- the CIA, FBI and Secret Service -- that had the most to hide when it came to the assassination. The other new book, " History Will Prove Us Right ," was written by Howard Willens, a Warren Commission lawyer who refused to speak with Shenon. As suggested by the title -- which is taken from a defiant statement by the commission chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren -- Willens' book is a stubborn defense of the report that he helped produce. But ironically, after grinding one's way through Willens' serviceably written but highly revealing story, a reader can only come to the same conclusion that Shenon's sexier expose' demands -- namely, that the Warren Report was the result of massive political cunning and investigative fraud.
Both books contain juicy and informative details that shed new light on the JFK investigation. (Shenon's book also contains a few breathlessly advertised "scoops" that turn out to be rehashed stories or false leads.) But the two books also suffer from a strange cognitive dissonance. After elaborating on the many ways that the Warren Commission's work was sabotaged by President Johnson, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (who immediately took charge of the investigation), former CIA director Allen Dulles (who conveniently got himself appointed to the commission), Treasury chief C. Douglas Dillon (who oversaw the Secret Service) and other Washington power players, the books seem to arrive at the same baffling conclusion as the deeply compromised Warren Report -- i.e., that Oswald did it.
When it comes to the million-dollar question, Shenon is much more equivocal than Willens. He seems to think that Oswald might have had accomplices -- but Oswald nonetheless remains at the center of Shenon's story, rather than the intelligence officials, for instance, whom Sen. Richard Schweiker once remarked had their "fingerprints" all over the young alleged assassin. In following the conspiracy trail, Shenon quickly takes a wrong turn down the "Castro-as-mastermind" path. Perhaps because as a writer he found this story of deep espionage more intriguing than the Warren Commission's twisted bureaucratic tale, the author lights off for Mexico City, where Oswald apparently visited (or was impersonated visiting) the Soviet and Cuban embassies in the days before Dallas . Shenon has Oswald dallying with a sexy clerk in the Cuban embassy, and perhaps getting entangled in a sinister Fidelista plot against JFK.
The problem with this tantalizing tale of Cuban intrigue is that it's completely bogus and has been consistently debunked over the years -- despite the best efforts of former CIA spooks like Brian Latell ("Castro's Secrets"), whom Shenon credits as an inspiration, to revive it. One of the better jobs at deconstructing the Castro theory was done by Gerald McKnight, a professor emeritus of history at Maryland's Hood College . In "Breach of Trust" -- his 2005 exploration of the Warren Commission's failure, which remains the best book on the topic -- McKnight illuminates how immediately after the gunfire in Dealey Plaza, the CIA began an aggressive disinformation campaign to link Oswald with Castro. As McKnight documents, President Johnson was so alarmed that this propaganda offensive would lead to war with Cuba (and perhaps a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union) that he prevailed on his friend J. Edgar Hoover to help him shut down the CIA's explosive rumor-mongering. Fifty years later, Shenon has fallen into the same spook trap on Cuba.
Shenon does have a remarkable story to tell about Castro -- and it completely undermines his dark conjecture about the Cuban leader. In the summer of 1964, Castro passed word to Washington that he wanted to tell his story to the Warren Commission. William Coleman -- the commission's only African-American lawyer -- had met Castro back in the early 1950s, when they were both young men enjoying Harlem's nightlife. As the obvious staff member to undertake the mission, Coleman set off for the Caribbean, where he met with his old acquaintance on a yacht anchored off Cuba. For three hours, Coleman fired questions at Castro about a possible Cuban plot against JFK, with Fidel steadfastly insisting that he admired JFK and had nothing to do with his murder. In fact, it would later be revealed that in the months before his death, Kennedy had begun to soften the hostile U.S. stance against Havana and had opened back channels to Castro. After returning from his secret mission, Coleman reported back to Warren that he found no proof Castro was involved in JFK's murder. The Coleman story is not the hot scoop advertised by Shenon -- it was first reported years ago by Irish journalist Anthony Summers, one of the more dogged diggers in the Kennedy field. But it certainly bears repeating.
To give Shenon and Willens their due, both books contain a number of startling facts, some of which are new, at least to me. For example, Shenon spotlights these intriguing bits of information:
- After returning home from his grim duties, Dr. James Humes, the Navy pathologist in charge of the Kennedy autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, burned his original autopsy report in the fireplace in his family room. Humes' superior officer was so concerned that the pathologist himself might be eliminated by the plotters who killed JFK that he ordered Humes to be escorted home that night.
- Arlen Specter, the Warren Commission lawyer (and future U.S. senator), first presented his soon-to-be infamous single bullet theory to Chief Justice Warren while the two men were standing at the sixth-floor window of the Texas Book Depository where the mediocre marksman Oswald allegedly committed his historic crime. After listening silently to Specter explain the magical trajectory of Oswald's bullet, Warren simply turned on his heel and walked away without saying a word. Warren -- a distinguished chief justice with a monumental record on civil rights -- had resisted serving on the presidential commission. He knew that his duty was not to find the truth, but to suppress dangerous evidence that -- as LBJ had warned him -- might lead to World War III. Still, it must have dismayed the 73-year-old jurist to see how his historic report (and his reputation) would be tied to a patently absurd ballistics theory.
- In the years following the Warren Report's release, several of the commissioners and staff members distanced themselves from their own report and publicly criticized the manifold deceptions of the agencies on which they had relied, namely the FBI and CIA. Among those who suffered grave doubts was lawyer David Slawson, the man who had been the Warren Commission's lead investigator into whether JFK was the victim of a conspiracy. In 1975 Slawson aired his criticisms to the New York Times, attacking the CIA for withholding vital information from the commission and calling for a new JFK investigation. Within days of the story breaking in the Times, Slawson received a strange and threatening phone call from James Angleton, the spectral CIA counterintelligence chief. Angleton -- who had not only closely monitored Oswald for several years before Dallas, but later took charge of the agency's investigation into the alleged assassin -- adopted a decidedly sinister tone during his call with Slawson, making it clear to the lawyer that he would be wise to remain "a friend of the CIA." Slawson and his wife were deeply unnerved by the call. He thought the message was clear: "Keep your mouth shut."
For his part, Willens, who had been loaned out to the Warren Commission by Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, reveals new information about the attorney general and his troubled relationship with the official investigation into his brother's death. RFK resolutely kept his distance from the proceedings of the Warren Commission -- which was stacked with RFK's political enemies and reported to a new president with whom he had a poisonous relationship. But, as Willens reveals, Kennedy did briefly insert a lawyer on the Warren Commission staff -- in addition to Willens himself. This Kennedy mole used his position on the commission to dig into possible connections between the JFK assassination and the Mafia-connected Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, another mortal enemy of RFK.
As soon as he had heard the devastating news from Dallas on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy immediately suspected that his brother had been the victim of a plot. RFK believed that the shadowy assassination operation against Fidel Castro -- a dark alliance between the CIA and the Mafia -- had somehow been turned against President Kennedy. When Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby stunned the nation by shooting Oswald on national TV while he was being escorted through the basement of the Dallas Police Department , Bobby and his Justice Department investigators quickly turned their attention to Ruby. Within hours, RFK's men found that Ruby had numerous connections to organized crime.