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.