A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT
LITTLE, BROWN 625pp €20.99
There is no doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. The doubts since are whether Oswald acted alone or was front man for a conspiracy, whether there was another gunman, and whether the Warren Commission, set up by President Johnson to investigate the assassination, discovered the whole truth of what happened. Additionally, could the assassination have been prevented?
In 2008 Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist, published an expose critical of the report of the Commission set up to investigate Nine Eleven. Soon after he was approached by a former staff investigator on the Warren Commission, now an eminent lawyer, who urged Shenon to tell the story of the Warren Commission investigation “ to explain what really happened.” Five years of dogged and painstaking research followed.
What was to have been an inside history of the Warren Commission evolved into an account of how much had not been told about the assassination and how much of the evidence failed to reach the Commission, some covered up, some destroyed. What emerges overall is a picture of various agencies and individuals acting in their own self-interest, shifting blame and suppressing information. The Warren Commission was flawed from the beginning, hurried, understaffed, under resourced, politically manipulated, deceived and misled by the CIA and the FBI, both of which conducted extensive cover-ups.
The approach taken by Commission Chairman Chief Justice Earl Warren compounded matters. Warren, convinced from the outset that Oswald had acted alone, was keen to wrap up the report as quickly as possible, certainly before the 1964 Presidential campaign started, and aimed to minimise any further distress to the Kennedy family. He originally envisaged the Commission holding few hearings, having no power to compel witnesses to testify, conducting no independent investigations and doing no more than reviewing the evidence already gathered by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies.
The other Commission members baulked at this and the mandate was broadened, but the auspices were not good. The junior staffers, who did the work, including some brilliant lawyers, dubbed Warren as “Grumpy” or “Dopey” among the “Seven Dwarfs” of the Commissioners (Marina Oswald was Snow White!). Warren took shortcuts which left the field open for later conspiracy theories. To achieve consensus he insisted on language in the report which left open the possibility, contradicting the physical evidence, that a separate additional bullet had wounded Governor Connolly. When the Commission was wrapped up he even favoured destroying its internal files.
From the outset there were rumours of a cover up. The naval surgeon who presided at JFK’s autopsy destroyed his original notes – stained with the President’s blood – lest they became grisly souvenirs. He had already bowed to pressure from the Kennedys to suppress evidence that JFK suffered from Addison’s Disease. Later, Warren refused to allow anyone else view the autopsy photos and X-rays, provoking a near rebellion among the Commission staff.
The FBI, with J. Edgar Hoover bent on damage limitation, suppressed or destroyed vital evidence, while leaking material in attempts to steer the investigation. The night Oswald was shot, the FBI Dallas office, which had been monitoring him for months, destroyed a threatening note which Oswald had hand delivered several weeks earlier. They also failed to place Oswald’s name on the Internal Security Index provided to the Secret Service prior to the President’s visit. Hoover, while publicly denying FBI failures, sometimes under oath, secretly authorised disciplinary action against several dozen agents for dereliction of duty.
The CIA tried to bury the full story of Oswald’s five day visit to Mexico City from 27 September – of critical importance to investigating any possible conspiracy or Cuban connection to the assassination. While there he visited both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, ostensibly to apply for visas. Attempts to investigate claims that Oswald was seen receiving $6500 from a Cuban agent during his visit were frustrated or glossed over by the CIA, as was another story that Oswald had a brief affair with an embassy employee who introduced him to Cuban agents.
Kennedy after all was dead. The CIA seems to have been at pains to keep secret the widespread and comprehensive surveillance operations it was conducting on the Soviet and Cuban embassies and staff in Mexico City. The damage limitation, orchestrated by the CIA’s eminence grise, James Jesus Angleton, worked. The Commission was heavily dependent on the CIA for information and its final report was far less critical of the CIA than the other agencies involved.
Bizarrely, the FBI learned later from Fidel Castro, indirectly through a double agent that, while in the Cuban Embassy, Oswald made threats to several agents to kill Kennedy . A top secret memo from Hoover to the Commission on the incident ,written in June 1964, never arrive, though decades later a copy was found at the CIA. Another cover – up?
More bizarrely, Castro, clearly anxious to distance Cuba from Oswald, met secretly with a representative of the Warren Commission , denying strenuously any Cuban involvement in the assassination, remarking that he actually admired JFK!
What motivated Oswald? The Commission sat on some of its own records regarding suspicions about Oswald’s sexuality. Later, Commission member Gerry Ford thought him emotionally immature and desperately craving for attention. He suggested a possible sexual explanation, with Marina’s mocking of his impotence eventually pushing him over the edge.
Fifty years on, there are still no definitive answers. The “what ifs” remain. What if the Irish born driver of the Presidential car had accelerated immediately after the first bullet hit, which was not fatal, making JFK less of an easy target? Crucially, what if Oswald had been picked up, as he should have been, prior to the visit? For the sad postscript is the conclusion of Hoover’s successor, Clarence Kelley, that if the FBI office in Dallas had been aware of what was known elsewhere in the FBI and CIA about Oswald, “ without doubt JFK would not have died in Dallas” and “history would have taken a different turn.”
November 11 2013