On the JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory

If one thing is certain after 50 years, it’s that the CIA and President Johnson wanted the Warren Commission to conclude that Oswald worked alone.  

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President John Kennedy was assassinated in his limousine on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. In September of the next year, the Warren Commission, a task force selected by President Lyndon Johnson made up of congressmen, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, the former head of the CIA, the former head of the World Bank, and a small army of lawyers, concluded that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald alone.

The Warren Commission

According to the Warren investigation, Oswald shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza. He fired three shots from behind Kennedy as the limousine moved away from his location.

Doubts about this account arose immediately. Critics maintained that someone fired from ahead of Kennedy and to his right, from the infamous Grassy Knoll. John Kelin wrote in his 2007 book Praise from a Future Generation of the earliest skeptics of the Warren Commission, like Vincent Salandria. Kelin summarizes in an op-ed for U.S. News and World Report:

Of the 121 Dealey Plaza witnesses whose statements appear in the commission’s published evidence, 51, by one count, said gunshots came from the right front – that is, from the infamous grassy knoll. Only 32 thought shots came from the building, while 38 had no opinion.

Former Kennedy aide Kenneth O’Donnell, who rode in the ill-fated Dallas motorcade, said he heard two shots from the grassy knoll. He did not tell that to the Warren Commission, but later conceded, “I testified the way they wanted me to”…

[There were] Dealey Plaza witnesses who saw unidentified armed men in the vicinity; witnesses whose observations suggest a radio-coordinated hit team; three Dallas cops who encountered fake Secret Service agents; and one who testified to meeting an hysterical woman screaming, “They’re shooting the president from the bushes!”

Graphic footage taken by a bystander, Abraham Zapruder, has caused the most controversy of all. Kelin writes:

The 8mm Zapruder film of the assassination unambiguously shows JFK’s head and upper body slammed back and to the left. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus the bullet that destroyed JFK was fired from the right front – from the grassy knoll – far from the alleged location of the alleged assassin.

Anti-conspiracy writers, like journalist Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed, counter:

As the cortex of the brain is destroyed, a neuromuscular response shoots down the spine, sending a seizure through the body. The body’s muscles twitch, with the large muscles in the back predominating.

Remember, Kennedy’s wrapped into a back brace. It’s wrapped right underneath his breast all the way down and wrapped around his legs. You can’t tell from that seizure where he’s going to move in the car. But then something happens. Out the right side of his head, an explosion takes place. On the enhanced Zapruder film, you can see a cloud, a red mist of brain and blood tissue moving forward. It’s almost a jet effect. As that propels out his head, it has much more force than the force of the bullet moving in, and it shoots him in the opposite direction. It shoots out to the right front and left, violently.

But as Life magazine noted in 1966, the two shots that hit Kennedy in the film go off within one second of each other, an impossibility for the weapon Oswald allegedly used, the Italian Carcano bolt action rifle.

Italian weapons experts in 2007 concluded that the 8.3 seconds the Warren Commission insisted Oswald took to make three shots with that rifle is less than half the time needed for even the most advanced shooters (19 seconds), contradicting tests conducted by the FBI and U.S. marines and police.

A Cuban Revenge Hit?

As reported by Politico in 2015, a declassified CIA report written two years ago states CIA director John McCone was involved in a, in the CIA’s words, “benign coverup” to keep the Commission focused on the agency’s view “that Lee Harvey Oswald…had acted alone in killing John Kennedy.”

McCone told the CIA to give “passive, reactive and selective” assistance to the Warren Commission, possibly at the request of President Johnson.   

The most important information that McCone withheld from the commission in its 1964 investigation, the report found, was the existence, for years, of CIA plots to assassinate Castro, some of which put the CIA in cahoots with the Mafia. Without this information, the commission never even knew to ask the question of whether Oswald had accomplices in Cuba or elsewhere who wanted Kennedy dead in retaliation for the Castro plots.

The U.S. has a long history of violence against Cuba, invading and occupying the nation three times (1889-1902, 1906-1909, 1917-1922), controlling Guantanamo Bay since 1903, and of course the CIA operation to overthrow Castro, prepared before Kennedy took office but approved by him: the landing of 1,400 Cuban exiles, armed and trained by the CIA, on the southern shore of Cuba–the Bay of Pigs.

Castro had overthrown the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista, an American ally, in 1959, and launched Communist programs typical of revolutionary movements: public education and housing, and distributing land formerly held by foreign corporations to landless peasants–Castro took back over 1 million acres from three American corporations alone. For this, the U.S. sought to eliminate Castro. The Bay of Pigs was followed by five decades of economic warfare that, despite recent steps by the Obama administration to ease relations with Cuba, remains U.S. government policy. It was also followed by the CIA introducing the African swine fever virus into Cuba in 1971 (see Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).

One might be inclined, in the light of this history, to doubt the CIA had evidence of Cuban involvement. The U.S., determined to oust Castro, would have had no better justification for an invasion of the island than the murder of a sitting president. With a history of deceitful justifications for intervention (such as “liberating” Cuba from Spain at the end of the 19th century, only to become its occupier; or the needs of American corporations), it could have been open season on Castro. The Bay of Pigs disaster, so embarrassing to the government not only for its failure but because officials, including the president, were caught in a lie about American involvement, would have become a distant memory.

Castro reportedly said after he heard of Kennedy’s death, “They will try to put the blame on us for this.”

Yet perhaps the government had credible evidence, but feared an invasion of Cuba would lead to a nuclear response from the Soviet Union. There is evidence these fears prompted the government to keep the Warren Commission focused on Oswald and him alone (see below).

The CIA report Politico covered was declassified–it was not leaked by a whistleblower–and had 15 redactions. That is, some information was blacked out. What was left reveals the CIA was willing to hide information from the Warren Commission, at the very least to protect its secret assassination plots from becoming public. (The plots became public anyway in the 1970s.)

Of course, those who believe the CIA took the lead in killing Kennedy might look at the report differently. One might suppose that in the same way the CIA kept the Warren Commission focused on Oswald, perhaps the declassification of this report is meant to keep the public speculating about a Cuban revenge hit on Kennedy, rather than CIA involvement. Indeed,

In a statement to POLITICO, the CIA said it decided to declassify the report “to highlight misconceptions about the CIA’s connection to JFK’s assassination,” including the still-popular conspiracy theory that the spy agency was somehow behind the assassination.

After all, would the CIA declassify information that incriminated it in Kennedy’s killing?

Did the CIA kill Kennedy?

Like others, Vincent Salandria, a history teacher in the 1960s, spent decades independently investigating the assassination and believes the CIA assassinated Kennedy with the military’s approval because he was moving toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the war in Vietnam. He believes the Warren Commission was a fraud, that it was instructed to conclude Oswald worked alone to cover-up the coup.

Salandria has chipped away at members of the Commission. Even Arlen Specter, a prosecutor who investigated for the Commission and later became a U.S. Congressman, told Salandria in 2014, after spending decades defending the validity of the findings of the Commission, that he would prefer to be called “incompetent” rather than “corrupt.”

Salandria suggests James Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable as the best book on the topic.

Oliver Stone, who directed JFK, agrees:

Douglass lays out the “motive” for Kennedy’s assassination. Simply, he traces a process of steady conversion by Kennedy from his origins as a traditional Cold Warrior to his determination to pull the world back from the edge of destruction.

Many of these steps are well known, such as Kennedy’s disillusionment with the CIA after the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, and his refusal to follow the reckless recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. (This in itself was truly JFK’s shining moment in the sun. It is likely that any other president from LBJ on would have followed the path to a general nuclear war.) Then there was the Test Ban Treaty and JFK’s remarkable American University Speech where he spoke with empathy and compassion about the Soviet people, recognizing our common humanity, the fact that we all “inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

But many of his steps remain unfamiliar: Kennedy’s back-channel dialogue with Khrushchev and their shared pursuit of common ground; his secret opening to dialogue with Fidel Castro (ongoing the very week of his assassination); and his determination to pull out of Vietnam after his probable re-election in 1964.

All of these steps caused him to be regarded as a virtual traitor by elements of the military-intelligence community.

Indeed, the feelings may have been mutual. Kennedy, feeling the heat after the Bay of Pigs disaster, told White House staff, “I’ve got to do something about those CIA bastards.”

The Intercept writes,

John F. Kennedy famously described his desire to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds” after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Peter Kornbluh points out in his book Bay of Pigs Declassified that the State Department at that same time proposed the CIA be stripped of its covert action capacity and renamed.

Enter Oswald, conspiracy theorists say. According to Politico, the 2013 CIA

…report identifies other tantalizing information that McCone did not reveal to the commission, including evidence that the CIA might somehow have been in communication with Oswald before 1963 and that the spy agency had secretly monitored Oswald’s mail after he attempted to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959.

This confirms earlier evidence.

Historian John Newman of the University of Maryland, citing CIA documents ordered released in the 1990s, writes that in September and October of 1963, Oswald visited Mexico City to try to get a visa to travel to Cuba. Politico writes that he met with “spies for the Cuban and Soviet governments.”

The CIA station in Mexico noticed his activities and requested information on him from CIA headquarters, which falsely informed them that it had no information on Oswald since he returned to the U.S. from Russia. In truth, they had received and studied many reports on Oswald, sent by the FBI.

Note this was before the assassination. After Kennedy died, the CIA claimed it did not know of Oswald’s visit to Mexico City before they investigated Kennedy’s death (the FBI went along with this lie) and also falsely claimed that the tapes of the calls from the CIA station in Mexico City were destroyed. These lies could have been told to protect the CIA’s image after the assassination, but why did the CIA lie to its station in Mexico, as this was before the assassination?

That question has yet to be answered. If the CIA is seeking to clear its name, an explanation for this would be a good place to begin.

Additionally, some FBI files on Oswald from 1959-1960 remain classified, and could give us a better understanding of what the CIA didn’t want to relay to its Mexico station.

However, an additional detail begs attention:

after Oswald failed to get the visas, CIA intercepts showed that someone impersonated Oswald in phone calls made to the Soviet embassy and the Cuban consulate and linked Oswald to a known KGB assassin — Valery Kostikov — whom the CIA and FBI had been following for over a year.

Who was this impersonator? Someone Oswald recruited just to make a few phone calls, without knowledge of the plot? Or a co-conspirator, an ally of Oswald, in the hit on Kennedy? Or was it someone with knowledge of the upcoming hit, someone attempting to frame Oswald by impersonating him and mentioning KGB hitmen?

Whatever the case, an implied Russian connection to Oswald was a terrifying notion to the United States.

The Soviet Union

The FBI informed President Johnson of the impersonator. According to Newman, Johnson said that

Oswald’s apparent connection to Castro and Khrushchev had to be prevented “from kicking us into a war that can kill forty million Americans in an hour.”

[At first] Chief Justice Warren…refused at first to take the job even after both Robert Kennedy and Archibald Cox had asked him. [Johnson] “ordered” Warren to come to the White House and in that meeting Warren had twice refused the president’s request. LBJ continued, “And I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City.” The president told Warren this would make it look like Khrushchev and Castro killed Kennedy. LBJ said that Warren started crying and agreed to take the assignment.

In a 1972 documentary for public television Warren himself told the same story — except for the tears. He said that Johnson felt the argument that Khrushchev and Castro had killed Kennedy might mean nuclear war.

Was the Warren Commission told to focus solely on Oswald because a deeper investigation might reveal Oswald’s connection to Cuba or Russia? If Khrushchev and Kennedy were forming a bond, would the Russian leader order his death? Or did the KGB circumvent Khrushchev?

Having just come back from the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was a successful assassination of a U.S. president by a foreign power covered up, ignored, for the sake of the human race? Would the proudest and most powerful nation on Earth let that slide?

If so, the tapes of someone impersonating Oswald would have to be covered up.

Yet again, those who believe the CIA orchestrated the assassination might suspect the whispers of foreign involvement to be a sideshow. Here again we have a public confession (via Warren in the 1972 documentary) of the government’s goal for the Warren Commission: to focus on Oswald and him alone because of possible Cuban or Soviet connections.

Better a conspiracy theory involving foreign powers than one involving the CIA, perhaps? Johnson told Walter Cronkite in a 1969 television interview, “I’ve never been completely relieved of the fact that there might have been international connections.” In private conversations, it was a different story. Arthur Schlesinger of the Washington Post reported in 1977 that Johnson told his White House staff that “the CIA had had something to do with this plot” as early as 1967.

The Unanswered

There is much we do not know, yet without question the government wanted the Warren Commission to conclude Oswald was a lone wolf.

It is interesting indeed that President Johnson, who selected the members of the Warren Commission, should include the former head of the CIA, Allen Dulles. The CIA is the foreign intelligence branch of the U.S. intelligence community, while the FBI handles domestic cases. This at the least hints at suspicion of foreign involvement in the assassination, at the worst CIA involvement.

If Dulles was on the Commission to steer it in the right direction–not an unreasonable assumption considering the evidence–he did his job. The former head of the World Bank on the Commission, John J. McCloy, was originally skeptical of the lone assassin theory, but it was his old friend Allen Dulles who convinced him (see Kai Bird’s biography on McCloy, The Chairman). McCloy became a staunch supporter of the lone wolf theory.  

The volume of conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s murder is immense.

Over the decades, theories have been fueled by the alleged deathbed confession of a CIA agent that said Johnson ordered the hit. And a man who said his father, a Dallas police officer who served in the Marines with Oswald, was one of the assassins. And another man who claimed to be one of the shooters, hired by the Mafia to get revenge for Robert Kennedy’s war on the mob, who allegedly was photographed by Oswald, ate pancakes with Jack Ruby (Oswald’s killer), and accidentally left behind a .222 cartridge with his teeth marks on it in the Grassy Knoll (dug up in 1987). And Johnson’s alleged mistress who claimed the vice president told her hours before the assassination, “After tomorrow, John Kennedy will never embarrass me again. That’s no threat. That’s a promise.” And journalists, witnesses, and investigators who died in allegedly mysterious circumstances. And theorists who think a Secret Service agent accidentally shot Kennedy.

It is even theorized that Kennedy was murdered because he was about to reveal that extraterrestrial beings were taking over Earth.

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