THE WARREN COMMISSION'S FAILED INVESTIGATION
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
Revised and Expanded on 2/19/2002
In spite of all we now know about the Warren Commission's investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy, a few people still argue the commission did a fine job under the circumstances and that it reached the right conclusion on all essential issues. One commission defender, Ken Rahn, opines that the commission "did a great job" and "got the right answer." The record, however, shows the Warren Commission failed miserably to properly investigate the assassination and that it suppressed important evidence that pointed to conspiracy.
Jim Moore, a lone-gunman theorist and author of the book Conspiracy of One, agrees the commission didn't conduct a genuine investigation:
The Warren Commission, it should be clear, never really conducted an investigation. They [sic] began with a conclusion and then worked fairly carefully to ensure that the available facts fit the pre-ordained determination. (Conspiracy of One, Ft. Worth: The Summit Group, 1991, p. 173)
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) reinvestigated the Kennedy shooting from 1977-1979. One of the select committee's conclusions was that the Warren Commission failed to adequately investigate the possibility of conspiracy. Said the committee,
The Warren Commission failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President. This deficiency was attributable in part to the failure of the commission to receive all the relevant information that was in the possession of other agencies and departments of the Government. (HSCA Report, p. 256)
The HSCA went further and said the Warren Commission stated its no-conspiracy finding too strongly and that the select committee developed important information that the commission failed to uncover:
The committee also found fault with the manner in which the conclusions of the Warren Commission were stated, although the committee recognized how time and resource limitations might have come into play. There were instances, the committee found, in which the conclusions did not appropriately reflect the efforts undertaken by the Commission and the evidence before it. In the Warren report, the Commission overstated the thoroughness of its investigation and the weight of its evidence in a number of areas, in particular that of the conspiracy investigation. The Commission did not candidly enumerate its limitations due to time pressures, inadequate resources or insufficient information. Instead the language employed in the report left the impression that issues had been dealt with more thoroughly than they actually had. This was due in part, according to attorneys who worked for the Commission, to pressure from Commission members to couch the report in the strongest language possible. As an example, the Commission declared in the beginning paragraph of its conclusions section,
"No limitations have been placed on the Commission's inquiry; it has concluded its own investigation, and all Government agencies have fully discharged their responsibility to cooperate with the Commission in its investigation."
This, in the opinion of the committee, was an inaccurate portrayal of the investigation.
On conspiracy, the Commission stated, "...if there is any ... evidence [of it], it has been beyond the reach of all the investigative agencies and resources of the United States and has not come to the attention of this Commission." Instead of such definitive language, the Commission should have candidly acknowledged the limitations of its investigation and denoted areas where there were shortcomings.
As the committee's investigation demonstrated, substantive new information has been developed in many areas since the Warren Commission completed its work. Particular areas where the committee determined the performance of the Commission was less than complete include the following:
Oswald's activities and associations during the periods he lived
in New Orleans;
The HSCA reached much different conclusions about the JFK assassination than the Warren Commission reached. Among other things, the HSCA concluded Kennedy was probably killed by a conspiracy, that four shots were fired, that there were two gunmen, that one of the shots came from the grassy knoll, that Jack Ruby had extensive Mafia ties, that Ruby lied about how he got into the basement of the police department to shoot Oswald, and that Ruby's story about why he killed Oswald was false.
Critics of the Warren Commission have identified numerous errors, omissions, and shortcomings in the commission's investigation, many of which were also identified by the HSCA. Here are some of them:
1. The commission failed to produce a credible explanation for the wounding of bystander James Tague in Dealey Plaza during the shooting. The Tague wounding is evidence that more than three shots were fired.
2. The commission missed, or ignored, indications in the Zapruder film (1) that a shot was fired prior to frame 166, i.e., before the limousine passed beneath the oak tree on Elm Street, and (2) that another shot was fired while the sixth-floor gunman's view of the limousine would have been obscured and even blocked, i.e., at around frames 185-190.
3. The commission misrepresented the results of its own wound ballistics tests with regard to both the single-bullet theory and the fatal head shot.
4. The commission failed to mention in its report that one of its members, Senator Richard Russell, had very strong doubts about the single-bullet theory, and that two other members of the commission shared some of Russell's doubts. We now know that Russell outright rejected the theory, and that the commission suppressed from the official record Russell's objections to it. Russell forced one last executive meeting of the commission, in order to put on the record his objections to the single-bullet theory. The meeting was held on September 18, 1964. At the meeting, Russell distributed copies of a memo in which he outlined his objections to the single-bullet scenario. Russell naturally expected that the minutes of the meeting would reflect his objections. However, someone created a fake transcript of the meeting. The existing transcript of the September 18 meeting says nothing about Russell's strong objections to the single-bullet theory. Nor does it mention that Russell forced the meeting to have his objections recorded for the official record. Nor does it mention that Russell handed out a copy of his written objections at the meeting. None of these things is even mentioned in the extant transcript of the meeting. When the fake transcript of the meeting was brought to light in 1968, Russell was very upset after reading it. The Assassination Records Review Board attempted to locate the original transcript, but was unable to do so. (Incidentally, one year after the bogus transcript was released, Russell stated in a filmed interview that he was not convinced Oswald had acted alone.)
5. The commission rejected the account of Silvia Odio on the basis of bogus evidence and unproven assertions. The Odio incident indicates that Oswald was involved with anti-Castro Cuban exiles who were talking about killing Kennedy or that someone was impersonating Oswald while he was in Mexico City. Apparently the Warren Commission didn't want to deal with either implication of the Odio incident, so it dismissed Odio's story.
6. The commission never even mentioned that in the Zapruder film Kennedy's head and upper body snap violently backward and to the left when the fatal head shot occurs. In fact, when the commission printed the frames from the film, it reversed two key frames of the head shot sequence. When this fact was made public, the changing of the order of the frames was blamed on a "printing error."
7. The commission erroneously claimed Jack Ruby did not have extensive ties to the Mafia. The HSCA later proved this claim to be utterly false. The record indicates the commission suppressed evidence of Ruby's links to organized crime. Dr. David Scheim points out the following:
Benign excuses . . . fail to cover the Commission's gross mishandling of its second target of investigation, Jack Ruby. In early news reports and in voluminous FBI files, one fact plainly emerged: Ruby was affiliated with the Mob--the same organization with the clear motive and means to murder President Kennedy. But amazingly, the Commission concluded that there was "no credible evidence that Jack Ruby was active in the criminal underworld." This bizarre reversal of reality was noted by Congressman Steward McKinney in a question to an FBI spokesman during the House Assassination hearings:
"Wasn't it pretty well known to the FBI that Jack Ruby, No. 1, was a member of organized crime; No. 2, he ran a strip joint and had been somewhat commonly referred to as a supplier of both women and booze to political and police figures in the city of Dallas?"
"Didn't you find it a little difficult to accept the Warren Commission's final output on Ruby with the knowledge that the FBI had put into the commission?"
In a similar vein, Time noted how "the Warren Commission failed abysmally to pursue leads linking Oswald's own assassin, Jack Ruby, to the Mob."
Indeed, it was only by the crudest suppression and distortion of evidence that the Warren Commission could hide Ruby's Mob connection. Again and again, materials in the National Archives files relating to organized crime were omitted from the 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits published by the Commission. Sometimes, documents were published in the hearings and exhibits excluding the particular pages dealing with underworld involvement. In one instance, the paragraphs reporting Ruby's frequent association with the Mafia boss of Dallas were blanked out of an otherwise perfect photoreproduction.
Even after such censorship, however, many more clues to Ruby's Syndicate involvement remained in the published hearings and exhibits on which the Commission's report was based. For its absolution of Ruby, therefore, the Commission was forced into such audacious sleights of hand as the previously quoted gem: "Virtually all of Ruby's Chicago friends stated he had no close connection with organized crime. The Commission neglected to report that one of the cited "Chicago friends" was in fact a top Mafia executioner and that five others had assorted criminal involvements. (The Mafia Killed President Kennedy, London: Virgin Publishing, 1988, pp. 253-254)
Incredibly, Burt Griffin, one of the two commission attorneys who had been assigned to investigate Ruby, told the HSCA, over a decade after the assassination, that he'd never heard of Carlos Marcello and Santos Trafficante, two of the biggest Mafia bosses in the country (G. Robert Blakey, Fatal Hour: The Assassination of President Kennedy By Organized Crime, New York: Berkley Books, 1992, p. 93). Equally incredibly, Griffin said that at the time of the commission's investigation he didn't think the Mafia had any motive to kill Kennedy (Blakey, Fatal Hour, pp. 93-94).
8. The commission accepted Ruby's doubtful story about how he gained access to the basement of the police department to shoot Oswald. The HSCA rejected Ruby's belated story, noting that the available evidence overwhelmingly indicated Ruby's story was false.
9. The commission used faulty logic and unreasonable criteria to reject the accounts of witnesses whose reports suggested or proved a conspiracy was involved. Yet, when it came to witnesses whose stories at least seemed to support the lone-gunman theory, the commission bent over backwards to accept them.
10. The commission brazenly misrepresented the results of its rifle tests. In those tests, which supposedly proved Oswald could have shot Kennedy in the manner alleged by the commission, three Master-rated marksmen missed the head and neck area of the target boards 20 out of 21 times, and some of their misses were far apart and even missed the human silhouette on the target boards, even though the target boards were stationary, even though the marksmen fired from an elevation of only 30 feet and were allowed to take as much time as they desired for the first shot, and even though two of them took longer than 6 seconds to fire their shots. Those rifle tests showed it was highly unlikely that a mediocre marksman like Oswald could have shot President Kennedy. We now know that one of the commission staff members, Wesley Liebeler, was very critical of the commission's handling of the evidence relating to the rifle tests and Oswald's marksmanship. He warned in an internal memo that critical people would not take the commission's claims about Oswald's alleged shooting performance seriously. But the commission ignored Liebeler's memo and cited the rifle tests as evidence that Oswald could have performed the alleged shooting feat.
11. On a related note, the commission created the false impression that Oswald was proficient with a rifle and that he had ample practice with the alleged murder weapon. In his internal commission memo, Liebeler took the commission to task for this claim as well:
I have raised this question before. There is a great deal of testimony in the record that a telescopic sight [of the alleged murder weapon] is a sensitive proposition. You can't leave a rifle and scope laying around in a garage underfoot for almost 3 months, just having brought it back from New Orleans in the back of a station wagon, and expect to hit anything with it, unless you take the trouble to fire it and sight the scope in. This would have been a problem that should have been dealt with in any event, and now that it turns out that there actually was a defect in the scope, it is perfectly clear that the question must be considered. The present draft leaves the Commission open to severe criticism. Furthermore, to the extent that it leaves testimony suggesting that the shots might not have been so easy out of the discussion, thereby giving only a part of the story, it is simply dishonest. . . .
The statements concerning Oswald's practice with the assassination weapon are misleading. They tend to give the impression that he did more practicing than the record suggests that he did. My recollection is that there is only one specific time when he might have practiced. We should be more precise in this area, because the Commission is going to have its work in this area examined very closely. . . .
The present section on rifle capability fails to set forth material in the record tending to indicate that Oswald was not a good shot and that he was not interested in his rifle while in the Marine Corps. It does not set forth material indicating that a telescopic sight must be tested and sighted in after a period of nonuse before it can be expected to be accurate. That problem is emphasized by the fact that the FBI actually found that there was a defect in the scene which caused the rifle to fire high and to the right. (11 HSCA 230-232)
12. The commission failed to determine why the police lieutenant who allegedly found Oswald's palm print on the alleged murder weapon failed to photograph the print on the rifle before he supposedly lifted it, and why he failed to mention the print when he turned the rifle over to Special Agent Vincent Drain of the FBI. Nor did the commission determine why the Dallas police said nothing about the alleged discovery of Oswald's palm print until after Oswald was dead, even though the print was supposedly found on the night of the assassination. For nearly two days after the print had supposedly already been found, news reporters with contacts in the police department were reporting that Oswald's prints had not been found on the alleged murder weapon. At the same time, police officials were likewise saying Oswald's prints had not been found on the rifle. Then, suddenly, after Oswald was dead, the police announced that two days earlier, on the night of the shooting, Lt. J. C. Day had found Oswald's palm print on the barrel of the alleged murder weapon. To this day, many critics of the lone-gunman theory suspect the palm print was planted on the rifle's barrel or that the print came from a fingerprint card.
13. The commission failed to take testimony from numerous important witnesses.
14. The commission's questioning of several key witnesses was inept, if not deliberately negligent.
15. The commission failed to establish a motive for Oswald. It failed to provide a credible explanation for why Oswald would have wanted to shoot President Kennedy. By nearly all accounts, Oswald liked Kennedy. And Oswald certainly didn't act like other presidential assassins. Instead of championing his political cause to the world, and instead of explaining why Kennedy's death was necessary to advance the lofty goals of that cause, Oswald vehemently and repeatedly denied shooting Kennedy.
16. At the commission's very first executive session, commission member and former CIA director Allen Dulles gave each of his fellow commissioners a copy of a book that argued that all American assassinations had been carried out by lone, crazed gunmen. It's fair to say this indicates Dulles had already made up his mind about the case before the commission had started its investigation.
17. In its attempt to bend the evidence to fit its conclusions, the commission contradicted itself. For example, when the commission tried to explain why the results of the Army wound ballistics tests did not apply to the single-bullet theory, it said the alleged single bullet, CE 399, lost velocity while supposedly passing through Kennedy's neck and that it went on to make a large entrance wound in Governor John Connally's back because it was yawing. However, when the commission tried to explain how a bullet that had transited Kennedy's neck could have had enough momentum to penetrate five layers of Connally's skin and to shatter two of his bones, it claimed the alleged single bullet lost only a little velocity and retained most of its stability after supposedly passing through Kennedy's neck, and that it created a small, relative neat wound in Connally's back (see Warren Commission Report, pp. 92, 109, 582-583; see also Scheim, The Mafia Killed President Kennedy, pp. 251-252).
Before closing, I would like to present some of what Gary Cornwell, the former deputy chief counsel for the HSCA, has said about the Warren Commission's investigation. Cornwell opines the Warren Commission acted in good faith, but he is nevertheless critical of the commission's investigative efforts:
The purported mission of the Warren Commission was not merely to determine who may have pulled the trigger that unleashed the bullets that killed the president. Whether the bullets came from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased, and whether he shot that rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, were only the beginning issues. Our national security, our national well being, the confidence that the rest of the world would place in our government, and our own peace of mind as citizens, dictated that the more important issue was whether there was a conspiracy behind the assassination.
That the issue of conspiracy was not adequately investigated is even more troubling since the possibility of conspiracy so obviously could not have been rejected as being unworthy of serious consideration. The Russians, with whom Kennedy came to the brink of nuclear war; the Cubans, whose leader we attempted to assassinate; the displaced anti-Castro Cubans, who hated Kennedy for breaking his promise to help them reclaim their home land; the Mafia, who saw the Kennedy family as traitors whose organized crime program was destroying their existence; the right-wing extremists in the South, who hated Kennedy's liberal civil rights agenda; and, at least potentially, even elements of our own government, were all very real suspects, who undeniably considered Kennedy to be their enemy, hated him for what he had done, and feared him for what he proposed to do. . . .
The Warren Commission's repeated failure to pursue obvious avenues of investigation related to conspiracy issues and/or rejection of evidence that did come to their attention indicating possible conspiracy, was even more troubling in light of the fact that the Commission routinely pursued its investigation in a competent and aggressive manner whenever the question was whether Oswald fired upon the president from the School Book Depository, Oswald's conduct in purchasing the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, and his activities immediately before and after the assassination, seemed to have been of great interest to the Warren Commission; whether there was a conspiracy seemed to have been an annoyance.
The typical pattern of the conspiracy investigation both within the Commission itself and within the FBI, who were the Warren Commission's investigators, was like this: Someone would come to the FBI and say that Mr. X was a close associate of Oswald. The FBI would pursue this lead until evidence discounting it was obtained. If Mr. X said he didn't know Oswald (which he was likely to do, whether or not he actually knew Oswald, since Oswald was believed to have shot the president; and no one really wanted to admit being associated with him), there was often nothing more done to pursue the issue. When more detailed witness interviews suggesting conspiracy did make it through the FBI filter, and were presented to the Warren Commission for evaluation, credibility issues were typically resolved in favor of the lone nut theory. A vivid example of such "evaluations" of witness credibility involved the Warren Commission's discounting of eyewitness reports from persons in Dealey Plaza. Appendix XII of the Warren Commission's Report, styled "Speculations and Rumors," contains a long list of what the Commission called "speculations" on the source of the shots, each of which is dismissed seriatim by cursory "Commission findings." The Select Committee reviewed much of the same evidence in its final Report. "The Committee noted that a significant number of witnesses reported that shots originated from the grassy knoll," and found that testimony was not only consistent with the acoustics data that indicated a shot from the grassy knoll, but was also corroborated by photographic data and other evidence that was consistent with the witnesses' descriptions. (Real Answers: The John F. Kennedy Assassination, Spicewood, Texas: Paleface Press, 1998, pp. 130-131, 140-142)
Cornwell goes on to echo Dr. Scheim's point that the Warren Commission's investigation of the Mafia angle was woefully inadequate:
The kind of defects that pervaded its entire "search" for a conspiracy are graphically revealed by even a cursory look at the Warren Commission's "organized crime investigation." Any true conspiracy investigation would have necessarily focused upon the Mafia as possible suspects. The Kennedy family had a long history of friendly and mutually beneficial business and political dealings with the Mafia, dating back to father Joseph Kennedy's business dealings and continuing through the machinations that got Jack Kennedy through tough elections in his rise to the presidency. Yet, during the presidency of Jack Kennedy, his younger brother Bobby Kennedy had begun to run the Mafia out of business with the vigorous criminal prosecutions he headed as Attorney General of the Justice Department. From these known facts alone, one must suspect at least the possibility that the Mafia felt betrayed by the Kennedys, and sought some means of self preservation, if not revenge, in their traditional manner.
However, the Warren Commission conducted only a very limited investigation related to possible organized crime involvement. It focused its investigation exclusively on Jack Ruby. It did not investigate the possibility of involvement by the national crime syndicate in general, or individual leaders in particular. This was admitted by both J. Lee Rankin, the General Counsel to the Warren Commission, and Burt Griffin, the staff counsel who conducted the Ruby investigation. Griffin testified that ". . . the possibility that someone associated with the underworld would have wanted to assassinate the President . . . was not seriously explored" by the Commission. (Katzenbach said, "It would be wrong to act on the assumption that we [the Justice Department] thought organized crime had very much to do with the assassination.")
Among the available data ignored by the Warren Commission (and reviewed for the first time fifteen years later, by the Select Committee) were numerous tape recorded conversations by top level Mafia figures which the FBI had acquired through extensive illegal electronic surveillance of the Mafia in the years immediately preceding the assassination. In those conversations, top Mafia leaders repeatedly spoke of killing the president and/or his brother, the Attorney General. (Real Answers, pp. 155-157)
Undoubtedly, a few diehard Warren Commission apologists, such as Ken Rahn, John Locke, and John McAdams, will go to their graves arguing the commission "did a great job" and "got the right answer," but the facts make it clear that the commission not only failed to properly investigate the assassination but that it ignored, overlooked, or suppressed important evidence that indicated conspiracy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. He is also a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He has earned instructor certification from both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. He is the author of the book Compelling Evidence: A New Look at the Assassination of President Kennedy (Grand Prairie, TX: JFK-Lancer Productions and Publications, 1996). His articles on the assassination have appeared in several journals that deal with the subject. In addition, he is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts