Lasting Questions about the Murder of President Kennedy

Rex Bradford
November 2001


Are There any Smoking Guns in the New Records?

Researchers will hunt in vain for a memo containing the words "LeMay to Dulles: Get Kennedy in Dallas." Anyone who expected such, or holds it up as the standard for qualifying as a "smoking gun," is not serious. But if the term "smoking gun" is too strong, then there are many shining needles of truth in the vast haystack of chaff now available at the National Archives. Some would indeed have qualified as smoking guns in an earlier era, but the bar has been set very high of late by the defenders of the lone nut thesis. That the bar is continually raised, to meet the material which continues to emerge, is itself a phenomenon worth noting.

In any case, there is indeed much new of interest, though more of it related to coverup activities than actual direct leads to conspirators. Before jumping to these new finds, it's worthwhile to pause and examine one of the starker examples from the past.

In the 1970s it came out that Nicholas Katzenbach, then Assistant Attorney General, had written a memo to Presidential Assistant Bill Moyers at the White House on November 25, 1963, the day of Kennedy's funeral. Katzenbach's memo comes the closest an official document will probably ever come to announcing a baldfaced coverup:

"The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he had no confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial."

Of course, the silencing of Oswald by Ruby on the 24th would indicate to most open-minded people a high likelihood of a conspiracy, and the FBI had hardly run down its investigative leads by the next day, when this memo was written. Katzenbach's memo was a call to coverup, pure and simple. The concern behind it can be glimpsed in the second paragraph:

"Speculation about Oswald's motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists."

The logic of the latter of these possibilities is acknowledged:

"Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat—too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.)."

But the Katzenbach memo, while kept from the public for many years, has nonetheless been known for over two decades. What about the mass of declassified material released since the passage of the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act? Has anything of import been found there, or should we all be reassured that the government didn't have really anything to hide after all?

Nicholas Katzenbach
LBJ Library

To read the newspapers, one would have to assume the latter, that nothing terrible or especially illuminating has come from the new files. This assumption would be dead wrong, as it turns out. What this says about press reporting in the modern era will be left for the reader to decide.

Two big stories, and a host of lesser ones, have emerged in the 1990s. One is a wealth of new material pointing to a medical coverup of previously unsuspected proportions. The second story is the Mexico City affair alluded to previously, about which a great deal more is now known. Beyond these two areas, there is much new of interest concerning Oswald, Ruby, the Garrison investigation, the HSCA's internal affairs, foreign policy secrets of the Kennedy administration, and more.

First, some highlights from the medical releases:

  • As noted earlier, the HSCA's Report lied about the testimony it took on the nature of JFK's large head wound. Several autopsy witnesses corroborated the Dallas doctors' observations of a large exit-like wound in the rear of the head, something seemingly contradicted by autopsy photographs showing a full head of hair there. Equally amazing, HSCA investigators have revealed that the HSCA's nine-member forensic pathology panel was unaware of these interviews. Interviewed by the ARRB in 1996, HSCA staffer Andy Purdy, who conducted most of these interviews, said that the failure to make them public was "embarrassing," "shocking," and "inexcusable."
  • The ARRB located a woman named Saundra Kay Spencer, who was identified as having developed Kennedy autopsy photos as part of her job at the Naval Photographic Center in Anacostia. Ms. Spencer viewed for the first time the full collection of autopsy photographs held at the National Archives. She testified, under oath, that they were not the pictures she developed. She gave detailed reasons why, involving both the content of the photos and the type of film used.
  • The autopsy photographer of record, John Stringer, denied to the ARRB that there was a large wound in the rear of Kennedy's head. This despite suffering the embarrassment of having the ARRB play an audio tape from 1972, of a phone conversation in which Stringer told researcher David Lifton, repeated and unequivocally, that there had indeed been a large rear head wound. In any case, when Stringer was shown the Archives' photographs of what is purported to be the brain of JFK, he disavowed them. Stringer pointed to the lack of pictures of sliced "sections," the type of film used, the presence of basilar views, and other reasons why these were not the photos he took at a supplementary brain exam. At one point, Stringer was asked whether the brain photos represented accurately his memory of what Kennedy's brain had looked like. Stringer told the ARRB, "Well, it has to be, if that's Mr Kennedy." ARRB Chief Counsel Jeremy Gunn's reply: "Well, that's the question."
  • FBI agent Francis O'Neill Jr., who like many believes Oswald to have been the lone gunman, was shown the same brain photos (he was one of two FBI witnesses to the autopsy). O'Neill's reaction: "'s too looks like a complete brain."
  • Multiple interviews newly in the record cast grave doubt on the story, always hard to believe, that the autopsy doctors didn't know of Kennedy's neck wound until they called Parkland Hospital the morning after the autopsy. Among other people, the President's personal physician had been at Parkland Hospital and was also at the autopsy, and had surely told the autopsy doctors about the neck wound. One of these was the suppressed HSCA interview of Chief Radiologist John Ebersole, who remembered calls to Dallas on the night of the autopsy, "in the range of ten to eleven PM." Knowledge of the neck wound at autopsy makes even more grave the failure to dissect the neck organs and trace the path of the bullet. But there is additional new testimony which suggests that in fact bullet paths were traced, and photographs taken of the body with metal probes through it. White House photographer Robert Knudsen was one person who told the HSCA that he saw such photographs; his interview was also suppressed. If the story of the metal probes is true, then the deceit of the three autopsy doctors is of staggering proportions.
  • One of those who spoke of the Friday night calls to Dallas was Nurse Audrey Bell of Parkland Hospital. This nurse also drew for the ARRB diagrams of bullet fragments she remembered were taken from Governor Connally—greater in number and size than those held at the Archives. Fragments of that size could also not have come from CE399, the "magic bullet," thus invalidating the single bullet theory and the entire Warren Report. The ARRB declined to take her drawings back to Washington.
  • The HSCA files contain "memo to file" written by lead investigator Richard Sprague, who was soon to be forced to resign after attacks from the media and Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez. This incredible memo states: "William F. Illig, an attorney from Erie, Pa., contacted me in Philadelphia this date, advising me that he represents Dr. George G. Burkley, Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy retired, who had been the personal physician for presidents Kennedy and Johnson.....Dr. Burkley advised him that although he, Burkley, had signed the death certificate of President Kennedy in Dallas, he had never been interviewed and that he has information in the Kennedy assassination indicating that others besides Oswald must have participated. Illig advised me that his client is a very quiet, unassuming person, not wanting any publicity whatsoever, but he, Illig, was calling me with his client's consent and that his client would talk to me in Washington." Sprague's replacement as HSCA Chief Counsel, Robert Blakey, apparently chose not to interview Burkley at all, as did the Warren Commission before it. The ARRB sought permission from Dr. Burkley's daughter, Nancy Denlea, for the release of any relevant information from the lawyer's files, which she at first agreed to do. She subsequently decided not to sign the waiver after all.
  • Documents released by the National Archives in 1999 tell an odd story. They show that the ceremonial casket used to transport JFK's body from Dallas to Washington was dropped from military aircraft into 9000 feet of water off the coast of Maryland in early 1966. This strange event, whose implications will be discussed outside this essay, was initiated by a latter from former Dallas mayor Earl Cabell, and signed off by Robert Kennedy. Strange bedfellows.
  • The military control of the autopsy has long been a subject for concern, but David Lifton's book Best Evidence went far beyond that, alleging military control over the body of Kennedy itself en route to Washington. The rationale given by Lifton for this alleged intervention, alteration of the body in preparation for autopsy, has long been controversial among assassination students. New testimony about the large head wound has lessened the argument that such alteration took place. Nonetheless, Lifton's thesis regarding military control of the body got stunning corroboration in an HSCA interview which was suppressed and not made public until 2000. The HSCA interviewed Richard Lipsey, aide to General Wehle, the Military District Commander of Washington, DC. Lipsey told the HSCA how General Wehle put him in charge of the body. He then related how a decoy casket had been used, with Mrs. Kennedy and her entourage accompanying an empty casket while a second limousine took the body separately to the Bethesda Naval Hospital morgue.

The bullet-item list above contains allegations which are shocking and in some cases not readily believed. That the list itself is accurate can be determined simply by following the links in it to their sources. That all the allegations are in fact true is of course another matter, and several of them remain controversial even among those convinced of a conspiracy and coverup. That said, it should be noted that in all cases where a controversial witness statement is presented, the person making the statement is indeed a witness to what is being alleged, not some self-appointed person from the general population. Such persons should be taken seriously at a minimum. It is this author's view that even a conservative view of the "new" medical evidence has knocked the floor out from under what is supposed to be the "bedrock" evidence for a lone gunman (not that it was ever really that).

There are also a great many revelations and allegations outside the area of medical evidence. A sampler of these, and it is only a sampler, appears below:

Marina Oswald
HSCA Numbered Boxes

Clay Shaw

  • The "friends" of Lee Oswald continue to look less like friends and more like intelligence contacts. It has long been known that, before his death, Oswald's "best friend" George DeMohrenschildt admitted that local CIA man J. Walton Moore had suggested that George strike up an acquaintance with Oswald. In corroboration for Marina's statement above are the released documents showing that Ruth Paine's sister worked for the CIA, and her father was an informant to it. Another case is Priscilla Johnson, the reporter who interviewed Oswald in Moscow and later wrote Marina and Lee. Documents show that she applied for a job at the CIA, but was turned down, but was also viewed as a potential "witting asset" for the Agency. If Lee Oswald was not a U.S. intelligence agent, he was certainly surrounded by them. Whether or not he actually knew Oswald, it is interesting to note that businessman Clay Shaw, charged by New Orleans D.A. Garrison in the JFK murder, also had a relationship with the CIA. Besides being a contact of the CIA's Domestic Contact Division, a 1967 memo released in 1992 noted that Shaw was granted a covert security approval in December 1962 for "Project QKENCHANT." Another person approved for this same project was none other than E. Howard Hunt, of Watergate fame.
  • Regardless of the excess or failures of the Garrison investigation, there is now abundant evidence that the federal government was bent on destroying it. Walter Sheridan, producer of a highly critical NBC White Paper in 1967, met with mobster Zachary "Red" Strate, according to the testimony of Strate, Judge Malcolm O'Hara, and attorney Edward Baldwin (the latter two disagreed as to who arranged the meeting, pointing the finger at each other). The purpose of the meeting was apparently to work out a deal whereby Strate would deliver anti-Garrison witnesses in exchange for help with a pending appeal. Other grand jury testimony supports the allegation that it was anti-Garrison forces who were bribing witnesses, not Garrison. The Justice Department also rushed JFK autopsy doctor J. Thorton Boswell to New Orleans during the trial, because, according to Boswell's ARRB testimony, "Pierre [Finck, another JFK autopsy doctor] is testifying, and he's really lousing everything up." Earlier that day Finck, after having told the court that an Army General had stated that he was in charge of the autopsy, was pressed repeatedly to explain why he did not dissect Kennedy's neck to trace the bullet path. Finck, after attempting to duck the question several times, finally stated "As I recall I was told not to, but I don't remember by whom." The CIA also was very keenly interested in the Shaw trial. A series of internal CIA memos also show great concern over the Garrison investigation, corroborating ex-CIA officer Victor Marchetti's claim that CIA Director Helms would begin staff meetings by asking, referring to Shaw and his lawyers, "Are we giving them all the help we can down there?"

Mexico City "Mystery Man", mistakenly identified as Oswald

  • A torrent of cables, memos, and other documents have been released on the "Oswald" trip to Mexico City affair. Besides showing that Oswald was impersonated in phone calls to the Soviet Embassy, these documents show that the tapes were part of a broader effort, involving CIA officers, to implicate Oswald in a Cuban or Soviet conspiracy. There are also disturbing indications that the documentary record now available has been tampered with. For instance, there is reason to believe that one "Oswald" phone call was of a more sinister nature than any of the relatively innocuous transcripts now public. The many incredible details of these files and the stories they tell cannot be adequately presented in such a short space—see The Framing of Oswald topic.
  • New information on foreign policy initiatives regarding both Vietnam and Cuba have begun to alter the Kennedy-era history of that time. The Pentagon Papers, published in the early 1970s, had curiously sparse information from 1963. That gap has now been filled—with detailed plans for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. More information has also come to light on a "second track" of accomodation with Castro's Cuba, as well as military plans to stage a fake Cuban provocation as a pretext for invasion. In all, the previously-secret records add weight to the thesis that, after the Missile Crisis at least, the Kennedy administration was moving toward peace and detente with the Soviet Union.

The list given above is the tip of a very large iceberg, and is hardly meant to be comprehensive. There is much for researchers to chew upon. Whether it is possible to make sense of the vast contradictory record, to pull all the threads together into a coherent narrative, is as yet unknown. The fact that the murder was never honestly investigated by the federal government with all its vast powers is a sad legacy, as armchair analysts can't subpoena witnesses and use the other tools which are needed to really solve such a crime. And at this late date, with most of the participants and witnesses dead or soon to be so, even the exceedingly unlikely event of a new investigation would set upon a trail long gone cold. Armchair analysts are all that remain, but what a wealth of material they have to work with. This website is devoted to highlighting and analyzing the assassination's documentary base, in particular the amazing new releases. Perhaps more importantly, its goal is to supply these documents in accessible electronic form to a new generation of scholars.