Killing Kennedy: Cock-Ups and Cover-Ups

The investigation of President Kennedy’s murder was marked by serious blunders. As a result, the truth behind the assassination is unlikely to be known, says Peter Ling.

President and Mrs Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade, moments before the shooting. Governor John Connally sits in front of the president. Corbis/BettmannThe breadth of conspiracy theories surrounding John F. Kennedy's death in Dallas is so capacious that little is discounted. Accusations have been made against the KGB, the CIA, the FBI, Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the Cuban secret service, He is rumoured to have been the victim of Texan conservative extremists, anti-Castro Cubans, vengeful Vietnamese and a mix of foreign and domestic branches of organised crime. He is even portrayed as the unintended victim in Lee Harvey Oswald’s attempt to kill Governor John Connally, the real target, because of Connally’s role in Oswald’s dishonourable discharge from the Marines. Motivations for the November 22nd attack include Kennedy’s alleged weakness towards Communism (which threatened the military-industrial complex at the heart of the US economy); his brother Robert’s zealous pursuit of organised crime leaders; the administration’s secret efforts to oust Castro and its public failures to do so; and even JFK’s fateful interest in the Roswell UFO landing (which supposedly represented a threat to the aliens already secreted within America’s power elite).

Ample scope for speculation exists because of the botches and concealment that marked the initial investigation. Most conspiracy theorists attack the official commission of enquiry under Chief Justice Earl Warren, which identified Oswald as the lone gunman guilty of the crime for his own pathological reasons. The Warren Commission lied to the American people and only sinister motives, it is implied, could explain such mendacity. Congressional investigations of the late 1970s and the efforts of the Assassination Records Review Board in the 1990s receive less attention, even though this official scrutiny has confirmed the commission’s failings.

The assassination reveals a fundamental divide within schools of historical interpretation. On the one side are those who seek an ultimate purpose behind the course of events; on the other are those who are apt to shrug and see history as accident-prone. The conduct of the Dallas Police Department in the hours and days following the shooting, for instance, can either be seen as evidence of a large conspiracy working to conceal the truth or as proof of Murphy’s Law – that whatever can go wrong, probably will. Thanks to television series, such as CSI or Silent Witness, set in the world of forensic science, contemporary expectations of how police deal with a crime scene are far more sophisticated than they were in 1963. However, even by the standards of the time, the conduct of the Dallas police was lamentable.

Criminal investigations in the early 1960s were largely a matter of catching perpetrators and inducing them to confess, with physical evidence used mostly to confirm what detectives had determined from their interviews with suspects and witnesses. Consequently, the training that officers received was meagre. A dramatic event in a large public space like Dealey Plaza would constitute a logistical challenge for any law enforcement agency. Thus, the first precept of criminal investigation, well established by 1963, that it is vital to secure the scene in order to protect potential evidence and to maximise the likelihood of apprehending suspects and securing witness testimony was not followed for the Kennedy assassination.

On November 22nd, 1963, in the mayhem that followed the gunshots, spectators and reporters roamed across the scene, potentially destroying vital evidence. Despite a relatively large law-enforcement presence, people entered and exited the crime scene at will. Two thirds of the people in Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was shot were never interviewed by police. The overwhelming majority, including Abraham Zapruder, whose film footage captured the murder, simply left. While Oswald was briefly stopped by a police officer in the Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza, once the manager identified him as an employee he was able to walk out of the front door. More astoundingly, a visitor to Dealey Plaza the next day spotted something whitish in the grass centre of the highway. It was subsequently identified as a portion of Kennedy’s skull. This fragment was handed in, but precisely where it was found was never documented, thus preventing any consideration of whether its location could indicate the line of fire. The second precept of crime scene management in 1963 was to ensure that an organised and thorough search be conducted. This principle, too, was ignored.

Photography is an integral part of processing a crime scene, because the location of evidence must be recorded. The assassination investigation focused on the Book Depository’s sixth floor due to an arrangement of boxes by a window and, still more incriminatingly, the discovery of three spent rifle casings. In order to give press photographers a better picture, both the boxes and shell casings were removed before police photos were taken. The casings were then placed in a single envelope with no attempt to distinguish one from the other. A large, folded, paper sack (believed to have concealed the discovered rifle) was not kept as found, but unfolded. The lack of care in searching the building was underlined several weeks later when employees found Oswald’s jacket and clipboard close to the window that had been the hub of police activity.

Standard police procedure is to ensure that there is a documented chain of custody for all items of material evidence. To guard against contamination or tampering, items are placed in sealed packaging. Each person who takes custody must sign the package noting the time they received it. This was not done. The shell casings, for instance, have no record of custody until 10 pm, even though they were found hours earlier. Finally, should anyone retain the belief that the murder of a president would receive the most experienced and professional investigation, the officer in charge of processing the crime scene, Robert L. Studebaker, had joined the department only eight weeks earlier. He had received little training and this may explain why he used the wrong method to develop latent fingerprints on the surfaces of the cardboard boxes. Furthermore, when they were examined by the FBI, the boxes mainly yielded palm and fingerprints from Studebaker, who had not felt the need to wear gloves.

Lee Harvey Oswald's mugshot following his arrest for disturbing the peace in New Orleans, August 9th, 1963
Lee Harvey Oswald's mugshot following his arrest for disturbing the peace in New Orleans, August 9th, 1963

This pervasive blundering has fed suspicion, but its cause may be less sinister. Forensic evidence was not at the heart of criminal investigation in 1963 and by the time the scene was in process, the police believed that they had already apprehended the assassin. Oswald was in police custody by 2pm. His guilt was confirmed in their minds by his brutal murder, within an hour of Kennedy’s death, of a well-liked, fellow officer, J.D. Tippit, who had attempted to stop and question him. The weapon that killed Tippit was found on Oswald and a co-worker had seen him bring an object to the Book Depository in the paper sack. Dallas police were expecting a confession. If Oswald had ever had a fair trial, his defence team might have been able to cast doubt upon the physical evidence against him.

The careless handling of evidence did not end there. At Parkland Hospital a nurse gave Kennedy’s clothes to a Secret Service agent. With no thought for possible evidence around the bullet holes, he crumpled them up and put them in the limousine trunk. By the time they reached the FBI lab, forensic examination was almost pointless, given the extensive contamination. One’s credulity is stretched further to learn how the legendary ‘magic bullet’ came to police attention. Labelled exhibit 399 by the Warren Commission, the bullet’s ‘magic’ lay in its ability to pass through Kennedy’s back and neck and then proceed to strike Connally in the back, deflect off his rib, hit his wrist and finally wound his thigh and yet show little damage. Oliver Stone’s movie JFK uses the implausible trajectory of this bullet to discredit the Commission’s findings. The fact that ostensibly the next bullet fired by Oswald from the same weapon and location hit Kennedy in the head and exploded into many fragments contradicts ballistic science.

Exhibit 399 is reported as being found on a wheeled stretcher that may have been the one used to rush the wounded Connally into Parkland. Hospital security director O.P. Wright informed an FBI agent, who showed no interest. He then told a Secret Service agent and was asked to bring it to the emergency room. Wright carefully took the bullet to the agent who casually put it in his pocket. It was neither wrapped nor marked to protect its integrity, prior to forensic examination. The bullet eventually reached the FBI’s ballistics lab. Neither Wright nor the agent could confirm that exhibit 399 was the same bullet retrieved at the hospital. Experts also cast doubt on whether the bullet could have wounded Connally in such a way and remain largely undamaged. Governor Connally always believed that he was struck by a separate bullet. Nevertheless, exhibit 399 remained pivotal to the Commission’s claim that a lone gunman opened fire in Dallas.

At this point, the cumulative list of errors blends into the series of smokescreens that surround the assassination. As we shall see, the Warren Commission was a politically motivated cover-up, instigated by President Johnson, but equally significant  was another cover-up that mixed the political with the poignantly personal. Kennedy’s family and close associates realised that a comprehensive autopsy on the president would expose the multiple deceits that had concealed his profound health problems. Only hours after the shooting the grief-stricken inner circle was horrified to discover that the Dallas medical examiner would not release Kennedy’s body because the law required that his team conduct a post-mortem examination. A heated row ensued, culminating in the president’s entourage flouting the law and taking Kennedy’s corpse back to the airport. One explanation for what happened is that Johnson, while eager to return to Washington to reassure the American people that their government continued, did not want to appear callous. He wanted the First Lady and other Kennedy intimates to return with him, but Jackie insisted that she would not leave without her husband’s body. Another explanation is that the Kennedy family wanted to ensure that no details were released that would expose the reality that JFK was arguably the sickest man ever to be president.

As biographers such as Robert Dallek have documented, Kennedy’s health problems were complex. He had spent much of his early life having his illnesses investigated. At the centre of his problems was the improper functioning of the adrenal glands. A corollary to this was a compromised immune system that left him susceptible to infections and allergy-prone. Thanks to the family fortune Kennedy was among the first patients to receive steroids to supplement the cortisol and aldosterone that his glands did not produce sufficiently. Prolonged use, however, may have contributed to the severe degeneration of the spine. In Dallas, Kennedy was wearing a corset to support his weak back. This meant that when the shooting began, he found evasive action difficult.

During the 1960 presidential campaign the Kennedy camp had denied suggestions that he had Addison’s disease. The administration had stressed the president’s physical fitness in a way that deflected questions about his health. If the findings of a full autopsy had been published they would have revealed that, in addition to drugs to combat adrenal insufficiencies, Kennedy took painkillers to manage his back pain and frequently antibiotics to control infections, including those arising from his sexual promiscuity. There were also reports that he took amphetamines and occasionally recreational drugs, such as marijuana and LSD. We simply do not know what a ‘tox-screen’ would have revealed in November 1963. Nevertheless the impression that the postmortem at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland was a carefully controlled affair is most likely accurate. In a military setting junior officers performed the autopsy under the guidance of Admiral George Burkley, one of Kennedy’s personal physicians. According to Dallek, Bobby Kennedy ordered Burkley to destroy any postmortem records that revealed Kennedy’s multiple illnesses. Given that prolonged steroid use causes bone damage, which was visible in earlier X-rays of JFK, its absence from autopsy X-rays suggests that they are faked. Some of the photographs of Kennedy’s wounds are similarly suspect, because of inconsistencies in accompanying descriptions of their location on the body and reports now housed in the National Archives are simply incomplete. His family’s protectiveness, as they sought to preserve the Kennedy legend, has not allowed the murder to be properly investigated.

Turning to the Warren Commission, its report was a politically motivated cover-up. What its critics tend to ignore, however, is that the lie was told to keep the peace. International tensions had been acute during Kennedy’s foreshortened term. In October 1962 the US-Soviet confrontation over missiles in Cuba went to the brink of war. The incoming President Johnson sensed that Kennedy’s murder, if linked to a foreign power, could be seen as an act of war. During the missile crisis Kennedy had recalled how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria had led to the First World War. With memories of the McCarthyite red scare still vivid in his mind, Johnson feared that, if Americans believed that Kennedy was murdered on orders from Havana or the Kremlin, there would be an irresistible clamour for war. The day after the assassination CIA director John McCone told Johnson that Oswald had visited both the Cuban consulate and Soviet embassy in Mexico City. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover then threw suspicion on the CIA by telling Johnson that the alleged photos and taped phone calls of Oswald at the Soviet embassy did not match Oswald at all. LBJ’s fear that he might be bounced into an atomic showdown deepened. When he approached Chief Justice Earl Warren to head the assassination investigation, he overcame Warren’s reluctance to serve by warning that speculation about a Communist plot could trigger a war in which 40 million Americans would die.

The Warren Commission’s purpose thus became to explain the murder in a way that did not point the finger at foreign enemies. By downplaying Oswald’s international connections and insisting that all shots came from the Book Depository, the ‘lone gunman’ verdict achieved this goal. It also concealed other secrets. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs’ invasion in 1961 and even after his supposed non-invasion pledge (made to settle the missile crisis in 1962) Kennedy continued covert efforts to topple Castro; these were too sensitive to be revealed. Some have argued that Kennedy was the victim of a coup, murdered by factions inside the CIA and the armed services. Anger at his lukewarm support for the anti-Castro Cubans in 1961 had turned to fury after the 1962 mass mobilisation failed to produce an invasion. Observing his vacillations over Vietnam and his peace speeches in the summer of 1963, the hardliners, it is alleged, decided to remove JFK. CIA efforts to implicate Cuba in the assassination suggest that they still hoped for an invasion and only Johnson’s encouragement of the leaking of the FBI’s preliminary report outlining the lone gunman theory stifled this threat. Given the criticism of Johnson over Vietnam, it is surprising that so few assassination studies acknowledge that the Warren Commission’s cover-up was in pursuit of peace. If Johnson had been simply a puppet of the Cold War hardliners, he could have readily embraced the CIA plot and rallied public opinion for an invasion of Cuba, recklessly ignoring the fact that the Soviet forces still there could open the way for a confrontation that could escalate to nuclear war.

Johnson did not use the Warren Commission just to keep the peace. He also expected its findings to help his election chances. Its report had to appear comfortably ahead of the November 1964 election. Evidence that sparked fresh lines of enquiry and could slow the process was neglected to ensure the Commission finished on time and reached an unambiguous conclusion. Immediate suspicions that Kennedy had been the victim of a right-wing extremist attack, for instance, were dismissed. They deepened the stain against Dallas that the Texan Johnson preferred to diminish and they were contradicted by Oswald’s apparently left-wing sympathies. Jack Ruby’s murder of Oswald might have prompted a full investigation into the role of organised crime that could have cast doubt on the lone gunman hypothesis and thus delay the final report. The CIA’s secret subcontracting to organised crime of its efforts to kill Castro, which might be exposed by closer scrutiny, further deterred this line of inquiry. A veteran politician, Johnson knew that mob influence remained a potent factor in several Democratic strongholds. By publishing its report identifying Oswald as the sole perpetrator and explaining both his and Ruby’s actions in individual rather than ideological terms, the Warren Commission offered the electorate a moment of closure. Affirmed positively by the media establishment, the report gave most Americans a reassuringly simple answer that a bad man did a bad thing and then met his end through vigilante justice.

The initial consensus did not hold. As governmental credibility nose-dived thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, the many holes in the investigation became apparent. Congressional committees exposed the secret activities against Cuba and the darker side of Kennedy’s Camelot became public knowledge. Today forensic scientists believe that the Zapruder film of the fatal headshot shows blood splatter that indicates a bullet entering from the front, not the rear. Thus, there must have been another gunman. Thanks to the cock-ups and cover-ups of 1963, we may never know who he was.

Peter Ling is Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham. 

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