Botched Investigation Fuels Kennedy Conspiracy Theories It's been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and polls show that a majority of Americans still believe Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy, not a lone assassin. Philip Shenon, author of A Cruel and Shocking Act, explores what keeps these conspiracy theories alive.
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Botched Investigation Fuels Kennedy Conspiracy Theories

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Botched Investigation Fuels Kennedy Conspiracy Theories

Botched Investigation Fuels Kennedy Conspiracy Theories

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, Americans are remembering President Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas. Our next guest, veteran investigative journalist Philip Shenon, has spent years reviewing the work of the Warren Commission, the panel appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, which concluded Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. Shenon pored over the files of the commission, spoke to many of its surviving staff attorneys, and did original research and interviews about many aspects of the case.

While he's not convinced of a conspiracy to murder the president, he concludes that senior officials of the U.S. government, especially at the CIA and the FBI, destroyed evidence and lied about the assassination and the events that led up to it.

Shenon spent more than 20 years at the New York Times, and wrote a respected book about the 9/11 Commission. His new book is, "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination."

Philip Shenon, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Over the years, the Warren Commission's work and its report has gotten a lot of criticism; that evidence was inadequately examined, that certain leads weren't followed.

And it's interesting that Earl Warren himself, who was the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court and, you know, had a real record for groundbreaking decisions in law, that Earl Warren himself was an issue. And I think probably a lot of people - you would probably agree - that he was a bad choice to do this. And one of the reasons was that his - he had a very close relationship with the Kennedy family. How did that affect the testimony and evidence the commission was able to look at?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, Chief Justice Warren clearly adored President Kennedy and the Kennedy family. So after the assassination, Earl Warren is apparently shattered. He describes it as being like losing a son. And repeatedly, during the course of the investigation, he makes decisions that seem to be designed to protect President Kennedy's legacy, to protect the privacy of the Kennedy family, even if that means that not all the facts are gathered about the assassination.

DAVIES: Well, one question was would they interview Jackie Kennedy, the president's wife. What happened?

SHENON: Chief Justice Warren, until the very last stages of the investigation, seemed to be determined not to interview her. The young staff investigator who was responsible for interviewing the witnesses in the Dallas motorcade - Arlen Specter, an assistant district attorney from Philadelphia who would later go on to be better known as a United States senator from Pennsylvania - he believes that she should be the lead-off witness because she would have information that might be so valuable; both about what happened in the limousine in Dealey Plaza, and also about whether or not her husband knew of threats against him before the assassination.

Warren, in the final stages of the investigation, under intense pressure from some of the other commissioners, agrees to the interview with Mrs. Kennedy; but he conducts it secretly, without telling Specter, and interviews her for just a few minutes. And Specter learns of this only after it occurs, and he is furious.

DAVIES: Now another question, of course, was the autopsy photos from the examination of President Kennedy's body. I mean, given that there was a need to look at the wounds on the president, and match that with ballistics evidence and other physical evidence that would be developed in the course of the investigation, it was important for the investigators to know exactly what the condition of the president's body was in. They never got a hold of the autopsy photographs, right?

SHENON: Well, they do get a hold of them. Chief Justice Warren actually looks them over. And after he looks them over and sees how horrifying they are, he makes the decision that nobody else will be allowed to see them. That includes the other commissioners and all of the members of the commission staff. And this creates a huge division on the commission.

The young staff members - and again, Arlen Specter in particular - protest repeatedly, saying they have to have the autopsy photos because they are the essential medical evidence that will allow them to determine how the president died, and who might have killed him. And to the very last stages of the investigation, the staff fights for those photos, and ultimately they are refused. And those photos remained under seal in the custody, apparently, of Robert Kennedy for years thereafter.

DAVIES: Now, the medical evidence, of course, is critical, particularly, you know, as we later see there were so many questions asked about whether the commission had gotten it right, whether - you know, about the directions that the bullets came from, for example. Tell us a little bit about the autopsy itself, and what happened to the original notes of the autopsy.

SHENON: (Laughter) Well, I've got to say, this is one of the more jaw-dropping stories that I encountered in all this. But the night after the assassination, the Navy pathologist who oversaw President Kennedy's autopsy took the original autopsy report, and all of his notes from the autopsy room ,and pushed them into his fireplace in his home in Bethesda, Md.

He did this, he claimed, because they were stained with the president's blood, and he didn't want them ever to be seen. But when it was discovered on the commission staff what the pathologist had done, there was huge alarm because they thought this was going to inspire conspiracy theories for years to come.

The autopsy, in many ways, was rushed; and it was bungled. And we are still dealing with the aftermath of that because so many of the mistakes made in the autopsy room that night have led to so many of the conspiracy theories about what happened to the president's body.

DAVIES: Yeah, Dr. Humes was not a forensic pathologist, right? I mean, he didn't - he wasn't used to looking at evidence of murder scenes.

SHENON: Well, Mrs. Kennedy - on the flight back from Dallas, on Air Force One - was given a choice of having the autopsy done either at Walter Reed Hospital, which is an Army hospital, or at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which is nearby but in - obviously, a Navy hospital. And because her husband had been in the Navy, she decided on Bethesda. But even Navy pathologists thought that was a bad idea, since Navy pathologists have much less experience with gunshot wounds than do their counterparts in the Army.

And the two pathologists from the Navy who were assigned to oversee the autopsy, had no real experience. They weren't forensic pathologists. They had no experience with medical legal autopsies in which a crime was involved.

DAVIES: Right. So we have kind of the wrong people doing the autopsy, some original notes destroyed, and some critical evidence from the autopsy not shown to the commission investigators. It's in some respects not surprising, then, that there's room for speculation about what actually happened to the president's body.

I want to talk about the FBI, and what it did and did not tell and release to the commission. You know, this commission was appointed by the president. The FBI is a part of the Justice Department, controlled by the president. The president instructed everybody to cooperate with the commission. It's clear that the FBI didn't cooperate. J. Edgar Hoover, its director, was a force unto himself. Why would the FBI want to hide some of what it might know about Oswald?

SHENON: Well, because it turned out that Lee Harvey Oswald had been under surveillance by the FBI, for months before the assassination. And the question becomes: Didn't the FBI have information to suggest what a threat Lee Harvey Oswald might be? And didn't it have an obligation to warn the Secret Service in advance of President Kennedy's arrival in Dallas, that this man Lee Harvey Oswald might be a threat?

The decision seems to have been made by Hoover very early on to portray Oswald, whatever the evidence, as a lone wolf whose plot to kill the president could never have been detected by the FBI in advance. There was no conspiracy that the FBI could have stopped and saved the president. So that becomes - the extent of the knowledge that the FBI had of Oswald before the assassination, seems to be something that people at the FBI want to hide from the Warren Commission.

DAVIES: Now, one of the fascinating parts of the story, of course, is this nightclub owner in Dallas, Jack Ruby, killing Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the assassination; walking up while he's being transferred from a jail, with a gun in his pocket - and shooting him. And for years, you know, that fueled conspiracy theories. Either somebody had to have Oswald dead because they were setting him up as a patsy or because he might reveal co-conspirators; and Jack Ruby was the guy there to do it. So he's clearly a critical figure in the investigation, and is a fascinating character in the course of the Warren Commission. What did he tell the commission and its investigators?


SHENON: Well, he tells them many different things, but he is quite insistent in a meeting he has with Chief Justice Warren in Dallas, in December of 1964, that there was no conspiracy; that he decided to kill Oswald on impulse because he loved President Kennedy, he loved the Kennedy family, and he didn't want to see Mrs. Kennedy forced to come back to Dallas for a trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.

But Ruby's actions have inspired many, many of the conspiracy theories that we now deal with. The fact that the president's assassin was himself assassinated two days after President Kennedy's murder is what puts us in the position we are now - which is so many unanswered questions because we have never had a trial of Oswald that might have resolved them.

DAVIES: Right. He tells the commission that his people - meaning the Jewish people - are being tortured and killed by the thousands, and this was somehow connected to his act. He insists on taking a polygraph test, which he appears to pass. And two commission lawyers were assigned to find out everything they could about Ruby, including whether he had a connection to Oswald. Were they allowed to do the job?

SHENON: Those two lawyers found themselves enormously frustrated. They thought the commission wasn't terribly interested in the Ruby element of this investigation, and wasn't allowing them to pursue all the questions about Ruby that they wanted to pursue, including whether or not Ruby had ties to figures in organized crime who might have wanted to see President Kennedy dead or Oswald dead.

See, I wasn't aware until I got into the weeds of doing the research on this book just how much internal turmoil there was on the Warren Commission, and just how frustrated these two particular lawyers were in trying to get to the full truth about Ruby.

DAVIES: I want to talk about this fascinating part of the story, which is Lee Harvey Oswald's visit to Mexico a few weeks before the assassination. The Warren Commission was aware of his visit there. They knew that he'd visited the Cuban Embassy. Oswald himself, you know, had expressed Marxist sympathies for years. But the FBI and the CIA withheld a lot of information. Let's talk about the CIA, for example. Did they monitor Oswald's movements in Mexico?

SHENON: Well, it's remarkable to discover that the CIA may have had Oswald under pretty aggressive surveillance in Mexico City. There were reports years later that there were photographs of Oswald in Mexico City that the CIA had taken. There were tape recordings of his telephone calls in Mexico City. And all of that evidence would later disappear.

Oswald is there for nearly six days. He apparently has encounters with Cuban spies and Cuban diplomats, and Soviet spies, and Mexicans who are sympathetic to Castro's revolution, who had real reason to hope that President Kennedy's administration would be ended.

And the FBI and the CIA seemed determined not to find those people that Oswald was dealing with. And there's a lot of - the question becomes was Oswald, in this time period - just several weeks before the assassination - told by anybody, or encouraged by anybody, to do what he would do in Dallas?

DAVIES: Right. And one of the things that the commission did not know was that the U.S. government had already repeatedly attempted to have Fidel Castro assassinated.

SHENON: Well, among the things that the - and perhaps the most important thing that the CIA withheld from the Warren Commission was the fact that for years, the CIA had been trying to kill Castro; and that Castro, you know, might have had a motivation in killing John Kennedy because John Kennedy had, very clearly, been trying to kill him.

And if there's anything that gets Warren Commission staffers agitated, it's the fact that that information was withheld from them - because it would have raised a million other questions about what, exactly, happened in Mexico City; and was Oswald in contact with Cubans or people who were sympathetic to Castro, who might have wanted revenge against Kennedy for what Kennedy was trying to do to the Cuban dictator?

DAVIES: Bottom line, do you believe or do you think it's likely that Oswald acted at the direction or encouragement of the Cubans or the Soviets? Based on what you know.

SHENON: I think we'll never really have the answer to that because those questions should have been asked 49 years ago, but they weren't. I do think there is a real question as to who else knew about Oswald's plans in the week before - weeks before the assassination, and whether or not anybody knowing of Oswald's open boasts about killing President Kennedy encouraged him to do that, and perhaps even offered the suggestion that they would help if he could ever get out of the United States again.

And this is not my crazy conspiracy theory. This is a theory offered by one of the staff investigators on the Warren Commission. This is a theory they developed within the commission staff - that something happened in Mexico City; Oswald was promised help if he could ever get back to Mexico, perhaps to be spirited off to Cuba; and that explained why, perhaps, Oswald was heading to Mexico in the hours after President Kennedy's assassination. This theory - and it was only a theory - doesn't go into the Warren Commission's final report because of the view that the commission doesn't want to encourage speculation.

DAVIES: So whether or not Oswald was acting at the behest of the Cubans, there was enough information that should have raised a red flag about it.

SHENON: Absolutely. Oswald, in Mexico City, meets with a Soviet diplomat who is, in fact, a KGB officer whose responsibilities included political violence, including assassination. And the CIA knows that. They know that this meeting has occurred. They know that this KGB officer is involved in political violence.

Now, it may have been an entirely innocent meeting, and the KGB officer did have regular diplomatic duties. But just the fact of that meeting, you would think, would be enough to suggest that Oswald might be a danger to political leaders in the United States - including President Kennedy, then in the final stages of planning for his trip to Dallas.

DAVIES: When the Warren Commission, you know, found Oswald acted alone, was that accepted by - you know, important public figures - like President Johnson; like Robert Kennedy, the president's brother; like all of the members of the commission?

SHENON: Well, it is astonishing to discover that President Johnson, at the end of his life, did not accept the findings of the Warren Commission. Johnson thought that Castro killed President Kennedy. Robert Kennedy's role in all this is very troubling because he repeatedly said in the public record that he accepted the Warren Commission findings, and he believed Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.

And that appears never to have been the truth. Kennedy's namesake, Robert Kennedy Jr., just this year - earlier this year announced that his father thought the Warren Commission was wrong and that his brother, President Kennedy, had been killed either by the Cubans or by the Mafia, or even by some group of rogue CIA agents.

And Sen. Richard Russell, who was a member of the Warren Commission, and at the time the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he also did not believe the Warren Commission report even though he signed it.

DAVIES: And the interesting thing about Kennedy is he had information that would have been helpful to them - i.e., that the U.S. government had been trying to kill Castro, and he knew all about those plots. He chose not to share that with them.

SHENON: Robert Kennedy's role is very troubling. Kennedy, other than President Johnson, was the highest ranking official in the government not required to give testimony to the Warren Commission. He sends the Warren Commission a brief note in which he says, and suggests, that he has no evidence of a conspiracy when in fact, he had a tremendous amount of suspicion about a conspiracy.

And why he withheld that information may be related to the fact that Robert Kennedy was very much aware of the CIA's efforts to kill Castro. Robert Kennedy had been very much at the center of efforts to overthrow Castro. It would have been information that he probably was not eager to have on the public record and so therefore, he never told the Warren Commission what he really believed.

DAVIES: Well, Philip Shenon, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.

SHENON: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Philip Shenon's book is "A Cruel and Shocking Act."

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