Lasting Questions about the Murder of President Kennedy

Rex Bradford
November 2001


PART 5

Who Killed JFK?

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy occurred more than 36 years before the end of the last century. It has not only passed into history—it has become folklore. In the movie Armageddon, government officials plead with Bruce Willis' character to accept a suicidal mission to divert an asteroid which is headed for collision with the Earth. He and his cohorts take the assignment with three demands—the third of these is that they be told "who killed JFK."

So who did kill JFK? The short and easy answer is that we do not know, the crime having never been honestly investigated by those who had, at least in theory, the judicial power to get to the bottom of it. That failure is a bitter legacy from which there is no escape.

But even if it is too late for court trials and the level of proof they afford, there is enough information in the record to make intelligent historial appraisals, to rule out some suspects and make a short list of who remains. Such exercises are fraught with peril, but they are all we have at this point. What follows, it should be obvious, is one person's overview analysis of the historical record; others can and do (vehemently) disagree. As such, it is all too brief and easy to dismiss, as is the nature of such high-level analyses presented without room for the full presentation of evidence and argument. Other essays on this website will flesh out this analysis, and the History Matters Archive is meant to permit interested persons to pursue the truth on their own, through the documents, audio interviews, and other materials on which these broad statements are based.

Lee Oswald - It was proven long ago that one man did not fire all the shots in Dealey Plaza that Friday afternoon in Dallas. More than three decades of additional information has only confirmed this judgment, despite the ferocity with which it is still held in some quarters. This is not to say that Oswald was necessarily an innocent patsy—it seems quite possible that he was part of the murder plot. That too is uncertain. Oswald remains a true enigma, in many ways the most mysterious figure of the assassination landscape. The boy who watched "I Led Three Lives for the FBI," joined the Marines, served as a radar operator at a base in Japan which happened to house U-2 spy planes, learned Russian somehow and defected to the Soviet Union, came back to the U.S. with a Russian wife to work at menial jobs, occasionally passing out pro-Castro leaflets while also being seen in the company of serious anti-Communist crusaders, still defies easy analysis. Oswald remains a mystery, despite the attempts to flatten him into two-dimensional cartoons, whether that of the Crazy Marxist of the James Bond CIA Spy. The truth is likely stranger and more complex than either caricature, and may never be untangled.

The KGB - The circumstantial case for Soviet involvement in the assassination was laid out by Edward Jay Epstein in a book called Legend, based on his conversations with legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton. There are indeed some mysteries related to Oswald's sojourn in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet defector Nosenko who came to America in 1964 with the untrue story that the KGB never had any interest in Oswald. But why the Soviet government would want to kill Kennedy, other than to fulfill its reputation as the Evil Empire, has never been clear. In any case, the tapped phone calls in which Oswald was impersonated shatter any such notion. It is very unlikely, to say the least, that the KGB would fake evidence of an incriminating contact between Oswald and one of their assassination experts. The episode instead smacks of, as Katzenbach wrote in his memo, "a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists."

Fidel Castro - While the public reports generated by the investigations have been careful not to point the finger at Cuba's Fidel Castro, behind the scenes a great deal of attention has been focused there. Virtually all of the relevant evidence came from the CIA's Mexico City station. Witnesses claimed to have seen Oswald take money to kill Kennedy at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. Tapped phone lines produced ambiguous but sinister information. A defector from Cuba's intelligence service, DGI, claimed that Oswald had met with DGI agents on multiple occasions. Dissecting this and related evidence is well outside the scope of this essay, and will instead be treated under essays in the topic The Framing of Oswald. It is this author's strong view that the connection is ultimately false and indeed a setup, and has been used effectively to throw off track the various investigations, particularly the Schweiker subcommittee of the Church Committee.

The Mafia - The books promoting the "organized crime hit" theory are generally uncompelling to this writer, crystallized in the absurd depiction of a Mafia chieftain lamenting to near-stranger Edward Becker "Take the stone out of my shoe!" But there is abundant circumstantial evidence implicating certain mobsters, most particularly Johnny Roselli (one good source is Sons and Brothers by Richard Mahoney). And the HSCA took the veil off Jack Ruby and showed his deep mob ties. But Rosselli was at the nexus of the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro. And the emerging story of Ruby's involvement in gunrunning to Cuban exiles (see the LaFontaine's Oswald Talked and Peter Scott's Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, in addition to the account Nancy Perrin Rich told the Warren Commission) puts him into the same milieu. Rather than an organized crime hit, what seems more likely is a new use (by CIA officers or agents) of an existing relationship. The choice of the "hoodlum" Ruby to silence Oswald is perhaps a classic case of the use of "cutouts" to keep suspicion away from an operation's ultimate sponsors. As Peter Dale Scott has noted, Ruby's connections are broader than just the mob in other ways, extending via his Teamsters contacts into the political realm.

Anti-Castro Exiles - Another group known to hate President Kennedy were the anti-Castro exiles, for whom Kennedy's failure to provide support during the Bay of Pigs invasion was unforgivable. Oswald's 1963 summer in New Orleans put him in contact with members of exile groups, including DRE member Carlos Bringuier, who engaged Oswald in a possibly-staged fracas. The story of Sylvia Odio remains unresolved, as well. Ms. Odio, daughter of an imprisoned anti-Castro Cuban, told the Warren Commission that three men came to her door one evening in September 1963, two of them Latins and the third Lee Harvey Oswald. One of the men told her on the phone the next day that Oswald was "loco" and wanted to kill Kennedy. These and other stories possibly implicating anti-Castro Cubans have never been satisfactorily resolved. But even if members of these groups were involved with Oswald, or with the setup of Oswald, they hardly had the power or knowledge to conduct sophisticated operations like the Mexico City frameup. At most, such groups would have been working under the direction of their CIA handlers, who included among them David Phillips or Howard Hunt.

Lyndon Johnson - Que bono? Who benefits? The fact that Lyndon Johnson came from Texas provided for some an immediate circumstantial case for his involvement in the murder of his predecessor. Nearly forty years of subsequent research has never answered this question one way or another. Certainly it is true that Johnson was aware that the Oswald lone-nut story was untrue—he said so many times, including in a conversation with Warren Commissioner Richard Russell on the eve of the Warren Report's publication. But Johnson nonetheless used the false Communist conspiracy evidence to press Earl Warren onto the Commission against his will, as Warren noted in his memoirs and as evidence in LBJ's November 29 1963 phone call with Richard Russell. Johnson played an active early role in the coverup, but the charge that he was involved in the murder remains speculation.

The Right-Wing - In the Warren Commission's sole interview with Jack Ruby, Ruby dropped a giant hint about the involvement of the John Birch Society and right-wing ex-general Edwin Walker, and then declared "...me giving the people the opportunity to get into power, because of the act I committed, has put a lot of people in jeopardy with their lives. Doesn't register with you, does it?" Earl Warren answered "No, I don't understand that." Dallas, Texas, was in 1963 a hotbed of right-wing militarism and racism, and the behavior of the Dallas Police fueled suspicions of a Dallas-based right-wing plot. Wealthy oilman H. L. Hunt, whose son had met with Ruby just prior to the assassination, went into hiding for a time after the Kennedy murder. A locally-based right-wing plot, by itself doesn't begin to explain the sophisticated setup of Oswald in New Orleans and Mexico City. To the extent, however, that right-wing figures were enmeshed in the broader anti-Kennedy political landscape, their involvement seems much more plausible.

The CIA - There has long been suspicion that Oswald was an agent of U. S. intelligence, probably the CIA, though no documentation to that effect has ever emerged from the files. An entire book, Spy Saga by Dr. Philip Melanson, explored many of the reasons for this conclusion. The release of Oswald's CIA "201" file shows that the CIA had a much more active pre-assassination interest in Oswald than previously admitted, and anomalies in the record add to, rather than reduce, the mystery of Oswald's intelligence connections. Dr. John Newman's Oswald and the CIA explores some of the new revelations in the documentary record released in the 1990s. But if Oswald indeed was some kind of agent of the CIA, that hardly makes him a CIA killer. In fact, it raises the likelihood that this association is what led to his selection as a "patsy." What better way to force the CIA into a coverup than to paint one of its own as the killer of the President? In any case, the CIA as an organization, vast as it is, is hardly a credible suspect in the assassination per se. But individual officers, and possibly a powerful cabal of them as opposed to merely a few "rogue" agents, may very well have been part of the plot. The Mexico City stories of a Soviet/Castro conspiracy were vigorously pushed by certain figures in the CIA. More importantly, the pre-assassination activities of some of these persons and the handling of the "Oswald" telephone taps has never been adequately explained. This includes the actions of counterintelligence officers in CIA headquarters, who opened the 201 file on a Lee "Henry" Oswald and created the deceitful October cables reporting falsely on the Oswald Embassy contacts. The CIA has lied for over 35 years about the taped Embassy phone calls, and its story of why a photograph of Oswald in Mexico City was never obtained by its photographic surveillance is hard to believe. This photographic surveillance became known to the Warren Commission, though only because Oswald's mother Marguerite complained loudly that she had been shown a picture of Jack Ruby before Ruby killed her son. She had in fact been shown a picture of the "Mexico City Mystery Man," which had been flown from Mexico City to Dallas on a Naval Attache plane, apparently mistaken for Oswald by the CIA Mexico City station itself. The identity of this person has never been determined, and the CIA expressed great concern about the Warren Commission's plan to publish the photo, even with the background cut out. One CIA memo even suggested that the face of the man might be altered in the published photo. If this idea was really promoted to protect the identity of an innocent bystander, it shows a touching sensitivity in an agency otherwise involved in larger matters such as overthrowing foreign governments. The stories of the telephone taps, photographic surveillance, the interrogation and handling of various Mexico City witnesses, and CIA files on Oswald, are far too complex to discuss adequately here—see The Framing of Oswald topic. In summary, it is clear that the CIA's involvement with and monitoring of Oswald has been covered up and lied about; furthermore a few individual officers engaged in highly suspicious actions which have never been adequately explained.

The Military - The U. S. military has never been the focus of any of the investigations, even though such a focus is warranted. The autopsy which has generated so much controversy over the years, and rightly so, was a tightly controlled military affair at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center. One of the autopsy doctors, Dr. Pierre Finck, told jurors at the Clay Shaw trial that an Army General was in charge of the Kennedy autopsy, and that he had failed to dissect the neck (necessary to track the bullet's path) because he had been told not to. Autopsy participants were issued orders not to speak of what they had seen under penalty of court martial; these gag orders were not lifted until late the House Select Committee's tenure, and even then only after much exasperated prodding by that Congressional body. It was learned in the 1970s that the Army had maintained a file on Lee Oswald, but it was "routinely destroyed" in 1973. One witness, a Col. Robert Jones of the 112th Military Intelligence group, told the HSCA that Army intelligence personnel were in Dealey Plaza the day of the motorcade. The Committee members gingerly danced around the question of whether any of them might on or near the grassy knoll. and might have shown identification which could be mistaken for Secret Service id's. This was because a man behind the "grassy knoll" apparently flashed forged Secret Service identification to a Dallas police officer moments after the gunfire, as that police officer told the Warren Commission. All Secret Service agents were in the motorcade at the time. In any case, the circumstantial case for military involvement in the assassination remains that, circumstantial, and includes the foreign policy motives discussed elsewhere on this website. Kennedy had initiated a withdrawal from Vietnam, and was actively pursuing accomodation with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Military leaders of the day were adamantly opposed to such moves, as is well documented in the transcripts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and elsewhere. New Vietnam records, explored in Newman's JFK and Vietnam and Kaiser's American Tragedy, show a military fiercely gung-ho on confrontation in Vietnam and elsewhere, to the point where there was repeated advocacy of the use of nuclear weapons in Indochina. But motive is hardly sufficient where a Presidential assassination is concerned, and the military autopsy is greatly disturbing in many respects but inconclusive. The most compelling evidence of military involvement is also the most controversial, and includes the notion first put forth in David Lifton's 1980 book Best Evidence that the military took control of Kennedy's body itself prior to the autopsy, in order to manipulate it and control the autopsy findings. Lifton interviewed Navy personnel who told him that the body had come in, before Jackie Kennedy arrived, in a grey shipping casket. Some recent evidence, including the revelation that many Bethesda witnesses observed a large rear head wound like that seen at Parkland Hospital, obviates the need for a complex head-surgery-prior-to-autopsy theory, which was always the most implausible part of Lifton's thesis. But other new evidence adds weight to the notion of military control of the body. The tapes of Air Force I en route from Dallas to Washington contains very curious discussion of the need for a special ramp to escort the "First Lady" off the plane on the right-hand side, which was enveloped in darkness (Mrs. Kennedy did not deplane by that route). The most compelling new evidence, though, is the untranscribed and previously-suppressed audiotaped interview of Richard Lipsey, the military aide in charge of moving Kennedy's body from Andrews Air Force Base to Bethesda for autopsy. Lipsey told the HSCA staffers that he had used a second "decoy" ambulance with a second casket to move the body, according to Lipsey to avoid possible problems with crowds. But if this account is true, the body would have had to have been removed from its original casket before the plane left the ground in Dallas, unless Jackie Kennedy herself knew of the switch. Lipsey's account, which goes to the heart of a military conspiracy to kill the President and cover up the evidence, was buried by the HSCA and never followed up.

A Thought Experiment

A thought experiment may be helpful at this point. Imagine that it is 1963, the height of the Cold War, but it is not Kennedy who has been killed. It is Nikita Khruschev, leader of the Soviet Union, recently humiliated by the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this thought experiment, it is Khruschev, not Kennedy, who received a military autopsy whose results ran directly counter to the reports of the civilian doctors who first treated him. Imagine that later one of the autopsy doctors admitted that a Soviet general ran the autopsy, and that this doctor said he was ordered not to track the path of a bullet. That crucial autopsy photographs known to be taken went missing, that trained medical witnesses disputed what was shown in those that remained, that the official autopsy camera went missing after an investigation failed to match it to the photographs. Imagine it was Russia where the security services destroyed evidence linking themselves with the purported killer, who was declared to be a lone "rabid capitalist," but who seemed to be surrounded for the last year of his life by KGB operatives. That secret evidence finally revealed that the purported killer had been impersonated in a supposed phone conversation with CIA agents. But Khruschev's successor, without revealing the impersonation, had led those investigating the crime to think that the alleged assassin had indeed made these disturbing calls, and there might be nuclear war with America if this got out. And so on. Take the single bullet theory, the killing of the alleged assassin while in police custody, and all the rest of the JFK assassination story, including the fact that the murder was followed by a major expansion of a war, a war that secret documents years later showed Khruschev had ordered be wound down.

Everyone in the U.S., from the New York Times to the man on the street, would have a field day with this scenario. It would be completely obvious to everyone that Khruschev was killed by his own political enemies with the help of the KGB, for political reasons. It would be obvious that the "story" of the lone capitalist was just that, a story, propped by by phoney "evidence" that would be completely disbelieved. You wouldn't need 1/10th of the evidence pointing toward a high-level conspiracy that is present in the JFK assassination to convince just about anybody of this.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that Russian and American societies in the 1960s or later were or are equivalent, and any analogies such as given above have their limits. Nonetheless, what is fundamentally different between this thought experiment and the reality of the Kennedy assassination is not the basic facts—it is a matter of belief systems. For a great many people, it is simply not possible that an assassination of a President would be carried out by powerful domestic political figures, even though they would be perfectly willing to believe it of the Soviets or almost any other country's leaders. Even imagining that high U.S. officials would lie and engage in cover-up in such a matter is unthinkable to many, and certainly unspeakable in the naton's "responsible" media. Belief systems are powerful. But they are not always right.

Hunting the Plotters

The discussion in this section has distinguished between individuals and organizations, without naming any such individuals who might have conspired to kill John Kennedy. This is true for two reasons. In the first place, such charges are serious, and should not be bandied about without the kind of supporting evidence which is far too detailed to include in a general essay. But, secondly, there are very few individuals for which there is enough even circumstantial evidence to buttress such an accusation. This is hardly unexpected if the plot was indeed developed among persons in the intelligence community. The levels of plausible deniability which were built into the CIA's Castro assassination plots, for instance, show how hard it would be to find the ultimate sponsors of the Kennedy assassination. There, even with the weight of a reform Congress behind the idea of bringing these plots fully to light, and a great deal of cooperation by the CIA, the Church Committee in the 1970s never fully answered the question of ultimate sponsorship. In particular, whether President Kennedy authorized the Castro plots remains a subject of debate—there is certainly no paper trail. In other assassination plots where the CIA had a hand, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and General Rene Schneider of Chile, the use of cutouts and intermediaries again made ultimate sponsorship similarly difficult to trace.

It would be hard to imagine getting half as close to the killers of John Kennedy. By the 1970s, the notion of assassinating foreign leaders was seen as unethical and distasteful by most Americans. But it hardly compares with the assassination of a U.S. President. If Kennedy was killed by a powerful cabal of domestic enemies, at least some of whom came from military and intelligence circles, it might very well take civil war to bring them to justice. It is arguable whether the political system would have the stomach for this kind of a fight at any time, even if the sponsors of the crime were relatively known and exposed. But in the JFK case, several factors stood in the way. First, the crime came with a hand-delivered "patsy," conveniently dead, and a very powerful FBI Director declaring the crime solved. Whether Hoover's zeal was in part due to an FBI relationship with Oswald in need of covering up is still debated. The CIA, as well, seems to have a dark Oswald skeleton in its closet—Church Committee member Richard Schweiker remarked that Oswald had "the fingerprints of intelligence all over him." The selection of Oswald as designated assassin may have indeed have been precisely to neutralize these two powerful investigative agencies. Then, regardless of what really happened in Mexico City, the scary "Oswald" calls to the Soviet Embassy and other Communist conspiracy tales were applied to Earl Warren and his fellow Commissioners. A lone nut finding was no doubt infinitely preferable to "kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour," as Johnson told Commissioner Richard Russell. It also needs to be remembered that, despite Kennedy's general popularity and the Camelot myth which has endured since, Kennedy was deeply unpopular with a broad array of powerful groups, including military hawks, big business leaders, racial separatists, and organized crime bosses. In Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, Peter Dale Scott traces the connection between many individuals in these seemingly disparate groups.

The country was a little more sophisticated in the 1970s, after Watergate and the exposes of the Rockefeler Commission, Pike Committee and Church Committee. The House Select Committee on Assassinations seemed a promising avenue to the truth for many, for a moment at least. But the fate of Richard Sprague, the original lead investigator for the Committee, is instructive. Sprague, a tough Philadelphia DA famous for the Yablonski case among others, was the original Chief Counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Within the first few months, he and his team began chasing the "Oswald in Mexico City" story very hard. They deposed David Phillips, head of Covert Operations in the CIA station there. They interviewed the CIA translators who transcribed the "Oswald" tapes. Refusing to sign secrecy oaths, Sprague took on the CIA and seemed determine to get to the bottom of the Mexico affair, as recently declassified HSCA records reveal. Then a funny thing happened. Stories in the press began questioning Sprague's ethics in some of his cases as District Attorney. Then, HSCA Chairman Henry Gonzalez suddenly started attacking Sprague publicly, accusing him of misconduct and mismanagement, disputing his budget, accusing him of not following the Committee's directions, etc. After a bit of this, Gonzalez fired Sprague. Stunned, the other Committee members unanimously supported Sprague, telling him not to accept the dismissal. Henry Gonzalez ended up resigning, but the damage was done. In the face of a Congress unwilling to continue funding the HSCA with this "renegade" prosecutor at the helm, Sprague resigned.

Proof, Double Standards, and History

There is already proof of conspiracy and coverup in this case, and it has existed since virtually the beginning. But the standard-bearers of opinion of our society have resisted it mightily. By necessity as more facts have emerged over time, the standards for proof of conspiracy and coverup seem to have kept rising to match. The story of the piecemeal dribbling out of revelations in the medical evidence of this case is an amazing tale unto itself. If half of what is now known about the assassination of President Kennedy were known in 1963, the effect on American society would have been shattering. But time goes by. The single bullet theory was widely discredited in the late 1960s. In the early 1970's, it was revealed that Kennedy's brain was missing. A few years later, the Zapruder film was finally aired before a mass audience, with its depiction of Kennedy reeling backward from a shot from the front. A few years later still, autopsy witnesses came forth with strange stories which didn't square with the official story. By the late 1990s, when the autopsy photographer and developer both disavow official photographs, and a tape reveals that the military man in charge of moving Kennedy's body to the autopsy described using a decoy ambulance, nobody bats an eyelash. Also, each of these items, individually, is bitterly contested by a second set of "assassination buffs" who uphold the lone gunman theory with vigor. Mostly, none of this reaches the public, because the media has decidedly turned off the story, and at best treats it in the categories of UFOs and other "amazing theories."

There is a tremendous double standard created by the strongly held belief that "it simply can't happen here." A great example of this double standard is the case of Luisa Calderon, an employee of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City and a suspected Cuban intelligence agent. On the afternoon of the assassination, a tapped phone line caught Ms. Calderon saying, upon hearing the news of the assassination, "I knew almost before Kennedy." This single statement tied up the HSCA's investigators mightily, worrying whether this implied foreknowledge of a Castro plot to kill Kennedy. Meanwhile, one can stack up 50 times that much material in favor of a CIA or U.S. military conspiracy, but these possibilities were not taken seriously by any of the investigations. An interesting ending to the Calderon story surfaced in recent CIA files. While the CIA and HSCA batted back and forth arguments about the proper translation from Spanish of the Calderon statement, the CIA apparently never pointed out that it had another tapped phone call involving Calderon. In this earlier conversation, Calderon expressed great surprise upon hearing the news of Kennedy's death.

So who killed JFK? It is this author's view that the "forest" here is obvious—a cabal of powerful domestic enemies of Kennedy including officials in the CIA and military. No airtight case has been developed against any single individual, though there are a few whose actions are hard to explain in any non-conspiratorial way. The study of the newly released records is likely to reveal even more clues as it is digested by those few who still study it intently. Despite this, it is likely that there will never be proof of a level sufficient to satisfy those who do not want to see it.

In the end, the question "who killed JFK?" is not the most important question anyway. How our society has failed itself miserably by never even attempting to find the real killers, and how it has failed to come to grips with the obvious reality of a powerful conspiracy and subsequent coverup—these are the real issues which matter nearly forty years later. Because they are still with us. It may be that one day the New York Times will print "There was a conspiracy in the murder of John Kennedy, probably undertaken by powerful political enemies, and the government undertook a large-scale coverup to avoid finding the truth of the matter." But that day is not yet even close. And that is a tragedy, a failure, which remains.