What JFK Conspiracy Bashers Get Wrong

As the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaches, you may get caught up in an eruption of the perennial and sometimes tedious conspiracy debate.
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As the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaches, you may get caught up in an eruption of the perennial and sometimes tedious conspiracy debate. You want to keep an open mind and make sure you don't fall for any JFK assassination myths. You can, for example, say with confidence that a lot of the crazy JFK conspiracy scenarios have been debunked over the years. No, neither the KGB, the Masons, the Mossad, nor the Red Chinese were behind the gunfire that killed the liberal statesman. No, Abraham Zapruder's famous home movie assassination was not secretly altered to hide evidence of a conspiracy. And, no, the legendary three tramps photographed that day did not whack Jack. They were just a trio of homeless guys in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But no sooner were these fables dispatched by scrupulous JFK researchers, than public discourse on the JFK story was engulfed by a new set of assertions imbued with an anti-conspiratorial animus that is also unhinged from the historical record. These too need the truth squad treatment.

Myth #1 JFK conspiratorial suspicions, like the idea of a gunshot from the so-called grassy knoll, were ginned up after the fact by demagogues like Oliver Stone.

In fact, a significant minority of eyewitnesses at the scene of the crime thought at least one of the gunshots that hit Kennedy came from the knoll, which was actually a grassy embankment bordering a parking lot overlooking the route of JFK's motorcade through downtown Dallas. A survey of eyewitness statements, compiled by conspiracy skeptic John McAdams of Marquette University, found that 42 of 103 bystanders said that the gunfire came from the knoll or from two different directions. To be sure, a larger number said that shots came from a high window of the Texas School Book Depository. And yes, the parking lot on the knoll was searched within minutes and no gunman or ballistic debris was found. And, yes, ear witness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

The fact remains that more than 30 people in the vicinity of Kennedy's limousine--including Dallas sheriff Bill Decker, Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman and a presidential aide David Powers--independently said that they thought a gunshot came from the knoll. Within a week of the crime, pollsters found 62 percent of respondents nationwide said they thought two or more people were responsible. In Dallas, the figure was 66 percent.

Myth #2: JFK conspiracy theories are mostly held by anti-American leftists and credulous liberals.

Try telling that to Bruce Willis. "They still haven't caught the guy that killed [President] Kennedy," the leading Republican in Hollywood told Vanity Fair last spring. Willis was merely voicing a view that has long circulated on the American right. In September 1964, Warren Commission member Senator Richard Russell, a paleoconservative from Georgia, rejected the so-called single bullet theory and attempted to put a dissent into the commission's final report (only to be slapped down by liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren.) By the late 1960s, conservative figures ranging from former congresswoman Clare Booth Luce to columnist William F. Buckley to Nixon White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman dissented publicly or privately from the Warren report. Mary Ferrell, one of the best-informed JFK researchers, was so adamantly opposed to legal abortion that she told friends that she never voted for a Democrat after 1980. Today, the best JFK assassination Web site, MaryFerrell.org, is named after her.

Myth #3: No reputable historian believes in a JFK conspiracy

Wrong. I know of four tenured academic historians who have written directly on the JFK assassination in the past five years. Three of them (Gerald McKnight of Hood College, David Wrone of the University of Wisconsin-Steven Points, Michael Kurtz of Southeast Louisiana University) came to conspiratorial conclusions, while one (Robert Dallek of UCLA) vouched for the lone gunman theory. A forthcoming book by Naval War College historian David Kaiser on Kennedy's Cuba policy and the assassination, to be published by Harvard University Press next year, is likely to demolish this myth once and for all. (Full disclosure: Kaiser is a friend and the book will cite my JFK reporting.)

Myth #4: Serious people of power in Washington overwhelmingly believe there was no conspiracy.

Hardly. The slain president's own brother Bobby Kennedy was, in the words of journalist David Talbot, "America's first conspiracy theorist." He and First Lady Jackie Kennedy quickly concluded that JFK was the victim of a major domestic plot. Lyndon Johnson suspected that the assassination resulted from the struggle for power in Cuba. Richard Nixon hounded the CIA for files on "the whole Bay of Pigs thing," which his aides understood to mean Kennedy's assassination. George H.W. Bush, upon becoming CIA director in 1976 immediately asked for the JFK assassination file, not exactly the action of someone who thought he knew the whole story. Bill Clinton and Al Gore both said publicly in 1992 that they believed there had been a conspiracy. (Once in office, Clinton recanted.) George W. Bush, to be sure, is a firm believer in the lone nut theory. But, when it comes to providing credible explanations of U.S. intelligence failures that culminated in national catastrophe, Bush's track record is not reassuring.

Myth #5. Scientists unequivocally support the lone gunman theory.

The latest peer-reviewed articles indicate otherwise. One piece of scientific analysis, "bullet lead analysis," that was long used to buttress the so-called "single bullet" theory has been decisively debunked, as a recent front page series in the Washington Post shows. A study of the JFK ballistics evidence, published in the Journal of Forensic Science in 2006, concluded that its findings "considerably weaken support for the single-bullet theory." A pair of articles on the medical evidence, published in Neurosurgery in 2004, offered a split decision. One supported the official story; the other provided strong evidence based on sworn testimony from multiple eyewitnesses that the photographic record of JFK's autopsy has been tampered with. The-called acoustic evidence a Dallas Police Department radio recording that some scientists say contains evidence of a shot from the grassy knoll has been called into question but not refuted by other scientists. The issue remains unresolved. My own review of the crime scene evidence, published this month on Playboy.com, concludes that the scientific case for Oswald's sole guilt has been weakened in recent years.

Myth #6: There is nothing significant to be found in the new JFK files identified since Oliver Stone's JFK

Depends on how closely you care to look. The long suppressed CIA records made public since the 1990s certainly do not confirm Stone's depiction of the assassination as a virtual coup d'etat by the CIA and the Pentagon but they do raise new questions about the Dallas tragedy. They demonstrate that a handful of top CIA officials had much greater knowledge of Oswald's travels and political activities in the weeks before Kennedy was killed than they ever let on. At least one of these operatives-- an undercover officer named George Joannides--remained quiet about what he knew of Oswald's Cuban contacts to perhaps a criminal extent.

As I reported in the Huffington Post, CIA attorneys appeared in federal court on last month seeking to block release of dozens of secret records on Joannides's actions in 1963. At the time Joannides served in Miami as the chief of psychological warfare operations aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro. The CIA argues that release of any portion of more than 30 documents about Joannides--some of them 45 years old-- would harm U.S. national security and foreign policy in 2007. Don't take my word that these records are significant. Just ask the CIA's lawyers.

When you strip away all the tall tales of JFK's assassination, the unsatisfying and infuriating truth is that we still don't have the full story. And that's no myth.

Jefferson Morley, former staff writer at washingtonpost.com, is author of the forthcoming book Our Man in Mexico, a biography of CIA spy Winston Scott. He is the editorial director of newjournalist.org, a national network of online state news sites. His most recent report on new developments in the Kennedy assassination story will be published this month in Playboy.com

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