Chapter 1, Part 2:
You Just Don’t Understand Me, You Never Did, I Hate You

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

Lifton Exonerates the Warren Commission and the Doctors

People are entitled to their sincerely held beliefs on the subject of President Kennedy’s assassination. Nevertheless, when a prominent writer about the assassination dares to suggest, as David Lifton did in passing in a footnote to his book (“The critics’ conclusion that the Commission ‘covered up’ had created blind spots in their research effort. My friendship with Liebeler caused me to put aside my suspicions and realize that a person could, in good faith, hold the Commission’s position.” [Hard cover, p. 299 fn]), and now does again in essays published both privately and on the on–line Compuserve Information Service, that the Warren Commission and its various counsel were as honest and objective in their account of the evidence as newspaper reporters attempting to simply report news, it seems not only fair but urgent that those who are familiar with the record question that writer’s bona fides as a critic, as well as the true nature of the role that he appears to perform in this controversy. Indeed, Mr. Lifton does not stop at exonerating the Warren Commission; he insists that neither the doctors who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital, nor the surgeons who performed the autopsy at Bethesda lied about the events of November 22. While his book implies that the latter’s military superiors (or other unidentified attendees at the autopsy) were involved in a body swipe that appears to resemble a game of musical caskets, Mr. Lifton nevertheless takes great pains in exonerating the White House physician, Navy Admiral George G. Burkley, of any culpable knowledge or involvement.

In Mr. Lifton’s view, the Warren Commission stands on equal footing with the rest of the world vis–à–vis the Kennedy assassination: all of us were merely deceived by invisible plotters who phonied up the evidence. He writes:

I was taken with the idea that the Commission had been the victim of a monstrous deception, and was decidedly uncomfortable with the notion that because the Warren Report was written in a one–sided fashion, that meant the investigation was a fraud.

(BE, Chapter 15)

Lifton’s Views Changed

These are, however, decidedly different views than those that were ostensibly held by “the old Lifton,” the one whose myriad conspiracy theories merrily skipped along the farthest fringe of assassination research and criticism of the Warren Commission during the Sixties. So different, in fact, that one might be tempted to argue in his manner that David Lifton is really dead, and that an imposter has taken his place. Were the difference clearly based upon principle, exemplified by a frank confession of error corrected through maturation and scholarly re–evaluation, one might lament his defection from the critics’ ranks without faulting this aspect of either his book or his current dogma. Unfortunately, Mr. Lifton carefully conceals his former beliefs about the Commission, as well as his gestalt view of the assassination, and invents a completely false legend for himself which throws the entire autobiographical aspect of Best Evidence, as well as the marrow of his forensic argument, into serious question.

Sadly, the “disguise and deception” of Best Evidence are by no one except David Lifton.

David Lifton and Edward Jay Epstein

It was Lifton who once wrote of the early Warren Commission critic, Edward Jay Epstein, some seven months before the latter’s Inquest was published, “[H]e seems to want the recognition of being an important critic of [the Warren Commission’s] work, yet somehow say it wasn’t their fault. I think he is deceiving himself about the character of some of those men and his work will be the less hard hitting because of this.” (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, November 21, 1965)

Indeed, Lifton criticized Epstein for overlooking what he termed the Commission’s “moral guilt.” And he also accused the Warren Commission of “sanctioning” a cover–up, excoriating Epstein for “refusing to condemn” them. (ibid.)

Later, Lifton offered that some Warren Commission attorneys “deceived themselves to the point that they actually believe their own ‘big lie’,” and he referred to “constraints … that prevented a completely free and impartial inquiry.” (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, December 5, 1965)

But who are the deceivers and who are the deceived?

David Lifton and Allen Dulles

At the beginning of his Chapter Two of Best Evidence, Lifton gives us an account of his public confrontation with former CIA Director and Warren Commissioner Allen Dulles over the backward snap of JFK’s head in the Z–film. One searches his narrative in vain for any thought or feeling in reaction to this encounter. In fact, however, Lifton could scarcely conceal his disgust with Dulles. Contemporaneously, he would write: “What I was surprised at was the rather disgusting ease with which he lied through his teeth when necessary.” And Lifton conceded that such a man would lie “for reasons of state.” (Lifton, David. Notes and Comments on an Interview with Allen Dulles, December 7, 1965)

David Lifton and Mark Lane

The New Lifton castigates pioneering critic Mark Lane’s style of public speaking in Best Evidence, yet after hearing the very debate between Lane and Liebeler that serves as his vehicle for such denigration, the old, private Lifton explicitly agreed with Lane’s characterization of the Warren Report as “a moral crime, a hoax, and a fraud.” (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, October 13, 1966)

And he continued:

I also believe the Report was authored by people who, at least at some level knew that what they were authoring was a complete cock and bull story…. The Report itself, as you put it, deliberately uses the English language in the service of obfuscation and guile.


David Lifton and Sylvia Meagher

Should the merciful rationalize Mr. Lifton’s conversion from critic to apologist for the Warren Commission in terms of a transition from the nascent, hastily formed judgments of a novice researcher to the deeper, more intellectually mature insights of a scholar, they ought first to consider that he expressed virtually the same sentiments again in 1969, and as late as mid–March 1970 in correspondence with Sylvia Meagher, author of Accessories After The Fact and two indices to the official investigations of the assassination.

In Best Evidence, Lifton appraises Meagher and, with seemingly pinpoint precision, describes his own state of mind as of November 4, 1966:

Sylvia Meagher represented the view that the Commission and its staff were conscious concealers of the truth — deliberate, criminally culpable liars.

I could no longer subscribe to that view, for it failed to take into account falsified evidence. Many critics didn’t allow for that possibility.

In reality, long after he professes to have arrived at this conclusion, Lifton wrote to Meagher:

There are instances where I think the WC staff was deliberately dishonest, and I will not hesitate to say so (or, perhaps better, demonstrate this as fact.) I don’t think its [sic] all oversight, overwork or deception by others.

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, October 13, 1969) (Emphasis supplied)

(The “deception by others” reference puzzles this writer, since it seems to contradict Mr. Lifton’s claim in Best Evidence that he was developing its central theory of a deceived autopsy at the time.)

Mr. Lifton was then coordinating the ordering, reproduction and distribution of major portions of the Warren Commission’s unpublished files to her and other critics, a subject that I shall later revisit. In a transmittal memorandum covering approximately 2200 pages of documents known as “the Gemberling reports” (after FBI Agent Robert Gemberling of the Dallas Field Office), Mr. Lifton advised he had selected them with a bias toward revealing that the Warren Commission’s attorneys “were trying not to tell us something,” and that they would “sweep disagreeable information (disagreeable in the sense that it was in conflict with the conclusions of the particular area of the investigation that came under the aegis of the staff attorney involved)” under the rug. (Lifton, David. Memorandum, March 13, 1970)

David Lifton and Wesley Liebeler

Chapter One of Best Evidence describes a November 2, 1965 meeting between David Lifton and Wesley Liebeler concerning letters that Liebeler had received from various former Warren Commission staff attorneys in response to his queries on behalf of Lifton about a splice in the Zapruder film. As the two of them walked to a photocopy machine, Lifton wrote circa 1978, “I kept up a running stream of comment that it was only a matter of time now until the entire Warren Report came apart at the seams.” But in his contemporary record of this same conversation, Lifton follows the word “seams” with a comma instead of a period, and continues his self–quotation: “and that I feel sorry for the staff attorney’s [sic] who were ‘used’ and who still have their whole careers ahead of them.” (Lifton, David. “Interview with W.J.L.”, November 30, 1965) (Lifton, David. “Interview with W.J.L.” [unpublished memorandum])

Lifton, who wrote in his book that, during the mid–Sixties he thought Liebeler stood separate and apart from the other Warren Commission staff attorneys, omitted his insight about their being “used” from his book, but clearly entertained the belief in 1965 that certain staff attorneys would be damaged were the Warren Report proved false. Today he argues that they were honest men who were deceived by the evidence.

Reasons for Lifton’s Changed Views

What happened to David Lifton between the time he left work and school, co–wrote an article for Ramparts, also wrote those letters to Sylvia Meagher and memoranda to his files, and the time when he found his literary agent and publisher? Did an honest change come about in him? Did he formulate his present–day hypocrisy on the basis of some changed analysis of the 26–volumes, or was it a pitiable effort to make his body swipe and alteration scheme seem less demonist to his benefactors and the public? How was he transformed from a young man who courted the approval of the major critics of an earlier day to one who now lunges to disparage, defame and discredit them? Who turned David Lifton? Or, was there any need to turn him, i.e., did he actually feign at being a critic in his correspondence and dealings with Meagher (and/or others) from the start?

David Lifton’s Academic Career

In what must seem another lifetime, Mr. Lifton graduated from the Cornell University School of Engineering and Physics in 1962 (New York Times, January 12, 1981, Section C, p. 17). With his background in math, physics, and engineering, he had planned to become a scientist. (“‘JFK’: Lone–Assassin Debate; Four Doubters Have Pursued Truth For Decades,” Sacramento Bee, January 7, 1992, p. F1) At the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, he was 24 years old and pursuing an advanced degree in engineering at UCLA while working nights as a computer engineer at North American Aviation, then a prime contractor for the Apollo space program. (“His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End”, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20)

In 1966, he was drummed out of UCLA for neglecting his studies. (ibid.) He allegedly quit his job with North American and asked his parents for financial support to pursue his assassination research. (ibid.) He had no plans to write a book about the assassination, he claims that he just wanted to devote maybe half a year to studying the matter (ibid.)

Purchases and Photographs

Lifton’s study of the assassination only began with his purchase of a set of the Warren Commission volumes. He also obtained photocopies of the Commission’s working papers, i.e., interoffice memos and letters to investigative agencies. (“His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End”, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.).

In a memoir of his experiences during the Sixties, Warren Hinckle, former editor of Ramparts magazine, remembers Lifton as “a pushy UCLA engineering student who was known as ‘Blowup,’ since his specialty was enlarging photographs of Dealey Plaza taken the morning of the assassination and finding figures lurking in the background. Lifton did not like to hear no for an answer and was persistent in insisting that one pick out the figure of a man among a forest of black and white dots in a twenty times enlargement of a Polaroid snapshot of Dealey Plaza he toted around like a billboard paster going to work.” (Hinckle, Warren. If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, G.P. Putnam’s Sons; New York: 1974, p. 214)

David Lifton’s Research Expenses

Besides the expense he incurred in the reproduction of official documents and photographs, during the 1960’s and 70’s Mr. Lifton seems to have engaged in an extensive travel itinerary while pursuing his studies of the assassination. He went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., at least three times, spending six weeks there the first trip, one month the second. He also visited Dallas, the scene of the assassination, and made additional trips to Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Bethesda to interview witnesses. (“His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End”, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.; Lifton’s own accounts of his travels in Best Evidence.)

He spent as much as $800 a month in long–distance phone tolls over the fifteen years preceding the publication of his book. (“David Lifton’s Startling Study of JFK’s Murder”, The Washington Post, September 5, 1980, Style Section, p. C1) That comes to $9600 a year in long–distance bills alone, figure a rounded $10,000 a year to include local charges, or $150,000 in total for use of the telephone. Since man does not live by the telephone alone, one must assume that, during his fifteen year sojourn, Mr. Lifton somehow managed to absorb the same customary and usual expenses of most single people living in a major urban center — such as Los Angeles — for rent, utilities, food, clothing, his automobile, and a modicum of leisure activities. Add to these the incidental, but nonetheless sizable, expenses of his research, such as audio tape recorders; audio tapes; maintenance and repair; books, both local and out–of–town newspapers, magazines; reproduction costs associated with photographs, films, and microfilms, as well as thousands of pages of documents; more than several file cabinets, file folders, etc., and one can only puzzle over how he managed to make his own way during those years. His correspondence with Sylvia Meagher discloses that, at various times, he also had one or two girls transcribing audio tapes.

Working on a Shoestring

In retrospect, it seems ironic that Mr. Lifton would call it “a miracle that so much evidence in the case has been turned up by a group of freelancers working on a shoestring.” (“For Conspiracists, Vindication Day; Government is Beginning to Acknowledge What Really Happened”, The Washington Post, December 30, 1978, p. A4)

Whose shoestring?

During the fifteen years preceding the publication of Best Evidence, Mr. Lifton wrote two articles for magazine publications, one for Ramparts in 1967, and one for New Times in 1978. In between these assignments, he served briefly as a consultant to the producers of the motion picture, Executive Action. Also in 1978, he appeared as a critic/commentator on WETA–TV’s broadcasts of the House Select Committee on Assassinations hearings. Then, Macmillan gave him a $10,000 advance for the book. (The New York Times, January 12, 1981, Section C, p. 17) Before the publication of Best Evidence in late 1980, Mr. Lifton is not known to have held any job — regular or otherwise — following his departure from North American Aviation. His correspondence with Sylvia Meagher tells of long days and nights allegedly spent at the UCLA library, burning the candles at both ends in working on the case. Therefore, it appears that during the twelve years between the time he left North American and the time in 1978 when things began to pick up for him, he had only one published magazine article, one brief consultancy to a motion picture company, and no other ostensible source of income. It has been suggested that his parents subsidized him during all this time as he investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. If that is so, then Mr. Lifton is most fortunate to have had parents possessed of a generosity, indulgence and patience very rare in the middle–class milieu from which he sprang.

On a shoestring, Harold Weisberg mounted more than a dozen difficult FOIA lawsuits. Mr. Lifton offered no help, he merely gleaned the field that Weisberg sowed.

The Research, the Manuscript and the Publisher

By the summer of 1975, nearly ten years after he began his study of the Warren Commission volumes, Mr. Lifton reportedly had not written a word of his manuscript. He is quoted as saying, “It was still in the form of file material, conclusions, memos, but not a manuscript.” (“His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End”, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20) His longtime research assistant, Patricia Lambert would tell him, “David, you have to create a manuscript. You can’t just have these thoughts, your files, your research and your concepts. You have to tackle the process of writing every day.” (ibid.) Mr. Lifton alleges in his Compuserve essays that he took “a major gamble” in writing his book without a publishing contract, although what he was risking by that time is unclear, as he appears not to have had another gainful pursuit.

Lifton states that he completed a manuscript by August 1976. When he did try to produce a book, however, it turned out that he could not find anyone interested in publishing it. (ibid.) Indeed, twenty–three (23) publishers, apparently not realizing the quality of his investigative skills, rejected his first manuscript before he received a contract from Macmillan Company in 1978. (ibid.) About that time, Mr. Lifton, while keeping his Los Angeles apartment, moved into his parents’ house in Rockaway Beach, Queens, to rewrite his manuscript under the tutelage of his New York literary agent, Peter Shepherd.

It was Shepherd who, according to Lifton’s “Acknowledgments,” encouraged him to revise “an abstract evidentiary analysis” into “a personal narrative.” He implies that they expected this revision to take no more than “several months.” Lifton alludes to the availability of his files at his West Coast abode. Presumably, by working assiduously to recast what he had already written, Mr. Lifton might have fulfilled his original expectations if, that is, his evidentiary analysis was substantively complete and the only remaining issue was the form of his narrative. Instead, the project stretched out over four years. Lifton and Shepherd had “hundreds of meetings.” Lifton credits Shepherd not only with conceiving the organizing principle of the book, but also with “guiding” him and editing his manuscript.

Living in the same room he grew up in, Lifton may well have recalled all the Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries he read as a child (ibid.), possibly harboring dreams of becoming a great lawyer in the manner of the protagonist, Perry Mason. We know that, as he slept in his childhood bedroom, he gave some thought to his contemporaries raising families and pursuing careers. (ibid.)

According to Mr. Lifton’s “Compuserve essays” the first ten chapters of his book were submitted to his publisher in August 1978. A contract was consummated around that Christmas.

Loose Ends

Even as he reworked his manuscript into a semi-autobiographical account of his research, he continued researching for the book despite the exhortations of his agent to finish the project. As Lifton admits at the beginning of his Chapter 25, though, “there were certain loose ends in my theory that I needed to investigate.” Those “loose ends” turned out to provide the core of the theory that Mr. Lifton popularized.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted its investigation during the time Lifton began to work toward finishing the new manuscript. During the summer of 1979, Mr. Lifton located one of the House Committee’s witnesses, Paul O’Connor. It was O’Connor whom Lifton claims provided much of the most sensational revelations upon which the Best Evidence theory turns:

  • JFK’s body allegedly arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in a military–issue pinkish–gray shipping casket, not the ceremonial bronze casket in which it had left Parkland Hospital in Dallas;
  • The President’s body was in a body bag;
  • The President’s cranium was empty, i.e., the brain had been removed.

Mr. Lifton also informs us that, in July 1979, he also found Dennis David, upon whose recollections Mr. Lifton based his “Air Force One Insight,” which holds that the President’s body had been intercepted.

By August 1979, according to Mr. Lifton, he had completed and submitted to Macmillan Chapter 23 of his book. The book has 32 chapters. Mr. Lifton probably means to signify by omission that the last eleven chapters were completed after August 1979.

A Life’s Work

Today, at 54 years old, living in the same West Los Angeles apartment from which he conducted his research for Best Evidence, Mr. Lifton has spent his entire adult life on the Kennedy assassination to the exclusion of other experiences and accomplishments. His passion for this subject would seem unusual in view of the odd behavior he displayed on the very night of President Kennedy’s murder: While most of us who are able to recall that weekend sat at home with our families or friends in a state of shock and dumb anguish, Mr. Lifton is reported to have gone out dancing, hardly an indication that the assassination struck him in the deep, personal way that his long association with the subject might suggest. (“His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End”, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.)

A Tale of Two Agencies

In conversation with this writer, Harold Weisberg, the dean of assassination authors and researchers, has expressed curiosity about the possibility of a familial relationship between the late founder of Harold Ober & Associates, the venerable New York City literary agency that housed Mr. Lifton’s agent, Peter Shepherd, and one Harold Ober who, Mr. Weisberg alleges, formerly worked for the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert domestic intelligence operation. It bears mention that Messrs. Weisberg and Lifton had a severe falling out during the era of the Garrison investigation, and there is no love lost between them. I have not made any effort to investigate Mr. Weisberg’s hypothesis because, even if it proved correct, the connection with Mr. Lifton and his book would seem tenuous at best, and probably completely inconsequential. I record these musings merely as an example of the direction toward which some critics’ thinking about Mr. Lifton's work has leaned. Furthermore, I see no need to spin my wheels in attempting to prove that Mr. Lifton’s is a “black book,” for I have already satisfied myself that it is a ridiculous book arguing for a ridiculous theory.

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