Did the Warren Commission Investigate the JFK Assassination Properly?

Summary

The Warren Commission did exactly what it had been set up to do: make the best possible case that Lee Oswald alone had killed President Kennedy. It did not seriously consider any other solutions to the crime.

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The Warren Commission and the Warren Report

President Lyndon Johnson established the Warren Commission on 29 November 1963, one week after the JFK assassination. The Warren Report was published in September 1964, followed two months later by its 26 volumes of Hearings and Exhibits.

For and Against the Warren Report

The Reaction of the Media

The response of the US media was almost entirely enthusiastic. The New York Times not only published part of the Warren Report in a special supplement, but also sponsored affordable paperback versions of the Report and the Hearings and Exhibits, the latter heavily edited to remove awkward testimony. The New York Times was, and remains, particularly supportive of the Warren Report’s conclusions.

For a survey of the newspaper and TV industry’s attitude to the Warren Report, see Jerry Policoff and Robert Hennelly, ‘JFK: How the Media Assassinated the Real Story’.

The Reaction of the Public

The media approved of the Warren Report’s conclusions, but in most cases failed to compare those conclusions to the evidence on which they were supposedly based. Many citizens did take the trouble to examine the Commission’s treatment of the evidence, and were less impressed. For example:

  • Mark Lane, the lawyer and former political associate of President Kennedy, wrote Oswald Innocent? A Lawyer’s Brief, in which he denounced the behaviour of the Warren Commission and other official bodies during the first few weeks after the assassination.
  • The eminent philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his 16 Questions on the Assassination, pointed out many inconsistencies in the Commission’s treatment of witnesses.
  • In the first few years after the publication of the Warren Report, several critical books were published, explaining in detail how the Warren Commission’s conclusions failed to reflect the evidence. For more about the early critics, see Further Reading about the JFK Assassination.

Although the critics were given little publicity in the media, their ideas gradually influenced public opinion. According to a series of opinion polls, a majority of the US population has consistently refused to believe the Warren Report’s main conclusion, that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of President Kennedy.

The public’s disbelief in the Warren Report’s conclusions is reflected in its attitude to the Warren Commission itself, which is widely assumed to have been a politically expedient whitewash rather than an honest attempt to discover the facts and causes of the JFK assassination.

Whitewash or Honest Investigation?

There are bound to be mistakes in the investigation of any case as complex as the JFK assassination. It is easy to point to instances in which the Warren Commission either overlooked an important witness or misinterpreted an item of physical evidence.

By themselves, isolated instances do not prove that the Warren Commission was deliberately deceptive. It is necessary to:

  • look at how comprehensively the Commission investigated suspects other than Lee Harvey Oswald;
  • examine the essential elements of the investigation, and in particular the evidence that the Commission used to make its case against Oswald, and see whether a pattern emerges.

The Warren Commission and the Suspects

The Facts of the Assassination

Most people who look at the Warren Report’s table of contents are struck by one thing: only two of the Report’s eight chapters deal with the facts of the assassination. The other six chapters and the 18 appendices of the 900–page Report are largely comprised of an extended biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Other peripheral topics include a biography of Jack Ruby and a discussion of how best to protect presidents in the future.

Assuming Oswald’s Guilt

The Warren Report gives the impression that no suspect other than Oswald was seriously considered. This impression was confirmed when transcripts of the Commission’s executive sessions and other internal documents were made public several years later. Oswald was indeed the only suspect, and his guilt was assumed even before the Commission had begun to assemble any evidence:

  • On 11 January 1964, J. Lee Rankin, the Commission’s General Counsel, supplied the Commissioners with an outline of the proposed report (Rankin papers, box 1, folder 5, National Archives; reproduced as Appendix A in Howard Roffman, Presumed Guilty: How and Why the Warren Commission Framed Lee Harvey Oswald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975). Part II of the outline is headed ‘Lee Harvey Oswald as the Assassin of President Kennedy’. The Commission did not hear its first witness until three weeks later.
  • Two months later, Alfred Goldberg, the military historian who was to write a sizeable part of the Warren Report, submitted another outline (Goldberg to Rankin, c.14 March 1964; reproduced in Harold Weisberg, Post Mortem, 1975, p.123). The proposed Chapter Four is titled ‘Lee Harvey Oswald as the Assassin’, and lists topics that will prove Oswald’s guilt, such as the ballistics evidence, the witnesses to Oswald’s bringing the rifle into the Texas School Book Depository, and the witness to his firing the rifle. None of this evidence was considered by the Commission until after the outline had been written.

The Political Aspect of the Warren Commission

Other secret official documents, released many years later, reveal that the Warren Commission’s predetermined conclusions were imposed upon it even before the Commission had been established.

Early reports in the media of shots from more than one direction, and of the arrest of a suspect who appeared to be linked to the Soviet and Cuban regimes, generated two competing conspiracy theories:

  • either the Soviet or Cuban regimes were behind the assassination,
  • or those regimes had been falsely implicated by their political enemies.

Washington insiders were aware of the threat posed by these conspiracy theories to public trust in political institutions. On Sunday 24 November, within hours of Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby, and long before any real investigation of the crime had taken place, J. Edgar Hoover reported the result of a conversation with the acting Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach:

The thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr Katzenbach, is having something issued so that we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin. Mr Katzenbach thinks that the President might appoint a Presidential Commission of three outstanding citizens to make a determination.

(HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.472)

Later that day, Katzenbach wrote a memo in which he reiterated the problem and his preferred solution:

The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.

Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right–wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists. Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat — too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.). The Dallas police have put out statements on the Communist conspiracy theory, and it was they who were in charge when he was shot and thus silenced. …

We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort.

(FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–18)

President Johnson set up the Warren Commission five days later. The transcripts of the Commission’s executive sessions reveal that the purpose of the Commission was clearly understood and consistently acted upon.

The Commission’s Case Against Oswald

The fact that the Warren Commission worked from the assumption that Oswald was guilty does not, of course, rule out the possibility that Oswald actually was guilty. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

Where Was Lee Harvey Oswald?

The Warren Commission’s treatment of the evidence is exemplified by the way it dealt with the fundamental task of placing its only suspect at the scene of the crime.

If Lee Harvey Oswald had fired any shots at President Kennedy, he must have done so from the south–easternmost window on the sixth floor of the TSBD, where the three empty bullet shells were found. Almost all of the relevant evidence indicates that Oswald had been on either the first or second floor at the time of the assassination:

  • Only one witness, Howard Brennan, described someone in the sixth–floor window who matched Oswald’s appearance. Other witnesses gave descriptions that did not match Oswald. Brennan was not a strong witness: he testified to seeing things he cannot have seen, and he failed to identify Oswald when he came face to face with the alleged gunman just a few hours after the shooting, despite having already seen Oswald’s photograph on television. The Warren Commission ignored the evidence of Brennan’s unreliability and brushed aside the evidence that contradicted his account.
  • The Warren Commission recognised that if Oswald was the assassin, he must have been on the sixth floor for some time before the assassination, assembling his rifle and his sniper’s nest. The Commission supported this assumption by claiming falsely that “Charles Givens … was the last known employee to see Oswald inside the building prior to the assassination … at 11:45am” (Warren Report, p.143). Two of Oswald’s colleagues testified that he had been on the first (ground) floor at around midday: William Shelley (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.328) and Eddie Piper (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.19, p.499). For more about the Commission’s misrepresentation of witness testimony in the matter of Oswald’s whereabouts, see Sylvia Meagher, ‘The Curious Testimony of Mr Givens,’ Texas Observer, 13 August 1971.
  • Another TSBD employee, Carolyn Arnold, stated in interviews with the FBI that she saw Oswald on either the first or second floor at the same time as Arnold Rowland, a witness outside the building, saw a gunman on the sixth floor. The Commission ignored Carolyn Arnold’s FBI statements; did not call her to testify; did not call any of her co–workers who could have corroborated or refuted her account; and claimed on spurious grounds that Rowland was unreliable. Dismissing the evidence of Arnold Rowland served another purpose: he was one of two witnesses who saw the gunman standing next to another man on the sixth floor. The second witness, Carolyn Walter, was not called to give testimony. For Rowland’s and Walter’s evidence, see Who Saw Oswald in the Window?.
  • Oswald claimed that he had seen two of his TSBD colleagues, Harold Norman and James Jarman, while he was eating his lunch in the ‘domino room’ on the first floor a few minutes before the assassination. Norman and Jarman corroborated his claim. As the Warren Commission acknowledged, the assassin must have been on the sixth floor when this incident took place. The Commission used a discrepancy in a second–hand account of Oswald’s alibi to dismiss his sighting of Norman and Jarman on the first floor (Warren Report, p.182).
  • Oswald’s fingerprints and palmprints were found on two of the 19 cardboard boxes that formed the so–called ‘sniper’s nest’. The Commission concluded that Oswald had deposited his prints during the assassination, even though Oswald was supposed to have handled many more than two of the heavy boxes when constructing his sniper’s nest, and, according to the FBI’s fingerprint expert, it was likely that only one of Oswald’s prints dated from within three days of the assassination. There was a perfectly innocent explanation for the presence of his fingerprints: Oswald’s job required him to handle boxes of books on the sixth floor.
  • The first confirmed sighting of Oswald after his identification by Norman and Jarman was his encounter with two other witnesses on the second floor, just one and a half minutes after the final shot. The Warren Commission attempted to demonstrate that Oswald had had time to clean his rifle of fingerprints, make his way through a maze of boxes to the opposite corner of the sixth floor, hide the rifle under several heavy boxes, and dash down four flights of stairs in less time than the two witnesses took to climb one flight (Warren Report, pp.149ff). The Commission was only able to do this by artificially speeding up Oswald’s journey and slowing down that of the witnesses. For a detailed account of the misrepresentation, see Howard Roffman, Presumed Guilty: How and Why the Warren Commission Framed Lee Harvey Oswald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975, pp.209ff (available online at http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/PG/PGchp8.html) and David Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, University Press of Kansas, 2003, pp.170f. The Commission also brushed aside the evidence of several TSBD employees who failed to notice Oswald running down the stairs; see, for example, the testimony of Victoria Adams (Warren Commission Hearings, vol. 6, pp. 388–90).

Although the relevant evidence suggests very strongly that Lee Harvey Oswald had not been on the sixth floor at the time of the assassination, the evidence is not conclusive. It is possible that all the witnesses were mistaken, and that Oswald had in fact handled several of the cartons during the assassination without leaving his fingerprints on them. This evidence could reasonably be dismissed if irrefutable proof existed of Oswald’s guilt.

Unfortunately, almost all of the other evidence suggested otherwise:

  • Oswald’s ownership, transportation, and use of the rifle demonstrated that he had not committed the crime.
  • The evidence of eye–witnesses in Dealey Plaza suggested strongly that shots had been fired from more than one direction.
  • The number of bullet shells could not be matched credibly to the injuries, which suggested that more than one gunman had been involved.
  • Oswald had no motive for assassinating President Kennedy.

This evidence, too, was misrepresented by the Warren Report.

Lee Harvey Oswald and the Rifle

The only item of evidence linking Lee Harvey Oswald with the killing of President Kennedy was his apparent ownership of the gun that was discovered on the sixth floor (see the Basic Facts of the JFK Assassination). Everything else to do with the rifle suggested strongly that Oswald had not been the assassin:

  • According to experts from the US Army and the FBI, the rifle Oswald was supposed to have used was too inaccurate and unreliable to have hit the target twice in three attempts within a few seconds.
  • According to his Marine Corps records and to what is known about his use of guns in the four and a half years since he left the Marines, Oswald’s marksmanship was clearly much worse than it needed to be.
  • All the witnesses who saw Oswald early on the morning of the assassination testified that he did not bring the rifle into the Texas School Book Depository.
  • Paraffin tests, supported by neutron activation analysis, showed that Oswald almost certainly did not fire a rifle at all on the day of the assassination.

The Grassy Knoll Witnesses

The Warren Commission was expected to demonstrate that Oswald was not just an assassin but that he was the assassin. About 40 witnesses in Dealey Plaza claimed that at least one shot was fired from the general direction of the infamous grassy knoll, in the opposite direction from the Texas School Book Depository. The testimony of most of these witnesses was ignored; the rest was dismissed on spurious grounds.

The Single–Bullet Theory

The other essential element of the case against Oswald as the lone assassin required that all the injuries must have been caused by the three bullets whose shells were found by the sixth–floor window. Here again the Commission misrepresented the evidence. The Warren Commission’s single–bullet theory was contradicted by almost all of the relevant evidence:

  • The bullet holes in President Kennedy’s jacket and shirt were far too low to have been caused by a bullet fired from the sixth floor which went on to come out of the president’s throat.
  • Several official documents confirmed that JFK’s back wound was too low to be consistent with the single–bullet theory: the death certificate, the autopsy descriptive sheet, and the only contemporary written account of the autopsy.
  • Several of the closest witnesses stated that Governor Connally was hit after President Kennedy had already been hit. Connally himself was particularly emphatic that the single–bullet theory could not be true. No witnesses claimed that Connally and Kennedy were hit by the same bullet.

Oswald’s Motive

The Warren Commission tried hard to discover plausible reasons why Oswald killed JFK, but admitted that it “could not make any definitive determination of Oswald’s motives”. The Commission did, however, try “to isolate factors which contributed to his character and which might have influenced his decision to assassinate President Kennedy” (Warren Report, p.22), hence the large part of the Report that was given over to a biography of Oswald.

As with the questions of where Oswald was at the time of the assassination and whether he brought a rifle into the Texas School Book Depository, every item of relevant evidence contradicted the Warren Report’s preconceived conclusion that Oswald alone was guilty of the assassination.

The Warren Commission and Secrecy

Although the Commission published thousands of official documents in its 26 volumes of Hearings and Exhibits, many other documents were withheld from the public. Some were simply placed in the National Archives. Others were classified secret, and their contents only became known as a result of litigation under the Freedom of Information Act. In almost every case, the documents were brought to public attention by private researchers rather than professional journalists.

Unsurprisingly, many of the secret documents either flatly contradicted the Warren Commission’s predetermined conclusions or were embarrassing in some other way. To take a few examples:

Parkland Hospital Press Conference

Perhaps the most shameful example of the Warren Commission’s attitude to the evidence was its de facto suppression of the transcript of a press conference at Parkland Hospital in Dallas by two of the doctors who had treated President Kennedy.

Dr Malcolm Perry stated three times that in his opinion the wound to Kennedy’s throat had been caused by a shot from the front. If true, this fact would prove that at least two gunmen shot at JFK. In conjunction with the Secret Service, the Commission failed to track down a contemporary record of the press conference, a transcript of which had been sitting in the White House press office since shortly after the assassination. Arlen Specter, the Commission counsel who interviewed Perry, persuaded the doctor to state that the newspaper reports of the conference were mistaken, and that he had not said what it later transpired he had in fact said.

Sibert and O’Neill Report

The report by James Sibert and Francis O’Neill, the two FBI agents who attended President Kennedy’s autopsy, contained several observations that contradicted the single–bullet theory:

  • The wound in President Kennedy’s back was “below the shoulders”.
  • The bullet that caused the wound could not have come out of JFK’s throat: “the trajectory of the missile entering at this point had entered at a downward position of 45 to 60 degrees”.
  • The wound was probed by one of the pathologists, who discovered that “the end of the opening could be felt with the finger”.

The Sibert and O’Neill report was ignored by the Commission, was kept out of the Hearings and Exhibits, and was only discovered in the National Archives in 1966. The two FBI agents were not called as witnesses. When later investigations did call them as witnesses, they gave evidence that contradicted the lone–gunman theory.

Neutron Activation Analysis

Standard paraffin tests were applied to Oswald’s hands and right cheek a few hours after the assassination, and appeared to show that he had not fired a rifle. Such tests, however, are far from conclusive: positive results do not necessarily indicate that the chemicals which are present are from gunpowder residues, and negative results do not necessarily indicate the absence of gunpowder residues.

A more incisive test, neutron activation analysis, was carried out on:

  • the paraffin casts of Oswald’s hands and right cheek;
  • paraffin casts from a controlled test in which several gunmen fired rifles of the same type as that found on the sixth floor;
  • and the fragments of bullets retrieved from Kennedy, Connally and the car.

The results of the neutron activation analysis were kept secret by the Warren Commission, the FBI, and the Department of Justice. The matter was dealt with perfunctorily by the Commission:

  • The FBI scientist who oversaw the tests was the Commission’s final witness; he testified after the Warren Report had been written, and while it was being prepared for publication.
  • The topics that would be covered and ignored were rehearsed prior to his testimony.
  • The witness implied that the paraffin cast of Oswald’s right cheek contained no incriminating quantities of gunpowder residues. No details or measurements were asked for or given.
  • The existence of the controlled tests was not mentioned. As might be expected, the results of these tests exonerated Oswald: each rifle deposited substantial amounts of gunpowder residues on the gunman’s cheek.
  • The existence of NAA tests of the bullet fragments was not mentioned.

The suppression of the results of objective, uncontroversial scientific tests for 17 years on the grounds of ‘national security’ is a blatant admission that the results of the tests were unfavourable to the lone–nut hypothesis.

Edgewood Arsenal Ballistics Tests

The Department of Defense conducted ballistics tests to determine whether or not the so–called magic bullet, Commission Exhibit 399, could plausibly have caused the damage to Governor Connally’s ribs and wrist bones. The resulting report, Wound Ballistics of 6.5–mm Mannlicher–Carcano Ammunition, demonstrated that any bullet causing such injuries would have been substantially more deformed than was CE 399.

The report was kept secret for ten years, at the instigation of firstly the Warren Commission and then the Department of Defense.

Rumours that Oswald Was an Undercover Agent

The Warren Commission was confronted by rumours that Lee Harvey Oswald had been an employee of one sort or another of the FBI or the CIA or both. The matter was considered to be so damaging to the notion of Oswald as a lone assassin that Earl Warren and J. Lee Rankin:

  • withheld knowledge of some of the accusations from some members of the Warren Commission;
  • ensured that an emergency meeting of the Commission took place partially off the record, and had the stenographer’s notes of the meeting destroyed;
  • and ensured that another meeting took place entirely off the record, with no stenographer or recording device present.

The only record of the second secret meeting was a memorandum by J. Lee Rankin, which only came to light many years later.

Richard Russell’s Dissent

One of the Warren Commission’s final acts was to suppress the dissent of one of its own members. Senator Richard Russell had been impressed by the testimony of Governor Connally, who claimed that he had not been hit by the same bullet that had wounded President Kennedy. If Connally’s recollection was accurate, the single–bullet theory cannot be correct, and more than one gunman must have been involved.

Russell demanded a special meeting of the Commission, during which he laid out his objections and offered two written statements. Although a stenographer was present at this meeting, the minutes turned out to be merely a book–keeping record of trivial procedural items, rather than the usual verbatim transcript.

Russell’s objections vanished from the Commission’s records. They survive in his personal papers and in a telephone call between Senator Russell and President Johnson, a recording of which was itself kept secret for many years.

Further Reading

For detailed accounts of the Warren Commission and its working methods, see:

  • Silvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact: the Warren Commission, the Authorities, and the Report, Bobbs–Merrill, 1967.
  • Howard Roffman, Presumed Guilty: How and Why the Warren Commission Framed Lee Harvey Oswald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975.
  • Gerald McKnight, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, University Press of Kansas, 2005.

The Mary Ferrell Foundation website includes good introductions to the Warren Commission itself and the Commission’s executive session transcripts.

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22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

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22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

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  • Lee Harvey Oswald — lone assassin, conspirator or patsy?
  • Oswald’s longstanding links to US intelligence agencies;
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  • the official investigations — and why their answers are not widely believed;
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