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The Warren Commission In Its Own Words

Exactly 11 years ago—on September 27, 1964—the President’s Commission on the Assassination ofPresident John F. Kennedy issued its final report, concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin, thathe acted alone rather than as part of a conspiracy, andthat there never had been any link between him and hiskiller. Jack Ruby. After nearly 10 months of intenselabor, however, the Commission, presided over by theChief Justice of the United States, Earl Warren, wasunable to come up with a motive for the Dallasassassination. Its principal conclusion: “Many factorswere undoubtedly involved in Oswald’s motivation forthe assassination, and the Commission does not believethat it can ascribe to him any one motive or group ofmotives.”

We still really do not know what happened in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963. Throughout the pastdecade, increasing doubts have been raised about thevalidity of the conclusions reached by the WarrenCommission. Innumerable theories have been constructed concerning Oswald, Ruby, their possiblerelationship, the likelihood of conspiracies, the possibility that the Oswald arrested in Dallas was not the “real”Oswald, that there may have been more than oneassassin, and so on. Allegations have been made thatthe CIA and/or the FBI had participated in or covered upan assassination plot. As recently as last June, theRockefeller Commission, investigating the CIA’sdomestic activities, felt obliged to assert that “there wasno credible evidence of any CIA involvement.”

There are serious reasons to question not only theWarren Commission’s conclusions, but, more importantly, the quality and integrity of the entire investigation as it was carried out between December, 1963 andSeptember, 1964 by the seven Commissioners, carefully chosen for political balance and reputation: ChiefJustice Warren, Sen. Richard Russell (D, Ga.), Sen. JohnSherman Cooper (R, Ky.), Rep. Gerald Ford (R, Mich.),Rep. Hale Boggs (D, La.), former CIA Director Allen W.Dulles, and John J. McCloy, a leading New Yorkcorporate attorney. Of the group, four are now dead:Warren, Russell, Boggs and Dulles. Ford is President ofthe United States. On September 5, a gun was pointedat him.

If the investigation was as inadequate and incompetent as is suggested by the Commission’s own internaldocuments, once Top Secret and now declassified, it islegitimate to question the specific conclusions of thereport.

The transcripts of the Commission’s executivesessions, staff memoranda (including the highlyrevealing transcript of a session with a panel ofpsychiatrists), and other internal documents reveal theCommissioners to be consumed by doubts and fears;troubled by their own ignorance; suspicious of theinvestigatory work performed for them by the FBI andthe CIA; lacking clear direction; worried about acompeting inquiry in Texas; and finally suffering froma stunning lack of confidence in their own ability toproduce a report that would be credible to the Americanpeople, the world and, for that matter, credible tothemselves.

The fear of being disbelieved and of being trappedinto endorsing the prefabricated conclusions of the FBIand other intelligence agencies—whose instinct toprotect themselves was already apparent—is a constanttheme running through the Commission’s secretdeliberations. Anxiety was their leit-motif, concealed,to be sure, in the final published report. Unable todisprove that there may have been a conspiracy, theCommission supported the FBI conclusion that Oswaldwas the lone assassin. The book was to close the caseand be its official history, or so it was thought.

The Commission, as it turns out, was justified insuspecting the FBI. Only this month FBI DirectorClarence Kelley admitted that an important piece ofevidence—a hand-delivered letter to the FBI fromOswald 10 days before the assassination threatening toblow up the Dallas police station—had been withheldand then destroyed. What else, one has a right to ask, was withheld and destroyed?

The Commission transcripts and ancillary material do more than paint a vivid portrait of uncertain and confused men. They show that a series of critical facts, decisions and judgments have been kept away from the American people. Here are highlights culled from astudy of the 13 transcripts of the Commission’s executive sessions:

Keenly aware of domestic political considerations.Warren was determined to complete the investigationbefore the onset of the 1964 presidential campaign inwhich Lyndon Johnson would seek election in his ownright. On January 21, 1964 he told the Commission: “Ithink if this [the work on the report] should go alongtoo far and get into the middle of a campaign year it10would be very bad for the country to have this thing discussed at that particular time.” The Commissionthen decided to set a secret June 1 target date. Thisalone discredits the claims of the Commission that,indifferent to extraneous pressures, it was interestedonly in the truth of what happened in Dallas.
Warren’s initial position was that the Commission needed no investigators of its own, no subpoena powerto call witnesses or obtain materials, and no power togrant immunity from prosecution. His concept wasthat “our job here is essentially one for the evaluationof gathering evidence … We can start with the premise that we can rely upon the reports of the variousagencies…” Led by Sen. Russell, however, theCommission overruled Warren on subpoenas. But itnever really freed itself from the informationalmonopoly held by these agencies, and particularly theFBI. The Commission—and Deputy Attorney GeneralNicholas Katzenbach—were convinced from the outsetthat the FBI was deliberately leaking information to thepress to construct the anti-conspiracy case rapidly anddecisively in the public mind; moreover, the Commission privately accused the FBI of attempting to imposeits own anti-conspiratorial conclusions on the presidential panel. On January 22, J. Lee Rankin, the Commission’s general counsel, exploded in sarcastic angeragainst the FBI’s insistence that there was no conspiracy and that Oswald was the assassin. He said: “Theywould like to have us fold up and quit … They foundthe man [Oswald]. There is nothing more to do. TheCommission supports their conclusions, and we can goon home and that is the end of it.” The Commissioners’suspicion, of course, was that the FBI, which had failedto inform the Secret Service and the local police ofOswald’s presence in Dallas prior to Kennedy’s visit,could not tolerate evidence of conspiracy. As a formerdefector to the Soviet Union and self-proclaimedMarxist and supporter of the Cuban revolution,Oswald, in the Commission’s view, should have beenplaced on the Secret Service list of persons dangerousto the President. Likewise, the evidence shows that the FBI was aware of Oswald’s mental condition, havingpreviously interviewed him and his wife.
The Commission seemed terrified of FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover. After receiving in secret sessioninformation from Texas officials that Oswald might have been an FBI undercover informer, the Commission spent four months debating just how to approachHoover for a denial that would convince the public. Aformal statement by Hoover was not deemed sufficient. Paradoxically, the Commission feared thatHoover might feel that he was being investigated.
Allen Dulles cautioned the Commission that Hoovermight lie if Oswald was, indeed, an FBI informer. Heconfessed to his colleagues that during his tenure asCIA director he would lie under oath to everybodyexcept the President of the United States if he thoughtit was in the national interest or in the interest of the agency.
Rep. Ford provoked a near-uproar in the panel when,on June 4, he charged that outside forces were trying topressure the Commission to decide in advance thatOswald was a solitary assassin. In December,” Mr.Katzenbach wrote and asked [for] … a statement tothe effect that there was no foreign involvement, therewas no conspiracy … a growing volume now … withthe same intent … I have come to no specificconclusion yet.” A month later, with but one executive session held in the interim—its contents are stillclassified—members of the Commission were meetingwith psychiatrists in an effort to construct a psychological portrait of Oswald as murderer.
The psychiatrists’ panel told the Commissioners thatOswald might not have assassinated Kennedy ifMarina, his wife, had treated him with kindness on theeve of the murder. The psychiatric hypothesis was thatMarina unwittingly triggered Oswald’s disturbedpersonality into his criminal act. This was as close as theCommission could have come to fixing on an assassination motive, but it shied away from it in the report.

THE TRANSCRIPTS, so reflective of the age of Americaninnocence that died with John Kennedy, are starkdrama. The Commissioners are seized with doubtsabout the probity of the FBI, whose reputation hadrarely been questioned in the past. Justice Warrenrecoils at the idea of reproducing the gruesomephotographs of Kennedy’s autopsy reports. A staffmemorandum tells the Commission that if certainrumors about the assassination—the possibility of aforeign conspiracy—are not quelled, they “couldconceivably lead the country into a war which couldcost 40 million lives.” So there was cold fear both ofglobal catastrophe and domestic turmoil pervading theCommission’s work as it peered into the unknown.

Also there were grotesque touches. John J. McCloy,for example, was continually telling the Commissionthat he had to catch a plane to London or Brazil andwould have to be excused. Boggs found it difficult toattend a session because a new governor was beingelected in Louisiana. Ford missed the April 30 sessionaltogether because he was in Michigan on politicalbusiness. Even at its second session, the Commissionlacked a copy of the Executive Order establishing it:Warren had to use a clipping from The Washington Post.The Commission worried at length about such prosaic matters as parking space near its Maryland Avenueheadquarters in Washington, the possibility of borrowing clerical help from other government agencies sothat it would not have to pay salaries, and the minimumnumber of copies of the report to be printed at the leastpossible cost. As a money-saving device, Dullesproposed at one point that the Commission hire a CIAsecretary who was on maternity leave. Many casual remarks show how much the Commission was anexpression of the American establishment; its membersunderstood each other. When the name of William T.Coleman, a Philadelphia lawyer, came up for a staffappointment. General Counsel Rankin explained, inthe language of another day, that “he is a colored man.”(In 1975, President Ford named Coleman to beSecretary of Transportation.)

The Warren Commission was appointed by Executive Order 11130 on November 29, 1963. This was afew days after Johnson had encouraged Texas authorities to set up their own court of inquiry—as much asanything else to clear the name of Texas in the Kennedytragedy. Johnson may have been unaware at the timethat by setting in motion two parallel investigations, hewas inviting rivalries that, in the long run, complicatedthe overall investigation effort. For a time, the WarrenCommission and the Texas court of inquiry, unbeknownst to the public, were not even on speaking terms. Today, Texas officials still feel that, for the sakeof the ultimate result, and given leads they wantedfollowed up, they should not have been completelyexcluded from the Warren Commission’s work. Thissituation became ludicrous: for months members of theWarren Commission were afraid to go to Texas toinvestigate the scene of the investigation, lest they besubpoenaed by the Texas authorities.

The Warren Commission is known to have held 13executive sessions between December 5, 1963 andSeptember 18, 1964. But so much concerning theCommission’s work is still wrapped in secrecy that it ispossible that it met on other, unrecorded, occasions.Thus the “Inventory of the Records of the President’sCommission on the Assassination of President Kennedy,” issued by the National Archives in 1973, listsonly 12 meetings. An emergency meeting, called byWarren in utter secrecy on January 22, 1964 to discussinformation that Oswald may have been an FBI informer, is not listed by the Archives. In response to aninquiry by, a spokesman explained thatthis transcript was “discovered” subsequently. Its “topsecret” classification was lifted only on March 14, 1975.Likewise there is no actual transcript of the finalSeptember 18, 1964 session. There are, however,minutes of this meeting, which throw additional anddisturbing light on the proceedings.

The National Archives began declassifying thetranscripts in 1968, but the most significant ones weremade available for research only in 1974 and 1975. Thetranscripts form a comprehensible narrative only whenthey are studied as a whole. This is why researchers andhistorians, who until recently had access only to threetranscripts and one set of minutes declassified in 1968,were stymied in their efforts to produce a coherent analysis of the Commission’s activities. It is necessaryto study the bulk of the material—including the staffreport on the meeting with the psychiatrists’ panel andother internal memoranda—to be able to understandthe frame of mind in which the Commissionersoperated.

There still are gaps. The National Archives continuesto refuse to declassify the transcripts of the May 19 andJune 23 sessions. The reason given The New Republic forwithholding the May 19 transcript was that it related to“personal and medical files and similar files,” thedisclosure of which would, under the provisions of thelaw, “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion ofpersonal privacy.” There was no clue as to whoseprivacy might have been jeopardized.

In the case of the June 23 transcript, The New Republicwas advised by letter from Jane Smith, director. CivilArchives Division of the National Archives, that it wasbeing held back on the request of the CIA. Smith’sletter said in part:

“… The transcript of the executive session of June 23, 1964, iswithheld from research under 5 USC 552 (b) (1) as amended, ‘matters that are . . . specifically authorized under criteriaestablished by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest ofnational defense or foreign policy and are in fact properly classifiedpursuant to such Executive Order.’ In response to a previous requestfor access, the transcript was reviewed by the Central IntelligenceAgency because it relates to Yuri Nosenko, the Soviet defector. Inresponse to our request for a review of the transcript the CIA askedthat the request for access be denied ‘in order to protect sources andmethods and other information related to our operational equities.’The CIA further stated that the transcript warranted classificationat the ‘Confidential’ level under the criteria of Executive Order11652 and exemption from the general declassification schedulepursuant to section 5 (b) (2) and (3) of the Order…”

YURI IVANOVICH NOSENKO, identified in internalCommission documents as a KGB official who defectedfrom the Soviet Union in 1964, provided both the FBIand the CIA with a certain amount of informationconcerning the period Lee Harvey Oswald, himself adefector, spent in the Soviet Union, between 1959 and1962. It should be noted however, that, to the end, theWarren Commission remained dissatisfied with the information it could obtain about Oswald’s stay in Russia. However, an internal Commission memorandum, dated June 24, 1964, makes this point:

“…Most of what Nosenko told the FBI confirms what we alreadyknow from other sources and most of it does not involve importantfacts, with one extremely significant exception. This exception isNosenko’s statement that Lee Harvey Oswald was never trained orused as an agent of the Soviet Union for any purpose and that nocontact with him was made, attempted or contemplated after he leftthe Soviet Union and returned to the United States. Nosenko’sopinion on these points is especially valuable because, according tohis own testimony at least, his position with the KGB was such thathad there been any subversive relationship between the Soviet Unionand Oswald, he would have known about it."

Nosenko’s statement to the FBI confirms our information fromother sources in the following respects:

Prior to Oswald’s arrival in Russia in the fall of 1959 he had nocontacts with agents of the Russian government or of theInternational Communist party who were in turn in contact with12the Russian government. (Our independent sources on this areextremely weak, however. We simply do not have much informationon this particular subject.) …
Nosenko was shown certain portions of our file on Oswald,including a section which stated that Oswald received a monthlysubsidy from the Soviet Red Cross. On seeing this statement,Nosenko commented that it is normal practice in the Soviet Union tomake payments to emigres and defectors in order to assist them toenjoy a better standard of living than ordinary Soviet citizensengaged in similar occupations. (Nosenko also said that the subsidyOswald received was probably the minimum given under suchcircumstances. This is news to us, although it is not inconsistentwith other information we have.)
Oswald was in possession of a gun which was used to shootrabbits while he was living in Minsk. (Nosenko said he learned thisupon reviewing Oswald’s file after the assassination of PresidentKennedy when, under the circumstances, he took particular note ofthis fact.)…
The KGB in Moscow, after analyzing Oswald throughvarious interviews and confidential informants, determined thatOswald was of no use to them and that he appeared ‘somewhatabnormal.’
…Shortly after the assassination, Nosenko was called to hisoffice for the purpose of determining whether his department had anyinformation concerning Oswald. When a search of the office recordsdisclosed that information was available, telephone contact wasimmediately made with the KGB branch office in Minsk. Thebranch office dictated a summary of the Oswald file to Moscow overThe New Republicthe telephone. This summary included a statement that the MinskKGB had endeavored to ‘influence Oswald in the right direction.’This statement greatly alarmed the Moscow office, especially inview of their instructions to Minsk that no action was to be taken onOswald except to ‘passively observe’ his activities. Accordingly, thecomplete Oswald file at Minsk was ordered to be flown at once viamilitary aircraft to Moscow for examination. It turned out that allthis statement referred to was that an uncle of Marina Oswald, alieutenant colonel in the local militia at Minsk, had approached Oswald and suggested that he not be too critical of the Soviet Unionwhen he returned to the United States…”

Inasmuch as the above staff memorandum, writtenthe day after the Commission held its secret meeting onJune 23, covers most of the material discussed by theCommissioners, it remains unclear why the actualCommission transcript remains classified. It does, ofcourse, help to build the FBI’s and the CIA’s noconspiracy case, but in this instance the intelligenceagencies evidently preferred to conceal their information sources and methods. Interestingly Nosenko is noteven mentioned in the published Warren report.

In any event, it is unknown what else the NationalArchives has withheld. The Kennedy records add up to360 cubic feet of material. Much of it remains uncataloged in the public inventory. According to Sen.Richard S. Schweiker (R, Pa.), 152 Warren Commission items still remain classified in the Archives,including 107 FBI and 23 CIA documents.

This article originally ran in the September 27, 1975 issue of the magazine.