Agencies and departments of the U.S. Government performed with varying degrees of competency in the fulfillment of their duties; President John F. Kennedy did not receive adequate protection; a thorough and reliable investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination was conducted; the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination was inadequate; the conclusions of the investigations were arrived at in good faith, but presented in a fashion that was too definitive.
The Warren Commission performed with varying degrees of competency in the fulfillment of its duties.
- (a) The Warren Commission conducted a thorough and professional investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination
- (b) The Warren Commission failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President. This deficiency was attributable in part to the failure of the Commission to receive all the relevant information that was in the possession of other agencies and departments of the Government.
- (c) The Warren Commission arrived at its conclusions, based on the evidence available to it, in good faith.
- (d) The Warren Commission presented the conclusions in its report in a fashion that was too definitive.
President John F. Kennedy was the fourth American President to be assassinated, but his death was the first that led to the formation of a special commission for the purpose of making a full investigation. In earlier assassinations, the investigations had been left to existing judicial bodies:
- In the case of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, a military commission determined that John Wilkes Booth was part of a conspiracy, and the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army saw to the prosecution of six defendants, four of whom were hanged.
- The assassins of James A. Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901 were promptly tried in courts of law and executed.
In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, it was decided by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers that a panel of distinguished citizens should be given the responsibility for finding the full facts of the case and reporting them, along with appropriate recommendations, to the American people.
The Commission was authorized by Executive Order 11130 to set its own procedures and to employ whatever assistance it deemed necessary from Federal agencies, all of which were ordered to cooperate to the maximum with the Commission, which had, under an act of Congress, subpoena power and the authority to grant immunity to witnesses who claimed their privilege against self-incrimination under the fifth amendment.
Chief Justice Earl Warren was selected by President Johnson to head the Commission. Two senior Members of the Senate, Richard B. Russell, Democrat of Georgia, and John Sherman Cooper, Republican of Kentucky, were chosen to serve on the Commission, as were two from the House of Representatives, Hale Boggs, Democrat of Louisiana, and Gerald Ford, Republican of Michigan. Two attorneys who had long been active in Government service, Allen W. Dulles, former Director of the CIA, and John J. McCloy, former president of the World Bank, were also named. J. Lee Rankin, former Solicitor General of the United States, was sworn in as General Counsel on December 16, 1963, and 14 attorneys were appointed within a few weeks to serve as assistant counsel.
The Commission did not employ its own investigative staff. Instead, it relied on agencies in place--the FBI and Secret Service for domestic aspects, the CIA for activities involving foreign countries. In September 1964, following a 9 -month effort, the Warren Commission published a report that not only included its conclusions and recommendations, but also a detailed analysis of the case. The Commission had seen its task to be:
- * * * to uncover all the facts concerning the assassination of President Kennedy and to determine if it was in any way directed or encouraged by unknown persons at home or abroad.
While the committee concluded that the Warren Commission failed in significant areas to investigate "all the facts and circumstances" surrounding the tragic events in Dallas, the committee also found that assigning the responsibility for that failure needed to be approached with utmost caution and care. In large measure, the Warren Commission's inadequacies in investigating important aspects of the President's assassination were the result of failures by the CIA and the FBI to provide it with all relevant evidence and information.
It has been the contention of the CIA and FBI that they gave full and complete responses to all specific requests of the Warren Commission, placing responsibility with the Commission for assuming it would receive the relevant materials automatically. This apparent misunderstanding, in the view of the committee, compromised the effectiveness of the process by which the Warren Commission arrived at its conclusions.
The committee observed that during the course of its hearings, numerous former Warren Commission members and staff attorneys testified that the general atmosphere of Government had changed during the years since President Kennedy's death. They repeatedly noted that they had been significantly more disposed toward trusting the CIA and FBI in 1963 and 1964 than they would have been in 1978.
As it began to prepare its report on the performance of the Warren Commission, the committee took note of the high level of professionalism, dedication, and integrity it found to have characterized the members and staff of the Commission. The committee noted that criticisms leveled at the Commission had often been biased, unfair, and inaccurate. Indeed, the committee believed that the prevailing opinion of the Commission's performance was undeserved. The competence of the Commission was all the more impressive, in the opinion of the committee, in view of the substantial pressure to elicit findings in only 9 months. It was evident to the committee that the Commission could have productively used several more months for its investigation, although the committee recognized that this was a judgment based on the benefit of years of hindsight.
Nevertheless, the committee made the judgment that the time pressures under which the Warren Commission investigation was conducted served to compromise the work product and the conclusions of the Commission. Early in the life of the Commission, it was working under internal deadlines of March or April 1964 for completion of the investigation, June 1 for a draft report and June 30 for a final report to the American public. Although these deadlines were finally abandoned, the committee found that the Commission staff was in fact under heavy pressure to meet them. President Johnson, among others in his administration, was anxious to have the investigation completed in advance of the 1964 Presidential conventions out of concern that the assassination could become a political issue.
The committee also found that most of the attorneys recruited for the Commission staff were promised their work would require no more than 3 or 4 months. Additionally, a number of lawyers were hired on a part-time basis. Eventually, the realities of the task began to be apparent.
It was not until March that staff attorneys did any real field work in Dallas and elsewhere, and it was the middle of March before an investigation of Jack Ruby could get underway, since he was on trial for murder in Dallas. Nevertheless, a number of senior staff counsel, those who directed important areas of the case, left their jobs with the Commission by early summer 1964, over 4 months before the investigation officially ended.
The committee found that the Commission demonstrated a high degree of competency and good judgment in its central determination that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin of President Kennedy. Contrary to the allegations of some critics, the Commission was not part of a sinister Government cover-up of the truth. The committee found that the Commission acted in good faith, and the mistakes it made were those of men doing their best under difficult circumstances. That being said, on the subject that should have received the Commission's most probing analysis--whether Oswald acted in concert with or on behalf of unidentified co-conspirators--the Commission's performance, in the view of the committee, was in fact flawed. In its effort to fix responsibility for this failure, the committee, as noted, found one of the primary causes was the absence of the full and proper cooperation of the FBI and the CIA, along with the time pressures and the desire of national leaders to allay public fears of a conspiracy.
Virtually all former Warren Commission members and staff contacted by the committee said they regarded the CIA-Mafia plots against Fidel Castro to be the most important information withheld from the Commission. They all agreed that an awareness of the plots would have led to significant new areas of investigation and would have altered the general approach of the investigation. J. Lee Rankin, who was the Commission's General Counsel, said he was outraged on learning in 1975 of the CIA's use of underworld figures for Castro assassination plots. Rankin stated to the committee:
- Certainly * * * it would have bulked larger, the conspiracy area * * * we would have run out all the various leads and* * * it is very possible that we could have come down with a good many signs of a lead down here to the underworld.
Burt W. Griffin, a Commission assistant counsel who directed much of the investigation of the possible involvement of organized crime and Cuban exiles, told the committee:
- There was no showing that Oswald had any connection with organized crime. Therefore, there was no reason to think that simply because Ruby was involved in organized crime, that this would have been linked to the assassination of the President.
We needed to fill that in, in some way, but that is why the Cuban link is so important. If we had known that the CIA wanted to assassinate Castro, then all of the Cuban motivations that we were exploring about this made much, much more sense. If we had further known that the CIA was involved with organized criminal figures in an assassination attempt in the Caribbean, then we would have had a completely different perspective on this thing.
But because we did not have those links at this point, there was nothing to tie the underworld in with Cuba and thus nothing to tie them in with Oswald, nothing to tie them in with the assassination of the President.
Apart from the inability of the Commission to obtain all of the information it needed from the CIA and FBI, the committee found inherent inadequacies in its investigation of an assassination conspiracy. It was, for example, limited in approach and resources. In the crucial areas of organized crime, Cuban exiles and other militant groups, and foreign complicity, the attorneys assigned were lacking in experience and knowledge. Moreover, the committee found little to indicate that outside experts in these areas were ever consulted by the Commission.
The committee also discovered certain basic deficiencies in the capacity of the Commission to investigate effectively the murder of a President. In the words of a Commission assistant counsel: "The style of the Commission's own staff * * * was not one of criminal investigators." The committee found, further, that the Commission consciously decided not to form its own staff of professional investigators, choosing instead to rely on an analysis by its lawyers of the investigative reports of Federal agencies, principally the FBI and CIA. And even though its staff was composed primarily of lawyers, the Commission did not take advantage of all the legal tools available to it. An assistant counsel told the committee: "The Commission itself failed to utilize the instruments of immunity from prosecution and prosecution for perjury with respect to witnesses whose veracity it doubted." While the Commission did go beyond the expected role of traditional fact-finding panels serving a President, its inability to break out of the mold of such blue-ribbon bodies severely restricted its effectiveness in investigating the assassination of the President and the murders of Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald.
The committee also found fault with the manner in which the conclusions of the Warren commission were stated, although the committee recognized how time and resource limitations might have come into play. There were instances, the committee found, in which the conclusions did not appropriately reflect the efforts undertaken by the Commission and the evidence before it. In the Warren report, the Commission overstated the thoroughness of its investigation and the weight of its evidence in a number of areas, in particular that of the conspiracy investigation. The Commission did not candidly enumerate its limitations due to time pressures, inadequate resources or insufficient information. Instead the language employed in the report left the impression that issues had been dealt with more thoroughly than they actually had. This was due in part, according to attorneys who worked for the Commission, to pressure from Commission members to couch the report in the strongest language possible. As an example, the Commission declared in the beginning paragraph of its conclusions section:
- No limitations have been placed on the Commission's inquiry; it has concluded its own investigation, and all Government agencies have fully discharged their responsibility to cooperate with the Commission in its investigation.
This, in the opinion of the committee, was an inaccurate portrayal of the investigation.
On conspiracy, the Commission stated, " * * * if there is any * * * evidence [of it], it has been beyond the reach of all the investigative agencies and resources of the United States and has not come to the attention of this Commission." Instead of such definitive language, the Commission should have candidly acknowledged the limitations of its investigation and denoted areas where there were shortcomings.
As the committee's investigation demonstrated, substantive new information has been developed in many areas since the Warren Commission completed its work. Particular areas where the committee determined the performance of the Commission was less than complete include the following:
- Oswald's activities and associations during the periods he lived in New Orleans;
- The circumstances surrounding the 2 1/2 years Oswald spent in the Soviet Union;
- The background, activities, and associations of Jack Ruby, particularly with regard to organized crime;
- The conspiratorial and potentially violent climate created by the Cuban issue in the early 1960's, in particular the possible consequences of the CIA-Mafia assassination plots against Castro and their concealment from officials of the Kennedy administration;
- The potential significance of specific threats identified by the Secret Service during 1963, and their possible relationship to the ultimate assassination of the President;
- The possible effect upon the FBI's investigation from Director Hoover's disciplining agents for their conduct of the Oswald security case;
- The full nature and extent of Oswald's visit to Mexico City 2 months prior to the assassination, including not only his contact with the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic offices there, and the CIA's monitoring of his activities there, but also his possible associations and activities outside of those offices;
- The violent attitude of powerful organized crime figures toward the President and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, their capacity to commit murder, including assassination, and their possible access to Oswald through his associates or relatives; and
- Analysis of all available scientific evidence to determine the number of shots fired at the President.
In conclusion, the committee found that the Warren Commission's investigation was conducted in good faith, competently, and with high integrity, but that the Warren Report was not, in some respects, an accurate presentation of all the evidence available to the Commission or a true reflection of the scope of the Commission's work, particularly on the issue of possible conspiracy in the assassination. It is a reality to be regretted that the Commission failed to live up to its promise.
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