From the May-June, 1997 issue (Vol. 4 No. 4) of Probe
J. Lee Rankin was born in Nebraska in 1907, the son of Herman P. Rankin and Lois Gable, both lifelong Republicans. He was associated with Thomas Dewey's campaign in 1948 and later chaired a state committee for Eisenhower. Prior to becoming chief counsel for the Warren Commission he had been U. S. Solicitor General, a very high position in the Justice Department. He was appointed to the Commission only after a long and rather heated debate, and over the wishes of Earl Warren who had wanted his old friend and colleague Warren Olney as chief counsel. Both John McCloy and Allen Dulles seem to have maneuvered Warren into this choice. According to declassified FBI documents, Rankin also seems to have been involved, again with McCloy and Dulles, in the creation of the 1967 CBS multipart documentary endorsing the Warren Report, hosted by Walter Cronkite.
What follows is a recently declassified HSCA document sent to us by researcher Peter Vea. It is a report by staffer Michael Ewing of a phone conversation with Rankin in preparation for his public appearance and executive session interview. Rankin was living in New York at the time. It seems that in the intervening years he came to harbor some deep suspicions about the efficacy of the Commission. In fact, as far as we know, these are the strongest criticisms of the Commission that we know of by anyone actually on the legal staff, as opposed to the members of the Commission themselves.
I called to discuss our plans for an interview and deposition, and he initially commented that he'd been waiting a long time to hear from us. He said he'd be glad to come down as soon as possible, but noted that he had been sick for a month and is having a hernia operation in the next few days and thus will not be available until early July. I will check with him to set up the earliest possible date when he gets out of the hospital.
He stated at the outset that he "would of course like the opportunity to review the testimony" of the other former Warren Commission staff members who have testified before him. I said that I was unfamiliar with the Committee rules on such a request but thought that it may very well be impossible for us to comply with this request, noting that I did not believe anyone else had ever made such a request. He seemed to be very defensive about what his former colleagues may have testified about him and the Commission.
After we talked a few minutes he seemed more at ease. I said that we were sympathetic to the problems encountered by the Commission and were probably experiencing some of the same difficulties. He seemed pleased to hear this. He said that "our problem at the outset was having no investigative staff to call our own," and indicated that he had favored one and had been overruled by higher authority. He stated that "there were some awfully strong personalities among the members" and that "he had continuing difficulties due to those personalities."
Though I stated that I didn't want to go into his past work over the phone at this time, he went on to make several points. First, he stated that he believed that "hindsight makes it clear that both Hoover and the CIA were covering up a variety of items" from the Commission and he personally. He said that the had been continually saddened over the years by "all the disclosures about Hoover's performance in our area and a number of others." I commented that he (Rankin) was apparently not one of Hoover's favorite people and he laughed and said "That is now abundantly clear, though I've never read my dossier." He said that he finds the FBI performance "quite disturbing in hindsight. We would have found their conduct nearly unbelievable if we had known about it at the time." He commented that the destruction of the Hosty note was "a crime – a crime committed by the FBI, and one which directly related to the assassin's most important actions and motivations during the final days" before the murder. He again said that he finds the Hosty note destruction "almost beyond belief, just unconscionable." I commented that we have heard testimony to the effect that if the staff had known about it at the time, that the decision to use the FBI for investigative work might have changed. He agreed, saying, "We couldn't have used the people involved in any further way, that's clear. The FBI would have to have been regarded as a suspect in that instance and that in turn would have affected everything." He indicated that he would have gotten his own investigators at that point.
He further stated that "Hoover did everything he could" to get the Commission to adopt the earliest FBI report on the shooting, which Rankin said "we of course finally rejected."
He then made a point of inquiring about our work relating to the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro. He said: "One thing which I think is very important, and I don't know if you are getting into this – and I don't know if it is proven or not – is whether the CIA used the Mafia against Castro." He said that there were reports in recent years that this was true and that it involved an assassination conspiracy against Castro. He said, "Do you know if this has been proven?" I said yes it had, and briefly explained the history of the plots and their concealment from anyone higher than Helms at the time. Rankin then responded, "Ah yes. I've been very afraid that it was all true. But I haven't followed all the books and reports in recent years." He went on to say, "I would find the plots with the Mafia – the Mafia being mixed up with the CIA and these Cubans – frightening. You've got to go after that." He went on to say "That again is something that would have been beyond belief at the time." He said Helms' role in the plots and his concealment of them from the Commission "would have been just unconscionable." He expressed great anguish over hearing that the plots were in fact confirmed. It seemed strange that he has not followed public developments on the plots more carefully, but he indicated that he simply does not follow these areas and has not read "any of the Church Committee reports."
When I said that we were devoting considerable time to investigating the CIA/Mafia plots he said, "Good, good. That is crucial." He went on to say "that would have changed so much back then" if he had known of the plots. He said that he found the plots all the more disturbing in light of the fact that Robert Kennedy was pushing his investigations of the Mafia so heavily during that same period.
He repeatedly expressed the view that both the FBI and CIA had concealed important material from the Commission, and that the CIA/Mafia plots would have had a "very direct bearing on the areas of conspiracy which we tried to pursue." He also asked, "Are you looking into the plots on the basis of whether they were covered up by the CIA because some of the very people involved in them could have been involved in the President's assassination?" I said that yes that was an area of our investigation, and he replied strongly, "Good. Good. You have to look at it that way." I also said that we were looking into charges that Castro might have retaliated for the plots by killing Kennedy, and he replied, "Where is any evidence of that? I think the other approach would be much more logical." This was apparently in reference to probing those involved in the plots themselves.
I told him that we would of course make extensive material available to him in reference to our questioning of him, noting that we want him to refresh his memory as to his old memos, etc. as well as other documents that we will give him in advance. He was very appreciative of this and said he would like to know more about the CIA/Mafia plots and our work on them.
He remarked a couple times that he has nothing to regret about his work on the Commission, and that he tried his hardest to make it the best investigation possible. He said he still believes very strongly that he had a good staff of the finest legal minds. He did of course say that the agency cooperation and input (FBI and CIA) was and is the key issue to him.
He also again said that he would like an opportunity to review the testimony of other WC staffers before he comes down. I again stated, more strongly this time, that I thought that this would probably not be in accordance with Committee rules. He said he "would appreciate the courtesy."
Again, he seemed quite friendly throughout the conversation and seemed to look forward to meeting with us.