Saturday, 15 June 1996 16:18

The Creation of the Warren Commission

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Based on the release in 1993 of the White House telephone transcripts for the period immediately following the assassination, Donald Gibson shows that the idea for the Warren Commission was pushed on LBJ by Joseph Alsop and Eugene Rostow – people belonging to the same eastern establishment power elite in which Allen Dulles circulated.


From the May-June, 1996 issue (Vol. 3 No. 4) of Probe


Most of the people who have done research on or are knowledgeable about the performance of the so-called Warren Commission are convinced that a number of its members and counsel played an important role in the post-assassination cover-up. Those seriously interested in its work, including the author, are convinced that the commission's oversights, distortions, and other shortcomings represent something that is explainable only in terms of the intentions of people such as Allen Dulles, John J. McCloy, J. Lee Rankin, and Gerald Ford.

Although a massive amount of work has been done on the Commission's performance, the story of how the Commission was created has remained incomplete. This story needs to be completed because both reason and the facts indicate that the formation of the Commission, like the performance of elements of the FBI and the media, was as much a part of the cover-up process as was its Report.

We can get closer to that complete story now because of the release in 1993 of the White House telephone transcripts for the period immediately following the assassination. In combination with material already in the public domain, those transcripts allow us to clearly identify the people who were directly responsible for the establishment of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, later dubbed the "Warren Commission."

These transcripts demonstrate that the people who have been "credited" with the creation of the Commission had little to do with it-like LBJ's longtime friend and advisor Abe Fortas-or were following the lead of others, as with President Johnson and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The transcripts show that the idea of a commission was pushed on LBJ by people who were outside of the government at that time and that this effort began within minutes of Lee Harvey Oswald's death. Until Oswald was dead, there was no way that such an effort could be undertaken.

Blakey's Version

The first extensive and official description of the events leading to the creation of the Warren Commission appears in the 1979 account from the Select Committee on Assassinations of the House of Representatives. Two stories emerge from their hearings. One is the Committee's description of the events; the other is in the testimony of Nicholas Katzenbach, Deputy Attorney General at the time of the assassination. The two accounts are not identical even though the first is ostensibly dependent on the second.

The Select Committee's Report contains a section entitled "Creation of the Warren Commission." It begins by saying that on November 22nd, "President Johnson was immediately faced with the problem of investigating the assassination." This is misleading. As long as Oswald was alive, there wasn't any real question about the investigation; it would be conducted in Dallas during a trial of Oswald. Second, as the evidence will show, President Johnson "was faced" with a problem after Oswald was killed, not "immediately" after the assassination. The problem for LBJ was not just one of investigating the assassination. There was also a problem presented to him by people trying to shape the investigatory process.

The Committee's rendition of events goes on to say that on November 23, 1963, J. Edgar Hoover "forwarded the results of the FBI's preliminary investigation to him [LBJ]. This report detailed the evidence that indicated Lee Harvey Oswald's guilt." In fact, Hoover told LBJ on the morning of the 23rd that the case against Oswald was not then very good. The Committee's account goes on to say that on the 24th, Hoover called LBJ aide Walter Jenkins and said that Katzenbach had told him that the President might appoint a commission. (As the record will show, Katzenbach was not speaking for the President, who on the 24th opposed the idea of a commission.) Hoover expressed his opposition to the creation of a commission, suggesting that the FBI handle the investigation and submit a report to the Attorney General. Hoover makes a vague reference to problems a commission might cause for U.S. foreign relations. He also mentions that he and Katzenbach are anxious to have "something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin."

The Committee's report then summarizes parts of Katzenbach's testimony to the Committee, stating that Katzenbach was very concerned about the multitude of conspiracy theories which had already emerged. Consequently, he wrote a memo on November 25th to LBJ aide Bill Moyers which emphasized the need to quiet these rumors. The Katzenbach memo recommends that a statement be issued immediately indicating that the evidence shows Oswald did it and that there were no conspirators. The memo suggests furthermore that the FBI would be the primary investigating body and that a Presidential commission would "review and examine the evidence and announce its conclusions." The memo went on to say that there is a need for "something to head off public speculations or congressional hearings of the wrong sort." Katzenbach did also say in his testimony that he always wanted to know the truth, including the facts concerning possible conspiracy.

The HSCA continues, stating that on November 25th President Johnson ordered the FBI and the Department of Justice (run at this time by Katzenbach instead of the distraught RFK) to investigate the assassination and the murder of Oswald. By November 27th, Senator Everett M. Dirksen had proposed a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation and Representative Charles E. Goodell had proposed a joint Senate-House investigation. Also, Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr had announced that a state court of inquiry would be established. The Committee cited a statement by Leon Jaworski, who worked for the offices of both the Texas Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney General, indicating that LBJ told him on November 25th that he (LBJ) was encouraging Carr to proceed with the Texas Court of Inquiry.

The Select Committee account then skips to a November 29th memo from Walter Jenkins to LBJ which stated that:

Abe [Fortas] has talked with Katzenbach and Katzenbach has talked with the Attorney General. They recommend a seven man commission-two Senators, two Congressmen, the Chief Justice, Allen Dulles, and a retired military man (general or admiral). Katzenbach is preparing a description of how the Commission would function.

This memo and some of Katzenbach's statements before the committee imply that Katzenbach and perhaps Abe Fortas, and even Robert Kennedy, were the source of the idea for the Commission. Also, there is an implication the memo of the 29th was critical in LBJ's decision making. It was not. LBJ had agreed to the Commission idea not later than November 28th.

The 1979 Robert Blakey-HSCA version is certainly more elaborate than the official story circulated in 1964. The problem is that it substitutes one misleading story for another. The original suggested that LBJ initiated the process. The latter implies that Katzenbach is the most important figure.

Katzenbach's Incomplete Tale

Katzenbach's own 1978 testimony before the Select Committee was part of the basis for the Committee's account of the creation of the Warren Commission. Much of his testimony and deposition is consistent with that account. But some of it is not. And there were times when Katzenbach hinted at important undisclosed facts that the Committee staff did not bother to pursue. Katzenbach did imply that there was more to the story. The 1993 release of the White House telephone transcripts makes clear what Katzenbach hinted at.

The HSCA first asked Katzenbach to explain why he was "exerting tremendous pressure right after the assassination to get the FBI report out and to get a report in front of the American people." A November 25, 1963, memo from Katzenbach to Bill Moyers is referenced as evidence of Katzenbach's activities. Katzenbach explains that his concern was to quiet rumors and speculation about conspiracy. Katzenbach then added that his activities were related to the idea of creating a commission "such as the Warren Commission" and that he did not view the FBI investigation as the final or only investigation.

In his testimony Katzenbach represents the commission idea as his own several times. He also says, "I was never opposed to it." This, of course, suggests that it was not his idea.

Later in the questioning, Katzenbach mentions that by November 25th he was aware of Oswald's stay in Russia and his visit to Mexico. He says he was also then aware that the FBI had concluded that there was no conspiracy. It is beyond any doubt that such a conclusion was completely unfounded just three days after the assassination and one day after the murder of Oswald. There is no possibility that the FBI could have eliminated the possibility that Oswald, even if guilty, could have had assistance or direction from others.

A memo from Alan Belmont, an assistant director and number three man in the FBI, to Hoover's assistant, William Sullivan, dated November 25th, refers to conversations between Katzenbach and Hoover about the assassination. The memo emphasizes that the FBI's report should cover all the areas that might cause concern with the press and the public. Belmont wrote:

In other words, this report is to settle the dust, in so far as Oswald and his activities are concerned, both from the standpoint that he is the man who assassinated the President, and relative to Oswald himself and his activities and background, et cetera.

This and other information provided here establish Belmont as one of the primary forces in the FBI pressing for an immediate conclusion about the assassination.

The intertwining of Katzenbach's actions and those of Belmont is indicated in a comment by Katzenbach in his oral deposition. A 12/9/63 letter to Chief Justice Warren suggested that either the Commission or the Justice Department release a statement saying that the FBI had established "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Oswald killed Kennedy and that the investigation had so far uncovered no information suggesting a conspiracy. Katzenbach had signed this letter, but in his deposition he said that this letter was probably drafted by the FBI. The fact that the Deputy Attorney General is signing his name to something this important that he didn't write suggests how closely interconnected his actions were with those of Belmont and, perhaps, others in the Bureau. In this oral deposition Katzenbach also reveals, in contradiction to his testimony, that he was not acting on his own when he proposed a commission to investigate the assassination.

Katzenbach told the Committee that Hoover opposed the creation of a Commission and that President Johnson "neither rejected nor accepted the idea. He did not embrace it. I thought there was a period of time when he thought that it might be unnecessary." As we shall see, this understates Johnson's initial opposition.

We come now to what was an important set of statements which should have been followed by specific questions from the House staff. Katzenbach was asked who else (presumably beyond the President and Hoover) he talked to during the time he was arriving at the idea of a commission. Katzenbach said that he believed he "recommended it to Bill Moyers" and raised the issue with Walter Jenkins and President Johnson. Katzenbach was then asked about "people outside the President's immediate circle" and he responded that he did talk to such people. He mentioned Dean Rusk and Alexis Johnson as two people he may have talked to. Katzenbach then said:

I am sure I talked about it with people outside the government entirely who called me and suggested old friends or former colleagues.

Katzenbach does not identify-and is not asked to identify-those people "outside the government entirely." There is no naming of the "old friends" and "former colleagues." Instead, the questioning shifted to the views of Rusk and others already mentioned by Katzenbach. Given an opportunity to actually find out how the Warren Commission came into being, the HSCA's staff decided to go on to other things. Because of the release of the White House telephone transcripts, we will now be able to identify some or most of those people who were "outside the government entirely."

[Read the rest of this article in its original version, attached below.]


Original Probe article

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Last modified on Monday, 12 June 2017 21:49
Donald Gibson

Donald E. Gibson spent more than 30 years as professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.  An impressively wide-ranging scholar of social issues, he is also author of two books (and several articles published in Probe) on Kennedy: Battling Wall Street (1994/2014), which challenges conventional wisdom to assert that Kennedy was always on the side of economic, political, and social progress; and The Kennedy Assassination Cover-Up (1999), on the Warren Commission's connection to the Eastern Establishment.  See further here.

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