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Friday, 03 August 2007 17:57

Gerald McKnight, Breach of Trust

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Mark Lane wrote that the Warren Report dishonored "those who wrote it little more than those who praise it." This book makes you feel the sting of that dishonor more than any other book that I know. But, as with the best work in the field, it helps us transcend that shame with the beauty and power of pure understanding, writes Jim DiEugenio.


I was rather predisposed against reading Gerald McKnight's Breach of Trust. Most of the recent books on the JFK case had been disappointing. Not just the horrible and ridiculous Ultimate Sacrifice, but others like the efforts of Jaime Escalante and Michael Kurtz. In addition, McKnight's book was on the Warren Commission. So I thought, quite naturally: Who needs another book on that subject in this day and age? But then I saw that writers like David Talbot and Jim Douglass recommended it. So I reconsidered and decided to pick it up. I am glad I did.

This is an extraordinarily worthwhile effort. What the author has done is not repetitive. He has collated the most up to date information, much of it released by the Assassination Records Review Board, and taken us deeper into the inner workings of the Commission than any other writer I know. Previously, writers like Mark Lane and Sylvia Meagher showed us some of the rather odd conclusions the Warren Commission came to in light of the evidence before it. What Breach of Trust does is not just show us how wrong the Commission was, but why and how they did what they did. In this regard, I cannot imagine a future author going much further.

I

One of the things Breach of Trust does that is singular in the field is to demonstrate just how J. Lee Rankin was put in place as Chief Counsel, and how influential he really was. Previous authors have noted how Earl Warren had tried to insert his friend and colleague Warren Olney III as Chief Counsel, how certain commissioners thwarted this, and how Rankin was then substituted. But no author has explained at this length and depth just why Olney was so objectionable, how and why he was shot down, and why Rankin was the replacement choice. This part of the book begins on page 41 with a description of the Warren Commission's first executive session of December 5, 1963. McKnight briefly describes Warren's professional relationship with Olney from his days in California, showing just how effective and collegial they were in pursuing some of Warren's progressive goals. In the next paragraph, McKnight provides the transition to the opposition with three pungent sentences:

As head of Justice's Criminal Division Olney also had a shared history with FBI Director Hoover that was altogether different. Hoover despised Olney. As one FBI agent remarked, "Olney was the only guy who had balls enough to stand up to Hoover." (p. 41)

Among Olney's sins on Hoover's scorecard were his public pronouncements about the presence and influence of the Mafia. Second was the fact that he was a liberal on the civil rights issue. It turns out that both Hoover and Nicholas Katzenbach from Justice were determined to strike preemptively so Olney would not take office. Their source for Warren's plans for chief counsel was the FBI informant on the Warren Commission: Congressman Gerald Ford. (Another achievement of the book is the demonstration of just how big an informant Ford was for Hoover. It is more than what was hinted at before which, in turn, shows how brazenly Ford lied about this in televised interviews.)

Katzenbach wanted Olney out because he perceived him as a maverick who he would not be able to control. And since he already had written his famous memorandum about convincing the public as to Oswald's role as lone gunman, he did not want Olney straying off the range on this issue. In fact, as the author notes, Katzenbach was so worried about this possibility that he installed his man from the Justice Department, Howard Willens, on the Commission to keep an eye out if Olney did become counsel. (p. 42)

It was overkill. Hoover and Katzenbach unleashed a lobbying campaign on the Commission to head off Olney. The point man for Hoover on this was Cartha DeLoach. DeLoach's prime inside asset for the "Dump Olney" program was Ford. (McKnight does a nice job penciling in the long "give and take" relationship between Hoover and Ford that made them such amiable chums.) Considering what was at stake, there is little doubt as to why this troika went into overdrive to accomplish their mission. For as McKnight states, "Had Olney served as Chief Counsel it is very likely that the Warren Commission Report would have been an entirely different historical document." (p. 44)

When Warren tried to push Olney through at the second executive session, it was Ford and John McCloy who joined forces to obstruct him. And McCloy just happened to have a short list of alternative choices on hand, one of which was J. Lee Rankin. An impromptu sub-committee was formed consisting of Ford, McCloy, Allen Dulles, and Warren. In a matter of hours, Rankin became the consensus choice. Warren really had no option in the matter since, as Ford told DeLoach, both he and Dulles threatened to resign if Olney was chosen. (p. 45)

II

Why was Rankin an easy choice? In addition to being a friend and colleague of McCloy, he was the opposite of the anti-Christ Olney in one central regard: he was almost as cozy with Hoover as Ford was. As McKnight describes it: "The choice of J. Lee Rankin, a conservative Republican, was greeted at FBI headquarters with elation." (Ibid) As Solicitor General, Rankin had defended the FBI in court. He was on a first name basis with Hoover. To quote the author again, "Rankin was a supremely cautious bureaucrat, a consummate insider, not a boat-rocker like Olney." (Ibid) The choice of Rankin was crucial for the FBI and Katzenbach since it greatly improved their chances of having both the initial FBI report on the assassination and Katzenbach's premature memo validated with little friction or confrontation.

As general counsel his management style was rigidly centralized. One former assistant counsel complained that staff contact with the Commission members "was all done through Rankin." All staff contact and communication with the FBI had to be approved or was channeled directly through Rankin's office... Rankin proved resourceful at every turn...successfully guiding the whole enterprise toward the predetermined destination laid down in the November 25 Katzenbach memo. The heading that Rankin followed for nine months...was lifted right off Hoover's chart, and it pointed to Oswald...as the assassin. (Ibid)

As McKnight states, as an evidentiary brief, the FBI report is an embarrassment in and of itself. He writes, "The report was largely a vilification of Oswald." (p. 27) Since it was done so quickly (submitted to the White House on December 5th), and so haphazardly it can only be called a Rush to Judgment, in the worst sense of that term. For instance, even though it ended up being five volumes long with almost nine hundred pages, it did not describe all of Kennedy's wounds, list the cause of death, did not mention Governor John Connally's wounds, and did not account for all the known shots. Incredibly, it devoted all of 10 words to the JFK shooting and only 42 words to his wounds. This was done because the FBI did not have the official autopsy report. The Bureau rejected an offer by the Secret Service to lend it the autopsy protocol, the X rays, and the photos.

In spite of all these failures, Katzenbach called the FBI report "spectacular". (p. 27) He then distributed it to high officials of agencies of government. Why? Because it vilified Oswald's character, named him as the assassin, and stated that he had no cohorts. This had been preordained of course. Orders had been given not to investigate a conspiracy, and evidence of Oswald's innocence -- like the Bronson film -- was discarded. (Pgs. 16-18) By November 26th, just two days after Ruby shot Oswald, the FBI had reached its main conclusions. Yet, this was the event that provoked many people to consider thoughts of a conspiracy. McKnight writes that one of the reasons for the headlong hurry was to stamp out "conspiracy allegations" from Mexico City. (p. 25) Hoover sent an agent there to get Ambassador Mann and CIA Station Chief Win Scott "on message, to alert them to the 'facts' of the case: that the White House and the FBI were convinced of Oswald's guilt and that there had been no conspiracy." (Ibid)

In a revealing November 29th conversation with President Johnson, Hoover showed that he knew little of what actually happened even a week after the fact. He told LBJ that one bullet rolled out of Kennedy's head. That CE 399 was found on Kennedy's stretcher after heart massage. That the alleged weapon could fire three shots in three seconds. (p. 28) These statements were all grossly mistaken. But that did not matter to Hoover or the fate of the Bureau's report. The FBI began to leak its conclusions to the media anyway. And by doing this before the Warren Commission held its first executive session meeting, the Bureau began to entrap the Commission in its own faulty conclusions.

But the FBI report differs in some crucial regards from the Warren Report. For example, although the Bureau was aware of the hit on James Tague, it ignored this and said that all three shots struck either Kennedy or Connally. The Bureau also had the shot entering Kennedy's back at a much steeper angle. At this angle, it would be impossible for the bullet to exit at the throat level. For these and other reasons, the Commission ended up not publishing the FBI report (CD 1) in the 26 volumes. As the author notes, "That the Commission, given its own deplorable record...felt compelled to suppress the FBI report...was a resounding rebuke indeed." (p. 144) Yet the Commission had to do this or they would be admitting that the government came to two different versions of the same crime within ten months. And the two versions were incompatible with each other. But because the FBI report was not published or released yet, this fact was not evident.

Actually, it's even worse than that. Why? Because the Secret Service also agreed with the Bureau's shooting sequence. (p. 3) Further, in 1966, when the discrepancy between the FBI and the Commission became public, Hoover insisted that his version was correct. (p. 4) But, there was still a third government version of the crime that was not known. Within days of the assassination, the CIA had the Secret Service copy of the Zapruder film. The Agency's analysis of the film concluded that the first shot did not come from the sixth floor. Second, more than one gunman was involved. (p. 6) In reality, there were three official versions of the crime within ten months. But the public was unaware of any except the Commission's.

III

This was the precarious position that the Commission found itself in essentially from the start. With no independent investigative staff, they were largely at the mercy of the FBI, Secret Service, and CIA for their information. But mostly the Bureau, and the Bureau had already come to their verdict. For instance, to further incriminate Oswald and to show he had a sociopathic predisposition toward violence, the FBI report asserted that Oswald had tried to shoot General Edwin Walker on the evening of April 10, 1963. (When I talked to FBI agent Warren DeBrueys in New Orleans, he told me this was based on the testimony of Marina Oswald and the fact the assailant in both cases aimed at the victims' head.) But there were serious problems with this second case against Oswald:

  1. The Dallas Police never considered him as a suspect in over seven months.
  2. The evidence indicated more than one man was involved.
  3. The ammunition was steel-jacketed, not copper-jacketed as in the Kennedy case.
  4. Walker was a rightwing extremist who Kennedy had removed from his command for distribution of Birchite propaganda. So the political calculus behind the shootings was confused.
  5. The conspirators had access to a car which, officially, Oswald did not.
  6. The police deduced the weapon was a high-powered rifle, which the Mannlicher-Carcano was not.
  7. Walker and his private investigators suspected a former employee, William M. Duff, as the sniper. (pgs. 48-50)

But as McKnight shows, the capper in this regard is CE 573, the mutilated remainder of the bullet recovered from Walker's home. When assistant counsel Wesley Liebeler deposed Walker for two hours in April of 1964, he never mentioned it. This seemed odd since Walker held the bullet in his hands afterwards. Fifteen years later Walker was watching a televised hearing of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Chief Counsel Robert Blakey held up CE 573 for the camera while discussing the firearms evidence in the JFK case. As McKnight notes:

Walker, a thirty-year career army officer with extensive combat experience in World War II, and with more than a passing familiarity with military weaponry, was stunned. According to Walker, what Blakey represented as the bullet fired into his home bore no resemblance to the piece of lead the police had recovered, which he had held in his own hand and closely examined. (p. 52)

So there was no real ballistics evidence to connect Oswald to the Walker shooting. This left a mysterious note that Oswald, according to Marina, had left her that night. Even though Marina said she placed the note in a Russian book, it did not show up in the two day DPD search through Oswald's room or the Paines' household, where Marian was staying. It was not until November 30th that Ruth Paine sent the book to Marina through the Irving County police. After the police turned over the book to the Secret Service, the note was finally discovered on December 2nd. It was not signed or dated. When FBI fingerprint specialist Sebastian Latona was questioned by the Commission, he was not asked about the "Walker note". Perhaps because staff attorney Melvin Eisenberg had learned that Latona had found neither Lee nor Marina's fingerprints on the note.

McKnight finalizes this section by doing what he usually does. He takes us behind the scenes and shows us what was happening at the Commission and in the field. By doing this he cracks open the superficial front presented by both reports and shows us that in reality, the authorities themselves knew that there were serious problems with what they presented to the public and the media. On May 20, 1964 Rankin had written Hoover complaining that Marina's testimony on the Walker case "was riddled with contradictions". (p. 57) FBI agent Gordon Shanklin then assigned two agents to Marina because he agreed that "her statements just don't jibe." (Ibid)

In fact, the report that Shanklin commissioned to resolve Marina's "contradictions" did nothing but deepen them. The agents, Ivan Lee and Robert Barrett, interviewed two witnesses who both confirmed there were two suspects, that neither resembled Oswald, and they had access to a Ford. Their main witness, Walter Kirk Coleman, never testified before the Commission. What was left in the case against Oswald was the photo found in his possessions of the back of Walker's home. In light of the above, this now became as suspect as the infamous backyard photographs.

Yet despite all of the above, the Warren Report states that the Walker episode demonstrated Oswald's "disposition to take human life" and it "was considered of probative value in this investigation." (pgs. 56, 58) McKnight explores the Walker case at length and it is one of the best discussions of the incident that I have read. He concludes that it has value not just in and of itself, but that it "was just a microcosm of what was to follow in the government's investigation into the Kennedy assassination." (p. 58) He is correct.

IV

Three of the most important chapters in the book (Chapters 7-9), deal with the medical and ballistics evidence. The Bethesda pathologists -- James Humes, Thornton Boswell, and Pierre Finck -- did not see the clothes or photos in preparation for their post-mortem report. Further, as the author details, the autopsy of the century lasted approximately from 8-11 PM. Yet, according to Dr. Michael Baden, it should have gone at least twice that long. And perhaps as long as 8-10 hours. (p. 155)

One of the arresting aspects of the book is McKnight's characterization of Humes. Whereas many Warren Commission critics have treated him, and the other two, with a modicum of respect -- perhaps in the misguided hope that they would eventually see the light -- McKnight is anything but kind. (Since Humes has now passed away, the author may feel that he can take the gloves off.) He exposes as a canard the idea that Humes burned his original autopsy draft and "bloodstained" notes out of respect for the dead president. McKnight writes that this could not have been the case since this draft was prepared in the unbloodied comfort of the doctor's own home. (p. 165) When interviewed by the ARRB's Jeremy Gunn on this point, Humes became flustered and angry. He said it "might have been errors in spelling, or I don't know what was the matter with it, or whether I even ever did that." (Ibid) Later he added, "I absolutely can't recall, and I apologize for that." (Ibid) McKnight suggests that assistant counsel Arlen Specter recognized this problem at an early date and met with the doctors approximately 8-10 times prior to their testimony in March. Subsequently, when Specter elicited the rather startling revelation about burning the first draft, no one batted an eyelash. As the author puts it: "Not a single commissioner was moved to ask Humes what right he had to destroy these papers or even why he felt compelled on his own initiative to consign them to archival oblivion." (p. 158)

But with this established, Specter and Humes moved on to a second deception. Namely that Commission Exhibit 397 was the documentary record upon which the official autopsy report was based. This exhibit consisted of a set of notes, and the handwritten revision of the incinerated draft of the autopsy report. One of the note pages was the autopsy "face sheet" (body diagram with wounds marked), and the others were notes of Humes' talk with Dr. Malcolm Perry of Parkland Hospital about the tracheotomy he had performed on President Kennedy in Dallas. But this cannot be the entire record since the final, single-spaced, 6-page autopsy report contains many facts that are not contained in these documents. After a thorough analysis, McKnight concludes:

There are, give or take, about eighty-eight autopsy "facts" in the official prosectors' report. About sixty-four of these "facts" or pieces of medicolegal information (almost 75%) cannot be found in either the published notes or CE 397. Some fifteen of these pieces of information involve measurements and numbers that are not found in the published record. (p. 162)

So where did these other "facts" come from? The author makes the argument that, contrary to the Humes-Specter fabrication about the burning of the original autopsy draft, this report actually survived. He believes it was around until about November 26th. That it began to be revised and altered in the office of Admiral C. B. Galloway on Sunday afternoon after Jack Ruby killed Oswald. (I should add here that McKnight is not appreciative of the efforts of Jeremy Gunn in what turned out to be the last examination of Humes. He feels Gunn did not press him hard enough.)

The chapter on the autopsy concludes with a quite interesting discussion of the cipher of Dr. George Burkley, Kennedy's personal physician. As others have noted, Burkley was in the presidential motorcade, in the Parkland emergency room, with the body on Air Force One, in the Bethesda morgue, and in the ambulance returning the body back to the White House. He was the one physician who was with the body the entire time after the shooting. Hopefully, this would have put him in position to resolve some of the conflicts over the medical evidence, or at least explain how they came about. Realizing his importance, what did the Commission do with him?

Incredibly, JFK's personal physician was never called to testify. Commission assistant counsel Specter never interviewed Burkley or asked him to prepare a statement on his observations of the president's wounds or any information he might have relating to the assassination. The FBI and the Secret Service never mentioned him before or after they submitted their respective reports...to the Warren Commission. (p. 177) One of the reasons that may have given Specter pause before deposing Burkley was the fact that he had signed President Kennedy's death certificate. This document placed the back wound at the level of the third thoracic vertebra. Which is much lower than where the Gerald Ford-revised Warren Report placed it: at the base of back of the neck. And at this level, a bullet headed downward would not be able to exit the throat. Since Specter's main function was to enthrone the single bullet theory, the last thing he wanted was to place in the record a debate over this document. What makes the document even more interesting is the point of reference used for the wound placement. It is more accurate than what the pathologists used. Dr. Finck located the point in an odd way. He measured from the mastoid process to the acromin, or tip of the right shoulder. These are not fixed body landmarks. In his ARRB interview, Finck stated that "JFK's spine, a fixed landmark, was the correct and only point of reference to determine the accurate location of this posterior wound." (p. 179) Like Burkley did. As the author notes, one has to wonder if Finck's measuring points were deliberately chosen in order to disguise just where the posterior entrance was. If so, then Burkley was not in on this obfuscatory design. Which made him a most valuable witness. Further, Burkley's placement is corroborated by much more evidence than the Warren Report's, e.g. the holes in Kennedy's shirt and jacket, observations by both FBI and Secret Service agents, the autopsy face sheet, and, as we shall see, the FBI reenactment in Dallas. Ultimately, what the death certificate does is not just call into question the magic bullet theory, but also the number of shots, and whether the back wound exited at all. In sum, it had the potential to scuttle the Warren Report. Which is probably why it does not appear in either the report or the 26 volumes of evidence. McKnight ends his discussion of Burkley by noting that when author Henry Hurt called the doctor to arrange an interview he replied that he felt the Kennedy case was a conspiracy. When the writer tried to follow up this conversation with a full-length interview, Burkley promptly refused.

McKnight's two chapters on the ballistics evidence are equally compelling. For months of its existence, the Commission tried to ignore the ricochet hit to bystander James Tague off the curb. Even though they were aware of it, as late as June of 1964, Specter was trying to discount its importance. (p. 185) Tague was not deposed until July 23, 1964. This only occurred because Dallas reporter Tom Dillard asked the U.S. attorney for north Texas a question about Tague during a public appearance. The attorney then sent a registered letter, including a photo, to Rankin. So now, in July, the drafts of the report finally included the curb strike. And now, since he was down to two bullets for Kennedy and Connally, Specter had the unenviable task of stitching together the single bullet theory. As with the medical evidence and Burkley, Specter ignored his best witness.

Dr. Joseph Dolce had spent three years as a battlefield surgeon in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He retired as a full Colonel. In 1964 he was chairman of the army's Wounds Ballistic Board. As McKnight describes his stature in the field:

When the Commission asked the army for its top ballistics man, it sent Dolce. He was regarded so highly as an expert on wounds from high-velocity weapons...that in the event of a serious injury to any VIP in Congress or in the administration, he was to "be called to go over the case." (p. 186)

The problem for Specter was that Dolce concluded Connally was hit by two shots. He also stated that the magic bullet, CE 399, could not have shattered the governor's wrist and remained pristine. Dolce later recalled a meeting with several experts and Commission staff. He said it was Specter who battled hardest for the viability of CE 399.

Dolce then participated in experiments conducted at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. These were done with Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano, a hundred 6.5 mm bullets, and ten cadaver wrists. Dolce told film-maker Chip Selby that in each and every instance the bullet was "markedly deformed" after firing. (p. 187) Dolce was never called as a Commission witness. And Specter never questioned any of the ballistics experts about the above experiment. (p. 189) Specter then requested a reenactment in Dealey Plaza. Yet on the FBI stand-in for President Kennedy, the chalk mark signifying the back wound is at the point where Burkley described it: the third thoracic vertebra. And this appears in Chapter 8 of the report, photograph 12. (p. 192)

In his draft report, Specter ignored all of the above. He wrote that "all medical findings established" that a single bullet caused Connally's wounds. Dolce's name did not appear in his June 10th report. In fact, the actual report on the Edgewood firing experiments did not appear in the Warren Report or in any of the 26 volumes. It was not declassified until 1972. (p. 197)

Dolce was upset by what the Commission had done with these experiments. Years later, he wanted to talk to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He wished to testify that the actual report on the experiment had been altered before it was submitted to the Commission. He wanted to share the original report with the new investigating body. He conveyed this wish to his senator Lawton Chiles, who passed it on to a congressional representative on the committee. Yet Dolce was never called as a witness by the HSCA. Dolce has been mentioned before in the literature on the case. But as with other matters outlined above, McKnight goes further in both length and depth about this crucial witness than anyone before him.

V

Another major aspect of Breach of Trust are McKnight's sections dealing with Oswald's activities that intersected with the CIA and FBI. The author rightly discounts the remarkably feeble Warren Commission report on Oswald in Mexico City. This rather brief essay by David Slawson and William Coleman shrivels like a crushed grape in comparison to the volume prepared by Dan Hardway and Ed Lopez for the House Select Committee. As McKnight notes, the Warren Commission's given itinerary for Oswald -- Mexico City to Cuba to Russia -- made little sense. Prior to this, "He had shown no interest in returning to Russia, and by all indications the Soviet state had no interest in allowing the anti-Soviet Oswald back into the country. (p. 61)

Oswald's attention and activities had now turned from Russia to Cuba, and he now actually denigrated the Soviet system when asked about it. Also, Oswald had no funds to stay in Cuba for any extended period of time, let alone go on to Russia. He had been out of work for nearly two months prior to going south of the border. As the author notes, the Slawson-Coleman report was based almost exclusively on information originating with the CIA. (p. 63) Because of this reliance, all the intelligence tradecraft in Mexico City -- later revealed in the Hardway-Lopez Report -- went unnoticed in its predecessor: the false phone calls attributed to Oswald, the missing photos and audiotape recordings, the survey of the infallible surveillance system the CIA had in place, the human sources inside the Cuban consulate, the key but questionable roles played by David Phillips and Ann Goodpasture. And, above all, the question of an imposter posing as Oswald. In relation to all this, the author writes of the Slawson-Coleman Report:

The Commission must be credited, at least, for correctly reporting that Oswald was in Mexico City from September 27 to October 2, 1963. Much of the rest of the Warren Report's treatment of Oswald in Mexico City cannot be safely assumed to be an accurate account. (p. 64)

From here, the book goes on to note all the inconsistencies and oddities in the documentary record that should have indicated to any honest inquiry that something was wrong with the CIA's story. A story which on 11/23 the CIA was pushing on President Johnson, particularly, "his alleged contact with the Soviet consular official Valery V. Kostikov" who the CIA reported "was a sabotage and assassination expert." (p. 66)

At this point the author shrewdly and forcefully points out that there was one person in Washington who had reservations about this tale as early as the 23rd. He was J. Edgar Hoover. McKnight summarizes a phone conversation the president had with the director on that day about Oswald in Mexico City:

...Hoover admitted that the evidence so far was "not very strong." Hoover then related some news that must have captured the president's attention -- there was evidence that someone in Mexico City had been impersonating Lee Harvey Oswald, the charged assassin of President Kennedy. (p. 67)

The Commission's main investigating arm was on the verge of uncovering an ersatz trail, with all the ramifications that unmasking could entail, including who Oswald was and what his purpose in Mexico really concerned. (Hoover's doubts about this part of the story grew as time went on. He later scribbled in his famous marginalia that the CIA had handed them a "snowjob" about Oswald in Mexico City.) The CIA now realized it was on thin ice about this aspect and it began to forcefully crowd out the Bureau with the Commission on Mexico City. Director of Plans Richard Helms actually wrote the Bureau and the Commission letters making this clear. And when the Bureau discovered that other CIA reports trying to blame Castro for the murder, e.g. the Gilberto Alvarado tale, were also diaphanous, the Agency now switched its story:

Eventually the CIA would drop the pretense of any Oswald-Kostikov connection when the White House unmistakably signaled that it was not interested in any "Red plot", real or manufactured. In July...Richard Helms...disclosed to Rankin that...Oswald met with Pavel A. Yatskov not Kostikov. (p. 70)

President Johnson was so against the "Oswald as a Red agent" line that he removed a diplomat who was pushing it from office, Thomas Mann, the American ambassador to Mexico. Needless to say, none of this extraordinarily relevant and compelling information made it into the Warren Report.

The intelligence strand between Oswald and the FBI that gets lengthy treatment here is the infamous Hosty note. This is a written communication left by Oswald in the Dallas FBI office for James Hosty who was attempting to interview Marina Oswald. Reportedly a violent threat, the note was kept by the Bureau and then destroyed after the assassination by Hosty on orders from office chief Gordon Shanklin. The Commission had heard of this note through the testimony of Ruth Paine. (p. 260) Again, this incident should have raised the investigatory antennae of the Commission a few feet in the air. If it was a threat of a violent nature, the FBI should have reported it to the Secret Service. Oswald would then have been passed on to the Protective Research Section (PRS) headed by Robert Bouck. They would have found out he worked along the motorcade route and he likely would have been surveilled or detained that day.

Yet, as noted here, before 11/22/63, "Oswald's name was not known to the PRS." (p. 250) What makes this even more curious is that Hosty was handling the Oswald file in Dallas. (Ibid) Hosty had information about Oswald's trip to Mexico and his visits to the two communist embassies. Finally, as Hosty revealed later, he believed that Marina was some kind of KGB-planted "sleeper agent" (p. 254) In November, when he attempted to interview Marina, it was about Oswald's calls to the Soviet Embassy. It was this visit to the Paine household in search of Marina that prompted Oswald to deliver the note to the FBI office. So the Bureau had 2-3 weeks to convey this important information to the Secret Service. They did not. Further, Oswald had written a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Washington in which he mentioned Hosty and the FBI. (p. 258)

Finally, Hosty had found out himself that Oswald worked at the Texas School Book Depository on the motorcade route. When the man running the Oswald inquiry at the Bureau, Alan Belmont, learned all this he realized what a blow the note and Hosty's inaction would be to the Bureau's image. He relayed his displeasure to Shanklin and Shanklin told Hosty to ditch the note, which he did by flushing it down the toilet. When Hosty was questioned, the Commission did not mention the note or its fate, nor did Hosty volunteer any information about it. Hosty's testimony, excerpted by Knight, borders on the comical. When asked if he even thought about Oswald in relation to Kennedy's upcoming visit or the motorcade route, Hosty replied with a simple "No." (p. 261)

The author's discussion of this episode is thorough, detailed, and provocative. In passing, he mentions some clear questions it all poses:

  1. Would someone contemplating killing the president leave a threatening note in the office of the local FBI?
  2. If Hosty suspected either of the Oswalds as communist sleeper agents, why did he not alert the Dallas Police beforehand?
  3. Why did the Commission go along with Hoover's decision to strike a citation to Hosty in Oswald's address book?
  4. Was Oswald some kind of informant to the Bureau, and did this explain Hosty's negligence?

The author ends this chapter on Hosty by showing how accommodating Rankin was to Hoover. Rankin told the Bureau that the Secret Service was angry with them about this clear lapse. The Bureau went to the top level of the Secret Service and got them to rein in the testimony of Robert Bouck before the Commission. Bouck never mentioned Hosty. (p. 280) The FBI was pleased with Rankin's efforts. As assistant director Alex Rosen wrote, the Commission seemed satisfied with Hosty's presentation. (p. 281)

VI

The real achievement of Breach of Trust is this: as much of it as I have described, there is still as much that I have left out. To write at length about all of it would make this review much too long. But to briefly mention some samples:

  1. It was Rankin's idea to classify the executive sessions Top Secret. (p. 89)
  2. The Sibert-O'Neill report on the autopsy was so disturbing that neither of the agents was called to testify. (pgs 91-92)
  3. Hoover and James Angleton discouraged any move toward an independent staff. (p. 93)
  4. McKnight presents the best case for Oswald not being on the sixth floor that I have seen, with corroborating witnesses that I did not recall. (pgs. 115-116)
  5. There is no evidence that the FBI did a cotton swab test to see if the Mannlicher- Carcano was fired that day. (p. 121)
  6. The Commission conspired with the FBI to keep the exculpatory results of the spectrographic tests out of the record. (p.125)
  7. The Commission was so sensitive to the rumors of Oswald's government agent status that Rankin tried to falsify the record of the January 22, 1964 meeting. (pgs 128-135)
  8. Rankin covered up the information the Commission had that Oswald may have been given a CIA source number. (pgs. 137-140)
  9. According to the FBI analysis of the Zapruder film, the first shot came at frame 170, when the limousine was hidden by the branches of an oak tree. (pgs. 150-153)
  10. Rankin plotted in advance to avoid an accurate stenographic record of the 9/18/64 executive session in order to disguise Sen. Russell's dissent about the single bullet theory. Thereby falsely presenting it as a unanimous decision. (pgs. 294-95)

And even this still does not do complete justice to this extraordinary, magisterial book. One that should serve as a model for what can be achieved in the field with the new declassifications by the ARRB. What McKnight has done has deepened our understanding of just how badly the Warren Commission served the public. But by explaining also how and why it happened, he gives us a new version, one in stereo and high definition. At the end of Rush to Judgment, Mark Lane wrote that the Warren Report dishonored "those who wrote it little more than those who praise it." This book makes you feel the sting of that dishonor more than any other book that I know. But, as with the best work in the field, it helps us transcend that shame with the beauty and power of pure understanding. And with that achievement, this volume joins my list of the top ten ever written in the field.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 22:45
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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