Sunday, October 31, 2021

The JFK Files: Rhetoric vs. Truth

It’s autumn of 2021 and along with falling leaves, football and apple cider, the time is upon us for the latest round of inflated oratory from the JFK conspiracy theorists clamoring for the release of the “secret JFK files.” President Biden announced on October 23rd that more time is needed to process the records that were due to be released on the 26th. This decision was not greeted warmly by those who are convinced that a conspiracy killed the 35th President.

Leading the way for critics of Biden’s ruling, as always, is former Washington Post editor and gadfly Jefferson Morley. When Morley burst on the assassination scene in the late nineties, he represented himself as an activist for the release of JFK files who was agnostic on the question of conspiracy and indeed leaned toward the idea that Oswald was guilty. But an early “red flag” was Morley’s insistence that we will never know the truth until every scrap of paper even tangentially related to the JFK case is released.

Fast forward about 25 years or so and Morley has (perhaps predictably) morphed into a full-fledged conspiracy theorist. In his recent book, Morley v. CIA: My Unfinished JFK Investigation, he stated this:

The likelihood that there was a conspiracy, that the killing was not the work of a lone assassin, remains the conclusion best informed by the preponderance of the publicly available evidence.

In the same volume, the “new” Morley also at least implies that Oswald was a “patsy.”

Now, Biden’s refusal to release the records immediately and unconditionally has opened the floodgates of rage for Morley and others who evidently believed that the long-awaited release of files was finally imminent. Their tirades are receiving national exposure in respected online publications and on social media.

Shortly after Biden’s decision, Morley took to Twitter with the following outburst:

Last Friday night, Pres. Biden released a ridiculous statement saying he will delay enforcement of the JFK Records Act until Dec. 15. The CIA has annulled a law passed unanimously by Congress. It is a proverbial 'smoking gun’ … The CIA's actions are brazen, arrogant, cunning, and desperate … The Agency seeks eternal impunity for the malfeasance of certain CIA personnel in the death of the 35th president … The intentional nullification of the [JFK Records Act] is the Smoking Gun No.1.

Morley continued:

Confirmation of malicious intent evident in Smoking Gun No. 1 is found in the JFK files that the CIA (and the Pentagon) are concealing. These include the unedited recordings from Air Force One on 11/22/63; files of CIA propaganda operations involving accused assassin Oswald; and perhaps surprisingly, redacted documents related to the Watergate scandal. Huh? "What's Watergate got to do with JFK?" you ask. That's a very good question that Langley is artfully--and shamelessly--dodging.

Then a surprising admission:

I could be wrong, of course …

Call me picky, but shouldn’t one be a little more certain when you say the CIA has “annulled” a law passed by Congress and is seeking “eternal impunity for the malfeasance of certain CIA personnel in the death of the 35th president?”

Nevertheless, Morley ends his missive with a flourish:

The CIA is still with us, an incipient American Gestapo, still hiding the truth about JFK. The smoking gun is Biden's subservient letter & the taboo JFK files it suppresses.

Joining Morley in his incredulity if not his loquaciousness is historian David Talbot, author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years and The Devil’s Chessboard. Talbot told Politico:

“Any serious journalist or historian who looks at this seriously comes to the same conclusion: that Lee Harvey Oswald was what he said he was, ‘a patsy,’ and that the Warren Commission was an effort to cover up the crime, not investigate the crime in an honest way.”

A third example of indignation comes from Jacob Hornberger who is President of the Future of Freedom Foundation:

There has got to be a good reason why the CIA does not want people to see those 60-year-old secret records. That’s why they didn’t disclose them during the era of the Assassination Records Review Board in the 1990s. That’s why they demanded that President Trump continue keeping them secret in 2017. That’s why they demanded that Biden extend the secrecy.

What is Being Withheld and Why

Are Morley, Talbot and Hornberger right? Is the only reason that the CIA and other agencies don’t want the records released is because they are hiding nefarious facts directly related to JFK’s death? Is there a “smoking gun” in these records? Does the weight of the evidence indicate a conspiracy? Was Oswald really just a “patsy?”

That’s a lot to unpack, but fortunately a breath of fresh air appeared amid the madness in the form of Mark Zaid, a national security attorney who is familiar with the case. Zaid advocates for a full release of the documents but recognizes that there are legitimate reasons for withholding some materials. Appearing on CNN, Zaid said:

… there is the possibility there's some information within these files that still needs to be protected … I'll give you one example. Lee Harvey Oswald, the expected assassin, went to Mexico City in September of 1963. We know he visited the Soviet and the Cuban embassies. We might have had, probably did, sources in those embassies, both human and technical, and protecting those sources, especially human, they could still be alive 58 years later. They could be in their 80s right now.

Zaid continued with his take on the “smoking gun” matter:

Look, a lot of the information actually doesn't depend or relate to what actually happened November 22nd. So there's no smoking gun in these documents.

Zaid was also able to see something that Morley, Talbot and Hornberger evidently could not. That is, the bright side of Biden’s order:

… this order that President Biden issued on Friday actually has some good things in it too … he's requiring that the National Archives digitize all the records, a quarter million records. Most of the records are publicly available, but you have to go to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, to see it. So hopefully, sometime within the next couple years, these records will be online so anyone around the world can access them and do their own research.

A second voice of reason emerged in the form of Kel McClanahan, an attorney specializing in national security law who previously served as an associate editor for the American Intelligence Journal. McClanahan agrees with Zaid that many of the records have little to do with the JFK case.

McClanahan told the UK-based Independent that numerous records covered by the JFK Records Act would normally fall under the National Security Act and other classification laws. But in this instance the ARRB:

… scooped up a whole bunch of [not necessarily relevant] records … The farther you get from the assassination and subject matter, [intelligence agencies are] going to keep arguing that whatever minimal national security, law enforcement, foreign relations interest that is served by withholding it is going to trump the increasingly diminishing public interest in disclosure about something that we wouldn’t even be talking about if someone hadn’t been excessively generous in deciding what was responsive to the JFK Act when it was first passed.

Additionally, McClanahan provided an example of the type of thing that the CIA and other agencies seek to protect. The agency fought to withhold a document captured from Imperial Germany during World War I because it revealed a method of making invisible ink that was an antecedent of a method still used by intelligence agencies.

To his credit, at least one conspiracy-minded author agrees with Zaid’s assessment of no “smoking gun.” David Kaiser, a former history professor at the Naval War College and author of The Road to Dallas, told Politico:

Do I believe the CIA has a file that shows former CIA Director Allen Dulles presided over the assassination? No. But I’m afraid there are people who will believe things like that no matter what is in the files.

Oswald An Innocent Patsy?

What about the accusations of conspiracy and claims of Oswald’s innocence? Contrary to what Morley and Talbot say, Oswald was not a “patsy.” Nor is it true that the sole purpose of the Warren Commission (WC) was to cover up the evidence or that most of said evidence indicates a conspiracy.

Certainly, evidence exists that, when viewed out of context, could lead a reasonable person to a belief that a conspiracy in the death of JFK occurred. But the preponderance of the data supports the same position first postulated by the WC all those years ago. Oswald alone killed Kennedy and he was no patsy.

The easiest myth to debunk is that the WC was merely a vehicle used to coverup a vast conspiracy. That notion was put to bed by Howard Willens’ 2013 book History Will Prove Us Right, a work which is not high on the reading list of JFK theorists. Willens worked as a staff member on the WC and his book shows not only the dedication of those involved but the thoroughness of their landmark investigation. The only way to deny the facts presented by Willens is to claim, as some theorists are glad to do, that Willens himself is a cog in the continued coverup.

As for the proof that Oswald killed JFK, government investigations including a preliminary inquiry by the FBI, the Rockefeller Commission, the Clark Panel, the Church Committee and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) reaffirmed all or part of the WC’s conclusions (more on a controversial conclusion of the HSCA later). And authors including Jean Davison, Priscilla McMillan, Gerald Posner, Norman Mailer, Vincent Bugliosi and others have shown that the key to the case lies in a detailed study of the entirety of Oswald’s life. Their work proves that he was a misanthropic loner rather than a secret agent managed by an unseen hand as he is often portrayed in conspiracy books.

Interested readers who do not wish to wade through reams of material can find the case against Oswald HERE.

This page, by the late assassination expert John McAdams, offers illuminating detail about the man himself and debunks numerous myths.

Of course, these resources will not satisfy those theorists who distrust the key evidence developed by the WC, the FBI, the Dallas Police and the Bethesda autopsy doctors. Enter Nicholas Nalli, a senior research scientist who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nalli is the author of a remarkable paper that purports to be a critical review of the book Last Second in Dallas by Josiah Thompson but is really a tour de force that should be read by anyone who considers themselves a scholar of the assassination.

Significantly, Nalli speaks to those individuals whose belief system requires that the comprehensive evidence against Oswald must be identified as fabricated or, at a minimum, untenable. Nalli writes:

Once we start denying key pieces of evidence (e.g., the Zapruder Film, autopsy materials, physical evidence, etc.) without ironclad proof (i.e., other more fundamental evidence), we can then deny all the evidence on the same grounds. And once we have descended to that point, we no longer have any basis for investigation or argument, nor any basis for ‘believing it’—we are simply wasting our time debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

Additionally, Nalli’s article provides a review of some of the most contentious physical evidence in the case. This includes a discussion of the fatal head shot observed at frame 313 of the Zapruder film and the infamous “back and to the left” motion of JFK immediately thereafter. This movement, first brought to national attention in a 1975 television broadcast moderated by Geraldo Rivera, is often interpreted by theorists as “proof” of a frontal shot or a shot from the “grassy knoll” even though there is no credible supporting evidence for such a shot from either location. This movement by JFK is also one of the most mentioned reasons provided by theorists to justify their continued disbelief in the official version of the case.

Nalli notes the forward motion of JFK between frames 312-313 of the Zapruder film which, by the way, was verified as an authentic depiction of the assassination by Kodak expert Roland Zavada. Nalli postulates this slight movement (about 2 inches) indicates a bullet striking JFK’s head from the rear, which is where Oswald was located and the physical evidence tying him to the crime was found.

Notably, Nalli provides the long-awaited explanation for the motion of JFK right after the head shot. In this regard, he builds on the work of Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez. Put simply, Alvarez postulated that a recoil effect backward toward the shooter was caused by the expulsion of human tissue from the right side of JFK’s head.

A colleague of Alvarez’s, noted assassination researcher Paul Hoch, suggested that Alvarez conduct experiments using a “reasonable facsimile” of a human head (melons were chosen) to provide support for his hypothesis. Nalli writes that, “Hoch noted that the melons consistently exhibited a ‘retrograde motion’ toward the shooter, and Alvarez thus was able to demonstrate that a recoil effect is indeed possible.”

Alvarez was frequently ridiculed for his efforts and labeled a “government shill” by theorists. But, before he had ever heard of Alvarez’s work, Nalli “independently” came to the conclusion that an explosive wound of the type seen in the Zapruder film would indeed cause “a recoil of JFK’s head.” Nalli writes:

a recoil effect of some magnitude had to happen (following the initial forward impulse) given the directional mass expulsion observed in Z313, even if it were the only known case of the phenomenon, because it is an inescapable consequence of momentum conservation [emphasis in original].

Nalli has written his own scholarly paper on the subject.

The conclusion of that paper:

It is therefore found that the observed motions of President Kennedy in the film are physically consistent with a high-speed projectile impact from the rear of the motorcade, these resulting from an instantaneous forward impulse force, followed by delayed rearward recoil and neuromuscular forces.

Next, Nalli tackles the acoustics “evidence” that allowed the HSCA to conclude that a “probable conspiracy” in the death of JFK had occurred.

Before this eleventh hour conclusion was reached, the HSCA could just as easily have been referred to as the WC on steroids. In fact, a draft of the final report that was created before the committee “discovered” the acoustics data found no evidence of conspiracy. Notably, the HSCA verified the WC judgement that Oswald killed JFK (even in their final report) and added considerable new scientific confirmation to that conclusion including authentication of the “backyard photos” of Oswald holding the murder weapon and verification of the autopsy photographs and x-rays that prove JFK was hit from behind.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, two teams of acoustics experts analyzed data originating from a recording of Dallas police communications during the Presidential motorcade on the day JFK was killed. One team found that a 95% probability existed that a shot had been fired from the “grassy knoll.” This led to the unfortunate conclusion of “probable conspiracy” by the HSCA.

Nalli argues that there are three “general categories of arguments” that discredit the acoustics evidence:

  • Timing issues.
  • Open mic location assumptions.
  • Insufficient information-content within the DPD recordings.

A comprehensive discussion of all the acoustics issues is beyond the scope of this article. But as an example, Nalli summarizes the mic location issues, which alone discredit the acoustics evidence:

the location of the transmitting mic was not found to be in the specific place it needed to be (as established by [Dale] Myers), nor in the motorcade (as established by Sonalysts), nor did the suspect impulses occur during the assassination timeframe (as established by Ramsey, Linsker, et al.), and the match was not to the exclusion of all other locations (as established by [Michael] O’Dell). These subsequent facts confirm to us that the Dictabelt waveform patterns (including those attributed to “echoes”) had a non-gunshot source.


The claims by Morley et al are untrue. First, there are legitimate reasons to delay the release of certain files. And claims of a “smoking gun” (literal or otherwise) are doubted by even conspiracy-minded individuals. These and other hyperbolic assertions seem to be mere ploys in the continued quest for an unconditional file release. And when listening to the conspiracy theorists’ rhetoric regarding the “secret” JFK files, it is wise to remember what we know about the assassination and what the files will likely tell us (or not tell us).

We know that Oswald killed JFK and he was not a patsy. However, most contemporary theorists ignore the voluminous evidence and persist in the belief that Oswald was completely innocent of the crime. We know that many of the remaining files are not directly related to the assassination and the release of these files will do little or nothing to enhance the public’s knowledge of the case. Such a release will, however, give theorists and CIA critics new ammunition that they can use to write books and articles that postulate unproveable and mutually exclusive hypotheses carried out by eternally invisible actors. The truth about the JFK assassination is knowable for all but those who continue to debate, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

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