Monday, August 11, 2008

Gerald Ford, the Warren Commission, and the Media


Last weekend, the Associated Press (AP) reported that newly released records from Former President Gerald R. Ford 's FBI file show that Ford secretly advised the FBI that two of his fellow members on the Warren Commission doubted the conclusion that John F. Kennedy was shot from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas.

At least, that’s what the vast majority of the press reported in the wake of the AP story, leading to these sensationalistic headlines:

Doubts in JFK Assassination; Ford told FBI about panel’s doubts on JFK murder; Mole Exposed JFK doubts…

The nation was also treated to details like these:

“… Newly released documents show that Ford told FBI agents that two people on the seven member commission doubted [Oswald acted alone] ...”

“…Documents show Gerald Ford, then a congressman, secretly advised the FBI that two of his fellow members on the Warren Commission doubted JFK had been shot from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository …”

If one didn’t know better, you might be led to believe that the Commission members who expressed doubts about Oswald’s sole guilt did so after the Commission’s exhaustive 10-month investigation.

However, the details of the new document release weren’t reported by the vast majority of the 10-second sound bite media crowd, and of those few media outlets that did, how many in their audience understood the significance of those details? Not many, I’ll venture.

For instance, the AP reported that on December 17, 1963, then-Congressman Ford told the FBI’s Assistant Director Cartha "Deke" DeLoach that “Two members of the commission brought up the fact that they still were not convinced that the President had been shot from the sixth floor window of the Texas Book Depository” and that “These members failed to understand the trajectory of the slugs that killed the President. He stated he felt this point would be discussed further but, of course, would represent no problem.”

You’ll note that the date was December 17, 1963, - less than a month after the assassination, just twelve days after the Commission met for the first time, eight days after the FBI submitted it’s own preliminary report which concluded Oswald was the sole assassin, a month before the Commission even looked at the Zapruder film, and nine months before the Warren Commission delivered it’s own final report on the assassination.

In effect, any doubts that the two unnamed Commission members expressed could only have been based on early newspaper reports and the FBI’s preliminary report – both awash in misstatements of fact. None of this is new, of course.

The fact that Ford even met with the FBI during the Commissions earliest days has been known for 33 years, having been reported in 1975 by former assistant FBI director William Sullivan. Sullivan, who had a bitter break with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, told investigators that “Hoover did not want the Warren Commission to conduct an exhaustive investigation for fear that it would discover important and relevant facts that we in the FBI had not discovered in our own investigation, [since] it would be greatly embarrassing to him and damaging to his career and the FBI as a whole.” [11HSCA53] Sullivan’s remarks were supported by the Church Committee, which found that Hoover repeatedly told others that the Warren Commission was seeking to criticize the FBI. [Church Committee Report, p.46]

In 1978, Ford himself testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) under penalty of perjury that he only met with DeLoach on two occasions, December 12 and 17, 1963, both of which times were “during the organizational period of the Commission and before any investigations or hearings were undertaken by the Commission.” [3HSCA576-577]

Despite the charge that Ford was a stoolie for the FBI, which conjures up images of some ragged snitch meeting with government agents in back alleys, it is highly significant to note that no one has been able to show that Ford had any contact with the FBI other than the two dates which Ford testified to. The 500 pages of recently declassified documents turned over to the news media under the Freedom of Information Act last week only strengthens this fact.

Long ago declassified transcripts of the Commission meeting held on December 16, 1963 (the day before Ford met with DeLoach), show that the Commission as a whole was dissatisfied with the FBI’s 384-page, five volume report delivered to the Commission a week earlier.

Senator Richard Russell complained that “practically everything in there has come out in the press at one time or another.” John McCloy attributed the deficiency of the FBI’s report on the speed with which it had been put together. Representative Hale Boggs and Senator John Cooper noted that there was nothing in the report about Governor Connally “and whether or not they found any bullets in him.” McCloy added, “This bullet business leaves me confused.” Boggs told fellow members that the FBI report “raises a lot of new questions in my mind.” Warren Commission head, Chief Justice Earl Warren opined, “It’s totally inconclusive.”

Even Gerald Ford is on record as saying, “[The report] was interesting to read but it did not have the depth that it ought to have.” So much for Ford being the FBI’s man on the Commission.

It was during that December 16 meeting that the Commission decided not to rely solely on the FBI report or on the reports from any other federal agencies, but instead would examine the raw materials that went into the reports and make their own appraisal.

In fact, the Warren Commission took the sworn testimony of 498 witnesses, independent of the FBI, and directed much of the FBI’s later investigation.

In an effort to further link the former President with the Warren Commission’s mythical cover-up, assumed by many uninformed citizens as a matter of gospel, the AP noted that “Warren Commission records released in 1997 revealed that in the final report Ford changed the staff's original description of one of Kennedy's wounds. Ford said then he only made the description more precise. Skeptics said Ford's wording falsely made the wound seem higher on the body to make the panel's conclusion that one bullet hit both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally more plausible.”

This was a reference to a July 3, 1997, news story that Ford had changed an early draft of the Commissions final report from the language that the bullet had entered Kennedy’s “back at a point slightly above the shoulder,” to its entering “the back of the neck.”

While conspiracy theorists were quick to charge that Ford’s language changes were part of the big “cover-up,” none of the language used in the Warren Report changes the measurements provided in the autopsy report nor does it alter the location of the back/neck wound as seen in the actual autopsy photographs. Apparently, only the most rabid of conspiracy theorists are able to believe that Ford’s early draft changes would be sufficient to contain the government “cover-up”.

This latest round of Warren Commission bashing adds nothing new to the assassination debate. About the only thing it manages to accomplish is to feed the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for a diluted and abhorrently delusional version of American history.

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