Friday, 20 June 2014

The Watchman Waketh but in Vain: Howard Willens Responds

Back in March of this year, former Warren Commission lawyer Howard Willens added to his blog an ill-advised and thoroughly inadequate response to my review of his misnamed book, History Will Prove Us Right. In my review I pointed out a number of glaring omissions by the author and provided several examples of blatant dishonesty on his part. I summed up Willens's stance as one of obvious denial, advising that he needed to wake up and admit the world was round, and ultimately concluded his book was simply not worth reading. I showed, using in many instances the official evidence, that the Commission began with dishonest intentions and operated with a pre-ordained outcome in mind. Not surprisingly, Willens, who has taken over the indefatigable David Belin's role as principle defender of the Commission, was none too pleased with my fact-based appraisal.

Willens first takes issue with my use of the now infamous Katzenbach memo which, he says, I use to support my “proposition that the Commission's investigation was a total fraud on the American people.” Actually, I used much more than just that memo to demonstrate my point. I showed how, the day after the assassination, President Johnson was shocked by information he received from the CIA implicating Oswald in a plot orchestrated by Castro. I showed how Johnson used that information to twist Earl Warren's arm into chairing the Commission, impressing upon him the importance of avoiding war with the Soviets. And I quoted from a memo of Warren's first meeting with the Commission's staff in which he passed the message on, emphasising that “this was an occasion on which actual conditions had to override general principles.” But, just like in his book, Willens doesn't want to talk about any of this. He limits the discussion to the Katzenbach memo which, quite ridiculously, he still cannot bring himself to quote from or put into context.

Let's do that now.

Only hours after Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote the following: “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial...Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right–wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists.”

It is absolutely clear from the above that long before any such thing had been proven, Katzenbach was flatly suggesting the American people needed telling that the evidence established there had been no conspiracy and Oswald was the lone assassin. But as I noted in my review, at that point in time there was not a single eyewitness against Oswald and his prints had not been found on the alleged murder weapon. In fact, only the previous morning, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had stated in a phone conversation with LBJ that “The evidence that they have at the present time is not very very strong.” A few minutes later, Hoover candidly admitted, “The case as it stands now isn't strong enough to be able to get a conviction.” Between the time of that phone call and the time Katzenbach sat down to write his memo, the only thing of substance that had changed was that the accused assassin was now dead and would not have to face trial.

Contrary to what Katzenbach advised the public be told, on the evening of November 24, 1963, not only was the evidence not “such that he [Oswald] would have been convicted at trial”, but everyone in government had plenty of reason to suspect a conspiracy. In fact, at that time, the CIA was still feeding the White House disturbing reports of Oswald's alleged activities in Mexico City shortly before the assassination. As I wrote in my review:

On Saturday, November 23, LBJ met twice with CIA director John McCone who briefed him about Oswald's alleged visit to Mexico City two months earlier. Based on information sent to headquarters by the CIA's Mexico City station, McCone reported that Oswald had been in contact with Soviet consular Valery Kostikov, whom it was alleged was an expert in assassinations. Shaking Johnson up some more, the CIA followed this up on Monday, November 25, with a cablegram from Mexico City Station Chief Winston Scott, who claimed to have uncovered evidence that Castro, with Soviet support, had paid Oswald to kill Kennedy.

Katzenbach later admitted in his testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he had been fully aware of the reports coming out of Mexico City. So he had to have known that there were many credible leads still to be followed regarding a possible conspiracy (assuming one considers the CIA credible), just as he had to have known—as Hoover did—that there was no evidence proving Oswald guilty of pulling the trigger. Put into this context, the Katzenbach memo can only be viewed as a blatant instigation of a whitewash. There is quite simply no other reasonable point of view so it is no surprise that even his “rebuttal” Willens cannot bring himself to divulge or face these facts.

According to Willens, it is “sheer foolishness” to suggest that Johnson, Katzenbach, or anyone else influenced the Commission or its staff. “When I was asked to assist the Commission,” he writes, “neither Katzenbach nor anyone else gave me directions as to what I should do...” Whilst in all honesty I doubt Willens is telling the truth, I obviously cannot prove it. But what I can say is that his colleague on the Commission staff, Wesley Liebeler, apparently had a different story to tell when he took a very important witness named Silvia Odio to dinner after taking her first testimony. According to Odio's interview with Church Committee investigators, Liebeler had stated that evening, "Well, you know if we do find out that this is a conspiracy you know that we have orders from Chief Justice Warren to cover this thing up." Asked if Liebeler had really said that, Odio replied, “Yes, sir, I could swear on that.” (Probe, Vol. 3 No. 6)

In his continued attempt to bolster the integrity of his colleagues, Willens repeats the old canard that “most of the staff lawyers were eager to prove that the FBI's initial report was incorrect in some important respects and to find that a conspiracy existed.” All I can really say in response is that if you believe this nonsense, then I have a bridge to sell you. I mean, really, was Joseph Ball looking to prove the FBI wrong when he blatantly led Helen Markham into identifying Oswald as the killer of Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit? Was Wesley Liebeler looking for a conspiracy when he failed to ask Patrolman Joseph Smith for a description of the fake Secret Service Agent on the Grassy Knoll? What about Arlen Specter when he warned Dallas Doctor Ronald Jones that he didn't want him talking about shots from the front? (see Parkland Trauma Room One Reunion video at approx. 29:10) Or David Belin when he suborned perjury from Texas School Book Depository employee Charles Givens? As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. And the actions of the Commission's staff clearly demonstrate that finding a conspiracy was the last thing on their minds.

In my review, I pointed out that when Willens was given the job of staffing the Commission, he did not look for experienced, independent investigators and instead hired a bunch of Ivy league lawyers. Willens responded by pointing out that the “FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and other federal agencies” had been investigating the assassination for six weeks before the Commission began its work. Which of course is part of the problem. Those agencies, who misled and withheld important information from the Commission, should have been suspects and not the principle investigators. Ah! But, Willens claims, the Commission did not rely on the FBI to supply the evidence. Oh no. It “based its conclusions” on “the sworn testimony from 550 witnesses”. Which is about as weak and misleading a response as I can imagine. Who was it that went out and found the vast majority of those witnesses and told the Commission who it needed to speak to? Oh, that's right, the FBI and “other federal agencies”. And in numerous cases they worked hard to ensure those witnesses would testify in a “favourable” manner.

A perfect example would be the case of friend and aide to President Kennedy, Kenny O'Donnell, who was riding in the Secret Service car behind the Presidential limousine when the shots rang out. As O'Donnell later revealed to House Speaker Tip O'Neil, “I told the FBI what I had heard [two shots from behind the grassy knoll fence], but they said it couldn’t have happened that way and that I must have been imagining things. So I testified the way they wanted me to. I just didn’t want to stir up any more pain and trouble for the family.” (O'Neil, Man of the House, p. 178) Riding in the follow-up car with O'Donnell was Dave Powers who corroborated O'Donnell's account in an interview with authors Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann, saying he was pressured to change his testimony “for the good of the country”. (Ultimate Sacrifice, p. 106)

Then there is the case of Dallas physician Dr. Malcolm Perry who, on the afternoon of November 22, told the press that JFK had an entrance wound in his throat only to seemingly change his mind when he appeared before the Commission months later. As the Church Committee discovered in 1975, Dr. Perry's change of heart was a direct result of pressure applied by Secret Service Agent Elmer Moore who went on to play a curious role as somebody's mole on the Commission. (Jim DiEugenio, Reclaiming Parkland, p. 143-144)

As we can see from the examples above, in important instances testimony taken by Commission lawyers was tainted by the fact that the federal agents who acted as its investigators had gotten to the witnesses first. And that's the witnesses the FBI wanted to deal with. There were many more whom the Bureau simply ignored or, if they could not, worked hard to discredit. And the Commission played along. On top of this is the fact that, despite Willens's protestations, the Commission did rely almost exclusively upon the FBI for the collection and analysis of all crucial physical and forensic evidence. The only time the Commission sought “outside” expertise was when the FBI reported that the bullets removed from Officer Tippit could not be traced to Oswald's revolver. In that instance the Commission went out of its way to find itself an expert who was willing to say the opposite. So much for the “determined independent lawyers” eager to “find a conspiracy”! A decade and a half later, presumably using advanced techniques, the firearms panel for the HSCA determined that the FBI had been right all along and the Tippit bullets “could not be exclusively identified” as having been fired from Oswald's pistol. (7HSCA377) Clearly the Commission had rejected the best evidence in favour of that which suited its agenda.

Willens finally attempts to dismiss the remaining 4000+ words of my review with the following:

“The rest of Hay’s review is a very familiar mishmash of allegations claiming that the CIA immediately after the assassination began a 'campaign to lay the blame for the assassination at Castro’s feet' through an anti-Castro exile group that he claimed was funded by the CIA and had some contact with Oswald during the summer of 1963.” As anybody who has read it can attest, there is far more to the rest of my review than the story of Oswald and the DRE. I will go into detail about what else Willens ignored below. But first, let's set the record straight.

It is not simply an “allegation” that Oswald had contact with the anti-Castro Student Revolutionary Directorate—or the DRE, as it was known—it is a fact. Perhaps Willens needs to go back to his copy of the Warren report (p. 407) to read about how Oswald was arrested in a street scuffle with DRE Delegate Carlos Bringuier during the summer of 1963 and how the pair later appeared together in a radio debate. Nor is it an “allegation” that the DRE was funded by the CIA. As this CIA document clearly states, the group was “conceived, created, and funded by the CIA”. The DRE was overseen by a career Agency officer named George Joannides who, in a brazenly obfuscatory move, was later pulled out of retirement to act as liaison between the CIA and the HSCA in the committee's requests for information about anti-Castro groups. Needless to say, Joannides did not tell the HSCA about the Agency's creation and control of the DRE nor was the Committee informed of Joannides's role. Honestly, you couldn't make this stuff up! And finally, that the CIA-funded DRE moved to link Oswald's name to the Castro regime in the national press within hours of his arrest is not an “allegation”, it's just what happened. (see 10HSCA85)

The final point of substance in my review that Willens elects to comment on has to do with the dubious appointment of former CIA Director Allen Dulles to the Commission. Willens writes, “I have often wondered myself as to why he was named...I have no first-hand information about this appointment...” Hold the phone there, Howie. You conveyed no such hesitance or ignorance in your book when you wrote matter-of-factly that President Johnson “had asked Robert Kennedy to suggest possible commission members from the private sector. Kennedy proposed Allen Dulles...” (History Will Prove Us Right, p. 26) Given that in my review I showed quite clearly that the contemporary record entirely contradicted any such claim, I'm not surprised Willens is backing off this nonsense now. I just wish he had the courage and integrity to admit his error.

Willens ends his response by chastising my “total absence of any recognition that the critical findings of the Warren Commission have been examined on several occasions since 1964 and found, without exception, to be correct.” He goes on to say that I “fail to acknowledge” the conclusions of the HSCA; namely that JFK was struck by only two shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. Willens is correct, I did not discuss the HSCA conclusions in my review. Nor will I do so in detail here. I did not and do not have the time, space, or inclination to do so then or now. I will simply note that those conclusions are a sad reflection of the fact that, just like the Warren Commission, the HSCA ended up being a political exercise and not an honest investigation. Sure, the Committee started out promisingly under Chief Counsel Richard Sprague. But when Sprague was ousted for daring to challenge the CIA, and for making it clear that he was determined to discover the full truth, the HSCA went straight down the toilet. Sprague's replacement Robert Blakey was, in the words of former HSCA staff investigator Gaeton Fonzi, “an experienced Capitol Hill man” who “knew exactly what the priorities of his job were by Washington standards, even before he stepped in.” [for those who want to understand where and how the HSCA went wrong, Fonzi's brilliant book The Last Investigation is the ideal starting point.]

Now let's get to some of the most important information in my review that Willens did not even acknowledge let alone attempt to rebut. He could not acknowledge it because it reveals his own dishonesty. And he cannot not rebut it because it is the truth. In section V of my review, I discussed the Commission's mishandling of the medical evidence and Willens's attempted defense of it. I will not attempt to include all of the details here—instead referring readers to my original review—but essentially I showed how the Commission dealt with three important issues:

1. The throat wound was described by all professional medical personal at Parkland Hospital as having all the characteristics of a typical entrance wound.

2. The back wound was probed at autopsy and found to be shallow with no point of exit.

3. The autopsy photos showed the back wound to be lower than the hole in the throat.

I used the transcript of the Commission's own executive session to show that it was fully aware of what the autopsy photos revealed. I explained how it chose not to publish the report of FBI Agents Sibert and O'Neil, who were present at the autopsy, and avoided calling them to testify in order to keep the shallow probing of the back wound out of the record. And I noted how the Dallas doctors were pressured into changing their opinions about the nature of the wound in the throat. But Willens, as I explained, takes a different approach in his book. He ignores the location of the back wound altogether so as to avoid the trajectory problems with the Single Bullet Theory. But more importantly he tries to make the controversy about the nature of the two non-fatal wounds disappear by confusing events and attributing a false mistake to the FBI. As I wrote in my review:

Willens...writes that the FBI was mistaken about JFK's back wound because it “relied in part on the initial, but inaccurate, information from Parkland Hospital that the first bullet that hit Kennedy had not exited from his body.” That's right, he conflates two separate events so that he can effectively make the controversy about the throat wound vanish whilst simultaneously making it appear as if the shallow probing of the back wound at autopsy was nothing more than a mistaken observation made by emergency room staff! This is one of the most disgustingly dishonest things I have ever read in any book dealing with the assassination of President Kennedy. It says a lot about Willens's integrityand the desperation of the lone nut crowd in general-that he has to stoop so low.

What can we say about Willens's integrity now, knowing that he read the above passage and chose not to comment? I have exposed what I can only characterize as a deliberate falsehood by the author intended to deceive readers about the true facts of the Kennedy assassination and Willens has nothing at all to say? Can Willens not see that this is precisely why so many people will never accept the official story; because defending it requires telling lies or ignoring inconvenient truths?

Ultimately I must ask, is Willens's massively deficient response to my review really the best defense this guardian of the Warren Commission's reputation can come up with? Does he really believe his shallow and misleading reproof really has any hope of improving the Commission's standing? Because he utterly failed in his stated intention of exposing my “mistakes”. He failed because he ignored key facts and omitted relevant details. He failed because he could not bring himself to confront the evidence under discussion. He failed because he could not even bring himself to admit his own gross errors and deceptions.

Truly the watchman waketh in vain.


  1. Ted a good post. But this excerpt, "(Katzenbach was flatly suggesting the American people needed telling that the evidence established there had been no conspiracy and Oswald was the lone assassin.)" my view does not mean that the fix was in. It emphasizes he wanted a clean report.

    1. Not sure why you addressed this comment to "Ted" but my name is Martin Hay and this is my blog! Anyway, I stand by what I wrote. I think Katzenbach's memo speaks for itself. As does the fact that, before their work had even begun, Katzenbach wrote a letter to each of the newly appointed members of the Warren Commission urging them to issue a press release stating that the FBI report - which they had only received that day - proved beyond a doubt that Oswald was a lone assassin.

  2. Lyndon Johnson murdered John Kennedy. LBJ was not "shook up" about any cover story regarding Oswald.

    1. Robert, I am not remotely interested in your ludicrous theory. If you post anymore comments about how LBJ "murdered" Kennedy they will be deleted.