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Botched Investigation Fuels Kennedy Conspiracy Theories

It's been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and polls show that a majority of Americans still believe Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy, not a lone assassin. Philip Shenon, author of A Cruel and Shocking Act, explores what keeps these conspiracy theories alive.



October 28, 2013

Guest: Philip Shenon

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On November 22, 1963, Americans watching Friday afternoon soap operas were hit with some shocking news.


WALTER CRONKITE: Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.

GROSS: Though an official investigation concluded that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, the assassination spawned conspiracy theories almost immediately, and they haven't stopped coming. Republican consultant Roger Stone has a new book arguing Lyndon Johnson was behind the crime. While some theories may be far-fetched, polls show that 50 years after the assassination, a majority of Americans still believe President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy and not a lone assassination.

Our guest, Philip Shenon, is a veteran investigative reporter whose new book recounts the work of the Warren Commission, appointed by President Johnson to investigate the assassination. Shenon pored over the files of the commission, spoke to many of its surviving staff attorneys and did original research and interviews about some aspects of the case.

While he's not convinced of a conspiracy to murder the president, he concludes that senior officials of the U.S. government, especially at the CIA, destroyed evidence and lied about the assassination and the events that led up to it. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke to Shenon about his book and some of the most persistently asked questions among JFK conspiracy theorists.

Philip Shenon spent more than 20 years at the New York Times and wrote an earlier book about the 9/11 Commission. His new book is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination."


Well, Philip Shenon, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with just a quick recap. Tell us what were the events that happened that weekend in Dallas in 1963. What were the things that everybody saw and knew?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, so on Friday, November 22, 1963, President Kennedy arrives in Dallas for a motorcade, and he's to give a luncheon speech. And as he's passing through downtown Dallas, he arrives at Dealey Plaza, a small urban plaza in the city, and as he's passing through in his very slowly moving motorcade, shots ring out, and it is clear to some people in Dealey Plaza that the shots are coming from the Texas School Book Depository, which is a private book warehouse that is to the right of the motorcade and behind.

Within an hour, across town, a Dallas police officer by the name of J.D. Tippit is killed, and shortly after that, a young man by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested as he's in a nearby movie theater. Within hours, Oswald is under arrest and charged with President Kennedy's killing and with Tippit's killing.

Two days after that, we have Oswald killed by a man named Jack Ruby, who is a local night club impresario.

DAVIES: Right. So dramatic events, and there was the need for an investigation. The FBI would seem to be the logical entity, but actually killing a president then was not a federal crime; murder is a state crime. How did we end up with a presidential commission looking into this?

SHENON: Well, initially the decision by President Johnson, who was obviously thrust into office at this point, was not to have a federal investigation, was to leave this to the city and county and state officials in Texas to deal with. He didn't want, as he put it, carpetbaggers going into his home state of Texas to run this investigation.

But very clearly in the days that followed there were so many wild theories offered about who was really responsible for the assassination that Johnson decided that he had to have some sort of federal investigation. Among those rumors were rumors that Johnson himself was somehow linked to the assassination. And very quickly President Johnson settles on Chief Justice Earl Warren, who he sees as this ultimate symbol of integrity, to run the investigation.

DAVIES: Right, and there are six other members appointed, members of Congress in some cases, you know, established people. They hire a bunch of young lawyers, well, young and not so young lawyers to conduct the investigation. And so eventually they do a lot of their own interviews and investigation, reviews of the evidence, and then the commission members themselves in some cases interview witnesses.

But it's interesting that early on the FBI presented the commission with a 400-page report of its own, which concluded Oswald had done the deed, he had acted alone. How thorough? What was the quality of that document?

SHENON: Very early on, I mean within 48 hours of the assassination, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover determines in his own mind that Oswald acted alone, there was no conspiracy, there's really not much to investigate here. And the FBI, within two weeks, produces this 400-page report, which is supposedly a thorough review of all that is known about the assassination and about Oswald.

The commission looks over the report and sees just how inadequate it is and how in many ways incompetent the FBI investigation is and then moves on with a much more thorough investigation of its own.

DAVIES: Right, and of course that is just the beginning of a very contentious relationship between the commission and its staff and the FBI, which we'll talk more about. Over the years, the Warren Commission's work and its report has gotten a lot of criticism that evidence was inadequately examined, that certain leads weren't followed.

And it's interesting that Earl Warren himself, who was the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, and, you know, had a real record for groundbreaking decisions in law, that Earl Warren himself was an issue. And I think probably a lot of people, you would probably agree, that he was a bad choice to do this. And one of the reasons was that his - he had a very close relationship with the Kennedy family. How did that affect the testimony and evidence the commission was able to look at?

SHENON: Well, Chief Justice Warren clearly adored President Kennedy and the Kennedy family. And he had been very grateful for all the support that John Kennedy had given to him publicly in some of the more difficult moments of Warren's leadership at the Supreme Court. And you have to remember that for much of the country, Earl Warren was a bad man. He was taking the country in direction they didn't want to go.

DAVIES: He was the liberal justice who was, you know, seen by some as being too soft on criminals.

SHENON: And very far-reaching on civil rights and civil liberties. And Kennedy stepped forward repeatedly to defend Warren, to promote the decisions of the court, and Warren was very grateful. So after the assassination, Earl Warren is apparently shattered. He describes it as being like losing a son. And repeatedly during the course of the investigation, he makes decisions that seem to be designed to protect President Kennedy's legacy, to protect the privacy of the Kennedy family, even if that means that not all the facts are gathered about the assassination.

DAVIES: Well, one question was would they interview Jackie Kennedy, the president's wife. What happened?

SHENON: Chief Justice Warren, until the very last stages of the investigation, seemed to be determined not to interview her. The young staff investigator who was responsible for interviewing the witnesses in the Dallas motorcade - Arlen Specter, an assistant district attorney from Philadelphia who would later go on to be better known as the United States senator from Pennsylvania - he believes that she should be the lead-off witness because she would have information that might be so valuable both about what happened in the limousine in Dealey Plaza and also about whether or not her husband knew of threats against him before the assassination.

Warren, in the final stages of the investigation, under intense pressure from some of the other commissioners, agrees to the interview with Mrs. Kennedy, but he conducts it secretly, without telling Specter, and interviews her for just a few minutes. And Specter learns of this only after it occurs, and he is furious.

DAVIES: Warren was in part wanting to protect Jacqueline Kennedy's feelings, but ironically, you write that people around Washington were saying that she was actually talking quite openly and in some detail about the experience, you know, to friends.

SHENON: Apparently, within weeks of the assassination, she did begin talking to friends about what had gone in Dealey Plaza, including some of the, you know, some of the gruesome details. And it seemed to be almost cathartic for her, is what was said at the time. And she also agrees to be interviewed by a journalist by the name of William Manchester. The Kennedy family essentially authorizes a history of the assassination, recruits a journalist to do it, and she is talking apparently openly to this journalist about what happened in the limousine, even as the Warren Commission is being refused access to her because Chief Justice Warren won't allow it.

DAVIES: Now another question, of course, was the autopsy photos from the examination of President Kennedy's body. I mean, given that there was a need to look at the wounds on the president and match that with ballistics evidence and other physical evidence that would be developed in the course of the investigation, it was important for the investigators to know exactly what the condition of the president's body was in. They never got a hole of the autopsy photographs, right?

SHENON: Well, they do get a hold of them. Chief Justice Warren actually looks them over, and after he looks them over and sees how horrifying they are, he makes the decision that nobody else will be allowed to see them. That includes the other commissioners and all of the members of the commission staff. And this creates a huge division on the commission.

The young staff members, and again Arlen Specter in particular, protest repeatedly, saying they have to have the autopsy photos because they are the essential medical evidence that will allow them to determine how the president died and who might have killed him.

And to the very last stages of the investigation, the staff fights for those photos, and ultimately they are refused, and those photos remained under seal in the custody apparently of Robert Kennedy for years thereafter.

DAVIES: Now the medical evidence, of course, is critical, particularly, you know, as we later see there were so many questions asked about whether the commission had gotten it right, whether - you know, about the direction that the bullets came from, for example. Tell us a little bit about the autopsy itself and what happened to the original notes of the autopsy.


SHENON: I've got to say this is one of the more jaw-dropping stories that I encountered in all this, but the night after the assassination, the Navy pathologist who oversaw President Kennedy's autopsy took the original autopsy report and all of his notes from the autopsy room and pushed them into his fireplace in his home in Bethesda, Maryland.

He did this, he claimed, because they were stained with the president's blood, and he didn't want them ever to be seen. But when it was discovered on the commission staff what the pathologist had done, there was huge alarm because they thought this was going to inspire conspiracy theories for years to come.

The autopsy in many ways was rushed, and it was bungled, and we are still dealing with the aftermath of that because so many of the mistakes made in the autopsy room that night have led to so many of the conspiracy theories about what happened to the president's body.

DAVIES: Yeah, Dr. Humes was not a forensic pathologist, right. I mean, he didn't - he wasn't used to looking at evidence of murder scenes.

SHENON: Well, Mrs. Kennedy on the flight back from Dallas on Air Force One was given a choice of having the autopsy done either at Walter Reed Hospital, which is an Army hospital, or at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which is nearby, obviously a Navy hospital. And because her husband had been in the Navy, she decided on Bethesda. But even Navy pathologists thought that was a bad idea, since Navy pathologists have much less experience with gunshot wounds than do their counterparts in the Army.

And the two pathologists from the Navy who were assigned to oversee the autopsy had no real experience. They weren't forensic pathologists. They had no experience with medical legal autopsies in which a crime was involved.

DAVIES: Right. So we have kind of the wrong people doing the autopsy, some original notes destroyed and some critical evidence from the autopsy not shown to the commission investigators. It's in some respects not surprising, then, that there's room for speculation about what actually happened to the president's body.

You know, I want to talk about the FBI and what it did and did not tell and release to the commission. You know, this commission was appointed by the president. The FBI is a part of the Justice Department, controlled by the president. The president instructed everybody to cooperate with the commission. It's clear that the FBI didn't cooperate. J. Edgar Hoover, its director, was a force unto himself.

Why would the FBI want to hide some of what it might know about Oswald?

SHENON: Well, because it turned out that Lee Harvey Oswald had been under surveillance by the FBI for months before the assassination. And the question becomes: Didn't the FBI have information to suggest what a threat Lee Harvey Oswald might be? And didn't it have an obligation to warn the Secret Service in advance of President Kennedy's arrival in Dallas that this man Lee Harvey Oswald might be a threat?

The decision seems to have been made by Hoover very early on to portray Oswald, whatever the evidence, as a lone wolf whose plot to kill the president could never have been detected by the FBI in advance. There was no conspiracy that the FBI could have stopped and saved the president. So that becomes - the extent of the knowledge that the FBI had of Oswald before the assassination seems to be something that people at the FBI want to hide from the Warren Commission.

DAVIES: Tell us about the note torn up and thrown in the toilet.

SHENON: You know, a big theme of my book is the destruction of evidence, and the destruction of evidence begins within hours of the president's death. President Kennedy is assassinated on a Friday. On Saturday night, his autopsy report is pushed into the fireplace by the Navy pathologist. Several hours after that, FBI agents in Dallas shred a handwritten note that Oswald had left for them just a few weeks before and flush it down the toilet.

And then several hours after that, Marina Oswald, Oswald's widow, puts a match to photographs that show her husband holding the assassination rifle. And that's just the first weekend of evidence destruction. It goes on and on and on in the weeks that follow.

DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter Philip Shenon. His book about the Kennedy assassination is "A Cruel and Shocking Act." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is investigative reporter Philip Shenon. His new book about the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Commission investigation is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act."

As the investigation unfolds, you cite a number of cases in which the FBI itself is asked and assigned to investigate aspects of the investigation of the case, which is clear that they have no interest in investigating thoroughly. And one of them involves a description by a woman named Silvia Odio of her encounter with Oswald I guess some weeks before the assassination. Do you want to just tell us about that?

SHENON: Well, it's a complicated story, but it's an important one. Is that the Warren Commission becomes aware of a young Cuban woman living in Dallas, a refugee, and the daughter of prominent anti-Castro activists in Cuba - then imprisoned in Cuba - and she tells the FBI, and through them the Warren Commission, that she saw Oswald in the company of two Latin men just several weeks before the assassination.

And she was told by one of the Latin men, who introduces this fellow as Leon Oswald, that Oswald is a former Marine who has rifle training, who has spoken openly of his belief that somebody needs to assassinate President Kennedy as a result of the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs.

And the Warren Commission staff becomes concern that maybe there is a conspiracy involving anti-Castro Cubans, that Oswald has somehow become involved in it, and the pursuit of the truth about that incident would go on to the final hours of the Warren Commission investigation.

DAVIES: And did the FBI help get to the bottom of it?

SHENON: Absolutely not. The FBI, in the 11th hour of the Warren Commission investigation, the FBI tells the Warren Commission that it has actually found the men that Ms. Odio encountered and that none of them is Lee Harvey Oswald. And after the commission goes out of business, within days that whole story falls apart. Ms. Odio is still alive, and she still insists that she saw Lee Harvey Oswald in the company of these men just weeks before the assassination.

DAVIES: And I'll not that Vincent Bugliosi, who has written a book affirming the conclusions of the Warren Commission, believes that the Silvia Odio story is more likely true than not true. The other fascinating thing about her is that the FBI agent assigned to investigate this is James Hosty, the guy who destroyed the note in the days after the assassination.

SHENON: Well, I mean, the conflicts of interest for Hosty were enormous. Hosty believes, after the assassination with his career really in tatters, that if he's going to survive at the FBI, he has to help the FBI prove what Hoover wants them to prove, which is that Oswald was a lone wolf, that there was no way the FBI could have stopped him from doing what he did.

And Hosty is, remarkably, the agent in Dallas who was assigned to determine if there's any truth in what Odio was saying, and of course if there's truth in what Odio is saying, the evidence would seem to point to co-conspirators.

DAVIES: Now, one of the fascinating parts of the story, of course, is this nightclub owner in Dallas, Jack Ruby, killing Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the assassination, walking up while he's being transferred from a jail with a gun in his pocket and shooting him. And for years, you know, that fueled conspiracy theories. Either somebody had to have Oswald dead because they were setting him up as a patsy or because he might reveal co-conspirators, and Jack Ruby was the guy there to do it.

So he's clearly a critical figure in the investigation and is a fascinating character in the course of the Warren Commission. What did he tell the commission and its investigators?


SHENON: Well, he tells them many different things, but he is quite insistent in a meeting he has with Chief Justice Warren in Dallas in December of 1964 that there was no conspiracy, that he decided to kill Oswald on impulse because he loved President Kennedy, he loved the Kennedy family, and he didn't want to see Mrs. Kennedy forced to come back to Dallas for a trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.

But Ruby's actions have inspired many, many of the conspiracy theories that we now deal with. The fact that the president's assassin was himself assassinated two days after President Kennedy's murder is what puts us in the position we are now, which is so many unanswered questions, because we have never had a trial of Oswald that might have resolved them.

DAVIES: Right. He tells the commission that his people, meaning the Jewish people, are being tortured and killed by the thousands, and this is somehow connected to his act. He insists on taking a polygraph test, which he appears to pass. And two commission lawyers were assigned to find out everything they could about Ruby, including whether he had a connection to Oswald. Were they allowed to do the job?

SHENON: Those two lawyers found themselves enormously frustrated. They thought the commission wasn't terribly interested in the Ruby element of this investigation and wasn't allowing them to pursue all the questions about Ruby that they wanted to pursue, including whether or not Ruby had ties to figures in organized crime who might have wanted to see President Kennedy dead or Oswald dead.

See, I wasn't aware until I get into the weeds of doing the research on this book just how much internal turmoil there was on the Warren Commission and just how frustrated these two particular lawyers were in trying to get to the full truth about Ruby.

GROSS: Philip Shenon will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Shenon's new book is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Philip Shenon about his new book "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination." Shenon examined the work of the Warren Commission, which was appointed by President Johnson to investigate the assassination.

He pored over the files and interviewed surviving staff attorneys as well as others involved with the case. Shenon is a former New York Times reporter who also wrote a book about the 9/11 commission.

DAVIES: I want to talk about this fascinating part of the story, which is Lee Harvey Oswald's visit to Mexico a few weeks before the assassination. The Warren Commission was aware of his visit there. They knew that he'd visited the Cuban Embassy. Oswald himself, you know, had expressed Marxist sympathies for years. But the FBI and the CIA withheld a lot of information. Let's talk about the CIA, for example. Did they monitor Oswald's movements in Mexico?

SHENON: Well, it's remarkable to discover that the CIA may have had Oswald under pretty aggressive surveillance in Mexico City. There were reports years later that there were photographs of Oswald in Mexico City that the CIA had taken. There were tape recordings of his telephone calls in Mexico City. And all of that evidence would later disappear. The tapes, the CIA would say, were erased and the photographs, they would claim, never existed, even though there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest they did.

DAVIES: And what about the FBI? Did they have files on Mexico that they refused to share?

SHENON: Well, both the FBI and the CIA seemed determined not to get to the bottom of what Oswald did. Oswald was there for nearly six days. He apparently has encounters with Cuban spies and Cuban diplomats and Soviet spies and Mexicans who were sympathetic to Castro's revolution who had real reason to hope that President Kennedy's administration would be ended.

And the FBI and the CIA seemed determined not to find those people that Oswald was dealing with. And there's a lot of - the question becomes was Oswald in this time period, just several weeks before the assassination, told by anybody or encouraged by anybody to do what he would do in Dallas?

DAVIES: Right. And one of the things that the commission did not know was that the U.S. government had already repeatedly attempted to have Fidel Castro assassinated.

SHENON: Well, I mean, among the things that the - and perhaps the most important thing that the CIA withheld from the Warren Commission was the fact that for years the CIA had been trying to kill Castro, and that Castro, you know, might've had a motivation in killing John Kennedy because John Kennedy had very clearly been trying to kill him.

And if there's anything that gets Warren Commission staffers agitated, it's the fact that that information was withheld from them. Because it would've raised a million other questions about what exactly happened in Mexico City, and was Oswald in contact with Cubans or people who were sympathetic to Castro who might have wanted revenge against Kennedy for what Kennedy was trying to do to the Cuban dictator.

DAVIES: Now, there's a woman who's at the center of the controversy here, a Mexican woman, I believe, named Sylvia Duran. Tell us who she is and why she's important.

SHENON: Warren Commission staffers, some of them thought she was perhaps the most important witness who was never interviewed by the commission. She is a young Mexican woman who worked in the Cuban consulate in Mexico City who dealt with Oswald face to face when Oswald came in seeking the visas and paperwork that would allow him to get to Cuba.

And there's reason to believe that Oswald would've seen her as a sympathetic - you know, would've seen her as a valuable friend in the sense that she spoke English, she was herself a committed socialist. Is it possible that Oswald told her anything more about what he was thinking of doing? And she is cited throughout the Warren Commission report as a central source of information about Oswald, even though the Warren Commission and the FBI and the CIA never interviewed her.

DAVIES: One of the reasons people were interested in Sylvia Duran is that there were reports by folks in Mexico that she had been seen at a party with Oswald. What were they saying? Why is that significant?

SHENON: Well, Sylvia Duran, in her interviews with Mexican government interrogators, said that she only saw Oswald within the four walls of the Cuban consulate, But there is evidence out there to suggest that she actually was in Oswald's company outside the consulate and that they were seen at a party, a dance party, at the home of one of Duran's relatives, and that they were there with two other young American men.

And that whole incident was information that was entirely denied to the Warren Commission.

DAVIES: And why would that be important?

SHENON: The question becomes in Mexico City, was Oswald encountering Cubans or Mexicans who supported Castro who hated President Kennedy and his administration and might have encouraged Oswald to do what he did. Or at least who might have known. There becomes a big question as to whether or not Oswald was talking openly about his plan to kill President Kennedy and what people in Mexico City did what that information.

And there is a remarkable document. It's a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to the Warren Commission prepared in June, 1964 in which Hoover tells the Warren Commission, and I believe probably pretty reluctantly, that there is reliable information that Oswald marched into either the Cuban or the Soviet embassy in Mexico City and announced that he was going to kill President Kennedy.

And obviously, that document, you would think, on the Warren Commission, would inspire a million questions about whether or not people in Mexico City were aware that Oswald was talking about killing the president, encouraged him to do that. That document from Hoover to the Warren Commission would disappear.

I've talked with staff members on the Warren Commission who are convinced they never saw that document, who are angry about that, and who say if they'd known that Oswald was talking openly about killing the president, the investigation in Mexico City would've been much, much more aggressive.

DAVIES: And do we know what the basis is for the suggestion that he was speaking openly about assassinating the president?

SHENON: It's, again, another complicated but interesting story. But it comes to the FBI, that bit of information, through what it describes as a reliable source. And the reliable source turns out to be a senior leader in the American Communist Party who's actually an informant for the FBI and who has just met with Fidel Castro in Havana. And it's Castro who tells him this. Castro tells the American communist leader that Oswald made this statement in September, October of 1963 about his intention to kill President Kennedy.

DAVIES: So whether or not it's true, it's certainly something that if you were investigating the assassination, you'd want to know everything you could about. The Warren Commission investigators tried to get an interview with Sylvia Duran, this woman who they think may have had a relationship with Oswald in Mexico City. And as I understand it, they got word that she would agree to an interview in Washington. Earl Warren himself vetoed it?

SHENON: I think this is perhaps Earl Warren's most baffling decision, and I think certainly the staff felt that way. But the young lawyers on the commission staff who were dealing with the Mexico City issues and the questions of a possible foreign conspiracy see Duran as an essential witness, maybe the most important witness they can interview who might have some knowledge about Oswald's thinking in the weeks before the assassination.

And to their delight, they get word from the CIA that Duran has agreed to be interviewed. She's agreed to come to the United States to be interviewed. And the staff members then seek to make the arrangements for her to travel to Washington to be questioned. And Chief Justice Warren refuses.

He announces that the commission will not be interviewing Duran because Warren sees Duran as a communist and apparently Warren's words were: We don't talk to communists. The staff was outraged and baffled but there was no way of appealing what they saw as Warren's terrible decision.

DAVIES: You did some original reporting on this decades after those events. You went down to Mexico. You found Sylvia Duran. She's still alive. You talked to other folks. What did you find?

SHENON: Well, that there seems to have been a lot more evidence in Mexico City about these contacts that Oswald may have had with people who might have wished to see President Kennedy dead. And these were people the FBI presumably could've found 49 years ago but chose not to. And why they chose not to is puzzling, but I suspect that both the FBI and the CIA were determined to hide just how much they had known about Oswald in the weeks before the assassination.

I think there's reason to believe that it's, again, a situation where dots weren't connected. That if anybody had really analyzed what was in the files of the CIA and the FBI before the assassination, especially about this Mexico City business, they would've seen what a threat Oswald was, and a threat specifically to John Kennedy.

DAVIES: And might've told the Secret Service that weekend in Dallas and had him under review.

SHENON: Absolutely. Towards the end of the book there's a discussion of FBI director Clarence Kelley, Hoover's successor and when Clarence Kelley gets to the FBI in the 1970s, he, like millions of Americans, is interested in the Kennedy assassination, getting to a better understanding of the mysteries of it. And he goes through all the raw intelligence about Mexico City, which he thinks is extremely important, what happened in Mexico.

And Kelley makes the determination that, again, if anybody had just read through all the evidence, all the intelligence files on Oswald before the assassination they would've known to round up Oswald before President Kennedy went to Dallas and the assassination would've been prevented. He describes it as perhaps having been easily prevented.

DAVIES: Philip Shenon's book is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is investigative reporter Philip Shenon. His new book about the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Commission investigation is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination." You know, when people consider whether Castro might have ordered the assassination of Kennedy, there's a big debate about it.

And one of the things a lot of smart folks say is he would've been crazy to do that. You know, it's not the kind of thing he would've done. And there's a fascinating moment in the commission's work where they send a Philadelphia attorney, William Coleman, to meet Castro on a boat and ask him this question. And he says, no, I had nothing to do with it. That would be crazy to have done that. He said that later.

I have to ask you, bottom line, do you believe or do you think it's likely that Oswald acted at the direction or encouragement of the Cubans or the Soviets? Based on what you know.

SHENON: I think we'll never really have the answer to that because those questions should've been asked 49 years ago but they weren't. I do think there is a real question as to who else knew about Oswald's plans in the week before, weeks before the assassination and whether or not anybody knowing of Oswald's open boasts about killing President Kennedy encouraged him to do that and perhaps even offered the suggestion that they would help if he could ever get out of the United States again.

And this is not my crazy conspiracy theory. This is a theory offered by one of the staff investigators on the Warren Commission. This is a theory they developed within the commission staff, that something happened in Mexico City. Oswald was promised help if he could ever get back to Mexico, perhaps to be spirited off to Cuba. And that explained why perhaps Oswald was heading to Mexico in the hours after President Kennedy's assassination.

This theory, and it was only a theory, doesn't go into the Warren Commission's final report because of the view that the commission doesn't want to encourage speculation.

DAVIES: So whether or not Oswald was acting at the behest of the Cubans, there was enough information that should've raised a red flag about it.

SHENON: Absolutely. Oswald in Mexico City meets with a Soviet diplomat who is in fact a KGB officer whose responsibilities included political violence, including assassination. And the CIA knows that. They know that this meeting has occurred. They know that this KGB officer is involved in political violence.

Now, it may have been an entirely innocent meeting and the KGB officer did have regular diplomatic duties, but just the fact of that meeting you would think would be enough to see just that Oswald might be a danger to political leaders in the United States, including President Kennedy, then in the final stages of planning for his trip to Dallas.

DAVIES: I wanted to ask you. It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated in November and there have been so many theories and so many books. I wanted to go over some of the basic questions asked about the original findings of the Warren Commission and ask you whether among serious scholars and journalists these have been answered.

So let me just run through some of them. One of them is the question of whether Oswald had the time to realistically fire three shots at the presidential limousine from his perch on Dealey Plaza. There was some question when they looked at it about whether Oswald had the skills or the time to get off three shots. Is that settled?

SHENON: It will probably never be fully settled. One thing you learn after you get into some of the research on this subject is how much of it is really art and not science. But the Warren Commission staff faced a puzzle early on: Did Oswald have enough time to fire off three individual shots that landed in the president's limousine? The FBI had initially reported - again, based on what turned out to be a very incomplete investigation - had concluded that there had been three bullets. The first one hit President Kennedy in the back. The second one hit Governor Connally in the back. And the third one hit President Kennedy in the head, the fatal shot. But using the Zapruder film, and the Zapruder film becomes sort of a clock of the assassination...

DAVIES: And for folks who may not know, that's the home movie taken by a guy who happened to have a view of the president's limousine. Yeah. Go ahead.

SHENON: Right. And it becomes very essential evidence in the commission's work. It was pretty clear that Oswald did not have time to fire three individual shots and if he didn't have time that would suggest that there must've been a second gunman. With a little more probing and research, the suggestion is made, actually - and it's made by one of the Navy pathologists who conducts the autopsy - that perhaps one of the bullets actually went through both the bodies of President Kennedy and Governor Connally.

And that seems to be the explanation. It seems to be a logical explanation as to what happened in the limousine, even though it would go on to become, I think, easily the most controversial finding of the Warren Commission staff.

DAVIES: Right. This is the single bullet theory, the that it went through President Kennedy, exited his throat, went through Connally, exited his chest, and then hit his leg and his wrist, right?

SHENON: Exactly.

DAVIES: Right. Do most folks accept that, do you think? I mean, serious scholars. Do you think it's the most convincing explanation of the ballistic evidence?

SHENON: Well, very serious scientists, technical teams, have over the years gone back and reviewed that evidence and I think it's fair to say that most of the most serious scientists who've done this have found that the single bullet theory is the logical explanation for what happened. That does not mean that most Americans accept it. As you know, most Americans think there was a conspiracy and there was more than one gunman in Dealey Plaza.

DAVIES: OK. Now, one of the criticisms of the single bullet theory is that when you look at the bullet itself, the one that went through, you know, the president's body and then through Connally's chest and then hit him twice again, that it's in very good shape. And they say that a bullet that had done that kind of damage would be far more battered than the bullet that they have in evidence. What about that criticism?

SHENON: If you look at the bullet, it is a bit damaged. It is not fully pristine, as some people describe it. And I think a lot of experts would tell you they would have expected to see more damage to the bullet if it passed through both bodies. But there are no rules here and apparently people who know this science well say that it is quite possible that this bullet could've passed through both men's bodies and sustained as little damage as it did.

DAVIES: Philip Shenon's book is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, our guest is investigative reporter Philip Shenon. His new book about the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Commission investigation is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination." I have to ask you about the grassy knoll. Folks who know the assassination scene know that as the president proceeded on Dealey Plaza, Oswald was in a perch behind in the Texas School Book Depository Building. But ahead and to the right there was a little grassy hill and folks have said for years that's where the other assassins were. Has there ever been any credible evidence of another gunman on the grassy knoll?

SHENON: You know, witnesses who were in Dealey Plaza and people who are, you know, telling the truth say they - some people say they are convinced that they heard the shots coming from the grassy knoll. There is one witness who seems to be pretty credible who describes smoke rising from the grassy knoll. But just as many people and more people, in fact, say that they think that the shots come from the Texas School Book Depository.

And one thing you learn, again, in doing a little research on this, is that eyewitnesses and, you know, ear witness people - ear witnesses, people who claim they hear something, they are so often wrong - well intentioned, but wrong. And there is no - there was no physical evidence obtained from the grassy knoll that would point to another shooter.

And, you know, there were people on the grassy knoll. You'd think that somebody might have seen a man with a rifle shooting towards the president's motorcade.

DAVIES: And what about the fact that when you look at the Zapruder film, the home movie taken of the president's limousine, when the fatal shot strikes the president's head, his head clearly snaps back rather than forward. And some say that that tells you that the shot came from the front, rather than from behind where Oswald was.

SHENON: You know, I remember seeing the Zapruder film for the first time on television many years ago and seeing, you know, the Zapruder film is horrifying, as billed, and I remember seeing the shot that hit the president and seeing his head move back and thinking aha, there seems to have been a bullet fired at him from the front. There must've been a second gunman.

What you learn and what the Warren Commission staff learned is that - and they'd learned this from medical specialists - is that in fact, human bodies react often in unpredictable ways to bullet wounds. You know, when a bullet hits a body the nervous system kicks in and it can do things that would seem to defy the laws of physics.

It is quite understandable that President Kennedy's head moved backward rather than forward because of the action of his nervous system when he was hit by the bullet.

DAVIES: Tell us the impact of Oliver Stone's movie "JFK" in 1991 on both the public perception and the search for truth about the Kennedy assassination.

SHENON: The impact was enormous and, you know, we are in a situation where now two-thirds of the American public, according to polls, does not accept the findings of the Warren Commission, believes there was a conspiracy to kill the president. And Stone's movie obviously inspired a lot of those conspiracy theories.

The one valuable contribution of that film - it's one I've benefitted from - is the fact that Stone's movie did cause the declassification of millions of documents that are now useful in trying to get some additional answers to the story of Oswald and what happened in the assassination.

DAVIES: When the Warren Commission, you know, found Oswald acted alone, was that accepted by, you know, important public figures like President Johnson, like Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, like all of the members of the commission?

SHENON: Well, it is astonishing to discover that President Johnson at the end of his life did not accept the findings of the Warren Commission. Johnson thought that Castro killed President Kennedy. Robert Kennedy's role in all this is very troubling because he repeatedly said in the public record that he accepted the Warren Commission findings and he believed Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.

And that appears never to have been the truth. Kennedy's namesake, Robert Kennedy Jr., just this year, earlier this year, announced that his father thought the Warren Commission was wrong and that his brother, President Kennedy, had been killed either by the Cubans or by the mafia or even by some group of rogue CIA agents.

And Senator Richard Russell, who was a member of the Warren Commission and at the time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he also did not believe the Warren Commission report even though he signed it.

DAVIES: And the interesting thing about Kennedy is he had information that would've been helpful to them - i.e., that the U.S. government had been trying to kill Castro and he knew all about those plots. He chose not to share that with them.

SHENON: Robert Kennedy's role is very troubling. Kennedy, other than President Johnson, was the highest ranking official in the government not required to give testimony to the Warren Commission. He sends the Warren Commission a brief note in which he says and suggests that he has no evidence of a conspiracy when in fact he had a tremendous amount of suspicion about a conspiracy.

And why he withheld that information may be related to the fact that Robert Kennedy was very much aware of the CIA's efforts to kill Castro. Robert Kennedy had been very much at the center of efforts to overthrow Castro. It would've been information that he probably was not eager to have on the public record, and so therefore he never told the Warren Commission what he really believed.

DAVIES: Well, Philip Shenon, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.

SHENON: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: Philip Shenon spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Shenon's new book is called "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination." On our website we have an excerpt about the autopsy and pathology report and how they helped spawn conspiracy theories. That's at

DAVIES: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR we'll feature a tribute to Lou Reed who died yesterday. Our rock critic Ken Tucker wrote a short tribute on our Tumblr with links to music. That's at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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