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Warren Commission

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Warren Commission report cover page
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Warren Commission report cover page

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known unofficially as The Warren Commission, was established on November 29, 1963 by Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination of the U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

The Commission took its unofficial name—the Warren Commission—from its chairman, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Contents

Creation of the Commission

After Lee Harvey Oswald was shot to death, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, consulted with various government officials, many of them by telephone, regarding having some form of investigation into the assassination. On November 26, 1963, The Washington Post published an editorial advocating the formation of an investigative commission.

After many consultations throughout the week, LBJ, by executive order on November 29, 1963 created an investigatory commission to be headed by Earl Warren. He also called on the following members and told them that they would be members of the commission:

Future Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter worked as a staff attorney for the Commission.

During its investigation the commission heard testimony from 552 witnesses and the reports of 10 federal agencies, including the Secret Service, the FBI, the Department of State, the CIA, and military intelligence. The hearings were closed to the public unless the person giving testimony requested otherwise; only two witnesses made that request. Some of the witnesses gave sworn affidavits, two witnesses gave just written statements. In late September 1964, after a 10 month investigation (and about 5 weeks before the presidential election), the Warren Commission Report was published.

Findings

The report concluded (by only a 4 to 3 majority) that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination of Kennedy and that the commission could not find any persuasive evidence of a conspiracy, either domestic or foreign involving any other person(s), group(s), or country(ies). The theory that Oswald acted alone is also informally called the lone gunman theory.

The commission also concluded that only three bullets were fired during the assassination, and that Lee Harvey Oswald fired all three bullets from the Texas School Book Depository behind the motorcade. It noted that three empty shells were found in the sixth floor sniper's nest in the book depository, and the rifle was found (with one live bullet left in its chamber) on the sixth floor balanced unsupported on its bottom edges.

The commission's determination was that:

  • it was likely that all injuries inside the limousine were caused by only two bullets, and thus one shot likely missed the motorcade; but it could not determine which of the three. (The 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations agreed that two shots caused all the injuries.)
  • the first shot to hit anyone struck President Kennedy in the upper back, exited at his throat, and likely continued on to cause all of Governor John Connally's injuries,
  • the second shot to hit anyone fatally struck Kennedy in the head 4.8 to 5.6 seconds later.

The Commission concluded that all of Connally's injuries were caused by a single bullet which entered his back, exited his chest, went through his right wrist, lodged in his left thigh, and later fell out onto his stretcher at the hospital in nearly pristine condition. It also offered as a likely explanation, based on what it termed "persuasive evidence from the experts", that the single bullet that exited Kennedy's throat was also the same bullet that caused all of Governor Connally's injuries. This theory has become known as the single bullet theory, and it is important because there was not enough time for one shooter to fire twice in the apparently very brief time between the injuries of the two men. Some ballistic evidence has suggested that such a bullet trajectory was possible, and there are some frames of the Zapruder film in which the position and reaction of the two men could be consistent with this scenario, but this particular point is a source of much contention and disagreement. The 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations Report agreed with this theory, but differed on the time frame.

The Warren Commission, chapter 8, details flaws in the United States Secret Service security at the time of the assassination. Procedures in place and not in place combined with events of the day presented security lapses that enabled the assassination. These included:

  • Not telling Dallas police, specifically, whom 'authorized personnel' were, to stand on bridges or overpasses
  • Not having in place the policy of searching all buildings, windows, and roof tops surrounding the path of a motorcade
  • Not properly/thoroughly checking the backgrounds of those in potential close contact with Kennedy and those who were potential threats to Kennedy - that program was new and undermanned in 1963
  • Assuming that security measures taken in a 1936 Roosevelt visit to Dallas could be used to model Kennedy's visit
  • Generally insufficient personnel to accomplish the task at hand of planning and executing the motorcade
  • Incomplete coordination of information between US and local law enforcement bodies
  • Not having a car with a bulletproof top available for the president (one had been proposed in October 1963 but had not been acted upon, and no such car had existed for the White House since 1953 because such a car would have a top difficult to add and remove on demand)
    • When on the phone with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a week after the assassination, LBJ asked him if he had a bulletproof car. Hoover replied "Yes, I do." LBJ asked if he should have one, he was told, yes. [1] (http://www.c-span.org/lbj/ram/lbj0712.ram)
  • Allowing Kennedy enough leeway within security plans that put him in harm's way
  • Letting the motorcade slow down dramatically at several turns - which probably gave ample times for shots

Aftermath

These above specific findings prompted the Secret Service to make numerous modifications to their security procedures.

Upon its release in 1964, all files of the Warren Commission were sealed away from public view for 75 years (until 2039) by executive order of President Lyndon B. Johnson. According to the 1992 Assassinations Records Review Board laws, all assassination related documents that have not been destroyed are scheduled to be released to the public by 2017.

In the years following the release of its report and 26 investigatory evidence volumes in 1964, the Warren Commission has been frequently criticized for some of its methods, important omissions, and conclusions, in particular its lack of comment on the destruction of crucial evidence by law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies. Comments were apparently made on this behind closed doors, but these did not reach the published report. Several individual pieces of the Commission's findings also have been called into question since its completion.

Three other U.S. government investigations have agreed with the Warren Commission's conclusion that two shots struck JFK from the rear: the 1968 panel set by Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the 1975 Rockefeller Commission, and the 1978-1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) which reexamined the evidence with the help of the largest forensics panel. The HSCA involved Congressional hearings and ultimately concluded there was a conspiracy wherein four shots were fired. The HSCA concluded that Oswald fired shots number one, two, and four, and that an unknown assassin fired shot number three (but missed) from near the corner of a picket fence that was above and to President Kennedy's right front on the Dealey Plaza grassy knoll. However, this conclusion has also been criticized, especially for its reliance upon questionable audio evidence.

The Warren Commission's findings have not gained full acceptance from the general public in the USA, and many theories that conflict with its findings exist. Numerous polls indicate that most people agree Oswald did shoot at Kennedy, but most also think there was some kind of conspiracy. At this time, there is no single theory with which a large majority of people would mostly agree.


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