Notes on the Warren Report

by Martin Shackelford

The Warren Commission was the fifth government investigation of the Kennedy assassination. Due to factors described below, some feel it should not even be called an investigation, as it primarily involved analysis of evidence already gathered by others. The first three investigations were the initial investigation by the Dallas Police, the Secret Service investigation of security issues and agent information, the investigation by the State of Texas and its Attorney General Waggoner Carr, and the follow-up investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which produced a five-volume report). Thus, the Commission began with at least two investigations having already declared Oswald's guilt. The Commission piously denied acting "as a prosecutor determined to prove a case, but as a fact-finding agency committed to the ascertainment of the truth." This was contradicted by their initial investigative outline, one portion of which was devoted to the biography of the assassin. They began with that conclusion. As presidential assassination wasn't then a federal offense, and the assassination was a state crime, there was considerable doubt that the FBI or the Commission had any authority to investigate the matter in the first place. Both received their orders from President Johnson, who ordered Hoover to get involved, and patterned the Commission after the Roberts Commission that investigated Pearl Harbor.

The Commission was intended as a rubber stamp, designed to review and endorse the findings of the FBI investigation, as member Sen. Richard Russell quickly recognized and criticized. He received little support from his colleagues.

Time Frame:
Appointing the Commission, President Lyndon Johnson expected that its work would be done before the 1964 summer Democratic Convention. By early Spring, it became apparent that the deadline wouldn't be met, and finally Johnson settled for completing the investigation prior to the November election. By July, the chief counsel was telling his staff they were supposed to be closing doors, not opening them. This meant that even the few leads that were developed could often not be adequately pursued.

Investigative Resources:
Aside from a general counsel (J. Lee Rankin) and several teams of senior and junior counsels (totaling 14 attorneys), the Commission was dependent entirely on the information gathered by other agencies, primarily the FBI, secondarily the Secret Service, with some information from others, including the State Department, etc., and (belatedly) the CIA. As Congress determined in the mid-Seventies, these agencies systematically withheld relevant information from the Commission (including an Army intelligence file on Oswald, which was later "routinely destroyed" before the HSCA asked for it; the Secret Service did the same with some files requested under the JFK Records Act). The work of the staff attorneys was primarily to "analyze and summarize" what was provided. They could also "recommend additional investigation," but there was no guarantee the recommendations would be fully pursued. When recommendations were accepted, the "further investigation" consisted almost exclusively of referring the matter back to the FBI or other agency that had handled the matter inadequately in the first place, as the Commission felt it was "unnecessary" to employ its own investigators. Further criticism of the investigation came from the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979, though its own unpublished records were sealed for 50 years. Most witnesses were interviewed by the FBI or Secret Service (or both), and the reports (except those withheld by J. Edgar Hoover) forwarded to the Commission. Some of those were then interviewed via depositions taken by the Commission staff attorneys. A relative few were interviewed by varying numbers of members of the Commission at its often sparsely-attended sessions. Very few were interviewed first by anyone from the Commission.

Even then, interviews were oddly handled. When Jack Ruby was interviewed, the staff attorneys in charge of gathering information about Ruby and his background weren't invited.

The Commission relied almost entirely on the evidence gathered by others. The witnesses it interviewed had mostly been previously interviewed by the FBI or Secret Service. Other evidence was also filtered before reaching the Commission~instead of studying the autopsy photos, the Commission chose instead to study only the written autopsy report and crude, inaccurate medical drawings based not on the photos, but on verbal descriptions by the autopsy doctors. When attorney Mark Lane tried to bring other witnesses and evidence to the Commission's attention, he was treated as a hostile witness, and found himself under heavy surveillance by the FBI. The only reason some of his early lectures survive is because the FBI taped them.

"Unanimity" of the Conclusions:
The Forward to the Report states: "Each member of the Commission has given careful consideration to the entire report and concurs in its findings and conclusions." This was, in fact, false. Senators Richard Russell and John Sherman Cooper and Rep. Hale Boggs all expressed doubts about certain of the conclusion; language had to be changed to get them to reluctantly sign the Report; and efforts to include minority opinions on certain points in the Report were stymied.

Publication of the Report:
Although the Pentagon withheld information from the Commission, it loaned them an historian to help write the Report. The Warren Report was the first "instant book," a practice which became much more common in later years. Advance arrangements were made with Bantam Books for a paperback edition to flood the nation's bookstores as soon as the Report was officially released in late September, 1964. Shortly, editions were also published by the Government Printing Office, the Associated Press, Doubleday and others. These often included glowing introductions by people like Louis Nizer, who later admitted he had written his praise for the Report without having read it. CBS promoted the report with a television special that included many of the witnesses who had testified before the Commission. LIFE published a special issue with an article by Commission member Gerald Ford. The New York Times co-sponsored Bantam's "instant book," and promptly published the complete summary of the report, as well as large portions of the rest of the report.

Media Response:
The major media embraced the Report's conclusions, exaggerated the scope and thoroughness of the investigation, and painted conspiracy talk as an alien phenomenon originating in Europe~and the Soviet Bloc.

Publication of the Evidence:
Late in 1964, the Government Printing Office published a set of 26 volumes of evidence. This included 15 volumes of testimony, and 11 volumes of exhibits, which consisted of written reports, documents and photographs. Only 5000 copies were printed, and there was no second printing. Selections from the volumes were published in a Bantam hardcover and paperback volume entitled "The Witnesses," also co-sponsored (and edited) by the New York Times. This volume was not as widely read as the Report, and few who read it bothered to look further into the 26 volumes to see whether the editing was objective.

Unpublication of the Evidence:
A massive number of "Commission Documents" were not included in the volumes, and not made available for study. They were originally said to be sealed until 2039, but most remained unclassified. A few began to be released after a local mayor protested in person to Lyndon Johnson. A scattering of others came out due to the 1967 Freedom of Information Act, many batches only becoming available after often-lengthy court battles. A somewhat larger number were released through the amended 1974 FOIA, but it wasn't until the 1990s and the JFK Records Act that the last of the Commission files were opened. Also opened were evidence never seen by the Commission, withheld by the Dallas Police, the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, and other agencies.

Seeds of Destruction:
Those few who did delve into the 26 volumes found much evidence that raised serious doubts about the Commission's conclusions, and about the quality of its investigation. A network of ordinary citizens developed around the country, including what was called "The Housewives' Underground," including people like Shirley Martin, Maggie Fields, Sylvia Meagher, Lillian Castellano and Mary Ferrell. Some became affiliated with Mark Lane's Citizens' Commission of Inquiry (CCI). Articles critical of the Report began appearing in various intellectual journals. Another citizen, former Congressional investigator Harold Weisberg, published his initial findings in 1965, in a book called Whitewash. Another volume, Whitewash II, followed the next year, and both were then published as Dell paperbacks. Mark Lane published Rush to Judgment, and members of Congress began calling for a reinvestigation. Even LIFE magazine published a November cover story calling the Warren Report's conclusions "A Matter of Reasonable Doubt," and endorsing calls for a new investigation. Sylvia Meagher also focused on the 26 volumes, creating a Subject Index to them, and then a study of the evidence called Accessories After the Fact.

Today, the Warren Commission is used most often as an example of how not to conduct the investigation of a presidential assassination. The most recent government investigation of the case, that of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s, concluded that there had indeed been a conspiracy, of which the Warren Commission said it could find "no evidence." According to public opinion polls, between 80% and 90% of the American public believe there was a conspiracy in the assassination. For the most part, academia and the major media continue to accept the conclusions of the Warren Commission, and tend to act as though the HSCA investigation never occurred. This is not based on study of the case, as both academics and journalists have tended to view the case as "a swamp" in which they have no desire to become mired, and exploration of the subject is discouraged by colleagues and editors. As a substitute for doing their own research, they have embraced Warren Commission defender Gerald Posner as their surrogate and resident expert on the case, though he made one of the briefer studies of it, and wrote one of the sloppier books on the subject (more serious defenders of the Commission have included Albert Newman, Jean Davison and Jim Moore). The academic experts most often consulted on the subject by the media (Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc.) have studied the case even less. Those who have studied it (like David Wrone, John Newman or Michael Kurtz) aren't called upon for commentary. Signs of hope include newer history textbooks that take a more neutral position on the case, abandoning the flat declaration that Oswald did it, acting alone, and a few historians (like Michael Beschloss and Donald Gibson) who are beginning to look more closely at how the Commission was created and performed. Initially a widely heralded achievement, the Warren Report has become a sacred cow with few worshippers.

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