I reviewed Josiah Thompson’s new book in a blog post the other day. The book makes a persuasive case that there was a second shooter who killed JFL, but I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. Neither is Gerald Posner’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone, but I’ve come to think Thompson’s thesis is much stronger the more I think about it.
Some observations follow on Posner’s “Case Closed”, a book published in 1993 that I strongly recommend for people forming, or re-evaluating, an opinion on the JFK assassination:
- Posner has some disingenuous footnotes where he includes Josiah Thompson’s 1967 book Six Seconds in Dallas as among those that omitted aspects of Oswald’s life that were relevant to accessing his guilt or innocence. Thompson’s book examined only the seconds in which the killing took place – it explored only how many shots were fired and from where. Thompson’s books on the JFK assassination did not argue for Oswald’s guilt or innocence.
- There is only one mention of COINTELPRO in Posner’s book (p 143) and it refers to it being an FBI program to “infiltrate” left wing groups. In fact, it was a program whose goal was to disrupt, discredit and destroy such groups including (as in case of Fred Hampton) setting them up for assassination. The FBI wrote a letter to a street gang aimed at inciting Hampton’s murder. It similarly tried to incite the Mafia against the Communist Party. One internal FBI memo celebrated COINTELPRO’s success in inciting violence in black neighborhoods. (Details here) COINTELPRO came into existence years before the JFK assassination and existed for years afterwards. The depravity and criminality of outfits like the FBI does not prove they bumped off JFK, but it is a consideration that should have been explicitly addressed in a book setting out to debunk conspiracy theories which often cast the CIA or other government officials and agencies as key suspects.
- In Chapter 3, Posner describes in terrifying detail the CIA’s torture of a KGB defector (Yuriy Nosenko) whom the CIA was sure was a Soviet plant. Nosenko was eventually paid a small salary as compensation when the CIA finally accepted that he was not a plant. Of course (don’t be silly) nobody went to jail for torturing Nosenko. While tortured, Nosenko said the Soviets had no interest in Oswald after he defected to the USSR, that the Soviets concluded he was harmless. But Nosenko failed polygraphs when he said that (unsurprisingly, since he was being tortured by the people administering the tests: the CIA). Posner blasted the writers who mentioned the failed lie detector tests but not the torture. Fair enough, but Posner failed to comment on how the CIA’s extreme brutality and lawlessness could make it a suspect in JFK’s murder.
- When Oswald applied to return to USA with his wife, US officials described him as “unstable” and “unpredictable” and said he should be allowed to return to reduce risk that his behavior might be “damaging to US prestige” [p 71-72] They did not depict Oswald as dangerous, but if US officials feared he might embarrass them abroad, imagine how the FBI might have thought Oswald could be used to discredit the left as part of its COINTELPRO program at home to do just that and much worse.
- The CIA lied for many years after JFK’s murder claiming that it did not debrief Oswald after he returned from the USSR. It did [p78]. Rather than say the CIA “lied” Posner says “officially denied” which is annoying. Oswald was also debriefed by the FBI when he returned from the USSR [p79]. But, before the JFK murder, Oswald never had legal trouble after returning to the USA (except for one overnight stay in jail for fight with ant-Castro Cubans). [p 79] Posner says 17 FBI agents were “secretly reprimanded” for how they handled Oswald before the JFK assassination.[p81]
- Posner points to expert testimony that Oswald’s rifle was accurate enough for him to have used it successfully. I agree but he misses the point that it was one of the cheapest rifles available by mail order in 1963. Far better but more expensive rifles were available to Oswald. I think that bolsters Posner’s arguments against conspiracy – certainly one involving people with money. Anyone with resources would have ensured the assassins did not skimp on the weapons.
- On page 105 he says Oswald expressed hostility towards the US Communist party in a document he wrote: ”a tool of the USSR”.
- On p 111-112 Posner shows a letter Oswald wrote Marina (his wife) just before he was (allegedly) going to assassinate General William Walker, a far right politician. The letter did not spell out an actual crime that Oswald was about to perpetrate, but it did instruct her (in Russian) on how to support their family if he was killed or “taken prisoner”. It was obviously written as he was about to do something dangerous and probably criminal. Let’s run through some facts. Oswald defected to Russia, returned home, got debriefed by both CIA and FBI, allegedly attempted to murder a political figure (Walker) but got away scot-free. Oswald was never arrested or taken in for questioning over the attempt which only failed because the bullet that would have struck Walker in the head was deflected by a window pane. All of this happened while COINTELPRO was in place. Something very fishy here, but Posner passes lightly over it. Moreover, an arrest of Oswald over the attempt on Walker’s life would have made it impossible for Oswald to kill KFK. Incidentally, I think that Oswald probably did try to kill Walker but it’s easy to see how a good defense lawyer could have planted enough doubt to evade an attempted murder conviction. But a defense lawyer never even had to do that because Oswald was never arrested.
- Why did Oswald put 544 Camp Street on some of the flyers he passed out as part of his one-man Fair Play for Cuba committee? It was the address of offices used by anti-Castro Cubans, ex-FBI agents and other shady figures: basically the kind of people that many Warren Commission critics have accused of being the masterminds behind the JFK assassination. Posner provides lots of witness testimony that suggests Oswald never had an office there or even spent any time there. Posner (as he does throughout the book) discredits witnesses who contradict the thesis he supports. He concludes that Oswald, who often used false names and addresses on application forms, may have simply seen for-rent signs and used them for that reason. That address – 544 Camp Street – was very close to where Oswald once worked. But this just-a-funny-coincidence explanation is weak – obviously. More plausibly, Posner also suggests it may have been Oswald’s attempt to embarrass and provoke the far right. Posner never considers that the FBI or its allies may have been encouraging and /or tolerating Oswald’s antics as part of its efforts to discredit and incite violence against the left: COINTELPRO
- Oswald regularly battered his wife Marina. She was already a vulnerable person married to Oswald living in the US, and became much more vulnerable after the assassination. That makes assessing her recollections tricky, but Posner ignores that to bolster his arguments. On page 147, he cites Marina’s testimony to the Warren Commission that she could not imagine Oswald working with an accomplice. But did Oswald confide everything to the wife he regularly beat? Would Marina have wanted to set God knows who after her and her children by suggesting that an accomplice may still be at large? Could she have possibly been oblivious to what US officialdom wanted her to say (i.e. that Oswald acted alone). Maybe she spoke truthfully, but nothing suggests she was a bold risk taker who would defy the US Establishment to speak inconvenient truths or offer unwanted opinions at such a vulnerable moment. Years later, when she recanted her position that Oswald was guilty, she may have felt like she was in a stronger position to speak freely, or she may simply have felt it was then better for her family to take that position – remove some of the stigma of being Oswald’s family.
- Posner explains how Oswald told anti-Castro groups he would help them fight Castro (p151-4), presumably to trick them. Very soon afterwards, Oswald openly provoked the very same people by staging pro-Castro protests near their offices, and a fight between them and Oswald ensued. Oswald was arrested and called the FBI from jail. An FBI agent went to the jail. Posner concludes that the call shows that Oswald was not a confidential informant for the FBI because it would have blown his cover. But it shows Oswald (defector to the USSR, and probably already guilty of attempted murder) making a very public spectacle of himself as a pro-Castro Marxist and demanding attention for the FBI. Massive incompetence on the FBI’s part is not a credible explanation for why Oswald was left free to assassinate JFK. Posner never considers that the FBI probably assumed Oswald’s antics could help them discredit and disrupt leftist groups that the agency was illegally targeting.
- Only 2 months before the assassination, Oswald tried to get to Cuba via Mexico. He bounced back and forth between the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico trying to get a visa to Cuba but failed. Posner deals with this in Chapter 9. Much of what he relays is unverifiable. I found it odd that Posner uncritically relayed a former KGB agent’s account saying Oswald was so fearful that he waved a pistol around in the Soviet embassy saying the FBI was going to kill him if the Soviets did not help him into Cuba. That doesn’t fit with steady-handed assassin that would kill the US president from long range only 2 months later. Oswald’s visa in Mexico did not allow him to stay long enough to complete the visa application process for Cuba, and it appears the Cubans would not have approved him anyway. Posner admits that a CIA “blunder” led to speculation that it was actually an Oswald impersonator in Mexico. A CIA memo about Oswald’s brief time in Mexico got Oswald’s name, age, physical appearance and his wife’s name completely wrong. CIA staff have contradicted each other on the existence of a photo of Oswald at the Soviet Embassy, and on the existence of a transcript of a telephone call Oswald made from the Soviet Embassy in Mexico. Posner chalk’s this all up to CIA secrecy and dishonesty causing problems for itself.
- Posner makes a good point that Oswald’s job at the Book Depository building was secured by friends of Marina’s before a motorcade route for a presidential visit was announced [p 204]. To say it was part of a conspiracy that Oswald was given that job would mean Marina’s friends were in on the conspiracy. It would mean very high level people were manipulating these events which (to me) does not make sense for many reasons. But Posner also says that on November 1, FBI agent James Hosty paid a visit to Marina who was staying with friends. Hosty was told of Oswald’s new job at the Book Depository. On November 4, less than three weeks before the JFK assassination, Hosty phoned the Book Depository to confirm that Oswald had a job there [p 208]. So the FBI and CIA were monitoring Oswald, a guy who practically begged to be monitored by them, but it never occurred to them that he could pose a risk to JFK? I think that’s plausible actually, but also that they assumed Oswald would, left to his own devices, help them disrupt and discredit the left. Moreover, if the FBI and CIA were so extremely incompetent that they failed to see Oswald as a threat to JFK, is it not very possible, perhaps likely, that they also completely missed an accomplice or two? You can’t just invoke incompetence when it gets the FBI and CIA off the hook, but Posner does that.
- On November 5 Agent Hosty paid another visit to Marina. Posner (always relying heavily on Marian’s testimony) says this absolutely infuriated Oswald. Posner says that on November 12, only 10 days before the assassination, Oswald hand delivered (yes, hand delivered) a note to Hosty at the FBI office in Dallas which was near the Book Depository. Hosty was not in so a secretary took it. What did the note say? We don’t know for certain because the FBI admits to destroying it.[p215] Hosty’s superior at the FBI told him to destroy it. Bizarre to read this in a book that argues against conspiracy theories. Posner assumes the Oswald’s note merely asked Hosty to quite visiting Marina but that the note made no threat. That’s a lot of assuming if you also fall back on massive FBI incompetence as Posner basically does. The very existence of the note was hidden from the Warren Commission. Posner castigates the FBI for “negligence and impropriety” for doing that. Posner then blasts Oliver Stone for suggesting in his film “JFK” that the Oswald may have been warning the FBI about the plot to kill the president. Again, Posner fails to consider the obvious reason the FBI and CIA would want Oswald on the loose: to discredit and disrupt the left. Later in the book, Posner says that the FBI also hid from the Warren Commission that Oswald’s address book contained Hosty’s name address and phone number [p 407]
- Posner argues that Oswald was obviously “in flight” after the shooting. [p266] Sure, but that doesn’t actually prove much given that Oswald openly expressed fear of the FBI who he confronted only ten days before the shooting. I’m sure Oswald was one of the shooters, perhaps the only one, but I am just saying being “in flight” alone proves little in this case.
- Chapter 13 deals with medical evidence, the autopsy JFK received as well as the treatment by the emergency room doctors in Dallas. To sum up, Posner concedes autopsy was not done by forensic pathologists, He admits it was rushed as the doctors worked under constraints imposed by the understandably emotional Kennedy family who wanted it done quickly. The doctors wrote their autopsy report from memory without using the x-rays or photographs and that led to errors.
- In Chapter 13 Posner briefly dismisses the back and to the left motion of JFK’s head as it absorbed the fatal shot. Posner says the “jet effect” concept and neuromuscular spasm explains it, but fails to mention that the HSCA only concluded that those phenomena possibly explain it. He vaguely cites the murder of a journalist in Central America who was shot in the back of the head after being made to lie on the ground. Posner says the journalist’s “upper torso and legs arched off the ground in the direction of the shooter”. Irrelevant. What happened to the head? Did it jolt towards the shooter? Posner is probably referring to Bill Stewart who was murdered in Nicaragua in 1979. As I explained in my blog post, Stewart’s head was driven into the ground as one would expect. The head did not recoil backwards towards the shooter.
- In chapter 14, Posner dismisses the importance of Oswald interrogations by Dallas police not being recorded by saying that was not procedure in 1963 [p 343]. Incredibly weak excuse given that this was an interrogation of the US president’s accused killer.
- In the last chapters of the book he depicts Ruby as an unstable goon who shot Oswald because he wanted to be a hero – to wipe the stain of the killing from Dallas and even from the Jewish community. Why the Jewish community? A Jewish person had paid for a newspaper ad attacking JFK on the day of the assassination. Ruby was outraged by the ad. Ruby was Jewish (he was indicted under his real name which was Rubenstein) and reacted violently to anything he regarded as antisemitism. In fact Ruby reacted violently to all kinds of things. Ruby’s murder of Oswald is in my opinion a much more obvious fit than Oswald’s for “crazed lone assassin”. I agree with Posner about it, but even here he tries too hard. Conspiracies do not have to be minutely planned as he claims [p 395].
- I notice both conspiracy theorists and Posner tend to dismiss Oswald’s intelligence, though for different reasons. Some conspiracy theorists tend to want to portray Oswald as being incapable of being anything more than a “patsy”. Posner tends to want to depict Oswald as a loser who could accomplish nothing in life but a lucky shot that killed JFK (i.e. incapable of conspiring with anyone). Oswald was dyslexic. He would have to have been exceptionally gifted to do well in school given his dyslexia, and his family’s dire poverty and dysfunction. He was also moving and changing schools constantly. He probably lacked social skills that would have help him collaborate with others to develop himself intellectually as much as he wanted, though it is hard to say how much that was the case. Testimony about him after the assassination can be skewed for all kinds of reasons. But Oswald learned to speak and read Russian as an adult. That’s no small achievement. And even in Posner’s account Oswald had a very strong desire to learn and to read. Posner describes Oswald as essentially having frustrated delusions of grandeur. That’s probably fair to a point, but to an extent it seems Oswald was likely aware, as many working class people are in capitalist societies, that he had potential to do more than rote labor – and was not happy to simply mind his place.
 I originally considered it a toss up but the more I thought about the holes in Posner’s thesis, the more I favoured Thompson’s