Warren Commission: The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy

The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known unofficially as the Warren Commission, was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson through Executive Order 11130 on November 29, 1963 to investigate the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy that had taken place on November 22, 1963. The U.S. Congress passed Senate Joint Resolution 137 authorizing the Presidential appointed Commission to report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, mandating the attendance and testimony of witnesses and the production of evidence. Its 888-page final report was presented to President Johnson on September 24, 1964 and made public three days later. It concluded that President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald acted entirely alone. It also concluded that Jack Ruby also acted alone when he killed Oswald two days later. The Commission’s findings have proven controversial and have been both challenged and supported by later studies.

The Commission took its unofficial name—the Warren Commission—from its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren. According to published transcripts of Johnson’s presidential phone conversations, some major officials were opposed to forming such a commission and several commission members took part only reluctantly. One of their chief reservations was that a commission would ultimately create more controversy than consensus.

Formation

Nicholas Katzenbach has been named as providing advice after the assassination of John F. Kennedy that led to the creation of the Warren Commission. On November 28 he sent a memo to Johnson’s White House aide Bill Moyers recommending the formation of a Presidential Commission to investigate the assassination. To combat speculation of a conspiracy, Katzenbach said that the results of the FBI’s investigation should be made public. He wrote, in part: “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large”.

Four days after Katzenbach’s memo, Johnson appointed some of the nation’s most prominent figures, including the Chief Justice of the United States, to the Commission.

Meetings

The Warren Commission met formally for the first time on December 5, 1963 on the second floor of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. The Commission conducted its business primarily in closed sessions, but these were not secret sessions.

Two misconceptions about the Warren Commission hearing need to be clarified…hearings were closed to the public unless the witness appearing before the Commission requested an open hearing. No witness except one…requested an open hearing… Second, although the hearings (except one) were conducted in private, they were not secret. In a secret hearing, the witness is instructed not to disclose his testimony to any third party, and the hearing testimony is not published for public consumption. The witnesses who appeared before the Commission were free to repeat what they said to anyone they pleased, and all of their testimony was subsequently published in the first fifteen volumes put out by the Warren Commission.

Committee
  • Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States (chairman) (1891–1974)
  • Richard Russell, Jr. (D-Georgia), U.S. Senator, (1897–1971)
  • John Sherman Cooper (R-Kentucky), U.S. Senator (1901–1991)
  • Hale Boggs (D-Louisiana), U.S. Representative, House Majority Whip (1914–1972)
  • Gerald Ford (R-Michigan), U.S. Representative (later 38th President of the United States), House Minority Leader (1913–2006)
  • Allen Welsh Dulles, former Director of Central Intelligence and head of the Central Intelligence Agency (1893–1969)
  • John J. McCloy, former President of the World Bank (1895–1989)

General counsel

  • J. Lee Rankin (1907-1996)

The Death of Lee Harvey Oswald

In response to Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the Warren Commission declared that the news media must share responsibility with the Dallas police department for “the breakdown of law enforcement” that led to Oswald’s death. In addition to the police department’s “inadequacy of coordination,” the Warren Commission noted that “these additional deficiencies [in security] were related directly to the decision to admit newsmen to the basement.”

The commission concluded that the pressure of press, radio, and television for information about Oswald’s prison transfer resulted in lax security standards for admission to the basement, allowing Ruby to enter and subsequently shoot Oswald, noting that “the acceptance of inadequate press credentials posed a clear avenue for a one-man assault.” Oswald’s death was said to have been a direct result of “the failure of the police to remove Oswald secretly or control the crowd in the basement.”

The consequence of Oswald’s death, according to the Commission, was that “it was no longer possible to arrive at the complete story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy through normal judicial procedures during the trial of the alleged assassin.” While the Commission noted that the prime responsibility was that of the police department, it also recommended the adoption of a new “code of conduct” for news professionals regarding the collecting and presenting of information to the public that would ensure “there [would] be no interference with pending criminal investigations, court proceedings, or the right of individuals to a fair trial.”

Secret Service

The findings prompted the Secret Service to make numerous modifications to its security procedures.

Commission records

In November 1964, two months after the publication of its 889-page report, the Commission published twenty-six volumes of supporting documents, including the testimony or depositions of 552 witnesses and more than 3,100 exhibits. All of the commission’s records were then transferred on November 23 to the National Archives. The unpublished portion of those records was initially sealed for 75 years (to 2039) under a general National Archives policy that applied to all federal investigations by the executive branch of government, a period “intended to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.” The 75-year rule no longer exists, supplanted by the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 and the JFK Records Act of 1992. By 1992, 98 percent of the Warren Commission records had been released to the public. Six years later, at the conclusion of the Assassination Records Review Board’s work, all Warren Commission records, except those records that contained tax return information, were available to the public with redactions. The remaining Kennedy assassination related documents were partly released to the public on October 26, 2017, twenty-five years after the passage of the JFK Records Act. President Donald Trump, as directed by the FBI and the CIA, took action on that date to withhold certain remaining files, delaying the release until April 26, 2018, then on April 26, 2018 took action to further withhold the records “until 2021”.

CIA “Benign Cover-up”

CIA Director McCone was “complicit” in a Central Intelligence Agency “benign cover-up” by withholding information from the Warren Commission, according to a report by the CIA Chief Historian David Robarge released to the public in 2014. According to this CIA report, CIA officers had been instructed to give only “passive, reactive, and selective” assistance to the commission, in order to keep the commission focused on “what the Agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’ — that Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing John Kennedy.” The CIA was also covering up evidence that the CIA may have been in communication with Oswald before 1963, according to the CIA findings.

Also withheld were earlier CIA plots, involving CIA links with the Mafia, to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro, which might have been considered to provide a motive to assassinate Kennedy. The report concluded “In the long term, the decision of John McCone and Agency leaders in 1964 not to disclose information about CIA’s anti-Castro schemes might have done more to undermine the credibility of the commission than anything else that happened while it was conducting its investigation.”

Skepticism

Four of the seven members of the commission, Boggs, Cooper, McCloy, and Russell, had serious doubts regarding the conclusions of the commission that the President and Governor Connally were both wounded by the “magic bullet” and regarding the view that Oswald had acted alone. 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 1992, following popular political pressure in the wake of the film JFK, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) was created by the JFK Records Act to collect and preserve the documents relating to the assassination. In a footnote in its final report, the ARRB wrote: “Doubts about the Warren Commission’s findings were not restricted to ordinary Americans. Well before 1978, President Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and four of the seven members of the Warren Commission all articulated, if sometimes off the record, some level of skepticism about the Commission’s basic findings.”

Other investigations

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 1978-79 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 that Oswald assassinated Kennedy, probably as the result of a conspiracy. 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 disputed acoustic evidence. The HSCA Final Report in 1979 did agree with the Warren Report’s conclusion in 1964 that two bullets caused all of President Kennedy’s and Governor Connally’s injuries, and that both bullets were fired by Oswald from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

As part of its investigation, the HSCA also evaluated the performance of the Warren Commission, which included interviews and public testimony from the two surviving Commission members (Ford and McCloy) and various Commission legal counsel staff. The Committee concluded in their final report that the Commission was reasonably thorough and acted in good faith, but failed to adequately address the possibility of conspiracy.

In his September 1978 testimony to the HSCA, President Ford defended the Warren Commission’s investigation as thorough. Ford stated that knowledge of the assassination plots against Castro may have affected the scope of the Commission’s investigation but expressed doubt that it would have altered its finding that Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy.