A crime “ripe for unravelling”

In his career at the fifth estate, former producer Brian McKenna created several documentaries on John F. Kennedy, including the 1983 episode 'Who Killed JFK?' that drew more than three million viewers.  Fifty years after the president was shot, McKenna offers his personal reminiscences on more than three decades of investigating what happened that day in Dallas : 

In mid-January this year, the Associated Press filed a story that should have made headlines. Joined by his sister Rory, Robert Kennedy Jr. went public with a family secret.  Robert Kennedy’s eldest son and daughter confessed that neither they nor their father believed in the Warren Commission report that a lone assassin murdered JFK. Bobby’s son called the report a “shoddy piece of craftsmanship.”

But like most reporting that casts doubt on the official story of the assassination, the story that the Kennedy family believed there was conspiracy was buried.  Few news outlets ran the story.

In his book, Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy years, David Talbot makes the case that Robert Kennedy had pieced together the assassination conspiracy within weeks of the murder. Bobby called Jackie and the family together to reveal his findings. He said that the CIA and the military carried out the execution, with the involvement of what we might now call Texas oil oligarchs.

Within weeks of the murder, Robert and Jackie dispatched William Walton, a confidant and adviser, to Russia to carry the same message to Khrushchev, JFK’s partner in detente. The message said these forces would be untouchable until there was a new president in 1968, hopefully Bobby.

Campaigning for the presidency in 1968, Bobby told a student audience that if elected he would use the powers of the presidency to reopen his brother’s murder. Was that his death warrant?  A few days later, on the night he won the California primary, Bobby too was murdered. It is no wonder Edward Kennedy ever breathed a dissenting word about his brothers’ murders.  Jackie was always careful, but once she did wonder about their Secret Service driver, how he let the car come to a complete halt in the crossfire, only tramping the accelerator after the head shot had been delivered. “It might as well have been Miss Shaw driving,” she said, referring to her children’s nanny. Now there is compelling new evidence that the Secret Service stripped security from the motorcade. One of the agents riding a few feet back in the follow-up car told me that when the first shot rang out, he and his mates were ordered to stand down. Agent Clint Hill disobeyed that direct order and probably saved Jackie’s life. There is still much to investigate. Now, we have a clue what Jackie really believed.

Two years ago the Kennedy library released taped conversations of Jackie interviewed by historian Arthur Schlesinger only months after the assassination.  There are excisions in the Jackie tapes. One cut is revealing. An August 2011 news story under the byline of Liz Thomas and carried by the Daily Mail said the tapes contained a bombshell: “Jackie Kennedy believed that Lyndon B. Johnson and a cabal of Texas tycoons were involved in the assassination of her husband John F Kennedy”.  This startling admission was missing when the tapes and transcript were published, but if it is true, Jackie was not alone. Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s long-term personal secretary, wrote that she believed there was a conspiracy involving LBJ and the FBI’s Hoover. So did LBJ’s lawyer. So did LBJ’s mistress, Madeleine Brown.

The tapes also give us a deeper insight into a woman who throughout her life seemed as mysterious as Mona Lisa.  After the assassination she gave only three interviews. The first was with journalist Theodore White seven days after Dallas. She told him that the Kennedy presidency was Camelot, a “brief shining moment” in the life of the American republic.

This idea provoked all manner of vituperation; radical essayist Christopher Hitchens accused her of the greatest crime in the eyes of an upper class Brit. By choosing an image from a musical to idealize the Kennedy presidency she was “lowering the conversation” – she was “low brow.” Hitchens accuses her of everything but witchcraft. He waited until she was dead to slander her. It would have been a sight to witness Jackie taking him on. Wrote Nikita Khrushchev after dining with her at the Vienna summit:   “Don’t mix with her; she’ll cut you down to size.”

There are two assassinations of JFK, first in Dallas, and the second an ongoing attempt to murder his name. First, there was the attempt to link JFK to the CIA-mafia plots to assassinate Castro. The implication is that the Kennedys, by joining with the mob to kill Castro, were no better than the mafia.  This is refuted categorically.

An independent investigation conducted by the CIA’s Inspector General concluded the CIA-mafia plots were rogue operations and that JFK “was not told.”

Perhaps more destructive is the persistent campaign to trash JFK’s personal reputation.

For almost 50 years a series of salacious articles and trashy books, climaxed by Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot, put JFK in bed with half the women of the western world. JFK liked women. He slept with more than just his wife, but if JFK was a corrupt lecher, how does one explain Jacqueline Kennedy’s actions in the wake of her husband’s murder? Women punish men who break their hearts, yet in the aftermath of the assassination the depth of her love and the scale of her grief moved the world.

Certainly the media coverage of the taped Jackie interviews was more of the same, focusing on her pithy put downs of the rich, and of the powerful. But there is much more. The tapes reveal JFK did not trust his military to follow presidential commands. She describes CIA director Allen Dulles “cracking up” after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. JFK, for his part, wept when he realized so many Cubans died due to CIA and military incompetence.

JFK came to believe that he had been the victim of a CIA covert operation, the same CIA mindset that killed African nationalist Patrice Lumumba and destroyed democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala. In the 1961 operation, the CIA-trained brigade of anti-Castro Cubans had no chance against Castro’s well-trained army – and the CIA knew it. But the CIA and military brass were counting on Kennedy folding and calling in the marines to invade Cuba once their Cuban allies were being defeated at the Bay of Pigs. JFK had pledged no US combat troops would be employed. At the height of the drama, Kennedy was forced to call the captain of a US naval Aircraft carrier heading for a landing at the Bay of Pigs and order the captain to turn the ship around.

In the aftermath, a raging JFK promised to smash the CIA into 1,000 pieces and scatter it to the wind. He also fired Allen Dulles, the CIA director, who together with his brother John Foster Dulles, were at the apex of the US establishment. Allen Dulles got his revenge: he was an influential member of the Warren Commission and contributed to the whitewash of the official story.

I became interested in the conspiracy story after a long conversation with a Canadian admiral who was our military liaison with the U.S. joint chiefs during the Kennedy years. At their clubs and into their cups, he was astonished to hear the brass talking about the novel Seven Days in May, written by Washington insiders about a fictional military coup in the US. They said JFK was like the president in the novel, selling them out to the Russians, and guilty of treason.  I asked director John Frankenheimer how the movie got made. “Press secretary Pierre Salinger called me,” he told me. “He said the president wanted the movie made as a warning to the nation. They gave me the White House as a set.”

Listening to the eight hours of the Jackie tapes one comes away with the overwhelming feeling that this was a love story for the ages. At the height of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when a nuclear strike on Washington seemed only hours away, she told Jack she would not be shipped off to a bomb shelter. “I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too – than live without you.”

Afterwards she confessed to a friend that she contemplated suicide after the assassination. “Was it so wrong to want to join him?”

Nothing journalistic scavengers say or write lowers the intense admiration that most Americans – and millions around the world - still have for the Kennedys.  After the murder, more than 1.5 million wrote letters of condolence. Jackie saw that every one was answered. The question burns brightly: Why are so many journalists and now historians, so terrified of challenging the official story of the assassination?

Washington Post editor Jefferson Morley is one of the few mainstream journalists pursuing the conspiracy story.  For years Morley has been duelling with the CIA to try and free up the thousands of documents on alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. These are the files that presidents from Nixon to Clinton have tried to pry loose from the agency. All have failed. These files deal with Oswald’s relationship to the CIA before the assassination. Their existence and the tenacity which the CIA demonstrates trying to keep them secret is strong evidence to suggest that Oswald was a CIA agent.

The agency created a radioactive “don’t go there atmosphere” around any challenge to the Official Story. Indeed, there was a CIA operation targeting editors and other elite contacts on how to deal with conspiracy evidence. The declassified instructions are from a top-secret CIA manual sent to station chiefs around the world on how to deal with challenges to the Warren Commission. The CIA instruction urged CIA station chiefs to greet any new conspiracy revelation by saying that “no significant new evidence has emerged which the Commission did not consider…point out that part of the conspiracy talk appears to be generated by Communist propagandists.”

In Ottawa, assassination files documenting someone who identified himself as Oswald during a ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ demonstration in Montreal during the summer of 1963, are still secret. On my behalf, a lawyer filed Access to Information requests in an attempt to spring the files only to get back hundreds of redacted blacked out pages.

As far as a conspiracy, almost all the major players believed Kennedy was killed as the result of a plot.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said that if the truth of the JFK murder was ever released, it would shake the foundations of the US Republic. But he was being coy. There is strong evidence that the venal Hoover played a role in the assassination cover-up, if not the crime itself.

The man who succeeded Kennedy as president, the Texan Lyndon Johnson, told Walter Cronkite that he believed in a conspiracy. He declared Castro was likely behind the murder.

During a private dinner, while I was shooting the Pierre Trudeau memoirs, Fidel Castro told Trudeau and I that this was a classic case of misdirection. “Why should I want to kill a leader who twice refused to invade my island,” he told us, referring to the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. Castro said he believed that CIA-trained anti-Castro Cubans were deeply involved in the murder –“but they could not have acted alone.”

Castro told me that he knew something strange was afoot when he heard the murder weapon that Oswald allegedly used to kill Kennedy was a WW2 Manlicher Carcano rifle. “We tried it out during the revolution. It was a terrible weapon – inaccurate and unreliable.”

Today the crime can be investigated with new tools and new evidence. A key question on the issue of conspiracy is why has no one talked in all these decades. The answer is that many key players have confessed to involvement in the crime but their confessions are ignored or dismissed by the mainstream news media.

When Bill Clinton became president, he too delegated a senior staffer to get the Assassination files.  The CIA stonewalled Clinton in the same manner.

To his credit, Clinton oversaw the implementation of the Assassination Records Review Board, the ARRB. The board’s job was to go through millions of classified files on the JFK case and force their disclosure. The ARRB was created in the stormy aftermath of Oliver Stone’s film ‘JFK’.

Tens of thousands of classified files were released during the life of the board, many with tantalizing clues about the conspiracy.

The sons of CIA agent and Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt say that in a taped deathbed confession he admitted that he was a back-up player in the assassination plot. The text and audio sequence are online. []

In the minutes after the assassination a Dallas Deputy Sheriff named Seymour Weitzman  accosted a suspicious man in a suit behind a picket fence on the grassy knoll. Unknown to the sheriff, at least two other witnesses said they had watched ‘Suitman’, as he was called by one witness, fire at Kennedy. He then broke the rifle down and stowed it in a satchel, according to the witnesses. The man was about to make good his escape when he was stopped by Weitzman, who says the man flashed Secret Service credentials. He was allowed to melt into the crowd.

Recently, sheriff Weitzman has said the man is Watergate burglar and ex-FBI and CIA agent Bernard Barker.

Another document reveals that the CIA manufactured the Secret Service credentials that were flashed repeatedly in Dealey Plaza in the aftermath of the shooting.

Thanks to the support of senior CBC producers, I wrote and directed four films for the fifth estate on the killing, the greatest murder mystery of the 20th century. One show drew the largest audience in fifth estate history. People are hungry for what happened. The latest surveys show that more than 60 per cent of the American people reject the Official Story. The crime is ripe for unravelling. Even 50 years later it is not too late.

Despite an avalanche of smear engulfing the Kennedys for 50 years, the American people have somehow resisted this assassination campaign, as surely as they disbelieve the lone gunman and magic bullet. Three years ago CBS and the New York Times conducted a poll asking if you could pick a president, any president, to run the country, who would it be? The remarkable answer was JFK. He got twice as many votes as the second place finisher.

The reasons run deep. American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of the assassination: “I never knew how his brief and brilliant leadership had touched the imagination and hearts of the common people until this terrible deed ended his career.” The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin went further: “I do not wish to exaggerate: perhaps it is not all similar to what men may have felt when Alexander the Great died; but the suddenness and the sense of exceptional hope for a large number of people suddenly cut off in mid-air is unique in our lifetime – it is as if Roosevelt had been murdered in 1935, leaving Hitler and Mussolini unopposed.”

Gallup polls tracking Americans’ faith in their government began a long and precipitous fall at one critical moment in American history. It wasn’t Vietnam. It wasn’t Watergate – it was the month the Warren Commission claimed that JFK was killed by a “lone nut”, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Jack Kennedy did not fear death.  Jim Douglass, the Canadian peace activist whose volume JFK and the Unspeakable is the best book ever written on the JFK murder, chose an apt phrase: “Jack Kennedy walked with a raven on his shoulder.”

As a youngster Kennedy almost died of scarlet fever. At boarding school he was cursed with a near fatal blood disease. As a WW2 PT boat commander his craft was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer.  He swam for miles trying to rescue crew members, and almost died in the attempt. For the rest of his life he suffered terrible back pain. The surgery to correct it almost killed him. His brother Bobby said Jack lived with pain virtually every day of his life.

He also had a premonition of approaching death. He spoke often of Lincoln’s assassination, quoting Lincoln’s prayer:  “I believe there is a god - and I see  a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe I am ready.”

The storm was nuclear war. Led by the ultimate hawk, General Curtis Lemay, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pressuring Kennedy to launch an overwhelming first strike against the Soviet Union. Kennedy refused. As we have seen, JFK also refused to invade Laos and Berlin. Twice he refused to invade Cuba. In October 1963 he ordered the first 1,000 military advisers removed from Viet Nam, promising the rest would be gone after the next presidential election. To top if off, he personally took charge of successfully negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty with the Russians. For all these moves toward peace the CIA and military denounced him as a traitor. 

On their honeymoon, Jack had taught Jackie his favourite poem, written by Alan Seeger, a young Harvard graduate who went off to fight and die in WW1. It begins: “I have a rendezvous with death”

One sun drenched autumn morning, not long before the assassination, Caroline interrupted her father as he met with his national security heads in the Rose Garden. Kennedy stopped the meeting and turned his full attention to his daughter. She was five, and taught well by Jackie.

She recited:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air--
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath--
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.