Electronic Assassinations Newsletter
Skeptic, the journal of the Skeptics Society, recently printed two articles on the JFK assassination. One, "Case Still Open", was a truly skeptical appraisal of the claims of author Gerald Posner's book Case Closed. The other, "Tragedy on Elm Street", by Nick Gerlich, was a more typical example of what passes for "unbiased" journalism when the JFK assassination is being discussed. Gerlich claims that his article is an examination of "the many truths and non-truths surrounding the JFK assassination" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 40), but by credulously parroting Posner, he inherits the misrepresentations of Case Closed.
While an uncritical press has generally praised Posner's work as definitive, Case Closed, if approached with just half of the skepticism heaped upon the conspiracy theorists, is easily seen to be frequently disingenuous and often dishonest. Even though Gerlich is dismissive of conspiracy theorists because, he thinks, they "raise interesting questions, and then leave the reader to draw his own conclusions" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 49), it seems obvious that the truth is always served by the exposure of errors in fact and reasoning. This article discusses some of the problems Posner and Gerlich have with the actual facts involved in the JFK assassination, facts which must be recognized before any greater truth can be determined.
Gerlich states that "after 35 years, there is little that's new to be added", echoing Posner's opinion that recently-released documents "merely help explain some of the anomalies in the case" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 40). This can only be charcterized as a puposefully inaccurate appraisal of some of the documents that have been released. Consider this transcript of a telephone call between President Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover shortly after the assassination, released in 1993:
LBJ: Have you established any more about [Oswald's] visit to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico in September?
Hoover: No, that's one angle that's very confusing for this reason. We have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet Embassy, using Oswald's name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man's voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the embassy down there. (document declassified from the National Archives, Oct. 26, 1993)
This one document exposes decades of obfuscation and lies by the government. The Warren Commission was told nothing about audiotapes. CIA officer David Atlee Phillips told the House Select Committee on Assassinations that the tapes had been routinely destroyed early in October 1963. When a document (prior to the above transcript) was found to contradict this, the FBI said the source of confusion was that they had received mere transcripts of the Oswald tapes from the CIA. But then the LBJ/Hoover conversation was released, proving that there was an Oswald impostor in Mexico, and Hoover and the President knew about it. What possible explanation can there be for this "second person" who was "using Oswald's name"? Why did neither LBJ nor Hoover notify the Warren Commission about these tapes? Why did the CIA and FBI continue to hide their knowledge of them? What ever happened to the tapes?
This document obviously did not help explain any anomalies, and there could be hundreds more like it waiting to be discovered. Or maybe, as researchers search through the thousands of pages of recently-released documents, they will tie-up all the loose ends into a noose around Oswald's neck. We just can't know, and skeptics should withhold judgment, not issue blanket statements about what they heven't yet read.
The Zapruder Film
Gerlich says that Groden, Livingstone, and other critics used the Zapruder film to build a time line for comparison to the operation of the Mannlicher-Carcano. It was the Warren Commission that first used the film's frame rate to help establish the average speed of Kennedy's limousine and the sequence of shots. The critics then examined and critiqued the Commission's version while developing their own theories of the shots, as did Posner.
Gerlich refers to Posner to say the shots were "a quite manageable feat" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 41). A letter in the same issue of Skeptic magazine (Leonardis, 1999, p. 25) deftly handles the feat's possibility versus probability, pointing out that only one marksman ever "recreated" Oswald's alleged shots. While this marksman was .4 seconds faster than Oswald, he still took 5.2 seconds, a far cry from Posner's claim that the HSCA tests "reduced the time necessary for three effective shots to 3.3 seconds" (Posner, 1993, p. 318). Gerlich swallows this whole, but Posner did not tell us that the HSCA marksmen "did not use a telescopic sight . . . but only the rifle's own iron sights. Three tests resulted in firings of 1.65, 1.75 and over 2 seconds. The target was hit on the two fastest times . . . but no one came close to hitting the target on the second shot" (Fonzi, 1993, p. 219). They didn't even try a third shot; Posner just doubled the fastest time and turned one hit into "three effective shots".
Gerlich also follows Posner's interpretation of Zapruder's jerking camera as indicative of when the first shot was fired, while acknowledging that there were "four slight twitches" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 41). Either this means that four shots were fired, and therefore there was a second gunman, or that the twitches could be caused by something other than gunfire, thus demonstrating that "twitch analysis" is itself shaky at best. An objective look at the facts can only label the shots as described by the Warren Commission or Posner as improbable - which, obviously, is not to say impossible. But Posner has clearly misrepresented the facts of the firing tests to make the lone gunman theory more palatable, and that should be noted in any review of his work.
Gerlich indulges in a classic straw man argument when discussing the possibility of other gunmen. Granted, some pro-conspiracy writers have proposed an unrealistically large number of shooters, but to say that "Dealey Plaza was literally crawling with . . . an entire posse of marksmen" is a vague distortion of most theories, and so no real point is made my dismissing it as "a flight of fancy" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 41).
Obviously it would have been difficult for additional shooters to escape sight, but there were a number of eyewitness, such as Gordon Arnold, Lee Bowers, Jean Hill, Sam Holland, and Julia Mercer, that said they saw suspicious people in the grassy knoll area (Hurt, 1987). Individual reliability may vary, but their testimony is on record. By only mentioning the earwitnesses and the disorienting acoustics of Dealey Plaza, Gerlich misdirects the reader and implies that there were no relevant eyewitnesses. Like Posner's use of the HSCA's firing tests, that is simply not the whole story. Gerlich should have mentioned the eyewitnesses and then attempted to establish specific critical reasons for contradicting them, instead of just proceeding as if they didn't exist.
The Single Bullet Theory
"Case Still Open" pointed out that Posner used the Failure Analysis Associates' trajectory tests without mentioning that their experts actually developed both sides of the case, and the trial ended in a hung jury (Snyder, 1999, p. 57). To go further, Dr. Angela Meyer, who was on the defense team, said that when "Mr. Posner contacted Dr. Pizali [lead member of the prosecution] ...[and] Dr. Pizali gave his approval for him to utilize their work for his investigation." (Weisberg, 1994, p. 64) That is, Posner only contacted the team that had supported the lone-gunman theory. This is yet another example of Posner's selective use of the available evidence; he has a knack for avoiding anything that might go against his theory. [Editors note: Please see the affadavit of Failure Analysis CEO Roger McCarthy concerning Posner and FAA. You can read the text of this document online at: http://home.cynet.net/jfk/mcc.htm ]
According to Gerlich, "as preposterous as the Magic Bullet theory may sound . . . it is the best conclusion we have" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 42). "That the bullet was in reasonably good shape following the ordeal is not the issue" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 44). The condition of the bullet after this preposterous ordeal is precisely the issue. How can ballistic evidence be so cavalierly dismissed?
Posner's diagram of the single bullet theory labels Connally's back wound as one and a quarter inches long, "the exact length of the bullet - indicating the bullet was tumbling end over end" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 43; Posner, 1993, p. 479). Dr. John Lattimer, one of Posners sources, says that the back wound was "elongated" (Posner, p. 386), but gives no measurements. The diagram does not give a source for the one and a quarter inch figure. The Warren Report, curiously, gave no direct measurement of the wound. Dr. Robert Shaw is stated to have determined it was an entrance wound from its "small size and clean cut edges" (Warren, 1964, p. 95). The Warren Report goes on to say that Connally's clothing "contained holes which matched his wounds" (Warren, 1964, p. 96). The hole in the back of his jacket is described as "five-eighths of an inch in length and one-fourth of an inch in height" (Warren, 1964, p. 96). The back of his shirt had a "very ragged tear five-eighths of an inch long horizontally and one-half of an inch vertically . . . [and] immediately to the right was another small tear approximately three-sixteenths of an inch long" (Warren, 1964, p. 97). Both of the elongated holes, described as matching Connally's back wound, establish a length of five-eighths of an inch, exactly half the length given by Posner and repeated by Gerlich. This discrepancy was explained by Dr. Shaw in 1992, when he said that he "had cut away the edges of the wound, and so the scar did not reflect its original appearance, enlarging it from 1.5 to 3 centimeters [approximately five-eighths to one and a quarter inches]" (Dallas Autopsy Forum, June 1992).
Coincidentally, the Warren Report, when discussing bullet velocity and the possibility of tumbling, called the previously-described back wound of "small size" a "large wound" (Warren, 1964, p. 105). It would seem the Commission avoided giving the actual wound measurement so that they could vary its description depending on what part of their theory they wanted to prove: small for entrance, large for tumbling. Similarly, Posner apparently used the longer scar measurement to more conclusively prove tumbling, ignoring the attending physician's statements and the clothing. He has added another trick to the Magic Bullet's act. It was able to turn from relatively head-on to sideways in the space between Connally's shirt and his back.
Gerlich thinks it is "quite easy to suggest that a person or organization had means motive, and opportunity" so "tossing around names of possible conspirators, but without the proof to back it up, is like saying that October's Hurricane Mitch was really a Contra plot to get back at the Sandinistas" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 44). It's difficult to know where to begin with this farcical simile. Attempted humor aside, surely he didn't mean to imply that he could establish means, motive and opportunity for this Contra revenge theory. In any event it's difficult to find a legitimate point in this statement.
Why should, for example, the theory that the Mafia assassinated JFK be dismissed out of hand like this Hurricane Mitch nonsense? Gerlich says that "conspiracy theorists love to recite an old mantra about getting rid of the dog that wags the tail" (Gerlich, p. 44), as if they are arguing from a mere adage, not a quote directly attributed to "Mafia Kingfish" Carlos Marcello. Edward Becker, in testimony to the HSCA, recalled Marcello stating "he was going to arrange to have President Kennedy murdered" because "the dog will keep biting you if you only cut off its tail" (Scheim, 1989, p. 81). [Editor's Note: The "tail" being referred to was the president's brother, Robert Kennedy, who, as attorney general, was aggressively pursuing the mafia in general, and Carlos Marcello in particular.] Gerlich only evades the Mafia theory with his straw man meteorology, without giving any critical deliberation of the evidence.
Gerlich dismisses the possibility that Oswald knew David Ferrie in 1955 because Ferrie was dismissed from the Civil Air Patrol "in the mid-1950's" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 46). Gerlich is more vague than Posner, who says Ferrie "was a member through 1954 . . . [but] when he submitted his 1955 renewal he was rejected" (Posner, 1993, p. 143). Nevertheless, a picture has been published of Oswald and Ferrie at a CAP picnic in 1955 (Groden, 1995, p. 18). Perhaps it is significant that Ferrie, who held the rank of captain, is dressed like the boys, displaying no rank insignia. That Ferrie and Oswald met may have no bearing on the assassination, but once again the issue is one of acknowledging the existing evidence. There are several witnesses who claim Ferrie and Oswald knew each other in the Civil Air Patrol and there is a photograph. Maybe, ironically, Posner and Gerlich would dismiss the photo as merely showing a "second" Ferrie.
Gerlich says there is "speculation that [Oswald] (or a "second" Oswald) made . . . appearances in Louisiana, Texas, and even Mexico City" (Gerlich, p. 46). "Once his face was broadcast, it seemed that everyone had seen Oswald . . . even appearing at a U.S. embassy in Mexico City . . . these reported sightings are probably just colorful imaginations" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 48). It is well-documented that Oswald, and someone passing himself off as Oswald, was in Mexico City. In addition to the LBJ/Hoover transcript given above, the CIA station in Mexico City contacted the Department of the Navy, the State Department, and the FBI on October 10th, 1963 via teletype: "On 1 October 1963 . . . Lee Oswald contacted the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City . . . It is believed that Oswald may be identical to Lee Henry [sic] Oswald . . . a former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union" (Newman, 1995, p. 399). Posner accepts the Warren Commission's evidence of the real Oswald's visit, mentioning, among other things, that Oswald "signed his real name to the hotel register (confirmed later by handwriting experts)" (Posner, 1993, p. 173). This is yet another example of Gerlich carelessly ignoring the official record, apparently in order to paint pro-conspiracy people as just having "colorful imaginations" and no evidence.
Catching the Bad Guys
Gerlich says that the pro-conspiracy position has a number of weaknesses: "the burden of proof is on those who allege a conspiracy to name the individuals responsible . . . none of the points they have made either singularly or collectively prove a conspiracy . . . pro-conspiracy advocates have failed to produce any of the mythical accomplices . . . in 35 years, no one else has been apprehended" (Gerlich, 1999, p. 49).
Over the years names have been named. As one example we have Jean Souetre, a French army deserter "alleged to have been deeply involved in the planning of the assassination of de Gaulle in August 1962" (FOIA lawsuit by Bernard Fensterwald for Gary Shaw). A CIA document released in 1977 reads "Jean Souetre aka Michel Roux aka Michel Mertz . . . had been expelled from the U.S. at Fort Worth or Dallas 48 hours after the assassination. He was in Fort Worth on morning of 22 November and in Dallas in the afternoon" (CIA document #632-796, released 1976).
Souetre is a reasonable suspect as a hired assassin. He, of course, denies being in Dallas on that day, and says perhaps it was Mertz, a drug smuggler with French spy agency connections, using his name (both of his aliases are names of real people; strangely, Michel Roux, another deserter, was also in the Dallas-Fort Worth area at the time). But how can conspiracy advocates gather substantial proof under the circumstances that exist in this country? The above CIA document was pried open only by the Freedom of Information Act.
So much evidence gathered over the years is kept secret, and where there is evidence or tantalizing hints of new avenues of investigation, people like Gerlich dismiss it without a moment's critical thought. He even refers to "mythical accomplices" - relegating any theory of an accomplice to the same level of believability as fairies and leprechauns. And who would have the power to apprehend a suspect anyway? Given the overall acceptance of the Warren Report by official government agencies, it seems there is no legal authority who could or would arrest a grassy knoll shooter even if he confessed.
When Gerlich states that conspiracy theorists "systematically chip away at the Warren Commission, one brick at a time. Yet the core conclusion of the Warren Commission Report still stands - Oswald did it alone" (Gerlich, p. 49), he seems to say "Knock down all the walls, but the building still stands." There can be no debating Gerlich, for it is his mind, not the case, which is "closed".
Regardless of one's stance on the issue of conspiracy, the search for truth is served only by the accurate recounting of evidence. We can argue various interpretations of said evidence, or even, with proper foundation, dismiss some evidence as fraudulent, but there is a sizable official record that should be acknowledged in any objective overview of the assassination. Posner and Gerlich, however, twist the record to achieve their ends. There are those in the conspiracy community who have done likewise, but skeptics who concentrate their skepticism only on the conspiracy theories seem to have suffered a more hypocritical failure of logic. It is as if the Warren Report has achieved canonical status, and anything that substantially deviates from it is heresy.
Gerlich even uses a religious analogy, and like his other such arguments he gets the comparison wrong. He says "nitpicking through 23 volumes in search of errors to be able to discredit the lone assassin theory is no different from sifting through the 66 books of the bible for historical or spiritual inconsistencies so as to vilify Christians" (49). [Editor's Note: Gerlich seems to have trouble getting the most basic of his facts straight concerning the assassination evidence. Even the novice researcher (which aparrently decribes Gerlich accurately) would know that there are not "23 volumes," there are 26 volumes.]
The appropriate purpose of searching for errors in any text which purports to be "the truth" is to ascertain its veracity, which can be done without vilifying its proponents, be they Christians or lone gunman believers. There is no persecution here, no martyrs among Warren "apologists," but the often circular reasoning of blind faith is in full force. The Warren Report declared there was only one shooter, so all witnesses to the contrary must be dismissed, therefore there was no conspiracy, because there were no credible witnesses to the contrary. They recite their own mantra about the burden of proof being on the conspiracy theorists as if the lone gunman and his single bullet are a given, brought down from the mount carved in stone. But the burden of proof applied equally to the original plaintiff, the Warren Commission - and for this skeptic they did not prove the lone assassin theory beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, for Gerlich, like Posner, the conclusion that Oswald did it alone still stands, no matter how many Warren Commission premises were wrong - it has become dogma, logic be damned.Bibliography
Fonzi, Gaeton, The Last Investigation, New York,
Thunders Mouth Press, 1993.
Gerlich, Nick, "Tragedy on Elm Street," Skeptic, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1999.
Groden, Robert J., The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald, New York, Penguin Books, 1995.
Hurt, Henry, Reasonable Doubt, New York, Henry Holt, 1987.
Leonardis, Roger, "The JFK Head Shot," Skeptic, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1999.
Newman, John, Oswald and the CIA, Carroll and Graf, 1995.
Posner, Gerald, Case Closed New York, Random House, 1993.
Scheim, David E., Contract on America, New York, Zebra, 1989.
Snyder, Arthur and Margaret, "Case Still Open", Skeptic, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1999.
United States Government, Report of the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, Washington, D.C., US GPO, 1964.
Weisberg, Harold, Case Open, New York, Carroll and Graf, 1994.
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