In 1993 he was invited to the Second Annual Midwest Symposium on Assassination Politics in Chicago to share his thoughts on JFK assassination research. The following are his comments.
I am at a disadvantage talking this early in the symposium, but I intend to be frank about where I stand after nearly thirty years, off and on, of research. Primarily, I want to make a point to non-buffs and to new buffs in the audience: There is a lot of diversity and uncertainty among the critics.
If anyone wants to set up, as a test, the denunciation of Clay Shaw or of the Single Bullet Theory or of Burt Griffin, I won't pass it. And I know there are many other buffs who share some of my doubts about what seems to be the new orthodoxy.
Doug Carlson suggested that this panel include a review of the public record, in the context of the science of independent research. Thinking of the state of the case in the public mind, my first reaction was, what's research got to do with it? The success of Oliver Stone's film and the subsequent movement to "free the files," was built on facts and the work of many researchers, but it seems to really be about issues that go far beyond the events of November 22 the nature of the press, of the government, of our society.
In this context, my key point about documentary research is that it may not be able to solve the case, but it certainly can make wrong solutions go away. There are plenty of allegations floating around which would not stand up to scrutiny based on the existing public record. One complication, of course, is that I'm not sure which of the allegations would go away. But I am confident that many would.
What results can we expect? Burt Griffin made a good point in his House Committee testimony in 1978: "consider the possible reality that under the American system of civil liberties and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that it is virtually impossible to prosecute or uncover a well-conceived and well-executed conspiracy." (5 HSCA 480) So the ambitions of documentary research which is just one of the tools of such an inquiry probably should be quite modest.
I think that the most promising areas for research in the existing files as well as the new ones are the facts of the shooting (particularly the medical evidence), Oswald (especially what the agencies knew about him), and the political context (particularly Cuba).
First, keep an eye out for the innocent explanation; then test it. Remember, sources make mistakes, FBI agents make mistakes, even researchers make mistakes. And some sources lie.
I hope we will make some progress this weekend in planning to deal with new material. Of course I would like to have everything on indexed CD ROM's. But we learned in 1978, from the work of Carl Oglesby and his AIB colleagues on the FBI files, that selection of interesting documents is a key step. Mark Zaid has put together some ideas along these lines. We're in the position of paleontologists coming across an enormous find which might consist of real bones. There is a lot of junk in the files.
Tips for analyzing documents: First, keep an eye out for the innocent explanation; then test it. Remember, sources make mistakes, FBI agents make mistakes, even researchers make mistakes. And some sources lie.
Things that are deleted may not be important. Not everything put in an assassination file is relevant to the assassination. For example: Mark Lane said that Priscilla Johnson was a suspect in the assassination, no doubt referring to a certain document where, if the case caption is undeleted, it is clear that she was a suspect in a case of potential KGB recruitment. Years ago, it became clear than many people, such as Igor Vaganov, were involved in shady activities in Dallas that probably had nothing to do with the assassination.
In short, most of the apparent evidence will turn out not to be true, even if it is not obviously false. That is certainly the typical experience of those of us who have worked as scientists.
Anyone who spends time in the FBI files develops his own filters for detecting probable junk. For example, letters from citizens which are typed in all capitals single spaced, with no margins or handwritten with about ten words per page. I suspect that a useful measure of the plausibility of an allegation could be derived from the percentage of well-known names. If a source claims to have met with David Ferrie, Allen Dulles, and Fidel Castro in Jack Ruby's nightclub, I'll go on to the next document. Any post-Garrison story with Clay Shaw in it starts with a heavy burden of skepticism to overcome. I now put Roscoe White in the same category.
Suggestions on assessing the credibility of physical evidence: Most important, remember that only one thing happened. It is no longer enough to just come up with leads and say they are interesting or should be investigated. I used to do that a lot myself. We need to filter out charges that don't hold up, as much as we can.
The technical work of the House Committee had quite an impact on me. The key fact is that specific items of Dealey Plaza conspiracy evidence have tended to get weaker over the years. This has been a surprise, naturally underappreciated especially by newer buffs and non-technical buffs.
I suspect that a useful measure of the plausibility of an allegation could be derived from the percentage of well-known names. If a source claims to have met with David Ferrie, Allen Dulles, and Fidel Castro in Jack Ruby's nightclub, I'll go on to the next document.
The big arguable exception is the medical and autopsy evidence, and I could never fully accept the official version of the shots until the anomalies in this area are more adequately dealt with.
We could argue at length about the imperfections in the House Committee's work, and in the work of the National Academy of Sciences panel which rebutted the acoustics. As some of you know, I've done my share, particularly on the acoustics.
But the fact remains that the House Committee took a stab at the tests the critics wanted not completely, and not perfectly, but we expected that any one of the tests would demolish the WC reconstruction neutron activation analysis, trajectory analysis. And they didn't.
Many people seem to agree with John Judge, who has said that we know where the shots came from, they came from the Pentagon. I don't think we know nearly enough about Dealey Plaza to make a jump like that.
The single bullet theory is not a joke. Despite its well-known flaws, the Warren Commission/House Committee reconstruction may be in better shape than any other single detailed reconstruction. At least, it has to be taken seriously.
To me, a key lesson from the state of the physical evidence is that much of the other conspiracy evidence would be weakened if subject to comparable scrutiny.
Wallace Milam has said that we have identified twelve of the three gunmen. We need to think what this means about our collective methodology. Are we the men who know too much?
On interviewing witnesses: I don't have any experience worth mentioning, so I'll make just one point: Watch out for principals who have become buffs, and are basing conclusions on information outside their areas of direct knowledge or expertise. If John Rosselli, for example, knew there was a shot from the knoll, it might not have been from inside knowledge, but because some of his friends, like many others, heard Mark Lane's stump speech. It seemed very significant that Dr. George Burkley said he thought there was a conspiracy, but the most I could find out was that he thought Oswald had more money than could be accounted for. One of the Dallas doctors, as I recall, thinks the head snap and simple physics constitute irrefutable proof of a shot from the front. They don't.
Suggestions on assessing the credibility of verbal testimony: I'll offer a corollary to Griffin's statement: If you recognize that conspiracies do happen but don't have a good methodology, you will end up believing in a big conspiracy behind any major political crime.
Watch out for principals who have become buffs, and are basing conclusions on information outside their areas of direct knowledge or expertise. If John Rosselli, for example, knew there was a shot from the knoll, it might not have been from inside knowledge, but because some of his friends, like many others, heard Mark Lane's stump speech.
Do I know what constitutes a good methodology? Not really. A couple of obvious points: Go to primary sources whenever possible. Many books are unreliable on details. For an example, again I'll pick on Mark Lane since he's not here: Lane accurately quotes a memo by Melvin Eisenberg as saying that Warren said that LBJ "convinced him that this was an occasion on which actual conditions had to override general principles." But it is obvious from the memo that the general principle being set aside is not Warren's "belief system and his sense of justice," as Lane says, but the principle that a sitting Supreme Court justice should not take an outside job like this. When people misinterpret documents that are readily available, how can you trust them on sources that are not easily checkable?
What about pitfalls? Watch out for allegations which look too good to throw out, for example because they seem to make the connection between Kennedy's enemies and the assassination that is, to provide the closure everyone hopes to find. For example, some people latched on to the FBI document mentioning George Bush of the CIA without considering if the George Bush would be referred to in that fashion, and whether the contact described was that important or sinister anyhow.
David Lifton pointed out to me that it has gotten hard to pin researchers down about sloppy analysis, now that their fallback position can be that what they are looking for is a metaphor or a myth.
Sometimes it seems that the stories which catch on in the public mind are those with particular value as metaphor, or those which are pushed vigorously by some buffs. Don't assume that the best leads are the ones which have been waved around most prominently.
An example of a story which never caught on: I discovered that the lawyer who sent a telegram to Oswald in jail, offering to represent him, came from a civil-libertarian law firm here in Chicago which had defended Sam Giancana against alleged FBI harassment. I learned this quite by accident; the lawyer mentioned it to me. When I circulated this story, I played this connection down. But someone else could easily have picked it up and made a big deal of it, and then it would be one of those things that everyone knows is important.
Be careful not to give evidence a value proportional to the difficulty you had in finding it. Not everything being withheld is relevant. Realize how hard it is to discard as unimportant something you've spent many hours to get, but that's what good journalists and scientists have to do all the time.
Partial confirmation can be misleading. For example, Henry Hurt confirmed with some difficulty that a fire described by Robert Easterling had occurred, which may have made Hurt too inclined to believe Easterling's fantastic stories about the assassination.
Of course, one problem with concentrating on these pitfalls is that you might miss good allegations that look bad. For example, when I got the Sibert-O'Neill report from the Archives in 1966 and circulated it, Lifton was perhaps the only person not to discard the strange reference to "surgery of the head area." I don't know what it all means but I think he was right not to pass over it as obviously an FBI reporting error.
Watch out for allegations which look too good to throw out, for example because they seem to make the connection between Kennedy's enemies and the assassination — that is, to provide the closure everyone hopes to find.
You may recall the story in John Davis' book about the mayor of Darien, Georgia, who said he saw Oswald getting money in what turned out to be a mob-linked restaurant. I sent that document to John to show him that another allegation we were discussing was not that persuasive to me, because such stories were so common. But this one turned out to get better, not worse, as you looked into it.
One funny story: I remember Robert Ranftel doing a late-night radio talk show and telling several conspiracy-minded callers that their favorite stories had been discredited, or didn't make sense anyhow. Then one caller started talking about his aunt having photographed Oswald in Russia, and got the same treatment; I was rolling my eyes and hoping that Robert would remember that, yes, some tourist did photograph Oswald.
Are we critics or researchers or skeptics or what? Being critical used to mean questioning the Warren Report. At first, document research was easy check out their footnotes, ask for the Sibert-O'Neill report. It's harder now to ask tough questions about the beliefs of the anti-Warren Report majority and about the work of those who are building on the momentum of 29 years of research.
The critical community may be at a crossroads. Will the revived public interest in the case turn our research effort into something that belongs on shows like "Hard Copy," along with UFO abductions?
I expect interesting discussions this weekend on unity among the buffs. Avoiding divisiveness on tactical grounds makes more sense for a minority movement than for people taking a view which is endorsed by an overwhelming percentage of the public.
We are not guaranteed progress towards the truth by adhering to the standards of science, or journalism, or law certainly not law. But those standards have justifications and are certainly more applicable than the standards of political activism or filmmaking in getting at what actually happened.
Do we want to reach people who are not already "pro-conspiracy" (particularly reporters, academics, people in government)? I personally do. How? My gut feeling is to make it clear that they don't have to pick between two sides: a flat no-conspiracy viewpoint and a unified community of conspiratorialists (the most vocal of whom appear to be preaching to the choir). I would emphasize that the no-conspiracy side is not where you find most of the people who are seriously asking valid questions. If there is a basis for unity, it is a skeptical methodology, not any particular conclusions or interpretations of the evidence.