Howard Willens, former staff attorney on the Warren Commission, remains one of its most vigorous public defenders 50 years later. As I reported yesterday, he agreed to answer questions from JFK Facts via email. Because all of the questions were submitted at once, there were no follow up questions. In any case, my intent was not to conduct a hostile interrogation but to elicit his thoughts and hopefully start a dialogue. (I found his journal from 1964, which he has posted on his website, to be a valuable document for understanding the limitations of the Commission’s approach to its investigation.)
Now let’s hear from him.
JFKFacts: As you have gone around the country, promoting “History Will Prove Us Right” what, if anything, have you learned about public understanding of JFK’s assassination?
HW: My public presentations have, for the most part, been well attended – usually with 100-200 participants. There does seem to be a genuine interest in hearing a reasoned presentation of what the Warren Commission did and how it reached its conclusions that Oswald was the person who fired the two shots and that there was no credible evidence that he was part of some conspiracy. These audiences – to speak in general terms – appeared not to be well informed about the several investigations over the past decades that have reexamined – and confirmed – the conclusions of the Warren Commission.
JFKFacts: You said that Mark Lane’s appearance before the Commission was “dramatic but empty.” Fifty years later, you guys are still going at it. What two adjectives would you use to describe Mark Lane in 2013?
HW: I am not engaged in any debate with Mark Lane. As I described in the last chapter of my book, two of my former colleagues debated with Lane in either 1966 or 1967. One of them, Professor Liebeler of the UCLA Law School, accused Lane of traveling around the country “telling lies for money” or something to that effect. When Lane threatened a lawsuit, Professor Liebeler said, in effect, “bring it on.” Lane never served any papers or was prepared to defend his allegations in court. I concurred then, and now, with the assessment of my deceased former colleague.
JFKFacts: You wrote on in your journal on March 12, 1964, “I consider the CIA representatives to be among the more competent people in government who I have ever dealt with. They articulate, they are specialists and they seem to have a broad view of government. This may be, of course, because they do not have a special axes to grind in the Commission’s investigation.”
With the benefit of hindsight, is it accurate to say that the CIA did not have an axe to grind in the Commission’s investigation?
HW: I agree that my journal comments about the CIA were naïve, to say the least. As you probably know, the CIA officials who were designated to work closely with the Warren Commission later testified that they personally did not know about the assassination plots being considered by the agency during the 1960-63 period. Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms, of course, did know about the plots and did not tell the truth to the Warren Commission when he testified. It is clear that the CIA “did have an axe to grind” during our investigation.
JFKFacts: For example, the Commission did not know that in the month before JFK was killed deputy CIA director Richard Helms had dispatched officers Desmond Fitzgerald and Nestor Sanchez to meet with Rolando Cubela, a former Castro ally who indicated a willingness to assassinate Castro.
In retrospect, how would you describe Dick Helms’s testimony to the Commission?
HW: Helms’s testimony before the Commission was not truthful and did not comply with President Johnson’s mandate in the executive order creating the Warren Commission that all federal agencies should cooperate fully with the Commission.
JFKFacts: Former CIA analyst Brian Latell argues that Cubela was a double agent reporting back to Castro and that Oswald made his intention to kill JFK known to Cuban intelligence officers. Lattell ratifies the Commission’s findings about the crime scene but is a revisionist on Oswald’s motivation raising the possibility of Cuban material support.
If you know of Latell’s argument, what’s your assessment of it?
HW: I do not know whether Cubela or any other Cuban official was a double agent, although I think the evidence does indicate that Castro was aware generally of the CIA’s interest in ending his regime and, indeed, his life. I do not think there is any credible evidence that Oswald, after being turned down at the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City, threatened that he would kill President Kennedy. Neither the consulate officer in charge at the time nor Sylvia Duran so stated to the Mexican officials who interviewed them or in later investigations of Oswald’s visit to Mexico City.
Castro made this allegation in a speech shortly after the assassination, during which among other things he offered his theory that Oswald could not have fired the three shots and that US officials should be looking for his associates who were involved in the assassination.
I do not think that Castro was involved in providing any kind of support to Oswald’s plan to kill President Kennedy. Such a course of action by Castro, if known, would have certainly resulted in his downfall. In addition to the implausibility of anyone engaging Oswald to engage in such an effort, there are the important facts that (a) he was not employed at the Depository at the time of his visit to Mexico City; (b) the route for the motorcade was not publicized until November 19, and (c) Oswald wrote a threatening note to the FBI Office in Dallas about two weeks [Editor's note: actually it was one week] before the assassination – an unlikely move by a committed assassin.
JFKFacts: The CIA’s Office of Security opened a file on Oswald in December 1959. In December 1960, the Special Investigations Group (SIG) of the agency’s Counterintelligence Staff opened a 201 file on Oswald in December 1960, which incorporated the OS file. By November 1963, SIG had received 5 FBI reports, a half dozen State Department cables, and a CIA cable on Oswald.
Did you know of the SIG’s interest in Oswald during your investigation?
HW: Yes, we were aware of this CIA interest. Actually, it seems perfectly appropriate for the CIA to open a file on a defector to the Soviet Union in 1959 and then seek to follow Oswald’s activities upon his return to the US in 1962. A member of the Commission staff reviewed the CIA files on Oswald during our investigation. The House Select Committee on Assassinations, which had information about the CIA (including its assassination plots) that we did not have, conducted a thorough investigation of the agency’s relationship with Oswald and concluded there was no evidence that the CIA was involved in any conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.
JFKFacts: Do you think that the Commission should have taken the testimony of James Angleton, the chief of the Counterintelligence Staff ?
HW: I see no reason why the Commission should have asked Angleton to testify before it. Deputy Director Helms was the responsible official at the CIA and there is little doubt that Angleton, if called, would have been as non-responsive as Helms.
JFKFacts: True or False or matter of opinion? Kennedy’s assassination was the culmination of a counterintelligence failure for which Angleton and Helms should have lost their jobs.
HW: False. As indicated above, I do not believe that Castro or his government was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy.
JFKFacts: Edward Butler, the executive director of the Information Council of the Americas, was not called as a witness by the Warren Commission. It was Butler who made a tape of Oswald’s August 1963 radio appearance, and it was Butler who gave the tape to news reporters on the afternoon of November 22 enabling radio and television to disseminate indisputable proof that the suspected assassin was a Marxist and a supporter of Castro.
Do you recall why the Commission didn’t call Butler?
HW: I have no idea why he was not called. Of course, there was a public record of this program and that might have influenced the judgment of the lawyers working in this area. Nonetheless, he certainly would have been a good candidate for a deposition by one of our lawyers and some effort might have been made in his direction. I simply do not have an answer to this question.
JFKFacts: A quote from your journal shows your awareness of the role of the Warren Commission report in shaping historical consciousness.
“Mr. Rankin also told me that he had raised with the Commission the problem of Archives handling of Commission materials. There is apparently a feeling among the members of the Commission that it would be desirable if all the material of the Commission were not available to the public for a year or two after the report comes out. They suggest that the organization and the screening of these materials will take this long, but of course the principal interest here is making sure that sufficient time elapses before any real critics can get access to material [emphasis added] other than those which the Commission desires to publish simultaneous with its report. Apparently the Chief Justice intends to talk with the National Archivist on this subject.“
To me the italicized observation indicates that you wanted to make sure that the Commission’s report was the dominant narrative of JFK’s assassination without competition from possibly less-qualified critics who analyzed the evidence differently. This is not criticism. The Commission found the truth as nearly as it could be discerned by the most qualified people in Washington, and you believed the American people needed that truth more than anything else.
Yet within a couple of years, the critics of the Commission got access to the Commission’s material and almost immediately had gained the upper hand, at least in terms of public opinion.
HW: I believe that this journal entry does a disservice to the Warren Commission. I think the Commission’s intentions regarding the publication of its material should be assessed by what it did, rather than what some members might have been thinking at an earlier time. Less than two months after issuance of its report in late September 1964, the Commission published 26 volumes of investigatory material – including the testimony, affidavits, and statements of 552 witnesses; more than 3,000 exhibits; all expert reports considered by the Commission; and some of the most important agency reports submitted to the Commission. So, the critics who were eagerly awaiting the materials allegedly supporting the Commission’s findings had to wait less than two months to get access to these 26 volumes.
In addition, Chief Justice Warren learned early in 1965 that the National Archives was not processing all the other Commission materials delivered to that institution with a view of making them available to the public. Warren asked President Johnson to instruct the National Archives to override its customary policies in this regard and process the Warren Commission materials for release to the public that were not classified. By the time of the JFK Act in 1992, about 98% of the Warren Commission’s papers were available for inspection at the National Archives.
I think that this commitment by the Commission to public disclosure is not generally acknowledged.
JFKFacts: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you think the Commission should have done to make its findings more credible?
I have no useful thoughts about what more the Commission could have done “to make its findings more credible.” The fact is – and all the evidence so indicates – these findings were well supported at the time and no contrary evidence has emerged after 50 years to undercut them.
JM: Now 50 years later, every poll shows that a majority of Americans reject the Commission’s findings. When it comes to JFK, are Americans, in your view, a) irrational; b) misinformed; c) credulous d) all of the above e) none of the above.
HW: I think that with the passage of time the findings of the Warren Commission will become more acceptable. As with the Lincoln assassination, there will always be conspiracy theories urged by those unwilling to accept the Commission’s findings. As Vincent Bugliosi has written, challenging the Commission’s conclusions has the characteristics of a religious endeavor – like seeking the Holy Grail – and persons who have committed their lives to such an effort will never be persuaded that it is not a worthy and necessary venture.