On this day in 1963, the Warren Commission had its first meeting behind closed doors in Washington. As the seven commissioners began to discuss how to proceed, they grappled with the question of whether they should endorse the FBI’s upcoming report on JFK’s murder, or conduct their own investigation. After some discussion, they chose the latter.
The public was demanding explanation of the incredible and baffling events of Nov. 22-24. The FBI’s findings were already being leaked to the press; Asst. Attorney General Katzenbach said the FBI had denied leaking but “I can’t think of anybody else it could have come from.”
Consistent with his stated desire to convince the public that Oswald was “the real assassin,” Katzenbach urged the Commission to put out an early statement to “dispel rumors”, something they chose not to do.
Chief Justice Warren put forth the name of Warren Olney 3rd, a lawyer friend of who had held senior positions in the Justice Department and the federal courts. Rep. Gerald Ford, Republican congressman from Michigan and future President, and John McCloy, former World Bank President, both objected. McCloy and former CIA Director Allen Dulles were selected to form a committee to recommend a counsel. Former Solicitor General J. Lee Rankin was subsequently selected.
Regarding the Commission’s scope, Warren showed his reluctance to probe the crime too deeply, proposing that there be “no staff of investigators” and no subpoena power. He was overruled on this latter point, and the Commission staff would eventually interview a great many witnesses but rely on the FBI for virtually all field work.
On the Commission’s mandate, John McCloy was blunt:
“This Commission is set up to lay the dust, dust not only in the United States but all over the world.”
Nearly 50 years later, the dust remains decidedly unsettled.
The best recent book on the Warren Commission is Professor Gerald Mcknights’s 2005 book, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation And Why.