Thoughts on the Kennedy Documents and the Mailer Standard

This overhead view of President Kennedy's car in Dallas motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, was Warren Commission Exhibit No. 698. Special agent Clinton J. Hill is shown riding atop the rear of the limousine. The Warren Commission said agent Hil had to leave the left front running board of the President's follow-up car four times because of dense crowds to ride on the rear of the presidential limousine. (AP Photo)
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“The thing I am concerned about … is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”

This appears to be the most quoted document so far in the trove of Kennedy assassination documents released early this morning. It is a memo dictated by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. And it is dated two days after President Kennedy died, November 24th, 1963. It is very fair to say that it is hard to see what blanket certainty he could have had at that point just who killed President Kennedy or more specifically whether anyone else was involved. (The evidence from the start that Oswald was at least a shooter was pretty strong.)

But I don’t see this as incriminating. I see it as an illustration of a broader reality about the assassination and the government’s response to it. It also overlaps with what I’ve earlier termed the ‘Mailer Standard’. As I explained here, in his late-in-life novel (largely) about the Kennedy assassination, Mailer decided that the CIA didn’t cover up because it was guilty of some role in Kennedy’s death. It covered up (or supposedly did) because the high cold war CIA was involved with so many different shadowy characters, plots, crooks, double and triple agents that it couldn’t know for sure that it wasn’t tied to the assassination in some way.

Whether the CIA actually covered things up is a separate question. I’m not saying it did. Mailer did. And of course this basic take applies as much to the FBI and likely various military intelligence agencies. But I’ve always liked this explanation and found it penetrating in its insight because it gets at the uncertainty of these questions and the risk aversion of large organizations, particularly governments, who can be as frightened about what they don’t know as what they do.

In this case, the apparent trigger for Hoover’s particular comments was Oswald’s death. From the logic of the memo, the FBI was desperate to get a confession out of Oswald after he was shot. But he died too quickly. Hoover was particularly worried that the President would create a national commission to investigate the assassination, which of course he eventually did. He wanted to avoid that and keep the investigation within the FBI. Specifically, the FBI would create a report, deliver it to the Attorney General (the President’s brother, ironically) who would give it to the President, who would decide whether or not to publish the report.

Hoover rattled off that Oswald had been in communication with the Soviet Embassy in Washington, that the FBI had intercepted and read that mail. The letter was “addressed to the man in the Soviet Embassy who is in charge of assassinations and similar activities.” Another memo showed that Oswald called another KGB agent in the Mexico City Embassy in September. (He was also in contact with the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.) The FBI intercepted and listened in on that call. It was also with a KBG agent with the department responsible for assassinations and sabotage.

But the agents involved believed that the call was tied to Oswald’s request for a passport for his wife. Notably, the memo touching on the contact with the Mexico City KGB agent was based on a conversation with an FBI agent in Mexico City on November 23rd, the day after Kennedy’s assassination. It is a testament to how rapidly the FBI and other agencies were reconstructing and running to ground every aspect of Oswald’s life.

As Hoover put it, with some understatement, “To have that drawn into a public hearing would muddy the water internationally … And since this has nothing to do with proof that Oswald committed the murder, I made the suggestion” that a Department of Justice investigation be done instead of a presidential commission. It’s notable that the US also had apparently high level intelligence out of Russia which suggested that the Russians were shocked by the news and saw it as a loss for them since they felt they had established a modus vivendi with Kennedy.

The key for Hoover was clearly to convince the public that Oswald was the shooter, period. Beyond that Hoover clearly from the beginning wanted to keep a lid on information that might lead to public debate about whether someone else might have worked with Oswald and particularly a foreign government, especially the Soviet Union. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s not even necessarily a bad idea. It is well worth remembering that this was at the height of the Cold War, only a year after the US had come very close to a cataclysmic nuclear war with the Soviets. All of this is understandable if not justifiable as long as Hoover really did think Oswald was the shooter and that the Soviets were not part of the plot. I see nothing in the memos I’ve referenced that suggests otherwise. Control of information is power. Hoover was all about power. He clearly had no interest in seeing his control over relevant information – and to be fair the federal government’s – spinning out of control. Again, I come back to Mailer’s insight: the CIA didn’t know they’d done anything wrong. But they also didn’t want to look too hard. A same logic may have applied to Oswald’s contacts with what were at the time the US’s arch enemies.

What is also fascinating is that just last night we learned that a subset of the documents are still being kept secret, at least until April. The CIA, FBI and other intelligence and national security agencies seem very, very concerned about those documents not being made public. What could possibly need to be that secret? I have no idea. But here’s where my mind goes.

Kennedy was murdered 54 years ago. Almost everyone in a position of any real authority is dead. All the big players. It’s hard to figure there are facts that might be embarrassing to people who are still alive but not relevant to the central questions of culpability in the killing. The other thing is that sources and methods from 54 years ago are pretty long in the tooth. It’s hard to figure that US intelligence had some sort of spy technology or source in the Soviet government that it is still using and still needs to protect. Impossible? No. But the distance in time makes a lot of the normally plausible reasons for keeping this kind of information secret pretty hard to figure.

It makes me really wonder. It doesn’t make me think they have evidence of a conspiracy. But it does make me wonder what it could be and what the rationale could be for many leadership figures in the agencies today who literally were not even born on the day Kennedy died.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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