Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

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President John F. Kennedy died in Dallas, Texas, on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. He expired during medical treatment at Parkland Hospital as a result of gunshot wounds, with the fatal wound being to his head. The attack occurred in downtown Dallas, during a motorcade through the city that was part of a series of appearances scheduled in a multi-city presidential visit to the state of Texas. Governor John Connally of Texas was also seriously wounded during the attack, but he recovered. The wives of the President and Governor were riding in the presidential limousine with their husbands but neither woman was injured.

The shooting had occurred at 12:30 p.m. in the Dealey Plaza area just as the motorcade was departing downtown Dallas. Various vehicles from the motorcade, including the Secret Service and Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s cars traveled directly to Parkland Hospital. The Vice President remained there until proceeding to Love Field in Dallas and boarding the President’s plane; at his direction Air Force One remained in Dallas until he had taken the oath of office and he then returned to Washington, D.C. as President. President Kennedy’s body was taken from Parkland Hospital by the Secret Service in a tense and dramatic confrontation in which the Secret Service agents drew their guns and used physical force to prevent Dr. Earl Rose—Dallas County Medical Examiner who was legally obliged to perform an autopsy on the President—from retaining the body in Texas.

Later in the afternoon, Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee at the Texas School Depository, a building located in the area of the shooting, was taken into custody at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, Texas. Oswald was initially charged with the death of Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit, and later with the death of the President; Oswald denied shooting anyone, he specifically denied shooting the President and forcefully stated that he was being used as a patsy; he also issued a public call for legal counsel to assist in his defense. Over the next two days he was interrogated extensively; no tape or transcript of the interrogation was released, but those involved stated that he continued to deny any involvement. On Sunday morning during a police transfer, Oswald was shot and killed by local strip club owner Jack Rubenstein, aka Jack Ruby.

At President Johnson’s direction, the FBI assumed control of all physical evidence from the crime, taking major pieces such as the rifle out of Dallas that evening; virtually all evidence had been removed by the following Monday. The Secret Service also transported the President’s limousine back to Washington that evening. Within a matter of weeks it was reworked by Ford Motors and became the official vehicle for President Johnson. President Johnson instructed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to prepare a report establishing Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole individual involved in the killing of President Kennedy; the FBI report was largely drafted and leaked to the press within a week. The formal report was handed to the President in December. Initially, President Johnson proposed a Texas Court of Inquiry to formally certify the FBI report; however, objection to a panel totally composed of Texans prompted media concern, and Johnson responded by recruiting Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, along with members of Congress, the CIA, and the business community to constitute a body to review and certify the FBI report. The President’s Commission on the Assassination came to be popularly known as the Warren Commission; the Commission submitted its report in the fall of 1964, finding Lee Harvey Oswald to be the only individual involved in President Kennedy’s death. It also placed a large amount of material relating to the assassination under seal, not to be released for several decades.

Skepticism in regard to the Warren Commission’s conclusion was evident early on; however, much of it did not become concrete until the Commission’s report and supporting volumes of reference information were released for public review. That skepticism was further fueled when individuals noted that the Warren Commission’s version of the shooting differed from the FBI’s version, which was never officially retracted. Such skepticism was reinforced by private remarks expressed by certain Commission members, including House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and Senator Richard Russell as well as by President Johnson that they did not find the Commission's official shooting scenario credible and that they remained suspicious that there might have been some sort of conspiracy in play behind the actual shooting.

Over the following years, revelations regarding covert Government activities, in particular the Senate Sub-Committee on Intelligence's findings about CIA and FBI programs targeting civil rights and anti-war groups—and CIA assassinations programs targeting foreign leaders—fueled public suspicion over all the major assassinations of the 1960s: President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. This public doubt was exacerbated by the Watergate affair and in the 1970s, Congress authorized the House Select Committee on Assassinations to re-investigate these murders. After considerable political turmoil, the HSCA produced reports that it had found indications of conspiracy in regard to both the President's and Doctor King’s murders; the Committee did not conduct an inquiry into Senator Kennedy’s death. The Committee requested the Department of Justice to open formal criminal investigations in both cases; however, the Justice Department chose not to act on the requests. The HSCA conclusions, the Justice Department failure to act, and the decision by the chief of the Committee to seal all of its investigation records and place its staff members under an oath of silence in regard to the inquiry led to continuing public suspicion about President Kennedy’s murder. As recently as 2001, a public survey showed that 81% of the American public was not satisfied with the official story of the crime.

In 1992, public opinion in regard to the Kennedy Assassination, fueled by Oliver Stone’s motion picture JFK, led to a bill, signed into law by President Clinton, which called for the release of records pertaining to the Kennedy assassination. This JFK Records Act, also known as the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, was accompanied by the establishment of a Board, chartered with locating and obtaining relevant records and testimony and making them part of the public record. This body, the Assassinations Records Review Board, eventually helped in the release of hundreds of thousands of documents by the end of the 1990s. These documents, and others voluntarily released in the first years of the 21st century are still being reviewed by interested parties. Although the ARRB itself was not an investigative body and certainly not chartered with actually reviewing the work of the Warren Commission or the HSCA, its staff members did uncover apparent gaps and inconsistencies in the evidence and records. They also encountered significant lack of enthusiasm from several agencies and individuals in handing over records, including one incident in which Secret Service personnel destroyed several boxes of Presidential travel records from the fall of 1963 within days of being instructed not to take such actions.

Congress retains responsibility for continuing to hold oversight hearings on the JFK Act, which should account for any records destroyed, missing or wrongfully withheld. However, they have been criticized for their failure to hold open Congressional Briefings on the issue of government compliance, or lack of compliance with the JFK Act, and to review of the need for enforcement procedures and harsher penalties for failure to abide by the JFK Act and FOIA requests and destruction of records. One area of current contention and legal action is the decision by the CIA to withhold records relating to the CIA-sponsored group and its case officer who was actually in contact with Oswald during the summer of 1963.

Such acts and incidents continue to stimulate debate and controversy regarding the death of President Kennedy, even 40 plus years after the fact. They also illustrate a more general problem in public acceptance of Committee and Congressional reports, especially those in which agencies are asked to investigate and report on themselves, and when matters of national security are claimed.