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Case Closed.

The television networks have been gearing up for 30th anniversary specials, and according to Mary Ferrell, a retired legal secretary in Dallas who just may be the world's best informed person on the Kennedy assassination the new consensus is that the Warren Commission was right: Lee Harvey Oswald alone shot the president, and was himself shot for the reasons that Jack Ruby gave in 1963. And so we return, after a 30-year hegira, to the starting point.

As the title bluntly tells us, Gerald Posner's book, Case Closed, is very much in line with this consensus. He totally demolishes the acoustical evidence on which a House Select Committee (irresponsibly) decided 15 years ago that a fourth shot had been fired at Kennedy. His goal, Posner writes, was to "reexamine all the evidence on the JFK assassination." Quite a task, as there are a million pages of government documents and over 2,000 books to go through. Lots more books will be coming out this fall. Mary Ferrell tells me that in one of them her husband, Buck, is identified as having been stationed behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll, s 30-06 rifle in his hands; and she herself emerges as the famous but mysterious Babushka Lady, who appears in many photographs standing close to the presidential limousine, apparently filming the proceedings. (The woman has never been identified, but was certainly not Mary Ferrell.)

As it happened, I worked for the late New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, on his weird investigation of the assassination, later the basis of a mostly fictitious movie by Oliver Stone. Naturally I turned first to Posner's chapter on Garrison and found it to be a diligent and reliable summary. Contrary to what Jim Garrison (and Oliver Stone) wanted to believe, there was no basis at all for the charges against Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, and several others who happened to cross Garrison's path. The entire investigation was a complete waste of everybody's time; far worse than that for Shaw, of course, whose lifetime savings were consumed by lawyers and whose reputation may have been irreparably damaged, despite his speedy acquittal by a New Orleans jury.

Garrison's investigation was based on Oswald's presence in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. Three years later, in the fall of 1966, a private investigator told Garrison that a rival private investigator and former airline pilot named David Ferrie had been involved somehow with Oswald. On the day of the assassination Ferrie had traveled with two companions to Houston (a supposedly suspicious journey). This was what set Garrison off on his erratic search, but the great defect of his investigation was that he never was able to establish the most basic point, that Ferrie and Oswald in fact did know one another. (The initial tipster was totally unreliable.) Nonetheless, Garrison enjoyed the idea of solving this famous mystery and so he pursued the matter. Then, in February 1967, one of the New Orleans newspapers published an account of his investigation, including information about his prime suspect, Ferrie.

News media from all over the world descended on New Orleans, and Garrison was happily giving interviews 'round the clock. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Ferrie unexpectedly died of a brain aneurysm. Garrison's staff, who were not all as crazy as he was, rightly regarded this as an incredible stroke of luck for the boss. The media were in town. The boss had gathered his headlines (but had no case, as the staff uncomfortably realized). Then Ferrie dropped dead on us. Perfect! Here was a golden opportunity for Garrison to quit while he was ahead: declare sadly that he had tried to find the truth about who killed our president, but that his suspect had mysteriously died. Fold the investigation (going nowhere anyway), clam up tight, play hard to get, and then bask in the attention that would inevitably continue for some time.

But that's not what Garrison did. Showing just how out of touch with reality he really was, he immediately arrested Clay Shaw and charged him with conspiring to assassinate the president. The crime of the century, right? The immediate reaction in the DA's office was: "Oh no! Can't believe he did that! Now what? Who's this Shaw, anyway? What does he have to do with the story?" And so on. Garrison had not only blown his opportunity to extricate himself from the jam he was in, but had put himself in a far worse jam. Shaw would have to be brought to trial sooner or later, and trials, when we last checked, were public proceedings in the United States.

Later on I talked to Jim Alcock, the chief trial attorney, about the approaching Shaw trial. He was thinking about the coming embarrassment - the sorry parade of perjured or browbeaten or downright nutty witnesses. All of it in front of the national news media. Horrible! "We're looking at a directed verdict," he said with a worried look. (In such a case, the judge acquits the defendant on the basis of the prosecution's case, without even waiting for the defense.) The feeling in Garrison's office was that one more mysterious death would suit us just fine. In fact, why didn't the CIA or the KGB, or whoever it was, hurry up and get it over with? What was taking them so long? But Shaw kept right on breathing, and the trial kept approaching.

If you can visualize that scene your are much closer to the truth than was depicted in the Oliver Stone movie, with Kevin Costner playing Garrison as an earnest seeker-after-truth, staying up nights puzzling diligently over discrepancies, saving the country and trying to spend quality time with the kids. What rot. Garrison was drinking Old Fashioneds in the New Orleans Athletic Club. To give him his due, he was actually quite a bit more interesting than the Costner-bore. Above all, though, he was irresponsible to a degree that most people would find hard to believe. Would a D.A. really abuse his authority so recklessly? Would, and did.

Posner is to be commended for having sorted through all this material very efficiently and finding it to be 100 percent chaff. He tells the story smoothly in a 30-page chapter, including new details that it was not aware of.

What about the role of Lee Harvey Oswald? I hope I don't disappoint assassination theorists too much when I say that the evidence is overwhelming that Oswald really did shoot Kennedy. This is what Posner finds, and I have to agree with him. But you can see why there has been a prolonged hue and cry about the truth. Shots rang out in a public square, the president was killed, no one got a clear view of the assassin, a suspect was arrested in a movie theater a couple of miles away. A cop had been shot. Two days later the suspect himself was gunned down on TV by a man well known to the Dallas police. The suspect had not admitted his guilt. In fact, he said he was "the patsy."

Turns out he had defected to the Soviet Union, before that had served in the Marines and worked on a U2 base. The spy plane was shot down while he was in Russia, but no, the KGB wasn't interested in him, and in corroboration a KGB agent conveniently defected and came to Washington to tell us exactly that right after the assassination. Hmmmm. And no, the CIA wasn't interested when he did come back after three years' absence, with a Russian wife. Well yes, he did have the name of an FBI agent in his address book, and he had worked in this high-tech photography place; had the word "microdot" written down somewhere; had gone to the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City in September 1963, where there had been this mix-up with the CIA photographs taken as he entered one or other of the buildings; and yes, it was true that our lone assassin had hung around with this peripatetic oil-geologist fellow, George de Mohrenschildt by name.

Conspiracy of dunces

Anyway you look at it, it's an odd story, and Posner had his work cut out for him. In case you are tempted to get interested (which on the whole I do not recommend) the easiest part to eliminate right off is the Jack Ruby business. There's no doubt that in shooting Oswald he was not part of any conspiracy. Even some of the more tenacious conspiracy buffs concede that. On his death bed Ruby was interviewed by his brother, in Yiddish, the guards not understanding what was being said; no point in concealing anything at that stage. Jack repeated that he thought he was doing us all a favor.

As for Oswald: He owned the rifle found in the book depository, he carried a package of "curtain rods" to work that day, and he had shot a General Edwin Walker six months earlier. An unreasonable level of doubt is required to sustain the belief that he didn't do the shooting. It's harder to say that he acted alone, of course, but the motorcade route was only announced three days ahead of time, and Oswald's movements and contacts in that period were carefully examined. If one day the full truth were to be revealed bu the voice of God, I would bet a large sum that Oswald had no accomplice.

It's when we turn to the possible links to intelligence agencies that things set murky. Posner accepts as truthful the account of Yuri Nosenko, the defector who told the CIA that the KGB had no interest in Oswald, and he is probably right about that too. It is highly implausible that the KGB had any interest in assassinating the president. It's possible, of course that any contact they may have had with Oswald was posthumously played down in order to avoid guilt by association with the events in Dallas. In short: "We knew the guy, but we had no idea he was going to do that!"

The FBI's involvement with Oswald shortly before the assassination is worth a close look. Following Oswald's pro-Castro leafletting activities in New Orleans and his visit to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, FBI Dallas field agent James Hosty twice interviewed Marina Oswald and her friend Ruth Paine. Then, ten days before the assassination, Oswald walked into the Dallas FBI office and left a note for Hosty. According to Hosty, the note told him to "come talk to me directly," and to "cease bothering my wife." No one is sure, however, because after the assassination, the special agent in charge, J. Gordon Shanklin, ordered the note destroyed (a point that did not come out until 1975). This was "one of the Bureau's worst breaches of trust in the case," Posner says. "It allowed skeptics to question the FBI's overall role and relationship to [Oswald]."

Bill Alexander, the assistant D.A. in Dallas who drew up the murder indictments against Oswald, offered this explanation to Posner: "What they were doing with the Hosty situation is covering their asses. By Sunday, when Oswald was killed, [J. Edgar] Hoover was already convinced that Oswald was guilty. People like Shanklin were running for cover to make sure no one could point a finger and say, |You failed to spot Oswald as a threat.' They were afraid the note would be seen as something they were derelict in following up on. And Oswald was dead, so they figured, |What the hell, we don't need it any more,' and they destroyed it. It was a pretty stupid thing to do."

That sounds plausible to me, although you can see why suspicions have remained at a high level.

A minor complaint I have is that Warren Commission counsel David Belin made many of the same points in two books and might have been given a little more credit. My only other quarrel is that Posner at times seems rather too determined to mow down all doubts. It is in the nature of events as complex and detailed as those under review that their historical reconstruction is bound to leave loose ends and dangling participants. In the end, admitting uncertainty here and there may be the best way of establishing one's bona fides as a truthseeker. Posner's brusque dispatch of all doubts - Case Closed! - is bound to provoke resistance from the usual suspects and a softer line here and there might have been more persuasive. On the whole, though, he has done a tremendous job, and I for one will not be sorry if the level of interest in this tragedy dissipates as a result.
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Author:Bethell, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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