'Truth Was Our Only Client'
A Warren Commission staff member recalls his role in the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
By Justice Richard M. Mosk
ON THE DAY President Kennedy was assassinated, I was a clerk typist at the Air Force base in Amarillo, Texas. A little more than two months later, Chief Justice Earl Warren welcomed me in his Washington, D.C., chambers as the youngest staff member of the commission charged with investigating the horrific events of November 22, 1963, and the murder of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby two days later.
I had graduated from Harvard Law School earlier that year and joined the military. When I learned that President Johnson had persuaded the chief justice to head a seven-member commission composed of Democratic and Republican congressional leaders and other prominent figures, I wrote the commission and offered my services. The chief justice knew me through my father, Stanley Mosk, then attorney general of California and later associate justice of the California Supreme Court, who was close to the Kennedy family. I had met John Kennedy in early 1960, when he came to speak at Stanford.
My offer was accepted, but I had to finish up at Amarillo before getting a deferral. In early February, hours before flying a red-eye to join the Warren Commission staff, I was on KP duty, cleaning pots and pans.
Fifty years later, I am apprehensive about the anniversary of the assassination, even more so than in previous years. There will be more than the usual conspiracy theory books—already estimated at nearly a thousand—claiming that the Warren Commission was either negligent or part of the conspiracy. Yet Vincent Bugliosi's massive Reclaiming History (2007), which concluded that the commission reached the right conclusion and did a good job, was heartening. Howard P. Willens, '53, a commission attorney and staff administrator, has also written an anti-conspiracy book due out October 31, titled History Will Prove Us Right.
IN ORDER TO RECEIVE the top-secret security clearance required of commission staff, I was subjected to an FBI investigation. That meant something in the days long before Edward Snowden. The FBI even tracked down my Stanford classmate and law school roommate, the famous Big Game cheerleader Bill Kartozian, '60, to ask him if I liked girls. (I did.) The bureau considered gays a security risk in those days. The FBI also suggested that two lawyers had questionable associations under McCarthy-era standards, but the chief justice rejected calls to dismiss them. After the Warren Commission Report was issued, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was so unhappy with some of the report's criticism of the bureau that he sought negative information about commission staff members—a chilling practice.
The commission occupied offices in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Building, across the street from the Supreme Court. Former U.S. Solicitor General J. Lee Rankin served as general counsel, with 14 assistant counsel and 12 staff members. There were prominent senior lawyers from around the country and younger lawyers—mostly junior partners at major firms, with excellent academic credentials. These included Arlen Specter, later a United States senator, and others who became law professors, senior partners at law firms, a judge and a corporate counsel for the City of New York.
At first, I was the only newly minted attorney, the equivalent of a first-year associate at a law firm. Later, the commission brought in a few other young lawyers who were recent graduates. One of them, with whom I shared an office, was the brilliant John Hart Ely, later to become dean of Stanford Law School. John was supposed to have clerked that year for Chief Justice Warren, but the draft board would not defer him and so, like me, he had time between his military service and his delayed clerkship. Another accomplished staff member was Stuart Pollak, '59, who was clerking at the Supreme Court.
The chief justice told us that truth was our only client. I then embarked on a fascinating mission, working into the night seven days a week.
AT THE OUTSET, the FBI provided the commission with an initial report from its own investigation that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald alone assassinated the president and that there was no credible evidence of any conspiracy. The commission staff assigned two-lawyer teams to investigate individual subjects including the identity of the assassin, his background, any possible foreign involvement, domestic issues, Jack Ruby and other related areas. For some time, I worked on matters in each area.
At first, I was given such assignments as researching the ability of the commission to administer oaths and issue subpoenas, creating the subpoena forms and digesting testimony. I had some odd tasks. For example, just before the assassination, a Dallas newspaper had run classified ads that said, as I recall, "Running Man, please call me. Lee." It looked a bit suspicious but turned out to be subtle promotion for the motion picture Running Man, starring the actress Lee Remick. I reported on Oswald's reading based on books he checked out of the library. For a person of limited education, he was reading some serious works, including books by Huxley, Asimov, Cavell, Manchester and Solzhenitsyn. Interestingly, in addition to Ian Fleming spy novels, he checked out Jack Kennedy's Profiles in Courage and a book entitled The Huey Long Murder Case. Throughout, I prepared memoranda on various evidentiary and legal issues.
I drafted a history of presidential assassinations and protection, which ended up in an appendix to the report. (It was not until after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 that the Secret Service provided full-time protection for presidents.) I also worked on a recommendation by the commission to make the assassination of the president a federal crime. Amazingly, at that time there was no federal jurisdiction over the assassination of President Kennedy, even though killing other federal officers and threatening the president were federal crimes.
Along with John Ely, I wrote memoranda concerning State Department actions such as allowing Oswald and his Russian wife to return to the United States after he had attempted to renounce his citizenship when he moved to the Soviet Union in 1959. These were sensitive issues because some State Department personnel had for some time—especially during the McCarthy era—been accused of being Communist sympathizers.
There was speculation on the difficulty of the fired shots; I did a study of Oswald's marksmanship ability. Tests showed that the bolt-action, clip-fed, 6.5-mm. Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was accurate and that he could fire the shots within the estimated time frame of 4.8 to 7-plus seconds. Oswald was perched above and behind the presidential motorcade as the president's car travelled away from him at approximately 11.2 mph. He had a rifle with a sight. He had done some hunting as a youth, trained with a rifle in the Marines and qualified as a Marine Corps "marksman." In Russia, he joined a hunting club, and he practiced with his rifle upon his return to Dallas. One expert said that with Oswald's capability and that weapon, it was an "easy shot."
I investigated Oswald's financial situation, obtaining records of his income and expenses. A Treasury Department official and I did a report showing that the income and expenses were virtually identical, indicating that there was no evidence of another source of income that might suggest financial support from a possible conspirator. This study also ended up in one of 18 appendices in the main report.
I worked on a detailed biography of Oswald, including a day-by-day chronology of his life after he returned to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1962. In doing so, I obtained declarations from witnesses to support my account of his whereabouts at various times. That biography was included in an appendix and utilized in other aspects of the report, including Oswald's associations and possible motives. We had Oswald's correspondence with associates and family, which had been turned over by the recipients. I dealt with the now famous National Security Agency, having them check the correspondence for possible secret communications using such devices as microdots. There were none.
THE 888-PAGE WARREN COMMISSION REPORT and 26 volumes of supporting material deal with any possible questions that then existed. I found the commission personnel to be of the highest integrity and competence. Everybody was dedicated to obtaining the truth. Had there been evidence of a conspiracy, none of us would have had any compunction about exploring and disclosing it. There were a few arguable flaws one would expect in a project of this magnitude and speed, but I saw nothing that would suggest anything that would reasonably lead anyone to conclusions different from those of the commission. (See Earl Warren's letter to Richard Mosk.)
I do not believe anyone anticipated the aftermath of the report. After an initial public acceptance, suddenly an onslaught of conspiracy-theory books emerged. Even in a simple automobile collision case there is conflicting evidence. The finder of fact must determine from all the evidence what likely occurred. For example, just because someone thought he saw a rifle or heard a shot from in front of the President, that doesn't suggest a conspiracy or cover-up. Such evidence is inconsistent with all of the forensic and other eyewitness evidence establishing that the shots came from the rear.
I understand the difficulty people had with the notion that the most powerful person in the world could be destroyed by one seemingly innocuous individual. Somehow people needed a cause that matched the consequence. And the bizarre killing of Oswald justifiably added to any suspicions.
As has often been noted, the night before the assassination, Oswald asked his estranged wife to reconcile and to go with him the next day to search for an apartment in Dallas. She refused. Had she acceded, there would have been no assassination. And had a postal inspector not dropped in to question Oswald, delaying his transfer from the jail, Jack Ruby would never have been in a position to shoot Oswald. Those coincidences are inconsistent with any notion of a conspiracy. Surely, the secret of any conspiracy that had to involve many people would have been unearthed by now, if there were one.
The profiteers will continue to propagate false history. But I am convinced that the Warren Commission Report is now accepted and will continue to be accepted by legitimate historians as the truth of what transpired 50 years ago.
Richard M. Mosk, '60, is an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal.
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