The United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was established in 1976 to investigate the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 and 1968, respectively. The HSCA completed its investigation in 1978 and issued its final report the following year, which concluded that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. In addition to acoustic analysis of a police channel dictabelt recording, the HSCA also commissioned numerous other scientific studies of assassination-related evidence that corroborate the Warren Commission's controversial findings.
The HSCA found that although the Commission and the different agencies and departments examining Kennedy's assassination performed in good faith and were thorough in their investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald, they performed with "varying degrees of competency" and the search for possible conspiracy was inadequate.:2 The HSCA determined, based on available evidence, that the probable conspiracy did not involve the governments of Cuba or the Soviet Union. The committee also stated that the conspiracy did not involve any organized crime group, anti-Castro group, nor the FBI, CIA, or Secret Service. The committee found that it could not exclude the possibility that individual members of the national syndicate of organized crime or anti-Castro Cubans were involved in a probable conspiracy to assassinate president Kennedy. Although some members of the committee would later state their personal belief that one of those groups were involved in the assassination with Representative Floyd Fithian believing that the Kennedy assassination was orchestrated by members of organized crime.
In a Justice Department memo to the House Judiciary Committee in 1988, the Assistant Attorney General formally reviewed the recommendations of the HSCA report and reported a conclusion of active investigations. In light of investigative reports from the FBI's Technical Services Division and the National Academy of Science Committee determining that "reliable acoustic data do not support a conclusion that there was a second gunman", the Justice Department concluded "that no persuasive evidence can be identified to support the theory of a conspiracy in … the assassination of President Kennedy".
Several forces contributed to the formation of the HSCA. With the growing body of assassination conspiracy material, public trust in the findings of the Warren Commission report was declining. The Hart-Schweiker and Church Committee hearings had recently revealed CIA ties to other assassinations and assassination attempts. There was also significant public interest after a video segment of the Zapruder film was first shown on TV in March 1975, after having been stored by Life magazine out of view for almost twelve years.
In September 1976, the United States House of Representatives voted 280-65 to establish the Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in order to investigate the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The committee was both controversial and divided among itself. The first chairman, Thomas N. Downing of Virginia retired in January 1977 and was replaced by Henry B. Gonzalez on February 2, 1977. Gonzalez and Chief Counsel Richard A. Sprague had irreconcilable disagreements over control of the committee, budget and investigative techniques, ending with Gonzalez's resignation. Sprague also resigned, in part to increase the chances of Congress voting to reconstitute the HSCA for the new two-year congressional term. Sprague's like-minded deputy Robert K. Tanenbaum also resigned shortly thereafter. Louis Stokes replaced Gonzalez as chairman and G. Robert Blakey was appointed as Chief Counsel and Staff Director to replace Sprague.
- Thomas N. Downing, (Virginia) First Chairman
- Henry B. Gonzalez, (Texas), Second Chairman
- Louis Stokes, (Ohio), Third Chairman
- L. Richardson Preyer, (North Carolina)
- Walter E. Fauntroy, (District of Columbia)
- Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, (California)
- Christopher Dodd, (Connecticut)
- Harold Ford, Sr., (Tennessee)
- Floyd Fithian, (Indiana)
- Robert W. Edgar, (Pennsylvania)
- Samuel L. Devine, (Ohio)
- Stewart McKinney, (Connecticut)
- Charles Thone, (Nebraska)
- Harold S. Sawyer, (Michigan)
The HSCA commissioned a number of expert scientific studies to re-investigate the physical evidence of the JFK assassination. In comparison to witness testimony and government documents, the committee felt that such investigations would particularly benefit from the scientific advances of the fifteen years since the Warren Commission.:19 Several lines of inquiry were followed to both reaffirm the single shooter/single-bullet theory as well as to disprove specific conspiracy theory allegations. The HSCA concluded that these scientific studies of assassination-related evidence do "not preclude the possibility of two gunmen firing at the President."
Forensic analysis confirmed that the mostly-intact stretcher bullet, bullet fragments from the presidential limo and the three cartridge casings from the sniper's nest were all fired from Oswald's rifle to the exclusion of all others.:Vol VII, 379 A technique using Neutron activation analysis (NAA), a form of what has become known as comparative bullet-lead analysis (CBLA), was used to analyse the bullet lead from the JFK assassination. It revealed that it was highly likely that only two lead bullets were the source of all the following pieces of evidence: the mostly-intact stretcher bullet, fragments found in the presidential limousine's front seat and rug, fragments recovered from JFK's brain autopsy and fragments recovered from Governor Connally's wrist.:Vol I, 530 Whether CBLA data can be used to actually exclude the possibility that there were fragments from more than two bullets in the wounds and the car has been the subject of controversy. (See Single bullet theory)
Additionally, the location of the shooter (at the 6th floor Texas School Book Depository window) was determined using trajectory analysis. The origin of the rifle bullets was calculated using the location of the presidential limousine and its occupants combined with the bullet wounds found on the president and governor.:Vol VI, 34–35
A team of photographic experts were used to answer several questions related to the photographic evidence of the case. Forensic anthropologists as well as photographic and radiographic experts, based on unique anatomical details, verified that JFK's autopsy photos and x-rays were only of the late president.:Vol VI, 225–239 Forensic anthropologists were also used to verify that all relevant photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald were of only one person.:Vol VI, 274–277 They verified that the backyard photos (showing Oswald holding the rifle used to kill the president) depicted the same rifle found in the Texas school book depository building after the crime.:Vol VI, 64–66 The panel of photographic experts were also used to verify the authenticity of the assassination-related photos and to analyze for any tampering or fakery; none was detected.:Vol VII, 41
Forensic Pathology Panel
With the benefit of authenticated photographs, x-rays and notes from the Kennedy autopsy, a nine-doctor panel of expert pathologists reviewed and corroborated the Warren Commission's medical findings. Although the HSCA medical panel was critical of the thoroughness and methodology of the original autopsy,:382–386 they concurred, although Cyril Wecht dissented, with the Warren Commission's conclusion that two, and only two bullet wounds entered from above and behind (the direction of Oswald in the Book Depository). Their conclusion that the President was struck by a bullet that entered in the right rear of the head near the cowlick area and exited from the right front side of the head differed from a diagram in the Warren Commission's report showing this entrance wound low in the back of the head. :43–44
Fingerprint and handwriting analysis
The authenticity of several fingerprints and a palm print found on assassination-related materials was reaffirmed by a fingerprint expert. Lee Harvey Oswald's prints were found on the trigger guard and underside of the Mannlicher–Carcano rifle used to shoot the president, the brown paper container used to transport the rifle, several cardboard boxes in the sniper's nest and on the magazine order form to purchase the rifle.:Vol VII, 247–249
In addition, dozens of documents were analyzed by a panel of three handwriting experts who verified that "the signatures and handwriting purported to be by Oswald are consistently that of one person.":Vol VIII, 225–247 These include such incriminating items as the envelope and order form used to purchase the rifle, the application forms to rent the PO Box that the rifle was delivered to, and the notated backyard photo depicting Oswald holding the rifle.
Dictabelt audio recording
Although the HSCA had prepared a draft report confirming the Warren Commission's single shooter theory and finding no evidence of conspiracy, at the eleventh hour, the committee was swayed by a since-disputed acoustic analysis of a dictabelt police channel recording.:495 This acoustic analysis of the dictabelt recording by the firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman Inc. concluded that four shots were fired at the president, thus causing the HSCA to reverse its earlier position and report "that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.":9 In terms of scientific evidence, the HSCA acknowledged that the existence of a second shooter was only supported by this acoustic analysis.:84
As recommended by the HSCA, the Justice Department reviewed those findings through the FBI's Technical Services Division and by contracting the National Academy of Science, which specially appointed the Committee on Ballistic Acoustics (CBA). Both the FBI and CBA analyzed the acoustic data and BBN's scientific methodology and concluded that their findings were mistaken. Although there has been some recent back and forth between different researchers, the HSCA's acoustic analysis is widely considered to be discredited.:377
In particular, the various investigations performed by the U.S. government were faulted for insufficient consideration of the possibility of a conspiracy in each case. The Committee in its report also made recommendations for legislative and administrative improvements, including making some assassinations Federal crimes.
Conclusions regarding the King assassination
On the King assassination, the Committee concluded in its report that while King was killed by one rifle shot from James Earl Ray, "there is a likelihood" that it was the result of a conspiracy, and that no U.S. government agency was part of this conspiracy; on the contrary, it was more likely to be between Ray and his brothers.
Conclusions regarding the Kennedy assassination
On the Kennedy assassination, the HSCA concluded in its 1979 report that:
- Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at Kennedy. The second and third shots Oswald fired struck the President. The third shot he fired killed the President.
- Scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that at least two gunmen fired at the President. Other scientific evidence does not preclude the possibility of two gunmen firing at the President. Scientific evidence negates some specific conspiracy allegations.
- The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee was unable to identify the other gunmen or the extent of the conspiracy.
- The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that the Soviet Government was not involved in the assassination of Kennedy.
- The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that the Cuban Government was not involved in the assassination of Kennedy.
- The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that anti-Castro Cuban groups, as groups, were not involved in the assassination of Kennedy, but that the available evidence does not preclude the possibility that individual members may have been involved.
- The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that the national syndicate of organized crime, as a group, was not involved in the assassination of Kennedy, but that the available evidence does not preclude the possibility that individual members may have been involved.
- The Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Central Intelligence Agency were not involved in the assassination of Kennedy.
- Agencies and departments of the U.S. Government performed with varying degrees of competency in the fulfillment of their duties. President Kennedy did not receive adequate protection. A thorough and reliable investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination was conducted. The investigation into the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination was inadequate. The conclusions of the investigations were arrived at in good faith, but presented in a fashion that was too definitive.
The Committee further concluded that it was probable that:
- four shots were fired
- the fourth shot came from a second assassin located on the grassy knoll, but missed. The HSCA concluded the existence and location of this alleged fourth shot based on the later discredited Dallas Police Department Dictabelt recording analysis.
The HSCA agreed with the single bullet theory, but concluded that it occurred at a time point during the assassination that differed from any of the several time points the Warren Commission theorized it occurred.
The Department of Justice, FBI, CIA, and the Warren Commission were all criticized for not revealing to the Warren Commission information available in 1964, and the Secret Service was deemed deficient in their protection of the President.
The HSCA made several accusations of deficiency against the FBI and CIA.:239–256 The accusations encompassed organizational failures, miscommunication, and a desire to keep certain parts of their operations secret. Furthermore, the Warren Commission expected these agencies to be forthcoming with any information that would aid their investigation. But the FBI and CIA only saw it as their duty to respond to specific requests for information from the commission. However, the HSCA found the FBI and CIA were deficient in performing even that limited role.
Although the HSCA publicly released its findings in 12 volumes and a single-volume summary report, the majority of primary documents were sealed for 50 years under congressional rules. In 1992, Congress passed legislation to collect and open up all the evidence relating to Kennedy's death, and created the Assassination Records Review Board to further that goal. No materials have been uncovered which significantly change the conclusions or opinion of the HSCA.:Endnotes 149
The ARRB reported: "Because the HSCA investigation was marked by internal squabbling and disillusioned staffers, the Committee's records were the subject of ongoing controversy. Some ex-staffers claimed the HSCA report did not reflect their investigative work, and that information that did not conform with the Committee leadership's preconceived conclusions was ignored or left out of the report and supporting volumes."
Robert Blakey, the Chief Counsel of the committee, later changed his views that the CIA was being cooperative and forthcoming with the investigation when he learned that the CIA's special liaison to the Committee researchers, George Joannides, was actually involved with some of the organizations that Lee Harvey Oswald was involved with in the months leading up to the assassination, including an anti-Castro group, the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil, which was linked to the CIA, where the liaison, Joannides, worked in 1963. Chief Counsel Blakey later stated that Joannides, instead, should have been interviewed by the Committee, rather than serving as a gatekeeper to the CIA's evidence and files regarding the assassination. He further disregarded and suspected all the CIA's statements and representations to the Committee, accusing it of obstruction of justice.
In the same 2003 interview, Robert Blakey, issued a statement on the Central Intelligence Agency:
...I no longer believe that we were able to conduct an appropriate investigation of the [Central Intelligence] Agency and its relationship to Oswald.... We now know that the Agency withheld from the Warren Commission the CIA–Mafia plots to kill Castro. Had the commission known of the plots, it would have followed a different path in its investigation. The Agency unilaterally deprived the commission of a chance to obtain the full truth, which will now never be known. Significantly, the Warren Commission's conclusion that the agencies of the government co-operated with it is, in retrospect, not the truth. We also now know that the Agency set up a process that could only have been designed to frustrate the ability of the committee in 1976–79 to obtain any information that might adversely affect the Agency. Many have told me that the culture of the Agency is one of prevarication and dissimulation and that you cannot trust it or its people. Period. End of story. I am now in that camp.
According to a 2015 Politico report, newly declassified documents show that CIA director John A. McCone hid evidence from the Warren Commission, set up by Lyndon Johnson to investigate JFK's assassination. According to a once-secret report written in 2013 by the CIA's top in-house historian, David Robarge, the CIA admits McCone and other senior CIA officials withheld 'incendiary' information from the Warren Commission thereby perverting the course of justice.
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- Blakey's $5 Million Folly is the title of Chapter 13 of Mortal Error. G. Robert Blakey was the Chief Counsel and staff director.
- "Interview - G. Robert Blakey - Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? - FRONTLINE - PBS". pbs.org.
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- Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives (March 29, 1979). Stokes, Louis Chairman, House Select Committee on Assassinations.
- Appendix Volumes to the Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives (March 29, 1979). Stokes, Louis Chairman, House Select Committee on Assassinations.