The 1970s were a decade of disillusionment for the people of the United States. America lacked the political will to prevent South Vietnam from being invaded and North Vietnam and the Viet Cong knew it, the booming 60s had declined to the stagflation 70s, and faith in the American presidency was shaken with Watergate. There was also bad news when it came to American intelligence agencies; in 1975, the Church Committee uncovered the existence of numerous secret programs under the CIA, FBI, NSA, and IRS that regularly abused power and violated the law. One of these was the CIA’s Family Jewels, a program that provided for CIA participation in assassinations of foreign leaders. This led to questions as to whether any American intelligence agencies were involved in the assassinations of JFK and MLK. What’s more, conspiracy theories on these assassinations were on the rise. In 1966, Mark Lane, a former New York state legislator, published Rush to Judgment, an indictment of the Warren Commission largely using the commission’s report. Among its critiques of the commission include that there were witnesses who claimed to hear gunshots coming from the grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza rather than the Texas School Book Depository and that Warren Commission firearms experts were unable to replicate Oswald’s alleged three shots (Bugliosi). Warren ultimately won unanimous approval for the commission’s findings despite doubts on its conclusions from some of its members, such as Senators Richard Russell (D-Ga.), in the hopes it would easily resolve the issue. He had tried unanimity with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which he swayed Justice Stanley Forman Reed, who wasn’t convinced segregation was discrimination, to vote for to avoid being the only dissenter. However, like with Brown, the Warren Commission itself wouldn’t stop significant opposition. Lane’s book popularized conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy Assassination, with 81% of the public according to a 1976 Gallup poll believing that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone (Swift). Doubts about the Warren Commission were not without some reason; there were numerous eyewitnesses the commission did not interview, the FBI and CIA downplayed their foreknowledge of who Oswald was to dodge potential blame for failing to prevent the assassination, and most damning of all was that the decision had been made ahead of time by President Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach that Oswald and only Oswald was the perpetrator. The Warren Commission’s investigation was motivated by a political need to bring closure to the American public and in a way that would not cause complications for the US government. Representative Thomas Downing (D-Va.) became the chief advocate for the creation of a House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), with Representative Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) joining in. The House voted to establish this committee in 1976, making Downing chair.
In addition to Downing as chairman, Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), L. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), Yvonne Burke (D-Calif.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), Floyd Fithian (D-Ind.), Robert Edgar (D-Penn.), Samuel Devine (R-Ohio), Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), Charles Thone (R-Neb.), and Harold Sawyer (R-Mich.) sat on the committee. Preyer headed the JFK assassination subcommittee while Fauntroy headed the MLK assassination subcommittee. The committee would be troubled and had three chairmen. Downing didn’t run for reelection in 1976 and was replaced with Gonzalez, whose relationship with the head counsel was so acrimonious it resulted in the resignations of both men from the committee. The next and final chairman was Louis Stokes (D-Ohio).
Hot New Evidence: The Dictabelt Recording
A major new piece of evidence reviewed by the JFK subcommittee was from the discovery that an officer who was said to have been near the motorcade, H.B. McLain, had an open mic. The resulting Dictabelt recording was the basis by which the committee concluded that four, not two to three shots as reported by the Warren Commission, were fired. Analysis of the recording by acoustics experts revealed that with 95% confidence the fourth shot came from…the grassy knoll! However, the experts also concluded that this fourth shot didn’t hit Kennedy. This seemed to change the whole narrative of the Kennedy assassination. If this recording was accurate, it meant that the first two shots came from Oswald in the Texas Book Depository, a third from the grassy knoll by an unknown actor that missed, and the fourth again from Oswald. In 2001, Dr. Donald B. Thomas wrote in the journal Science & Justice an article that reaffirmed the HSCA findings. But was this all it was cracked up to be?
Not So Hot? Problems with the Dictabelt Recording
Acceptance of this Dictabelt recording was not unanimous. Representatives Devine, Edgar, Sawyer, and Thone dissented and based their dissent on skepticism over the validity of the recording. They highlighted the fact that of the people on the scene who were interviewed, 90% had reported two to three shots heard. Representatives Devine and Edgar in their views pointed out that less than 12% of witnesses claimed to hear a shot from the grassy knoll, over 27% heard the shot from the Texas Book Depository, and 17% heard the shot from another building (National Archives, 492). They dismissed the idea of conspiracy with Kennedy while regarding an MLK conspiracy as more plausible albeit inconclusive based on evidence. Devine and Edgar also noted, “There is another reason to doubt the open-microphone evidence. Officer H.B. McLain of the Dallas Police Department was identified by the acoustics experts as being the operator of a motorcycle with an open mike to the left rear of the President’s limousine. But, apparently the officer himself rejects the assumption, which led to the test and reenactments. He asks a very simple, but important question, “If it was my radio on my motorcycle, why did it not record the revving up at high speed plus my siren when we immediately took off to Parkland Hospital?”” (National Archives, 492-93)
Skepticism of the recording only grew with time. A 1980 report from the FBI Technical Services Division found that it could not be proven that gunshots were heard on the Dictabelt and a separate Justice Department investigation ruled out a conspiracy. In 2003, Peter Jennings of ABC News conducted his own investigation into the recording and found that the recording could not have originated from McLain and what’s more could not have come from Dealey Plaza (Cunningham). In 2013, this recording would be conclusively debunked at the conclusion of Professor Larry Sabato’s five-year study into the JFK assassination. This study used more advanced acoustics technology to analyze the recording. It turns out the recording had been two miles from Dealey Plaza, and that what was interpreted as gunshots were the sounds of the motorcycle and a stuck microphone. As Professor Sabato noted, “By no means were the sins of the HSCA equivalent to the Warren Commission, however, the HSCA, like the Warren Commission did not succeed….Our analysis shows that no gunshots were recorded on the dictabelt” (Rossoll).
JFK Committee Conclusion
The committee concluded that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy, while ruling that the Soviets, the Cubans, the CIA and FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and organized crime were not involved in the assassination. However, it didn’t rule out that individuals among anti-Castro Cubans and organized crime were involved. The Committee also reaffirmed the Warren Commission’s conclusions that Oswald was the assassin and that a single bullet had traveled through Kennedy and Connally. Some members, such as Floyd Fithian (D-Ind.), believed that members of the mob were implicated. The sole evidence that the committee had for the belief that there was a second shooter was the recording. The story the HSCA presented on this was that the first, second, and fourth shots had come from Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository while the third shot that missed came from the grassy knoll. This conclusion gave conspiracy theorists ammunition. Although the committee’s conspiracy finding was not nearly as comprehensive as might be suggested and ruled out numerous favorite targets of conspiracy theorists, this did not deter them.
The MLK Assassination Panel
The MLK assassination panel reached some more conventional conclusions, albeit with the conclusion that “there is a likelihood” that his assassination was the result of a conspiracy. They concluded that it was highly probable that James Earl Ray had stalked Dr. King for days and then shot him. They found his alibi of “Raoul” to be false and ruled out other exculpatory evidence. The committee also ruled out FBI involvement in the MLK assassination, but did criticize aspects of its investigation afterwards, such as not considering the possibility of conspiracy. They also criticized the FBI targeting him using illegal tactics through the COINTELPRO program. The conspirators the committee thought could have been involved were not government actors, rather Ray’s brothers. MLK conspiracy theories, with support from some of his family, would gain more coverage in the Loyd Jowers trial in 1999, but that is a story for a different post.
Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Norton.
Summary of Findings. U.S. Archives.
Cunningham, A. (2021). Evidence of a JFK Murder Conspiracy? The Dictabelt Recording of the Kennedy Assassination. History is Now Magazine.
Rossoll, N. (2013, October 17). New Research Challenges JFK Death Conspiracy Theory. ABC News.
Sabato, L.J. (2013, November 21). Is there more to JFK assassination? CNN.
Separate Views of Hons. Samuel L. Devine and Robert W. Edgar. National Archives.
Swift, A. (2013, November 15). Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy. Gallup.