Thinking About Conspiracy

Think "Scenario"

It's a good idea to think through the implications of a tantalizing bit of evidence.

Conspiracy books specialize in telling their readers about various "suspicious" or "odd" or "strange" circumstances. They also specialize in telling readers about witness testimony that contradicts the Warren Commission version of events.

Before deciding that any piece of "evidence" like this should be taken seriously, one should ask: what scenario does it imply? If it really happened, what would that mean? Quite often, it implies some utterly absurd scenario, and conspiracy authors haven't thought through the implications.

"Suspicious" Circumstances

Helsinki Hoax

Conspiracy books make much of the fact that, on his way to the Soviet Union, Lee Oswald went via Helsinki, Finland, and got a visa to enter the USSR in just two days (Warren Commission Report, p. 258). This was, supposedly, a very suspicious circumstance, implying some sinister force behind Oswald's movements.

But just what sinister force would that be? Presumably not the CIA. If the CIA was sending a fake defector to the USSR, would they just call up the Soviet consulate and say "we're sending one of our people over, so please expedite his paperwork?"

Of course, the KGB would have the power to get somebody in quickly. But conspiracists don't want Oswald to be a KGB agent, they want to connect him with the CIA, since it's the CIA they see as sinister, and want to implicate in a JFK assassination conspiracy.

But even if Oswald was a KGB agent, it's unlikely that he would be able to get a visa "suspiciously quickly" in Helsinki. That would be very poor spycraft on the part of the Soviets. Presumably, the CIA and the KGB know much better than American assassination buffs what is really "suspicious" where movements across borders is concerned. If the KGB was trying to create a "legend" of Oswald as a lone leftist, they wouldn't want any "suspicious" things to tip off the CIA about what they were doing. Further, it's unclear why the KGB would need Oswald to arrive in the USSR a day or too sooner than he would in the normal course of events.

And even if, for some strange reason, they wanted to get Oswald into the USSR quickly, it would be poor spycraft to intervene at the Helsinki consulate to speed up the process. An operation like this would be closely held on a "need to know" basis, with the fewest possible opportunities for it to be compromised. While there would certainly be trusted KGB operatives on the staff of the consulate, there might also be CIA spies, and one clerk noticing something "out of line" with the way the Oswald was being handled could "blow" the entire operation.

Thus Oswald's "quick visa" doesn't fit a scenario with Oswald being a CIA agent, and doesn't fit a scenario with Oswald being a KGB agent. It just flat doesn't seem suspicious at all.

Marxist Marine

Oswald had already adopted leftist political views when he joined to Marines, and he expressed them to his fellow Marines on several occasions. He became particularly outspoken about his politics after he was court-martialed and returned from the Far East to El Toro Marine base in California.

But Oswald was never disciplined for his left-wing political views. Indeed, the record shows that he never even had his security clearance revoked. Does this imply that some intelligence agency was watching over him and protecting him?

One has to ask: why would any intelligence agency want to protect him from being disciplined because of his outspoken and rather obnoxious opinions? If he was an agent of some kind, and if a "legend" of Oswald as a lone loony leftist was being created, why not have him disciplined? In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, it would have been very useful to report that Oswald was "court-martialed for subversive political views" or "had his security clearance pulled because his loyalty was suspect."

Why "protect" Oswald from something that would be a dandy part of a left-wing legend?

Lost Luggage Lunacy

Conspiracy author Anthony Summers deserves the credit — or more likely the blame — for noticing that Lee and Marina Oswald, when they returned from the Soviet Union to Fort Worth, Texas, appear to have lost much of their luggage.

Summers then notices that a Captain Davison, who was briefly in contact with the Oswalds at the American Embassy in Moscow, had a mother living in Atlanta. Davison had some peripheral intelligence connections. And indeed, the mother's name and address were later found in Lee Oswald's address book. To make the matter more suspicious, the Oswalds went through Atlanta on Delta Airlines flight 821 when they flew from New York City to Texas.

Summers, a Britisher who seems to know little about the U.S. civil aviation system, claims that the Oswalds had "no known reason" to travel through Atlanta.

So just what was going on here? Summers seems to want his readers to assume that Lee Oswald had stolen some secret documents in the Soviet Union, and was delivering them to the mom in Atlanta. Never mind that Oswald, who worked at a radio factory, had no access to any secret material. And never mind that if he did have some sort of stolen documents, turning them over to the CIA in Russia would have been less dangerous than trying to sneak them through Soviet customs. And never mind that, if Oswald did smuggle the documents through Soviet customs, he could have given them to the CIA in Rotterdam, where the Oswalds stayed over on their way to the U.S. And never mind that, if he actually carted all those documents all the way to New York City, he could have turned them over to the CIA there.

No, Summers wants us to believe that the Oswalds lugged the documents all the way to Atlanta, and then turned them over to the mother of a Moscow embassy official.

Was the mom operating a CIA Documents Reception Center on a contract basis? Some moms, perhaps, sell Tupperware, while others deal in stolen secret documents.

Film Flim-Flam

For about three decades, conspiracists insisted that the Zapruder film was the decisive evidence of conspiracy. Conspiracy authors Gary Shaw and Larry Harris claimed the film is "the most damaging piece of evidence against the long assassin hypothesis" and further that a high-quality copy of the film "provides absolute, incontestable proof of crossfire and conspiracy" (Cover-Up, Second Edition, 1992 [first published, 1976], pp. 34,57). Sylvia Meagher accused the Warren Commission of concealing the fact that "the camera had recorded events central to the establishment of the truth and utterly inconsistent with the lone-assassin thesis" (Accessories After the Fact, Vintage Books Edition, 1992 [first published, 1967], p. 35).

Conspiracy authors have pointed to various aspects of the film, but two stand out:

Bolstering the claim that the film was decisive conspiracy evidence is the fact that it was "suppressed" for many years. It was, for example, only shown on national TV in 1975, and good-quality copies did not become widely available in video until the 1980s. It's true that Life Magazine published numerous frames, that the Warren Commission published all the key frames, and that anybody who wanted to go to the National Archives in Washington could see the film. But it wasn't widely or easily available. Bootleg copies that leaked out from the Garrison investigation were of very poor quality.

Over time, as researchers studied the film, it came to seem less and less like "conspiracy evidence" and more and more consistent with Oswald the single shooter. For example:

How have the conspiracists responded? Many have claimed that the Zapruder film is faked, forged, or tampered with! This theme has been pushed in books like Prof. James H. Fetzer's volume Assassination Science. It has been promoted in conspiracy conventions in Dallas in 1996 and 1998. It has been a staple on Rich DellaRosa's online discussion bulletin board.

Several sensible conspiracists have debunked the alteration theory in great detail, and the web sites of Clint Bradford and Tony Marsh show their work. But does one really need to bother with the picky details?

The "Zapruder film alteration" crowd would have us believe that the film was altered to conceal evidence of a conspiracy, yet the conspirators left in two things that appeared to be blatant proof of a plot. Then after having "fixed" the film, they concealed it so that nobody could see it. When it finally leaked out, it was first interpreted as ironclad evidence of conspiracy, but then decades later careful analysis showed it to be consistent with Oswald's guilt. What a subtle and nefarious plot. They didn't do the simple thing, which would have been to obliterate all evidence of conspiracy. They didn't release it immediately, giving people who would analyze it carefully and debunk conspiracy claims an early start. They sat back, allowing the suspicion that a "suppressed" film would necessarily create, knowing that after a decade or two of complaining about "suppression" and another decade or so of claiming iron-clad conspiracy proof in the film, conspiracists would be blindsided by careful photo analysis.

Witness Testimony

Mercer Madness

Julia Ann Mercer told a story that, if it's true, would not only prove a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy, but would implicate Jack Ruby in that conspiracy.

She told of driving through Dealey Plaza about an hour and a half before the assassination, and seeing a pickup truck pulled partially off Elm Street blocking traffic. Jack Ruby was at the wheel of the truck. She saw a man take a gun case out of the back of the truck, and walk up the slope toward the area behind the Stockade Fence.

Were these men assassins getting a shooter in place on the Grassy Knoll?

An FBI investigation pretty much debunked her story. There was a truck stalled on Elm Street, alright, but it had nothing to do with any JFK conspiracy. But could it be that the FBI was lying? The key thing is to consider the scenario her story would imply. We would have to believe that, in order to get a rifle behind the Stockade Fence on the Grassy Knoll, conspirators would stop a pickup truck on Elm Street, blocking traffic, in plain view of several police officers. Indeed, since the truck was on the presidential motorcade route, it was reported over Dallas police radio. Did these assassins want to attract attention?

It was possible, on the morning of the assassination, to simply drive a vehicle around the parking lot behind the Stockade Fence. Lee Bowers, who was in a railroad signal tower behind the Stockade Fence, described to the Warren Commission three cars that he saw doing exactly that.

Believing Mercer's testimony thus requires us to believe that conspirators adopted a convoluted, complicated, and dangerous plan rather than the obvious and simple one.

Alice Antics

Sometimes, so many witnesses testify to something that it would seem we have to believe them. At first blush, this seems to be the case with the witnesses who placed Lee Oswald in or around Alice, Texas in early October, 1963. As Dave Reitzes explains:

To sum up, fourteen witnesses believed they'd seen or spoken to Lee Harvey Oswald in or near Alice, Texas in or around the first week of October 1963, several of them specifying October 3rd, 4th and 5th. Many of these witnesses believed that Marina Oswald was with him. . . . Some witnesses said he had a car at that time. Several said he did not. Two said he was trying to rent one. The physical descriptions are problematic, though the witnesses seem to have genuinely believed it was Lee and Marina Oswald they had seen, sometimes with one or two very small children. (Dave Reitzes, "Another Oswald Sighting: Allegations of Lee Harvey Oswald in Alice, Texas")
So just what are we to make of this? Conspiracist Chris W. Courtwright, in his essay "Oswald in Aliceland? A Tale of Two Days; A Tale of Two Oswalds," suggests that this was an "impersonation incident." Many conspiracists believe that Oswald was impersonated at the embassies in Mexico City, and around Dallas in the days before the assassination. So perhaps this was another example of a "second Oswald" impersonating the real Lee Harvey Oswald.

If so, what was the point? Just what did conspirators hope to accomplish? The "Oswald" in Alice, Texas was not demonstrating for Fidel Castro. He was not talking about shooting the president. He was not seeking out left-wing or right-wing political activists. In most of the witness accounts, he was just looking for a job.

Why would conspirators have a fake Oswald running around Alice, Texas and the surrounding area while the real Lee Oswald was looking for a job in Dallas?

If it was no Oswald impersonator, perhaps it was the real Lee Oswald, with Marina and June. But the evidence strongly contradicts this. As Reitzes points out:

Yet Lee Harvey Oswald, who could not drive a car in October 1963 (if ever) and did not own one, is known to have crossed the border from Mexico to Laredo, Texas by bus at 1:35 am on October 3, 1963; departed Laredo at 3 am on Greyhound bus No. 1265; and then proceeded through San Antonio and finally to Dallas, where he arrived at about 2:20 pm, October 3, 1963. (Warren Report, p. 736.)

On the evening of October 3, 1963, Oswald is known to have checked into the Dallas YMCA, where he would remain for three nights. On October 4th he applied for a job at the Padgett Printing Company on Industrial Boulevard in Dallas. He spent the afternoon and night with his wife and child at the Paine residence in Irving. On October 7th, he inquired about a room at a boarding house at 1026 North Beckley Avenue in Dallas, and was told that none was available. Soon after this, he rented a nearby room at 621 Marsalis Street. (Warren Report, p. 737.) According to Marina Oswald and Ruth Paine, Marina was with Mrs. Paine in Irving, Texas throughout this time, in the ninth month of her pregnancy with Rachel. (Dave Reitzes, "Another Oswald Sighting: Allegations of Lee Harvey Oswald in Alice, Texas")

But of course, perhaps the Warren Commission version is a cover-up. Perhaps the documents showing him checking into the YMCA were forged. Perhaps the testimony of Ruth Paine and Marina Oswald was perjured. Perhaps Theodore Gangl of the Padgett Printing Company lied when he said that Oswald appeared for a job interview on October 4th, and perhaps Robert Stovall of Jaggers-Chiles-Stovall lied when he said Gangl called him to check Oswald's reference.

But why would the Warren Commission want to cover up something so innocuous as Oswald looking for a job in Alice, Texas? If that's what Oswald was doing, why not just write that in the Warren Commission Report?

Sniper's Lair Lollygagging

Within about 90 seconds of the time the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, Lee Oswald was seen by his boss Roy Truly and Officer Baker on the second floor of the Depository. Then, after a few brief words with Mrs. Reid, he left the Depository.

Yet Lillian Mooneyham described seeing someone in the Sniper's Nest 4 to 5 minutes after the shooting. An FBI report of January 10, 1964, describes her testimony:

"Mrs. MOONEYHAM and Mrs. CLARK left Judge KING's courtroom and went to the office of Judge JULIEN C. MYER to observe the happenings from Judge MYER's window. . . . Mrs. MOONEYHAM estimated that it was about 4 to 5 minutes following the shots fired by the assassin, that she looked up towards the sixth floor of the TSBD and observed the figure of a man standing in the sixth floor window behind some cardboard boxes. This man appeared to Mrs. MOONEYHAM to be looking out of the window, however, the man was not close up to the window but was standing slightly back from it, so that Mrs. MOONEYHAM could not make out his features...." (Jim Marrs, Crossfire, p. 53; Commission Exhibit 2098)
Since Oswald was now gone from the Depository, and it was more than a half-hour before the Sniper's Nest was discovered by Dallas law enforcement, the obvious inference is that Mooneyham saw a conspirator in the Sniper's Nest.

But just what would a conspiracy shooter do after killing Kennedy? Would he decide "it's Miller time!" and open a cold beer, lounging in the Sniper's Nest savoring his feat? Or would he hightail it out of the Depository before it was sealed off? Would he hang around waiting to confront armed cops, or would he disappear as quickly as possible?

Since it's vastly implausible that any conspiracy shooter would have been in the Sniper's Nest in the time frame that Mooneyham mentions, and since it's known that Oswald was not there and Dallas law enforcement was not there, the most plausible conclusion is that she was simply confused about the time.

Anal Assassins

It's another one of those stories from Roger Craig. Craig was a Sheriff's Deputy who was standing on Main Street near Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was shot. He then went into Dealey Plaza and later was in the Texas School Book Depository while it was being searched.

Craig reported that, in the Sniper's Nest, were three spent cartridges, lined up neatly, all pointing in the same direction, about an inch apart. The picture at right (above) is an illustration from the video "Two Men in Dallas" which featured Craig.

Since it's implausible that hulls ejected from a rifle would naturally fall in such a pattern, this is supposed to show that the cartridges were planted to incriminate Oswald. But just what kind of assassins would kneel down in the Sniper's Nest and arrange the planted hulls neatly, pointing in the same direction, about an inch apart?

The answer: anal retentive assassins. They blew Kennedy's brains all over Dealey Plaza, but they didn't want to leave a mess in the Sniper's Nest.

Faked Photos?

Conspiracy author Jim Marrs, in trying to impeach the Backyard Photos of Oswald holding the rifle that killed JFK, quotes the following two witnesses:

To further cloud this issue, two Dallas commercial photographic processors have told this author they saw copies of the backyard photo the night of the assassination — more than twelve hours before they were reported found in the Paine garage.

Robert Hester, who was called from home on November 22, 1963, to help process assassination-related photographs for the FBI and Dallas Police at National Photo, said he saw an FBI agent with a color transparency of one of these pictures and that one of the backyard photos he processed showed no figure in the picture. Hester's claim was corroborated by his wife, Patricia, who also helped process film on the day of the assassination. (Crossfire, pp. 451-452)

If this is true, it would certainly strongly suggest photo tampering.

But does it make any sense? Supposedly, the conspirators who faked the backyard photos had access to extremely sophisticated facilities, and there forged — presumably in extreme secrecy — the incriminating photos. If so, why would they show people who worked at a garden-variety Dallas photo lab the fruits of their labor? And especially, why would they show them the intermediate steps of their work? Why would they show the Hestors materials that implied a conspiracy? Was their super-sophisticated conspiracy lab unable to convert a color transparency to black and white, or to insert an image of Oswald into a preexisting backyard photo?

Of course, to take the Hestors' story seriously, one has to ignore the scientific analysis that shows the photos to be genuine, and one has to ignore copious witness testimony as to how the photos were discovered and handled. But even if one is willing to do that, one has to explain why conspirators would do anything so silly as showing the Hestors their unfinished work.


It might seem that we are turning on its head the usual rule that we should let our theories follow from our data, rather than simply accepting whatever observations fit our theories.

It's true that if we just routinely reject any bit of data that contradicts our favorite theory, our minds are closed. However, we are justified in rejecting any piece of data that contradicts all plausible theories. For example, it's plausible that Lee Oswald was in the Sniper's Nest shooting at Kennedy, and plausible that some other assassin was, but it's not plausible that any assassin would hang around for 4 to 5 minutes after shooting Kennedy.

Note that if we had rock-solid data supporting an "implausible" scenario, we would be forced to rethink our notion of what is "plausible." But given what is known about the unreliability of witness testimony, it's unlikely to trump well-grounded ideas about what might or might not happen. If we can't imagine why conspirators would possibly want to do something a particular way, we can conclude that they didn't.

Return to Kennedy Assassination Home Page