Walkthrough: Warren Commission Executive Sessions
The Warren Commissioners met in secret executive session on multiple occasions. Originally marked "top secret," the transcripts of these meetings were declassified in the years following the Commission's work, some of them only after Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by Harold Weisberg.
These transcripts provide a fascinating glimpse at the Commissions' inner workings, reveal its political motivations and constraints, and provide clues to some of the mysteries of the JFK assassination.
The Commissioners were:
- Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
- Richard Russell, Democratic Senator from Georgia
- John Sherman Cooper, Republican Senator from Kentucky
- Hale Boggs, Democratic Congressman from Louisiana
- Gerald Ford, Republican Congressman from Michigan
- Allen Dulles, former Director of the CIA
- John McCloy, former High Commissioner of Germany
The Chief Counsel, former Solicitor General J. Lee Rankin, was selected after the first two meetings.
From left: John McCloy, J. Lee Rankin, Richard Russell, Gerald Ford, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Allen Dulles, John Sherman Cooper, Hale Boggs.
Complete set of Warren Commission Executive Session transcripts:
5 Dec 1963 - The first meeting of the Commission included Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. After an opening statement by Earl Warren, discussion included the Texas Board on Inquiry's parallel investigation, the FBI's essentially completed report, the Ruby trial, the need for the Commission to have subpoena power, and staffing. Chief Justice Warren proposed Warren Olney for Chief Counsel; this was met with resistance and a subcommittee was formed to make a recommendation. Katzenbach recommended that the Commission make a statement endorsing the FBI report to "dispel rumors;" the Commission never did so and in fact omitted the FBI report from its 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits. The political need that the Commission was to fulfill was perhaps stated mostly bluntly by Commissioner McCloy, who said that "This Commission is set up to lay the dust, dust not only in the United States but all over the world."
6 Dec 1963 - The following day, J. Lee Rankin was tentatively selected over Warren Olney as Chief Counsel. There was also discussion of a letter from the Texas Attorney General regarding the Texas Board of Inquiry, as well as a proposed reply asking Texas officials to stop their investigation ("a public inquiry in Texas might be more harmful than helpful..."). Hale Boggs brought up the leaking of the FBI report ot the press and described it as the "most outrageous leak I have ever seen." At the end of this session, press members were admitted and allowed to ask a few questions.
16 Dec 1963 - This wide-ranging discussion of various aspects of the assassination touched on Oswald's trip to Mexico, the FBI report (Warren: "I have read that report two or three times and I have not seen anything in there that has not been in the press"), medical reports (Boggs: "There's nothing in there about Governor Connally", McCloy: "This bullet business leaves me confused"), the Walker shooting, Jack Ruby and his relations with the Dallas Police (Boggs: "One of the keys to this whole thing is Ruby"), Oswald's ease of leaving the Soviet Union and his ease of getting a passport in New Orleans (Warren: "That seems strange to me"), the Zapruder film, the issue of keeping Marina Oswald and Ruth Paine from disappearing, and the need to act quickly because "evidence slips away." Allen Dulles passed out a book on the history of presidential assassination and attempts in America, of which only the Truman attempt was a plot. "The Lincoln assassination was a plot," McCloy countered. Dulles also brought up getting materials on Oswald's Soviet stay into the hands of the CIA, to which Senator Russell replied: "I think you've got more faith in them than I have. I think they'll doctor anything they hand to us."
21 Jan 1964 - This session began with discussion of staff hiring and the presentation by Rankin of an outline for six areas of investigation, with Bertrand Russell said was missing an important one: "who killed President Kennedy?" A discussion of what turned out to be an overly optimistic timeframe also noted the huge mass of reports pouring in, with Dulles noting that the staff would need to do the bulk of the work because he doubted that the Commissioners "could ever read all that stuff." Lengthy discussion of the rules by which witnesses would testify ensued, with particular focus on the upcoming first witness, Marina Oswald. Told that Marina might say that Lee was "a Soviet agent," Russell commented "That will blow the lid if she testifies to that."
22 Jan 1964 - This session was called specifically to address the allegation that Oswald was a paid "FBI Undercover Agent," number 179, paid $200 per month from September 1962 until the assassination. Waggoner Carr, the Texas Attorney General, had called Rankin that morning with allegations which had come from a member of the press (Lonnie Hudkins, though not named in the transcript). Rankin noted that "I am confident that the FBI would never admit it, and I presume their records will never show it...," and noted that Oswald's use of postal boxes "would be an ideal way to get money to anyone that you wanted as an undercover agent." Rankin also noted that if the allegation were true "then you would have people think that there was a conspiracy to accomplish this assassination that nothing the Commission did or anybody could dissipate." Rankin expressed puzzlement that the normally conservative FBI was so insistent the Oswald was the sole assassin, saying "They would like to have us fold up and quit." After more such discussion, Dulles said the transcript of the meeting itself "ought to be destroyed." This was indeed done, but an original court reporter's tape was later recovered and the transcript re-made from it after a long legal battle brought by Harold Weisberg.
27 Jan 1964 - Five days later, discussion of the allegation that Oswald was an FBI informant continued. According to Rankin, the Justice Department did not want to confront FBI Director Hoover with the allegation, so he suggested that perhaps "I should go over and see Edgar Hoover myself, and if that produced unsatisfactory results, that ""the Commission would have to feel free to make such other investigations and take testimony if it found it necessary." He added: "We do have a dirty rumor that is very bad for the Commission...and it must be wiped out so insofar as it is possible to do so by this Commission." Warren disliked the idea of going to the FBI "until we have at least looked into it." Dulles noted that the Bureau had already categorically denied the allegation in the press. Boggs: "Of course, we get ourselves into a real box. You have got to do everything on earth to establish the facts one way or the other." Commissioners discussed putting FBI agents under oath and questioning them, since according to Dulles "The record might not be on paper." Boggs: "The man who recruited him would know, wouldn't he?" Dulles: "Yes, but he wouldn't tell." After much discussion, in which the fear of J. Edgar Hoover is readily apparent, the consensus was that the allegation had to be investigated independently by the Commission. It never did.
A fascinating section of the Jan 27 session includes a discussion of the medical evidence. Rankin opened by discussing the confusion around the bullet wounds, and noting that "we have an explanation there in the autopsy that probably a fragment came out the front of the neck," something definitely not present in the autopsy report in evidence. Rankin said "we have the picture where the bullet entered in the back, that the bullet entered below the shoulder blade to the right of the backbone," showing two things: the Commission did have possession of the autopsy photos, and the Commission knew that CE 386, entered into evidence later on March 16, was a false representation of the location of this wound. After a discussion of the confusion over where the pristine bullet was found at Parkland Hospital, Russell commented: "This isn't going to be something that would run you stark mad," one of the more prescient comments made in all these sessions.
24 Feb 1964 - This brief meeting began with the decision to depose Marina Oswald's manager James Martin because of Mrs. Oswald's testimony of her husband's attempt to shoot Richard Nixon (which she implausibly said she stopped by locking Lee in the bathroom). Rankin then reported on the Commission having received affidavits from the FBI denying the Oswald informant allegation and noted that Hudkins had been contacted but "he refused to disclose his source."
16 Mar 1964 - In this very brief meeting, Commissioners formally accepted a resolution regarding the procedures for handling testimony and affidavits.
30 Apr 1964 - Because of ongoing controversy regarding the allegations of Oswald's informant status and intelligence connections, the Commission decided to take testimony on the matter from senior officials of the FBI and CIA. The Commission also discussed preparations for a visit to Dallas to see the assassination site. Commissioners also discussed the voluminous testimony taken by staff and the upcoming early portions of the report being drafted. There was also discussion of conspiracy allegations by Thomas Buchanan and Mark Lane, as well as all of Europe, and the need to "search these out and attack them." Regarding publishing Commission exhibits to accompany the Report, Dulles said "I don't think anybody would pay any attention to it to begin with." A discussion of the need to obtain the autopsy photographs included Rankin's statement that "I think that the Attorney General would make them available now -- although they were denied to us before because he said that he didn't think that there was a sufficient showing of our need." The Commission already had possession of the autopsy photos, what was at issue was the desire, as Rankin put it, to avoid those pictures being a part of our record."
19 May 1964 - The Commissioners discussed field reports on their staff, which included questions regarding the loyalty of Norman Redlich and Joseph Ball. Redlich was member of the Emergency Civil Liberties Council, which was opposed to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which cited the ECLC as a Communist front organization. Joseph Ball had joined in a resolution denouncing the House Un-American Activities Committee. Rankin endorsed Ball, but said of Redlich: "He, apparently, is a born crusader." Ford, after praising Redlich, noted that the controversy "casts some shadow on what the Commission is doing" and recommended dismissal. In the lengthy discussion of Redlich that followed, Warren in an eloquent statement said the man deserved a trial "where he can defend himself" before action was taken to dismiss him. In the end, the Commission voted security clearances for all staff and kept Ball and Redlich on.
4 Jun 1964 - This short meeting was called to discuss statements in various news media that a spokesman for the Commission had indicated that "Commission members have come to the conclusion that President Kennedy's assassination was the act of a lone individual." McCloy suggested making a statement that the Commission's "taking of testimony is nearing an end, that the Commission....has made no final conclusions as yet." This statement was approved.
23 Jun 1964 - In this session, Commissioner Ford brought up the fact that one section of the draft report included references to the views of Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko, when "we have never had Mr. Nosenko before the Commission" and there were questions about his bona fides. Warren concurred that Nosenko should be left out of the report, saying that "I am allergic to defectors...it would be a tragic thing if we were to rely on him to any extent, and then it should later come out that he was a plant..."
29 Jun 1964 - In the essay Behind Closed Doors, filmmaker Mark Sobel describes notes of a June 29 meeting found among J. Lee Rankin's papers. If the meeting, which discussed tentative findings of the Commission, was transcribed, that transcript has never been located.
18 Sep 1964 - The final Commission meeting was not transcribed, and only these minutes remain. The minutes, taken up with various motions related to the publication and delivery of the Report, fail to note that serious disagreements which erupted at that meeting. Senator Russell led a group of three Commissioners who wanted the Report to include a dissenting view regarding the single bullet theory, which is essential to the lone assassin conclusion. When Russell later learned that the meeting had not been transcribed, despite having an apparent recorder present, he was furious, later breaking off a long friendship with Lyndon Johnson. Harold Weisberg's two-part essay Senator Russell Dissents (see sidebar) has more on this story.