The National Interest
November 22 is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. A large number of publications in the American media, from print to TV documentaries, feature films and talk shows have been dedicated to the commemoration of this event. All these articles and productions discuss why and how the assassination happened. In the midst of this chorus of voices, one work stands out as meriting special attention—the book A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret of the Kennedy Assassination by New York Times journalist Philip Shenon, which was published several weeks ago. It immediately attracted attention. For example, the October 27 episode of CBS’s Face the Nation was almost entirely dedicated to the book. Some participants in the discussion attempted to place the assassination in the context of contemporary American politics.
Shenon’s book, like many others, tries to answer the question of whether the assassination was the work of a lone assassin in the face of Lee Harvey Oswald, or whether it was the plot of Cuban or Russian spies, the U.S. mafia, or some other force trying to rid itself of President Kennedy. Despite the thousands upon thousands of articles and books written on the subject, Shenon managed to unearth plenty of facts that had not been presented to the Warren Commission (investigating the murder of JFK on the orders of President Johnson) or to the public at large.
Even though this book does not ultimately answer the question of who killed JFK, it nonetheless answers another question: was his assassination preventable? The author is fully convinced that it was, if only the American secret agencies had done their job conscionably. The assassination could have been stopped had the information available to the secret agencies been shared with the FBI in Dallas, TX. It is astonishing that the facts about Oswald’s trip to Mexico had not been investigated or even brought to the attention of the Warren Commission. The leaders of the Cuban revolution felt very much ill at ease with the Kennedy brothers at the time. It is well-known at this point that the American covert agencies and the Kennedy brothers tried to murder Castro, which Lyndon Johnson frequently spoke about to his confidantes. One theory is that Castro himself decided to preempt an attack on his person and organized a mission to kill JFK.
As FBI Director Clarence Kelley, who succeeded Hoover in this position in 1972 after Hoover’s death, made clear in 1975, the Commission was not given access to a top secret letter, dated July 1964, in which Hoover wrote that Oswald himself said in the Cuban embassy in Mexico that he had been planning on killing JFK. Whether due to bureaucratic cover-ups or for other reasons that we can only guess at, as Kelley states, the FBI and CIA in Washington DC had enough information on Oswald to put his name on the Secret Service list of potential threats. Based on the facts, Kelley reaches the unambiguous conclusion that if the Dallas section of the FBI had had the information available at the time to the Washington-based FBI and CIA, there is no doubt that John Fitzgerald Kennedy would not have been assassinated on November 22, 1963—and history could have unfolded differently.
In addition to the Cuban trace in the assassination, there was also a Soviet one. The American authorities had known for a long time that Oswald held Marxist ideological convictions, sought asylum in the Soviet Union, and lived in the USSR for two years, where he married a Russian woman. Not long before the assassination, he met with Russian diplomats in Mexico, among whom were Russian spies, including Vladimir Kostikov, whom the FBI and CIA considered an expert on assassinations. However, both the U.S. government and covert agencies were skeptical about a Cuban or Soviet role in the murder of JFK. I also believe it is largely unlikely that the Soviet leadership could have been involved in the death of the American president. Such an involvement could have spelled the most serious consequences, which include the beginning of a third world war. At the time, revolutionary fanatics were no longer in the ranks of the Soviet leadership. Khrushchev had, for a few years already, proclaimed the peaceful coexistence of capitalism and socialism. This was one of the main reasons for the rift between the Soviet and Chinese communists.
It is highly unlikely that, having just gone through the Berlin and Cuban crises, the Soviet leaders would have risked new confrontations with the U.S., which could have been very problematic for Moscow. It is no accident that the Soviet version of the Kennedy murder was that he most likely fell victim to reactionary circles within the United States who could not forgive the President for leading domestic reformatory politics to alleviate poverty and guarantee minority rights, and negotiated with the Soviet Union on a wide range of issues, especially after signing an agreement to ban nuclear tests in three spheres. Even though for his short time as President Kennedy was considered by the Soviets a strong leader who strictly defended the interests of his country and the West against the USSR, he was also seen as a pragmatic politician, not inclined to adventurist steps.
Assassinating him could really have started a third world war. It is no mere accident that, as Philip Shenon notes in his book, when President Lyndon Johnson tried to convince Chief Justice Earl Warren to head the Commission investigating the Kennedy case, he motivated his arguments with the claim that the fate of humanity depended on the results of this investigation and that the allegation that the Soviet Union stood behind the murder was widespread in American society, as was the opinion that the U.S. should retaliate if this was the case. Khrushchev could not have been ignorant of the consequences of such an adventure and of course, he was not going to risk them.
There is also one indisputable piece of evidence that shows the non-participation of the USSR in the Kennedy assassination. As in the late perestroika, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the discrediting of the political regime and especially the KGB and secret services was in full swing, the archives were opened and everyone was only too happy to add one more nail in the coffin of the Soviet leadership by shining a light on its criminal record. Even then, not a single bit of evidence showed up about anyone in the USSR or in the depths of the KGB secret structures who conspired to kill the American president.
In his book, Philip Shenon explains that not only could the assassination have been stopped, but that a huge amount of evidence pertaining to it was deliberately destroyed immediately after the murder two days later of Oswald himself by Jack Ruby. Both the FBI and CIA engaged in destruction of evidence. What is truly astounding is that a few weeks before the killing of JFK, Oswald himself wrote a letter to the local FBI threatening measures against FBI agents should they continue snooping on him and his wife. After Oswald was shot, FBI agents in Dallas tore the letter written in Oswald’s hand to pieces and flushed it down the toilet. They would have had trouble explaining both to Hoover and to American society at large how, just days before the hit on the U.S. president, Oswald had been in the FBI office in Dallas threatening violence against agents with no consequences.
The author cites numerous other cases of evidence destruction pertaining to the assassination of JFK. It is shocking that the pathologist performing the autopsy on the president decided to burn his notes from the examination after having made copies. He later explained his decision with the excuse that the documents on which he had originally written the autopsy results had been sprayed with Kennedy’s blood. Shenon asks the question of whether the doctor had not falsified the autopsy conclusions or received an order to modify them. These questions cannot be answered because there is no evidence. We cannot say what exactly Oswald had written to the FBI or what the original conclusions of the pathologist had been. We can only stand bewildered by the fact that even the Warren Commission was not shown the data from the autopsy, nor even photos taken immediately after the shooting, so it is impossible to tell how many bullets there had been, or the bullets’ trajectory. The Chairman of the Commission, Warren himself, did not show these photos to the rest of the Commission members. The photos ended up in the hands of Robert Kennedy, who also objected to showing them. This indicates that the secret agencies not only failed to prevent the assassination, but importantly, acted deliberately to destroy evidence. This behavior provoked the former speechwriter of President Reagan, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, to claim on Face the Nation on CBS that even at the time of JFK, the U.S. had what amounted to a “deep state.” The covert agencies acted behind the backs of society to make decisions not based on the interests of the country or of solving cases, but in the interest of their own narrow corporate structures, holding ultimate discretion over what to divulge to the people and what to keep secret.
Moreover, Noonan dedicated an October 28 post in her Wall Street Journal blog to the deep state in the U.S. It is somewhat unexpected to hear this term applied to the United States. As a rule, the term “deep state” is applied to Turkey, Pakistan, and a number of similar states. Literally, the “deep state” can be described as a government within the government. The term is used to denote a ruling, invisible clique within the government that controls the decision-making process and is unaccountable to the populace. It is de facto uncontrolled power that does not answer to anyone: not to the formal ruling institutions and certainly not to the people. In one form or other, the deep state exists in all political systems.
It took its ugliest shape in Russia in the second half of the 1990s after the presidential elections in 1996. It was then, with the ill and not fully able to work President Yeltsin, that the deep state coalesced under the moniker “the family,” in which a few people of Yeltsin’s own family and a few oligarchs controlling the financial and informational flows in the country, unelected and unrepresentative of formal state institutions, made all decisions at their sole discretion as concerned cadre, domestic, and foreign policy. This phenomenon was even uglier than the traditional notion of a deep state because in the traditional case, the deep state is a formation by state institutions, first and foremost the security agencies, which begin to act in their own corporate interests without any oversight or accountability, and can violate human rights. In the case of Yeltsin’s family, decisions were also made without popular oversight or accountability, but they in no way represented any formal institutions.
In his first presidential term, Putin did away with this uninstitutional center of power that controlled all decision making. Some oligarchs were imprisoned, others ran away and left Russia, while he re-established constitutional presidential control over policy. True, some analysts in Russia and abroad believe that a new deep state was formed under Putin during his second term, in the face of the so-called siloviki on the conservative side and “civiliki” on the liberal side who tried to assert control over all political decision-making in Russia. And in Putin’s third term, some analysts began to talk almost of a shadow Politburo controlling all decisions. However, I believe it is as imaginary a notion that power centers, both siloviki and civiliki-liberals, can function independently of President Putin, as is the existence of some mythical Politburo.
Unlike the United States, in which it is becoming clear all of a sudden that some institutions such as the IRS, NSA, and FBI made decisions in violation of the Constitution without the knowledge of the President, there is no convincing evidence that any Russian institutions, whether the secret services or civilian ones, make decisions in circumvention of the power of President Putin. When there is a strong leader empowered by the Constitution, and when power is consolidated, there are far fewer opportunities for a deep state to form than in a democratic country with a weak leader when the secret agencies can escape civilian control with the excuse of ensuring citizens’ security.
Nowadays, a discussion of the deep state is particularly important in light of the revelations by Edward Snowden exposing the secret work of the NSA and other structures working in the dark and without accountability to society, controlling the lives of every individual, and violating the right to privacy with impunity. It is no accident that in one of the latest Face the Nationbroadcasts, Bob Schieffer noted that the secret agencies destroy all evidence in the case of a crisis so that no one can blame them for failing to prevent crime or being incompetent. This is why the whole story with the Oswald appearance in Mexico a few weeks before the JFK assassination and his conversations showing intent had not been made available to the Warren Commission, and the agencies did everything in their power to cover up such information so as not to expose themselves as ineffectual for failing to act on available information.
It is notable that the discussion of the JFK assassination and the deep state run amok are taking place in the background of frayed Euro-American relations and the scandal with the U.S. spying on its EU allies, such as Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. Journalists and analysts are asking the question of whether Obama was in the know that the NSA was wiretapping the U.S.’s closest ally. If he did not know, that would mean that indeed, nowadays a huge part of the work of the secret agencies is escaping public oversight, which naturally threatens the democratic foundations of the country and American society. On the other hand, as Peggy Noonan wisely noted, even if Obama had not known and did not want to know what his agencies were doing, can it be believed that the NSA would stop its snooping on Angela Merkel if he orders it to? There is no convincing answer to this question. It turns out that modern democracy lacks effective mechanisms for control over the secret agencies. This is why this question is important. Have they stopped spying on Angela Merkel? But it is on the answer to this question that the solution to a more important question hinges; namely, “How deep is the deep state in the U.S.?” How much has the deep state affected the political structure of the country? Shenon’s book and analysts’ speculations of the Kennedy murder are interesting not because they bring about new conspiracy theories or explain what happened fifty years ago, but because center stage in public discussion is the activity of the secret agencies that are proving to be increasingly uncontrollable and unaccountable.