Academic says `cult of secrecy' feeds conspiracies on Kennedy

He claims restricted data on assassination prompts some to think the worst

November 21, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Forty years after his death, nowhere is the memory of John F. Kennedy more alive than in the continuing drama over who killed him and why.

A 1998 CBS News poll showed that 75 percent of Americans thought there was a conspiracy to kill JFK; only 10 percent believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. It is the stuff of countless books and speeches.

"I'm going to give a talk to about 1,000 students who could not be more interested in what went on," Kermit Hall, Utah State University president, said recently. "What interests them is, they want to know how the conspiracy worked."

But whose conspiracy was it - the mob, the Cubans or even members of Kennedy's own government? Believers have suggested everyone from Lyndon Johnson and former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to agents of the Soviet Union's KGB intelligence service.

There's no consensus among theorists on how a conspiracy worked, but Hall, who served in the 1990s on the congressionally mandated JFK Assassination Records Review Board, is sure of one thing: Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories continue to proliferate because officials have kept too much of the assassination data under wraps.

Another academic expert said the persistence of assassination conspiracy theories is simply part of a longstanding American tradition.

"People will believe forever, no matter the reliability of the evidence," said Charles Stewart, a Purdue University communications professor who studies and teaches how conspiracy theorists make their conspiracies believable. "We love conspiracies in this country. Even back to the colonists, Americans always have been suspicious about their government and have rallied around conspiracies."

Others blame people like film director Oliver Stone, whose 1991 film, JFK traced the president's death to conspirators. Authors Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post argue that JFK contributed to the "intellectual pollution" conspiracies that play to the nation's paranoia.

"An occurrence that could be interpreted in supernatural terms would be appropriate to ending Kennedy's life and beginning the legend," Robins and Post wrote. "The other possibility is that some great human source of evil was responsible. ... Because the public has committed itself to believing the rest of the Kennedy myth, there is a natural inclination to believe in a conspiracy."

But after poring over thousands documents, photos and other assassination materials with the review board, Hall has decided that the problems all go back to secrecy.

"The opportunity for full disclosure didn't occur because the evidentiary base was for years kept from the public," Hall said. "The result was, in an evidentiary vacuum, the idea of conspiracy was allowed to grow almost unabated."

Creating a high-level panel such as the Warren Commission, then failing to turn over all the information, only fed the conspiracy mill, Hall said. The Warren Commission's conclusion was that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

"One could easily understand that the Warren Commission could get it right and wrong, simultaneously," said Hall, who with his fellow review board members issued a final report in 1998.

The fact that influential media outlets followed the government's lead in putting a lid on information has only inflamed conspiracy theorists.

Life magazine, for example, purchased the 8mm Zapruder film of the motorcade slaying within hours of the act and closely guarded it until 1975, when ABC-TV finally aired it in its entirety, according to the Village Voice.

"The New York Times, Time-Life, CBS and NBC have striven mightily to protect the single assassin hypothesis, even when that has involved the suppression of information, the coercion of testimony and the misrepresentation of key evidence," the Village Voice wrote.

Temple University English Professor Joan Mellen, for example, is completing a book on former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's attempts to find the truth.

Garrison came close to connecting links in New Orleans to the assassination, Mellen thinks, but she said none of the investigative boards and commissions have uncovered the truth.

"I think they didn't have enough power," Mellen said of the assassination board on which Hall served. "They really didn't know their business: They were perfunctory."

In her opinion, the Central Intelligence Agency pulled the strings.

"He was challenging their power, their authority," Mellen said of Kennedy. "He hated the agency, and they hated him.

"They never forgave him" for failing to support the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, she said. "The evidence is overwhelming that there was a conspiracy."

Hall didn't offer a pet conspiracy theory, but he did have a candidate for least likely: It's the notion that JFK was killed by his own government.

Equally wrongheaded in his opinion, is placing the blame on then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. He calls the claim "preposterous."

But the fact that the notion is alive and well doesn't surprise him at all.

"I was surprised by the volume of material the government had secured as `classified,'" Hall said. "But see, that's what the cult of secrecy does."

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