The Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was John F. Kennedy’s lone assassin hangs from a single thread known as the “single-bullet theory.” Since Oswald could have fired only three shots, and one missed, the theory maintains that the remaining two bullets killed the president and injured Texas governor John Connally, who was seated in front of JFK. Without the improbable passage of this bullet, the commission could not have argued Oswald was the only shooter. The author of the single-bullet theory is Arlen Specter, who in 1964 was the commission’s assistant counsel. Today he is the 80-year-old senator from Pennsylvania. In his memoir, Passion for Truth, Specter writes, “I have always been confident that the single-bullet conclusion is correct. I have also had a sense that if the conclusion turns out to be incorrect, that would be okay, too, because it was an honest, good-faith, soundly reasoned judgment.”
But according to the testimony of retired FBI agent James Sibert, Specter, who was the agent’s sole contact with the Warren Commission, misrepresented Sibert’s comments and excluded his report on JFK’s autopsy from the official record.
On the afternoon of November 22, 1963 Sibert and his partner, Francis O’Neill, were summoned to Andrews Air Force base to accompany the president’s body to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. As Sibert testified to the Assassination Record Review Board at the National Archives in 1997, “We were there to observe, obtain any bullets [and] hand-carry them to the laboratory to preserve the chain of evidence.”The agents helped lift the coffin from the ambulance and carry it into the examination room. One or the other agent was then present while Dr. James Humes conducted the autopsy. Both agents took meticulous notes. Humes, the chief Navy pathologist, talked through each step of the procedure. Given Sibert’s proximity to such an epic scene in American history, his memories are vivid. He noted the entrance wound of the so-called single bullet. It was not in the back of the neck. Instead, as he wrote in his official report, the bullet hole was “below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column.” There was no doubt about what he saw because Humes probed the hole, looking for either the exit wound or the bullet, and was surprised he could find neither. Sibert suggested the bullet could have been made of some substance that had dissolved inside the president. He called headquarters to speak to a munitions expert but learned instead that a bullet had been found in a stretcher back at Parkland Memorial, the Dallas hospital where JFK had been declared dead.
Sibert wrote in his report that when he relayed this news to Humes, the pathologist speculated that when the Parkland doctors tried to revive JFK by massaging his heart, “it was entirely possible that through such movement the bullet had worked its way back out of the point of entry and had fallen on the stretcher.” Humes had already pointed out that the gash in the president’s throat was not an exit wound but a tracheotomy. He also commented that the Parkland doctors had closed up the scalp around missing pieces of skull.To complete their mission at the Naval Hospital the agents retrieved the bullet fragments that Humes could extract from the corpse. Back in their home office outside Washington, D.C., Sibert and O’Neill dictated their report. It was transcribed and mimeographed by an FBI stenographer, who, along with the agents, signed one copy. According to the bureau’s policy at the time, the agents then destroyed their notepads.
Four months later Specter summoned them to a meeting with no other witnesses present. Soon after, in a memo to the general counsel, Specter wrote, “Special Agent Sibert advised that he made no notes during the autopsy.” That statement, Sibert says, “is absolutely false. There would be no way in the world I’d make a statement that I made no notes during the autopsy.”
Specter never requested further information from the agents. As Sibert later told the ARRB, “I can now see why for many reasons someone thought it was inadvisable to bring us before the Warren Commission.” In fact, it was years before Sibert learned that Humes had burned his original autopsy notes in a fireplace and then altered his findings to correspond with the single-bullet theory.
In his book Specter claims Humes changed his mind after he consulted with doctors at Parkland hospital on November 23. But as late as November 29, in a taped conversation with President Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did not mention a neck wound and told of a “complete bullet” that “rolled out of the president’s head” and was found in his stretcher.
In Specter’s defense, the pressure to put the blame on a lone assassin could not have been greater, as we learn from Johnson’s other November 29 conversations. After speaking with Hoover, LBJ met with Earl Warren to persuade the reluctant Supreme Court chief justice to head the investigation. Unless it was brought to the right conclusion, Johnson argued, there could be nuclear war with the Soviet Union, which would put “40 million” lives at stake. As Warren later wrote, he replied, “Mr. President, if the situation is that serious, my personal views do not count. I will do it.”Earlier this year, in a bid for reelection as senator, Specter lost Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, effectively ending his political career. Now would be the time for him to open an honest debate about the conspiracy that killed our 35th president.