Conspiracy: Cases For and Against


November 19, 2013

Millions of Americans believe there exists a larger, darker explanation for President Kennedy’s assassination than just Oswald, the lone, disturbed gunman. As covered in FRONTLINE’s investigative biography of Oswald, here are some of the major questions raised by conspiracy theorists over the years and how science and technology have helped answer most of them.

The Magic Bullet: Critics say it was impossible for just one bullet to pass through both Kennedy and Connolly unless it pursued a bizarre zig-zag trajectory. Furthermore, the bullet emerged in good condition.

Three-dimensional graphics of Dealey Plaza, produced by a company called Failure Analysis Associates on behalf of the American Bar Association, showed that a single bullet could inflict all seven wounds on both President Kennedy and Governor Connelly. By feeding data into a computer, it was possible to model the trajectory of the so-called “magic bullet,” showing how a straight line through the two men was indeed possible. The computer modeling also showed where the gunman had to shoot from: a cone splayed out from the wound shows that the area almost centers on the southeast corner, sixth floor, Texas School Book Depository. (The technique of modern computer modeling, combined with film enhancement technology, was not available to earlier investigators.)

A single bullet could inflict all seven wounds on both the President and the Governor and emerge in very good condition. That’s because, as it slowed, moving through the two men, it moved fast enough to break bone, but not fast enough to deform the bullet. Tests were conducted by both the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee that supported this conclusion.

Hollywood and History: The Debate Over JFK

What obligation does Hollywood owe facts, accuracy, and the truth? When popular history like JFK gets hold of a subject, what kind of damage can be done? Those are the central questions in this 1992 panel discussion with authors Norman Mailer and Edward J. Epstein, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and producer/director Oliver Stone. The three-hour forum was held at Town Hall, New York City, on the night of March 3, 1992, and was sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University.


It’s clear from the start that it’s largely a pro-Stone audience as speakers Ephron, Epstein, and Mailer lay out their views on the movie and its critics. Oliver Stone follows, talking about his work on the movie and how it has made him question the history he was taught in school and through the media.

The panelists are followed by guest questioners Christopher Hitchens, Bill Schapp, and Max Holland. Their responses, along with the audience’s questions, produce heated moments and stormy applause throughout the rest of the evening.

The Endurance of Conspiracy Thinking

Polls conducted periodically since the assassination show most Americans continue to believe the president’s murder was part of a larger plot. Here are events over the decades which have been a factor in keeping conspiracy thinking alive.

New Orleans: During the summer of 1963 — just months before the assassination — Oswald reportedly was in contact with men who had connections to the Mafia.

In New Orleans, Oswald entered the most mysterious and perplexing chapter of his short life, and the murky trail he left behind in that city still defies a complete explanation.

In “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?,” FRONTLINE spends some time examining this puzzling period in his life. If there was a plot to kill President Kennedy, then it was probably hatched in New Orleans. It was here that Lee Oswald may have crossed paths with men that hated Kennedy and wanted him eliminated.

Read the section of the program transcript dealing with this period.

The Grassy Knoll: Was There a Fourth Shot?

The exact number and timing of the shots have been argued over endlessly, but there is a growing consensus that the Zapruder film shows three shots were fired in about eight seconds. Many believe a second gunman fired a fourth shot from the grassy knoll. Immediately after the shooting, many people followed a policeman up the embankment. But when police searched the area, they found no gunman, no gun, no cartridges. Years later it was discovered that a motorcycle policeman’s radio button had been jammed open and that the gunshots in Dealey Plaza may have been accidentally recorded.

Says Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed: “The House Select Committee on Assassinations [1978-79] used sound experts to listen to a Dallas Police dictabelt and they concluded with a 95 percent certainty that there was a fourth shot fired at Dealey Plaza and it came from the grassy knoll. A few years later, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel reviewed their work and found a multitude of errors and omissions, the most serious of which was that the time that the Select Committee experts thought the shots were being fired was the wrong time. It was actually one minute after the assassination had actually taken place.”

But the acoustics controversy didn’t end there. In 2001, Dr. Donald B. Thomas, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had a paper published in the British journal Science and Justice which challenged the 1982 NAS report and was widely circulated in the assassination research community. Members of the original NAS panel are currently preparing a rebuttal to the Thomas analysis.

Read more about the acoustics debate.

Mexico City: Was there an intelligence cover-up?

As FRONTLINE reported in its program, for 40 years the CIA has covered up its record on the Oswald case. However, intelligence documents released in the mid to late 1990s have helped shed light on one significant episode in this cover-up — Oswald’s trip to Mexico City in early September-late October, 1963 and his visits to the Cuban consulate and Soviet embassy to obtain travel visas.

Read historian John Newman’s article for FRONTLINE, “Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City,” about what the documents now reveal.

The JFK Autopsy: Critics say it was corrupted because it didn’t show there was a fourth bullet or that the fatal shot entered the president’s head from the front, not the back.

photo of the autopsy

Drawing depicting the posterior head wound (from HSCA records, Vol 17).

In the chaos and confusion of that day, many mistakes were made in the autopsy on Kennedy’s body. But the medical photos and X-rays confirm that there were only two shots that struck the president and both came from the rear. Four separate government investigations have so concluded. The last one, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978-79, had the largest forensics panel reexamining all the evidence.

As for the president’s backwards head movement, the second and fatal shot — as seen in the enhanced Zapruder film — makes it appear that the shot came from the front. But experts explain that two things are happening in that split second. As the fatal bullet destroys the president’s brain, he goes into a neuromuscular seizure and his body starts to stiffen up. At the same time that the bullet wound explodes out the right front side of his head, and as that blood and brain tissue moves out, it forces him in the opposite direction, the jet effect, back and to the left, violently.

The Sixth Floor of the Book Depository: Some witnesses thought they saw two men.

At 12:23 p.m. that day, amateur cameraman Charles Bronson panned across the Book Depository. FRONTLINE had this footage scientifically enhanced to determine whether a second person could be seen on the sixth floor. When processed to reduce the grain noise in the frame, all of the images throughout the frame look approximately the same and show no evidence of anybody walking around.

There was also film shot by Robert Hughes, showing the motorcade approaching Dealey Plaza. Hughes stops filming for a few seconds and then starts again just as the limousine passes in front of the depository. Says image processing analyst Francis Corbett: “On the Hughes film, there are a lot of things to see and on the fifth floor in particular, we see an employee of the Book Depository raise his right arm as he waves to the motorcade passing just under the building. Now we move to the sixth floor and we observe in the arched window that is adjacent to the sniper’s nest a form that some people have said is human-like in appearance. And when we ran the enhanced film in motion, that human form disappears and we conclude there is no human form in that window. We do also conclude that there is movement in the sixth floor corner window, indicating the presence of a person.”

The Backyard Photo in Dallas

the guns photo

A few days after receiving a .38 pistol and a cheap Italian rifle he had ordered by mail, Oswald asked his wife, Marina, to take a picture of him in the backyard of their Dallas apartment dressed all in black and posing with the two guns. The Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in his hand is the same one used to kill President Kennedy.

This photo was one of several taken by Marina Oswald on Sunday, March 31, 1963, in the backyard of the Oswalds’ Dallas apartment. It remains among the most incriminating and controversial pieces of evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald. When shown the photographs after the assassination, Oswald denied that he owned a rifle and denied it was him in the photos, saying that his head had been pasted on. Critics of the Warren Commission seized on this — including filmmaker Oliver Stone whose film JFK suggests the photographs were faked in order to frame Oswald. (Read Stone’s views about this photo in the transcript of a 1992 panel discussion.)

Marina Oswald testified before the Warren Commisision that she took the photographs. She identified the camera she used and the FBI was able to tie that camera, to the exclusion of all other cameras, to these photographs. Years later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1978-79) worked with a photographic panel and studied all of the testimony and whether there were incongruous shadows in the photographs, as critics alleged.

Oswald had given a copy of the photograph to his friend George de Mohrenschildt and Oswald had signed it. The House Committee’s experts concluded beyond a doubt that the signature was Oswald’s. Any notion that the photo was faked by other people to frame Lee Harvey Oswald would have to explain the fact that Oswald himself signed it.

G. Robert Blakey was chief counsel on the House Select Committee, which had the FBI conduct tests on the camera and film. Says Blakey: “There are microscopic, unique indentations. Based on them, if you have the negative and the camera, you can — just like you can match the grooves in a bullet to the grooves created by the barrel ballistics — you can match a camera and a negative or a photograph. That’s precisely the technique that the FBI employed. The details of it are set out for all to read in the Warren Commission hearings and report. We undertook a similar analysis on the committee and the photographic panels’ report is set out in our hearings as well. This is science. This is not memory, this is not perception, this is something that anybody with the expertise can replicate for themselves.”

The Acoustics Debate

Donald B. Thomas’s Dealy Plaza acoustics study, published in the British journal Science and Justice in January 2001, disputed the conclusions of the 1982 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel. The NAS panel used crosstalk that was simultaneously broadcast from another police radio channel to synchronize with the sound-activated dictaphone belt and concluded that the apparent “shots” were recorded one minute after the assassination had taken place.

But Thomas says the NAS panel used the wrong crosstalk to synchronize the radio channels. Furthermore, the discrepancy in time between the two channels could be explained by a “skip,” which could have caused a “time warp” in the recording.

Thomas reaffirmed the conclusion of the 1978-1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) that a shot had come from the grassy knoll. Moreover, he took that congressional report a step further: this fourth bullet, he claimed, was the very same fatal head shot that killed the president.

The Thomas report was publicized by The Washington Post and ABC and circulated on the Internet. Some conspiracists saw it as the Rosetta Stone to unlocking the grassy knoll theory: a shot from the grassy knoll would mean Oswald did not act alone.

In the wake of the Thomas article, Norman F. Ramsey, who headed the 1982 NAS panel, brought together panel members to verify Thomas’s findings. The two sides would exchange correspondence frequently. “Reading between the lines, they seemed quite peeved. … They were grasping at straws,” Thomas told FRONTLINE. “But I think they are trying to get past that and get to the facts.”

In an interview on Nov. 18, 2003, Ramsey told FRONTLINE that further examination of Thomas’s results have vindicated his NAS panel’s original argument: the fourth shot was not a gun shot at all, but an unrelated noise, perhaps static, which was recorded one minute after the assassination took place.

“We did find some errors in our original (1982) report, but our errors were small errors that did not change our conclusions,” says Ramsey. “In Thomas’s report we found significant errors which clearly reverse the findings of his report.”

Ramsey says the rebuttal of Thomas’ report will be published in the same journal, Science and Justice, as early as January 2004. “There is a little more tightening to do,” says Ramsey. “We are a bit worried that the report may be too technical for this publication, but we’ll see.”

Ramsey was reluctant to give any of the details of the findings until he and his colleagues have their work peer-reviewed by the journal. “We are not doing this report for a news bulletin. This is for science.”

The Endurance Of Conspiracy Thinking

In the 40 years since John F. Kennedy’s assassination, thousands of books and films have come out, with most of them setting forth conspiracy theories. And over the decades, polls have shown that most Americans continue to believe that the president’s murder was part of a larger plot. Here is a rundown of some events which have been a factor in keeping conspiracy thinking alive.

What the Polls Say
As recently as October 2003, a Fox News Poll showed that 66% of Americans believe there was a conspiracy. Here are results from earlier Gallup Polls:


One Man Involved

Larger Conspiracy

Not Sure

March 2001




November 1993




February 1992




October 1983




December 1976




December 1966




November 1963




Late 1960s – Early 1970s

Vietnam and Watergate produce a widespread loss of faith in government. During the Vietnam War the government lied about the war strategy and scale of buildup. A few years later, the Watergate scandal revealed the Nixon administration had broken the law, lied to Congress, and used the CIA to block an FBI investigation.



Abraham Zapruder’s 26 second home movie of the shooting of President Kennedy is broadcast for the first time on ABC’s Goodnight America . It shows graphic footage of the fatal shot causing the president’s head to snap back and to the left, appearing as if the bullet had come from the front, not the rear and thus suggesting there was a second gunman.



The Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee) reveals the CIA plotted to kill Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965 and that “American underworld figures and Cubans hostile to Castro were used in these plots and were provided encouragment and material support by the United States.”



The House Select Committee on Assassinations, which reexamined the Kennedy assassination, releases its report concluding that there was a “probable conspiracy” but is unable to determine the nature of it or other participants (besides Oswald).



Oliver Stone’s JFK is released. The movie mixes fact and fiction in a storyline that suggests forces within the U.S. government conspired to murder the president. The movie ignites a public furor and pushes Congress to pass in 1993 the JFK Records Act which requires federal agencies to release all their files on the assassination.



Newly released documents, mandated by the 1993 JFK Records Act, show that shortly after the assassination, the CIA and FBI listened to CIA bug tapes of an impersonator, saying he was Oswald, calling the Soviet embassy in Mexico City on Oct 1, 1963. For years, the CIA had claimed its phone intercepts in Mexico City had been erased prior to the assassination. Read more on this intelligence cover up.

This story was originally published Nov. 20, 2003

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