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A Decade of Deceit: From the Warren Commission to Watergate

      Whoever killed President John F. Kennedy got away with it because the Warren Commission, the executive commission responsible for investigating the murder, engaged in a cover-up of the truth and issued a report that misrepresented or distorted almost every relevant fact about the crime. The Warren Commission, in turn, got away with disseminating falsehood and covering up because virtually every institution in our society that is supposed to make sure that the government works properly and honestly failed to function in the face of a profound challenge; the Congress, the law, and the press all failed to do a single meaningful thing to correct the massive abuse committed by the Warren Commission. To anyone who understood these basic facts, and there were few who did, the frightening abuses of the Nixon Administration that have come to be known as "Watergate" were not unexpected and were surprising only in their nature and degree.
      This is not a presumptuous statement. I do not mean to imply that anyone who knew what the Warren Commission did could predict the events that have taken place in the last few years. My point is that the reaction to the Warren Report, if properly understood, demonstrated that our society had nothing that could be depended upon to protect it from the abuses of power that have long been inherent in the Presidency. The dynamics of our system of government are such that every check on the abuse of power is vital; if the executive branch were to be trusted as the sole guardian of the best interests of the people, we would not have a constitution that divides power among three branches of government to act as checks on each other, and we would need no Bill of Rights. Power invites abuses and excesses, and at least since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, an enormous amount of power has been assumed and acquired by the president.
      Political deception is an abuse that democracy invites; in a system where the leaders are ultimately accountable to the people, where their political future is decided by the people, there is inevitably the temptation to deceive, to speak with the primary interest of pleasing the people and preserving political power. There probably has not been a president who has not lied for political reasons. I need only cite some more recent examples:
      Franklin Roosevelt assured the parents of America in October 1940 that "your boys are not going to be sent into foreign wars"; at the time he knew that American involvement in World War II was inevitable, even imminent, but he chose not to be frank with the people for fear of losing the 1940 election.
      Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 denied that the American aircraft shot down by the Russians over their territory was a spy-plane, when he and the Russians knew very well that the plane, a U-2, had been on a CIA reconnaissance flight;
      John F. Kennedy had the American ambassador at the United Nations deny that the unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was an American responsibility when exactly the opposite was true.
      So, deception and cover-up per se did not originate with the Warren Commission in 1964 or the Nixon administration in 1972. They had always been an unfortunate part of our political system. With the Warren Commission they entered a new and more dangerous phase. Never before, to my knowledge, had there been such a systematic plan for a cover-up, or had such an extensive and pervasive amount of deception been attempted. And certainly never before had our government collaborated to deny the public the true story of how its leader was assassinated.
      In the face of this new and monumental abuse of authority by the executive, all the institutions that are supposed to protect society from such abuses failed and, in effect, helped perpetrate the abuse itself. As with Watergate, numerous lawyers were involved with the Warren Commission; in neither case did these lawyers act as lawyers. Rather, they participated in a cover-up and acted as accessories in serious crimes. The Congress accepted the Warren Report as the final solution to the assassination and thus acquiesced in the cover-up of a President's murder. And, perhaps most fundamentally, the press failed in its responsibility to the people and became, in effect, an unofficial mouthpiece of the government. For a short time the press publicized some of the inconsistencies between the Warren Report's conclusions and the evidence; yet never did the press seriously question the legitimacy of the official findings on the assassination or attempt to ascertain why the Johnson administration lied about the murder that brought it into power and what was hidden by those lies.
      It was only a small body of powerless and unheralded citizens who undertook to critically examine the official investigation of President Kennedy's murder, and among them it was still fewer who clearly understood the ominous meaning of a whitewashed inquiry that was accepted virtually without question. It was only these few who asked what would happen to our country if an executive disposed to abuse its authority could do so with impunity.
      It was in 1966, long before the press and the public saw through the thicket of deception with which we had been led into a war in Vietnam, long before this country was to suffer the horrors of Watergate, that a leading assassination researcher, Harold Weisberg, wrote and published the following words:

      If the government can manufacture, suppress and lie when a President is cut down -- and get away with it -- what cannot follow? Of what is it not capable, regardless of motive . . .?
      This government did manufacture, suppress and lie when it pretended to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
      If it can do that, it can do anything.
      And will, if we let it.
Weisberg, in effect, warned that the executive would inevitably commit wrongdoing beyond imagination so long as there was no institution of government or society that was willing to stop it. That one man of modest means could make this simple deduction in 1966 is less a credit to him than it is an indictment of a whole system of institutions that failed in their fundamental responsibility to society.
      My political maturity began to develop only in the past few years; all of my research on the assassination was conducted while I was a teenager. Yet the basic knowledge that my government could get away with what it did at the murder of a president made me fearful of the future. On October 10, 1971, when I was eighteen years old, I wrote what I hoped would be the last letter in a long and fruitless correspondence with a lawyer who had participated in the official cover-up as an investigator for the Warren Commission. I concluded that letter with these words:
      I ask myself if this country can survive when men like you, who are supposed to represent law and justice, are the foremost merchants of official falsification, deceit, and criminality.
      It was to take three years and the worst political crisis in our history for the press and the public to even begin to awaken to the great dangers a democracy faces when lawyers are criminals.
      It is with pain and not pride that I look back and see that so few were able to understand what the Warren Commission and the acceptance of its fraudulent Report meant for this country. This was not omniscience, but simple deduction from basic facts. I cannot escape the conviction that had the Congress, or the lawyers, or especially the press seriously endeavored to establish the basic facts and then considered the implications of these facts, we all might have been spared the frightening and threatening abuses of Watergate. If the institutions designed to protect society from such excesses of power had functioned in 1964, it is possible that they would not have had to mobilize so incompletely and almost ineffectively in 1972 and 1973.
      Watergate has brought us into a new era, hopefully one in which all institutions will work diligently to see that our government functions properly and honestly. As of now, the reasons for optimism are still limited. It was not the press as an institution that probed beneath the official lies about Watergate and demanded answers; essentially, it was one newspaper, the Washington Post, that, true to its obligations, bulldogged the story that most of the nation's press buried until it became a national scandal. It was not the law as an institution that insisted on the truth; it was one judge, John Sirica, who best served the law by settling for no less than the whole truth, and he was and continues to be deceived and lied to by those whose responsibility it is to uphold and defend the law. Whether Congress will adequately respond to the crimes and abuses of the Nixon administration remains to be seen.
      Our very system of government and law faces its most profound challenge today. A nation that did not learn from the Warren Commission has survived to relive a far worse version of that past in Watergate. It would do well to live by the wisdom of Santayana, for it is doubtful that American democracy could survive another Watergate.

Howard Roffman
January, 1974

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