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A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination

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Overview

A groundbreaking, explosive account of the Kennedy assassination that will rewrite the history of the 20th century's most controversial murder investigation

The questions have haunted our nation for half a century: Was the President killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963?

Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist who ...

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A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination

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Overview

A groundbreaking, explosive account of the Kennedy assassination that will rewrite the history of the 20th century's most controversial murder investigation

The questions have haunted our nation for half a century: Was the President killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963?

Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist who spent most of his career at The New York Times, finally provides many of the answers. Though A Cruel and Shocking Act began as Shenon's attempt to write the first insider's history of the Warren Commission, it quickly became something much larger and more important when he discovered startling information that was withheld from the Warren Commission by the CIA, FBI and others in power in Washington. Shenon shows how the commission's ten-month investigation was doomed to fail because the man leading it – Chief Justice Earl Warren – was more committed to protecting the Kennedy family than getting to the full truth about what happened on that tragic day. A taut, page-turning narrative, Shenon's book features some of the most compelling figures of the twentieth century—Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, Chief Justice Warren, CIA spymasters Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, as well as the CIA's treacherous “molehunter,” James Jesus Angleton.

Based on hundreds of interviews and unprecedented access to the surviving commission staffers and many other key players, Philip Shenon's authoritative, scrupulously researched book will forever change the way we think about the Kennedy assassination and about the deeply flawed investigation that followed.

A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In his 2008 book The Commission, investigative journalist Philip Shenon gave us what remains the most authoritative look at U.S. government probes into the causes of the September 11th attacks. In A Cruel and Shocking Act, he delves into the previous hidden history of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Like its predecessor, this new book takes us into the deeply flawed inner workings of the commission charged with examining the tragedy. In this instance, however, the veteran former New York Times reporter goes even deeper, unearthing documents that the CIA, FBI, and others withheld and others that the Warren Commission simply ignored. A revelatory story bound to generate media buzz.

Publishers Weekly
11/04/2013
This sober and powerful book, in spite of its headline-grabbing subtitle, is more a secret history of the Warren Commission than a secret history of the J.F.K. assassination itself. As in his The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, affords the reader access to the behind-the-scenes deliberations and dynamics that shaped a historic inquiry into a national trauma. Positive word about Shenon’s first book prompted a prominent lawyer—who had been a young investigator on the Warren Commission—to ask Shenon to tell the story of the commission’s staff, “the then young lawyers who did the actual detective work in 1964.” The result is likely to frustrate both those who are adamant that a conspiracy was behind the killing, and those convinced that the Warren Commission got everything right. Shenon successfully portrays the unethical approach of the most prominent early conspiracy theorist, Mark Lane, and rigorously avoids speculating beyond what the evidence demonstrates. But the combination of destroyed records, unpursued investigative leads, and lies by senior government officials—“most especially at the CIA”—will leave most reasonable readers unsettled as to whether the truth has yet been discovered. Maps and photos. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Jaw-dropping scenes involving the destruction and manipulation of evidence . . . A persuasive, deeply researched account . . . A compelling read."—The Washington Post

"A Cruel and Shocking Act has authority, is tantalizingly readable and is convincing in its claim that the Warren Commission was unable or unwilling to uncover the total truth. [Shenon’s] work . . . is the one to read."—The Wall Street Journal

"Engrossing reporting . . . [A Cruel and Shocking Act] raises significant questions."—The New York Times

"[A] masterful piece of modern history . . . A work fit to rank alongside the previous masterpiece of the murder, William Manchester's Death of A President."—The Independent (UK)

"Remarkable…I’ve become convinced that, 50 years after the act, a real reporter—not some chat-room know-it-all—has through actual, on the ground, person-to-person investigation, through nonstop digging, tugging at the tangled heart of the mystery, brought us to the brink of answer. An achievement that, I believe, merits the Pulitzer Prize and the thanks of a grateful nation."—Slate.com

"[A Cruel and Shocking Act] contains a number of startling facts… [and] juicy and informative details that shed new light on the JFK investigation…. The book reveals how the investigation was immediately taken over by the very government agencies — the CIA, FBI and Secret Service — that had the most to hide when it came to the assassination…. A remarkable story."— David Talbot, Salon.com

"A judicious account of the Warren Commission, as recalled by the lawyers who did its legwork. A." Entertainment Weekly

"Magnificent… An incredible book."—Bob Schieffer, CBS News

"I love this book. It is a terrific read."—Lou Dobbs, Lou Dobbs Tonight

"Impressive… [Shenon] documents the extent to which agencies and actors in those days withheld and even destroyed information that should have gone to the Warren Commission."—Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

"A Cruel and Shocking Act may be the best of the big-anniversary crop of books about the assassination – a tour de force of good reporting and excellent storytelling about an event that continues to defy clean and final resolution, 50 years later."—The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana)

"Valuable, smartly written."—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A thorough, fascinating and highly readable record of the details of the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.... One of the more impressive offerings in the 50th-year anniversary of that watershed event."—Bookreporter.com

"Convincing… the evidence [Shenon] assembles is frightening."—The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, OH)

"A Cruel and Shocking Act offers … fascinating detail."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Sober and powerful…Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, affords the reader access to the behind-the-scenes deliberations and dynamics that shaped a historic inquiry into a national trauma."—Publishers Weekly

"Startling… Shenon has helped us get further than we’ve been before."—Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-08
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination comes this startling book, which deepens the case for conspiracy while turning some existing conspiracy theories on their heads. In 1964, the Warren Commission promulgated the lone-gunman theory of the assassination, which held that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing the president. Former New York Times reporter Shenon, who had previously investigated the investigators in The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (2008), writes that he was approached by a lawyer who had worked, as a young man, for the Warren Commission and who said that other once-young men had stories to tell before they passed on. Their stories are several; blended with the author's own five-year campaign of reporting and research, they do not speak well for the nation's intelligence services. (Whether things have gotten better or worse since then will be a matter of debate.) The aristocratic CIA competed with the blue-collar FBI for control of evidence and narrative; each agency had eyes on Oswald, but neither acted properly to contain him, even as Oswald, unlike other American soldiers who defected to the Soviet Union, was placed under special surveillance. Had either acted on available intelligence and arrested Oswald while he was in Mexico City in September 1963, the assassination might have been averted. As it was, writes Shenon, in Mexico, Oswald came under the sway of a woman who may have put him to work as an agent of Fidel Castro's government: "There is no absolute proof…that Silvia Duran was anyone's spy," he writes, "although there was clearly plenty of suspicion about it in 1963 and 1964." There seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest, though, that the intelligence agencies destroyed valuable documentation after the killing in a rush to cover up incompetence. The reader emerges from this complex narrative feeling that the case is not quite settled, but Shenon has helped us get further than we've been before.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781427229168
  • Publisher: Macmillan Audio
  • Publication date: 10/29/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 19
  • Sales rank: 972,641
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 6.02 (h) x 2.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Shenon, the bestselling author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, was a reporter for The New York Times for more than twenty years. As a Washington correspondent for The Times, he covered the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the State Department. He lives and writes in Washington, DC.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

There is no way to know exactly when Charles William Thomas began to think about suicide. Who could really know such a thing? Years later, congressional investigators could offer only their strong suspicions about what had finally led Thomas, a former American diplomat who had spent most of his career in Africa and Latin America, to kill himself. On Monday, April 12, 1971, at about four p.m., he put a gun to his head on the second floor of his family’s modest rented house, near the shores of the Potomac River, in Washington, DC. His wife, downstairs, thought at first that the boiler had exploded.

Certainly two years earlier, in the summer of 1969, Thomas had reason to be disheartened. He was forty-seven years old, with a wife and two young daughters to support, and he knew his career at the State Department was over. It was official, even though he still could not fathom why he was being forced out of a job that he loved and that he thought—that he knew—he did well. The department long had an “up or out” policy for members of the diplomatic corps, similar to the military. Either you were promoted up the ranks or your career was over. And since he had been denied a promotion to another embassy abroad or to a supervisor’s desk in Washington, Thomas was “selected out,” to use the department’s Orwellian terminology for being fired. After eighteen fulfilling, mostly happy years wandering the globe on behalf of his country, he was told he had no job.

At first, he thought it must be a mistake, his wife, Cynthia, said. His personnel records were exemplary, including a recent inspection report that described him as “one of the most valuable officers” in the State Department, whose promotion was “long overdue.” After he was formally “selected out,” however, there was no easy way to appeal the decision. And Thomas, a proud, often stoical man, found it demoralizing even to try. He had already begun boxing up his belongings in his office and wondering if, at his age, it would be possible to begin a new career.

He did have one piece of unfinished business with the department before he departed. And on July 25, 1969, he finished typing up a three-page memo, and a one-page cover letter, that he addressed to his ultimate boss at the department: William P. Rogers, President Nixon’s secretary of state. Colleagues might have told Thomas it was presumptuous for a midlevel diplomat to write directly to the secretary, but Thomas had reason to believe that going to Rogers was his only real hope of getting someone’s attention. Thomas was not trying to save his job; it was too late for that, he told his family. Instead, the memo was a final attempt to resolve what had been—apart from the puzzle of his dismissal—the biggest, most confounding mystery of his professional life. Rogers was new to the State Department, sworn in only six months earlier along with the rest of Nixon’s cabinet. Thomas hoped Rogers might be willing to second-guess the career diplomats at the department who—for nearly four years—had ignored the remarkable story that Thomas kept trying to tell them.

At the top of every page of the memo, Thomas typed—and underlined—the word “CONFIDENTIAL.”

“Dear Mr. Secretary,” he began. “In winding up my affairs at the Department of State, there is a pending matter which I believe merits your attention.”

The memo had a title: “Subject: Investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico.”


His tone was formal and polite, which was certainly in character for Charles William Thomas, who used his middle name in official correspondence to avoid confusion with another Charles W. Thomas who worked at the department. He wanted to be remembered as a diplomat—to be diplomatic—to the end. He knew his memo outlined potentially explosive national-security information, and he wanted to be careful not to be perceived as reckless. He had no interest in leaving the State Department with a reputation of being some sort of crazy conspiracy theorist. At the end of the 1960s, there were plenty of craven, headline-grabbing “truth-seekers” peddling conspiracies about President Kennedy’s assassination. Thomas did not want to be lumped in with them in the history books—or in the classified personnel archives of the State Department, for that matter. His memo contained no language suggesting the personal demons that would lead him to take his life two years later.

Secretary Rogers would have had easy access to the details of Thomas’s career, and they were impressive. Thomas was a self-made man, orphaned as a boy in Texas and raised in the home of an older sister in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He served as a navy fighter pilot in World War II, then enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned both a bachelor’s and a law degree. Foreign languages came easily; he was fluent in French and Spanish and, over the years, developed a working knowledge of German, Italian, Portuguese, and Creole; the last had been valuable during a diplomatic posting in Haiti. After Northwestern, he studied in Europe and received a doctorate in international law at the University of Paris. In 1951, he joined the State Department and served initially in hardship posts in West Africa, where, despite several severe bouts of malaria, he was remembered for his good humor and enthusiasm. His friends said he was “the diplomat from central casting”—six feet tall, blond, preppy handsome, articulate, and charming. Early in his career, colleagues assumed he was destined to achieve the rank of ambassador, running his own embassy.

In 1964, Thomas was named a political officer in the United States embassy in Mexico, where he was posted for nearly three years. Mexico City was considered an especially important assignment in the 1960s since the city was a Cold War hot spot—Latin America’s answer to Berlin or Vienna. There were big Cuban and Soviet embassies, the largest in Latin America for both Communist governments. And the activities of Cuban and Soviet diplomats, and the many spies posing as diplomats, could be closely monitored by the United States with the assistance of Mexico’s normally cooperative police agencies. The CIA believed that the Russian embassy in Mexico was the KGB’s base for “wet operations”—assassinations, in the CIA’s jargon—in the Western Hemisphere. (It would have been too risky for the KGB to run those operations out of the Russian embassy in Washington.) Mexico City had itself been the scene of Kremlin-ordered violence in the past. In 1940, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dispatched assassins to Mexico City to kill his rival Leon Trotsky, who was living there in exile.

Mexico City’s reputation as a center of Cold War intrigue was cemented by the disclosure that Lee Harvey Oswald had visited the city only several weeks before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963. Details about Oswald’s Mexico trip were revealed in news reports published within days of the president’s murder, giving birth to some of the first serious conspiracy theories about foreign involvement in the assassination. Everything about Oswald’s stay in Mexico, which had reportedly lasted six days, was suspicious. A self-proclaimed Marxist, Oswald, who did not hide his Communist leanings even while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, visited both the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City. It appeared he had gone there to get visas that would allow him, ultimately, to defect to Cuba. It would be his second defection attempt. He had tried to renounce his American citizenship when he traveled to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to decide to return to the United States from Russia three years later, saying that he had come to disdain Moscow’s brand of Communism, with its petty corruptions and mazelike bureaucracy. He hoped Fidel Castro and his followers in Havana would prove more loyal to the ideals of Marx.

In September 1964, the presidential commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren that investigated Kennedy’s assassination, known to the public from the start as the Warren Commission, identified Oswald as the assassin and concluded that he had acted alone. In a final report at the end of a ten-month investigation, the seven-member panel said that it had uncovered no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic. “The commission has found no evidence that anyone assisted Oswald in planning or carrying out the assassination,” the report declared. While the commission could not establish Oswald’s motives for the assassination with certainty, the report suggested that he was emotionally disturbed and might have decided to kill the president because of “deep-rooted resentment of all authority” and an “urge to try to find a place in history.”

And in the final days of his employment at the State Department in the summer of 1969, those were the conclusions that Charles Thomas wanted someone in the government to revisit. Was it possible that the Warren Commission had it wrong? Thomas’s memo to Secretary of State Rogers outlined information about Oswald’s 1963 Mexico visit that “threatened to reopen the debate about the true nature of the Kennedy assassination and damage the credibility of the Warren Report. . . . Since I was the embassy officer who acquired this intelligence information, I feel a responsibility for seeing it through to its final evaluation,” he explained. “Under the circumstances, it is unlikely that any further investigation of this matter will ever take place unless it is ordered by a high official in Washington.”

The details of what Thomas had learned were so complex that he felt the need to number each paragraph in the memo. He enclosed several other documents that were full of references to accented Spanish-language names and obscure locations in Mexico City; they offered a complicated time line of long-ago events. His central message, however, was this: the Warren Commission had overlooked—or never had a chance to see—intelligence suggesting that a plot to kill Kennedy might have been hatched, or at least encouraged, by Cuban diplomats and spies stationed in the Mexican capital, and that Oswald was introduced to this nest of spies in September 1963 by a vivacious young Mexican woman who was a fellow champion of Castro’s revolution.

The woman, Thomas was told, had briefly been Oswald’s mistress in Mexico City.

As he wrote the memo, Thomas must have realized again how improbable—even absurd—this might all sound to his soon-to-be former colleagues at the State Department. If any of his information was right, how could the Warren Commission have missed it?

In the body of the memo, he identified, by name, the principal source of his information: Elena Garro de Paz, a popular and critically acclaimed Mexican novelist of the 1960s. Her fame was enhanced by her marriage to one of Mexico’s most celebrated writers and poets, Octavio Paz, who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature. A sharp-witted, mercurial woman, Garro, who was in her midforties when she met Thomas, spoke several languages and had lived in Europe for years before returning to Mexico in 1963. She had done graduate work at both the University of California at Berkeley and, like Thomas, the University of Paris.

The two had become friends on Mexico City’s lively social circuit and, in December 1965, she offered the American diplomat a tantalizing story. She revealed—reluctantly, Thomas said—that she had encountered Oswald at a party of Castro sympathizers during his visit in the fall of 1963.

It had been a “twist party”—Chubby Checker’s hit song was wildly popular in Mexico, too—and Oswald was not the only American there, Garro said. He had been in the company of two young “beatnik” American men. “The three were evidently friends, because she saw them by chance the next day walking down the street together,” Thomas wrote. At the party, Oswald wore a black sweater and “tended to be silent and stared a lot at the floor,” Garro recalled. She did not talk to any of the Americans or learn their names. She said she learned Oswald’s name only after seeing his photograph in Mexican newspapers and on television after the assassination.

A senior Cuban diplomat was also at the party, she said. Eusebio Azque, who held the title of consul, ran the embassy’s visa office. (In the memo, Thomas said that Azque’s other duties included espionage; the U.S. embassy believed he was a high-ranking officer in Castro’s spy service, the Dirección General de Inteligencia, or DGI.) It was Azque’s consular office in Mexico City that Oswald had visited in hopes of obtaining a Cuban visa.

Garro, a fierce anti-Communist, loathed the Cuban diplomat. Before Kennedy’s assassination, she said, she had heard Azque speak openly of his hope that someone would kill the American president, given the threat that Kennedy posed to the survival of the Castro government. The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and the bungled CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion a year before that, would have been fresh in Azque’s memory. Garro recalled a party at which she and other guests overheard a “heated discussion” in which Azque supported the view that “the only solution was to kill him”—President Kennedy.

Also at the party, Garro said, was a notably pretty twenty-five-year-old Mexican woman who worked for Azque at the consulate: Silvia Tirado de Duran, who was related to Garro by marriage. Duran was an outspoken Socialist and a supporter of Castro, which helped explain how she had gotten a job working for the Cubans. Thomas found a copy of the Warren Commission report in the embassy’s library and could see that Duran’s name appeared dozens of times in its pages; the commission determined it was Duran who had dealt with Oswald during his visits to the Cuban mission in Mexico. She had helped him fill out his visa application, and it appeared that she had gone out of her way to assist him. Duran’s name and phone number were found in a notebook seized among Oswald’s belongings.

Garro told Thomas that she never liked Duran, both because of Duran’s left-wing politics and because of what Garro described as the younger woman’s scandalous personal life. Duran was married to Garro’s cousin, but it was widely rumored in Mexico City that she had had a torrid affair three years earlier with Cuba’s ambassador to Mexico, who was also married; the ambassador had offered to leave his wife to be with Duran. “Garro has never had anything to do with Silvia, whom she detests and considers a whore,” Thomas wrote. (It would later be determined that the CIA had both Duran and the ambassador under surveillance in Mexico; the agency would claim it could document the affair.)

It was only after the Kennedy assassination, Garro said, that she learned that Duran had briefly taken Oswald as a lover. Garro told Thomas that Duran had not only bedded Oswald, she had introduced him around town to Castro’s supporters, Cubans and Mexicans alike. It was Duran who had arranged Oswald’s invitation to the dance party. “She was his mistress,” Garro insisted. She told Thomas that “it was common knowledge that Silvia Duran was the mistress of Oswald.”

Thomas asked Garro if she had told this story to anyone else. She explained that, for nearly a year after the assassination, she had kept quiet, fearing her information might somehow endanger her safety, as well as the safety of her twenty-six-year-old daughter, who also remembered seeing Oswald at the party. In the fall of 1964, however, just after the Warren Commission had ended its investigation, she found the nerve to meet with American embassy officials in Mexico City and tell them what she knew. To her surprise, she said, she heard nothing from the embassy after that.

In his memo to the secretary of state, Thomas was careful to acknowledge this might all be fiction, offered up to him by an exceptionally talented writer of fiction. Garro, he admitted, had a reputation for a vivid imagination, and her politics might color her perceptions; it was possible that she had simply mistaken another young man at the party for Oswald. “I knew Garro to be something of a professional anti-Communist who tended to see a Communist plot behind any untoward political event,” Thomas wrote. “A careful investigation of these allegations could perhaps explain them away.” Still, there was a need for another review of her story, he said. “It would be easy and convenient to sweep this matter under the rug by claiming that Miss Garro is an unreliable informant since she is emotional, opinioned and artistic,” he wrote. “But on the basis of the facts that I have presented, I believe that, on balance, the matter warrants further investigation.”

According to his memo, Thomas’s senior colleagues in the embassy knew all about Garro’s claims because he had told them. He wrote them long reports after each of his conversations with her in 1965. He set aside part of Christmas Day that year to write a memo—it was dated December 25—recounting what he had heard that morning from her at a holiday party. He made sure his memos went straight to Winston “Win” Scott, the CIA’s station chief in Mexico. The courtly, Alabama-born Scott, then fifty-six years old, had sources at the highest levels of the Mexican government, including a series of Mexican presidents who sought his protection and whose top aides became some of the CIA’s best-paid informants in the country. Many Mexican officials saw Scott, who took up his post in 1956, as far more powerful than any of the American ambassadors he had worked with. His deputies knew he also wielded extraordinary influence back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in part because of his decades-long friendship with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s counterintelligence director—the agency’s chief “mole hunter.” Both men had been with the CIA since its founding in 1947.

In his memo to Rogers, Thomas said that Scott and others in the embassy did not pursue the information tying Oswald to the Cubans. After initial expressions of interest, Scott essentially ignored what Thomas had learned, even when Thomas tried to raise the questions again in 1967, as he prepared to leave Mexico for a new posting in Washington.

Thomas acknowledged that “even if all the allegations in the attached memo were true, they would not, in themselves, prove that there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.” But he concluded his letter to Rogers by warning of the danger to the government if Garro’s allegations, unproven but uninvestigated, became known outside the State Department and the CIA. “If they were ever made public, those who have tried to discredit the Warren Report could have a field day in speculating about their implications,” Thomas wrote. “The credibility of the Warren Report would be damaged all the more if it were learned that these allegations were known and never adequately investigated.”

Thomas’s last day of employment at the State Department was July 31, 1969, only six days after the date on his memo to Secretary Rogers. It is not clear from the department’s records if Thomas was immediately informed about what happened next with his memo, but the department did pass on his information—to the CIA. On August 29, in a letter stamped confidential, the State Department’s Division of Protective Security wrote to the CIA and asked for an appraisal of Thomas’s material. It provided the agency with Thomas’s memo, along with several supporting documents.

A little less than three weeks later, the CIA sent back its curt reply. It read, in full: “Subject: Charles William Thomas. Reference is made to your memorandum of 28 August 1969. We have examined the attachments, and see no need for further action. A copy of this reply has been sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Secret Service.” The memo was signed by Angleton, the CIA counterintelligence chief, and one of his deputies, Raymond Rocca. Thomas was notified of the CIA’s rebuff and, as far as he knew, that was where the paper trail stopped; apparently, nothing more was to be done.

After his suicide two years later, the Washington Post published a 186-word obituary that made only a passing reference to how Thomas had died: “Police said the cause of death was gunshot wounds.” (Actually, his death certificate identified only one gunshot wound—to his right temple.) After pleas from his family, congressional investigators reviewed his personnel files and determined that Thomas had been “selected out” from the State Department in error. A clerical mistake had cost him his career, or so it appeared; an important job performance report endorsing his promotion had been left out of his personnel files for reasons that were never fully explained.

Congressional investigators later suspected that there had been other factors in the decision to force Thomas out, including his persistent, unwelcome effort to get someone to follow up on Garro’s allegations. “I always thought it was linked, somehow, to his questions about Oswald,” said a former investigator for the House of Representatives. “It was impossible to prove, though. If he was forced out because of Mexico City, it was all done with a wink and a nod.” There were rumors in Mexico that one of Win Scott’s deputies at the embassy there had mounted a whispering campaign intended to damage Thomas’s reputation—for reasons that Thomas’s many Mexican friends could never fathom.

Former senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1979 to 1981, helped Thomas’s family obtain some of the pension benefits they were initially denied after his suicide. Bayh said he intervened, at first, because Thomas had such strong family roots in Indiana. In a 2013 interview, he said he remained perplexed by Thomas’s dismissal. “It never made sense,” said Bayh, who insisted that he was never informed of any link between Thomas and the investigation of the Kennedy assassination. The former senator said that he could not necessarily draw a connection between Thomas’s ouster from the department and what he had learned—and tried to expose—in Mexico City. “But something happened to Charles Thomas,” Bayh said. “He was harassed to death by his government.”

Late one afternoon in the spring of 2008, the phone rang at my desk in the Washington bureau of the New York Times. The caller was someone I had never met—a prominent American lawyer who had begun his career almost half a century earlier as a young staff investigator on the Warren Commission. “You ought to tell our story,” he said. “We’re not young, but a lot of us from the commission are still around, and this may be our last chance to explain what really happened.” His call was prompted, he said, by the generous reviews I had received that year after the publication of my first book—a history of the government commission that investigated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. My caller offered to do all he could to help me with a similar history of the Warren Commission, so long as I did not identify him to his former colleagues as the man who had suggested the idea. “I don’t want to take the blame for this when you find out the unflattering stuff,” he said, adding that the backstory of the commission was “the best detective story you’ve never heard.”

And so began a five-year reporting project to piece together the inside story of the most important, and most misunderstood, homicide investigation of the twentieth century—the Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy. Chief Justice Warren and the other six members of the commission died long before I began work on this book—the last surviving member, former president Gerald Ford, died in 2006—but my caller was right that most of the then young lawyers who did the actual detective work in 1964 were still alive. And I’m grateful that almost all of them have been willing to speak with me.

Sadly, time has begun to catch up with my sources, too. Some of the commission investigators and other key figures who granted me interviews for the book have died, most notably former senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who had been a junior staff lawyer on the commission. This book is therefore their last testament about the work of the commission and about the Kennedy assassination. I was the last journalist to interview former FBI special agent James Hosty, a central witness before the Warren Commission because he had Lee Harvey Oswald under surveillance in Dallas for months before the assassination. Hosty faced obvious questions about why he and his colleagues at the FBI had not been able to stop Oswald. In interviews shortly before his death in June 2011, Hosty insisted that he became the scapegoat—both within the FBI and for the Warren Commission—for the incompetence and duplicity of others in the government.

The title of this book is drawn from the first line of the introduction to the commission’s final report: “The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a cruel and shocking act of violence directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind.” But while A Cruel and Shocking Act began as an attempt to write the first comprehensive inside history of the Warren Commission, it has become something much larger and, I believe, more important. In many ways, this book is an account of my discovery of how much of the truth about the Kennedy assassination has still not been told, and how much of the evidence about the president’s murder was covered up or destroyed—shredded, incinerated, or erased—before it could reach the commission. Senior officials at both the CIA and the FBI hid information from the panel, apparently in hopes of concealing just how much they had known about Lee Harvey Oswald and the threat that he posed. As this book will reveal for the first time, important witnesses to events surrounding the assassination were ignored or were threatened into silence. The reporting for this book has taken me to places and introduced me to people I would never have imagined would be so important to understanding President Kennedy’s death.

I became a victim of the dual curse faced by anyone who tries to get closer to the truth about the assassination—of too little information and too much. I made the astonishing, nearly simultaneous discovery of how much vital evidence about President Kennedy’s murder has disappeared and also of how much has been preserved. There is now so much material in the public record about the assassination, including literally millions of pages of once-secret government files, that no reporter or scholar can claim to have seen it all. Whole collections of evidence have still not been adequately reviewed by researchers, almost exactly fifty years after the events they describe. I was the first researcher, for example, to be given full access to the papers of Charles Thomas, including the record of his struggle to get colleagues to pay attention to the astonishing story of Oswald and the “twist party” in Mexico City, and I did not see the material until 2013.

The records of the Warren Commission—its formal name was the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy—fill up 363 cubic feet of shelf space in well-guarded, climate-controlled storage rooms at a National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. Thousands of the commission’s physical exhibits are there, including Oswald’s 6.5-millimeter Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, the murder weapon found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, as well as the nearly intact three-centimeter copper-jacketed, lead-core bullet that was discovered near a stretcher at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas on the afternoon of the assassination. The commission’s staff—although significantly, not the commission itself—concluded that the bullet, fired from Oswald’s $21 mail-order rifle, passed through the bodies of both President Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally in a scenario that became known as “the single-bullet theory.”

The rose-pink suit worn by Jacqueline Kennedy in the motorcade is also stored in the modern, fortresslike complex in suburban Maryland. The suit, an American-made Chanel knockoff that was a favorite of the president’s (Mrs. Kennedy “looks ravishing in it,” he told a friend) is preserved in an acid-free container in a windowless vault. The vault is kept at a temperature of between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (between 18.3 and 20 degrees Celsius), the humidity set at 40 percent. The filtered air in the vault is changed at least six times every hour in order to help preserve the delicate wool fabric, which remains stained with the president’s blood. The whereabouts of Mrs. Kennedy’s iconic pink pillbox hat is a mystery; it was last known to be in the custody of her former personal secretary. A separate vault, kept at a constant temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit (−4 degrees Celsius), is used for the storage and preservation of a small strip of celluloid that is believed, by the National Archives, to be the most watched piece of film in the history of motion pictures. It was on those 486 frames of Kodachrome-brand 8mm color film that a Dallas women’s wear manufacturer, Abraham Zapruder, captured the terrible images of the assassination on his Bell & Howell home-movie camera.

Much of Warren’s personal paperwork from the commission that bore his name is stored at the Library of Congress, just a few minutes’ walk down First Street from his former chambers at the Supreme Court. Warren, who died in 1974, might be startled to know that millions of Americans know of him principally because of the commission, not because of his history-making sixteen-year tenure as chief justice.

The decision to preserve the vast library of investigative reports and physical evidence gathered by the Warren Commission, and now retained at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, was meant to be reassuring to the public—proof of the commission’s transparency and of its diligence. At the National Archives alone, there are more than five million pages of documents related to the assassination. But the truth about the Warren Commission, as most serious historians and other scholars will acknowledge, even those who fully support its findings, is that its investigation was flawed from the start. The commission made grievous errors. It failed to pursue important evidence and witnesses because of limitations imposed on the investigation by the man who ran it, Chief Justice Warren. Often, Warren seemed more interested in protecting the legacy of his beloved friend President Kennedy, and of the Kennedy family, than in getting to the full facts about the president’s murder.

On the subject of the assassination, history will be far kinder to the commission’s surviving staff lawyers, as well as its former in-house historian, who reveal in this book what really happened inside the Warren Commission. Much of this book is their story, told through their eyes. The lawyers, mostly in their twenties and thirties at the time of the investigation, were recruited from prestigious law firms, law schools, and prosecutors’ offices around the country. Most are now at the end of long careers in law or public service. For several, being interviewed for this book was the first time they have talked in this much detail, certainly to any journalist, about the commission’s work. Many have kept their silence for decades, fearful of being dragged into ugly, and often unwinnable, public debates with the armies of conspiracy theorists. Without exception, all of these men—the one woman among the lawyers, Alfredda Scobey, died in 2001—retained pride in their individual work on the commission. Many, however, were outraged to discover how much evidence they were never permitted to see. It is evidence, they know, that is still rewriting the history of the Kennedy assassination.

Copyright © 2013 by Philip Shenon

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2013

    Excellent Chronicle of Warren Commission

    Like many people, I thought there was a conspiracy regarding the assassination of President Kennedy, especially after seeing Oliver Stone's movie with its graphic showing of the Zapruder film, which fueled the assumption that shots were fired from the grassy knoll. Since then, however, I have come to the conclusion that the Warren Commission had it right along, despite some of their actions, which fanned the flames of conspiracy theories, but which were actually little more than missteps in trying to put a voluminous report together under tremendous pressure in a short span of time.

    Books like this one, Case Closed, and Reclaiming History, along with documentaries produced by National Geographic, the History Channel, and PBS, which proved beyond a doubt that the shots were fired from the School Book Depository, that one bullet did indeed strike both the President and Gov. Connally, and that Oswald was too mentally unstable to have been used as a patsy by conspirators from any faction have shoved all doubt I had aside. Anyone with an open mind should read this book and others which thoroughly examine the factual evidence. Those who believe in conspiracies associated with the terrible events of November 22, 1963 will likely continue to read only what bolsters their improbable fantasies, unfortunately.

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2014

    Recommended JFK Book

    At the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination, we can expect a continuing reemergence of JFK assassination literature, even if, or perhaps typically if that is not matched or even approached by any new evidence or information about the murder. Shenon's book is one of these. For those who have never read one, this is not a bad place to start. I would caution any reader not to read just one, as there are hundreds, even thousands of books on this topic, and most of them are that own author's political viewpoint through the Kennedy assassination. If you ignore the title, this book has a lot of useful, but not particularly new information. Rather than reveal any "secrets" about the assassination, and borrowing its title from the preface to the Warren Commission Report, this book does a very credible job of presenting a history of the work of that Warren Commission. Interviewing many of the living junior lawyers on the commission, the author takes you through their work behind the scenes and shows how meticulous they were, especially Arlen Specter, who was to become a U. S. Senator, now deceased. The side issue that presumably was the main issue by the title was what Oswald was doing in Mexico in September of 1963. This is very readable and written in a responsible narrative style unlike so many other of the books on the assassination, the latter of which are poorly edited and do not take long to let you know which side of the philosophical political street the author comes from. This book is responsibly written and surprisingly, because of the detail and the focus on the Warren Commission's work, which most people have never read, but criticize, this book is a welcome addition to the literature.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2013

    Anonymous

    Good analysis Of the Warren Commision but did not go far
    Enough. Why was LBJ in such a hurry to get it done?
    Yes, the election was coming but so were the chances
    That the Kennedy's were going to disclose his past illegal actives And he could not allow that to happen. The Commision And the attorney's who worked there were only allowed to get what information he allowed them to have. He put a lid on the CIA and the FBI on what they were allowed to disclose So that the Warren Commision would conclude what he wanted. He refused to testify before the Commision and Warren would not make him
    , thou he had to power to summons him. He was a witness to a muder who was never called to testify- Why ? It was a white wash from the start. LBJ had the power
    To change history and he did. The long missing memo
    From Hoover, the coverup in Dallas and Mexico City by both the CIA And the FBI could only have been done by LBJ. You can stomp the TRUTH to the ground but eventually in will come back to haunt you ! Read the book and draw your own conclusions . I wish the author had clearly stated what seems
    So logical.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 2, 2013

    Worth the read

    A bit dry and nothing really new no matter how many books I read on the subject the end will never change so sad!!!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2014

    It is quite obviious

    It is quite obvious that the government knows more about this and they are trying to hide information from the citizens of the Us. As with many other circumstances, I am positive that I will never accept what the government says as the truth. Too many things have been done unjustly in the government system, and my trust of the united states government has been undermined. It will be very hard or impossible for theunited states to get out of the black hole of indifference it is spiraling into. Unless some citizens wake up and realize what is going on, our once great nation will never retain its power and influence; indeed it will come to a horrible end. I am definitely not an alarmist. It just takes an average US citizen to realize that America is not like it could have been and should be.

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  • Posted January 6, 2014

    A Cruel and Shocking Act is a history of the Warren Commission¿s

    A Cruel and Shocking Act is a history of the Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy.  I was fourteen at the time of the assassination and in my lifetime very few people have accepted the findings of the Commission.  Since that time there of have been books, movies, Congressional hearings, and TV documentaries all supposedly looking for the truth that the Warren Commission overlooked or ignored.  Conspiracy or no conspiracy is one of those arguments that most Americans seem to be able to agree upon and the Warren Commission’s glossing over the question has brought their conclusions into question.

    Shenon’s book does not answer the big question but it does give us a look inside of the creation of the Warren Commission and the way that it worked.  President Johnson’s coercion of the Chief Justice and other members of the commission that had no real desire to sit on the investigative team set a precedent that hindered the commission’s work throughout the process.  Warren’s friendship with the Kennedy family and his grandfatherly approach to some of the witness was a hindrance to the commission.  Most of the work of the commission was carried out by the younger “junior” lawyers that were added to the commission while the older more established lawyers went about their everyday business.  Even some of the selected commissioners were no-shows for much of the testimony and deliberations.  These young lawyers found themselves bound by the information that they received from the FBI and the CIA which in a lot of cases was slanted or just not given to the commission for various reasons.  

    Shenon’s book gives the impression that it was a foregone conclusion that no conspiracy would be found in the assassination.  It was the Cold War, just after the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the building of the Berlin Wall and the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were high.  President Johnson did not want a war with either Cuba or the Soviet Union so a conspiracy involving either of those entities was not the desired result of the investigation.  Also all of the politicians wanted it done before the 1964 elections.

    The Warren Commission, with the evidence available to it, found that no conspiracy existed and that Oswald acted alone.  Without all of the hindrances could they have decided differently?  Maybe, we will never know, but Shenon’s work shows that they did what they could with the evidence and tools that they had.  There will always be conspiracy theorists, whether it is Paul Lane or someone else, but working with what they had the Warren Commission made their decision. 

    I found A Cruel and Shocking Act and interesting read and an excellent add to the Kennedy assassination works.  Conspiracy or no conspiracy is still left up to each individual and maybe down the road in some dusty archives here in this country or some other country the truth will be found out.  As with the Warren Commission we must work with the evidence that we have before us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2014

    I don't know how you can come to the "conclusion" that

    I don't know how you can come to the "conclusion" that the warren commission had it "right all along". What on earth are you smoking? 

    1. How could the commission have it "right" when all  the doctors that worked to save the presidents life at parkland hospital confirm the back of his head was blown off  which would indicate was shot from the front?
    2. How could the commission have it "right" when the Zapruder film clearly shows the head shot forced the president back and to the left? 
    3. How could the commission have it "right" when the police officers who arrested and questioned Lee Harvey Oswald described him as "cool" and "calm". Does that sound like someone who is mentally unstable? Why would George Demorenshild, a successful person who happened to be well connected to the CIA befriend Lee Harvey Oswald, if Oswald was a lone nut who was mentally unstable? 

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2013

    BOOK OK HAS A FEW TIDBITS I NEVER KNEW

    BOOK BRAKES DOWN THE WARREN COMMISIONS REPORT ..

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2013

    ?..

    This is kinda sad. He looked like a gooduded

    0 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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