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Several days ago, I published a post titled Was Bobby Kennedy in on the plot to kill JFK? A friend wrote to comment:

Just a quick note to say that while I generally am in tune with your analysis of events, I think you are completely off base on this one. IMHO Bobby did not pursue the real killers – LBJ and Allen Dulles and etc – because he needed the power of the presidency behind him to pull off the level of house cleaning required.  Have you read “JFK and the Unspeakable” yet?  If not, I recommend it.

Here is some of my response to my friend’s comment. I’d like to pull the initial post and these follow-up thoughts into a true essay, but that will have to wait.

My first comment is about the title of the post. In on is not particularly useful for analysis, speculation, or even as a conversation starter if you want to play the who dunnit parlor game. It is too open and imprecise. Was the Mossad or any other part of the Israeli government in on the plot to blow up the World Trade Center? Was the Mafia in on the plot to kill Kennedy? Was the CIA in on the plot to kill Bobby Kennedy? These questions may be alright if they are the first ones to come to mind, but they are weak tools for analysis or investigation. Anyone who wants to draw connections should recognize the weakness of a phrase like that, and refine the question to eliminate the weakness. Weak questions lead to weak results.

So now let’s take up some specific points. The key phrase in the original post comes in the first sentence of the last paragraph: “Let’s pause in this thought experiment…” One point of the thought experiment is to show that, in a crime like Kennedy’s murder, anyone can make the impossible sound possible and even reasonable without much trouble. I generally don’t like online put-ons – in fact, I’m highly impatient with them – but this post could be taken that way because I didn’t extend it to include analysis of the thought experiment.

For the experiment to work, we need to start with a proposal that is completely out there, with no evidence to support it. Here’s some quick analysis, to get started.

The inadequacy of the means, motive, and opportunity test for ruling a proposal or suggestion in or out.

This test is practically useless if not accompanied by other evidence. Yes, criminologists and courtroom lawyers can use it to rule a suspect in or out, but the number of false positives is huge. That is, you include an enormous number of people in your suspect pool that could not possibly have committed the crime. Bobby Kennedy as a suspect in his brother’s murder is an example. Lee Oswald is another false positive, for that matter.

Once you have confused matters by enlarging your suspect pool to an unmanageable size, you can easily rule people out that ought to be ruled in. This three-part test, rigorous as it seems, is not a particularly good tool for ruling people out. You think that by making every suspect meet each test, you can eliminate all but a narrowly defined group. Every time you take another look, though, the number of people who had the means, the motive, and the opportunity expands still more. Bobby Kennedy becomes a prime suspect with this test.

The use of innuendo and non-sequiturs to suggest possibilities.

The second paragraph of the original post is full of innuendo and non-sequiturs:

Bobby Kennedy as the prime mover behind the assassination resolves multiple mysteries connected with the event. Bobby was his brother’s liaison with the CIA, and Lee Oswald worked for national intelligence well before November 22, 1963. Oswald did not travel to Russia to learn how to dring vodka. Second, Bobby prosecuted Carlos Marcello, Mafia boss in New Orleans: the attorney general him deported, in fact. Marcello had strong ties with Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer. Most interesting of all, Bobby Kennedy never warned his brother about the assassination ahead of time. “I thought they would come after us,” he said of his enemies when he heard the news from Dallas, “but I thought it would be me.” What a classic case of calculated misdirection, to make a remark like that.

For now, I’ll let this paragraph speak for itself. It is totally wrong, in that it uses well known facts to suggest that Bobby killed his brother. The facts float around with no foundation, yet it reads like a fair amount of the analysis one sees. Develop a nose for analysis that is laced with stuff that appears plausible for any of a number of reasons, but does not bear the weight of either reason or the evidence. Move quickly to sturdier stuff.

Reliance on reasoning from negatives, that is, conclusions drawn from what didn’t happen.

Here we move to the third paragraph of the original post:

Most telling of all, Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, never acted to find his brother’s killer, or to discredit those who pretended to find the assassin. He permitted LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover, both enemies of his, to concoct this incredible story about Oswald acting as a lone nut, knowing that it could not be true. He let the chief justice of the Supreme Court pass off this nonsense with a formal report, produced by a formal commission. Bobby was the chief law enforcement officer in the land for most of the time the Warren Commission conducted its investigation. He could have done something to find the truth. Why didn’t he? Because the truth would likely have pointed to him!

Reasoning from negatives can actually be a powerful tool. One of the first questions one asks in the 9/11 attacks is why our air defense system did not scramble fighters to intercept the hijacked airliners. When you use this type of reasoning, however, you have to place events in a rich context. Government agencies and officials are well known for incompetence, neglect, mixed motives, poor judgment, bad decisions under pressure: all the kinds of mistakes that all people are subject to. These weaknesses can cause people not to do things you might expect them to do.

In Bobby’s case, you don’t have to consider mistakes. He was incapacitated by grief over the loss of his brother during the period that Hoover and company helped the Warren Commission compile its report. He was not an active attorney general during that time. After the Commission’s report came out in September 1964, he correctly recognized that he could not do that much about his brother’s death if he were not president. He also had to know that if he was correct about who killed his brother, he would probably never become president.

The importance of context and background in assessing arguments.

If you read books like Brothers by David Talbot, or JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass, you will see the context and background of Kennedy’s murder. Many other books do the same, but these two are especially good as they knit numerous relevant details together. After you read these, memoirs like Mary’s Mosaic and Me & Lee contain even more information about the people involved in this drama.

From the beginning of my research, I thought that if we could only know more about personal relationships among the various characters on the set, we could figure out the mysteries behind this crime. By good fortune, books that contain just this kind of rich background have appeared during the last five to ten years. We have had to wait a long time. Now we can see that the careful work of skeptics during the decade after the murder is consistent with the new material published forty to fifty years after Kennedy died.

Related books

Brothers, by David Talbot

Infamy: Political Crimes and Their Consequences

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