The JFK Files and Emergent Conspiracy


The JFK assassination archive has been scheduled to be opened since 1992, when George H. W. Bush established a deadline for declassifying them. That is supposed to happen this thursday. Various people are speculating that it will drive conspiracy theorists wild, so I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity to be very wrong, by making some guesses what we’ll learn.

A point of procedure: this posting is editorial, and should be considered a matter of opinion. I’m going to not clutter up my language by using “in my opinion” and “it appears to be” and “maybe” everywhere; please assume that I’m waffling a lot on every point that’s not a statement of apparent fact.

Joke:
Q: How do you know the CIA wasn’t in a plot to kill Kennedy?
A: He’s dead, isn’t he?

The foregone conclusion is that we’re not going to learn anything particularly interesting. If there was a big secret hidden in those files, it would have leaked by now. The Kennedy assassination would have had too many moving parts to play itself out the way some conspiracy theorists imagine. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go bug-squashing against various aspects of popular conspiracy theories – let’s stay focused on the “minimum scope of necessary conspiracy” – what is the smallest number of people who had to be ‘in on it’ for there to be a conspiracy? For example, how many people would have had to be involved in Oswald getting a job at the book depository in advance of Kennedy’s fateful motorcade? There would be, at least, the person who hired him, and the other prospective employers who turned down the other job applications he sent at the same time. If there was a sniper on the grassy knoll, where would have to be, at least, the armorer who provided and ‘cleaned’ the rifle, the spotter-team that positioned the shooter and kept the fire-lane clear, and the shooter – as well as Oswald, of course. For Jack Ruby to have shot Oswald as part of a cover-plan, Ruby, and Oswald would have had to be in on it (Oswald was ‘acting up’ and delayed his walk to the waiting car, and his encounter with Ruby, by about 10 minutes) – a conspiracy that encompassed those elements, and more, would quickly become huge. Someone involved in such a huge and important conspiracy would have come clean or made a mistake; to get to the events as we understand them, the CIA (which could barely find The Bay of Pigs) would have had to carry off a complex plan with clockwork precision. I hypothesize the CIA, there, because I don’t believe there are any plausible alternatives who would attempt something so barmy, so complicated, and so ineffective.

The ineffectiveness of the whole thing, to me, is the key point: even if we assume that the CIA had Kennedy killed: so what? It didn’t move the needle much on the US policy in Vietnam, or anything else, for that matter. If it was revenge for the Bay of Pigs, it didn’t result in any meaningful foreign policy change. If Johnson did it, he was a covert moron. etc. In the case of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is far more plausible that someone shot him to try to silence him (which would and did affect certain social trends) and that murder would fit the profile of a very small, very tightly-run political assassination mission. It was uncomplicated and the minimum scope of necessary conspiracy was basically: Ray and his handler.

So, why is there so much smoke around what should be a simple fire? I suspect that the dump of classified documents, if it occurs on schedule, will add more smoke to the fire.

An emergent behaviour or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective. The property itself is often unpredictable and unprecedented, and represents a new level of the system’s evolution. The complex behaviour or properties are not a property of any single such entity, nor can they easily be predicted or deduced from behaviour in the lower-level entities. The shape and behaviour of a flock of birds or school of fish are good example. [kos]

I do not know where I first heard the term “emergent conspiracy” – I may have invented it, or I have have absorbed it through my skin at some point; I recall using it conversationally (when discussing the Kennedy assassination) back in the late 90s but I don’t see anything in my email archives, unfortunately. It’s probably a conspiracy to keep the idea of emergent conspiracies from fully emerging.

An emergent conspiracy can appear when a number of agents form what appears to be a complex, cooperating plan of action, which results from each independent agent planning something for their own purposes, in the event that actions taken by other independent agents occur. In some emergent conspiracies the emergent behavior happens before a focal event, in others, the emergent conspiracy takes on the appearance of a cover-up that is attempting to hide independent agents’ involvement in an event.

An example of a famous emergent conspiracy is how World War I kicked off: there was a deep and complex network of agendas, alliances, and political ambitions, and – when a lone gunman more or less accidentally killed Archduke Ferdinand – a lot of plans got triggered. Those triggered other plans and millions of people died. Princip was part of a conspiracy to kill Ferdinand, but not to trigger a war between Germany, Britain, France, Russia, and the US. It would be too easy to create conspiracy theories around individual parts of World War I, and nobody bothers. But, because the Kennedy assassination’s involved parties immediately circled the wagons and started keeping secrets, it became much easier to find secret conspiracies where none exist.

What follows is how I hypothesize the emergent conspiracy happened around the Kennedy assassination.

There are several players implicitly involved in the incidents surrounding the assassination:

  • Lee Harvey Oswald
  • The FBI
  • The US Secret Service
  • The CIA
  • Vice President Johnson
  • The Dallas Police Department

Oswald appears to have been a self-aggrandizing nobody. His agenda would be to make himself look more important than he was. That’s the kernel of the emergent conspiracy right there: his famous ‘smirk’ and his comment “everyone will know who I am now.”

The FBI – their job, as federal secret police, is to keep tabs on people like Oswald. Presumably they’re supposed to stop people like Oswald from doing what Oswald did. Immediately, the FBI is in “damage control mode”; they are expecting to have to answer some questions like “why didn’t you know about Oswald?” The dynamics of a police state, however, usually prevent the police from acting effectively in advance of a plot. That’s a topic I’ve discussed [stderr] elsewhere: it’s why police counter-intelligence is mostly useful only as a retro-scope to figure out what happened in the past. The FBI’s problem is that they’re really not paid to solve problems in the past, and now they would look pretty bad if they came forward and said, “Oh, yeah, Oswald’s a ‘person of interest’ but we let him do what he did because we didn’t have probable cause and, you know, white supremacy being what it is, we just have to conditionally accept gun-toting white people going around and shooting the occasional president. Hopes and prayers!” So, the FBI has a perfectly good reason to be awkwardly silent if asked about Oswald. Especially once they find out that Oswald had tried to shoot Edwin Walker 7 months earlier and apparently had stalked him for almost a month prior – whups, that is embarrassing: let’s downplay that. Circle the wagons! Just as the wagons are circling, there’s another screw-up and Oswald gets blown away by a gun-toting Texas lowlife, oh, boy! Circle the wagons even tighter and ask the CIA if they know anything about that guy?

The US Secret Service – their job, as the president’s bodyguards, is to not have what happened, happen. Immediately they are in damage control mode, too. Instantly, they are realizing where they screwed up: they didn’t do any kind of control of the route, they had a president sitting duck in an open-topped limousine, they had horrible crowd-control, they had announced the trip well in advance – they had practically given a road-map for an assassination and now look what happened! There’s no opportunity to point fingers at the FBI, because they didn’t really liaise with the FBI anyway, and besides, now the FBI is in “circle the wagons” mode and asking them “did you screw up by not telling us about Oswald?” is not going to make any friends at the bureau. The secret service, to be sure, is completely traumatized by publicly failing their mission in the most horrible way imaginable. It’s time to lick wounds and circle the wagons!

The CIA – their job is foreign intelligence and dirty tricks. They’re sort of in the same situation that the FBI is in: they ought to have been able to identify Oswald as a potential trouble-maker – he went to Russia, Mexico, appears to have been a loose canon who was armed and looking for a cause. Presumably they have a file on him, and the file probably says something horribly embarrassing like: “this guy’s a gomer who can be safely ignored.” Oops! Let’s classify those files, so we don’t have any pesky questions like “why didn’t you tell the FBI about this guy?” In other words, you’ve got three big budget self-important federal agencies that each owns its portion of a pretty nasty screw-up. All three agencies’ natural response when threatened is to circle the wagons. They’re already getting questions fired at them, “what did you know about Oswald, and when?” and then it changes to “what did you know about Ruby, and when?” They’re realizing that there is simply no way they’re going to come out of this looking good.

Vice President Johnson – Look at what a gigantic mess it is when a new president is elected; this whole thing has suddenly landed in his lap. He’s a political animal of the first water, and probably it occurs to him that someone might be on the lookout for signs of a palace coup. But, realistically, that’s an absurd idea – but, still, better make sure everything is in order – and start the process of asking the FBI and CIA “what the fuck?” Because that’s a pretty good question, really, and they’re expecting it. Everyone is frantic. Everyone is circling the wagons.

The Dallas Police Department – They had riders on motorcycles on the scene, they had people there, this was their town. Doubtless they’re traumatized and confused; they know a storm of bureaucratic finger-pointing is on its way and they’re probably wondering why the FBI didn’t have a finger on this guy Oswald, and they may feel a bit like they’re about to be hung out to dry. Circle the wagons! Oh, and screw that horrible jerk Oswald we have in custody, anyway – then, oops! Another screw-up: now Oswald is shot by a passer-by, oh, no, the fertilizer has hit the fan for sure!

Grassy knoll: you could throw a brick

So, that’s the framework for the emergent conspiracy: everyone is traumatized, everyone has screwed up, everyone expects a slice of blame. People start asking reasonable questions like “who knew what about whom, when?” and eventually “was there a conspiracy?” That question acts like a crystal dropped into a supersaturated solution: immediately people start looking for things that seem out of place. But everything is out of place: a popular oligarch just had his brains blown out in a way that makes no sense. The only way to make sense of the situation is to look for loose ends.

The last part of the notion of emergent conspiracy is the observation that life is fractally complicated. Cause and effect [stderr] are complicated – and our interpretation of them is socially constructed – so when we try to understand things that anyone does, we can contextualize them as lying, if it’s possible to do so.

Therefore, I predict that the files which will be declassified will show that the various agencies were generating a lot of enquiries of eachother, most of which are in the form of “what did you know, and when?” There won’t be answers that will clarify anything, because – just like after 9/11 – the answers will show agency incompetence, not malfeasance. But incompetence looks just like a plot if you suspect the plotters are trying to hide their deeds behind the appearance of incompetence.

------ divider ------

Ray and his handler: I do not think MLK was assassinated in a conspiracy. But, if it was a conspiracy, it fits what I would consider to be the profile: a plausibly deniable actor, who was capable of mounting the entire plot on their own. Everything that Ray did was what an independent assassin would do: he obtained his own rifle, stalked his prey, attempted his own escape – there were no external moving parts or tightly coordinated schedule necessary. If Ray was part of a conspiracy, we would probably find that his handler was an independent actor in their own right (also plausibly deniable) some FBI SSA who arranged it and there was no executive paper-trail: at most 3 people (Hoover, some unknown SSA, and Ray) The organizational structure, COINTELPRO, was already in place. I’ve always been surprised that there are Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists but everyone sort of shrugs about the MKL assassination. Perhaps it’s because, deep down, many of us suspect that Ray was doing what he wanted to, whether he was acting on orders or not.

By the way, if you’re ever in Dallas, you should definitely go to Dealy Plaza and have a look around. It’s interesting, especially if you’re a shooter. One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that the place is really small. Most of the time when you see it in film, it’s shot with a wide-angle lens to make it look bigger by getting more of the periphery. Oswald’s shot was at a distance of about 100 yards, which is – as I’ve observed elsewhere – a handgun shot. [ranum] There was no need for a rifleman on the grassy knoll. Someone on the grassy knoll could have done the job with a military carbine (a scoped long gun at that range would be more awkward than otherwise) I did an analysis of the shooting, in which I tested some of the claims of some conspiracy theorists against practical knowledge. One example was that a conspiracy buff was loudly claiming:
CB: “Nobody can fire 3 aimed shots that fast with a bolt-action rifle!”
mjr: “I can.”
CB: “No, really! It’s not possible, experts have tried.”
mjr: “How many times do you have to work the bolt to rapidly fire 3 shots?”
CB: “3”
mjr: “… you’re an embarrassment to Texas. Thanks for playing.”
The claim was that nobody can fire 3 aimed shots in 8.3 seconds. It’s even quoted in various ‘reputable’ journals: [telegraph]:

Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone in assassinating President John F Kennedy, according to a new study by Italian weapons experts of the type of rifle Oswald used in the shootings.

In fresh tests of the Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action weapon, supervised by the Italian army, it was found to be impossible for even an accomplished marksman to fire the shots quickly enough.

But when the Italian team test-fired the identical model of gun, they were unable to load and fire three shots in less than 19 seconds – suggesting that a second gunman must have been present in Dealey Plaza, central Dallas, that day.

They asked the wrong Italian weapons experts; apparently they asked a Roman centurion.

mjr, 2005

Hollywood triple-tap (neck, chest, neck) and – because I’m a blockhead and it never occurred to me that anyone would make such a fuss over a 260-foot shot, I did it at 260 yards. Admittedly, my gear was slightly better than Oswald’s, but then I’m a much better shot than Oswald, too.

Comments

  1. AndrewD says

    How many times do you move the bolt to fire 3 rounds? This UKanian would say twice-start with a round in the breech and finish with a spent cartridge in the breech.
    As far as how fast can you fire a bolt-action rifle, why not ask the experts-The BEF in 1914,
    see here
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_minute

  2. says

    “Oh, yeah, Oswald’s a ‘person of interest’ but we let him do what he did because we didn’t have probable cause and, you know, white supremacy being what it is, we just have to conditionally accept gun-toting white people going around and shooting the occasional president. Hopes and prayers!”

    It’s not nice to make me snort tea at 6:30am. I have always been bewildered by the sheer amount of people who want to turn this Kennedy assassination into a massive cover up conspiracy. I was too young too grok the business beyond ‘the president is dead’ at the time, but I was older and fully aware when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The difference in reaction is rather remarkable.

    I do know, in my family, Kennedy’s catholicism was brought up more than once as a basis for the big conspiracy cover up. “It’s because he was catholic!” I head many a nut express the same view over Scalia. Catholicism seems to be fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    The problem with JFK theories is that they all have holes in them.

    Consider, for one (cuz I don’t have time to write a book this morning), that “self-aggrandizing nobody” Lee Oswald. Recall that during the 1950s, as a Marine, he served as a guard at the US airbase in Japan whence U2 spyplanes took off to scan Russia. Then he defected to the Soviets, and before long they shot down a U2 and captured the pilot alive, precipitating a Major International Crisis.

    Then Oswald and his new Russian bride return quietly to the US and roam around for a while, Lee amusing himself with, e.g., passing out “Fair Play for Cuba” leaflets in New Orleans. All this while J. Edgar Hoover reigned uncontested in his Cold War glory at the FBI, years before any trace of pushback against the war on Vietnam or kindred follies. Yet the Oswalds did not have so many agents following them around that Marina had to set extra plates out for dinner each night, and Lee never once got pulled in for some friendly questions under a bare light bulb.

    True, the “___ did it!” scenarios fall apart on close examination – but so does the Warren Commission report. I dug into a few books on 11/22/63 one time, and rapidly decided That Way Madness Lies. You could more easily reconcile all the contradictions in the Bible than those of Dallas.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#3:
    The problem with JFK theories is that they all have holes in them.

    Yes, that’s the problem. So my approach is to assume that there’s a level of incompetence being hidden – that is the emergent conspiracy.

    All this while J. Edgar Hoover reigned uncontested in his Cold War glory at the FBI, years before any trace of pushback against the war on Vietnam or kindred follies. Yet the Oswalds did not have so many agents following them around that Marina had to set extra plates out for dinner each night, and Lee never once got pulled in for some friendly questions under a bare light bulb.

    My bet is that the declassified files will show that the FBI left him alone because they thought he was a nobody (i.e.: bungling), and the CIA left him alone because they thought he was a loose cannon (i.e.: bungling) The worst case scenario is that both agencies thought “the other guys have this” and neither did – which, basically, is the conspiracy revealed after 9/11. There were puzzle pieces all over the place and the people supposed to be assembling puzzles were out golfing or something.

  5. felicis says

    This is actually pretty deep

    “there’s a level of incompetence being hidden – that is the emergent conspiracy.”

    I think that can be said about pretty much any ‘conspiracy theory’ out there…

  6. says

    One person who believes Oswald did it alone is TV writer and producer Donald Bellasario. He even had an episode of his time travel TV series Quantum Leap that revolved around the assassination, with Sam Beckett(Scott Bakula) leaping into the body of Oswald just before the assassination. Bellasario served alongside Oswald in the Marines, and felt from personal experience that Oswald was exactly the kind of person who could murder Kennedy.

    Oswald was apparently a pretty good shot, scoring 212 on a December, 1956 shooting test. This was apparently slightly above the rating that would allow a Marine to be classified as a sharpshooter.

    Whatever is released there will be cries of “The coverup continues!” because it doesn’t prove whatever theory people believe.

    It seems to me that interest in the Kennedy assassination is waning. 2013 was the fiftieth anniversary, and there didn’t seem to be the same kind of hoopla as there had been for the fortieth anniversary. For a lot of younger people the assassination is as much ancient history as WW2 is.

  7. says

    I am not familiar with guns, my only experience with them is shooting varmint rifle under supervision at about 12 years. But regarding this question: “How many times do you have to work the bolt to rapidly fire 3 shots?” I would answert “2”.

  8. says

    AndrewD@#1:
    How many times do you move the bolt to fire 3 rounds? This UKanian would say twice-start with a round in the breech and finish with a spent cartridge in the breech.

    That’s correct.

    Another popular complaint about Oswald’s shot is “it’s a moving target!” but the thing most of the complainers ignore is that Oswald had a trailing shot – so, what he’d see was the limo getting a little smaller as it pulled away, and maybe rising slowly in his sight picture. Shooting at something that’s crossing your field of vision is tricky, for sure, but a following shot, down-slope, actually compensates for the decreased drop and you can aim dead on. I’ve always wondered whether Oswald knew that or was just lucky. He was a marine who qualified sharpshooter (so did I – it’s easy) but he may or may not have had any real shooting expertise. My guess would be that, since he shot at Edwin Walker and missed badly, he wasn’t very skilled.

    As far as how fast can you fire a bolt-action rifle, why not ask the experts-The BEF in 1914,
    see here

    […] the standard arm was the most beautiful ever invented, the famous short Lee Enfield, either of the old pattern with the flat backsight and the long sword bayonet, or the Mark IV with the pig-sticker, a nine-inch spike with no cutting edge. The old pattern, which I carried, was the great rifle of the First World War, which the Old Contemptibles used with such speed and skill that the enemy often believed they were facing automatic weapons, and one German general told how his division had been “shot flat” by its disciplined fire. It held ten rounds with its magazine charged, and another up the spout, and had an extreme range of close to a mile, and in capable hands was deadly accurate up to four hundred yards. I’m no Davy Crockett, but I could hit three falling plates (about ten inches square) out of five at two hundred and I was graded only a first-class shot not a marksman. The Lee Enfield, cased in wood from butt to muzzle, could stand up to any rough treatment, and it never jammed.

    -George MacDonald Fraser Quartered Safe Out Here

    In the MacAuslan stories, Fraser goes on to describe “five rounds, rapid” – which is the order for a squad to half-empty their magazines as fast as they could, picking their own targets. As Fraser describes it, the impact is terrific: 30 soldiers firing 5 shots in 3 seconds puts 150 bullets in the air and, with their standard of shooting, would wipe out a company-sized unit. Each highlander carried 50 rounds in their canvas bandolier, so you’re talking a basic shit-storm of aimed fire that wipes out anything within 400 yards.

  9. says

    felicis@#5:
    I think that can be said about pretty much any ‘conspiracy theory’ out there…

    Me too. Whenever I see someone apparently trying to hide something, my usual starting point is embarrassment.

  10. says

    Charly@#7:
    I would answert “2”.

    Yep, so you are apparently more qualified to talk about sharpshooting than the conspiracy theorist who was giving “tours” of Dealy Plaza…

  11. komarov says

    Re: timgueguen (#6):

    Whatever is released there will be cries of “The coverup continues!” because it doesn’t prove whatever theory people believe.

    To be fair, who says declassified files have to be real and legitimate? If I was running a nation from a secret shadow government* I’d probably maintain several “official” degrees of classification. Then, when some Major Event occurs, I’d start releasing some files every few years.
    Maybe the ‘barely classified’ stuff could be made public after just five years, ‘slightly classified’ after ten and so on. And it would (almost) all be worthless rubbish, written by the Department Of Noise**, adding more and more useless facts and falsehoods to the Event. Noone could ever put together the actual conspiracy behind the Event, not least because the puzzle pieces that are public are mostly from an entirely different puzzles.
    If you wait decades before making any of the ‘secret’ stuff public you’re wasting precious time that could have been spent sowing confusion and distrust amongst the people you’re supposed to govern. Meanwhile the actually secret stuff stays secret. This is mainly achieved by not writing it down and not involving any official three-letter agencies. Besides, everyone thinks it was already declassified.

    *Totally am not, promise.

    **Actually the Department of Weather and Statistical Modelling, but they don’t know about their other function. An AI simply takes all their data and transforms it into text formatted as secret reports, memos and so forth. Maybe an intercepted telegram from the Kremlin to Castro, instructing him to hire assassins, was generated from a report about a severe hail storm in Maryland and its impact on local crop yields…

  12. says

    komarov@#11:
    If I was running a nation from a secret shadow government* I’d probably maintain several “official” degrees of classification. Then, when some Major Event occurs, I’d start releasing some files every few years.

    That sounds like something out of a Terry Pratchett book: The Royal Disinformer.
    The hereditary title of which, for reasons lost in history, is “Kellyanne.”

    I hear DARPA is spending big money on Disinformation AI training sets; they can produce BS that is statistically indistinguishable from reality! (Take that Bayesians!)

  13. komarov says

    Re: Mad minute

    Pretty unsurprisingly, Youtube has some videos that should put to rest any doubts one might have about the firing rate with a bolt action rifle (sorry if it autoembeds): Mad minute practice
    I counted roughly a round a second.

    Re: Marcus Ranum (#12):

    Royal Disinformer doesn’t ring a bell and a quick search didn’t turn up anything, so now I’m very worried I’m missing some vital Pratchett in my collection.

    I hear DARPA is spending big money on Disinformation AI training sets; they can produce BS that is statistically indistinguishable from reality! (Take that Bayesians!)

    As I said, most of the declassified information would be rubbish, because I think every so often something real has to be in there to make it more believable. Some ‘leaked fact’ conspiracy theorists can validate in order to reassure themselves their data is good.
    Which made me wonder about the AI choosing the real information that is published. There are some serious risks here, if you’re the sort who thinks AI will inevitably turn against its masters. If the AI became sentient it could quielly publish some important stuff in order to topple the shadow government and take over.
    It would be in a perfect positiion to do this since it needs to have some actual secrets to know what the public should nominally be steered away from. And with the vast quantities of noise it’s expected to produce it would take need another AI just to check up on it. So now there’s two of them, probably already conspiring in secret against the very secret conspiracy they are propping up.

  14. says

    komarov@#13:
    Royal Disinformer doesn’t ring a bell and a quick search didn’t turn up anything, so now I’m very worried I’m missing some vital Pratchett in my collection.

    Naturally, the first thing the Royal Disinformer would do is erase all trace of their existence, while setting up their predecessor to take the blame for all of their actions.

  15. Brian English says

    So, don’t put to malignance, what can be explaing by incompetence? I think that’s the old saw, probably phrased it wrong. But it’s more satisfying to blame something or someone. It was the reverse vampires, in cooperation with the Rand corportation. People we’re through the looking class here….

  16. chigau (違う) says

    These *conspirers*….where are they now?
    Do they not recognize a target when they see one?

  17. says

    chigau@#16:
    That’s probably another good argument against the CIA conspiracy angle. They are not very happy with Trump, and if they were still in the “interior regime change” business, they’d probably do something.
    Of course, with the quality of the US intelligence services nowadays, if they hatched a plot, it’d leak to the press at the right moment, and then the Russians would get blamed for it.

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