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.
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!
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.
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?”
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.
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.