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Barack Obama's presidency

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Specter's JFK Specter

By Lisa Pease
April 29, 2009

Given that Arlen Specter has decided to leave the Republican Party, I think it's worth examining Specter's history to see if he will be an asset or a burden for the Democratic Party.

While Specter is perhaps most famous for coming up with the "single bullet theory"  which purports that one bullet entered and exited two people (President Kennedy and Governor Connally) seven times, only to emerge nearly intact, his legislative efforts of late also give cause for concern.

I had a personal experience with Specter, in a way. When the Internet was first opened to the public, I found, by pure chance, a newsgroup discussing the Kennedy assassination. I jumped in with no data whatsoever to voice my completely uninformed opinions, and was roundly criticized.

Properly chastised, I decided I should actually learn some facts before I could contribute in any meaningful way. I went to a local library and found a full set of the Warren Commission volumes.

The first volume was the now infamous "Warren Report," but there were 26 other volumes filled with witness testimony, photos, Dallas Police reports from eyewitnesses, FBI files, and many other items I'd never seen before.

Having no clue where to begin my research, I pulled a volume out at random and flipped it open. It was Volume VI, and I had flipped to Arlen Specter's questioning of Malcolm Perry, a doctor who had operated on Kennedy in Dallas in a fruitless attempt to save his life.

I started reading, and instantly had this queasy feeling. It was obvious to me that Specter was not trying to ascertain the truth; he was trying to craft it.

That experience, more than any other, convinced me that the Warren Commission's version of the Kennedy assassination was open to serious questioning, and started me on a multiyear quest to ascertain the real history of the event.

Dr. Perry had originally been quoted in the media as having identified Kennedy's throat wound as an entrance wound. Perry, under Specter's questioning, denied having ever taken a specific position on that matter.

Regardless of what Perry had said, it is clear, from reading the transcript, that Specter was not interested in pursuing this possibility, and clearly wanted to get a statement from Perry in support of the throat wound being an exit wound.

Specter’s Leading Question

During the questioning, Specter asked Perry a bizarre question. Specter started by referring to a purported wound in the back of the neck, a point to which we'll return shortly. Specter than asked Perry this:

"Assuming that was a point of entry of a missile, which parenthetically was the opinion of the three autopsy surgeons, and assuming still further that the missile which struck the President at that spot was a  6.5-mm. jacketed bullet shot from a rifle at a distance of 160 to 250 feet, having a muzzle velocity of approximately 2,000 feet per second, and that upon entering the President's body, the bullet traveled between two strap muscles, through a fascia channel, without violating the pleural cavity, striking the trachea, causing the damage which you tested about being on the interior of the President's throat, and which exited from the President's throat in the wound which you have described in the midline of his neck, would your findings and observations as to the nature of the wound on the threat be consistent with the set of facts I have just presented to you?"

Perry's answer was guaranteed by Specter’s complete framing of the situation: "It would be entirely compatible." 

Perry noted that he did not have enough information to determine whether the wound was one of entry or exit, from the facts he had been able to personally ascertain, and that all answers he had given anyone were in answer to hypotheticals. Specter then asks:

"And in the hypothetical of the rather extended nature that I just gave you that your statement is consistent with what you found, is that also predicated upon the veracity of the factors, which I have asked you to assume?"

Perry answers, "That is correct, sir. I have no way to authenticate either by my own knowledge."

Perry had never turned the President over, so he never saw the actual placement of the wound in Kennedy's back, which would have put the lie to Specter's hypothesis.

Warren Commission member and eventual President Gerald Ford, as the AP reported (July 2. 1997), personally moved the wound, with a stroke of the pen, from "his back" to "the back of his neck." Ford claimed he made the edit to be more precise. But the evidence of Kennedy's coat makes this claim specious. Kennedy's jacket has a hole in it about five inches below the neck.

Gaeton Fonzi, then a reporter for Philadelphia Magazine and later an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, questioned Specter in 1966 about the difference between the Commission's assertion that the wound was in the "back of the neck" vs. the physical hole placement in the coat.

How, Fonzi asked Specter, could a shot have entered the back and exited the neck if the shot had come from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository where Oswald was supposed to have been firing from?

The Bunched-Up Coat Theory

The only path from the hole in the shirt to the wound would have been an upward trajectory, not the necessary downward trajectory had the shot been fired from behind and above. Fonzi was surprised, and a little unnerved, to see a man he had until then respected and admired start to hem and haw.

"I still remember Specter hesitating, stuttering, making a few false starts in attempting to answer that question," Fonzi noted at a researchers' conference in 1998. "Finally, he got up from his desk and came around to stand behind me. Well, he said, it was because the President was waving his arm, and then, trying to illustrate why the jacket would ride up, Specter pulled my arm high over my head - far higher than the Zapruder film showed Kennedy waving his hand.

"'Wave your arm a few times,' Specter said, 'wave at the crowd.' And then jabbing a finger at the base of my neck - not six inches below my collar, where the holes in Kennedy's jacket and shirt were - Specter said, 'Well, see, if the bullet goes in here, the jacket gets hunched up. If you take this point right here and then you strip the coat down, it comes out at a lower point.'

"'A lower point?' I repeated, wondering if Specter were trying to confuse me or was confused himself.

"If the entrance holes were at a lower point than the exit hole, how could Oswald have shot Kennedy from the sixth floor window of the Book Depository?

"In the end, Specter admitted they had what he described as - quote – 'some problems with that.'"

Fonzi also asked Specter about how a bullet could go through seven wounds and two people and emerge nearly intact. As Fonzi noted in his 1966 article, the conversation went like this:

"'The way the bullet went through the Governor’s wrist,' explains Specter, 'it really tumbled through his wrist.'

"Were any tests made to determine the results of a bullet tumbling through a cadaver wrist?

“'You can’t fire a bullet to make it tumble,' says Specter.

"Wouldn’t a tumbling bullet be more likely to be deformed than one hitting at a higher velocity on its streamlined nose?

“'I think it was unusual for the bullet to come out in such perfect shape,' Specter says, 'but very plausible.'

"Did any of the test bullets come out in such shape?


Fonzi later came to regret his shyness in directly labeling the Warren Commission's conclusion as what he knew it to be: a deliberate lie. Not so, Specter.

Judging Specter

If Specter ever had any doubts, he's never aired them, leading me to conclude one of two possibilities: 1) Specter truly believes that Oswald, alone, was guilty, or 2) Specter is still aiding and abetting a cover-up of the facts surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy.

To judge which answer is closer to the truth, I suggest one look at Specter's more recent behavior regarding the NSA's taps on Americans.

When the illegal taps were revealed, Specter immediately called for hearings. While some praised him for his stand, knowing his history, I was instantly skeptical. He was putting himself out front so he could control the debate, I assumed.

My assumption seemed justified when Specter proposed a bill which was widely regarded as providing legislative cover to the Bush administration, despite Specter's public pronouncements to the contrary.

Specter's bill removed FISA as the sole authority for wiretaps and left the door open for the executive branch to make their own decisions independently. In addition, his bill would have amended existing law to prohibit the prosecution of any companies who were illegally wiretapping if they had presidential authorization.

Other provisions further weakened existing FISA safeguards protecting Americans from being the subject of warrantless wiretaps.

So why would the Democrats want Specter in their corner? The magic number. Sixty votes. A filibuster-proof majority, the holy grail of any administration.

I can understand why President Obama himself has said he'll raise money for Specter. But given Specter's history, I can't help but feel the Democrats are welcoming the fox into the hen house.

Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.   

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