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'Case Closed' doesn't close the Oswald file

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first thing that strikes you upon opening this new book on the assassination of John F. Kennedy is that author Gerald Posner has not seen the hundreds of thousands of pages of newly released documents. They were declassified pursuant to the JFK records act and signed into law by then-President Bush in January. I have spent countless evenings immersed in these files over the past six months and find that the very title of Mr. Posner's book is presumptuous: It asks us to believe he has closed the case before we have had a chance to digest the facts that have only now been made public.

Mark Lane's "Rush to Judgment," a 1966 attack on the Warren Commission's Oswald-acted-alone theory, was "an admitted brief for the defense by a skilled advocate," Gerald Posner writes. Mr. Posner could -- but does not -- add an honest admission of his own: that "Case Closed" is a brief for the prosecution.

Not much in "Case Closed" will provoke new debate between the critics and defenders of the Warren Commission. Take his chapter on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison: Garrison unsuccessfully prosecuted Clay Shaw, a businessman in the city, for alleged involvement in the assassination. Anyone familiar with "the conspiracy press," as Mr. Posner derisively calls it," knows that Garrison's work was long ago abandoned as not credible.

In fact, to the extent that Mr. Posner succeeds in -- as he says -- "purging many falsehoods that clutter the field," he helps both sides in the ongoing debate. He rightfully points out that there were many witnesses in Dealey Plaza in Dallas whose observations support the contention that someone -- perhaps Oswald -- was shooting from the Texas School Book Depository.

Arguing Oswald was a nut

Mr. Posner painstakingly builds his case for Oswald as a nut, prone to violence and with an overriding need for attention -- leaving out much of Oswald's positive side that we know from the record. If readers are not convinced by the end of the first chapter that Oswald was crazy, they soon will be. For the next nine chapters, Mr. Posner litters the pages with an endless string of beatings that Marina Oswald suffered at the hands of her husband.

Judging from early reviews and news stories, some in the national press are ecstatic over "Case Closed." There are major systemic flaws in this work, however, that the national media, in its zeal to embrace Mr. Posner as a paragon of meticulous research, has yet to pick up on. Mr. Posner sets up criteria that he says -- often with justification -- the "conspiracy press" violates, and then repeatedly and matter-of-factly violates himself.

For example, he hammers critics for accepting accounts by witnesses that deviate from those they offered at the time of the event. The problem is that Mr. Posner is guilty of the same offense throughout his book -- and not just on minor points, but on most of the major ones: accounts of such witnesses as Texas Gov. John Connally, the Texas doctors and even FBI agents.

Similarly, Mr. Posner accuses critics of selecting only the data that support their theories while discarding the data that do not. Yet he does this often. He contends, for instance, that "the latest computer enhancements of film and evidence" demolish the conspiracy theories once and for all. This "latest" computer data was compiled by Failure Analysis Associates (FAA), and Mr. Posner's presentation of the FAA project was only half a loaf.

Mr. Posner fails to inform readers that the FAA work was part of a mock trial in which FAA had two teams -- one arguing Oswald was guilty and the other that he was innocent. One can understand that Mr. Posner should be free to argue the merits of which team did the better work, but the impression he gives -- that the FAA work supports only his side -- is not only highly selective, but also just plain devious.

Another defect of the book

Another major defect of "Case Closed" is Mr. Posner's propensity to resort to ad hominem assaults on critics when arguing his case. In this regard, he constantly uses nasty quotes from the critics: So-and-so "is a beast" is how he quotes one critic attacking another. One would be justified in asking why Mr. Posner uses material from people he does not believe in to make his case and discredit major arguments in the Kennedy assassination controversy. But then, that is what lawyers do best -- he is an attorney and reporter for the Wall Street Journal -- and there is much in "Case Closed" that reminds one of a divorce proceeding.

Yet another major shortcoming of this book is its supposed strong suit: solving once and for all the key questions surrounding the actual and alleged associations and contacts of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mr. Posner spends too much energy knocking down straw men, and his book does not offer any satisfactory resolution to the debates over whether Oswald knew David Ferrie, a homosexual, anti-Castro shadowy figure with connections to organized crime, and over whether other anti-Castro figures pretended to introduce Oswald to Sylvia Odio, whose father was in a Cuban jail.

Mr. Posner never deals with the alleged contacts between the CIA and Oswald, preferring to dispense with this subject entirely with just two sentences buried in a parenthetical footnote. He is far too accepting of the CIA's public -- and arguably questionable -- position that Oswald was of "marginal importance." Did Mr. Posner look at this issue with the dispassionate and skeptical eye of a historian, or with the attitude of a lawyer all too happy to avoid an issue that, if pursued, would present major problems for his case?

Factual errors

the long debate over the Kennedy assassination, the casualty of the critics' case is "truth," Mr. Posner argues, contending his book settles all the issues and closes the case. Yet the truth does not escape unscathed in his hands, either. Factual errors in "Case Closed" abound.

Here are two examples:

First, Mr. Posner states that the entry wound in Governor Connally's right shoulder was 1.25 inches. But the governor's thoracic surgeon, Dr. Robert Shaw, testified that the 1.25-inch wound was this size only after excision of the tissue around the wound, that the wound was originally 1.5 centimeters (.66 inches), or half the size of the Posner theory.

Second, in September 1961, Oswald applied to renew his passport at the American Embassy in Moscow. On the section "have/have not been naturalized as a citizen of a foreign state," Mr. Posner writes, the strikeout is in between the "have" and "have not"; on the carbon, he says, the strikeout is directly over the "have not." He is wrong. On the original, it is exactly on the "have not" (which would have meant -- perhaps mistakenly -- he had been naturalized as a Soviet citizen). On the carbon, it is directly over the "have."

These details do have some bearing on important issues in the case, but there is a larger issue here. That Mr. Posner makes mistakes, too, does not prove that there was a conspiracy in the case any more than the mistakes of the critics prove the Warren Commission was right. The principal lesson we learn from the many factual problems in the books of the critics is also dramatized by "Case Closed": making sweeping generalizations based on partial data serves only the person making them -- and even then for only a moment.

For all the faults that it finds with the critics of the lone-nut theory, "Case Closed" does not close the book on the JFK assassination. It is just one more book on the subject that, like so many before it, gets some points right and just as many wrong. When we look back on it a few years hence, the only thing we will remember about it is the embarrassing and obsequious ardor with which the national media lavished praise on it.

As the 30th anniversary of this seminal American tragedy approaches in November, Mr. Posner, the critic community and the American public can all agree on one thing: It is good that our government is finally starting to let us see what is in those JFK files.

Dr. Newman is assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland. He is author of "JFK and Vietnam."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK"

Author: Gerald Posner

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 607 pages, $25

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