Gary L. Aguilar is an ophthalmologist specializing in plastic and reconstructive surgery, he is also Assistant Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford University and the University of California. He has lectured extensively on the assassination of John F. Kennedy and has a special interest in the medical evidence, on which he is a leading authority, including especially eyewitness reports from Parkland Memorial Hospital and Bethesda Medical Center.
Dr. Aguilar is one of only a handful of non-government physicians ever allowed by the Kennedy family privileged access to JFK's still-restricted medical and autopsy evidence that is housed at the National Archives.
Among his JFK writings are: How Five Investigations Into JFK's Medical/Autopsy Evidence Got It Wrong (with Cathy Cunningham), Max Holland Rescues the Warren Commission and The Nation (Probe Magazine, September-October 2000), The Magic Bullet: Even More Magical Than We Knew? (with Josiah Thompson, author of Six Seconds in Dallas), The Converging Case for Conspiracy in the Death of JFK, published in: Murder in Dealey Plaza, edited by James Fetzer (2000) and JFK, Vietnam, and Oliver Stone (History Matters, 2005).
In November 2003, Dr. Aguilar publicly debated JFK's medical/autopsy evidence with Dr. Michael Baden, former coroner of New York City and former head of the panel of forensic experts who examined JFK's medical/autopsy evidence for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. The debate was held at a national symposium hosted by Cyril Wecht, MD, JD in Pittsburgh, PA and was attended by over 1300 people.
Dr. Aguilar practices in San Francisco and lives nearby with his wife and three children.
More than two decades after the Church Committee revealed U.S. plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, and after confirmed reports that in 1962 the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved plans that ABC News reported had included, “hijacking planes, blowing up a U.S. ship, and even orchestrating violent terrorism in U.S. cities, few informed Americans would dismiss as inconceivable the possibility that in 1963 a sitting U.S. President could succumb to a murder conspiracy, perhaps even one of domestic origin. What is harder for some citizens to conceive is that the conspirators could have eluded the exhaustive and painstaking pursuit of the executive, legislative and judiciary arms of government.
Was not, after all, the full majesty of the state put in service of solving the Crime of the Century? Would unimpeachable icons such as Chief Justice Earl Warren, CIA head Allen Dulles, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and President Johnson have settled for anything less than the full truth? Were there not indisputable facts extracted during the President’s post mortem that established, if not the assassin’s name, the essential fact that there was but one of them pulling a trigger, and only from behind? There was a time when reasonable assumptions such as these carried great power.
It was during 1966, for example, while touting the sine qua non of Lee Harvey Oswald’s guilt – Kennedy’s autopsy findings – that onetime Warren Commission counsel Arlen Specter offered readers of U. S. News and World Report the following reassurance: “There is every reason to believe that we did get a comprehensive, thorough, professional autopsy report from trained, skilled experts." The experts’ famous conclusion? Two shots, from the rear.
But time has not rewarded Specter’s species of blind faith. On the contrary. Given what has since been learned, today his confidence in JFK’s autopsists seems remarkably naïve. “Where bungled autopsies are concerned,” Michael Baden, MD has observed, “President Kennedy’s is the exemplar." As a noted autopsy expert who had chaired the 1978 House Select Committee’s (HSCA) forensic panel that studied the performance of JFK’s pathologists, Baden was in an unique position to know.
The failure of the original team, it appears, was not a failure of facility or of capability. Men with good, if not exceptional, credentials performed JFK’s autopsy at a perfectly adequate Navy hospital. Their failure was borne of lack of practice and poor process; the execution of JFK’s port mortem was marked by almost unbelievable amateurishness and incompleteness. However, as defenders of the Warren Commission always hasten to point out, the ultimate verdict of the original team has withstood the test of time.
The Nation Magazine has long been one of the most perceptive and eloquent voices for skepticism in publishing.Its revelations over the years have established it as one of the few national media outlets that truly functions as a watchdog in the public interest.It has always been an early voice, often the first, to question official pronouncements -- on Vietnam, on Watergate, on Iran-Contra, on Guatemala, on Haiti, and Chile. When, for example, CIA man Richard Helms told the U.S. Senate that the CIA played no role in demolishing Chile’s democracy in 1973, The Nation called his testimony exactly what it was: perjury.
But on JFK’s murder, The Nation has inexplicably kept shut the skeptical eye it normally keeps cocked at outfits like FBI, the CIA and the military – the very groups it has so often caught lying, and the very groups that produced virtually all the evidence the Warren Commission said disproved conspiracy.
The Nation raised nary an eyebrow at the apparent ease with which the FBI was able to prove right FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover’s astounding clairvoyance - announced on the very night JFK died and before any investigation - that Lee Harvey Oswald had done it all by himself. It never wondered whether the Warren Commission’s bias toward the FBI’s solution--plainly evident already during the Commission’s very first meeting--might have been abetted by Hoover’s having employed one of his favorite dirty tricks: “file-checking” the Commissioners for dirt.
Given that the public hasn’t believed the Warren Commission since the late 60s, and since its no-conspiracy verdict was officially reversed in 1978 by the House Select Committee (HSCA), it is hard to fathom why The Nation, of all magazines, continues to toe the old line. In recent years, its in-house experts have been Alexander Cockburn and Max Holland. Skeptics like Peter Dale Scott and John Newman, whose credentials far surpass those of Cockburn and Holland in this case, have been restricted to limited responses on the letters-to-the-editor page.
Cockburn claimed that Kennedy “always acted within the terms of [establishment] institutions and that, against [Oliver Stone’s film JFK’s] assertions, there is no evidence to the contrary … The public record shows JFK was always hawkish." Thus, “whether JFK was killed by a lone assassin or by a conspiracy has as much to do with the subsequent contours of American politics as if he had tripped over one of Caroline’s dolls and broken his neck in the White House nursery."
Echoing Cockburn, Holland holds that, behind a pacific facade, Kennedy was really a clanking Cold Warrior spoiling for a fight - exactly the opposite of the fantasy held by the kooky conspiracy crowd. It was but a “fantasy that Kennedy was on the verge of pulling out from Vietnam." A fantasy to suppose, therefore, that radical change - on the USSR, on Cuba, on Vietnam - was ever possible in the early 60s. (More on this later.)
The situation is about to get a lot more interesting. Sometime in 2003, Holland will finally unleash his long-promised, 650-page paean to Earl Warren. Early signs are that Holland intends to use the Kennedy case to deliver a sweeping, extraordinary history and civics lesson to the public. After what the Boston Globe described five years ago as “one of the most exhaustive examinations ever conducted into the Warren Commission’s investigation, Holland announced that, “It’s become part of our popular culture that the Warren Commission was a joke, and that’s not the case." Holland intends to stop the laughter.
Holland has written that ignorance, “cunningly manufactured falsehoods,” and paranoia--but not a suspiciously inadequate investigation--have conspired to unjustly darken the reputation of the Warren Commission’s “no-stone-unturned” murder investigation. It’s a remarkable theory. If his book bears any resemblance to what Holland has already written, and it would be surprising if it didn’t, it appears Holland represents the new wave in Warren apologia: In taking down the Warren Commission, malicious and stupid skeptics have spawned a corrosive public cynicism not only about the government’s honest answer to the Crime of the Century in 1964, but also about government in general.
Among the myriad JFK assassination controversies, none more cleanly divides Warren Commission supporter from skeptic than the “Single Bullet Theory.” The brainchild of a former Warren Commission lawyer, Mr. Arlen Specter, now the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, the theory is the sine qua non of the Warren Commission’s case that with but three shots, including one that missed, Lee Harvey Oswald had single handedly altered the course of history.
Mr. Specter’s hypothesis was not one that immediately leapt to mind from the original evidence and the circumstances of the shooting. It was, rather, born of necessity, if one sees as a necessity the keeping of Oswald standing alone in the dock. The theory had to contend with the considerable evidence there was suggesting that more than one shooter was involved.
For example, because the two victims in Dealey Plaza, President Kennedy and Governor John Connally, had suffered so many wounds – eight in all, it had originally seemed as if more than two slugs from the supposed “sniper’s nest” would have been necessary to explain all the damage. In addition, a home movie taken by a bystander, Abraham Zapruder, showed that too little time had elapsed between the apparent shots that hit both men in the back for Oswald to have fired, reacquired his target, and fired again. The Single Bullet Theory neatly solved both problems. It posited that a single, nearly whole bullet that was later recovered had caused all seven of the non-fatal wounds sustained by both men.
Oliver Stone would scarcely have elicited more righteous indignation by lecturing Baptist ministers on the evils of Christianity than he did among journalists and historians by releasing his popular film JFK. Pundits by the pack bristled at Stone’s contempt for the Warren Commission. One of the outrages that provoked particular vehemence was Stone’s revisionist representation of Kennedy as a president who threatened The Establishment because he would not have taken the country to war over Vietnam. But the outcry wasn’t just about his bad history. It had at least as much to do with the director’s chutzpah in trespassing onto turf owned by career journalists and historians.
In the Washington Post, George Will called JFK a "three hour lie from an intellectual sociopath." Noam Chomsky dedicated an entire book – “Rethinking Camelot” – to debunking Stone’s notion that under Kennedy the history of Southeast Asia would have been altogether kinder and gentler. Leslie Gelb sneered from the pages of the New York Times that the "torments" of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson over Vietnam "are not to be trifled with by Oliver Stone or anyone." A banner headline on the cover of Newsweek barked: "Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can't Be Trusted."
Stone’s crackpot history had apparently imperiled the public not only by throwing mud at perhaps America’s most respected murder investigation, but also by rewriting American history to push his leftist, anti-American agenda. The message was that there was danger when moviemakers forgot their place. Theirs was the business of entertaining, not interpreting history. That business was best left in the capable hands of credentialed authorities.
Across the political spectrum those authorities derided Stone’s war-wary peacenik on grounds his “JFK” bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical JFK. Behind a pacific façade, received wisdom had it, Kennedy was really a clanking Cold Warrior spoiling for a fight – in Southeast Asia, in Cuba and perhaps elsewhere. In the context of his treatment of Diem, Stone's critics placed JFK's occasionally fierce, if conflicted, rhetoric.
"By November, sanctioning a coup against an ally in the name of winning the war had been added," wrote Robert Bartley in The Wall St. Journal. "Then withdraw? Joe Kennedy's competitive kid? The 'bear any burden' guy? Give me a break. Acolytes love this myth dearly … ." Another historian, William Gibbons, said that it “is absurd” to imagine that Kennedy would have pulled out. In The Nation Magazine, Alexander Cockburn wrote, “The public record shows JFK was always hawkish.” And in no less than the respected Reviews in American History, Max Holland, a Nation Magazine contributing editor, declared that it was a “fantasy that Kennedy was on the verge of pulling out from Vietnam.”
The years that followed have not been kind to those who had stoned the director. “Received wisdom” has been swamped by a tsunami of new and credible scholarship brought about by the declassifications of literally millions of pages of government secrets. The impetus for their release came directly from Stone, who publicly nagged about the absurdity of the government saying the case was “open and shut” while suppressing mountains of the evidence.
There have also been interesting developments from the crime scene, perhaps the most important of which may seem like a no-brainer: The famous 26-second Zapruder home movie of JFK's murder contains original undoctored photographic imagery of the assassination. This authentication was deemed necessary by the Assassination Records Review Board, created by Congress to oversee the release of JFK records, because a vocal faction of JFK conspiracy theorists in the 1990s started claiming that the film had been surreptitiously altered to hide evidence of a conspiracy. (Their theory refuted, these conspiracy theorists abandoned the JFK field for greener pastures of 9/11 speculation.) However, this isn't to say that there aren't some legitimate and uncomfortable questions about assassination-related photographs.
"The only caution I have in the photographic record concerns the JFK autopsy material," says Richard Trask, a photo archivist in Danvers, Massachusetts who has the world's biggest collection of JFK assassination imagery, and has written two books on the subject. "That is an area that always makes me pause. What was happening during the autopsy if there was a cover-up or just incompetence, I don't know. It is the only area of the JFK story that I have some doubts about."
As well he should. The JFK medical evidence is worse than a mess -- it is a documented national scandal that awaits decent news coverage. The new evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the photographic record of Kennedy's autopsy has been tampered with by persons unknown. The sworn testimony and records developed by the Assassination Records Review Board in the late 1990s allow no other conclusion.
Among the key post-Stone revelations in the JFK medical evidence:
Autopsy photographs of Kennedy's body are missing from government archives, according to sworn testimony from doctors and medical technicians involved in the autopsy. The origins of other autopsy photos in the collection cannot be determined.
Two FBI agents who took notes during the autopsy gave detailed sworn testimonies rejecting the so-called single bullet theory which girds the official story that Oswald alone killed Kennedy.
Dr. James Humes, the chief pathologist at JFK's autopsy, admitted under oath that he destroyed a first draft of his autopsy report. Humes had previously only admitted to destroying his original notes.
Dr. Gary Aguilar, a San Francisco ophthalmologist who has written about the autopsy, is emphatic. "The medical evidence is really stark evidence of a cover-up in my view," he says. "The story is so extraordinary that it is hard for some people, especially in mainstream media organizations, to come to grips with it. There's just no doubt that there were very strange things going on around the president's body that weekend."
Sounds like a paranoid fantasy? More than a few of the people who participated in the JFK autopsy have sworn to it.
Saundra Kay Spencer was a technician at the Navy's photographic laboratory in Washington. She developed the JFK autopsy photos on the weekend after Kennedy's death. She kept her oath of secrecy for 34 years. When she spoke to the ARRB in 1997, Spencer displayed the efficiency of a career military woman. She was well prepared with a sharp memory for the details of her involvement in the amazing events of November 22-24, 1963. Her testimony, after reviewing all the JFK autopsy photographs in the National Archives, was unequivocal. "The views [of JFK's body] we produced at the [Naval] Photographic Center are not included [in the current autopsy collection]," she said. "Between those photographs and the ones we did, there had to be some massive cosmetic things done to the President's body."
FBI agent Francis O'Neill was present during the autopsy and took notes. In 1997, he also viewed the photographs. Referring to an autopsy photograph showing the wound in the back of Kennedy's head, O'Neill said, "This looks like it's been doctored in some way. I specifically do not recall those -- I mean, being that clean or that fixed up. To me, it looks like these pictures have been. . . . It would appear to me that there was a -- more of a massive wound. . ." O'Neill emphasized he was not saying the autopsy photographs themselves had been doctored but that the wounds themselves had been cleaned up before the photograph was taken.
James Sibert, another FBI agent present at the autopsy, had a similar reaction to the photos. "I don't recall anything like this at all during the autopsy," he said under oath. "There was much -- well, the wound was more pronounced. And it looks like it could have been reconstructed or something, as compared with what my recollection was."
What both men were objecting to was the lack of a big hole in the back of JFK's head which would be somewhat indicative of a so-called blowout wound caused by a shot from the front.
The retired FBI agents were especially scathing about the single bullet theory positing that one bullet caused seven non-fatal wounds in Kennedy and [Texas] Governor Connally and emerged largely undamaged on a hospital stretcher.
They took notes on the autopsy as Dr. Humes examined Kennedy's body. Both said the autopsies concluded the bullet that hit Kennedy in his back had not transited his body. But chief pathologist Humes took another view in his autopsy report, writing that the bullet had emerged from Kennedy's throat and gone on to strike Governor Connally. But Humes's credibility is undermined by the ARRB's discovery that he destroyed not only his notes, but also his first draft of the autopsy report without ever revealing its contents or even existence.
Sibert later told a JFK researcher of the single bullet theory: "It's magic, not medicine."