J. Lee Rankin


J. Lee Rankin, the son of Herman P. Rankin and Lois Gable, was born in Nebraska in 1907. A member of the Republican Party, Rankin worked for Thomas Dewey during the 1948 presidential campaign. Later he chaired a state committee for President Dwight Eisenhower. Rankin joined the Justice Department and eventually became a U. S. Solicitor General (August, 1956 - January, 1961).

In 1963 he became chief counsel for the Warren Commission. Apparently this was against the wishes of Earl Warren who wanted Warren Olney as chief counsel. Rankin's main role was to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency. Rankin appointed Norman Redlich as his special assistant.

Gerald Ford provided J. Edgar Hoover with information about the activities of staff members of the commission. Hoover ordered that Redlich's past should be investigated. He discovered that Redlich was on the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, an organization considered by Hoover to have been set-up to "defend the cases of Communist lawbreakers". Redlich had also been critical of the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

This information was leaked to a group of right-wing politicians. On 5th May, 1964, Ralph F. Beermann, a Republican Party congressman, made a speech claiming that Redlich was associated with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Beermann called for Redlich to be removed as a staff member of the Warren Commission. He was supported by Karl E. Mundt who said: "We want a report from the Commission which Americans will accept as factual, which will put to rest all the ugly rumors now in circulation and which the world will believe. Who but the most gullible would believe any report if it were written in part by persons with Communist connections?"

Gerald Ford joined in the attack and at one closed-door session of the Warren Commission he called for Redlich to be dismissed. However, Rankin and Earl Warren both supported him and he retained his job.

Rankin had doubts about the Warren Report. In 1978 he told Michael Ewing, staff member of theHouse Select Committee on Assassinations, that the CIA/Mafia plots to kill Fidel Castro would have had a “very direct bearing on the areas of conspiracy which we tried to pursue.” He also asked Ewing, “Are you looking into the plots on the basis of whether they were covered up by the CIA because some of the very people involved in them could have been involved in the President’s assassination?”

Primary Sources

(1) John McCone, interviewed by J. Lee Rankin on behalf of the Warren Commission (1964)

J. Lee Rankin: Are you familiar with the records and how they are kept by the Central Intelligence Agency as to whether a man is acting as an informer, agent, employee, or in any other capacity for that Agency?

John A. McCone: Yes; I am generally familiar with the procedures and the records that are maintained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Quite naturally, I am not familiar with all of the records because they are very extensive.

J. Lee Rankin: Have you determined whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect in connection with the assassination of President Kennedy, had any connection with the Central Intelligence Agency, informer or indirectly as an employee, or any other capacity?

John A. McCone: Yes; I have determined to my satisfaction that he had no such connection...

J. Lee Rankin: Will you tell us briefly the extent of your inquiry?

John A. McCone: In a form of affidavit, I have gone into the matter in considerable detail personally, in my inquiry with the appropriate people within the Agency, examined all records in our files relating to Lee Harvey Oswald. We had knowledge of him, of course, because of his having gone to the Soviet Union, as he did, putting him in a situation where his name would appear in our name file. However, my examination has resulted in the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was not an agent, employee, or informant of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Agency never contacted him, interviewed him, talked with him, or received or solicited any reports or information from him, or communicated with him directly or in any other manner. The Agency never furnished him with any funds or money or compensated him directly or indirectly in any fashion, and Lee Harvey Oswald was never associated or connected directly or indirectly in any way whatsoever with the Agency. When I use the term "Agency," I mean the Central Intelligence Agency, of course.

Gerald Ford: Does that include whether or not he was in the United States, in the Soviet Union, or anyplace?

John A. McCone: . Anyplace; the United States, Soviet Union, or anyplace...

Gerald Ford: Mr. McCone, do you have full authority from higher authority to make full disclosure to this Commission of any information in the files of the Central Intelligence Agency?

John A. McCone: That is right. It is my understanding that it is the desire of higher authority that this Commission shall have access to all information of every nature in our files or in the minds of employees of Central Intelligence Agency.

Gerald Ford: On the basis of that authority, you or the Agency have made a full disclosure?

John A. McCone: That is correct.

J. Lee Rankin: Mr. McCone, if I may return to you, I will now ask you if you have any credible information that you know of or evidence causing you to believe that there is any or was any conspiracy either domestic or foreign in connection with the assassination of President Kennedy?

John A. McCone: No; I have no information, Mr. Rankin, that would lead me to believe or conclude that a conspiracy existed.

Gerard Ford: Did the CIA make an investigation of this aspect of the assassination?

John A. McCone: We made an investigation of all developments after the assassination which came to our attention which might possibly have indicated a conspiracy, and we determined after these investigations, which were made promptly and immediately, that we had no evidence to support such an assumption.

Gerard Ford: Did the Central Intelligence Agency have any contact with Oswald during the period of his life in the Soviet Union?

John A. McCone: No; not to my knowledge, nor to the knowledge of those who would have been in a position to have made such contact, nor according to any record we have.

Gerard Ford: Did the Central Intelligence Agency have any personal contact with Oswald subsequent to his return to the United States?

John A. McCone: No.

J. Lee Rankin: Mr. McCone, your Agency made a particular investigation in connection with any allegations about a conspiracy involving the Soviet Union or people connected with Cuba, did you not?

John A. McCone: Yes, we did. We made a thorough, a very thorough, investigation of information that came to us concerning an alleged trip that Oswald made to Mexico City during which time he made contact with the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City in an attempt to gain transit privileges from Mexico City to the Soviet Union via Havana. We investigated that thoroughly.

J. Lee Rankin: Do you also include in your statement that you found no evidence of conspiracy in all of that investigation?

John A. McCone: That is correct.

J. Lee Rankin: And also the investigation you made of the period that Lee Harvey Oswald was in the Soviet Union?

John A. McCone: That is right.

Allen W. Dulles: Could I ask one question there? Does your answer, Mr. McCone, include a negation of any belief that Oswald was working for or on behalf of the Soviet Union at any time when you were in contact with him or knew about his activities?

John A. McCone: As I have already stated, we were never in contact with Oswald. We have no evidence that he was working for or on behalf of the Soviet Union at any time. According to his diary, Oswald did receive a subsidy from the Soviet Red Cross which we assume had the approval of the authorities. Such a payment does not indicate to us that he even worked for the Soviet intelligence services. Furthermore, we have no other evidence that he ever worked for Soviet intelligence.

Gerard Ford: Is the Central Intelligence Agency continuing any investigation into this area?

John A. McCone: No, because, at the present time, we have no information in our files that we have not exhaustively investigated and disposed of to our satisfaction. Naturally, any new information that might come into our hands would be investigated promptly.

(2) (2)J. Lee Rankin was interviewed by Michael Ewing, staff member of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1978)

Though I stated that I didn’t want to go into his past work over the phone at this time, he went on to make several points. First, he stated that he believed that “hindsight makes it clear that both Hoover and the CIA were covering up a variety of items” from the Commission and he personally. He said that the had been continually saddened over the years by “all the disclosures about Hoover’s performance in our area and a number of others.” I commented that he (Rankin) was apparently not one of Hoover’s favorite people and he laughed and said “That is now abundantly clear, though I’ve never read my dossier.” He said that he finds the FBI performance “quite disturbing in hindsight. We would have found their conduct nearly unbelievable if we had known about it at the time.” He commented that the destruction of the Hosty note was “a crime—a crime committed by the FBI, and one which directly related to the assassin’s most important actions and motivations during the final days” before the murder. He again said that he finds the Hosty note destruction “almost beyond belief, just unconscionable.” I commented that we have heard testimony to the effect that if the staff had known about it at the time, that the decision to use the FBI for investigative work might have changed. He agreed, saying, “We couldn’t have used the people involved in any further way, that’s clear. The FBI would have to have been regarded as a suspect in that instance and that in turn would have affected everything.” He indicated that he would have gotten his own investigators at that point.

He further stated that “Hoover did everything he could” to get the Commission to adopt the earliest FBI report on the shooting, which Rankin said “we of course finally rejected.”

He then made a point of inquiring about our work relating to the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro. He said: “One thing which I think is very important, and I don’t know if you are getting into this - and I don’t know if it is proven or not - is whether the CIA used the Mafia against Castro.” He said that there were reports in recent years that this was true and that it involved an assassination conspiracy against Castro. He said, “Do you know if this has been proven?” I said yes it had, and briefly explained the history of the plots and their concealment from anyone higher than Helms at the time. Rankin then responded, “Ah yes. I’ve been very afraid that it was all true. But I haven’t followed all the books and reports in recent years.” He went on to say, “I would find the plots with the Mafia - the Mafia being mixed up with the CIA and these Cubans - frightening. You’ve got to go after that.” He went on to say “That again is something that would have been beyond belief at the time.” He said Helms’ role in the plots and his concealment of them from the Commission “would have been just unconscionable.” He expressed great anguish over hearing that the plots were in fact confirmed. It seemed strange that he has not followed public developments on the plots more carefully, but he indicated that he simply does not follow these areas and has not read “any of the Church Committee reports.”

When I said that we were devoting considerable time to investigating the CIA/Mafia plots he said, “Good, good. That is crucial.” He went on to say “that would have changed so much back then” if he had known of the plots. He said that he found the plots all the more disturbing in light of the fact that Robert Kennedy was pushing his investigations of the Mafia so heavily during that same period.

He repeatedly expressed the view that both the FBI and CIA had concealed important material from the Commission, and that the CIA/Mafia plots would have had a “very direct bearing on the areas of conspiracy which we tried to pursue.” He also asked, “Are you looking into the plots on the basis of whether they were covered up by the CIA because some of the very people involved in them could have been involved in the President’s assassination?” I said that yes that was an area of our investigation, and he replied strongly, “Good. Good. You have to look at it that way.” I also said that we were looking into charges that Castro might have retaliated for the plots by killing Kennedy, and he replied, “Where is any evidence of that? I think the other approach would be much more logical.” This was apparently in reference to probing those involved in the plots themselves.

I told him that we would of course make extensive material available to him in reference to our questioning of him, noting that we want him to refresh his memory as to his old memos, etc. as well as other documents that we will give him in advance. He was very appreciative of this and said he would like to know more about the CIA/Mafia plots and our work on them.

He remarked a couple times that he has nothing to regret about his work on the Commission, and that he tried his hardest to make it the best investigation possible. He said he still believes very strongly that he had a good staff of the finest legal minds. He did of course say that the agency cooperation and input (FBI and CIA) was and is the key issue to him.

(3) J. Lee Rankin was interviewed by Kenneth Klein of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1978)

J. Lee Rankin: There were two on each of the areas.

Kenneth Klein: Would it be fair to say the the the Federal Bureau of Investigation did most of the investigation for the Warren Commission?

J. Lee Rankin Well, that would be accurate as to the proportions, if you mean by most, percentage-wise, but we used all of the intelligence agencies of the Government before we got through and sometimes we used one intelligence agency on matters that we were not satisfied concerning and which were worked upon by another intelligence agency. Oftentimes we wanted a doublecheck or felt that there were some inaccuracies or we were not completely satisfied, and asked some other agency that had no apparent relationship to check on the matter for us.

Kenneth Klein: Whose decision was it to use Federal agencies as opposed to hiring investigators?

J. Lee Rankin That was a decision of the Commission, although I recommended that kind of a procedure because I described various possibilities of getting outside investigators and that it might take a long period of time to accumulate them, find out what their expertise was, and whether they could qualify to handle sensitive information in the Government, and it might be a very long time before we could even get a staff going that could work on the matter, let alone have any progress on it.

Kenneth Klein: In 1964, at the conclusion of the investigation, what was your opinion of the performance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

J. Lee Rankin Well, as to their cooperation with us, I thought it was good. We were critical about some of the things that happened about alerting the Secret Service, about information that they knew about and we learned they had not informed the Secret Service about. That was all in the report. But as far as not being frank and open with us and revealing what information they had, we assumed that they did that. I did, at least, and I think the Commission did.

Kenneth Klein: You have partially anticipated my next question, which is, today, 1978, with what you learned over the course of the years, what is your opinion with respect to the performance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

J. Lee Rankin Well, I have been very much disappointed with some of the things that have been revealed and I have, of course, no personal knowledge about those matters. I have just read them in the press from the reports of investigations by the Senate committee and others, but I had a close relationship with J. Edgar Hoover while I was in the Department of Justice and it was always friendly, but also professional, and I thought good. I never believed that he would withhold information or have it withheld from anybody like the Commission or that the FBI would do that. It seemed to me from my experiences that they were more professional than to do anything of that character. When I learned that they were supposed to have known about plans for an assassination that were underway in the CIA, according to the investigation of the Senate committee , and did not report it to us and that we didn't receive any such information from the CIA, it was quite disheartening to me to know that that kind of conduct was a part of the action of our intelligence agencies at that high level.

Kenneth Klein: I only asked the question as applying to the FBI, but your answer applies to the CIA and the FBI; is that correct?

J. Lee Rankin I think it was our experience as it is revealed by investigation on the Senate committee. With the CIA it is worse than with the FBI because the FBI apparently did not originate the assassination plans and apparently the CIA did. So the FBI only happened on to them or were informed about such plans and then did not convey them to us. But the CIA, they were apparently involved in them and did not alert us to the situation at all, give us any opportunity to take the action that we should have had the chance to, of investigating that type of information.

Kenneth Klein: As General Counsel of the Warren Commission, you had no knowledge whatsoever of the assassination plots against Fidel Castro?

J. Lee Rankin That is true, I did not.

Kenneth Klein: What were some of the pressures, the political pressures, time pressures, that were exerted upon the Warren Commission staff?.

J. Lee Rankin We had pressures from the beginning on the time element because the country was anxious to know what had happened and whether there was any conspiracy involved. I was assured by the Chief Justice that it would only take me 2 or 3 months at the outside in this job and that is all the time I would be away from my law practice, and, of course, I wished to get the job done correctly and properly, but also to get back to my other work. On the other hand, the first meeting we had with the staff, I told them that our only client was the truth and that was what we must search for and try to reveal. I think we adhered to that, that we never departed from that standard, any of the Commission or myself or the staff. We tried as conscientiously as possible to convey the information explicitly that we discovered.

(4) J. Lee Rankin was interviewed by Harold Samuel Sawyer of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1978)

Harold S. Sawyer: Did you make any effort either as a staff or, to your knowledge, as a Commission, to determine just where Oswald was going at the time he was intercepted by Officer Tippit?

J. Lee Rankin We speculated on it but speculations aren't worth much.

Harold S. Sawyer: Did you come to any reasonable hypothesis as to where he was going?

J. Lee Rankin We all agreed that he was on his way to try to escape but where we didn't know, and everything from that point on was just one person's guess against another's.

Harold S. Sawyer: Of course, I presume you were aware that the direction in which he was heading at the time that he was con- fronted by Tippit kind of led to nowhere with respect to either escape routes or anything, just out in the neighborhood?

J. Lee Rankin We didn't think that was really the complete answer because at that point he was very hardpressed and we thought he was more in the posture of just running.

Harold S. Sawyer: Well, did you find out that Jack Ruby's apartment was about two or three blocks up the street, also on the direct route he was going?

J. Lee Rankin Yes.

Harold S. Sawyer: Did you also find out that in the Dallas newspaper announcement of the President's visit, that on the same page was the identity of an informant who had substantially destroyed the Communist Party in Texas by informing to the FBI and he was identified as living just about two blocks up the street, also on the direct route he was going?

J. Lee Rankin I don't recall that I was aware of that.

Harold S. Sawyer: But other than just the fact that on this some 14 or 15 minute walk he had taken through a neighborhood after leaving his roominghouse, other than just running or escaping, you had formed no hypothesis on where he may have been going or what his intent may have been?

J. Lee Rankin That is true, we did not.

Harold S. Sawyer: With respect to - as you are undoubtedly aware, much of the criticism of the Warren Commission report and much the basis of the various critics who have written extensively on the subject has been centered about one thing, principally the single bullet theory and the fact that available time did not permit one assassin. You made a decision or you and the Commission not to allow access to the autopsy information. Are you still satisfied with that decision as being a sound one?

J. Lee Rankin Yes, I am. I think it has been revealed, that the basis of the decision was that the Kennedy family did not wish to have the pictures of the President, as shown by the X-rays and the other pictures after the assassination attempt, be the way that the American people and the world would remember the dead President. We thought we had good evidence from the doctors who were involved at the hospital in Dallas and also at the autopsy, and we did not want the President's memory to be presented in that manner, and we had already promised the American people that the investigation that everything that we obtained, except for such matters as involved national security, would be made available to them, so we would have had to publish it, if we used it ourselves. In light of that, I think the choice that was made was correct and I don't think it has done any harm. I still would hate to have published throughout the world those pictures as a remembrance of our President.

(5) J. Lee Rankin was interviewed by Richardson Preyer of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1978)

Richardson Preyer: I have just a couple of questions, Mr. Chairman, relating to the problems that might have been created by using the FBI as your major investigative arm. Early on in the work of the Commission, I believe it did come to your attention, allegations came to our attention that Lee Harvey Oswald might have been an FBI agent; is that right?

J. Lee Rankin That is correct.

Richardson Preyer: How were you able to investigate the truth or falsity of that charge? What did you do to investigate it?

J. Lee Rankin When that information came to my attention and then to the Commission's, we were very much shocked about it and the Commission had deliberations in which they tried to determine what was the best approach to try to find out the fact. They decided that we should make direct inquiries to J. Edgar Hoover. The problem was not, as I recall it, whether Oswald was ever listed as an agent in their records because, as I recall, we checked that out and he was not. My recollection is that the question involved whether he might have been a numbered personality that the FBI had where the name of the individual is not revealed and thus has a cover, and it could be concealed. We examined the possibility that we could try to go into their records and examine every person, identify every person who had a number and we were assured that involved a large number of personalities. The FBI was greatly disturbed about the idea of taking the cover off of all those agents that they had established over a long term of years and revealing their names to all of the staff as well as the Commissioners. I couldn't assure that their identity would not become known in that kind of a process. So, the Commission finally determined that they would accept J. Edgar Hoover's personal assurance by affidavit that Oswald had never been an informer or agent of the FBI, and that was given.

Richardson Preyer: But you were somewhat in the position of asking the FBI to investigate itself or going to the innkeeper to ask whether the wine was good or not.

J. Lee Rankin Well, back at that time, Congressman, that did not seem so impossible as it might today.

Richardson Preyer: Yes; I think your answer to an earlier question has demonstrated a certain fall from innocence that we have all had since that time. Things are now believable which we would not have thought believable at that time.

J. Lee Rankin That is correct.

Richardson Preyer: The threshold of this belief has gone up quite a bit. Let me ask you one other thing. The FBI reached a conclusion in their report that was made 17 days after the assassination that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Don't you think that would have had some chilling effect, would have dampened the incentive of FBI agents in following out the question of a conspiracy where his organization had already declared itself to the effect that there was no conspiracy?

J. Lee Rankin I think that is true but we always assumed that. We started out knowing the FBI had already decided who the assassin was and that no one else was involved, and we knew that was the agency position. It was very evident. But we did not rely on anything like that. We sought detailed evidence and if we didn't get the evidence we asked for, we sent back time after time to get it. We treated their report in which they promptly found Oswald as the assassin and that was no conspiracy as though that was just an interesting document, but we are not there to ratify that; we were to find out if it was true and I think we were probably quite offensive, especially some of the younger members of our staff who looked forward to the opportunity of finding that the FBI was wrong, at least on as much as they could find. So that often times they were challenging the agents, I had difficulty with some of our relationships because of that. I do not think it affected our people at all, but, of course, I recognize that it would have been less majesty for anybody to tell Mr. Hoover, that the report was wrong.

Richardson Preyer: Just one final question along the problems that could arise where you use the FBI as your major investigative arm. You told Mr. Sawyer, I believe, that you did not know about the destruction of the Hosty note. Do you think if you had had independent investigators rather than relying on the FBI that you would have learned about the destruction of that note?

J. Lee Rankin: There is always the possibility that we might. It seems to me there is a possibility it might have leaked out some way from the FBI, but it did not. I think that it would have been helpful to know that, although I do not suppose we would have changed about using the FBI and the other government intelligence forces, if we had discovered the note.