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FRONTLINE: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?

Michael Sullivan
Executive Producer, Special Projects
Friday, November 21, 2003; 11:00 AM

On Nov. 20, FRONTLINE marks the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination with an encore broadcast of "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?" -- an investigative biography of the man at the center of the political crime of the century. The three-hour documentary special traces Oswald's life from his boyhood to that fateful day in Dallas on November 22, 1963, posing a number of questions: Was Oswald the emotionally disturbed "lone gunman?" Was he one of two gunmen that day in Dallas? Or was he an unwitting scapegoat for the real assassins?

Michael Sullivan, executive producer of special projects, was online Friday, Nov. 21 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the film, Lee Harvey Oswald and why so many questions about Kennedy's assassination linger 40 years later.

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"Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?" airs Thursday, Nov. 20 on PBS. (check local listings)

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Huntsville, Ala.: I just wanted to say this was the best documentary on the whole JFK and Oswald shooting I've ever seen. Thank you for airing this. I wonder where and what has happened to Mrs. Oswald and her child?

Michael Sullivan: There are two children. Mrs. Oswald didn't interview with us. She's still living in the Dallas area as I recall. She has come to believe, contrary to what she said before, that there was a conspiracy and she's become quite vocal about that. She's become incommunicado on this issue. And the children are grown up. They did spend some time with Priscilla McMillan, Mrs. Oswald's biographer.

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Milltown, N.J.: For years I believed there was a conspiracy but after watching your documentary, I believe Oswald was a lone gunman. Was there any thing in your show that I missed which provided evidence that a conspiracy existed?

Michael Sullivan: No, interestingly, the team that put this film together went through the same process. We were all conspiracy theorists before working on this, but the process of interviewing and gathering evidence changed us all and we all came to believe that he acted alone. Despite the associations he had.

But in the end, there are no other bullets from Oswald's gun that anyone has discovered. You can't find Oswald involved with anybody in the weeks leading up to the assassination he was basically alone.

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Michael Sullivan: The other thing that gets quoted is the "I'm a patsy line." The whole sentence is "They just picked me up because I'm a communist..." I'd never seen that whole sentence before. They always just run the patsy part.

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Laurel, Md.: The Oliver Stone movie references a "Harvey Lee Oswald" that the CIA had files on, but were inaccessible or missing after the assassination. Have you heard of this alleged cover-up anywhere else?

Michael Sullivan: Well, we had some parts of it in there. For example the missing audio tapes from Mexico City. I think the CIA is covering up about Oswald. We had evidence of a debriefing. There is evidence of audio and photos of him in Mexico City. The CIA is covering quite a bit.

I don't think it means they had a role in the assassination. But they are covering up what they've known for 40 years.

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Washington, D.C.: If Oswald was indeed the assassin, what was his motive? I understand an investigator for the Warren Commission asked Robert Oswald, Lee's brother,the same question.

Michael Sullivan: It is surmised -- you have to remember that he was political. He is a loner who wanted to do something big in his life. Politics are always from the left. His big issue is the U.S. is being too aggressive toward Cuba. Kennedy. I think it's a combination of his looking for a grand role and he looked at his role as being a political assassin. There's a lot of subterranean work going on in those years to try to kill Castro. But it was all coming from the Kennedys. Particularly Robert Kennedy. So that makes the most sense politically.

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Kinston, N.C.: Mr. Sullivan, I enjoyed your show about Oswald although I feel it raised as many questions as it answered.

I think what makes it so hard for some people to accept the official conclusion, i.e. Oswald acted alone, are the large number of things that had to go right for Oswald to carry out his act.

For example, how Oswald did know the top would be off of the President's limousine. Was this information reported in the Dallas papers in the days before the President's visit? Otherwise he got the information from some other source.

Look forward to your chat.

Michael Sullivan: I don't know the answer to that question -- what was public about the limo and I suppose if there was a cover on the car, which the secret service suggested and Kennedy refused, maybe he would have shot through the window.

The serendipitous thing about this is that he was working in this building and that the motorcade route is coming right in front of it. This is so close to have not happened, too. Oswald visited his wife the night before and asked her on three occassions to come live with him in Dallas. And that's not the action of a man who is determined to assassinate the next day. You get the sense that if she'd said yes that this wouldn't have happened. He was so fragile about pulling his family together. It's a fragile decision... it's not accidental, but almost. It's absurd, which is why we have such a hard time dealing with it at the end of the day. To kill Kennedy for such minor reasons and we're all looking for an explanation that fits the scale of the event.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Has the Kennedy family ever taken a public stand on what they think really happened? Do they accept the Warren Report or do they believe in a conspiracy?

Michael Sullivan: Interestingly Robert Kennedy, it was reported, after the assassination feared the mob had done it because of his work against the mob. He had some former FBI investigators examine this privately for him. His investigators concluded the mob hadn't done it and since then they said they believe the Oswald acting alone theory.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Have you heard of Judyth Baker, who claims to have been Oswald's girlfriend in New Orleans?

Michael Sullivan: That's not a story we investigated. We did this story in 1993 originally. I have no inside dope on Ms. Baker.

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Gothenburg, Sweden: Was he really such a good marksman?
Could he shoot three shots so quickly with such accuracy?

Michael Sullivan: The answer is yes. He was a decent military marksman in the Marines and a lot of the early reporting on the timing of the shots had it at 6 seconds, quite fast. But the new studies over the last decade have shown it looked like 8 seconds -- which makes it much more possible. We had a piece of animation which showed the view through a sniper's scope from the window to the motorcade. We put sensors on the rifle and it looked quite possible. There's a long time between the second and third shot (which killed Kennedy). The third shot hit the president in the head... but that one looked quite possible.

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Arlington, Va.: Can you shed any light on the med student who saw the Presidential Limo with a bullet hole in the front windshield as it was at Parkland? Credible or not credible?

Michael Sullivan: I don't have any dope on that. We didn't do a forensic investigation. There are no other bullets or fragments, no evidence discovered of bullets from another gun and that's the most important evidence to focus on. There's got to be some evidence somewhere if these bullets existed and its just not there. Not in Kennedy, in the limo, in Connally, or anywhere. I think that more than anything is the really solid stuff -- more than eyewitness testimony or strange acoustic analysis.

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Somewhere, USA: Regarding the Walker shooting, were you ever able to reconcile the statements of Oswald (that he acted alone) with the statements of the boy (that he saw two cars)?

Michael Sullivan: No. Though I think Oswald's statement are a lot more believable. The written record that existed that he left behind for Marina to read give no indication that anyone else was involved. You don't need anyone else there to explain it. He almost hit Walker.

There's nothing in his plans. So whether these people happened to be there as well... could just be a coincidence. The teen didn't see Oswald, interestingly. The big thing to think about with him -- there's nothing in his life indicating that he's doing anything with anyone at any time. Look at his Fairplay for Cuba chapter. He was the only member. He didn't plot with others to defect to the Soviet Union. He operated in his own fantasy, a politics of one. He's not joining organizations. He can't get anyone to play with him. He can't get into Cuba. He can't get back into the Soviet Union. He's just not with anybody. He's always alone. Always. He's very political, but always alone. It's a politics of one.

Two things you ask about Walker -- do you need other people to explain what happened? No. He was a right wing general. Oswald hated right wingers. The written documents talk about it as just his act. The description to his wife in private is only about him. There's no reason to believe those things are collected. It's sort of like Occam's razor. If the simple explanation works, that might be it. It's the psychological largeness of the event that makes it seem wrong.

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Kinston, N.C.: I was surprised at the dissembling done by former CIA director Helms. Why do you think he was being so evasive about Oswald's contacts with the CIA?

Michael Sullivan: Well, I think the CIA has institutionally decided to hide what its been covering up about Mexico City for decades. It didn't happen on his watch, but he was the oldest one alive and we interviewed him. I think the CIA covers up a lot all the time. They're notorious for it. And the fact that Oswald was killed and the stuff that would have been trial evidence encouraged agencies to cover their butts on this one. Having information beforehand about the man that killed the president successfully is kind of embarrassing.

They had a note from Oswald complaining about their following him and they tore that up.

So between covering embarrassment and their own predilection to cover things up, those two motives explain the cover-up to me. It just seems silly now to maintain that posture today.

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Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: I seem to recall reading that 50 or 75 years after the assassination, all classified material relating to that day will be released. Is this true?

Michael Sullivan: It's already basically happened. After Oliver Stone's bill there was a special bill mandating the files be made public. It's taken a decade, but there is still a lot of doubt that the CIA released all they know. Either they're hiding it or they destroyed it long ago.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Did you watch the History Channel's portrayal of Oswald? If so, what were your thoughts? They interviewed his lover at the time of the shootings and she said his communist ties were all a hoax so he could get into Cuba to assassinate Castro. I believe he was a scape goat.

Michael Sullivan: I saw the big one about "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" and I think its quite foolish.

What we tried to do -- the big problem with this case is that there was no trial. If there had been a trial all of this would have been tested. So part of what we tried to do in this film, was try to give people a fair representation that leads people toward doubt and not having doubt that Oswald acted alone.

You can never erase all doubt. Never. What a jury does, though, is sift through it all and come to a decision beyond a reasonable doubt and that's a good standard. Life is too complicated to be seen as pristine.

People also hold two thoughts in their head and can't see them as not being connected. That the CIA could cover-up information they have and not be part of the assassination. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other. The mob probably did want Kennedy dead, but it doesn't mean they did it.

Lots of people had motive, that's what makes it so interesting. But it was only Oswald who had the means and opportunity to do it.

I think a jury would have come to that conclusion as well and that would have been done. Jack Ruby really hurt the country by killing Oswald and depriving the country of getting through this.

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Tijuana, Mexico: Could there have been a connection with David Ferry? Is it possible that rather than some grand scheme involving large groups or agencies, that it could very well have been a conspiracy made in New Orleans and that Oswald got some logistical support and encouragement from Ferry?

Michael Sullivan: He did know David Ferry. He's very interesting because he was closely associated with groups to overthrow Castro. He worked for Carlos Marcello. He might have known Oswald when he was a teenager.

But what there isn't is any credible evidence that they associated in 1963 when Oswald went back and lived there. You can't find an operation. There are myriad associations that are interesting, but the operations aren't there. David Ferry isn't in Dallas. There's no evidence that they were working together.

Remember, seven weeks earlier, Oswald had been trying to get to Cuba. These weeks are the ones you want to concentrate on.

He was there in the building. The motorcade went by. He poked it out the window and shot the president. What logistical support do you need for that? I don't see it. I don't see anyone with him or the necessity for a bigger explanation.

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Seattle, Wash.: Oswald seems to have been under considerable surveillance by the FBI and CIA after he returned from the Soviet Union. How could they have been unaware of his mental state, desperation with his dissolving marriage, target practice, trip to Mexico City and Cuban Embassy, etc.? And if they were aware as seems quite likely, why did they not warn the Secret Service? By the way, I do not believe the government conspiracy nonsense, but am amazed at the degree of incompetence, especially by Hoover.

Michael Sullivan: Well, there are three indicators -- the weapons he bought. The picture he had Marina take of him. And the third was the shooting of Walker. So they didn't have him under considerable surveillance.

They interviewed him when he came back from the Soviet Union. The CIA probably interviewed him as a routine matter and had him under intense surveillance, accidentally, while surveilling the embassies in Mexico City. And yes, they're clearly covering up.

But we have excellent evidence he was there -- from the hotel, testimony. We know what happened even without the CIA evidence. None of the stuff we do know says he was doing anything other than what he said he was doing.

So I don't think they ran into evidence that he was a potential assassin. Very few people did understand he might do that. Marina was the only one who knew enough to suppose that. They knew his politics, but not that he was violent.

So you wouldn't have assumed he was a danger to the president.

And I'm sure that's why they hid some of their evidence -- because they were embarrassed. It is very normal and human to me.

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Springfield, Va.: I've wondered why Oswald had no obvious escape plan after the assassination? Why would he return to the boarding house and then walk an additional distance before he was stopped by police officer Tippett?

Michael Sullivan: Well, I think that's hardly the sort of -- this was not a well planned assassination. He didn't do what he did with Walker. He didn't lay out written plans. Maybe he hadn't been sure he was going to do it until the night before.

All in a sort of serendipitous nature of this. It almost didn't happen. Couple that with poor planning and it's less a surprise that he didn't have an elaborate escape plan. He left plans after Walker.

You clearly sense that it would have been a political show trial -- if it were up to him. He'd made inquiries into a socialist lawyer in New York to defend him. So my suspicion is that it would have been a wild show trial on his part. He would have been talking about the evil administration.

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Reston, Va.: Mr Sullivan,

I enjoyed the program last night but was not able to see the last hour of it. Perhaps you mentioned it in the show, but is Ruby's motivation for killing Oswald expected to be sheer hate for the assassination? Did Frontline address other possibilities, such as a conspiracy cover-up.

Michael Sullivan: We did do a considerable section on Ruby.

Here's the way to think about him. Either they are both involved in the conspiracy to kill the president or their both acting out of private motivations.

And the best answer on Ruby -- who did have mob connections directly to Carlos Marcello -- those associations exist, but you don't find people talking to Ruby about killing Oswald.

Also what Ruby's talking about is his deep anger -- and he was a very violent man. He's also got another weird motivation. His real name was Jacob Rubenstein, he was Jewish. And there was an add in the newspaper from a Jewish group that was anti-Kennedy and he wanted to prove the Jews had nothing to do with this. It's so overwhelming that seemed to be a better explanation.

Also, why would the mob ask someone so unstable as Jack Ruby to do this? Same goes for Oswald. These guys were both kind of out of it. To imagine them being hired as primary actors sort of beggars belief, I think.

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Washington, D.C.: Assuming that Oswald was not the lone nut that the cover up requires, what else can be said about the 23 year old who was never permitted to defend himself at trial for the crime of the last century?

By all objective evidence, including the book, "Oswald and the CIA," Lee was a very ambitious and resourceful CIA field operative. When his task was to befriend the Soviets, he wound up marrying the attractive daughter of a high ranking military officer. When his task was to agitate in New Orleans, he accomplished that task with great success too. Oswald was no ordinary 23 year old.

Michael Sullivan: I agree. He wasn't ordinary. But at the same time. there is no credible evidence that he was an agent of anyone. He's a guy who spends time alone. There's no evidence that he's doing this stuff at the behest of other people. He could've been, but you can't find the evidence. And it does make sense over time that this is all coming out of his own brain.

Look at the Fairplay for Cuba group. They discouraged him from starting a chapter in New Orleans and he did it anyway. He did things on his own. And he's clearly trying to impress... in the book "Legend" by Epstein, it says he's trying to build a record that will impress the Cubans. He walked into that embassy in Mexico City and brought his record and says he wants to fight for Castro. He'd soured on the Soviet Union and Castro was his new hero. He tries to infiltrate the right wing Cubans. I think that makes the most sense. But again it describes a man working by himself out of his own vision. He's unusual but not sophisticated. Which is what the KGB concluded about him. They didn't think he was an American agent.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: Fascinating program--thanks. Most facts do seem to suggest that Oswald acted alone. But one passing point got me thinking. How did Dallas police get such a relatively detailed description of a suspect so quickly? Didn't the program mention that someone (on the ground, I presume)who had seen a figure in the sixth floor window gave the description? How could they have have estimated his weight and height so closely?

Michael Sullivan: There's two ways they got that -- from the description of that witness. But the other evidence was that they discovered quickly that Oswald was the only employee not to be present in the hour after the assassination. So they had a description from the depository. So they had two sources.

And police description always say height and weight, even if imprecise.

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Hermosa Beach, Calif.: My husband watched your program last night and felt it was one of the best documentary's
he has ever seen. When will it be televised again?
Thank you,

Michael Sullivan: You should check -- a lot of stations rebroadcast the film in the same week. You can also go on the Frontline web site (linked above) and you can put in the call letters of your local station and get the repeat schedule for the program in your area.

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Dallas, Tex.: What about the theory that Oswald was trying to kill Jackie and not John?

Michael Sullivan: Oswald was a political guy. Her politics were irrelevant.

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Alexandria, Va.: You mentioned the photo taken of Oswald with the rifle. A long time ago, a JFK assassination "expert" came to my college campus and talked about that photo. He said it was an FBI hoax. He showed us a photo of what he said was an FBI agent in the exact same pose. He said that photo was real, and that the FBI had simply doctored it to substitute Oswald's head for the agents. The goal, he said, was to pin the assassination on Oswald.

Michael Sullivan: The basics on the photograph is, the house assassination committee in 1979 also debunked any idea that this photo was a fake. We have very basic stuff here. Marina testified that she took it. The camera was determined to have taken it. They then did a big study on the shadows in the photo, which really got people arguing whether it was a fake or not. The reason is because Oswald told people in the Dallas police dept that it was a fake. I'm not sure his version of events.... what's really consistent about what Oswald said, is he's trying to hide the fact he owns the rifle in that picture. He denies he'd used the alias A.J. Hidell, even though he had a card in his wallet with that name on it in his wallet.

So people who want something else to be the truth have followed up on it. I think it has been totally debunked. He'd also signed another copy as a present to a friend. So explain that one if its not real.

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