LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Atlanta filmmaker Bill VanDerKloot about his latest work, "Inside the Warren Commission."

View, in 2014, of Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas, where Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumptive assassin of President John F. Kennedy, found a perch above the plaza on Nov. 22, 1963

View, in 2014, of Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas, where Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumptive assassin of President John F. Kennedy, found a perch above the plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.

Credit: Public domain

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For most of that time, the circumstances surrounding his killing have been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories. Some of those theories may have their origin in the way the government's official investigation into the assassination played out. GPB’s Peter Biello spoke with Atlanta-based filmmaker Bill VanDerKloot, whose documentary Inside the Warren Commission premieres tonight on GPB.


Peter Biello: So when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the Warren Commission was set up to examine the FBI's initial report into what happened. But there was more to it than that. Can you tell us a little bit about the Warren Commission's purpose?

Bill VanDerKloot: Yes. Well, it was really a political purpose. [Lyndon] Johnson knew he was going to run for president in '64, and the FBI had done an extensive investigation of the assassination. But he needed a commission, because there were conspiracy theories that started literally immediately after the assassination and he wanted to quell that. And also, he wanted to make sure that he was carrying the torch for President Kennedy, because, remember, he was thrust into the Oval Office. He wasn't elected and he wanted to be elected on his own. And so that — the commission, the Warren Commission, really solved his political problem. If he could give it an official stamp, a bipartisan official stamp, that this is what happened and let's move on.

Peter Biello: And it was called the Warren Commission because it was chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. He wanted to just approve the FBI's report with minimal effort. But other commissioners felt it needed more investigation, correct?

Bill VanDerKloot: Correct. Immediately. In fact, you can see in the extemporaneous notes that Sen. Russell made during that the first commission meeting — which was on Dec. 5, just a little over a week after the assassination — he says something strange is happening. It looks like Oswald is the only one being considered. And he said, "This is no good. We need to bring on a chief counsel and do our own investigation."

Peter Biello: You're referring to Georgia Democratic Sen. Richard Russell. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Warren Commission. And he actually announced that he'd put Russell on the committee before he told Russell. He did this through a press release. The two had a phone call about that which you put in your film.

Lyndon Johnson: That has already been announced, and you can serve it anybody for the good of America. And you're my man on that commission and you're going to do it. And don't tell me what you can do and what you can't because — I can't arrest you and I'm not going to put the FBI on you. But you're g**damn sure going to serve. I'll tell you that.

Richard Russell: I can't do it. I haven't got the time.

Lyndon Johnson: There's not going to be any time to begin with. All you're going to do is evaluate a Hoover report he's already made. You're going to lend your name to — to this thing because you're the head of the CIA committee in the Senate.

Peter Biello: So Russell, as you said, wanted his own investigation. Actually, when the Warren Commission report comes out, he issues a dissent. But in the clip we just heard, he says he doesn't have time to even serve on the commission. So how did he go from "I don't have time for this" to "This needs more than just a rubber stamp. It needs its own investigation."

Bill VanDerKloot: Well, he took his job very seriously on the commission and so did a lot of the other people. They were people who weren't used to being told what to do.

Peter Biello: What lessons from the Warren Commission could be applied to later commissions like the one that wrote the 9/11 report?

Bill VanDerKloot: I think there's a lot of lessons here, but one of them is: you need to be as open and transparent as possible and lay out the facts. Don't assume that the audience is dumb and can't follow the line of evidence. I think they can. I think they need to go in clearheaded and know that many times a government agency, if there was a connection there, might want to cover up some of the things because it might be an embarrassment. Certainly in this case, the FBI and the CIA both knowingly withheld evidence from the Warren Commission.

Peter Biello: There's been a lot written about the Warren Commission over the decades. In your film, Inside the Warren Commission, was there something in particular that you really wanted to convey, something new or something maybe you think that's been under-emphasized?

Bill VanDerKloot: If you look at the data, trust in government stayed pretty level up until the Warren report came out and then suddenly it declined and it continues to do so today. And whether or not the Warren Commission was the starting point of that, it certainly probably had some kind of input in there. It really defined the way people look at the way government operates. And it's a lot more complex than just: "Did he fire three shots?" Because there's so much involved in that commission. The politics, the personalities and ultimately the results of the investigation and what they decided not to investigate. All those things come together to make a fascinating story.