November 22, 1963–Nobody minding the store

November 20, 1963, and November 26, 1963

Courtney A. Evans, FBI

On November 22, 1963, Courtney A. Evans, Assistant Director of the Special Investigative Division in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was in Seattle, Wash., to give a speech for the FBI when he heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Evans, a friend of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, rushed back across the country to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. The Special Investigative Division was assigned the investigation into the assassination.

FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that at the time of the assassination, almost every top official of the Special Investigative Division was, like Evans, unavailable.

A memorandum dated Nov. 26, 1963, from Bureau Supervisor Nicholas P. Callahan, presents the “Location of Officials” to longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The memo also presented Hoover, already stung by criticism of his Bureau, plenty of challenges from a PR standpoint. Assistant Director of the Special Investigative Division Alexander Rosen was at home ill, taking annual leave. The third Assistant Director of the division, William C. Sullivan, had to return to Washington from his home town of Hudson, Mass.

The sole division official available, James R. Malley, Number One Man or assistant to Rosen in charge of the General Investigative Division, was sitting in Rosen’s office. The president was shot about 12:30 p.m.; Malley learned of the assassination when, after returning from lunch, he happened to turn on Rosen’s desk radio and caught the news.

Malley later testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that it was mid-afternoon before he was informed that the Special Investigative Division would be handling the assassination.

House committee on assassinations

The other three Number One Men, as the next tier of officials was known, were also away from headquarters. W. (William) Mark Felt, later to become famous as ‘Deep Throat’ in the Watergate scandal, was at Quantico, Va., where as Felt later put it he had become “a kind of Dean of the Faculty” for training programs. Number One Man Frank W. Waikart was on annual leave. Number One Man H. L. Edwards was in Miami, Fla., doing an inspection.

Like their immediate superiors, the five division Inspectors next down the ladder were also out, one on sick leave and the others on trips to Baltimore, Miami and Chicago. The closest to hand was Charles H. DeFord, Special Agent in Charge in Columbia, S.C., who was in the Identification Division (fingerprint) building that day. Two officials on the Inspection Division Staff were also away on inspections in Miami and Baltimore. None were with President Kennedy on his trip to Dallas, Texas.

Thus the most sensitive investigation with which the FBI had ever been trusted, in what was instantly called the crime of the century, was to be spearheaded and coordinated by a unit scattered among several cities and remote from the crime scene, its members largely out of touch with each other. Malley’s HSCA testimony presents a disturbing picture:

“Later in the day, and I presume it must have been close to 3 o’clock, I was either told [by] telephone or asked to come down to [Assistant FBI Director Alan H.] Belmont’s office, I cannot recall which, at which time he informed me that the General Investigative Division would be handling the assassination case of President Kennedy.
Following that, and still not having many details to go on, I started lining up personnel that would be available on a round-the clock basis to handle whatever might develop.
Mr. McDONALD. Were you given any specific instructions as to what your role would be?
Mr. MALLEY. Not at that time.
Mr. McDONALD. And your immediate supervisor was Mr. Rosen?
Mr. MALLEY. That is correct.
Mr. McDONALD. Was he present that day?
Mr. MALLEY. He was not. He was scheduled to go on annual leave that morning and instead of taking off as he had planned to leave the city, he was ill and did not leave the city at all. He eventually came back to the office sometime the following week.
Mr. MCDONALD. Did you have any meetings with Mr. Hoover on that day?
Mr. MALLEY. I did not.
Mr. McDONALD. What were the next set of instructions you received on Friday afternoon?
Mr. MALLEY. I don’t recall that I received any instructions on that particular afternoon . . . there was a lot of confusion . . . Because up until around 7 o’clock, if my memory is correct, there was a definite uncertainty as to what jurisdiction the Bureau had.”

History and irony

Just six days earlier, the Special Investigative Division had received high marks from the FBI director, as had Assistant Director Courtney Evans, a twenty-year veteran at the Bureau. A Nov. 20, 1963, inspection report from FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s self-described “alter ego,” to Asst. Director James H. Gale, rated the Division “Very Good” in four categories—Physical Condition and Maintenance; Specific Division Operations; Administrative Operations; and Personnel Matters. The division received an “Excellent” rating in the fifth category, Contacts. Director Hoover was acutely aware that Courtney Evans had ties with the Kennedy administration through his closeness to Robert Kennedy, and a large part of Evans’ job was to serve as liaison between the FBI and the Kennedys.

The report concludes approvingly,

“Assistant Director Evans continues to maintain excellent contacts in Bureau’s behalf with Attorney General, Cabinet officers, White House staff, members of Congress, and other highly placed Government officials. Legislative matters pertaining to work of Special Investigative Division closely followed and coordinated with other Bureau Divisions. Effective liaison maintained with Department and other Government agencies to further Bureau’s work and protect its interests.”

The inspection reports, followed up by letters from Hoover, remorselessly disclose where FBI resources went and where they did not go.

Evans, who had been rated Outstanding in his previous five annual performance reports, received a special commendation from Hoover in a letter Apr. 25, 1963:

“I want to commend, through you, the clerical tour leaders in your division who assisted in such an effective fashion in handling tours for the extremely heavy influx of visitors to the Bureau during the 1963 Easter Season.”

Evans was also praised the same month for a speech he had given at the Founders Day Banquet of the Augustinian Academy in St. Louis, Mo. Speeches and other appearances for the FBI were frequent gigs for Evans, who was consistently rated favorably for personal appearance and clothing style.

History is always 20-20. For perspective, it was in April 1963 that Lee Harvey Oswald moved to New Orleans, where he had been born and where he maintained the complicated ties that ultimately connected him to the shooting of a president.

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