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Audio Recording of JFK Assassination

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Thought members might be interested in this story in yesterday's Guardian.

Gunshot tape that could solve the JFK mystery

Michael Janofsky in Washington

Thursday August 5, 2004

The Guardian

About a year from now, one of the most vexing mysteries in US history may finally be solved: did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have begun work on a digital scanning apparatus that they believe will be able to reproduce sound from the only known audio recording of the assassination of John F Kennedy on November 22 1963.

The recording was made through an open microphone on a police motorcycle as Kennedy's motorcade entered Dealey Plaza, Dallas, where the president was shot. The sounds were captured on a Dictaphone belt at police headquarters, but scientific analyses of them over decades have proved inconclusive, fuelling arguments about how many people were involved in the killing.

The federal government's official inquiry into the assassination, the Warren commission, concluded in 1964 that Oswald was a lone gunman who fired three shots from the Texas Book Depository building above the plaza. But a House committee 15 years later concluded that four shots were fired, including three from the book depository and one from another location, giving rise to all manner of conspiracy theories.

Like old 78rpm records, the Dictaphone belt became worn and damaged through constant replay. When it became the property of the National Archives in 1990, its technical staff recommended that no further efforts be made to replicate its sounds through mechanical means.

But that left preservationists with a daunting and historically important challenge: How could the sounds on the old plastic belt be captured for posterity? And, if they could, would they provide unequivocal evidence of how many shots were fired?

Leslie Waffen, an archivist at National Archives, said he not only believes that the sound can be captured, but that, using digital analysis to map the sounds, scientists can remove extraneous noise such as static and distant voices to reveal gun shots.

"This is big," said Mr Waffen, whose unit has custody of the belt as well as the original 8mm home movie by Abraham Zapruder, which showed the assassination in colour but utter silence. "That's why we called the experts in. They came up with a recommendation to do this."

After a meeting of the National Archives advisory committee on preservation in June, the job was left to Carl Haber and Vitaliy Fadeyev of the Berkeley laboratory, who have used a digital optical camera to replicate sounds on fragile Edison cylinders and long-play records. The process involves scanning the grooves of the Dictaphone belt electronically to create a digital image of the sound patterns.

Once that is achieved, Mr Waffen said, the scientists could "clean it up, like peeling layers off an onion to get down to the sound floor" of the recording. And that, he said, could reveal how many shots were fired.

That question has bedevilled government officials, law enforcement agents and historians since the event, leading to an array of conspiracy theories involving the mob, Fidel Castro, Lyndon B Johnson, Russians or, as the film director Oliver Stone would have audiences believe, the "military-industrial complex".

Among the strongest and most persistent alternative theories to the Warren commission report is the involvement of a second gunman on a sweep of land above the motorcade route that came to be known as the grassy knoll. It gained widespread currency after the 1979 congressional investigation, which relied, in part, on a graphic comparison of the sounds on the Dicta phone belt and a test of gunshots in Dealey Plaza.

They produced evidence that four shots were fired, with indications that the first, second and fourth shots came from the book depository building and the third came from the grassy knoll.

But three years later the National Academy of Science concluded that the noise that had been ascribed to gunshots was something else, such as static. That was the last time the belt was played.

Once it became the belt's custodian, the National Archives was faced with two questions: What should be done with it? And how could its evidence be accurately captured and made public?

For years, those questions were unanswered, until it became clear that new technologies might produce evidence that was unreachable through older, less sophisticated analytical methods that risked further damaging the belt.

The advisory commission concluded that the National Archives had a responsibility to provide a true copy of the sound, if not enhance it. That, the panel members said, could be left to the researchers.

"People want to know," said Gary Mack, of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. "The Warren commission said it was one guy. The House committee said it was Oswald and someone else. There hasn't been any resolution."

"Scientists have studied these sounds for 25 or 30 years and have still reached different conclusions," he said. "But with today's technology, we can get a better reading and answer the question, one way or the other."


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