After I responded to Philip Shenon’s article about Attorney General Robert Kennedy being a “conspiracy theorist,” other commentators weighed in on the general subject of the Attorney General and the Warren Commission. Several did not accept my conclusions; others expressed understanding of why the Attorney General would prefer not to testify before the Warren Commission.
I think it is useful in discussing this issue to disentangle the three separate questions that are raised by this discussion. These are: (1) Did Robert Kennedy refuse to provide the Commission with a sworn statement that he was not aware of any evidence of a conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of the President? (2) Should Robert Kennedy have provided the Commission with the information he had regarding the CIA’s plans to assassinate Castro? and (3) At the time he was assassinated in 1968 did Robert Kennedy believe that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy contrary to the conclusion of the Warren Commission. I will address only the first question in this discussion.
Did Robert Kennedy refuse to provide the Commission with a sworn statement that he was not aware of any evidence of a conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of the President?
As I previously stated, my answer to this question is “No.” Let me explain why.
As of mid-May 1964, the Commission had heard dozens of witnesses and needed to decide which witnesses should be asked to testify in the next few weeks. After canvassing the staff, Rankin submitted a memo (which I drafted) dated May 13, 1964, to the Commission that listed 12 candidates to appear before the Commission, with a few words identifying what each of these witnesses might contribute to the Commission’s work. The full list was as follows:
J. Edgar Hoover and John McCone (“Relationship with Oswald and current state of investigation”);
Mrs. John F. Kennedy (“Events of November 22, 1963″);
Robert F. Kennedy (“Evaluation of investigation”);
Sgt. P.T Dean (“Conversation with Ruby on November 24″);
Dist. Atty. Henry Wade (“Events of November 22-24 and evaluation of current investigation”);
Marina Oswald (“Various additional matters regarding her husband”);
Chief Rowley (“Presidential protection”);
FBI Agent Shaneyfelt, Ronald Simmons (and possibly Agent Frazier again) (“Approximations of distances and locations after Dallas Project [the reenactment]. Additional tests with rifle in light of any new data produced as a result of Dallas project.”);
Nosenko and Jack L. Ruby (“These witnesses both raise special problems which should be considered further by the Commission.”)
I believe this memorandum demonstrates that as of May 13 Rankin and I (and perhaps other members of the staff) believed that Robert Kennedy might appear before the Commission. The Attorney General had not told me that he did not wish to appear before the Commission and no one else at the Department had expressed this view on his behalf. If Rankin had received any such message from Warren or anyone else, he and I would have discussed it before including Robert Kennedy’s name on the list of prospective witnesses.
The Commission met on May 19, 1964. Rankin issued a short memo after the meeting stating that the Commission had discussed “the taking of further testimony.” If such a discussion took place, it was not in the presence of the court reporter because the 55-page transcript does not record it. (The reported discussion at the meeting related solely to consideration of security clearances for two members of the staff about whom questions had been raised.) I assume that Rankin and Warren had a discussion after the meeting on this subject (perhaps with one or more Commission members) or in the next few days before I met with Rankin on May 22. They obviously concluded that Nosenko should not be a witness, that the Commission should travel to Dallas to hear Ruby if he was willing to testify, and that I should be instructed to consult with the Attorney General about arrangements for taking Mrs. Kennedy’s testimony and about his own “statement”.
As reflected in my journal entry of May 22, Rankin instructed me along these lines. Rankin said nothing to indicate that Warren had talked to Robert Kennedy on this subject either before or after the Commission meeting on May 19. What the Commission wanted from the Attorney General (and other agency heads) were assurances on two matters; (a) all relevant information pertaining to the assassination in the possession of the department or agency had been delivered to the Commission; and (b) the agency head had no information regarding the existence of any conspiracy that led to the assassination. I am not aware that any member of the Commission or its staff expressed an interest in having testimony by the Attorney General on any other aspect of the investigation; and Rankin at our meeting on May 22 did not express any different view.
I believe that my initial meeting with Ed Guthman on May 28 (as described in my June 4 journal entry) supports my view that the Attorney General had not told Warren that he did not wish to appear before the Commission. I believe that Guthman would have known of any such conversation if it had taken place. As my journal note indicates, Guthman and I discussed the possibility of Kennedy’s testifying before the Commission as well as the alternative of a statement by him that would address the concerns of the Commission. On June 2 Guthman told me that he had discussed the matter with the Attorney General and asked me to prepare a statement along the lines we had discussed.
I drafted the statement found in the Commission files. I do not know why I included the reference to the Attorney General being “sworn” in the first sentence. Rankin had clearly said “statement” and not “affidavit.” The document is entitled “Statement” and does not include the standard concluding statement in any affidavit that the witness “swears or affirms” that the facts contained in the document are truthful. All I can conclude is that I made a mistake — neither the first nor the last in my professional life.
I took this statement to my meeting on June 2 with Guthman and Katzenbach. They rejected the statement that I had prepared as “sterile and unsatisfactory.” There was no discussion of its reference to the Attorney General being “sworn.” As a result of this decision, the Attorney General never saw the statement I had prepared. It was at this meeting that Katzenbach proposed the “third alternative” of an exchange of letters. Katzenbach did not tell Guthman and me that he had discussed the Attorney General’s appearance before the Commission with any Commission member or, indeed, with the Attorney General. His view simply was: a letter from the Attorney General would address the Commission’s concerns effectively and remove the need for any further personal involvement by the Attorney General in the Commission’s work.
When we met with the Attorney General on June 4, he did not tell us (or indicate in any way) that he had told Warren or any other member of the Commission that he did not wish to appear. If he had done so, I believe he would not have discussed the possibility of testifying before the Commission as one of the alternatives under consideration at our meeting. He stated that he would do whatever the Commission wanted him to do. He stated that he recognized the desirability of having a statement from him to the effect that he had no evidence of a conspiracy and that the Department of Justice had provided all the relevant information in its possession regarding the assassination to the Commission. At Katzenbach’s request, I had prepared a draft letter from Robert Kennedy to the Commission which he reviewed at the meeting. He suggested one modification reflecting the fact that he had not received any reports from the FBI regarding the assassination. After further discussion, he approved the exchange of letters as a preferred manner of addressing the Commission’s concerns.
Following the meeting, I wrote a memo to Lee Rankin reporting on my meeting that day with Katzenbach and the Attorney General and the proposed exchange of letters between the Commission and Robert Kennedy. I did tell Rankin that “The Attorney General would prefer to handle his obligations to the Commission in this way rather than appear as a witness.” I told Rankin that the proposed response by the Attorney General to a letter from the Commission had not been approved by him or on his behalf by Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach. On June 11, 1964, Warren on behalf of the Commission wrote the Attorney General asking (a) whether he was aware “of any additional information relating to the assassination of President John F Kennedy which has not been sent to the Commission”; and (b) whether he had “any information suggesting that the assassination of President Kennedy was caused by a domestic or foreign conspiracy.” On June 12, 1964, I sent Katzenbach a copy of Warren’s letter to the Attorney General and provided a revised draft response from Kennedy to the Commission. I wrote Katzenbach regarding the draft response: “The letter is completely satisfactory to Mr. Rankin and the Chief Justice, and the Chief Justice feels that such a response will eliminate any need to call the Attorney General as a witness before the Commission.”
The approach followed by the Commission with respect to the Attorney General was not unique. The Commission asked for, and received, non-sworn statements from President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson about the events on November 22, 1963. In addition, the Commission report (page 384) listed several US officials who agreed with the Commission’s conclusion that there was no evidence of a conspiracy. Most of the officials named had testified before the Commission — Secretary Dillon, Secretary Rusk, Hoover, McCone, and Rowley — and had expressed their conclusion to this effect during their testimony. However, Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, did not appear before the Commission and provided his statement regarding the lack of evidence of a conspiracy in an unsworn letter to the Commission, which is Exhibit 3138 in the Commission’s records.
Based on these facts, I conclude that (a) the Commission never asked the Attorney General to provide sworn testimony regarding the lack of evidence regarding any conspiracy; (b) the Attorney General never saw the draft “sworn” statement I prepared; (c) he therefore never refused a request for sworn testimony; and (d) The Commission’s acceptance of his non-sworn letter addressing the Commission’s two basic concerns was fully satisfactory to the Commission and consistent with its practices.
POSTSCRIPT: THE DELAY IN THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S RESPONSE
Some commentators have found it “curious,” if not “suspicious,” that the Attorney General did not send his letter back to the Warren Commission until August 4, 1964 – some seven weeks after he received Warren’s letter. They obviously had not read the following discussion of this issue at page 192 in my book:
“I met with Katzenbach on June 17 to follow up on Mrs. Kennedy’s testimony and the attorney general’s response to Warren’s letter. I told him: ‘I would prefer that the letter not be answered immediately.’ By way of explanation, I mentioned that ‘I expected there would be a considerable difference of views between the Chief Justice and the staff regarding the quality of the report.’ If this situation developed, I told Katzenbach, ‘I intended to fight for a report I considered satisfactory, and indicated that a delay in sending this letter would bolster my position.’ Katzenbach said that he would hold the letter while the attorney general was in Europe from June 23 to June 30.
I had no reason at the time to believe that Warren (or the other members of the commission) might try to limit the investigation or shape its conclusions in a way that would be unacceptable to me or other members of the staff. I may have been thinking of our difficulties with the Treasury Department on presidential protection issues. But I was obviously anticipating the worst, and being able to employ the persuasive force of the Justice Department and Robert Kennedy, if necessary, was a precautionary step that seemed appropriate at the time.”
I never spoke with Katzenbach again about Robert Kennedy’s response to the Warren Commission. I do not know the circumstances under which the letter was presented to him for signature on August 4. I do know that this was an incredibly busy (and tense) time at the Justice Department as the Attorney General considered his political future, which led to his resignation from the Department in early September.