Unredacted Episode 6: Transcript of Interview with David Talbot
David Talbot is the founder of Salon.com and author of the new book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. The book delves into the reaction of Robert Kennedy to his brothers murder and his subsequent political odyssey, and also paints a picture of JFK at war with his national security bureaucracy. This interview was conducted by Rex Bradford on 2 May 2007.
REX: This is Rex Bradford and we’re here with Unredacted again, and my guest today is David Talbot, who is a founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon.com, and has also writtten for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and other magazines, and most recently, he’s the author of a new book entitled Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, which is going on sale May 8th. Welcome, David.
DAVID: Hi Rex, thanks.
REX: Sure. I read your book over the weekend, and found it fascinating. It reminded me in parts of Arthur Schlesinger’s Robert Kennedy and His Times, although unlike that book, yours kept veering into the assassination of President Kennedy, and particularly his brother, Bobby’s, reaction to it, and I think that’s where you have some new information which really hasn’t made it out there previously. I was wondering if we could start by talking about what happened in the aftermath of JFK’s murder. What did Bobby do?
DAVID: Sure. And I’m glad and honored to hear you compare my book with Schlesinger’s epic biography of Robert Kennedy, because what I was trying to do was not just write another conspiracy book with Brothers, but to tell what I thought - and of course still is - an epic American drama. I wanted to focus on some of the darker events of the 1960s, specifically JFK’s assassination and the turmoil within his administration, but to do it through the prism of Bobby Kennedy, his brother, who was his devoted protector, his political watchman, his attorney general. It always intrigued me what Bobby did or didn’t do to look into this monumental crime, the death of his brother, and so that’s what motivated me.
In some ways, it’s a grand human interest story as much as it's a book about the conspiracy to kill the President; but of course, that’s what Bobby immediately concluded, as I say in my first chapter, on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963. He immediately thought that the death of his brother did not just involve Lee Harvey Oswald, he thought it was a plot, and the area he looked into immediately was the CIA’s secret war on Cuba, which of course was part of his own portfolio in the Kennedy administration. So it was a secret war that he was very knowledgeable about, and he knew the violent tensions that were boiling within this world, and he immediately connected Oswald, I think to the assassination, and to the secret war.
REX: You retell the story where he called Harry Williams, who was with journalist Haynes Johnson, and said “one of your boys did it.” What’s your take on that conversation?
DAVID: Right. Well, of course, that’s been a hotly debated question for years now among assassination researchers, and my take on it, after interviewing Haynes Johnson, the Washington reporter who was with Harry Ruiz Williams in the hotel room when Bobby told Ruiz Williams this - and this was Haynes’ original interpretation as well - was that Bobby knew the name Oswald by then, that Oswald had been arrested in Dallas, and instead of connecting Oswald to the pro-Castro Communist movement, as the CIA and FBI was aggressively trying to portray him as at that point, Bobby rejected that view of Oswald and instead connected him to the anti-Castro underground.
When he said to Harry Ruiz Williams, “one of your guys did it,” he meant an anti-Castro militant, and in a sense was saying “one of our guys did it,” because Bobby was in charge of that movement. My speculation about this, and this part is, of course, pure speculation, is that whoever constructed the plot against JFK knew that they would have to immobilize Robert Kennedy. That was a very important aspect of their operation, because he was the most aggressive investigator in America, and they knew how devoted to JFK he was. He was going to be coming after them immediately.
I think one of the ways they did immobilize him was by planting the seed of doubt immediately that he had failed his brother in some way, that it was his responsibility that his brother had been killed, because this was the secret operation that he was supposed to be in charge of.
REX: So, in some sense, the story that Johnny Roselli and his associates floated in late ’66 that plots against Castro tracked back to Bobby Kennedy was at least in a sense true?
DAVID: In a literary sense, in a metaphorical sense, right. Roselli was right, and of course that’s what they were signaling to Bobby. Of course, Bobby rejected the concrete facts of what they were alleging. Bobby did, I believe - as he said to many people - he thought he’d shut down the murder plots against Castro, the CIA/Mafia plots. What he did know, in a larger, metaphorical sense, is that he might have been responsible because this was the area of government his brother put him charge of and this was where the plot had come from, so he hadn’t seen it coming.
Bobby, people called him JFK’s “constant watchman.” Well, he thought this had been a lapse on his part, that he hadn’t protected his brother, and I think he went to his grave feeling a great sense of guilt about that.
REX: What did you find out that was new about RFK’s reaction in the days after Dallas?
DAVID: Well, how aggressive he was immediately that day, working the phones at his home in Hickory Hill - the Civil War era mansion where he lived. He was always loathe to have any protection at all until the day he was shot, but he allowed his aides, people like Ed Guthman, to surround his house with Federal Marshals. He thought that they were coming for him next. The sense of drama, of tension, of crisis, I think that gripped the Kennedy circle and the government as a whole that day is just palpable.
He immediately connects the plot to the secret war on Castro. He then tells family this a couple days later at the White House. He starts using surrogates like Walter Sheridan, a former FBI agent, to begin hotly pursuing every lead that he can. When Jack Ruby shoots Oswald down on camera on national television, he immediately has Sheridan looking into Ruby’s mafia connections, and within 24 hours of the shooting, Sheridan’s reporting back to him that he found evidence that Ruby has been paid off in Chicago by associates of teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, who is, of course, Bobby’s great nemesis.
So, already they’re seeing this as a CIA-Mafia operation. I believe that they’re seeing it as an operation that was masterminded within the government, but some of the sleazier aspects were carried out by the mafia.
REX: So, Ruby, who the Warren Commission would later call someone who was “keenly interested in policemen and their work,” Bobby knew right away that wasn’t who Ruby was?
DAVID: Exactly. He rejected that, and I actually found not only evidence that Sheridan was reporting back to him about Ruby’s mob connections, but he was getting secret correspondence from informers that was pointing Bobby in the same direction. There was one letter I saw, from somebody that I quote in the book, saying “Jack Ruby is a notorious trigger man.” “Finger man” I think is what they call him, for the mob, and that he is a frequent guest, and he names a mafia nightclub, I believe, in Southern California where Ruby used to hang out. This information, I think, was coming to Bobby from a number of different directions within hours of the Oswald hit.
REX: Before we leave the immediate aftermath of Dallas, one of the stories you tell in the book is a more detailed retelling of a story that first appeared in One Hell of a Gamble, and this is Bobby sending, and Jackie I guess, sending a personal emissary to Moscow, which is an amazing story, and one that didn’t really get picked up too much in the press - which is maybe not unusual in this case. I wonder if you might summarize that story?
DAVID: Yes, I’m glad again you’ve highlighted that. I was amazed when I first read that account in the book by Russian historian Alexander Fursenko and American historian Timothy Naftali, came out a number of years ago, because as you say, the media didn’t pick up on it although the book was reviewed very positively.
It was within days - a week after the assassination, Bobby and Jackie send a close family friend, a confidante named Bill Walton, a former Time magazine war correspondent who then became a painter and was very close to both Jack and Jackie in the White House; JFK made him his Fine Arts Commissioner. He was on his way anyway to Moscow, for JFK as part of JFK’s broadening peace mission with the Soviet Union, and this was going to be part of an artistic exchange mission Walton was going to go on. Bobby goes to him and says, “look, go ahead with this mission,” because Walton thought he should cancel it at that point after Jack’s death. But Bobby and Jackie say no, and go ahead and take a secret message to Georgi Bolshakov, who was the Soviet agent who had been stationed in Washington during the early years of the Kennedy administration, who they used as a “back channel” to Khrushchev and they established a confidential relationship with. Walton meets with him, because Bobby tells him “don’t go to the U.S. Embassy first,” because he doesn’t trust the people there, specifically our U.S. Ambassador there, Foy Kohler, who was an anti-Kennedy guy, and staunch anti-Communist. He says, “meet directly with Bolshakov at a restaurant,” which they do, “and pass him this information.” The information that the Kennedys pass to the Soviet agent is, “look, don’t worry. We know you guys didn’t kill JFK, despite what the intelligence agencies in the U.S. are trying to promote.” What they tell him is remarkable. They say that “the plot was a high political conspiracy that came out of, that was based in the U.S.” That it was a domestic plot, not a foreign plot, and that “someday I’m going to run for President, and if I win, I’m going to resume my brother’s policies of detente towards the Soviet Union.”
To me this is a remarkable message because here’s Bobby Kennedy, who was once a counsel for Joe McCarthy, a staunch anti-Communist himself coming from his Irish-Catholic background like McCarthy. And yet, at this point in his life, he is clearly putting more trust in the Soviet government at the height of the Cold War than he is in his own government, which he now has great distrust for, at least parts of it. I think that is a remarkable episode.
REX: It really is. This is late ’63, and I think your book and a few others before it have told a story which challenges some of the Cold War mythology about Kennedy. You hear over and over again the inaugural speech about “paying any price” and so forth. And over the years, certainly many people have told a quite different story about a Kennedy administration that - particularly during the second half, after the Missile Crisis, but even before - was searching for a way to maintain peace in the world up against the military and CIA establishment that was on a different page.
This is much too big a topic for this interview, but I wonder if you might touch upon that, or talk about any of the interesting interviews you conducted with insiders for your book that might shed some more light on that?
DAVID: Absolutely. I think that’s a key theme of my book, because after Bobby comes to the conclusion that there’s a plot and starts to look into the sources of the plot, then I have to explain why Bobby felt the way he did, where these suspicions came from. So the next two chapters, or three chapters, of my book, I look into the administration itself, and the explosive tensions within the Kennedy administration.
What I think sparked these tensions is that Kennedy, by the second - certainly by the final year, the third year - of his administration is moving very decisively towards reaching a detente with the Soviet Union, and ending the Cold War years before that finally happened; also opening a peace back channel with Castro, who was his arch-nemesis in this hemisphere.
I think, as Kennedy told his friend, Bill Walton - the person who later went to Moscow for Jackie and Bobby - he said "I'm almost a 'peace at any price' President." Robert McNamara told me that his epitaph, JFK always wanted his epitaph to be "he kept the peace," and McNamara said he did, against enormous odds. He was under constant pressure, from the Bay of Pigs on, to engage with a Communist enemy somewhere in the world, whether it was Berlin, or Laos, or Cuba, or Vietnam, he was under enormous pressure to have a nuclear war from some of the more zealous members of the National Security establishment, like Curtis LeMay, the head of the Air Force, who Kennedy thought was completely unhinged.
The context of the times - people who didn't live through it can hardly appreciate how terror-filled it was. 9/11 pales in comparison to this. Here you have the head, a member of the Joint Chiefs, World War II hero, Curtis LeMay with his finger on the button of an enormous nuclear arsenal going to a party in late 1961, I believe in July of 1961 in Georgetown, sitting next to the wife of a U.S. senator, and he tells her blithely, "there's going to be a nuclear war with the Soviet Union before the year's over." Completely dumbfounded and terrified, the woman says, "well, is there anywhere I can take my children and grandchildren to be safe?" He says, "well, most American cities, most major cities are going to be obliterated, but maybe you can find some spot out west in tumbleweed territory where you can be safe."
LeMay seriously thought you could have a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and actually win, as long as you ended up with more nuclear weapons at the end of the war than the enemy did.
REX: It seems like he and some other people of that period felt that it was inevitable. I mean, some might have been more relishing the idea than others, but ...
DAVID: That's right. McNamara told me that [LeMay thought] it was inevitable, and that if you had to fight it, you should fight it sooner rather than later, because America did have, despite the Missile Gap campaign issue that Kennedy ran on in 1960, in 1961, the U.S. had enormous nuclear superiority over the Soviets and so that's where the pressure came from, from the military.
REX: On that topic, wasn't July '61 when there was a somewhat obscure National Security meeting in which it was presented to Kennedy that the Missile Gap was in the U.S. favor and increasing, and there would come a time before long when a first strike would be a viable option?
DAVID: That's right. The pressure starts to build then, as Kennedy and the Pentagon realize that they do have this massive superiority over the Soviets.
REX: Now, you know -
DAVID: No, go ahead.
REX: I was going to refocus back on Cuba in the same vein because there are certainly a lot of people who have studied the Kennedy administration in a fair amount of detail that take a different view on the Kennedy brothers' involvement and knowledge of the plots to kill Castro. For instance, the AMLASH plot in '63, where Rolando Cubela was recruited in Bobby Kennedy's name. Now, you certainly take the view that this was done behind his back. Other people will think, "well, Fitzgerald is a social friend of the Kennedys, they must have worked out something behind the scenes." How is someone supposed to parse the truth in the larger question, and in that plot in particular?
DAVID: There's been a whole new wave of revisionist work done by people who are, for the most part, in the anti-Kennedy camp, who think that they were - and these are both liberals and conservatives - who believe the Kennedys were guilty of a number of sins, and one of them was being overly aggressive about Cuba, and going so far as to recruiting Mafia henchman to try to assassinate Fidel Castro. I don't see any evidence of that.
When you read the testimony of somebody like Richard Helms, who was effectively running the CIA, despite the fact that John McCone was Director in name at least during the Kennedy period, after Dulles was fired. Helms, if he had the evidence, he would have loved to present it to the Church Committee when he testified there in the late '70s when they were pursuing this question of assassination plots against foreign leaders. He dances around it in a very slippery way, but at the end of the day, he can't provide them with the evidence, he says, "Robert Kennedy would have liked us to do that. We thought we were doing what he wanted us to do." But, at the end of the day, when the senators said, "well, did he ever tell you to do this?" No. He could provide no evidence that he was ever told to do this by the Kennedys.
So, there was a lot of winking and nodding on the part of these CIA officials like Helms when they testify about this, but at the end of the day, they were never able to provide evidence, solid evidence that the Kennedys were pushing them to assassinate Castro. In fact, both JFK and Bobby, in their lifetime, told associates - very close aides - on a number of occasions, that they thought they had stopped these plots.
I believe that that's the case. That they actually believed in the famous meeting that Bobby had in May of 1962, I believe in the Attorney General's office, where he confronts two high-ranking CIA officials, who tell him about these plots, and he caustically tells them, "I hope in the future you'll have the decency to tell the Attorney General of the United States if you are collaborating with gangsters."
I interviewed John Siegenthaler, who was Bobby Kennedy's right hand man at the Justice Department, when he had that meeting, he was present at that meeting, at least at the beginning. He saw Bobby's fury when the CIA officials notified him about these Mafia plots was genuine. You have to put yourself in Bobby's shoes. Here's a man who made his name in public life as an anti-crime crusader. He loathed these Mafia chieftans, who he was constantly running up against as a rackets investigator in the '50s and then as Attorney General. The idea that the U.S. government would be collaborating with people like this on anything, let alone the assassination of a foreign leader was just appalling to someone like Robert Kennedy.
There was no love lost between Castro and the Kennedys, and Bobby - particularly after the Bay of Pigs - when he was put in charge of Cuba by his brother, clearly would have liked to get rid of Castro through a number of means. But I think, what their "dream scenario" was was that they could foment a guerrilla uprising - just the way Castro had come to power - within Cuba, that would spark a popular unrest that would lead to the toppling of the Castro regime. That was their dream scenario. I don't think it was realistic, as they found out, Castro had too much popular support of his own. That's what they were aiming for. Their efforts, like Operation Mongoose and others, were aimed at not assassinating or decapitating the Castro government.
REX: Around the same time as the AMLASH plots was when a second track on Cuba opened up. Journalist Lisa Howard was involved in the early stages of putting together Kennedy associates with Castro associates to try to see if an accomodation could be worked out, and you write about this in your book. You also include the news that her phone was tapped, and therefore the CIA would have been aware of this. Where did you find that out?
DAVID: Her key ally in this effort to bring peace between Washington and Havana was a U.N. diplomat named William Attwood. He'd actually been an old acquaintance of JFK's back in prep school days, where they had actually been interested in the same girl, who figures prominently in Kennedy's life later, Mary Meyer. Mary Pinchot Meyer.
In any case, Jack and Bill Attwood had known each other for years, Attwood becomes a roving foreign correspondent for Look magazine, he works for Adlai Stevenson, and then he switches camps and he joins Kennedy, and he becomes a diplomat in the Kennedy administration.
Lisa Howard, who knew Attwood, began working with him - very quietly - to establish this back channel negotiation - she actually became Castro's mistress, as I write, in that process. Attwood goes to the Kennedys, he gets the green light to do this. Everyone thought that Bobby, given how hot-headed he was about Castro, would have nixed this. No, he tells them that "it's a great idea, let's just make sure it doesn't leak," because he realizes that if it leaks to the Washington press corps, the Kennedys will come under fire from the hard-liners and it will all be over.
They do try to keep it as quiet as possible, they're trying to determine where the meeting should be held - should it be held at the U.N., or in Cuba, or maybe even in Mexico - so the eyes of the press don't focus on it. Attwood later - he died in the late 80s of heart disease - but before he died, he gave a number of very interesting interviews which I came across, in which he says he believed that it did leak, and that it leaked because his phones at the U.N. were tapped by the CIA.
REX: I see.
DAVID: There's good reason to believe that Lisa Howard would have been under surveillance as well because she was in fact being debriefed by the CIA whenever she came back from Havana on these trips.
In any case, Attwood was convinced of this, that the CIA got wind of these secret negotiations, and he went on to say, even more explosively, that once it did start to leak into some of the more volatile areas of the National Security circles that were very upset with the Kennedys for not being more aggressive against Cuba that this set off a chain reaction that led to Kennedy's assassination.
So, for a major establishment figure, which is what William Attwood was - he later went on to become publisher of Newsday, the newspaper in Long Island - this is a pretty remarkable thing to say that he - again, one more person besides Bobby Kennedy from these elite government circles - he thought the plot to kill JFK came out of the secret war against Castro.
REX: That was one of the fascinating things for me in reading your book: the number of statements, both in books and interviews, and various other sources from Kennedy intimates and people involved in the Administration to the effect that they knew that the Kennedy assassination was a plot and even had inklings as to what was behind it. Compared to what we sort of have in the general public was that there's been just this complete silence of a generation, and in fact they haven't gone on to write 300 page books about the topic, or 400 page books about the topic.
I'm curious, you talked to a number of these people, and collected a few more stories and I wonder if you might discuss that whole business of the silence of the Kennedy generation?
DAVID: Yes, including unfortunately, some of the Kennedy circle themselves, these men who were devoted to the Kennedy brothers - most of them were men - who Bobby called his "band of brothers," the ones who worked in the Justice Department. That's another thing I was intrigued by - what did these men do or did not do to solve the crime of the century? Particularly the ones who had a legal background, who were investigators who worked with Bobby at the Justice Department, and by and large, these men, unfortunately, did nothing, despite the fact that many of them did have deep suspicions, if not knowledge of what had happened in Dallas. I'm thinking specifically of men like Kenny O'Donnell, JFK's top White House aide, who was riding ten feet behind the President's limousine in Dallas, and saw that shots clearly came from the front - the Grassy Knoll area as well as the back. He and Dave Powers, another White House aide both testified to that. But he was told to keep quiet by the FBI - Kenny O'Donnell - and he did. He later said that he felt very guilty about this, and we know from Tip O'Neill's memoir that it was disturbing him years later.
But, people like Arthur Schlesinger clearly had great suspicions and misgivings. Dick Goodwin, Frank Mankiewicz, Adam Walinsky, there's a long line of people that I've spoken to who expressed their feeling that Oswald was not the full story in Dallas. Very few of these men spoke out, and you know, I talked the the comedian, the political satirist Mort Sahl in my book, who I found very interesting, who sacrificed his own career - he was making over a million dollars a year as one of America's top comedians at that time. He sacrificed that to volunteer for Jim Garrison in New Orleans as an unpaid volunteer. He suddenly, his gigs, his appearances on Johnny Carson start to dry up, because people didn't want to hear him talk about the conspiracy to kill JFK. He knew these Kennedy people, he socialized with them, he had been a speechwriter for Jack in 1960 and he confronted them sometimes, and said, "you know, what the hell are you doing?" He believed these people kept wanting to be invited to these Georgetown parties, and I think that's unfortunately what happened with the Washington elite in general, I don't want to pin it all on the Kennedy circle. This was true throughout the Washington elite.
You have a situation where the Washington elite clearly - and I'm talking about the very top people: LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ben Bradlee - all had deep suspicions that something very dark and terrible had happened in Dallas and chose to keep quiet about it. The American people instinctually in their gut, in their wisdom, understood the same thing, and you have, within a very short time of the Warren Commission being released, the American people, the public opinion starting to shift, and believing there was a conspiracy. Of course, polls routinely show that anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the American people nowadays, or even higher, believe there was a conspiracy. So you have the elite believing that, you have the public at large believing that. The only people that keep clinging to the Warren Report at this stage, the lone gunman theory, are the media gatekeepers, for whatever reason, and that's what I think is enormously frustrating today.
REX: Is that to avoid saying "we were wrong for 43 years?"
DAVID: That certainly was the case up through the Dan Rather generation who bought into the Warren Report - they didn't want to admit their mistakes. I think that's true. But now you have to the new generation of media people, and a kind of cyncism and snide reaction to any book that alleges there was anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald behind the plot to kill President Kennedy. It's appalling to me because the Europeans, the foreign press, obviously have seen this differently for decades. The American people see it differently. As I say, the political elite in our own country whisper among themselves, at their own dinner parties in the '60s that they knew that what the Warren Report was saying was a lot of bunk. But, the media gatekeepers still haven't caught up with this wisdom.
REX: I get a sense from reading the stuff that's all over the Internet these days that there's a phenomenon of late going on these last few years, where the fact that the Warren Commission and the FBI laid down this vast body of evidence implicating Oswald, and that the counter-evidence exists outside these official channels, that over time, as people realize less and less what that era was all about, and what the FBI and Warren Commission may have been all about, there's less appreciation for that, and people focus more and more on the ballistics evidence and the medical evidence - which itself is a mess - but, to give an example: Your book is coming out this month at the same time as Vincent Bugliosi is publishing a 1500-page version of Case Closed, which is going to prove in exhaustive detail that the physical evidence and the other evidence says that Oswald did it himself.
So, I think it's a little more than just journalists defending themselves. They have a very creaky, but nonetheless gigantic body of work to fall back on.
DAVID: Yes. And to tell you the truth, Rex, that wasn't the point of my book - to pore over the ballistics evidence and to go through the minutia of Dealey Plaza once again and sort that all out. Again, what I was looking at was what Bobby Kennedy himself thought happened and what he was doing to solve the crime.
What my sense from my own research - you know, you can prove anything, and lawyers particularly can prove anything. There is enough evidence out there on both sides for you to present what sounds like a plausible case, either for Oswald as the lone gunman, or for a conspiracy. I just think from my own readings of the voluminous evidence we now have because of the JFK Review Act, the government documents that were released as a result of that legislation, and the exhaustive work done by researchers over the years, Peter Dale, and many of whom are still working on this. Peter Dale Scott and Jeff Morley and many, many others on both sides of the issue. I think that any reasonable person at this point has to come to the conclusion that there was more than one shooter in Dealey Plaza, that there's ample evidence of that, and that there was a cover-up, that the Warren Commission, which relied almost entirely on FBI and the CIA as its investigative arms was led down a path by those two organizations, who were not interested in solving the crime. It wasn't the intent of the Warren Commission to solve the crime. We know from the tapes and the conversations between Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover within hours of the assassination - the intent was to put the public's mind to rest - that's what it was meant to do, rather than to solve the crime.
And we also now know because of the excellent work done by a sub-committee of the Church Committee under Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania and Gary Hart of Colorado in the late '70s, then shortly after that the House Select Committee on Assassinations, that these two Congressional committees - which have now disappeared in the mists of time - they did do a more thorough and credible investigation, and they both came to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy. They weren't able to connect all the dots because they didn't have the time or resources unfortunately to do that. They definitely said there was a conspiracy, but people have forgotten that. The final word from the Federal government, in a sense, at least from Congress, is that Dallas was a conspiracy.
REX: Schweiker himself said on national TV about 30 years ago that "the Warren Commission has fallen apart like a house of cards."
DAVID: That's right.
REX: Someone forgot to tell the New York Times, I think. You have an amazing quote in the book along these lines, I believe attributed to Robert Kennedy that "if the American people knew the truth about Dallas, there would be blood in the streets." I wonder if you think that people like Earl Warren - and Bobby Kennedy for that matter - in the early days afterwards viewed the alternative to convicting Oswald of the crime to be a civil war?
DAVID: I do think that. Some of this is a bit speculative, but that's my reading of one of Bobby's motives for staying quiet in the months and years after the assassination.
He gave a tepid endorsement of the Warren Report whenever he was asked to comment on it, although he was always a little cagey about the way he did it. He would say things like "well, I haven't read it," or, in Mexico City when asked about it on a trip there in 1964, he said "well," he "endorsed it as far as it went." So there was always a clause he would tack on that signals, I think, the fact that he wasn't embracing it wholeheartedly or without reservation. I think that he was concerned about a number of things that prevented him wholeheartedly, I think, from denouncing the Warren Report and telling the American people publicly what he really felt.
There was a terrific publication called Minority of One, published by an Auschwitz survivor named Menachem Arnoni that was one of the great political journals that was published in the U.S. in the 1960s, and people tend to forget it. I didn't even know it existed and I come out of journalism. Arnoni was one of the first people to write this. He wrote a provocative essay in January, 1964 - soon after the assassination - in which he said, "let's assume for the moment that LBJ and Bobby Kennedy both know that Dallas was a plot, and it involved part of the National Security establishment, part of the military - high ranking officers. If that's the case, then to move against these people before Bobby, even Johnson's hold on government is consolidated, it could spark a civil war, with one set of troops shooting at another set of troops in the streets of America."
So, that appalling, I think, kind of scenario - I do believe that was an accurate reading of Bobby's mind, to an extent - one reason why he might have held back from aggressively denouncing the perpetrators of the plot at that point. He always told people that he was waiting to get back to the White House, when he would have his hands on the machinery of government, before he reopened the case into his brother's death, and I think that's what he was doing.
REX: That was my next question. So, your take is that he would have done so had he become President?
DAVID: I think there's no doubt. Several of his close aides have told me this, including Richard Goodwin and Frank Mankiewicz. I think that's what he was signaling to students at CalState Northridge when he, in the frame of his presidential campaign in 1968 in California, when he was heckled by students, you know, "we want to know who killed President Kennedy!" which was always the question he was horrified to hear, and he tended to avoid. But he did answer that question, and I've listened to the audio tape - it was a radio broadcast of that day, of that rally. For years it's been assumed - and I think just because people have only read the transcript, not listened to it, the back and forth between him and the students. It was assumed for years that it was just one more pro forma endorsement of the Warren Report that Bobby was giving that day. He kind of chastises the students for being rude and says, "I've seen everything in the Archives, I endorse the Warren Report," but what he also says is "the Archives will be opened at the proper time." That's what gets the cheers from the crowd. "I believe they should be open."
So he's walking a tightrope here. On one hand that if he said, "the Warren Report is a sham," that would be the screaming headlines throughout the world the next day. All the issues that he's running on, Vietnam, civil rights, poverty, will be completely forgotten and the rest of his campaign will be dominated by "Bobby rejects Warren Report." He did not want that to happen to his campaign, he didn't want to run on his brother's assassination, but he wanted to quietly reopen the assassination as soon as he had the power.
So what he had to do was to signal to the students - he always respected college students - that he was going to do the right thing, but he had to do it in a subtle enough way that it wouldn't set off a media firestorm.
REX: Interesting. I'd like to switch forward because there's been some more recent news in the 43-year-old murder, and you've been involved in some of the news. Shane O'Sullivan, of BBC Newsnight, last fall put out a story that three high-level CIA officials were present at the Ambassador Hotel when RFK was killed. You and Washington Post reporter Jeff Morley then started tracking down the story. Can you tell us about that?
DAVID: Yeah, I think it's a fascinating episode in Kennedy research. As you say, a young filmmaker named Shane O'Sullivan went on the air - on the BBC - in November, with a startling report alleging that David Morales, George Joannides, and a fellow named Gordon Campbell - and the first two have long been connected in research circles to Dallas - were caught on camera at the Ambassador Hotel the night Bobby was killed in Los Angeles. He showed clips of news footage and still photographs that were taken that night and identified them as these three men, three CIA officials who were connected, again, to the Agency's secret war on Castro. Well, this was a kind of "holy shit" moment, because if that was the case, then you're connecting the same people who might have JFK to the people who might have killed RFK.
So I was in the finishing stages of my book, but I felt this had to be looked into before I sent my book off to the publisher, so Jeff Morley and I got an assignment from The New Yorker to look into it. With the New Yorker's resources, we were able to criss-cross he country, going from Miami to Northern California, Arizona and Washington and New England, and talked to a number of people to pin down whether or not these three CIA agents were indeed there.
Well, unfortunately for Shane, and those who believed the story, we found that it simply wasn't true. Gordon Campbell - the person he identified as Gordon Campbell - turned out to be a U.S. Army official who had been attached to the CIA's JMWAVE station in Miami, but he had died in 1962, so of course it was impossible for him to show up in 1968 at the Ambassador.
We also found, finally - and I'm actually looking at these photographs right now - excellent photographs taken of David Morales around 1968. We've only had a very kind of rudimentary photo of him for the most part, that was taken out of a Cuban newspaper - and it's even in my book because I wasn't able to get these other photos in time - and so we weren't able to really get a good sense of what David Morales looked like until now. And if you compare these new photos that we now have in our possession - Jeff Morley and I, we've seen four photos of Morales from that period - it's clearly not the man in the news footage at the Ambassador Hotel. The physical characteristics are just completely different. People who knew him well say the same thing when they look at Shane O'Sullivan's report and these photos.
The same is true of George Joannides. We also found good photos of Joannides taken around the same time, and again, it's simply not the man caught on camera at the Ambassador.
On the other hand, David Morales has told - before he died - he told his attorney Robert Walton, and he told a good friend, who I did interview again, that he was in Dallas and Los Angeles at the times of the assassinations. He went further with his attorney and told him that he played a role in it. He did tell his friend Reuben Carbajal, who again, I interviewed, that the CIA killed JFK. So it wasn't complete lunacy for Shane O'Sullivan to assume that this might have been David Morales caught on camera. We have other evidence that Morales was connected to these assassinations, but these photographs or news footage that Shane used in his films simply don't corroborate it.
REX: It would certainly be the height of brazenness for three high-level CIA officials to be in the ballroom while planning that murder.
DAVID: Absolutely. I think they were more careful than that.
REX: You bring up David Morales, and I wanted to also bring up a very new story about the confession of Howard Hunt and his naming of people, including Morales, as having been involved in the JFK assassination.
Apparently Hunt, in 2004 mailed a tape to his son, Saint John, who I believe just last night put it on the air on a national radio station, and there's been - Saint John has sort of talked about the story, about what his father had told him over the last couple months, and I'm curious what your take is on all of that.
DAVID: I find it an important new development. I think that the response that assassination researchers often get from people who are skeptical is, "well, if there had been a plot in Dallas, someone would have talked." That's the famous line, "someone would have talked." Well, the fact is, a number of people did talk, beginning with Lee Harvey Oswald, who cried out to the press, "I'm a patsy!" and he wanted to talk more before he was shot and killed. Some of these people who did begin to talk did meet sudden, violent ends. Johnny Roselli, the gangster who was the link between the mob and the CIA in the secret war on Castro, he was testifying to the Church Committee and was talking when he suddenly ended up being killed, chopped into pieces, and stuffed into an oil drum, and thrown into the waters off Miami.
CIA officials, who had long been rumored be be connected to the JFK plot, they too began to talk at the end of their lives before they died, including David Phillips, David Morales, as I said earlier, and now, most recently, as you mentioned, Howard Hunt.
Howard Hunt, of course, is a legendary figure within intelligence circles in the U.S., most famous for his role as the mastermind, or at least leader, of the burglary team at Watergate, which utilized some of the same people - Cuban exiles who'd long been a part of the sort of more shadowy enterprises of the CIA. Hunt, who has been in ailing condition the last few years of his life, as you say, under encouragement and goading from his son, Saint John Hunt, finally did begin to talk.
He actually published a book in January, American Spy, in which he, in kind of an O.J - a strange O.J. speculative way - says "well, if the CIA killed Kennedy, this is how it might have happened." With his son, with whom he was originally collaborating with on this book, he went further, as you say. On an audio tape and in handwritten notes - which I have seen and heard - and in a videotape, and what he says - more explosively - in this material, is "I was invited to a CIA safehouse in 1963 in Miami, where David Morales was present. I was taken there by Frank Sturgis" - who was a mob-related figure who he later recruited for the Watergate burglary team - and at this CIA meeting, the plot to kill JFK, which was referred to as "the big event," was discussed, and Hunt was invited to join the plot. But, according to Hunt, he declined to play an active role, because he heard that William Harvey, who was also involved in the plot - William Harvey was another notorious CIA official, a well-known Kennedy hater who's long been rumored to also have been connected to the assassination plot - and when he heard that Harvey was involved, he thought Harvey was an unreliable drunk - he was, he had drinking problems - so, Hunt claimed he chose not to play an active role in the plot for that reason. Not because it was wrong, but because Harvey was involved (laughs).
He did say though, and this is an exact quote, he did play a "benchwarmer" role in the plot, and that people would bring him information and he would, I guess, play the role of consultant with them.
So it was one more strange, somewhat veiled confession by a very key CIA official, and these confessions all point in the very same direction, whether it's David Phillips, David Morales, Howard Hunt - they point in the same direction that Bobby was looking into himself: to a plot that involved the CIA and gangsters in southern Florida, the same people that were working to kill Castro, had turned their efforts against JFK.
REX: You know, coming back to journalism, I guess it struck me - I can understand people believing Howard Hunt, believing it might be partially true, but spinning things - he talks about LBJ for instance - or disbelieving him altogether. But what I had trouble even understanding was a guy of Howard Hunt's notoriety, that this story has not made it - I scoured The Washington Post and The New York Times today - and not a peep.
DAVID: Yeah, you can say what you will, exactly. I think The L.A. Times and Rolling Stone have been the only publications that have done stories on this now. You can say what you will, as you say, about him. That he was a spin artist, that he was doing it for money near the end of his life, but on the other hand, here's a guy who always tried to pin Dallas on the Soviets and on Castro. That was the party line at the CIA, and he very much stayed close to it throughout much of his life. But suddenly, he's saying something very different, and it's self-implicating. He's implicating himself in the plot, maybe not directly - he wasn't pulling the gun - he had active foreknowledge of the plot according to this, and he played some kind of peripheral role in it.
Well, that to me is news. Again, a good reporter looks into it and says, "well, here's the other side. Here's people who say he was a liar, that he was doing it for money, whatever." But at least you report what Howard Hunt said to his own son before he died. I think it's remarkable that these kind of stories disappear down the media's "black hole," and it happens again, and again, and again. And this is what I find so frustrating, as a journalist.
REX: David, apparently you're going on a national book tour in a few days, and I wish you luck on that. Where are you headed?
DAVID: Thanks, Rex. Yeah, I'm starting with New York, I'm going to be on the Charlie Rose show, which is taped Monday, I'm not sure what day it will actually air, but that's this coming Monday. Then I'm going to be on Terry Gross' show Fresh Air the following day, and again, I'm not sure when it will actually be broadcast.
So I'll be in New York, Boston, Miami, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, and then up the West Coast, from LA to San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. So I have a website that I'd love for you to link to on Salon, and my author appearances are listed there, so I'd love to see anyone who's interested show up at the book stores where I'm speaking, and I'd love to continue the conversation.
Despite the media's intransigence and stubbornness on this issue, I look forward to the opportunity to raise some of these issues once again, because I do think they're still unresolved, and it's a wound that's a dark wound, that grew within the American political culture throughout my lifetime, and I think it's had enormously damaging effects on our generation.
REX: Well, good luck on breaking through the media "black hole," and it's been a pleasure talking to you.
DAVID: Thanks so much, Rex.