From the September-October 1998 issue (Vol. 5 No. 6) of Probe
Thankfully, the Assassination Records Review Board has declassified many of the files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. This process is ongoing as it winds down to its termination date of October 1, 1998. But there is quite enough now available to begin to get an accurate gauge on the performance of that committee, more specifically the record of its controversial second Chief Counsel, G. Robert Blakey. It seems odd that, as of today, no one has written a book-length critique on the history and findings of the HSCA. Within four years of the issuance of the Warren Report, there were several incisive, full length analyses of that report and organization. Yet, nearly two decades after the HSCA's Final Report, there is no matching volume of the last investigation into the murder of President Kennedy – or the corresponding HSCA inquest into the assassination of Martin Luther King.
This essay will not pretend to be the comprehensive history and analysis that now cries out – screams – to be done on the HSCA. It is written as a stepping stone, an indication of what could and should be written on that topic. In the immediate aftermath of the release of the HSCA Final Report in 1979, two books were being written that proposed to perform this critical analysis. One, to be written by Ted Gandolfo, to my knowledge, never got past the unpublished manuscript stage. Another book, Beyond Conspiracy, an anthology by Peter Scott, Russell Stetler, Paul Hoch, and Josiah Thompson, progressed further toward publication than Gandolfo's. This too was never published. And from the version of the volume I have, it does not take on the function of critical analysis that Mark Lane or Sylvia Meagher did in the previous decade. In fact, the tone is not really critical at all. This can be seen by reading Thompson's discussion of the HSCA's version of the single bullet theory. This celebrated critic actually seems to accept what he was so skeptical about in his 1967 Warren Commission critique, Six Seconds in Dallas. As we shall see in part two of this essay, Blakey's version of the magic bullet theory is, in some ways, even more strained than the Warren Commission's.
In the wake of the HSCA Final Report, finally issued in the summer of 1979, there were three books published on the JFK case in 1980 and 1981. David Lifton released Best Evidence, Anthony Summers authored Conspiracy, and Blakey (with co-author Dick Billings) wrote The Plot to Kill the President. Both Summers and Lifton seemed to take their cues from Blakey's post press conference press conference. After the Final Report was issued, Blakey called his own press conference to say that although the HSCA had come up with a finding of "probable conspiracy" without pointing the finger directly at any one, he knew that the real culprit was the Mob. His book, published by a subsidiary of the New York Times, reiterated that verdict in (unconvincing) detail. In the book's preface, Blakey again stated that "the evidence . . . established that organized crime was behind the plot to kill John F. Kennedy." Although the Lifton and Summers books discuss the HSCA, they are in no way rigorous anlayses of that body. In fact, both books rely on some of the information published by the HSCA and both writers were privy to leaks since they had contacts inside the committee. With the benefit of hindsight, this has proven to be at least a partly questionable practice. As HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi once told me, the HSCA was so compartmentalized that only those people at the top really knew what the entire body was doing. These would include Blakey, his deputy on the JFK side, Gary Cornwell, and the Final Report's co-author, Billings. Relying on informants inside the committee only gave these writers a glimpse of the gestalt. With the release of the raw files of the HSCA, it seems that both Summers and Lifton were too deferential to certain important aspects of the HSCA, a point to which we will return. (An interesting sidelight should be noted at this point. Nearly all the authors mentioned thus far – Summers, Scott, Hoch, Lifton – have all been muted in their criticism of Blakey. Yet, when the subject of Jim Garrison is brought up, they have no problem venting their spleens at length on the late DA.)
It is important to trace the origins of the House Select Committee to understand the temper of the times in which the last investigation began, and also to briefly map out the change that occurred when Robert Blakey, Cornwell, and Billings took over for the original Chief Counsel, Richard Sprague and his Deputy Counsel Robert Tanenbaum.
After Clay Shaw's acquittal in 1969, Jim Garrison had attempted to bring Shaw up on (well-justified) perjury charges. In May of 1971, Judge Herbert Christenberry (whose wife had telegraphed Shaw their congratulations upon his earlier acquittal) threw out the charges. As Mort Sahl related to me, he and Garrison then went to the 1972 Democratic National Convention to try and make a political issue of the case with people like George McGovern who had been a friend of both John and Robert Kennedy. They were frowned upon by people in the Louisiana delegation, headed by former Warren Commissioner Hale Boggs. At this juncture the case seemed dead. But the ensuing Watergate scandal inadvertently revived it. The Senate's Republican minority report, issued by then minority counsel and now Senator Fred Thompson, saw much CIA involvement in that scandal. Thompson's boss, Senator Howard Baker, later became one of the participants in Frank Church's subsequent investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1975. That committee publicly exposed a myriad of crimes conducted by both the CIA and the FBI. But there were two aspects of Church's work that impacted with force on the JFK case and helped revive it in the media. First, Church held hearings on the secret CIA plots to kill foreign leaders, most notably Fidel Castro. Second, committee members Richard Schweiker and Gary Hart conducted their own investigation of the performance of the FBI and CIA in investigating the Kennedy assassination. That report remains mandatory reading today. It was a scathing indictment of both agencies which categorically exposed the breathtaking rush to judgment to nail Lee Harvey Oswald.
This was a qualitative leap up from Garrison. The New Orleans DA could only howl in the wind about what he knew to be the malfeasance, or worse, of those two agencies in the Kennedy case. Now, with access to the actual documentary record, Frank Church and the U. S. Senate were certifying that much of what Garrison said was true and warranted. Further, Church was also saying that the CIA secretly plotted the deaths of political leaders and was tracing those plots in detail. At this time, New Orleans magazine ran a cover story on Garrison basically saying that he had said all this before and no one had listened to him. Researcher Mary Ferrell wrote him a letter apologizing for not standing by him more staunchly. She didn't suspect in 1967 that the CIA could do such awful things.
In the midst of the tumult about Church's sensational disclosures, Robert Groden and Dick Gregory went to Geraldo Rivera who then had a network talk show at ABC. At the time, Groden had the best copy yet made of Abraham Zapruder's 26 second film of the JFK assassination. On March 6, 1975, for the first time, millions of Americans were convinced that, at the very least, Oswald had not acted alone. The effect of this public showing of the Zapruder film was, in a word, electrifying. The day after, the Kennedy assassination was topic number one in bars and barber shops across America. The case was back on the front burner. Along with the exposure of the crimes of the CIA, and the negligence of the FBI, what Warren Commission critic could have asked for more?
One of the people who got hold of a copy of the Zapruder film at this time was the son of Congressman Thomas Downing of Virginia, who had represented the Newport News area of that state for over fifteen years. An accomplished lawyer by trade, Downing was a well-respected member of the House of Representatives. When I interviewed Downing in 1993 at his luxurious office in beautiful Newport News, he told me that his son and a friend of his named Andy Purdy had viewed the film at the University of Virginia and were shocked at what it depicted. His son made Downing watch the film and the Congressman decided that this evidence itself merited an investigation by the House. He decided to draw up a bill focusing on the formation of a committee to reinvestigate the murder of John F. Kennedy.
At the time of Downing's action, the spring of 1975, there already was a bill on the House floor (HR 204), authorizing a reinvestigation of all three assassinations of the sixties – JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the attempted killing of George Wallace. Its author was Texas representative Henry Gonzalez. Gonzalez was part of the reception party when Kennedy had visited Dallas and he was at Parkland Hospital when Kennedy had died. His name is mentioned at times in the Warren Commission volumes. Gonzalez had liked Kennedy and his policies and wished to go farther than just examining only JFK's death – he wished to relate it to the other two. But his bill was stalled and had little hope of succeeding. Gonzalez decided to give way to Downing's bill and then both men made a tactical move. They decided to attach only the King case to Downing's bill in order to enlist the aid of the Black Caucus in the House.
It was an uphill battle, but the momentum kept accumulating. On September 8, 1975 Senator Schweiker introduced a Senate resolution calling for a reopening of the Kennedy case. In the House, Don Edwards' subcommittee on Constitutional Rights held hearings into allegations that Oswald had delivered a threatening letter to the Dallas headquarters of the FBI just weeks before the assassination. This was the famous note that was subsequently destroyed after the assassination. With this kind of controversy playing in the papers, the Downing-Gonzalez bill was getting some help. And Downing was a determined man who made some impassioned speeches on the floor of the House. (The one he made on March 18, 1976 was a dandy. See page 16.) Finally, in September of 1976 the bill cleared the Rules Committee where it had been bottled up for months. On September 17, 1976 HR 1540 creating the House Select Committee on Assassinations was passed by a vote of 280-65.
The committee was first led by Downing with Gonzalez as second in command. Once formed, it faced two immediate problems. First, Downing had decided that this would be his last term in the House of Representatives. He would step down at the end of 1976. Second, a chief counsel would have to be chosen. Both of these events were absolutely crucial to the history of this committee. Neither of them has gotten the attention or weight they deserve. Although the battle to get the HSCA authorized had been a difficult one, the newly formed committee still had plenty of ballast from the momentous events described above, all taking place from 1974-1976. Also, former Warren Commissioner Gerald Ford, who we now know was up to his neck in the spurious editing of the Warren Report, was about to leave office. Ford had done everything he could to thwart the investigations of Frank Church and his congressional counterpart Otis Pike in the House. He had even formed his own commission to preempt them. It had been headed by, of all people, Nelson Rockefeller who chose as his chief counsel former Warren Commissioner David Belin. Jimmy Carter was to be the new president and he had campaigned against the corruption symbolized by Watergate with the slogan, "I will never lie to you."
When I asked Downing if he had ever thought of staying on just to see the committee through, he replied no he had not. He was eager to return home, spend time with his family, and get back to his law practice. In retrospect, Downing's departure was a blow the committee could not sustain. Gonzalez was now slated to be eventual chairman, and as Bob Tanenbaum later told me, he hadn't the experience or the stature to carry out what would be an insurmountable task. But before leaving, Downing was determined to choose a worthy chief counsel, one who would be above reproach from both a political and professional standpoint.
Downing told me that he was mystified by reports in the media (see page 19) that he was pushing Mark Lane for that position. He never suggested him for the job since he was perceived as being too close to the subject to lead an impartial investigation. He said he opened up the subject to the committee members themselves. They nominated several people for different positions. He then pulled out the record of the original nominations made on September 29, 1976. It shows that the nomination of Richard A. Sprague was made by Gonzalez himself. Five days later, Sprague was appointed Chief Counsel and Staff Director.
Henry James could not have dreamed a more ironic stroke. As we shall see, the upcoming battle between Gonzalez and Sprague was to ensure both their ousters. But Sprague was actually a salutary choice at the time. He had just come off a brilliant legal performance in a sensational murder case, namely the conspiracy to kill reform labor leader Jock Yablonski, a conspiracy headed by corrupt union boss Tony Boyle. Sprague had been appointed special prosecutor for Washington County, Pennsylvania between 1970 and 1975. He had unraveled the complex conspiracy behind the Yablonski murders. He went through a series of five trials pyramiding upward through each level of the conspiracy. It culminated with the conviction of Boyle, not once but twice since the original verdict had been overturned upon appeal. Previously, Sprague had made a reputation as first assistant DA in Philadelphia under, of all people, Arlen Specter. Tanenbaum told me that although Sprague liked Specter personally, he thought he was a completely political animal. And politics was something that never entered Sprague's legal ethos.
When Downing approached Sprague for the position, the former special prosecutor told him that he had no fixed opinion on what had happened in either the King or Kennedy cases. He was aware that there had been a controversy as to what and how much had been revealed to the public. So he insisted that there should be no more cover-ups. If he took the job it would have to be with the insistence that as much as possible be done in public. He also insisted on four other conditions:
- He wanted to hire his own investigators.
- There would be no time constraints that would allow government agencies to just stonewall and outlast the committee.
- There had to be enough money to employ a large, efficient staff so there would be no reliance on other aspects of the government for services rendered.
- To emphasize the non-political nature of the inquest, there would be no majority and minority counsel positions, just a chief counsel and executive director.
As Sprague related later on Ted Gandolfo's cable program in New York, if Downing would not have agreed to all four conditions, he was prepared to go back to private practice. Downing said yes, and Sprague took command. For a brief moment, the critical community thought they finally had their man in a position that could finally do something to officially change the status of the Kennedy case. As Cyril Wecht commented:
Dick Sprague was the ideal man for that job with the HSCA. Richard Sprague had probably prosecuted more murder cases than any DA in the United States. . . . He knew how the police worked. He wasn't just the kind of guy who tried the case. He worked with the police. He knew thoroughly how homicide cases were conducted. He's tough, he's tenacious, he's aggressive. He has a strong streak of independence. He was the man for the job.
Or, as Gaeton Fonzi recalled it in The Third Decade of November of 1984,
After talking with Sprague I was now certain he planned to conduct a strong investigation and I was never more optimistic in my life. I remember excitingly envisioning the scope and character of the investigation. It would include a major effort in Miami, with teams of investigators digging into all those unexplored corners the Warren Commission had ignored or shied away from. They would be working with squads of attorneys to put legal pressure on, to squeeze the truth from recalcitrant witnesses. There would be reams of sworn depositions, the ample use of warrants and no fear of bringing prosecutions for perjury. We would have all sorts of sophisticated investigative resources and, more important, the authority to use them. The Kennedy assassination would finally get the investigation it deserved and an honest democracy needed. There would be no more bullshit.
And for a short time, there wasn't. Sprague hired two top deputies, one for the Kennedy side of the HSCA, and one for the King side. They both came out of New York City. Tanenbaum took the JFK side, and his friend Bob Lehner took over the MLK investigation. Sprague granted both men the freedom to pick their own staffs. Tanenbaum brought in some first class detectives from New York, like Al Gonzalez and Cliff Fenton. From an interstate homicide task force he helmed, Tanenbaum hired L. J. Delsa to work New Orleans. He hired Michael Baden and Cyril Wecht to serve as his chief medical consultants. After talking to Richard Schweiker, he decided to hire his chief field investigator, Fonzi to investigate the Florida scene. There were literally thousands of applicants for the researchers' positions on the HSCA. When I interviewed Al Lewis in Lancaster, he told me that they must have gotten at least 12,000 applications to work on the committee from young people around the country, most of them college students who wanted to serve. Lewis was an attorney who had worked with Sprague in Philadelphia, helped on the Yablonski case, and later joined him in private practice.
The feeling on the committee, and inside the research community was that the JFK case was now going to get a really professional hearing. Jim Garrison never had the resources or the professional manpower to really helm a widespread, multi-pronged criminal task force. It looked like celebrated prosecutor Sprague now would. As Lewis related to me, one of the areas that Sprague expressed a special interest in was the medical and ballistics evidence. Sprague and his fellow staff attorneys requested entrance into the National Archives in order to survey the existing medical evidence firsthand. They were appalled at what they saw. Coming out of big city homicide bureaus, they had studied many autopsies. Remembering back to the experience of encountering the autopsy materials in this case, a look of disbelief and disgust crossed Lewis' face. Sitting in his office on a Sunday afternoon in Lancaster, Pennsylvania I took note of that look and I commented that Harold Weisberg has written that skid row bums had received better autopsies than President Kennedy's. Lewis replied, "Its worse than that." When I asked him to elaborate, he waved me off. As Bob Tanenbaum plodded through the Warren Commission volumes, he was shocked at their incompleteness and the lack of thorough investigation. As he relates in his fictionalized treatment of the matter, Corruption of Blood, it struck him as being unsatisfactory for a first year assistant DA and something in which a law student could have found giant evidentiary holes.
Sprague was eager to delve into some of the better, more concrete materials that the critics had come up with. One area that he felt was important was the photographic evidence. Soon after he accepted the position, counsel Richard A. Sprague was introduced to photoanalyst-computer technician Richard E. Sprague. Sprague quickly arranged a presentation of the voluminous photos that Richard E. Sprague had collected over the years, undoubtedly the largest collection of pictures on the JFK case in any private collection. Sprague directed every hired detective and researcher to attend a photographic slide show put together by the Kennedy researcher. According to people who were there, it was a long and impressive presentation. But before the lights went down, Sprague turned to everyone in attendance and said, "I don't want anyone to leave unless I leave. And I don't plan on leaving." By the end of Sprague's four hour slide show, Al Lewis told me that, of the 13 staff lawyers in attendance, only one still held out for the single bullet theory.