Thursday, 15 August 1996 20:31

Robert Tanenbaum interviewed by Probe

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The first Deputy Counsel chosen by Richard Sprague to direct the efforts of the House Select Committee recounts to Jim DiEugenio his experiences on that ill-fated mission.

From the July-August, 1996 issue (Vol. 3 No. 5) of Probe

Robert K. Tanenbaum was chosen by Richard Sprague to be the House Select Committee's first Deputy Counsel in charge of the John Kennedy murder investigation. Last year he wrote a fictionalized account of that experience entitled Corruption of Blood.The book was released as a mass market paperback this year in a million copy print run, the first highly successful release in the field since Case Closed. He was recently the keynote speaker at the 1995 COPA Conference in Washington.

Bob attained his law degree at UC Berkeley's distinguished Boalt Hall in 1968. In New York he served under legendary DA Frank Hogan where he rose to Deputy Chief of the Homicide Bureau, garnering an unbeatable record: he never lost a murder case.

Bob felt morally resigned to leave the HSCA after Sprague's forced departure. He has stated, "at that time I had a three year old daughter. . .and I didn't want her to read about American history that I knew to be absolutely false, that her father may have participated in."

In Los Angeles, he has had a multi-faceted career. Although he is still in private practice, he recently served as Mayor of Beverly Hills. He has also written several books based on his legal career. Two of them were non-fiction, The Piano Teacher and Badge of the Assassin. The latter became a film starring James Woods and includes two detectives Tanenbaum used on the HSCA: Cliff Fenton and L. J. Delsa. Bob has written six fictional books based on his Butch Karp character, a New York City Assistant District Attorney. Bob kindly granted Probe's Jim DiEugenio an interview at his home in Beverly Hills, which he shares with his wife of 29 years and two children. The following are only excerpts from a candid 85 minute talk that can be obtained in the current catalog.

JD: In the book, you describe this meeting with a guy named Crane, who we guess is probably Dick Sprague. Is that how it actually happened? Did Dick Sprague call you to come down to Washington?

BT: Well, keep in mind the book is all fiction. But the way I went to Washington was that Dick Sprague, who was then in private practice in Philadelphia was named Chief Counsel and he asked me if I wanted to come down as Deputy Chief and take over the Kennedy side of the investigation, because the House Select Committee was investigating the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and President Kennedy.

JD: So, how did you know Sprague?

BT: I didn't know him. I never knew him, I never met him, I never spoke to him. I'd heard about him as a top-notch D.A. in Philadelphia. He was chief assistant and he'd been in that office about seventeen years or so. And of course he'd tried the Tony Boyle case, the United Mine Workers, so he was a great D.A. and a terrific trial lawyer.

JD: If you take a look at the structure of the first phase of the House Select Committee as opposed to what is generally considered to be the second phase, when Blakey came in, you guys had a lot of first-class investigators, attorneys, etc. and it really appeared for the first time that it was going to be a real murder investigation.

BT: That's what we expected. That's the only reason we went down there. After all, we were coming out of the homicide bureau of the New York County D.A.'s office and we had tried scores and scores and scores of murder cases. And Sprague was going down there for the same reason. When I met the committee members that's what they said this was all about, before I said I was going to go down there. So, that's what we expected. And if the evidence was that Oswald did it and did it alone, we were going to say that. But if he didn't and the evidence said he didn't, then we were going to say that. That is what the committment was.

JD: Did you actually know much about the case before you got into it?

BT: No, I knew nothing about the case. I had read none of the books, I didn't follow any of it, I had read all of the negative publicity about Garrison and really had no understanding of what was going on other than the fact that the Warren Commission had concluded that Oswald did it and did it alone.

JD: So, you really didn't have an opinion, one way or the other?

BT: I had no opinion.

JD: I interviewed a friend of yours down in New Orleans, L.J. Delsa. He said that he felt that one of the reasons the Congress turned against the Committee was, because of Sprague's approach. It could have set a precedent in Washington to have really serious investigations instead of fact-finding commissions. Did you get any feeling about that?

BT: In my opinion, Congress never wanted to go forward with these investigations at all. That's just based upon my having spoken with a lot of the membership of the House as I was asked to do by the Committee, in order to get funding. That's something I never thought would be an issue before I went down there. They sort of politicized into it with some very distinguished members of Congress who were retiring in 1976, requesting that the Kennedy portion be investigated because they had seen Groden's presentation of the Zapruder film and were very persuaded by it. Then the Black Caucus got involved and said well, investigate the murder of Dr. King. It was an election year and they said, "Ok, why not? We'll do that." But there was no commitment to really do it, unfortunately, which regrettably we found out while we were in the midst of investigating the case. They pulled our budget, they pulled our long-distance phone privileges, our franking privileges, we couldn't even send out mail. And all of this was happening at a time when we were making some significant headway. So, L. J. may be right with respect to his perception, but at the same time I don't believe they were ever committed to it. Tip O'Neill, who was the Speaker, was never committed to it. Only many, many years later did he realize that he'd made a tragic mistake.

JD: When you mentioned retiring members of Congress, was one of the persons you were referring to Downing?

BT: Yes. Downing from Virginia, right.

JD: Was his leaving a blow to the Committee?

BT: Absolutely, because of his prestige. As you know, teaching Civics 101 to a certain extent as you do, it all matters who you are and the power and friendships and the debts that are owed you in Washington, as far as things happening positively. The nature of Congress is, everything is political and they move forward by way of compromise. There was no way to compromise on the investigation of a murder case. There is no Democrat or Republican way to evaluate evidence. You can't compromise on truth. That's why the Congress should not be investigating these kinds of cases, particularly if they are going to short circuit an investigation when they realize they're really doing what they're supposed to be doing.

JD: So, by implication you're saying Gonzalez didn't have the kind of stature that Downing had?

BT: From what we learned in Washington there's no question that that was the case. Gonzalez had never been the chairman of a committee before. But, the answer is basically that he was removed, which was unprecedented.

JD: One of the problems you mentioned in the book and you've mentioned in the talks I've heard you give, is that the special status of the Committee made money a real problem.

BT: Like everything in Washington, you can't get the engine running without dollars. They didn't fund us. The Committee started its work in late '76 and then had to be reestablished, reconstituted and funded in '77. That didn't happen until the end of March, 1977. That affected us as far as our ability to have investigators and do the kinds of things you have to do, like travel. This case was not going to be solved in Washington, it happened in Dallas. So, you can't just stay in Washington, obviously. Although, a lot of things happened in Washington, unfortunately, which resulted in the assassination in Dallas.

JD: It was a Special Committee, right?

BT: It was a Select Committee instead of a standing committee, exactly. Standing committees automatically reconstitute after the congress convenes, select committees have to be reestablished. And that should have happened the first or second week in January, pro forma. There shouldn't have had to be a debate.

JD: So, basically you were being a lobbyist.

BT: Unfortunately, I was asked by the Committee to go and speak to the entire membership of the House to try and get them to vote for this Committee. And if I'd known that going down, I never would have gone down there, for all the obvious reasons. We weren't going down there to conduct a political investigation or to be part of a political action committee, or anything else. We were apolitical. The Republicans could have asked us, the Democrats could have asked us. The issue was, were we going to focus on what the evidence was in the investigation, which is what we were trained to do. So, in order to get funding, I was asked by the Committee to go around and speak to the membership, individually and in groups. I met with some individually.

JD: Go ahead and describe your meeting with Jim Wright.

BT: I met with Jim Wright, obviously as one of the individuals with whom I had to meet at the time. He was the House Majority Leader. And fortunately, with staff people present, I was sitting at the edge of his desk in front of his desk and he was leaning back in his chair with his foot pressed against his desk drawer, listening. And I was explaining to him that the anti-Castro Cuban connection to the case was substantial. And thrusting forward in his chair from his relaxed position, his eyebrows shooting up all over the place, he said, "You mean to tell me that Sirhan Sirhan was involved with anti-Castro Cubans?!" And I said, "Mr. Wright, this may be part of the problem we're having getting funding for this Committee, because we're investigating the murder of President Kennedy not Senator Kennedy." He sort of realized he had blundered and said, "Oh yes, of course, of course!" Keep in mind this conversation took place some time in March, is my recollection, and this had been a front-page story and there had been hit-pieces done on Sprague since his selection, which were outrageous. Various newspapers had hired people just to do negative reporting on him.

JD: You've singled out some members of the Committee, particularly Richardson Preyer and Stew McKinney, as being people with whom you enjoyed working and who were very sincere in their efforts to progress with the case. Weren't there actually some members of the Committee who voted against it?

BT: There were some less than honorable people on the Committee, yes.

JD: Did that give you pause at the outset?

BT: When I say less than honorable, I was somewhat surprised that these Committee members were making comments about the cooperation of the executive intelligence agencies with the Committee, which was non-existent. That is to say, the executive intelligence agencies gave us no cooperation. And at public meetings, these members would simply go out of their way, as if we were watching a scene out of The Godfather where the senator from Utah gets up and makes some silly, gratuitous comment about the Al Pacino character, while he's being called before the Congress. Out of the clear blue a couple of these members, in a non-sequitur fashion, make comments on how great the CIA and the FBI are in helping the Committee. So, I'm saying to them, they must be working for a different Committee because they're certainly not helping us! They're not giving us any information, they're thwarting us in every aspect of what we're trying to do and we had to deal with them in court, which was probably the only way we were going to successfully deal with them.

JD: That's what you had planned on doing with them?

BT: Absolutely. We were not interested in receiving documents that were redacted. We were only interested in seeing who questioned a witness, what evidence they received and what they did. Period. We're not interested in their little sources and methods. We're not interested in "Mission Impossible" here. We're interested in who investigated the murder cases, what did they find out, who they found it out from and what did they do if anything in follow-up. That's what we wanted to find out. This is the Congress. It's a tripartheid, co-equal branch of government. Why couldn't the Congress get that material from the executive branch? There is no reason for executive branch intelligence agencies to "clear" members of Congress. That's preposterous! Particularly, when you are investigating aspects of what they did or didn't do, not for the purposes of any indictments, but for the purpose of trying to find out what happened.

JD: It was you who originally invited Dr. Michael Baden down to Washington, right?

BT: Oh, yeah. Dr. Baden along with Cyril Wecht, is the finest forensic pathologist in the country. I knew Mike because he was deputy chief medical examiner in New York and we had worked on scores and scores of murder cases, together. And he is a brilliant, wonderful person. When Mike was with me and the Committee, using the Z film, we demonstrated that Kennedy did not turn his head at the time of impact, which would have suggested that the shot came from the right front. Mike Baden was satisfied with this conclusion at that time. But, after I left Baden changed his opinion. He didn't change it in bad faith, in my opinion.

JD: You've mentioned previously the photographs taken of the sixth floor window at the time and the problem of how someone could be at the window and then disappear from the window in 3 or 4 seconds.

BT: Well, even if it were 15 to 30 seconds, what we see there is a window open maybe 12" and an opaque wall of maybe 4' from where the window starts. It's not a window from floor to ceiling. At best, you could see just a partial of a shooter's face, if in fact someone was shooting. Because what we know is, as you look at the photographs, whoever shot from that window, if anyone, did not wait around and say, "I just murdered the President! Thank you very much!" There was this covert operation. The person who shot from there immediately left. Now, that being the case, the question is how did the Dallas police, at 12:48pm, just about 18 minutes after the assassination, get the description of someone who was in that window?

JD: One of the more interesting subjects you've mentioned in some of your talks, is this meeting you had with Senator Schweiker which, I'm assuming, you give a lot of weight to, because of the evidence and because of who it was coming from.

BT: Well, it was shocking! I went up there with Cliff Fenton and Schweiker told me in his opinion the CIA was responsible for the assassination. That's a heck of a statement to come from a United States Senator and one who had even been Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1976, even though they didn't make it.

JD: Was it just you in the room when he told you that?

BT: Yeah, it was just the two of us. I was stunned! He had asked Cliff to leave and he had his own staff people leave. I had that material he had given us which contained all that information about Veciana and the Alpha 66 group and this Bishop character.

JD: When I interviewed Schweiker, one of the last questions I asked him was if he had been on the oversight committee, for which he had not been nominated, which avenue would he have pursued. And he said, "I would have gone after Maurice Bishop."

BT: Well, as I said, I was stunned. Even after investigating this case, I'm not going to say that the CIA did it. He was saying it definitively. What the evidence suggested when we were in Washington was there were certain rogue elements who were involved with Bishop and others, the "plumber" types in the Nixon White House, who were involved with Oswald, who were substantially involved with anti-Castro Cubans who, the evidence suggests, were involved in the assassination. I keep saying that the evidence suggested it because we weren't there long enough to make the case. So, there was a short-circuiting that occurred. But, that's the area we were moving, inexorably toward. And then I spoke with Gaeton Fonzi and Gaeton would corroborate this to the extent that he worked with Schweiker, he knew what Schweiker's feelings were and he knew all about that file on Veciana. And that's when we asked Gaeton to come on board, because he had worked on the Church senate oversight committee and he had a lot of connections that would be very helpful. And he's a very honest guy.

JD: You actually invited him on board?

BT: Yeah. With Sprague. I basically staffed the Committee and Dick basically rubberstamped everything I wanted to see happen, after explanation, of course. But, Gaeton turned out to be what I expected he was: a very honest, hardworking, serious person. And a good person.

JD: Another thing you've discussed and it's featured in your book, is this incredible movie of the Cuban exile training camp.

BT: To the best of my recollection, we found that movie somewhere in the Georgetown library archives. The movie was shocking to me because it demonstrated the notion that the CIA was training, in America, a separate army. It was shocking to me because I'm a true believer in the system and yet there are notorious characters in the system, who are being funded by the system, who are absolutely un-American! And who knows what they would do, eventually. What if we send people to Washington who they can't deal with? Out comes their secret army? So, I find that to be as contrary to the constitution as you can get.

JD: Was it really as you described in the book, with all the people in that film? Bishop was in the film?

BT: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! They're all in the film. They're all there. But, the fact of the matter is the Committee began to balk at a series of events. The most significant one was when [David Atlee] Phillips came up before the Committee and then had to be recalled because it was clear that he hadn't told the truth. That had to do with the phony commentary he made about Oswald going to Mexico City on or about October 1st, 1963.

JD: Would you describe that whole sequence, because I feel that is one of the real highlights of your book.

BT: As I said, I had never followed the sequence of these events and I wasn't aware of any of this, before I went to Washington. If you had told me all this before I went, I would have said, "This is madness. Talk to me about reality!" So, Phillips was saying that an individual went to Mexico City on or about October 1st and the CIA was claiming this was Lee Harvey Oswald, just as the Warren Commission claimed. However, the following occurred: "Oswald" goes to the Russian Embassy and identifies himself as Lee Henry Oswald. He wants to fake everybody out by changing his middle name. There were tapes of what he said because the CIA was bugging the Embassy the same as they were doing to the U.S. Embassy, according to Phillips. And the CIA was photographing people going in and out of the Embassy, the same as they were doing to the U.S. (We found out, from our own sources that the CIA had a contract employee named Lee Henry Oswald, in their files.) Phillips testimony was that there was no photograph of "Oswald" because the camera equipment had broken down that day and there was no audio tape of "Oswald's" voice because they recycled their tapes every six or seven days. The problem with his story was, we had obtained a document, it was from the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, it was dated November 23rd, 1963, the very next day after the assassination. This document was a memo to all FBI supervisorial staff stating, in substance, that FBI agents who have questioned Oswald for the past 17 hours approximately, have listened to the tape made on October 1st, by an individual identifying himself as Lee Henry Oswald inside the Russian Embassy, calling on the phone to someone inside the Cuban Embassy and the agents can state unequivocally that the voice on the tape is not the voice of Lee Harvey Oswald, who is in custody.

JD: Did you have this document while you were questioning Phillips?

BT: No. It was a whole separate sequence of events that occurred. But, I wanted to get him back before the Committee so we could confront him with this evidence, because we were in a position to demonstrate that that whole aspect of the Warren Report, and what he had testified to, was untrue. And of course, the Committee was not interested in doing that.

JD: You guys actually did get Trafficante before the Committee, because I've read the transcript and I remember the first question that Sprague asked him was, " Mr. Trafficante, have you ever been a contract employee of the CIA?" So, you were on to the whole CIA-Mafia connection at a very early date, weren't you?

BT: Oh, absolutely. Once we got down to Washington, we were trying to play catch up early on, trying to get as much material as we could. If there had been a connection between organized crime and the assassination, we would have said so. But, based upon what our information was, that wasn't the case. We clearly wanted to question Trafficante but he wasn't going to answer anything.

JD: You've said that you've actually seen a CIA document that says they were monitoring and harrassing Jim Garrison's witnesses.

BT: Right. We had that information. I was shocked to read that because I remember discounting everything Garrison had said. I had a negative point of view about Garrison based upon all the reportage that had gone on. And then I read all this material that had come out of Helm's office, that in fact what Garrison had said was true. They were harrassing his witnesses, they were intimidating his witnesses. The documents exist. Where they are now, God only knows. It's a sad commentary on the lack of oversight on the executive intelligence agencies.

JD: I read something about you to the effect that during the brief period you ran the Committee, after Sprague left, one of the areas that really interested you was New Orleans and its connection to JM/Wave and Miami. Also, Delsa told me, as far as he was concerned, that was one of the most productive areas they were working.

BT: That's correct. The meeting in Clinton and the Clay Shaw connection and the fact that the government was lying about Clay Shaw and the aliases and so on. That the fact that the government and the executive intelligence agencies, not Garrison, were lying about that, was definitely an area to probe to find out what the justification for that was. Why were they involved in all this, if in fact, nothing had occurred? If it was meaningless, why get involved in creating a perjurious situation for a prosecutor in New Orleans? What was he really on to?

JD: How long did you stay on after Sprague left? BT: Until about mid-summer I guess. About three months.

JD: What's interesting about the day that Sprague resigns, is that's the day De Mohrenschildt is found dead.

BT: Right. The night before the Committee vote, we had sent an investigator to serve him a subpoena. The night of the day he received the subpoena from the Committee is when he was found dead.

JD: I guess the Committee was so crippled at that time, that it couldn't really pursue whatever investigation there may have been into his murder. And he was a key witness, right?

BT: Right. We desperately wanted to find out what happened. He was someone who had not been subpoenaed before, certainly not by the Warren Commission. [CTKA note: he was questioned, but not subpoenaed.] And you're right, he was a key player.

JD: Another thing you guys were on to that Blakey never seemed to be on to, was the connection between the people in the background of the assassination and the scandal that had just happened in Washington - namely, Watergate.

BT: Right. E. Howard Hunt, Frank Sturgis. Interestingly, some of them had been with Castro in the Sierra Maestra during the revolution and became players after the revolution. And then wound up in the Nixon White House as the "plumbers."

JD: You've stated that the Committee never got any cooperation from the Kennedys.

BT: We called Senator Kennedy 20-30 times. He never responded once to an inquiry. I found that to be astounding, because after all, he is a member of this legislative branch of government. He conducts probes, he engages in fact-finding missions. How could he stonewall from his brethren in the other chamber? He could have just simply acknowledged a phone call. How could he know what information we wanted? The fact of the matter was, as a matter of courtesy, we wanted to let him know we knew he was around and we wanted to discuss with him areas that he felt we should look into and get his opinions. We certainly felt that they would be valid. So, we were very disappointed in that regard. Frank Mankiewicz came by as a representative of the Kennedy family, wanted to see whether or not Sprague and I had two or three heads. He told us, interestingly, Bobby Kennedy couldn't put a sentence together about the assassination, he couldn't even think about it, he couldn't focus on it. Which explains, in large measure why the Kennedy family was willing to accept what the Warren Commission said, without concern. The event was so horrific, in and of itself, they really weren't concerned with bringing someone to justice other than what the Warren Commission had said. In their minds, from what Mankiewicz said, if it wasn't Oswald-some nonperson-then it was some other nonperson. What difference would it make?

JD: When the attacks on Sprague began, most notably in the New York Times and a few other newspapers, did you begin to see a parallel between what was happening to Sprague and what had happened to Jim Garrison?

BT: Of course. But, I didn't pay much attention to it because it didn't mean anything to me. I'm not moved to any great extent, by what people write in newspapers. They were trying to cause controversy. But, we were on a mission to do a job and nothing some dope in the New York Times or any other newspaper was going to write, that was blatantly untrue, was going to interfere with what we were doing. Whether it was a positive article or a negative article, it didn't matter.

JD: Did anybody ever call you for an interview?

BT: All the time. I just summarily rejected them all.

JD: Oh, you never did any? Was that just a matter of policy?

BT: No. I was there to do the job, I wasn't interested in being interviewed. Dick was being interviewed left and right, by everybody.

JD: Was that a strategy, Dick would talk to the press and you would do most of the work behind the scenes?

BT: Basically, right. Exactly.

JD: If you had to do all over again, would you go down and try to do it again?

BT: Only if we had the authority, the backing and if we had the ability to convene a grand jury. In essence, be a special prosecutor, accountable to the courts, who, I believe, would be a lot more independently directed and focused than any political organization in Washington.

JD: Bob, thank you very much. It was very entertaining and most informative.

BT: My pleasure. Thank you.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 05:00
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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