Tuesday, 15 December 1998 23:17

Speech By Bob Tanenbaum

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Transcript of speech made by Robert Tanenbaum at the Chicago Symposium on the JFK assassination in 1993.

From the November-December 1998 issue (Vol. 6 No. 1) of Probe

Because CTKA was started largely as a result of the successful Chicago Symposium on the case back in 1993, and because Jim [DiEugenio] has been focusing on the HSCA in the past and current issues of Probe, we thought it would be good to share two speeches from former HSCA participants. Both of these speeches have been minimally edited for clarity. Bob Tanenbaum followed former Warren Commission member Burt Griffin to the stage. Tanenbaum responded to Griffin as he took the stage. [Note: Only Tanenbaum's speech is online. The other speech by Eddie Lopez is available in the print version of this publication.]

I'm in somewhat stunned disbelief to hear some of the rationalizations about what happened with the Warren Commission, and suggest that maybe we should have three lawyers with a small staff get involved in trying to decide whether or not we have a legitimate government or an illegitimate government.


I had the opportunity to meet with Oliver Stone and his people. And they're wonderful people. I disagree with the premise. That doesn't mean I'm right and they're wrong. I just – I wasn't able to prove any of that.

But I have no quarrel with Oliver Stone. He's an artist. We don't go to movies to learn about American history. What we do is, when we read about a commission like the Warren Commission that has said the government of the United States is saying that Lee Harvey Oswald is the murderer of the president, what is obscene is not Oliver Stone. What is obscene is deceiving the American people with a makeshift investigation wherein their own investigators couldn't be trusted.

What does that tell you about the integrity of what went on in the Warren Commission? It's not enough for me to sit here and listen and say it's OK. We had young lawyers who were well intentioned, who were good and decent people, who thought it was wise to have as their investigators FBI, CIA, who they didn't trust.

Who are they going to get their information from? How are they going to investigate the case? And this issue about if we really found the truth, there could have been thermonuclear war. Well, let me tell you something. I was at Berkeley in 1963. And there was a war. And monks were immolating themselves in the streets of Saigon. And there were teach-ins at Cal. And 50-some-odd thousand Americans died needlessly in Vietnam. So we were close to thermonuclear war. What we needed was the truth.


And when I was in Washington, I had occasion to speak with Frank Mankiewicz. I didn't invite him into my office. He called me and he came in. He put his feet up on the table, he said, "It's government property. It's OK if I put my feet on the table." That's Frank Mankiewicz.

I said, "What can I do for you?" He said, "Well, I wanted to talk to you." I said, "What, you're a front-runner for the Kennedy family? You know, we've called Senator Kennedy innumerable times. Never had the decency even to respond once." I said, "You want to find out here if we're conspiratorial-minded, if we're establishment-oriented, if we read the New York Times, Rolling Stone, if we're suspect creatures."


I said, I want to know from you the question that was raised. What did the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, have to do about this whole business? If after all, common knowledge is and common experience is, you know, would Bobby Kennedy permit the CIA or anybody else, underworld, overworld characters to have assassinated his brother and stood silently by?

And his response was that Bobby Kennedy couldn't put a sentence together about the assassination. And then on one evening, the closest he ever got to anything to do with the assassination was he was asked by Bobby Kennedy not to have any coverage of putting the brain back into the president's coffin. And that if anybody leaked what was going to take place, then Mankiewicz was in serious trouble.

That was the only time he said he ever was able to hear anything from his lips about the assassination. So the reason I raise these points is that, you know, unlike the doctors who were testifying – who know everything, it's incredible – their degree of certitude about life is absolutely fascinating to me. Because in the hundreds of cases I've prosecuted in helping run the homicide bureau of the New York County D.A.'s office, and running the criminal courts, I always have a lot of questions. A lot more questions unanswered than otherwise. But I will tell you, what is disturbing about this whole case is somewhat of a cavalier notion that we're going to sit down and we hope we find the conspiracy, but we're going to use FBI people and CIA people who very well might be involved, who we don't trust. And by golly, we don't want to smear anybody, in case we're wrong. But there's always Lee Harvey Oswald. We can do whatever the hell we want to him.


Coming from a D.A.'s office where – that really was a Ministry of Justice which is no more. When Frank Hogan was district attorney, and his predecessor was Tom Dewey – notwithstanding any elective politics, Tom Dewey was a damn good lawyer, and he was a top-notch D.A. As was Frank Hogan.

Hogan was larger in life than his legend. He was D.A. for 32 years. He was a lifelong Democrat, always had Republican, liberal, conservative party support in New York County, which is the island of Manhattan. And that's saying something in New York City.

When I went into that office, I was one of 17 accepted out of 800 applications. And there was a training period for years. Not days, not a few afternoons. But for a couple of years, before you ever got near a serious case.

And when you dealt with these cases, there was only one issue: Did the defendant do it? Is there factual guilt? And if there is, is there legally sufficient evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty?

Now, if anyone interfered with that investigation – and I handled assassinations of police officers, the murder of Joey Gallo and so on – no one would have been immune from having to answer legally if they interfered with the investigation.

Now, if you're talking about honestly going forward in a murder case that happens to involve Martin Luther King and the president of the United States, do you think you would have less of standard? Would there be less of a standard? Would you permit, for example, the FBI to clear your people if you're the legislative branch?

If the legislative branch is now saying we are going to investigate this case, what is the reason to have the FBI and/or the CIA tell you you could hire Jones, you can't hire Smith. You can hire Walter, but you can't hire Sally. You can hire Jane. Wait, did they take Clearing 101, that I didn't, when I was at Berkeley?


When they look at documents and they talk about this great sensitivity that exists, that Eddie Lopez talked about redaction. You know what that's like? You have a document here and it says, "The Investigation," and down at the bottom is says "Lee Harvey Oswald." Everything else is black.


And then you surrender your notes. What we're talking about here which is disturbing is what Adlai Stevenson talked about, someone I admired a great deal. He actually carried my neighborhood in Brooklyn, although we lost the rest of the country five to one.


I've been out of step a long time. And that is, we have to tell the American people the truth. And if there was no Adlai Stevenson, there never would have been a JFK.

So what we're talking about here is tampering with American history. And that's the sin that's been perpetrated. It's not Oliver Stone, it's not Kevin Costner. It's not the staff that worked on "JFK." And it's certainly not people who have taken a tremendous amount of their own time to write about – to create the library of over 600 books on the assassination.

Some of them may be right, some may be wrong. And it is not the obligation of private people to come up with an alternative – another theory. When I heard that this morning from the medical panel, a panelist about, well, you know, after all, we came up with our theory. What do you got?


It's sort of like looking at the jury, well, we had nobody else to prosecute today. And this guy happens to be here. And if I could convict an otherwise innocent person, I'm a hell of a trial lawyer.


So somewhere along the line, we've lost the sense of balance and understanding about what we're doing in this business. And it doesn't mean you make popular decisions. But it does mean you make the professional decision.

And if in the case, for example, of Phillips, who testified before the committee before Eddie Lopez came on board and he testified about this conversation that allegedly took place in Mexico City on or about October 1; and of course, you all know about the telex and the wrong person who appears on the photograph of the telex.

And he said, well, understanding that we photograph everybody who goes into a Communist embassy, the Communists do the same thing to us. And by the way, that's how they know each other. None of these guys ever get knocked off. They're taking photographs. They know each other. And they're also listening. They're eavesdropping. They're wiretapping phones and eavesdropping in various rooms.

And so he said under oath, well, at that particular time, our camera system went out. You know, human error can take place. But what happened to the tape? Well, we destroyed the tape. Why did you do that? Because we recycled our tapes...


... every seven or eight days. For economy, I assume. This is this, oh, you know, what the CIA has done with respect to not being accountable to the Congress. What we're saying here, in essence, is that 10 days after this alleged conversation, the tape would have been recycled, gone.

Mind you, of course, we had this telex that came out about this Lee Henry Oswald. Interesting how this middle name somehow got mixed up in everything. And so the tape was gone.

Interestingly, when I was on the committee, I had occasion to speak with Garrison and to speak with Mark Lane. I did not know either of these two gentlemen. I had basically negative impressions about them because of the coverage that they had received throughout the course of this whole period of time. Both of them, I will tell you, whether you like to hear it or not, were very cooperative with the committee when I was there. They did not, under any stretch of the imagination, offer any kind of course one should move in. An agenda that – or a road map, or a theory. They simply wanted to respond to questions that were being asked. And Mark Lane handed me a document that he had obtained, which was dated November 23. And it was a document that stated, in substance, the following. I'm sure you're familiar with it. But it relates directly to the Phillips issue and to the issue about why the Congress cannot investigate this case.

And it's not maybe just the Congress. But it's a mindset. And on this document of November 23, it stated from J. Edgar Hoover to supervisorial staff, we have – we, the agents, who have been questioning Lee Harvey Oswald in custody for the past 17, 18 some-odd hours, have listened to the October 1 tape in Mexico City of the person who allegedly was Lee Oswald. And our people questioning Oswald in custody have concluded that the voice on the tape was not the same as the person in custody.

Now in order to pursue that, one has to have a confrontation under oath with Mr. Phillips. This is simple stuff, isn't it? You don't have to go to Yale Law School to figure this stuff out.


And you don't need Bill and Hillary to figure this out. You can do – we could do it ourselves. And you hit resistance. And when you hit resistance, and you want to say let's discuss this with the CIA, and let's discuss with the FBI, there's nothing to discuss with them. This is not an encounter session when you're trying to find evidence out.


And you don't rationalize, gee, I might create a thermonuclear war if I find out the truth.


Well, I agree in large – you know, I agree in large measure – I have a great deal of respect for Earl Warren. He was the tough D.A. of Alameda County and governor of the state of California. And no one expected when President Eisenhower appointed him to the bench that he would ever do what he did, starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson and a whole revolution of criminal justice up through the 60s, which of course was a hundred-some-odd years later than it should have ever happened.

But he recognized, in large measure, himself this dilemma he was in. Which is one of the reasons why he didn't want to be part of this commission. And he did write that existing conditions may have to override principle. And what was he talking about?

He did not believe, I believe – and this is sheer speculation – that anybody of his integrity would have thought that everybody here, that the Sylvia Meaghers of this world and the Cyril Wechts and others who contributed to the library of inquiry of truth would have existed if he did from his – the historical record of Earl Warren, I don't believe for one second he ever would have been in charge of this commission. And never would have permitted it to proceed the way it did.

And it's a shame on his career that he is so associated with his name on a report that's a complete sham. And that is what is so disturbing. And why do I say that? Because I get right down to basics. You listen to the medical testimony about micro-invasions of the anterior cerebral left portion of the skull.

The question is, from the very beginning, how do the police get to the defendant? These are not difficult questions that you have to answer. That is to say, if you cannot prove the truth of your case from inception, why are you getting involved in all of these theories that came down that, but for various pieces of evidence, never would have flourished?

By that, I mean, if there were no Zapruder film, I can tell you there never would have been a one-bullet theory. I myself have been responsible for thousands of cases, acting as the head on many occasions the homicide bureau in the New York County D.A.'s office, where we had about 1,000 homicides a year. All of England had about 126 during that period of time.


This is on the island of Manhattan. In no case, in no case did anybody ever allege that A and B were shot by one bullet. Where you had two people shot, you went through the normal kinds of investigative technique with experts. But you know why they had to come up with the one-bullet theory. Because that film becomes a clock on the assassination.

If you use the – given the murder weapon they're using, which is somewhat different than was described initially...


... then you have to come up with a one-bullet theory to make this thing stick. And I'm still have trouble figuring out why Tippitt, on an evidentiary record, stopped Oswald. I looked at those Hughes photographs. I saw how that window ajar very slightly. And I don't recall anybody standing up on that window heroically stating "I just murdered the president," throwing his rifle down, so that everybody can see him. I see a window and photographs, some very short time, within a minute or so, before and after, nobody in it, slightly ajar.

And if you accept the "Sniper's Nest" theory, you don't have someone standing up at all, do you? You have very, very partials of someone's face. Very difficult to give a description of height, weight, facial characteristics. And particularly be definite about giving it to Secret Service people at a time when it went out over an alarm when there were no Secret Service people to give it to.

So the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald in any court in America, I would suggest to you, given my limited experience of trying several hundred cases to verdict as a prosecutor would be very, very difficult, and almost embarrassing. To present the evidence on behalf of the people, in every aspect of the evidentiary record.

And what is disturbing to me, what is disturbing in Washington, is that if you can't do this job, then say it. Don't walk around and publish 26 volumes and expect that the New York Times, without even reading it, or seeing the evidence, is going to endorse it and say this is the gospel truth, when you know, as an American, as a professional, that what you did was a sham.

There's no excuse for that. And if the Congress of the United States is going to argue, which they did – they had countless hours of this, until I got fed up and like Paddy Chayevsky, I couldn't take it any more – and they say, well, you know, we got to work with the rest of the membership. And we need funding for other issues. Hey, well, why did you call me down here?


I'm the wrong guy for this. I can't go around to 435 people, who were elected, and have to tell them what the investigation is and their staffs, their AAs, their LAs and all these other jokers running around. Because there was a perversion that took place.

People are expecting to hear the truth. Which is miraculous in itself, given the nature of what's going on. And if the American public, which I hope C-SPAN ultimately provides for everyone, demonstrates what really goes on in the House of Representatives and/or the Senate during their sessions, where you have people read articles about Richard Sprague, for example, that were published in the Chattanooga Courier into the record as a piece of evidence, then maybe we'll see some real reform about what goes on there.

But it is disturbing to discuss various issues that occurred when people weren't psychologically, professionally, philosophically committed to the truth-finding process. That doesn't mean it can't happen. To the contrary, I'm an optimist. I believe it can happen. But it has to happen under some very, very important conditions present before going forward. And that is a total commitment to finding out what occurred. And if, in fact, there are people who are contemptuous, as there were on our committee – and by the way, when I would sit at some of these hearings and hear some of the members of the committee – not Lou Stokes, who's a very dear friend of mine – but others say how much cooperation the committee has gotten from the CIA and the FBI, I had to clear the record and clarify it.

That didn't endear me to the membership. There was a minority membership. There were some good people on that committee. Stu McKinney from Connecticut, who was the minority ranking member. And Richardson Preyer from North Carolina, who was the ranking member on the Kennedy side. These were good people. And Lou.

And I understand why the Congress could not investigate this. But I chose not to be a part of it, because at that time, I had a three-year-old daughter. I now have three children. And I didn't want her to read about an American history that I knew was absolutely false, that her father might have participated in.

I learned a little differently at PS 238 in Brooklyn. And I believe that in my heart of hearts, we owe – we, the people who care, owe it to the entire public that the truth finally be investigated in a highly professional, independent fashion. And wherever the facts lead, not looking for conspiracy. That sounds like – it's a word that lingers out there in the netherland, along with "circumstantial evidence." If in fact there were two or more people who engage in an illegal enterprise, so be it. Tell the truth.

Does anybody really believe that certain people in the executive intelligence agencies are more equipped to handle the truth than the American people? If so, then we will redefine the nature of our democracy. And that's something I'm not prepared to do.


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