A review of Dr. Anna Nelson's
contribution to the book
A Culture of Secrecy
A Common Good
by Helen O'Donnell
A new book on the friendship of
Robert Kennedy and Kenny O'Donnell
The first thing that caught my eye in Dr. Anna K. Nelson's summary of the work of the Assassination Records Review Board was her idea of the assassination itself. When summarizing the Warren Commission's version of the assassination she creates a totally new version. "Three shots had been fired; one hit the President but did not kill him, one went astray, and the third killed Kennedy and wounded Governor John Connally of Texas, who shared the president's limousine as it slowly moved through downtown Dallas."1 Well, that's wrong. Close, but wrong. The Warren Commission version has the shot that injured President Kennedy as being the shot that went on to wound Governor Connally. Dr. Nelson has the fatal head shot going on to strike Connally. It is a little disturbing for a member of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) getting the basic view of the Warren Commission's version of the assassination wrong.
One thing that I totally agree with is when Dr. Nelson writes, "The very rapidity with which the Warrren Commission completed its work undermined its conclusions."2
Then the good doctor is wrong again for she claims the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) not only investigated the assassination of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., but also Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. That is not true. The federal government has never investigated the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The HSCA only investigated the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. King.
The ARRB came into existence as a direct result of Oliver Stone's movie "JFK". The ARRB is releasing material on President Kennedy's assassination from federal investigations, including, of course, the HSCA's but almost nothing is being released on Dr. King's death which the HSCA also investigated. Unfortunately, it seems as if Oliver Stone has to make another movie for the King records to be released. Or yet another for the L.A.P.D. and the California State Archives to really release all of their files pertaining to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Currently, the ARRB is winding down and soliciting comments for chapter 7 of their final report which will be on recommendations. It is my recommendation that they request another review board be appointed with similar powers to handle the Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., assassination records. This body should work with but be independent of the commission that Corretta Scott King has called President Clinton to appoint to look into Dr. King's assassination.
Dr. Nelson's short article goes on to detail the history of the ARRB with emphasis on the unforeseen burdens placed on the board. Dr. Nelson describes how the change in presidential administrations from Bush to Clinton, the mandate that no member of the board or staff could have worked for any prior federal government investigation into the assassination, the lengthy process of getting security clearances, the search for real estate to work from, and the mandate that it have the proper facilities for examining classified records, the recruitment of a staff and executive director, all without any money as they were not funded until friends in the White House were able to release money from the president's discretionary budget, affected the start up of the Board. By the time all of this was done 18 months of the Board's 2 year statutory lifetime was over. Fortunately, the Board was able to quickly pass through the Congress an amendment that would essentially restart the clock to give the board the full 2 years, plus a discretionary extra 3rd year if the Board felt they needed it, as the original statute intended, which they did so request, and H.R. 1553 gave them this extra 3rd and final year.
Dr. Nelson then goes onto to thoughtfully recount the hard issues the board had to face once they were up and running. The board was to determine what an assassination record was. And if a record could be classified as an assassination record. Also, if such a record should be immediately opened to the public or should some or all of the information in a record be withheld and postponed for future release. Dr. Nelson pointed out that the ARRB really had no guidance or precedence to fall back on. They were paving new ground.
I think it was wise of Congress to leave for the ARRB to define what an assassination record was. The ARRB held two public hearings on this matter hearing from 19 witnesses, one of whom was me. Dr. Nelson seems critical of this as she writes, "These hearings, however, produced little new information or insights on how to define assassination records precisely."3 I want to take issue with this. The Board did not really publicize their existence to terribly well to the assassination research community, let alone to the American public, most of which I'm sure have never heard of the ARRB. Those that did learn of them and of these hearings tried to be as helpful as they could. Speaking for myself I fought to keep the physical evidence in the case, what the National Archives referred to as "artifacts" within the definition of an "assassination record". The Archives was trying to pull a fast one and excise all artifacts from being placed in what was now the JFK Records Collection. They wanted this new collection of records to be textual, ie., pieces of paper only. They were arguing that that is the definition of "records". I did some research on this and was intrigued to discover that it was because of a lawsuit seeking access to Kennedy assassination records that resulted in the current definition of what a "record" is.4
This lawsuit did not deal with a separate statute written November 2, 1965 declaring all physical items of evidence the Warren Commission investigated and collected to be defined as "records", thus all artifacts are records. This 1965 Act was very quickly pushed through the Congress to stop a gun collector who offered Marina Oswald $10,000 for the alleged assassination rifle from acquiring that rifle.
Dr. Nelson writes on how the Board had to handle the odd restrictions on classified materials. "Agencies supplied the board with only one copy of the original security classified document and did not allow for further copying, thereby causing another logistical problem. the solution to this problem was a Rube Goldberg arrangement of two television monitors connected to the relative of the overhead projector called an "Elmo." Thus the five board members were able to examine simultaneously each document."
Dr. Nelson recount the trouble with the FBI over informant information. The knee jerk reaction to protect informant identities is seen in the FBI's immediate rejection of the board's first vote to release FBI records. This was despite the fact that the FBI had already released most if not all of the information.5 The FBI appealed to the President. After nearly a year the documents were released with only the informant symbol number redacted. One issue in one group of records dealt with information provided by the Swiss government in reference to Lee Harvey Oswald's application and apparent plans to attend the Albert Schweitzer College. The FBI wanted nearly all of the information redacted. The ARRB contacted the Swiss government through the State Dept and the Swiss government requested only that the name of the Swiss national be redacted and thus most of the record was released. Now this victory of declassification for the ARRB should not diminish the information in the record. This information was redacted because it conflicted with what we previously knew about Oswald and the Albert Schweitzer College.6
The reasons given to keep the secrets by the agencies are so ridiculous they are almost amusing, one example is that the CIA refuses to acknowledge that they have any foreign stations. The board got the CIA to acknowledge their existence for the window of 1960-194. Some foreign stations are still protected because of ongoing activities.
Something I had forgotten, the SS destruction of materials, in direct violation of the statute, did not escape Dr. Nelson's attention in this article. These records are said to be on presidential trips prior to Dallas and obviously important for comparison purposes. What was done about this, and if any effort was made to see if duplicate copies of these destroyed records could be found anywhere remains unknown. The Secret Service was quite slow in recognizing their obligations under the JFK Act. They even tried to have material withdrawn and reclassified.
A number of troublesome agencies are referred to. One I'm glad to see criticized is the JFK Library. Many records there are closed and/or require permission for access from the donor. The Robert Kennedy papers are still held by his family despite having been stored in the library for more than 30 years. And many Robert Kennedy materials have never been turned over to the JFK Library. The board has been able to open much, for example 20,000 pages from the Kennedy administration's National Security file, "but for most of the three years of the board's existence the library has stonewalled on requests for records, in particular those that are stored in the library without clear government ownership."7 There remains quite a bit to be opened by the JFK Library. Dr. Nelson writes that they have become more cooperative in early 1997.
One bit of alarming news is that intelligence agencies are still obsessed with secrecy and still perform line by line and page by page review. Dr. Nelson writes that under these conditions there are FBI records that will not to be turned over to the JFK Records Collection until after the turn of the century. The question is what is the ARRB doing about it or is this indeed what is going to happen?
I have not yet read the whole book but I would like to comment on the Dallas chapter. I'm stunned at the errors! And these are good size errors. President Kennedy went to Houston to honor Congressman Albert Thomas, not Rep. Carl Albert.8 Carl Albert was from Oklahoma. Then another blatant one being the misspelling of Jerry Behn, the Secret Service agent in charge of the White House Detail in November of 1963 as "Jerry Bain"9. The first is a major blunder, but both are name related errors that should have been easily caught by simple fact checking. This book advertises itself as using material from material closed to the public so information within is new. Well, there is quite a bit to draw on that is old and open that Ms. O'Donnell could have used to get the names right, and spelled right.
This chapter starts with President Kennedy and his position on Vietnam. I find this odd. Is the Kennedy camp beginning to think President Kennedy was indeed assassinated to prevent a total withdrawal from Vietnam? Helen O'Donnell starts with the report Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield wrote as a result of President Kennedy asking him to go to Vietnam and give him an independent report on how things were going out there. Now the fact that President Kennedy asked Mike Mansfiled to go says something about President Kennedy distrusting the information he is getting from normal channels. Ms. O'Donnell writes that President Kennedy was rather mad after reading the report. The reader might get the impression that President Kennedy is mad at Mansfield. Ms. O'Donnell then recounts Mansfield's reaction to the Diem assassination. Mansfield stresses that it occurred without the knowledge or approval of President Kennedy. Then sometime after President Kennedy has read Mansfield's report and probably after the Diem assassination President Kennedy informs Mansfiled in person that he is going to completely withdraw from Vietnam but not until after the election. O'Donnell then takes us into Texas trip planning and it's many problems.
President Kennedy and Vietnam is way too large a subject for the two and a half pages given to it in this chapter. Perhaps there is more in the rest of the book but even this woefully inadequate summation suffers from not having any dates given in the text nor even one footnote or reference of any kind to other material that covers this topic well.
The many layered and convoluted story of Texas trip planning in the fall of 1963 is a book I am working on. I would love to correspond with Ms. O'Donnell on this topic for she does get several things wrong here too. However, these are errors that only scholarship would point out to you, as the official fiction is far to often unquestionably accepted and repeated in far too many books. Ms. O'Donnell must have read Jerry Bruno's book "The Advanceman", but not well, for a scene from that book is copied, but without the details and without the humor. The scene is where Jerry Bruno is given a sandwich to eat in a room when Connally and his men all get big steaks. This meeting takes place at the Forty Acres Club in Austin. "It was a really friendly atmosphere. Connally was at the head of a long conference table. He's a tall handsome guy, and he was wearing cowboy boots. He really looked the part. All around him on either side of the table were his aides. And I was sitting there, by myself, bootless, about eight feet shorter than he was. At one point they brought in lunch: a juicy steak for Connally, a sandwich for me. And I'll tell you, if you've spend most of your life working with your hands, you know what they are trying to do with a move like that.
"As we sat there, Connally began outlining the schedule for Kennedy's trip. It was firm, he kept insisting; it was his state and if the President didn't like it, he could stay home. That really made me feel good."10
Connally gives Bruno his itinerary for the presidential trip, this is what the President will do. Bruno was taken a little bit back with this high handedness, but said that the President will decide the itinerary. That didn't sit well with Connally at all. Connally leaps up, goes to a phone, loudly for all to hear, demands to be put in touch with the White House, then demands to speak to Kenney O'Donnell. Connally then tells Kenny O'Donnell what the itinerary will be. Connally then comes back to the table as though Kenny O'Donnell just okayed Connally's itinerary for the trip
Helen O'Donnell twists it around. She writes, "Angrily replacing the receiver, Connally returned to the table visibly upset. He was not accustomed to that kind of treatment." This change is new and changes the whole story to Connally getting chewed out by her father Kenny, who tells Connally to work it out with Bruno, and we will get back to you. Now, that may indeed have been the real conversation. But this is not the story Bruno writes, and not the story Connally tells. They write of a triumphant Connally returning to the table. Bruno writes that Connally never told Kenney O'Donnell that Bruno was in the room. Kenny O'Donnell may indeed have thought that Bruno was not for nowhere in anyone's story of this important event in trip planning does Kenny ever ask to speak to Bruno. Connally, according to Bruno, came back to the table and told him that it was all set.
Connally, of course tells all that he got his itinerary okayed by O'Donnell.
Bruno found out only later, after the assassination, that Kenny had told Connally just what Bruno said to him, that the President would decide, that he was there to get people's ideas, take them to Washington, they would decide, then he would return with the itinerary.
For if Connally got his itinerary shot down it flies in the face of what everyone else has said and written about this event and everything that followed.
Ms. O'Donnell also gets the Ft. Worth part of the story wrong. She writes that at some point, again, no proper dates given, and the exact chronology is crucial, Bruno sees Ft. Worth as having problems. No, quite wrong, at first Ft. Worth is great. It was Governor Connally who told Jerry Bruno that Texas Christian University would give JFK an honorary degree, and then when Bruno checks up on it and finds that that is not going to happen. It is Connally who yanks this. Bruno had this planned, it was great, a major Protestant university giving the Catholic president an honorary degree. It would bury the religious issue which had cost JFK some votes in 1960. At the last minute it gets yanked, leaving a hole in the schedule. Why did it get yanked? Well, Connally reminds Bruno that JFK is Catholic.11
Ms. O'Donnell has Bruno coming up with the idea for TCU to give JFK the honorary degree. This is misleading. Bruno is merely checking up on what he thought was a done deal. He calls the TCU people who inform him under no conditions would they give an honorary degree to a Catholic. Ms. O'Donnell then, correctly, has Bruno telling the TCU people that Gov. Connally said this was going to happen.
Now this hole in the tentative schedule is crucial. If JFK went to TCU then there's no Dallas motorcade as there isn't time. JFK could have finished his day in Houston after the testimonial dinner for Rep. Albert Thomas spending the night in Houston instead of flying onto Ft. Worth that night, arriving around midnight, for the hastily patched up Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Instead JFK would have a normal breakfast somewhere, without making it into an event, and flown on to Ft. Worth, receiving the honorary degree at 9:30 am November 22.
Bruno writes, "Instead of a leisurely sleep over in Houston after a testimonial dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas, the President would now have to fly to Ft. Worth near midnight so he could be ready for the hastily pasted-up breakfast. More important, there were now two hours in the late morning that needed to be filled. To kill time rather than save it, it was decided that Kennedy would fly from Ft. Worth to Dallas, all the motion to and from airports would consume the dead space in the schedule. From the Dallas airport to the luncheon speech, the motorcade route was redrawn-and lengthened - through Dealey Plaza." (emphasis added)
Ms. O'Donnell has Bruno calling Connally and leaving Connally to fix this problem as Bruno moves onto deal with Dallas. It is Connally who comes up with the Ft. Worth Chamber of Commerce idea for a breakfast and then onto Dallas for a luncheon speech.
Little is written about the problems of Dallas. No mention is made of the photographs Bruno took of the Trade mart. Ms. O'Donnell has Bruno sketching the room on a piece of paper. No mention is made of Behn's statement to Bruno about the Trade Mart, "We will never go there." No real analysis of how and why Connally controls everything and why O'Donnell finally acquiesces to Connally. Ms. O'Donnell says that Jerry Bruno and her father worked out a motorcade route but does not explain exactly which route this is. Ms. O'Donnell writes that the Secret Service "has some objections" to it but does not explain who in the Secret Service has objections, nor what the objections are. This line, "Kenny had decided that the final route he had chosen to the Trade Mart made sense." needs a hell of a lot of explaining which we don't get.
Ms. O'Donnell then surprises me, writing that Bruno in Washington at the Democratic National Committee is on the phone with a Secret Service man who suddenly screams into the phone, "There have been shots! There have been shots!"
Now who is this Secret Service man and where is he? Well, Ms. O'Donnell says this Secret Service man is in Dallas in the motorcade, in the Secret Service follow up car directly behind the Secret Service limousine. "Shit! Shit! There have been shots, there have been shots. Dear God, they have shot him, they have shot. Dear God, they are shooting, they are shooting, he's hit!"12 Then the line goes dead.
Bruno apparently hearing early and erroneous news reports believes a Secret Service man was killed. I don't recall seeing anywhere previously that Bruno believed this.
Kenny O'Donnell never really spoke of the assassination. Ms. O'Donnell writes that her mother whom she is named after tried to get Kenny to talk to her of it, or write about it, or record on tape for history his thoughts but he was repulsed by the idea.
Ms. O'Donnell is trying to correct this in a small way I think. However, even given that her father never really spoke of the assassination the work suffers from very poor scholarship. And seems to continue a tradition of the JFK Library of allowing only privileged people privileged access.
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3. "A Culture of Secrecy" p. 217
4. See "March Madness at the ARRB" The Fourth Decade (Vol. 2 #4) May 1995 p.26-31
5. See my review of the relevant documents in Fair Play issue #8 Jan-Feb, 1996 "ARRB Document Releases: A review and Commentary"; and issue #9 March-April 1996 "ARRB Document releases: Batch #2".
6. See "LHO on Campus" by Dennis Bartholomew The Fourth Decade (Vol 4 No. 3) March 1997.
7. Dr. Anna Kasten Nelson, "The John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board" in "A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People's Right to Know" edited by Athan G. Theoharis (University Press of Kansas: 1998) p.228
8. "A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell" by Helen O'Donnell (William Morrow Company: New York 1998) p. 330
9. "A Common Good" p. 332
10. "The Advanceman" by Jerry Bruno and Jeff Greenfield (William Morrow and Company: New York 1971) p. 88
11. "The Lone Star: the Life of John Connally" by James Reston Jr. (Harper & Row; New York 1989) p. 256
12. "A Common Good" p. 333
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