Testimony of Robert Tannenbaum (sic; should be "Tanenbaum")
Los Angeles, California -- September 17, 1996
Our first witness today is Robert Tanenbaum. He is a former Deputy Counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s. He is the author of Corruption of Blood a fictionalized account of his experience with the committee investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. Mr. Tanenbaum, welcome.
Former Deputy Counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s
Author of Corruption of Blood
MR. TANENBAUM: Good morning. You look at me in stunned silence. I'm here at the request of you to answer questions, And if you have any I'd be delighted to answer any. I purposely avoided not giving you a statement because I'm not here to urge you or to do anything other than to release every document you can get your hands on. I could tell you that if Richard Sprague and I stayed with the committee, there was no document that we would have kept away from the American people. And when I say "document" I include in that films or other pieces of evidentiary value. We saw nothing frankly that should not be given to the American people and I say that Judge and members of the panel when you mention classified material. We were representing at the time an investigation of a legislative branch of government. We looked into certain executive intelligence agency activity of the Executive Branch and we did not feel that any of that material -- certainly none of it should have been redacted and the material we're looking for, particularly from the executive intelligence agencies were reports of the homicides, those two homicides, of two extraordinary Americans. But, the focus was to deal with these cases as homicides.
CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: Well, would it be possible, Mr. Tanenbaum, for you to give us really just a brief overview of your career and how you came to be involved with the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
MR. TANENBAUM: I attended college and law school at the University of California at Berkeley and went to work for District Attorney Frank Hogan in New York County. And while there I served as bureau chief of the criminal courts of the felony trial bureau and deputy chief and for a period of time acting chief of the homicide bureau, and while there tried several hundred cases to verdict.
While I was there I was asked to come down to the committee. I didn't apply for it in any fashion and Richard Sprague was the chief counsel and I met with members of the committee and Mr. Sprague, both at Mr. Sprague's office in Philadelphia and in Washington. I had no real intimate knowledge of the library of books that had been written to that point on the assassination. And wanted assurance from the committee simply that whatever the facts were we would be permitted to tell the American people. And that is if Oswald did it from the facts and he did it alone, we were prepared to say that. If he didn't, based upon the evidence, we too wanted to have the ability to say that. We wanted to have and clear investigation as we did for example in dealing with homicides on the streets of Manhattan. And, again, I emphasize that because of course we're dealing with two extraordinary Americans that is Doctor Martin Luther King and President Kennedy, what the cases were to be analyzed by individuals who had a lot of experience trying homicides. And that's how I came to be at the committee. Thereafter I have been in private practice and have written ten books all of which are based upon my own experiences as an assistant district attorney and otherwise in the legal profession.
DR. JOYCE: Can you help us to understand a little bit about the nature of your responsibilities in your work for HSCA and how long you were there?
MR. TANENBAUM: I started on or about the first week of December, 1976, and remained to a period of time, as I best can recall, in the summer of 1977. I was responsible, and was chief counsel and assisted the subcommittee in investigating the assassination of President Kennedy, although deputy chief to the whole committee investigating the homicides. And the organization was broken down into the Kennedy side and the King side.
I had with me fortunately expert detectives, some of whom I had worked with in New York County, who had been detectives for 20 to 30 years just dealing with homicides. And during that time, the focus of our investigation that was most fruitful had to deal with the anti-Castro Cuban CIA connection to the assassination. And that is to say briefly, we tried to deal with documentary evidence rather than with individuals who were now coming forward in 1976/77 who might allege that they saw acts in 1973 that they didn't bother to tell anybody about for 13/14 years. And some of those documents and material that we had was somewhat shocking to me having had been in law enforcement as a DA, and that is to say, when I came across for example an executive committee transcript that was -- and bear with me I'm going back approximately 20 years, 19 years on this, and it's not something I think about on an everyday basis. Although I'm troubled by what happened in Washington, frankly, and that is to say that the Congress really wasn't interested in pursuing the truth, which is why Richard Sprague and I left. And I'll get to that in a direct response to a question. But with respect to the investigation, the executive committee transfer for example of approximately January 20th, 23rd, 27th, in that period of time when the Attorney General of Texas, Henry Wade the District Attorney and Leon Jaworsky counsel to the Attorney General, on the transcript spoke to the Chief Justice and said in substance, as I recall, that they had information from unimpeachable sources that Lee Harvey Oswald was a contract employee of the CIA and the FBI. And the Chief Justice said well we'll investigate that. And yet in substance on the record Allen Dulles says not so fast. What do you mean says the Chief Justice, to which Allen Dulles replies, well if you ask J. Edgar Hoover whether or not Oswald was an employee of the FBI he's simply going to say, no. To which the Chief Justice responded, do you mean to tell me if I were to call an agent in here under oath he would not tell the truth? And Dulles said, if he were a good agent. The Chief Justice said, well, who will he tell the truth to? And Dulles replied, maybe the President.
Coming again from the office of Frank Hogan, from my experience was an a political meritocracy, I was stunned with that kind of revelation. It didn't -- that was one of many. I was also stunned and sadly disappointed when David Phillips gave testimony before the committee at executive session. And in fact lied to the committee. He told the committee that on or about October 1st, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald went to Mexico City and in Mexico City went to the Russian Embassy and telephoned the Cuban Embassy. And that photographs were then taken and there was a tape recording of that conversation. He was -- we found out, bottom line, that the photographic equipment had broken down and he indicated so that the wrong photograph of Oswald with the wrong description on the telex of Oswald's alleged appearance in Mexico City was sent out to the executive intelligence agencies and otherwise, and so they didn't have the real photograph. He also importantly misled the committee by saying that the tape of that telephone conversation was destroyed. And in the ordinary course he said they were destroyed every six or seven days. I imagine they did that for purposes of economy or recycled them. I don't know what he meant by that. We of course then came up with a document that was dated November 23rd from J. Edgar Hoover indicating that they agents who had investigated the case and who had spoken to Oswald for approximately 17 hours had listened to the October 1st tape in Mexico City of an individual who identified himself as Lee Harvey Oswald in the Russian Embassy calling the Cuban Embassy and these agents stated that the voice on the tape is not the voice of Lee Harvey Oswald. Antonio Veciana material on Alpha 66, the anti-Castro Cuban activity with this Maurice Bishop, from the evidence we had at the committee, was David Phillips that it was in our judgment based upon the information we had, was somewhat shocking in that according to Veciana, unsolicited basically, he was telling our investigators that in fact he with Maurice Bishop, David Phillips was with Lee Harvey Oswald. We had photographs of Oswald with Clay Shaw and David Ferrie. We had information of Oswald being in Clinton, Louisiana with Ferrie and other anti-Castro individuals and various soldier of fortune types who were contracted employees of the CIA. We came across a film of anti-Castro Cubans -- who were identified a anti-Castro Cubans -- not on the film but people who we recognized -- and these soldier of fortune types with the contract employees CIA, the Sturgess', the Hemmings and other individuals. Again, it was somewhat shocking to me because I learned that PS 238 in Brooklyn when I was in public school, that there was the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and Coast Guard, I didn't know about any secret armies that were existing in America.
We came across some material from Earl Warren, I think was probably the most troubling to me, and that was his point of view to his staff that existing conditions were going to override principle in this case. I had the greatest respect, still do, for Earl Warren as a great Chief Justice and he had a remarkable career here in California both as district attorney -- I should say as District Attorney for Alameda County and of course as Attorney General and governor. But I guess it was best summed up almost three years ago when I appeared for the first time at the 30 year anniversary at a convocation in Chicago where I was on a panel with Mr. Bert Griffin, who I believe is a judge now in Ohio, who was one of the counsel for the Warren Commission. And he indicated that -- some of the counsel when he said "we"-- to the Warren Commission, didn't believe, didn't really trust our investigators, the CIA and FBI people, but we wanted to keep them close to us because we had nobody else to rely on.
The troubling aspect of course in all of this is, there could be no compromise. There was no compromise from our point of view with respect to the investigation of this case. We held no brief for either side or any point of view other than where the facts were leading us, period. And when it became clear that we had to recall David Phillips to the Committee, when it became clear that we had to probe into this area that burst forward like ripe peaches falling from trees, the CIA's involvement with anti-Castro Cubans and Lee Harvey Oswald, where the Committee almost shut us down virtually. That is to say, we could no longer make long distance telephone calls. We had franking privileges removed. But fortunately I had two people in the field, Al Gonzalez who was an outstanding detective for many many years in the 20s and perhaps 30s, I forget I can't recall exactly, in New York as a homicide detective, and another investigator, Gaeton Fonzi, who had worked for the church committee and was working in Florida in the Miami area and they were able to give us a lot of information. So in that regard I was somewhat stunned having as I said represented the people in New York County and somewhat shock, as I earlier mentioned, from Richard Helms that he was stonewalling the Warren Commission to his people. They'll forget about things, they won't remember when we ask them for it, don't give it right away. Judge, you must have dealt with in some of these cases where you have the arguments on discovery and material is not given over and given over late. But what we're talking about here is not one isolated case. We're talking here about the mirror of America's conscience and that mirror did not reflect the kind of truth that we care about as American. So to me it's always been an American issue, and the reason why I say the Congress was not interested in this to the extent that -- when I say "this" I mean to say finding the truth in this case -- is that there is no political way to investigate a case. There's no Republican/Democratic way to analyze evidence. So, in the compromise of what the Congress does, as it was designed by the Constitution, you can't compromise on a criminal investigation. That is to say, it's okay if we tell the American people 70 percent of the truth, but they can't handle the other 30 percent. And that gets me back to what his Honor said with respect to classified material. I don't believe that -- and this is from my own experience and during a period time in the homicide bureau in New York County, I was responsible for thousands of homicide regrettably that occurred on the streets of Manhattan on a yearly basis -- that some people I don't believe are injected with gold in their veins and stamp a document top secret or secret or otherwise, and therefore it should remain that way in perpetuity and we poor John Doe Americans are unable to look at them. Not with the track record I will say with respect to those individuals at that time who were in the executive intelligence agencies with that record of deceit and deception. It is a said commentary, and it's heartbreaking for me to have seen it. And its the primary reason why Richard Sprague and I left. The reason was I wanted the Committee to go forward. We didn't want to shut anything down and have a grandstand play with respect to what our opinions were. I don't believe I have a monopoly on what happened here. I don't know what happened. I do know that I don't think from my experience that Lee Harvey Oswald could be convicted in any courtroom in America. That's not saying much. O.J. Simpson wasn't convicted. But the fact is based on the problems in this case starting from eye witness testimony and right down the line, I wouldn't want to be the D.A. to have to explain this to a jury. So the integrity of the evidence is in question. But I was heartbroken, and am heartbroken, that these events occurred by our government. And I'm hopeful that in some fashion that what is left of these records will be released because when a former Secretary of Defense testifies -- or rather writes a book -- and keep in mind my book Corruption of Blood mentioned in these papers is a novel. Is a work of fiction. Unfortunately we on the Committee investigating this case found the Warren Commission report to be a piece of fiction and it wasn't meant to be. But when I read a book about the former Secretary of Defense saying that he lied to the United States Senate about whether or not America should go to war, and I reflect upon an individual who I happened to see whose name is Fuller whose father is Chestie Fuller and this young man represents to me the lying of individuals in government and the distortion of American history and the results that flow therefrom -- he as you may know wrote a Pulitzer Prize book about his experience. He stepped on a mine in Vietnam and he was there for about five to eight weeks in that period and he lost his limbs. He has no legs and his hands were virtually blown apart. A couple of years ago he took his life. He represents those 59,000 who died, 500,000 or so who were in hospitals. The reason I mention that is, if we had the justification to pursue a war then we should have told the American people what that was. If in fact we had a report that told us what the truth was about the assassination of President Kennedy then our government had a direct responsibility to tell the American people what the truth was. And if they didn't find that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, but they could have told us where they were in the process of what they were doing, from my point of view as one humble American, I certainly would have been satisfied with that accurate historical record. But I wasn't going to participate any longer when I found out that the Congress was not going to tell the truth. I didn't want to participate in an historical fraud. And as I have mentioned on occasion, publicly my daughter when I was in Washington was three years old, she's now a junior at UCLA, and I didn't want to look at her years later and put my rubber stamp on a report that I knew was a fraud because it looked good on my resume and then maybe I can get a job on a council somewhere and do a teach somewhere in a university as is taking place on occasion. But it's more important to me then and it's more important to me now not to do what's right for the resume but to deal with the truth.
So that's a long winded answer to the question and I apologize for it.
CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: With respect to records, part of the collection of the House Select Committee on Assassinations that you played a role in developing, are there other records or groups of records that you recall that perhaps were not put into the Collection that we can be looking for? Any ideas for us?
MR. TANENBAUM: Well, the only area that was of value to us was this anti-Castro Cuban/CIA connection. And there were a lot of records with respect to Antonio Veciana, who had formed Alpha 66 with the help of Bishop Phillips and the whole connection of Oswald with the intelligence community. That was the prime area. Where they are today of course I have no idea. Where they were put when I left I also have no idea, but they were there when I left.
DR. NELSON: I'm interested in your point of view on what should be closed and what should be open, because you know of course that we have a broad mandate and we've done all that we possibly can to do that. And many of the documents that you saw that were restricted, or in the archives and are not open to the public, I wonder if you were at all troubled because this has been raised for us to decide, I wonder if you've been troubled by privacy interests in these documents. That's a little bit different issue, but one that also faces us as we decide on opening documents.
MR. TANENBAUM: I wasn't looking for a disclosure aspect while we were in Washington with respect to anything having to do with personnel, having to do with backgrounds of individuals who were investigators, they weren't relevant to what in fact was being investigated.
What I'm talking about are the standard investigative forms of what individual from the government spoke to whom and what was said and when it was said and what if any follow up was made as in the ordinary course you do in an investigation. You take over homicide investigation in any city in America you look at police reports, unredacted. And that's the manner in which we wanted those documents. We weren't interested in sources and methods or embarrassing any individuals. That's the last thing we wanted to do. All we wanted was what was the information that was given with respect to a whole range of issues. Some of those issues, frankly, were the issues of individuals who were at the grassy knoll area running away. One got called back by an officer and an individual was running out of the depository shortly after the shots were fired, who had Secret Service identification. And in fact the Secret Service didn't know who they were because all the Secret Service agents in Dallas at the time were in the motorcade.
There are areas that are very very prime for disclosure. And again, I have to repeat, I saw nothing when I was in Washington, that would cause me not to turn over in its entirety the material that I'm referring to. For example, the Helms' documents, the Executive Committee transcripts, the material from the FBI, whether it was from the Director, Mr. Hoover, to supervisorial personnel or otherwise having to do with this case. It seems to me -- and for example the material from Earl Warren and his discussions having to do with his own staff. If it will enrich the historical record as to what happened or as to what the motivations of these individuals were, then it seems to me then the balance in the equation should be for disclosure.
DR. HALL: I have a two-part question for you. Part one is, I think in your answer to Judge Tunheim about what other materials might be there, you didn't speak to the question of the film that you mentioned both in your probe interview as well I believe in Corruption of Blood that deals with anti-Castro Cubans and the group that was there. So I wonder if you could speak to that particular matter. And then let me if I could give you the other half of this and wrap it up into one big ball. Do you have any materials from your days with the HSCA?
MR. TANENBAUM: Let me take the last question first. I have no documents at all. Anybody can go into my office and they won't find any land deals there either or anything else. And that's even in my private office. But certainly when I was in the government the same was true. I have nothing and walked in as -- walked out I should say as I walked in.
As far as where the film is, again, I can only tell you that all of the material I assume was in the same place, and that is where all the documents were kept in the document area as well as -- and when I say "documents" I include in that statement witnesses and memos that were drafted, films, medical evidence and other pieces of evidentiary value. So I can't tell you exactly what room it was in, but we had it in our possession.
DR. HALL: And that film had been obtained from the Georgetown University library?
MR. TANENBAUM: That's my best recollection is that our investigators, researchers found it in the Georgetown library archives as I recall.
DR. HALL: And just for the record, the significance of this film if it were now recovered, would be?
MR. TANENBAUM: If it showed -- again, it could be Sherlock Holmes again. It could be everything it could be nothing. On one hand it shows a lot of anti-Castro Cuban players with CIA contract people in a military training setting. It was some speculation, somewhat unclear, as to the direct identities of some of these people, and as I stand here now I'm not going to tell you exactly who they were. But, it was some of the major players in this whole case.
Now, does that mean, for example, and in direct answer to your question, Mr. Hall, that if we continued our probe into the anti-Castro Cuban connection with the CIA that that would show that the CIA in some fashion was responsible for the assassination, I can't say that and will not say that. And it doesn't mean also that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone, I can't say that. But there's certain medical evidence and other evidence that suggests that perhaps he did not act alone. That's a whole different area of inquiry. So with respect to the film, it was just another piece of this great mosaic of trying to understand and recapture what occurred at a time. And that's one of the reasons why it was a fascinating view.
DR. HALL: But the critical piece here, this is a piece of material that you had previously seen in the course of your role as an investigator that is at the moment not available --
MR. TANENBAUM: Again, I don't know where it is -- but, yes, I did see that as my role on the Committee.
DR. HALL: Thank you.
CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: In your role with the Committee, did you have anything to do with the probe into possible organized crime connections?
MR. TANENBAUM: Yes, we tried to probe and go down every avenue. That was one of the things that Dick Sprague and I were committed to doing before we started. Again, as I said, Judge, we didn't have any preconceptions. And, again, if the evidence showed that it was Oswald who acted alone without foreign intervention, that was it. We held no brief one way or the other. Notwithstanding the impact we had from various sources, both from within the government and from without who had antithetical points of view and they were convinced of their positions. We weren't as fact finders. But we did from our point of view check that area pretty carefully. We found some what we considered to be tough talk but no connection. Had we continued on perhaps and gone into the CIA activities with organized crime, we can only speculate. But we certainly at the time did not conclude that the mafia did it. That was something that we did not -- we just couldn't do based upon the unavailability of evidence.
DR. JOYCE: In the work that you did for the Committee, you had gotten involved and were working for more than a year and left under circumstances that you describe as your own dissatisfaction with the commitment of the Congress to the support of this enterprise. Were there any inquiries or initiatives that you have wondered about over the years, specifically whether there may have been areas, avenues of approach that you wished you might have taken that you could recommend to us as potentially fruitful in terms of identifying additional records.
MR. TANENBAUM: Let me if I may set the record straight on how it was that we left, if that's permitted.
CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: Go ahead.
MR. TANENBAUM: I'll be brief. I was asked by the Committee sometime in early 1977 when we were no longer funded, to speak to the membership of the House and I did. I actually almost prevailed speaking at all 435 of my bosses, another phenomenon in a criminal investigation, which is a very difficult thing to deal with. In any event, it became apparent that the Members of the House were not going to vote for the Committee if Richard Sprague stayed on and that was the excuse in my mind, I use the word "excuse" to the extent that -- based upon the requests we were making to continue the probe, which were denied, that the excuse was Richard Sprague. God only knows why. He was a brilliant lawyer and he was a terrific prosecutor. He worked with our inspector for many years and you know his background I'm sure. And I can testify that he's a man of extraordinary integrity. And I told that to him the night before our vote, which was some time on or about March 30th/31st, 1977. And we went to see our chairman, who's a dear friend of mine to this day, Lou Stokes, Congressman Lou Stokes, and Dick resigned. And I virtually told him that the honorable thing to do would be that we resigned -- I say "we," he was the focus of it -- because we didn't want individuals to stand in the way of this investigation even though we felt it wasn't going to be what we thought it should be, perhaps we would be wrong and good things would result. That is, the truth would come out.
So that's the reason why he resigned. I was then offered his job and could not accept it because I had to ask him to resign and I didn't want to live with the notion that there was a capillary in my body that might have suggested that and I took his job. So I didn't do that. And stayed for the transition. And that's the reason why I waited until the new chief counsel was in place. And that was sometime -- I believe I left in July of '77.
But the major area, and I can't overemphasize this, focused on the government and what the government knew about Lee Harvey Oswald, the whole Hosty episode, as I'm sure you're all experts on, and what the CIA was doing with Lee Harvey Oswald. And what he was doing in New Orleans with anti-Castro Cubans, Rabid anti-Castro Cubans, and to get everything you could get from the government with respect to it. And how this government today could want to hold that information and feed the kind of anti-government feeling that results from non-disclosure is really beyond my comprehension. Because from everything I've said and observed during that period of time, and said today, that notwithstanding total disclosure it still didn't appear from what we had seen that it was a conclusion that would in fact come up with a result that is somewhat different from what we have to the extent that we have someone else or another group. That's not to say that based upon the evidence that we uncovered, that members of our staff believe that Oswald alone was responsible for the assassination. We had another opinion, most respectfully, based upon the evidence. That would be the medical, ballistic, lack thereof and contradictions and other kinds of information evidentiary wise which I won't go into unless you want me to.
CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: Thank you very much, Mr. Tanenbaum, I appreciate your testimony this morning.
MR. TANENBAUM: Thank you.