Howard Willens weighs in on RFK’s suspicions of conspiracy

Howard Willens, former Warren Commission staffer, has responded to Philip Shenon’s article in Politico about Attorney General Robert Kennedy being a “conspiracy theorist” and my post, “Why RFK refused to swear there was no conspiracy.”

In a new post at, Willens says the dispute should be broken down into three questions:

1) Did Robert Kennedy refuse to provide the Commission with a sworn statement that he was not aware of any evidence of a conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of the President? (2) Should Robert Kennedy have provided the Commission with the information he had regarding the CIA’s plans to assassinate Castro? and (3) At the time he was assassinated in 1968 did Robert Kennedy believe that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy contrary to the conclusion of the Warren Commission

In the post, Willens only addresses Question 1.

He says the answer is “No.” Contra Shenon, he argues a statement he drafted for RFK inadvertently suggested in the first paragraph that the statement be “duly sworn.” He says no one else at the Commission ever discussed or wrote that RFK should submit an “affidavit” or a “sworn statement” or should testify under oath. Since RFK was never asked for a sworn statement, Willens reasons, he could not have “refused.”

This is good lawyering. It is technically accurate and scrupulously avoids contradictory evidence. It is less convincing as a commonsense proposition about Bobby’s Kennedy’s reluctance to commit himself to conclusions about his brother’s murder.

Robert F. Kennedy suspected the worst

Willens’s presentation makes clear that Kennedy, while saying he would do “whatever” the Commission wanted, made sure that he did not have to do anything he didn’t want to do. And one of the things he didn’t want to do was give a sworn statement.

Willens’s account documents how RFK maneuvered to limit his testimony.

According to Willens’s account, RFK’s aides, Ed Guthman and Nicholas Katzenbach, rejected his first draft statement (the one referring to a “duly sworn” statement) saying it was “sterile and unsatisfactory.”

Willens says RFK never saw this draft, so he couldn’t have rejected it. Willens does not consider the rather obvious possibility that RFK’s aides regarded the draft as unsatisfactory precisely because Willens was proposing that the statement be “duly sworn.”  RFK might have told them to reject any request for a  sworn statement.They might have intuited their didn’t want to make a sworn statement.

Willens also does not mention Katzenbach’s notorious memo of November 25, 1963, in which he wrote that “the public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin.” This astonishingly bald recommendation was made within 24 hours of the murder of the chief suspect and before the victim of the crime was buried. The investigation of JFK’s assassination had not even begun, and Katzenbach was already jumping to conclusions.

I wonder why Katzenbach used the word “must.” Willens doesn’t.

Of course, Willens can argue that Katzenbach’s memo doesn’t bear on RFK’s willingness to testify, again technically correct. But Katzenbach’s memo speaks to the hasty determination of senior U.S. government officials to head off any serious consideration of conspiracy, a determination that influenced the Warren Commission — and which Robert Kennedy could not possibly have defied and maintained his hopes of becoming president. By omitting this context, Willens makes his argument more plausible.

David Belin and Howard Willens
Howard Willens, right, and fellow Warren Commissioner investigator David Belin at the Texas School Book Depository in March 1964.

But his own evidence keeps undermining his argument. He recounts that he met with RFK on June 4, 1963, and RFK expressed his willingness to submit a statement that he had no evidence of conspiracy. Willens adds that he had prepared a second draft statement — which wasn’t satisfactory to RFK either.

“He [RFK] suggested one modification reflecting the fact that he had not received any reports from the FBI regarding the assassination,” Willens writes, without comment.

But surely RFK’s demurral is relevant to his reluctance to commit himself to any statement about his brother’s murder. Kennedy was saying, amazingly, that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had not sent him, the Attorney General of the United States — the chief law enforcement official in the government — “any” reports on the assassination of a sitting president.

“After further discussion,” Willens blithely continues, “[Kennedy] approved the exchange of letters as a preferred manner of addressing the Commission’s concerns.”

So Kennedy’s preferred solution was a letter asserting that he had no evidence of conspiracy, a letter that he made sure did not disclose that he knew little about the FBI’s investigation.

By focusing on the word “refuse” Willens has constructed a defensible answer to his narrowly constructed question.

He continues to avoid the larger truth that RFK did everything he could to limit his testimony to the Warren Commission. RFK did not refuse a request for sworn testimony because he made sure he never got one. Based on everything we know, he almost certainly would have refused to provide one.

Willens does not answer questions 2) and 3) in his post, so I will not address those questions here, except to refer readers to one of the most popular JFK Facts article ever, “Six Washington insider who suspected a JFK plot.” (Spoiler alert: Bobby Kennedy was one of them.)

This post has been corrected since it was first published. The corrections are explained here.

See also:

Q&A with Howard Willens, Warren Commission defender (June 16, 2014)

His brother’s keeper; RFK immediately suspected a plot  (Nov. 24, 2103)

RFK Jr. on JFK’s legacy (Nov. 21, 2013)

Who first asked if the CIA was involved in JFK’s assassination? (Oct. 18, 2013)

CIA kept RFK apprised of Castro assassination plotting (Aug. 2, 2013)

CIA chief told RFK about two shooters in Dallas (Jan. 23, 2013)


34 thoughts on “Howard Willens weighs in on RFK’s suspicions of conspiracy”

  1. Bobby Kennedy, according to what Michael Baden say’s he learned AFTER the HSCA debacle, that RFK returned to Arlington, on Monday PM (with Teddy and others) and returned and ‘placed’ the missing autopsy materials, including the brain, near/next to JFK’s casket, at about midnight. This would explain the incredible security present in 1967 when US troops swept through the cemetery (but missed out on a single intrepid photographer) when JFK casket was removed. I feel RFK was there to make sure ‘everything’ was replaced.

  2. According to Dr. Baden, RFK, Teddy, and others close to JFK returned to the gravesite, on November 25, 1963, and placed JFK’s brain ‘near’ the casket. I feel that RFK had his suspicions and grabbed the brain material to have it evaluated privately. When it was shown to demonstrate the Oswald shooter position he had it buried next to his brother (as any one of us would do for our family members). I feel that this is why RFK was present for the other 2 openings of the gravesite (not the casket). Not to do anything more than make sure that what was in that grave/vault…was put back into that vault. Anyway….Dr. Baden alleges he was told the truth about the missing brain. When I learned of what Baden said…I sent R. Blakey the link and he thought it was interesting and that he would speak to Baden about it when next they met. Peace.

  3. If one can visualize the brother of Julius Caesar in the role of chief officer of Rome’s judicial system reporting for wok each day surrounded by the Senators that stabbed Caesar to death on the Ides Of March; then you have Bobby Kennedy (so says some). It was either swim or sink like a stone.

    On the other hand, Bobby wasn’t shielded from the CIA-Mafia plots to murder Castro like the Warren Commission was. Bobby knew about the plans; he oversaw Operation Mongoose for his brother. Bobby wasn’t blind; he could see directional signals in Lee Oswald pointing back to Cuba, Soviet Union & US Intelligence. Bobby had more justification to suspect more people than the average Joe on the street did.

    Shortly before Bobby was murdered there was a big push in portions of the media to re-open the JFK case that was led by Life magazine, Josiah Thompson, Sylvia Meager & other researchers/authors. This was counterweighted by CBS, Walter Cronkite & Dan Rather in multi-part TV specials assuring the country the WC got it right.

    Had Bobby lived & been elected President in 1968, I believe his advisors would have told him to ‘let sleeping dogs lay’ in regards to re-opening his brother’s murder investigation & report, regardless what he may have disclosed privately or publicly.

    1. In 1968 Robert Kennedy said he stood by the Warren Commission and would not reopen the investigation if elected. Audio tape here:

      1. People do some pretty odd things for political reasons when they are running for office. David Tablot gives a lot of evidence in Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years that RFK would have reopened the investigation.

        For that matter, there’s evidence that John F. Kennedy, Jr. was intending to investigate the matter for George magazine when he had his unfortunate airplane accident.

      2. But on the campaign trail in California, Robert Kennedy said publicly he would re-open the investigation if elected.

        Mere coincidence he was shot dead the night he won the California primary.

        1. Jonathan,

          “On the campaign trail in California, Robert Kennedy said publicly he would re-open the investigation if elected.”

          Sure, that’s the claim repeated by one JFK writer after another, but where is the audio tape or original news story? (Reporters were following him everywhere.) An announcement like that should’ve made the news at the time, don’t you think?

          It’s sometimes said that RFK made this statement at San Fernando Valley State College on June 3, but I can’t even verify that he was at that college on that date, much less that he said this. Can anyone?

          The link I posted is what RFK actually said at that very college in March 1963 (c. 39 minutes into this tape of the same audio):

          1. David, 11/16 12:58am

            I don’t know what RFK suspected, I only tried to clarify what he actually said. I question the credibility of sources who claim he said one thing when he actually said the opposite. IMO, secondary sources shouldn’t be trusted since they are often wrong.

            The article you linked to said, “There is no indication that Bobby ever found evidence to prove a wider conspiracy,” and I think that’s the bottom line. LBJ suspected Cuba was involved but never produced any evidence for it, either. Without evidence, it’s only someone’s opinion or guess.

          2. Jean, the line you quote does not prove wrong what his family members and closest aides claim he said. But nice side-stepping the assertions of RFK Jr

        2. Jean Davison wrote:

          ‘On the campaign trail in California, Robert Kennedy said publicly he would re-open the investigation if elected.’

          Sure, that’s the claim repeated by one JFK writer after another….

          One after another?

          Jean, can you name some of the more prominent JFK authors that have repeated that claim?

          I hope you can do better than John Davis.

          1. Michael,

            “Jean, can you name some of the more prominent JFK authors that have repeated that claim?”

            The claim has appeared in, e.g., Anthony Summers’ Conspiracy and Warren Hinckle and William W. Turner’s The Sea Is Red:


            Also, Dr. Crenshaw’s Trauma Room One, p. 100 and Jerry Kroth’s “Coup d’etat,” p. 185. I think there are others Google Books doesn’t search.

          2. Jean Davison wrote:

            ‘On the campaign trail in California, Robert Kennedy said publicly he would re-open the investigation if elected.’

            Sure, that’s the claim repeated by one JFK writer after another….

            Jean, I couldn’t find anything in those books you mentioned about Robert Kennedy saying publicly he would reopen the investigation if elected.

          3. Michael,

            How else would you interpret the claim that while campaigning in California RFK said publicly, “I now fully realize that only the powers of the Presidency will reveal the secrets of my brother’s death”?
            Doesn’t that suggest that he would reopen the investigation?

            Here’s another version from Roger Stone’s The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ:

            “. . . After lukewarm endorsements of the Warren Commission’s conclusions between 1963 and 1968, while campaigning in the California primary, he would be asked about his brother’s murder. In the morning, he mumbled half-hearted support for the Warren Commision’s conclusions but when asked the same question that afternoon he would tell a student audience in Northern California that if elected he would reopen the investigation into his brother’s murder.”


            All I’m saying is, there’s no primary source for this alleged public statement by RFK, so far as I know.

          4. I believe I remember that David Talbot reported in his book Brothers that RFK indicated he would reopen the investigation if he were president. I forget what source(s) he cited. I don’t have my copy of the book with me. Can anybody check?

            Talbot also reports that Gary Hart revealed that he intended to reopen the investigation if he were president. Interesting the prominent role that the Washington Post played in derailing his presidential campaign.

            Then again, there’s John F. Kennedy, Jr. I’ve read that he intended to do an investigation of his father’s assassination for his magazine George. And of course there was a high likelihood that he would become president himself one day.

  4. Too many black ops. running in too many different directions. That’s the only lesson learnt from the Kennedy assassination. No doubt RFK would have been implicated in anti-Castro activities. And revelations of JFK’s private life would have tarnished his legend.

  5. What has puzzled me all these years, considering the tremendous wealth of the Kennedys (they had in 1963 dollars what superstar Paul McCartney has in today’s dollars, over a billion), is why didn’t they announce their suspicions of domestic conspiracy & offer a sizeable reward to the public for info leading to the arrest & conviction of the perpetrators? Any of the Kennedy spokesmen could easily have done this on TV, newspapers & magazines. Pertinent info would have bypassed police departments & the FBI, going directly to a Kennedy ‘command center’. Why did Bobby in particular ‘stand down’ to LBJ & his Warren Commission before, during & after the Warren Report? Was he blind, scared or ‘dirty up to the top of his head’?

    1. In response to Jeremy Faust, 13th Nov 9:10pm

      One explanation I have heard put forward for this is that Bobby Kennedy needed the power of the Presidency.

      Whatever information or suspicions he had, he may have been powerless to do anything without being President.

      Maybe he was waiting to become President, where he may have hoped to launch his own, possibly private, investigation.

      1. That’s possible, Mr. Simmons. Another I have heard is Bobby didn’t want the dirt on JFK to become public (it did anyway, years later). It may not make sense to those that believe they would have used every resource available to them to get to the bottom of who murdered a family member; particularly if they had little or no faith in local, state & Federal investigating officials. Can you picture yourself going to work each day for a person you suspected was involved in murdering one of you close family members? With a billion dollars in assets plus the power of the office of Attorney General under the belt of Bobby the Kennedys had the power to completely work around LBJ, his Warren Commission & Hoover’s FBI. Even the closest of criminals often will snitch out a companion if the reward money is right & a deal sweetened with immunity from prosecution is offered. To tell the Soviets the Kennedys suspected a domestic conspiracy & not go after who did it is a riddle as big as the assassination of President Kennedy itself.

        1. I believe the public today is comparing how the Michael Jackson family responded to the singer’s sudden death & comparing it to JFK’s sudden demise. The Jackson family made no bones about publicly stating they believed Michael was murdered by those promoting an upcoming tour. The family opted for a 2nd autopsy. Like the Kennedys, no substantial reward was offered to the public to bring them proof of what many suspected: Michael’s doctor had been paid to OD & kill the singer. No proof of such ever came in the lawsuit the Jackson lost.
          Some people today are questioning why Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General & Hoover’s boss, let Hoover dictate the story & not find answers personally. Some question why did the Kennedys as a unit agree to the Bethesda autopsy in the first place if Government foul play was even remotely suspected? Where was the Kennedy 2nd autopsy for JFK?

          I have my own theories: LBJ & Hoover threats of blackmail & the promise of throwing LBJ’s considerable political influence behind Bobby for the 1968 election was why Bobby ‘stood down’. I can just hear Lyndon laying out that “You gotta do this or that or you’ll start WWIII & kill 40 million in one hour” routine. Can I prove it? Nope, but that’s what I believe was behind Bobby acting as he did in the days, months & few years following the murder of his brother. If Bobby truly suspected Government insiders being responsible for JFK’s death, surely he reasoned that the same sick individuals would do the same to him as President as was done to JFK. Perhaps Bobby saw no other way out of the cesspool he was surrounded by & took a suicidal route to get out of it?

  6. If anyone should have known who killed JFK and why it was Robert Kennedy. He was in charge of anti-Castro activities. He ran the Justice Department. He grasped the chess board and all its pieces.

    Yet it’s clear he didn’t know. He may have had his suspicions. But it’s clear he didn’t know.

    The only two persons who appear to have known are Ruth and Michael Paine.

    1. Who are still alive. if THEY do not come clean, nobody will. I’m very discouraged about learning the truth. We will never know!

  7. “[Willens] says no one else at the Commission ever discussed or wrote that RFK should submit an ‘affidavit’ or a ‘sworn statement’ or should testify under oath. Since RFK was never asked for a sworn statement, Willens reasons, he could not have ‘refused.'”

    That’s not “good lawyering,” Jeff. It’s the sort of transparently weasel-worded statement lawyers with a very bad case to argue will spout without betraying the slightest hint of shame. It could stand as Exhibit A in a discussion about why lawyers have such a low reputation among the general public. Willens would have been better off having avoided the topic entirely.

    1. There is a possible excuse for RFK’s delay in responding to the WC’s request he write something. And that is that RFK saw the statement as a letter to Warren. And why would he write a letter to Warren when Warren was completely unplugged and miles away, on a nearly month-long fishing vacation?

  8. On Howard Willens previous article, I attempted three times to “be the first to comment” but was foiled each time. Seems he asks for comments but in reality doesn’t want to read anything that doesn’t support the WC 110 percent. Anyone else try to post a reply on his website?

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