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 HowardWillens.com, 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.
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.
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.
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)