Politico addresses a question too long ignored by the Washington press corps: Did Robert Kennedy refuse to provide the Warren Commission with a sworn statement about the causes of his brother’s murder?
In his October 12 Politico Magazine article, former New York Times reporter Phil Shenon said “yes.” Shenon’s provocative piece suggests that Kennedy’s suspicions of conspiracy (documented in David Talbot’s book Brothers and voiced by his son RFK Jr. last year) were behind his reticence.
In a blog post yesterday, Howard Willens, a former Warren Commission Investigator, says “no.”
I think Shenon is right. Willens’s response is more lawyerly than commonsensical, which is telling.
“He was never asked to do so,” Willens wrote. “Furthermore, if he had testified or provided an affidavit, there is no doubt that he would have denied having any knowledge of a conspiracy as he did in his letter–- because in fact he had no such information.”
No, the Commission did not directly ask RFK for a sworn statement but as Shenon’s reporting makes clear, they wanted one. But on May 22, 1964, chief counsel Lee Rankin instructed Willens to ask RFK for a “statement,” not sworn testimony.
Did Rankin not ask because he sensed that RFK didn’t want to make a sworn statement?
“I do not know why he referred to a statement rather than sworn testimony,” Willens writes. He does not attempt to explain why. Curiously incurious, he then drops the issue.
Willens also avoids addressing the fact that RFK clearly did have information relevant to the Commission’s inquiry that he did not want to talk about under oath. Kennedy knew about the CIA’s conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1961-62 using Mafia killer Johnny Roselli and he probably knew about the CIA conspiracy using disgruntled Cuban insider Rolando Cubela in 1963. (This last point is debatable, and JFK scholars come down on both sides of the issue; I think he knew.)
Willens avoids talking about this elephant in the room with the cleverly narrow formulation that RFK had no “information” about a conspiracy. That may be true but it is also beside the point. Like other Washington insiders, RFK had deep suspicions of a conspiracy in Dallas. He knew about at least one Castro assassination plot. And RFK had been told by CIA director John McCone that, in McCone’s private opinion, the Zapruder film showed JFK hit by gunfire from two different directions — another fact that Willens can’t bring himself to mention.
In POLITICO, Shenon reported that “other commission staff members said that Willens had been in an awkward position on the staff, since he was serving as both a senior member of the commission’s staff — he was chief deputy to J. Lee Rankin, the commission’s general counsel — and as the panel’s representative to his ultimate boss back at the Justice Department: Bobby Kennedy. Previously released commission files show it was Willens who relayed the message to the commission that Kennedy wanted to be excused from testifying — a request that Warren accepted, apparently believing it would be unseemly to ask the grief-stricken Kennedy to answer questions about his brother’s death.”
Yet as Shenon notes (and David Talbot proved) RFK continued to use surrogates to investigate his brother’s death for the next five years, while publicly offering the most tepid of endorsements of the Warren Commission’s conclusion. (In October 1964, Kennedy told reporters in Mexico City that he thought the the Commission’s report was fine, “as far as it went.”)
So RFK had every opportunity to make a sworn statement denying a conspiracy, and the Commission clearly wanted one, at least at some point. RFK said that he was “willing to do anything necessary for the country and thought that his making a statement about the non-existence of a conspiracy would be desirable.” But the Commission never took him up on his offer.
Anyone who has worked in Washington for more than 24 hours can recognize the “don’t pin me down” dance going on by both parties. The Warren Commission wanted a sworn statement — and then it didn’t. RFK said he would do anything to cooperate — and then he didn’t.
WIllens, who has been a high-powered lawyer in Washington for most of his life, is doing his professional best for his oft-discredited client, the Warren Commission. He is technically correct that RFK never came out and said, “I refuse.” But Kennedy did deflect the Commission’s original intention. He refused, albeit artfully. Shenon is right.
Willens on the Warren Commission:
The JFK Facts Q & A with Howard Willens
RFK and the conspiracy question:
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)
Top 6 Washington insiders who suspected a JFK plot, (Oct. 2, 2013)
CIA kept RFK apprised of Castro assassination plotting (Aug. 2, 2013)
CIA chief told RFK about two shooters in Dallas (Jan. 23, 2013)