Why RFK refused to swear there was no JFK conspiracy

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.

Howard Willens

Howard Willens, Warren Commission defender

“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.

Phil Shenon,

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)




  1. Perhaps the WC wanted to be sure anything RFK had to say would support their “Oswald and Oswald only” goal. I also wonder how LBJ and Hoover would have reacted to RFK appearing before the WC. Those two, of course, hated RFK.

    • Bill Clarke says:

      Paul Turner October 15, 2014 at 9:51 am

      And of course Bobby and his crew hated LBJ and Hoover.

      • Yes they did indeed, Bill. Thanks, I should have added that in my post.

        • Neuron says:

          Sworn statements submitted to the Warren Commission weren’t all considered nor were they all published. Lyndon himself called Parkland on Sunday insisting that Oswald’s attending get a death bed confession from the patsy – brain dead though he may have been. The surgeon was told that an agent was present who would transcribe such a confession. Perhaps Johnson was disappointed that Kennedy himself hadn’t already accomodated him with a sworn statement attesting he’d seen Oswald with his Mannlicher in the 6th floor window as he’d turned from Houston to Elm on Friday.

  2. Pat Speer says:

    There’s also this: LBJ was not questioned. I mean, I don’t see RFK’s agreeing to be questioned under oath when LBJ, both a witness and a suspect, was given a free pass.

    This brings me to a related question. Specter claimed he’d prepared a large number of questions for LBJ, that he was never allowed to ask. Has anyone read these? Does anyone know where they reside? Is there a link?

  3. Mike says:

    From Joan Mellen’s A Farewell to Justice, page 259 – Press Secretary Pierre Salinger attributed this statement to RFK: “we know who the bastards are and we’re going to get them”.
    I’m now persuaded, by her reporting, that RFK most likely knew of Oswald prior to the assassination, and obstructed Garrison’s investigation through Sheridan, because it would have interfered with his later quest for the Presidency. He was very motivated to continue his brother’s political agenda, and then some.

    • JSA says:

      I read Mellen’s book and thought it raised some valid arguments in support of RFK’s blocking or thwarting Garrison’s investigation. Garrison was, to use a more modern term, “Swift Boated” by those who didn’t want to hear or know about the contradictions in the original Warren Report, and about CIA abuses of power.

      Still, one has to wonder about Robert Kennedy: WHY did he travel in the 1968 campaign with such a recklessly light security detail as he did, especially at the Ambassador Hotel, and during the open car convertible campaigning in California leading up to that night? I realize that he couldn’t be put into a bubble, that he had to campaign, but even by 1968 standards of campaigning public figures, his protection was meagre at best. For someone who thought it so important to get the White House back to do all of the things he wanted to do, it seems kind of like he was almost deliberately upping the odds that he would be killed, by a lone nut, or by an organized hit team. I can’t figure that out. Is it some kind of “Kennedy Thing” to play the odds so badly like that?

      • Thomas says:

        That seems to be part of the Kennedy “personality” to be reckless and tempt fate. JFK seemed reconciled to the idea that he might die young or somebody might try to kill him. RFK made powerful enemies like the Mafia and you don’t do that unless you’re very courageous which is a stone’s throw from reckless. They seemed to see themselves as larger-than-life figures fighting mythical battles, which is what made them so dangerous to other people with power or seeking power.

    • Thomas says:

      A little off topic but based on the RFK quote about “we’re going to get them,” it seems clear that he couldn’t be allowed to become president by the very same powers that masterminded the assassinated JFK.

      • Thomas, Jackie Kennedy made a warning similar to your post, when she learned that RFK was going to run for President. She said(I remember her statement, but I can’t place the source), “Do you know what is going to happen to Bobby now? The same thing that happened to Jack”.

  4. Alex S says:

    “[H]e 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.)”

    Any attempt to argue that RFK knew about an AM/LASH assassination plot must overcome the fact that neither the CIA IG or the Church Committee ever found any evidence indicating that either RFK or JFK authorized an act of murder. Have you, Mr. Morley, come up with anything that slipped past J.S. Earman and Frank Church to support your thinking on RFK’s possible knowledge of a Cubela plot?

    Of course everyone is entitled to their own conclusions, but the evidence weighs strongly towards exculpating both Kennedy brothers of complicity. Even men like Richard Helms and Bill Harvey could not bring themselves to testify to Kennedy involvement in any of the acknowledged plots. Are we to believe that they lied, exposing the CIA to charges of being a rogue elephant, for the sake of JFK and RFK’s memories?

    • Bill Clarke says:

      Alex S October 15, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      Helms said, “you won’t find it on paper” but he was sure JFK knew about the Castro attempts. As deep into Cuba operations as Bobby was I find it rather naive to think he didn’t know. If he knew then JFK knew.

      Helms and Harvey lied because they were good soldiers. That is what they were supposed to do in order to protect the presidents plausible denial. That is the main point in having a secret based intelligence organization. If it wasn’t for plausible denial we wouldn’t need the CIA and we wouldn’t require secrecy.

      I seriously doubt either man gave two hoots for the Kennedy boy’s memories.

      • Pat Speer says:

        Geez, there was this thing called the Church Committee that tried to get to the bottom of all this. Helms, Harvey, etc. ASSUMED that when RFK or JFK said something like “We need to get rid of this guy, Castro” that they KNEW the CIA would take this as permission, or even an order, to kill Castro. They admitted that no one ever explained this the Kennedys, or Eisenhower, etc. They just ASSUMED that all presidents knew the way it worked. The Church Committee attempted to put a stop to that. Until recent times, the CIA needed a finding signed by the President before it could target an individual. I’m not so sure about today. It seems quite likely that high level members of the CIA have both the authority to add names to the hit list, and the ability to approve drone strikes to complete the mission. Let’s hope it’s not as bad as it appears.

  5. Avinash says:

    Believing the Warren Report is like believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

  6. Bob Truitt says:

    Odd thing, Willens asks for comments on his blog but appears to not publish contrary ones. Anyone else attempt to comment on his blog?

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