The Fourteen Minute Gap: An Update
Rex E. Bradford
September 8, 2002
The Cutting Corporation Memo
The memo recently mailed to me by Claudia Anderson of the LBJ Library was written by an engineer for the Cutting Corporation. The Cutting Corp. is an audio engineering firm often employed by the National Archives for tape duplication services and other audio-related work. The memo, which contains analysis of a variety of recordings, has this to say about the magnetic belt on which the LBJ-Hoover call was originally recorded:
Blank belt - the recording from Cutting is an acceptable rerecording of the magnetic dictation belt on which nothing is recorded or, more accurately, from which all has been erased - there is repetitive, cyclical occurrence of very brief (fraction of a second, part of a word) bursts of noise and word syllables at 6 to 7 second intervals - this 6 second interval corresponds to the revolution speed of the belt - all the noise bursts appear in a narrow band across the face of the belt - most likely the belt was intentionally erased by the bar magnet included in most models of the magnetic belt machines but a small portion was missed [Cutting Corp. Memo of 1-21-99]. [emphasis added]
This memo is dated January 21, 1999, more than a year before my first inquiries to the LBJ Library. Still, any truth-telling regarding the Kennedy assassination, however delayed, is a hopeful sign. Perhaps noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss will eventually be compelled to write about this erasure in a future edition of his multi-volume series of LBJ phone call transcripts. Strangely, the conversation in question appeared in the first volume, Taking Charge, without any comment about the fact that the magnetic belt holding this conversation is in fact silent (p. 22). The transcript presented in that book does not exactly match the transcript held in the files of the LBJ Library [see transcript], but the minor differences could be explained by Beschloss' general editing policy. As disturbing as the lack of comment on the erasure is the proclamation in the second volume, Reaching for Glory, that LBJ Library staff were unaware of "any effort by Johnson or anyone else to tamper with them [the tapes]with one exception," a 1966 conversation with Abe Fortas which was destroyed on Johnson's order (p. 430). Mr. Beschloss did not respond to two written queries on this topic.
The memo does not specify a timeframe for the erasure. If the engineer is correct about the method of erasure having involved the original magnetic belt machine, then probably the erasure happened decades ago rather than more recently. Further testing and analysis would be useful, to confirm this analysis and to verify that the cyclical burst of noise are really clipped snippets of speech from the conversation. There appear to be no plans to conduct such further testing.
The Mexico City Tapes and the Warren Commission
The little-noted declassifications of the late 1990s have shed more light on the story of the "Mexico City tapes" and other aspects of Lee Oswald's sojourn to that city in the fall of 1963. In some cases, new memos and cables have filled in our gaps of knowledge. In other cases, they have opened entirely new mysteries.
One area where the footing is firmer now concerns the Warren Commission's knowledge, or lack thereof, of the happenings in Mexico City and in particular the photographic surveillance and telephone tap operations. This topic is important in unraveling the path by which the lone gunman theory came to be anointed to its place in history. Cover-ups are not monolithic "everybody's in on it" conspiraciesthe American public was not the only body operating in the dark when it came to understanding the assassination of President Kennedy. Commission staff member Wesley Liebeler's comment to Ray Marcus that "sometimes we get caught up in things that are bigger than we are" (David Lifton, Best Evidence, p. 452) was probably a realization that developed over time.
It's long been known that the Commissioners were privy to at least some of the allegations of Communist conspiracy emanating from that city (Gilberto Alvarado Ugarte, the Nicaraguan who claimed to see Oswald take money in the Cuban embassy to kill Kennedy, appears in the Warren Report as "D" [Warren Report, p. 307]). But what about the tapes of Oswald calling the Soviet embassy, denied to have existed post-assassination by the CIA and FBI when confronted in the 1970s? Did the Warren Commissioners hear about them? More importantly, did they ever hear about the FBI's assertion in the wee hours of November 23 that the voice on the tapes did not match that of the still-living Oswald?
The answer is a very qualified yes to the first question and a near-certain no to the second. Not only did some members of the Warren Commission staff know about the Mexico City tapes, two of them, David Slawson and William Coleman, have admitted listening to such tapes during their trip to Mexico City in April of 1964. They have told this to two prominent authors (Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics II, p. 12 and Anthony Summers, Not in Your Lifetime, p. 277) and more recently to Chief Counsel Jeremy Gunn of the Assassination Records Review Board. In an indication of how sensitive this matter still remains, their admission to Gunn was not on the record. Instead, we know of it indirectly, from the testimony of Anne Goodpasture, formerly of the CIA Mexico City Station:
Gunn. I have spoken with two Warren Commission staff members who went to Mexico City and who both told me that they heard the tape after the assassination obviously. Do you have any knowledge of information regarding tapes that may have been played to those Warren Commission staff members?
Goodpasture. No. It may have been a tape that Win Scott had squirreled away in his safe. [Anne Goodpasture ARRB testimony of 12-15-1995, p.147].
More interesting is how closely this information was held, even within the Warren Commission. Chief Counsel J. Lee Rankin was knowledgeable, as was Howard Willens, a staff member borrowed from the Justice Department. But there are no indications whatsoever that the Commissioners themselves were privy to knowledge of the existence of these tapes; indeed there are several indications that the Commissioners were purposefully kept in the dark.
In his HSCA interview in 1978, William Coleman described repeatedly how extremely sensitive the telephone tapping operation was in terms of national security, and then proceeded to hide from his HSCA interviewers the fact that he knew the tapes had survived the assassination and indeed that he had listened to them:
Lopez. Did the agency ever…..explain why it did not have an actual tape recording of Oswald's voice?
Coleman (soft). I haven't the faintest idea whether they did or did not. I mean, I don't know, I'm pretty sure this question was probably asked of them and they probably gave us…..if they had-I don't know whether they had or they didn't have, I mean, I really don't know but I do know that there was…..but I'm pretty sure that if we asked them "where is it?" ….. (trails off) [Untranscribed taped HSCA interview of William Coleman, 8-2-1978].
Coleman also explained that this material was so secret that not even members of the Warren Commission could be let in on it, noting that his partner David Slawson had "special clearance."
Several CIA memos purport to capture the state of knowledge of the Mexico City tapes within the Warren Commission. One of them was written on May 5, 1964, nearly a month after the Mexico City visit by Willens, Coleman, and Slawson. This memo records Slawson as informing CIA that "no member of the Commission now knows of the telephone taps in Mexico City." The memo goes on to describe how Mr. Slawson was (not for the first time) briefed on the "importance of the telephone taps to U.S. security and the grave damage that would be done to U.S. - Mexican relations if knowledge of their existence became public." [MFR of Thomas Hall of meeting with David Slawson, 5-5-1964, Russ Holmes Work File at 104-10404-10115. A separate account of the same meeting, however, ascribes to Slawson the statement that "they [Commission members] will have to be told" about telephone calls [Memo of "Scelsco" of meeting with David Slawson, 5-6-1964, Russ Holmes Work File at 104-10423-10195]. But this is in the context of the tapped calls of Cuban President Dorticos speaking to Cuban Ambassador Armas, and it is far from clear that the "Oswald" calls were included among the tapped calls about which the Commission had to be told.
In any case, these sources cannot be definitive, and indeed it would be surprising if at least Commission Dulles was not very aware of the telephone taps. Nonetheless, it seems very likely that most of the Commissioners remained totally unaware of the tapes of Oswald contacting the Soviet Embassy, or were informed in a third-hand way late in the investigation. It is exceedingly doubtful that they were informed that such tapes were of an imposter.
Peeling the Mexico City Onion
Layers of the onion that is the Mexico City story remain unpeeled, perhaps forever. A recently-released transcript of the two CIA employees who transcribed the "Oswald" conversations contains some remarkable revelations. One is a detailed account of the "buzz" which accompanied the delivery and pickup of the Oswald recordings, which is completely at odds with the CIA's insistence that Oswald meant nothing to the Agency until November 22, 1963 (a claim which has fallen apart in many ways over the years). But even more remarkable is the fact that both translators remembered transcribing an Oswald phone call for which there is no transcript in the record. This call was lengthy, in English, and involved Oswald's request for money and passage to the Soviet Union [HSCA Tarasoff testimony, 11-30-1976, p.22-23].
The question is raised: what was actually on the tape which was apparently rushed to Dallas in the early morning of November 23, 1963? Was it something more frightening to authorities than the rather bland, if odd, conversations transcribed in the printed record we now possess? Something clearly intended, by those who plotted to put this call into the telephone tap record, to provoke Lyndon Johnson to say:
……we've got to be taking this out of the arena where they're testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that, and kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour. [Phone call between LBJ and Senator Richard Russell, 11-29-1963].
Reflections on the Past and Present
At this point, a compelling case can be made that Oswald, whatever he was doing in Mexico City, was impersonated in calls to the Soviet embassy, calls which would be found to be incriminating after the assassination of JFK. This masterful plot put the blame for the assassination on Communists in Cuba and/or the Soviet Union. The super-secret tapes were accompanied by a host of other allegations including those of Alvarado, Pedro Gutierrez, and (later?) Elena Garro de Paz, and included other information gathered by telephone tap, most notably Luisa Calderon's "foreknowledge" call and the Dorticos-Armas conversation. While many of the allegations can be dismissed as fabrications, there are indications that there may have also been pre-assassination "staged events" in addition to the fake phone call(s). It is quite possible, for instance, that Lee Oswald or someone impersonating him threatened the life of President Kennedy while in the Cuban Embassy.
The combined press of the Communist conspiracy "evidence" is presumably what induced such men as Chief Justice Earl Warren and Robert Kennedy to knowingly engage in or allow a cover-up. This is not to say that they necessarily believed in a Communist conspiracy, only that they knew that the alternative to the lone gunman theory would inevitably be a powerful effort to pin the assassination on foreign sources. That much of the evidence for the supposed Communist conspiracy was directly tied into extremely sensitive channels completely ruled out the possibility of a public airing of the actual evidence, whether the nation was capable of such a public airing or not. Instead, "wise men" decided to bury their knowledge or suspicions of what might really have happened on November 22, 1963.
And what if the setup of Oswald included a plan for his death on that fateful Friday on the streets of Dallas? Did the Kennedy murder plot include a plan to then invade Cuba, once evidence linking the dead "assassin" to Castro surfaced? And was this plan put on hold during the unplanned incarceration of Oswald, and eventually discarded as President Johnson exercised the reins of power in the days following Oswald's murder? It seems at least possible that, whatever his role or non-role in the murder of Kennedy, Oswald's flight from the Book Depository may had the effect of preventing the war that powerful men were itching to initiate just a year earlier, during the Cuban Missile Crisis (see The Kennedy Tapes and One Hell of a Gamble for a revealing look at how close World War came in 1962, and how eager military leaders and other hawks were to invade Cuba).
If so, the continuing quest to dredge up the truth of President Kennedy's murder is an important if maligned task. The study of this matter shows convincingly (at least to some of us) the power of the government to suppress truths which are highly important to the functioning of our nation and our world. It was possible in 1963 to plot the murder of a President and possibly to plan for that act to kick off a war, and further to ensure that national leaders would cooperate to bury the affair for the good of the country. If the nation remains incapable 40 years later of facing up to the fact that this happened once, what makes the possibility of recurrence any less real now?
The issue has special relevance in the "changed" world after September 11, 2001. I am not one to find conspiracy under every rock; some things are as they seem, while others are not. But accepting the act of terrorism which brought down the twin towers for what it appears to be, it is nonetheless impressive to watch the current administration use that event to reshape the world in its desired image. The creation of a Homeland Security agency with new surveillance powers at home, the calls to unleash the intelligence agencies from current restrictions, the Attorney General's declaration that the Freedom of Information Act which has brought us these precious crumbs of knowledge should be ignored by government agencies, not to mention the impending pre-emptive invasion of a foreign country on the basis of intelligence information not available to the publicthese are disturbing trends in a nation which already is too incapable of seeing its own dark side.
In the 1970s, when the current President's father was taking over Directorship of the CIA, it was the terrorist murder of CIA Athens Station Chief Richard Welch which was vigorously used to curb the post-Watergate investigations into government abuses (thus helping enable the 1980s' secret war efforts in Nicaragua, the Iran-Contra affair, and more). In the current times, "September 11" is all too easily used as a rallying cry for those with similar motives. But history has shown that national secrecy carries great costs, perhaps too great for a free society. If we cannot, four decades after the fact, admit the simplest facts about the breakdown of the democratic system that occurred in 1963, how can we judge what powers to cede to those who rule the country today?