Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dick Russell Interview with Richard A. Sprague

Excerpts from Dick Russell Interview with Richard A. Sprague, Esq. May 25, 1978

From “On The Trail of the JFK Assassins” (Graf, Skyhorse, 2008, Chapter 6, begins p. 49)
Excerpt begins p. 51.

….On May 25, 1978, I walked into Sprague’s office in Philadelphia with a tape recorder. I wanted to know how he looked back on his short, unhappy tenure as chief counsel for the committee. Published here for the first time is a transcript taken from our interview:

DICK RUSSELL: In hindsight, how do you view what happened to you and the Committee?

RICHARD SPRAGUE:  I view it from a number of different angles. I am absolutely convinced that the Congress of the United States, as a totality, has not the slightest interest in a thorough, in-depth investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. Putting the two together as a package deal was really to make the Black Caucus feel that they had input into the Democratic Party, and to make the people pushing the Kennedy probe feel that at last they’ve got their way. There was a presidential election coming up [won by Jimmy Carter in 1976] and t was good politics. I think that’s the reason it went through in the waning hours of that particular Congress And the appointment of [Tom] Downing as the first chairman, knowing that he was retiring, is indicative of the fact that there was no real intent. Furthermore, when the new Congress reconvened, [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill and others kept saying, “Well show us why it should continue” – yet we hadn’t even really commenced the investigation.

I am convinced that there are a number of Congressman who are also subject to pressures and so are effective blocks to an investigation. Some of these pressures come from investigative agencies of the federal government, others by various groups around the country. As a result, Congress as an instrument is not really the place to have such a probe.

A second thing I feel is that for some reason – and to me it’s the most fascinating part of my whole Washington experience – there is some manipulation of the press that’s successful enough that it’s not interested in a real investigation either. There was total dishonesty in the reporting of newspapers that I would otherwise have confidence in, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, but in this area that degree of integrity and impartial reporting was not to be. Now whether it’s because of subtle pressures upon them, or independent motivation by them, I do not have the answer. But, as a result, this attitude by the press was the most successful in taking advantage of the attitude of Congress in general, and by individual Congressmen who were manipulated such that the press could achieve a tone to help kill the investigation.

The other area that I see with hindsight is that there is a greater ability to manipulate public opinion by certain agencies of government than I would have believed possible.

DICK RUSSELL: David Burnham particularly took you apart in the New York Times. Did you ever come across any reason he would have had? He intentionally seemed to have distorted a number of things.

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I go beyond Burnham. It would be an interesting analysis by someone going to college, to get into the whys and wherefores of the reporting by the press. In Burnham’s case, it’s not just that he distorted or said things that weren’t so. It’s so obvious it was conscious. It was to such an extent that it had to be apparent to those on his paper who were in a superior position.

Let me illustrate here what I mean, because to me it’s the most concrete example. One, as a prosecutor, I have never wiretapped and never secretly recorded any conversation with anybody. I wanted us to obtain recording equipment, for the purpose of our people in the field interviewing and getting the person’s permission to tape record for the purpose of accuracy. If the person said no, we would not record it. The record will show that’s exactly the way we used them. Three or four weeks after we made that request to Congress, stories were carried in the Los Angeles Times, the Post, and particularly by Burnham that I’d bought this recording equipment to surreptitiously record what witnesses are going to say. To this day, nobody has ever in fact produced anybody who said we did that. We must be the first group crucified not for what we did, but for what a reporter says we are going to do!

I immediately saw the potential of what could be created out of that. I had a meeting with the committee and stated exactly what I’ve said to you, and we called a press conference. Burnham was there, along with the Los Angeles Times and Post reporters, and the guy from the Washington Star [Jeremiah O’Leary, who would soon be named by Carl Bernstein as a CIA asset]. They didn’t even carry our response

However, because of what appeared before, Congressman Edwards out in California puts out this letter in which he crucifies us on the basis of their original stories for our improper constitutional manner of proceeding with the investigation. Burnham and the others carry big stories on Edwards’ attack. We call another press conference, said again exactly what I’ve just said, and again our response isn’t carried. Now it seems to me that someone in a supervisory position at the New York Times, for example, would say to Burnham: “All right, Edwards is saying this, but what does the committee say?”

Yet it seemed of no interest to the superiors. It’s also interesting that those attacks, without our response, then engendered other attacks carried in the press, again without our response, which then led to editorials. Not one editorial writer in the United States contacted our committee to ask for our side of it.

It is striking to note that, right after I resigned, Burnham was taken off the whole thing and someone else was put in his place. Was he put on the story to do a hatchet job? There is certainly an appearance of that. On a story getting this kind of national attention, I don’t think anyone could get away with that distorted reporting without the connivance of superiors.

DICK RUSSELL: Of course, the Times and many other media have a long history of not wanting anything more to come out about the assassination.

RICHARD SPRAGUE: That’s right. I’ve become more interested in the media than the assassination. I’m a great believer, or have been, that it’s up to you to get good people into public office. But if the public can’t get impartial thorough news, how can I damn the public? And where do you get this responsibility by the media?

DICK RUSSELL: What do you think happened to Congressman Henry Gonzalez? He seemed to flip?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I see that as an anomaly kind of situation. Despite all the attacks from Gonzalez, to me he is just a pathetic character in a broader drama here. I ascribe to Gonzalez a number of things, but predicated on an inferiority complex. Here’s a Mexican-American guy who’s been pushing and pushing for the Kennedy investigation, and finally the Congress goes through the charade, though not really intending to [do it]. Who do they make chairman of the committee but, as far as he’s concerned, a blueblood – [Tom] Downing. This is an affront to Gonzalez. Well, Downing is a lame duck who’s retiring and just about everybody on the committee said to me, “There must be someone other than Gonzalez as chairman when Downing leaves.” A number of them went to Tip O’Neil to express that, because they said Gonzalez just does not work with people. To what extent this got back to Gonzalez and raised further problems in him, I do not know….I don’t think it’s anything more than having been rubbed the wrong way. I don’t see him as part of any conspiracy towards killing anything off.

DICK RUSSELL: In the course of your limited investigation, did you ever have the feeling that what you were dealing with in investigating Kennedy’s death went beyond the assassination and into very sensitive areas of intelligence?


DICK RUSSELL: In what way?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: You know, it’s interesting. His gets back to the press. When I was appointed the New York Times wrote a very favorable editorial. The Times had always been very favorable to me in the Boyle prosecution in the Mine Workers case. This whole business a la Burnham and the distortions, and then an editorial attacking my appointment for not have been thoroughly investigated, has to be taken in terms of time sequence. At that later stage of the game when the attacks started, I was raising questions concerning the connections, if any, between Oswald and the CIA, pre-Kennedy assassination. I was raising questions about the reliability of information that Oswald was in Mexico City, as opposed to being in Dallas that September. I was raising questions as to whether the information that the CIA had presented of the wiretaps [in Mexico City] and so fourth was, in fact, reliable. I was starting to raise questions concerning why it was that Oswald, as a defecting American returning to the United States from the Soviet Union, is not debriefed by the CIA. And who made the decision not to touch him?

And I was making it clear, at this time, that I would not sign any of the agreements with the CIA and FI that other committees had signed (and that they want in general, and which the present committee has signed) – a non-disclosure agreement. They give you access to certain things provided they have control over your staff and can then control what thereafter gets released. I took the view that for this to be a thorough, hard-hitting, impartial investigation, they could not control the staff or what gets disclosed. The purpose of the investigation is ultimate disclosure. I was also making it clear that I wanted to subpoena information from these agencies, as well as the people involved in the decision-making process, and I would not bargain in this area.

Because of where I was at, and the timing of these attacks, that convinces me that the motivation came to kill me off. They don’t care about an investigation if it does not really tread on toes. Sprague, they felt, was going to tread on toes. Blakey, who is there now, is not going to tread on toes. Whatever they do today, you couldn’t get a ripple out of the press across this nation. If I sneezed, it made headlines. And I think that they are very concerned about the way it might appear in terms of intelligence operations and an Oswald, in connection with the assassination, not saying it had any connections.

DICK RUSSELL: You interviewed David Atlee Phillips. Did you believe him?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I had questions about Phillips. As an investigator, I don’t accept what anyone says. I want to draw them out and hear them, but I want to then proceed and see where there is corroboration – and where there is evidence that disproves as well – and then I’ll decide after that.

DICK RUSSELL: What about George de Mohresnschildt? He certainly had connections with Oswald in Dallas and perhaps with the intelligence agencies as well.

RICHARD SPRAGUE: You have to understand, de Mohrenschildt had been in touch with us for a period of time from Europe. He then came over here, and I observed his attempt to use things first as a publicity vehicle. However, that did not mean I did not want us talking to him. We were trying to locate him when his death occurred. The night of his death, that’s the night I ended up resigning. One of the last things I was setting into motion, when I got word about this, was that we immediately contacted the District Attorney down in Palm Beach, Florida, someone I had known, and I was arranging to send some people down there. To me, that was an area to be working on immediately. But I never got any further.

There are a lot of strange characters in this whole thing, and that’s the shame of it – that there could not be a thorough, hard-hitting, full examination. It is most surprising that there can’t be. Why shouldn’t there be? I am convinced that the present committee is just going through a charade right now. They’re going to have public hearings, but they’re already writing their report.

DICK RUSSELL: Do you know that for a fact?


DICK RUSSELL: What do you come away feeling about the assassination? Do you believe it must have been a conspiracy?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I did not get far enough to come away with any such opinion. I came away with the feeling that agencies of the United States government have an interest in preventing a full investigation, because at least in offshoots they are connected with some of the characters involved in the assassination. Beyond that, I don’t know. I’m convinced that there is more of a connection between those agencies and Oswald than has ever surfaced.

You have to understand, I was just there six months. Here we’re talking about the murder of a president and a civil rights leader. You don’t even have a secretary yet, so what are you going to do? Obviously first you’ve got to find and recruit staff, spend time interviewing them. You’re getting flooded with mail by applicants from around the country. So when the Congress asks at the end of three months, “What have you done?” it’s idiotic. The only thing you’ve done basically is to formulate what kind of staff you’re going to have. Now the one thing I did do, I started hiring some people, and, rather than have them sit around while I’m continuing with this administrative matter, I did put them into some very brief hit-and-miss areas of work. But I never got beyond that.

DICK RUSSELL: Did you ever go to Mexico City?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I sent people there.

DICK RUSSELL: One key group is Alpha 66, do you know if they were ever investigated?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: Cuban exiles were part of the area that was being investigated when I was there, including that group. We did not get into any area enough to generate something that was really a lead.

DICK RUSSELL: Can you say any more about the direction the committee is taking now?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: Well, Blakey has had the staff sign these agreements, subject to a $5,000 penalties if they disclose anything. People are not on the staff if they’re not approved by the CIA now. And Blakey is not spending money for in-depth field investigation, but has turned some funds back to Congress. They’re using a guy like Dr. Spitz from Detroit as one of their experts on the autopsy. Spitz was found by the DA’s office in Detroit to have misused his medical examiner’s office. He as also used by the Rockefeller Commission [on CIA Activities], so you don’t have people who are disinterested.

DICK RUSSELL: The tragedy is, the American people will probably take whatever they say as the last word now.

RICHARD SPRAGUE: Oh sure. I think that the public interest is down drastically, and the fiasco – as I call it – in Washington has helped kill it.

DICK RUSSELL: Have you thought of writing a book about the fiasco?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I’ve kicked it around in my mind, it could be an interesting book. I sent one of the deputies to talk to the California delegation about the connection between Ruby, Oswald and the underworld. A couple members of the delegation raised their hands and asked, “Who’s Jack Ruby?” I mean, that’s some of the problem down there….

DICK RUSSELL: What about [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill, was he helpful?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: Tip O’Neill, in my opinion, was not the least bit helpful. He talks out of all sides of his mouth equally well at the same time. I don’t think he has any desire for an investigation, though he will articulate otherwise. He is close to the Kennedys, and I have been told that the Kennedy family did not want an investigation, on the basis that nothing can bring the president back to life. Anything that comes out, in terms of other matters, can only tarnish the image and therefore why do it? I have been told that when the Congress authorized this investigation, Helms [Richard, former director of the CIA], who was then our ambassador over in Iran, saw one of the Kennedys – I think it may have been the one who was married to [Peter] Lawford – and he told her to convey back that the Kennedy family should have no interest in wanting this investigation to proceed. Whatever that meant. Obviously Helms himself was one of the people that I ultimately wanted very much to interview. But not until I was thoroughly prepared.

DICK RUSSELL: Did you ever interview the CIA’s former chief of Counterintelligence James Anglenton?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: No, that’s another one we were supposed to get to. Just like with the Yablonski case, people said right after the murder, why don’t you interview Tony Boyle? That would have been ridiculous at that time because I did not have the wealth of information which I would need.

DICK RUSSELL: And Santo Trafficante, Jr., the Florida Mob boss?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: That’s another interesting example of media distortion. We took him before the committee publicly, and he took the fifth Amendment. We were blasted by the press as a side-show, and for doing it publicly. What they made no attempt to ascertain was, Trafficante’s lawyer is the one who insisted on the public hearing. The reason was, he thought if we did it privately, we would leak word that Trafficante was talking. And he wanted it clear to all that he’s not talking.

Look, I was not an assassination buff and I am not one. The advantage I thought that I could bring to this was a professionalism. I had no preconceptions. It did not matter to me whether there was a conspiracy or not, or whether there was involvement by government agencies or not. What did matter to me was the fact that there was enough lack of confidence in what the people felt occurred, and by the public about government integrity a la Watergate and everything else. I felt, this is a good opportunity to show the public that we can have decent public officials do a thorough, honest, impartial job. But the evaluation process was not to be done sitting off in a room, it was to happen via a public hearing so that others could evaluate it – are we missing points, are we covering them? If we did it well, it would get credibility.

I don’t think the committee now has the courage to take a position on something like immunity.

DICK RUSSELL: Were you going to be able to?

RICHARD SPRAGUE: I was going to fight for it. Done deal.

Bill Kelly's review of Dick Russell's "On The Trail of the JFK Assassins." 

For Dick's complete interview with Sprague get the book. 
On the Trail of the JFK Assassins: A Groundbreaking Look at America's Most Infamous Conspiracy 

Using newly declassified information, Dick Russell builds on three decades of painstaking research in On the Trail of the JFK Assassins, offering one of the most comprehensive and authoritative examinations of the assassination of our thirty-fifth president. Included are new revelations, such as the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was subjected to “mind control,” Russell’s personal encounters inside the KGB headquarters, and new information gleaned from an interview with Oswald’s widow. Russell here comes closer than ever to answering the ultimate question: Who killed JFK? 24 black-and-white photographs

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