Wednesday, August 24, 2016

JFK's Last Hundred Days

JFK’s Last Hundred Days – The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke (Penguin Press, NY, 2013)

Thurston Clarke:

Monday, September 23


“Monday was one of the busiest days of Kennedy’s presidency, packed with so many meetings and ceremonies that he ate lunch at three and missed his swim and nap. He began with a morning conference with Taylor and MacNamara, who were preparing to depart for Vietnam, and ended with an evening meeting with (Earl) Blaik and (Ken) Royall, who were leaving for Birmingham. In between, he chaired the first cabinet meeting since July, conferred with the Italian foreign minister and the Laotian prime minister, met with his new Marine Corps commandant and with officers of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and held an hour-long conference with a delegation of white civic leaders from Birmingham.”

“Once Kennedy had approved Attwood’s request to meet with Lechuga, Attwood moved fast. He asked ABC correspondent Lisa Howard to throw a cocktail party on Monday evening and invite the Cuban diplomat. As Kennedy was briefing Blaik and Royall before their departure for Birmingham, Attwood was huddled with Lechuga at Howard’s Park Avenue apartment, discussing a possible meeting with Castro.”

“The New York attorney James Donovan had also developed a relationship with Castro while negotiating to secure the release of Cuban exiles captured at the Bay of Pigs…”

“When Kennedy heard about Donovan’s experiences, he told Gordon Chase, the National Security Council aid responsible for Latin America, that they should ‘start thinking along more flexible lines,’ and not insist that Castro make a clean break with Moscow as a precondition for talks.”

“McCone suggested two courses of action: engaging Castro in negotiations ‘with the objective of disenchanting him with his Soviet relations, causing him to break relations with Khrushchev,’ or continuing their current policy of supporting hit-and-run sabotage raids by Cuban exiles – of exerting ‘constant pressure of every possible nature on Khrushchev to force his withdraw from Cuba, and then to bring about the downfall of Castro by means which could be developed after the removal of the Soviet troops.’ Kennedy decided to keep the Donovan channel open and pursue both policies at once.”

“This remained the policy when Atwood met with Lechuga at Lisa Howard’s cocktail party on September 23. After Atwood described his 1959 conversation with Castro, Lechuga suggested that Castro might be ready to talk again, particularly with someone he knew and trusted, and said there was a good chance that Castro would invite him to Havana. Atwood explained that since he was a diplomat instead of a journalist he would need official authorization, and promised to contact him when he had an answer. The next day, Bobby told Attwood he was concerned that he might be identified if he visited Cuba. He proposed holding a meeting in Mexico or the United Nations instead and encouraged him to continue the conversation. Three days later, Attwood ran into Lechuga at the UN, relayed Bobby’s comments, and said that if Castro or his personal emissary had something to tell the president, they could meet somewhere outside Cuba.”

“These strategies converged on November 12, when he chaired a meeting of senior administration officials overseeing the CIA’s anti-Castro campaign. Director McCone presented a dispiriting summary of the current state of play, admitting that Cuba’s military remained loyal to Castro and its internal security forces well organized. Desmond Fitzgerald, who headed the CIA’s Cuban task force, gave a discouraging update on the Agency’s efforts to topple Castro. Casualties among CIA operatives in Cuba had increased, with twenty-five captured or killed…He reported that the Agency continued to support autonomous anti-Castro groups mounting sabotage operations from bases outside US territory, and listed four recent sabotage operations, but offered vague statements about their effect, justifying them as ways of ‘keeping up the pressure,’ raising ‘the morale of the people,’ and adding to Cuba’s ‘growing economic problems,’”

“Kennedy asked point-blank if the CIA’s sabotage program was worthwhile. Rusk criticized it as counterproductive, and argued that it might weaken support for the exile groups within Cuba…”
“Kennedy signed off on several sabotage operations scheduled for the weekend, but hours later he was pursing the second track of his Cuban policy. Bundy called Attwood to deliver a message from the president that was so sensitive he said he could only communicate it orally.  He told him that Kennedy wanted him to contact Castro’s confidant Dr. Rene Vallejo, and say that while it did not seem practical at this stage to send an American official to Cuba, the administration would like to begin the conversation by having Vallejo visit the United States and deliver any messages from Castro directly to Attwood.”

Tuesday, September 23 – Monday, September 30


“Despite his New Frontier rhetoric, Kennedy preferred oceans to mountains, golf courses to prairies, sailing to hunting, and swimming to fishing….No one on his staff or in the press corps, believed he was motivated by a love of the region or an interest in ecology; everyone understood that this ‘non-political’ trip was entirely political.”

“He stopped in Milford, Pennsylvania, to speak at a ceremony honoring the descendants of Gifford Pinchot, Jr., the first head of the United States Forest Service. They had donated Grey Towers, their family chateau-style mansion, to the Forest Service as a training center, and he added the ceremony to the schedule because it fit in with the conservation them and Pinchot had been the uncle of his lover Mary Meyer, and her sister, Tony, Ben Bradlee’s wife, and he was curious to see where they had spent their childhood summers. Both women joined him on the flight to Milford.”

“He delivered a plodding speech to ten thousand spectators filling a hill side facing Grey Towers. While speaking of his administration’s creation of three National Seashores, he said, ‘I don’t know why it should be that six or seven percent only of the whole Atlantic Coast should be in the public sphere and the rest owned by private citizens and denied to many millions of our public citizens.”

“The family attended Sunday Mass at St. Stephen the Martyr Church in Middleburg and heard Father Albert Pereira preach a homily about Christian death and the high cost of elaborate funerals.”

“On November 10, Pereira gave him a Bible (sic Missile) that he would carry to Texas, and that Johnson would use to take the oath of office.”

“Richard Helms, deputy director of plans at the CIA, was showing Bobby Kennedy a Belgian-made sub-machine gun the Agnecy had filched from a shipment that Cuban operatives were preparing to land on the coast of Venezuela. The arms were destined for a group plotting to disrupt the nation’s elections and foment a coup against President Romulo Betancourt. The gun’s Cuban army markings and serial numbers had been scraped away; but CIA technicians had applied acid to the barrel that restored them so they could be photographed before fading again. The gun and photographs were hard evidence of Cuban sponsored subversion that violated the post-missile-crisis agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. After seeing the pictures, Bobby called the White Hosue to arrange an immediate meeting between Helms and the president.”

“Kennedy studied the photographs that Helms had spread across the Oval Office coffee table and asked how the Cubans had managed to land such a large cache of weapons on a Venezuelan beach. After he examined the submachine gun and slip it back into its canvas bag that Helms had used to carry it into the White House, Helms said, ‘I’m sure glad the Secret Service didn’t catch us bring this gun in here.’ Kennedy grinned, shook his head, and said, ‘Yes, it gives me a feeling of confidence.’”

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hinckley & Company

Hinckley & Company 

By  Bill Kelly and John Judge 

“Minds are malleable, but not self-malleable, a condition politicians and PR men use to sinister advantage.”       -William S. Burroughs.

After John Hinckley shot President Reagan, he said, “The movie isn’t over yet!”

And indeed it isn’t. Political assassinations and coup d’etats are the most frequently used methods of changing governments and controlling power, and we shouldn’t expect that to change.

Now we hear from Hinckley every few years or so when he exercises his right to seek release from St. Elizabeth’s hospital, where he is incarcerated. Hinckley is in a hospital, rather than a prison, because of a quirk in our judicial system that says he is not responsible for his actions. If that is the case, then who is responsible for Hinckley’s actions?

After the assassination of President Kennedy the murder of a president was made a Federal, rather than a local crime, so a Federal investigation would take precedence over local police, courts and authorities. Unlike the Hinckley-Reagan affair, the assassination of President Kennedy was successful and the government changed hands, minds and policy, while Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan failed and the constitutional powers did not change.

Because we still haven’t determined exactly who was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or the attack on Reagan, we certainly haven’t seen the last of political assassinations in our society. We haven’t heard the last of John Hinckley, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan B. Sirhan or Mark David Chapman, the seemingly unimportant people who unexpectedly rise from the masses to take a monumental action that makes a mark on history and changes the course of our times.

As Hinckley said, the movie isn’t over yet. Hinckley failed in his mission, but created an important case study that helps us understand the ongoing implications of assassination in our society.

War dawns slowly as a political hot spot becomes unmanageable and a limited conventional war gets out of hand, though we know the crisis is coming, but assassination, as a political incident, happens suddenly and often unexpectedly, except to those who intend it to happen. Since Hinckley shot Reagan, Sadat of Egypt, Aquillo of the Philippines, Ghandi of Inida, and dozens of other world leaders have become victim of assassins. Of all political avenues, assassination is the most likely, but least expected to happen.

“Well, it seems, you know, that there was this…there was this thing I had to do, the moment I had been heading for all my life, like going through that door, as I say, the door to someplace.” – Taxi Driver

John Hinckley came crashing through that door on a lazy springtime afternoon in March, 1981, just outside a side door of the Washington Hilton Hotel. It’s now nicknamed the Hinckley Hilton since Hinckley jumped out of a crowd of newsmen to shoot President Reagan, his press secretary James Brady, a secret service agent and a security guard.

Hinckley’s alleged motive, a psychological, rather than political one, is that he shot the President to impress movie actress Jody Foster. Hinckley had repeatedly seen the movie, “Taxi Driver” in which Foster plays the role of a prostitute protected by a crazed taxi driver who stalks a politician with the intent to kill him, but then kills a pimp and a drug pusher. Rather than being sent to prison, he is declared a hero.

While the facts of Hinckley’s life were being investigated and disseminated by the news media shortly after the attack, John Wright of Lansing, Michigan was arrested and charged with threatening the life of then Vice President George Bush. Wright had bragged, “that he could be more famous than Sirhan Sirhan or Lee Harvey Oswald.”

As news of Hinckley’s actions spread through the media, Edward Michael Richardson, Michael Vandewehe and possibly other “copycat” assassins, as they came to be called, went through the Taxi Driver door on the heels of Hinckley. And like Hinckley and Wright, they found themselves in jail, charged with threatening the life of or attempting to assassinate the President of the United States.

On April 9, 1981, less than two weeks after the shooting at the Hinckley Hilton, Edward Michael Richardson was charged with two counts of threatening the life of the President. The first count stemmed from a letter Richardson wrote and delivered to Jody Foster Yale dormitory, while the second charge related to a letter found in Richardson’s hotel room in which he stated that he was going to Washington D.C. “to bring completion to Hinckley’s reality.” Richardson was arrested in New York City with a loaded pistol while getting on a D.C. bound bus.

From Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, Richardson had spent some time in the military and was once a student of the Reverend Carl McIntire’s Shelton College, a fundamentalist religious school with campuses located in Cape Canaveral, Florida and Cape May, New Jersey.

Within days of Richardson’s arrest, the Secret Service charged Michael VandeWehe of Wildwood, New Jersey, with threatening the life of the President. VandeWehe was considered a threat even though he was then incarcerated in the Cape May County jail at the time. The Secret Service said that he wrote and mailed a letter from the jail that made a “direct threat against the life of the President.”

Before Reagan was shot, the Secret Service had commissioned a study by a panel of 27 experts to prepare a report on the methods of predicting violent acts. The Secret Service also compiles files on thousands of citizens that are potential threats to the President, and some 400 individuals are considered a serious enough threat to be kept under periodic surveillance. Neither Hinckley, Wright nor VandeWehe were considered to be a threat to the President before March, 1981.

Hinckley’s case also made its mark in the legal journals as a precedent to be cited because of Hinckley’s insanity plea, and attempts by the victim’s attorneys to make Hinckley’s psychologists responsible for his actions if he was not.

If Hinckley and the copy-cats were acting on psychological impulses, rather than on political, ideological or mercenary motives, then someone else could be held responsible for their behavior if it can be shown that they were conditioned or acting as an agent of others.

Rather than acting as a deranged lone-nuts on primitive instincts, perhaps one or even some of these assassins were psychologically conditioned or brainwashed by scientists with a more sophisticated motive – and fit the archetypal Manchurian Candidate model.

If Hinckley was conditioned by the film “Taxi Driver,” it might not have been just be environmental and social circumstances, but rather by design. Using drugs, hypnosis and multimedia programming techniques, individual subjects have been programmed to kill with a high degree of predictable response, so it is a possibility that deserves further investigation.


The U.S. Government, the military in particular, conducted psychological experiments on human subjects years, decades ago, and today, anyone with the knowledge and the tools could be in the business of privately programming and training assassins and terrorists.

We know coup d’etats and political assassinations occur routinely in third world countries and so-called “Banana Republics,” but our own system of government is equally vulnerable and more likely targeted for such manipulation. Until President Reagan, who survived the attempt on his life in the first weeks of his presidency, none of the previous five presidents actually served out their full two terms, eight years of office, since President Kennedy was assassinated.

Men with pistols, rifles, bombs and even samurai swords have been arrested at the White House gates, where guards have been on the lookout for suicide bomb trucks and remote control kamikaze airplanes.

The Secret Service, a branch of the Treasury Department, is responsible for the security of the president and thus keeps the files on thousands of people who are potential threats. Some are violent prone suspects, others religious fanatics, ideological demagogues, professional hit men, espionage agents and trained terrorists. Others are just plain nuts.

Their common name – assassins, comes from the Arabic word Hashshishin, which means, “users of hashish,” the euphoric drug, but their legend stems from a secret society that began in the 11th century Persia as a religious order. Their leader, it is said, “carries the death of kings in his hand.”

Most of Western civilization first learned the tales of the Assassins from Marco Polo, who passed through Persia in 1273 enroute to China. Polo reported that the Sheik of the Assassins lived in a fortified valley between two mountains, which is probably the fabled, impenetrable fortress at Alamut. There the Sheik had a beautiful fruit bearing garden “watered with streams of wine, milk and honey.” Drugged and taken to the hidden garden, young impressionable recruits were courted by dancers, musicians, magicians and beautiful women. They were inebriated in ecstasy, then drugged again and brought before the Sheik. Having experienced paradise, they became slaves to its pleasures, and the Sheik’s whim. “Away they went,” Polo said, “and did all that they were commanded. Thus it happened that no man escaped when the Sheik of the mountains desired his death.”

The role of the order of the Assassins, while they have passed into mythology, is still relevant, not only linguistically, but in regards to a contemporary understanding of assassination as a political weapon in our own society. In the 1000 years the term assassins has been used, assassins are still programmed and conditioned in ways similar to their ancient counterparts, but by much more sophisticated and predictable ways.

As the victim of an assassin President Lincoln became the last casualty of the Civil War. In 1900 Theodore Roosevelt assumed power when President McKinley was shot and killed by a “glassy-eyed anarchist.” Assassins sparked Word War I by killing Archduke Ferdinand as he rode in a motorcade, and the Reichstag fire that herald Hitler’s rise to power was allegedly started by a “lone-nut.” French Admiral Darlin was assassinated by a British trained assassin in North Africa, while Hitler was the target of a failed assassination-coup attempt in 1944. After the war Leon Trotsky was targeted, stalked and eventually assassinated in Mexico City by Soviet agents.

The assassination of President Kennedy precipitated two decades of political unrest that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the wounding of Presidential candidate George Wallace, all by assassins who fit the archetypal assassin prototype – James Earl Ray, Sihran Sihran and Arthur Bremer. Richard Nixon’s handpicked successor, Michigan congressman Gerald Ford, served on the Warren Commission inquiry into President Kennedy’s assassination before assuming that office himself. As President he dodged bullets from two attacks, one from Sara Jane Moore, and FBI informant, and the other from Squeaky Frome, one of Charles Manson’s disciples.

Assassins in the United States have not confined themselves to presidents and presidential contenders, but have also killed Union officials, foreign diplomats, journalists and cultural figures. United Mine Workers union president Tony Boyle was convicted of ordering the murder of his union rival Jock Yablonski, Chilean secret police agent Michael Townley turned states’ evidence in admitting his participation with renegade Cubans in the Dupont Circle bombing assassination of former Chilean ambassador Leitter in downtown Washington D.C., and one-time fan, Mark David Chapman shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon.

By March, 1981 America and the world had been numbed by the accustomed ring of the assassin’s gun when Hinckley opened fire on the President’s entourage. Had he been successful, Hinckley would have made George Bush president of the United States with the flick of his finger and altering the course of history. The possibility that Hinckley was programmed or conditioned to shoot the President may have been privately evaluated, but has not been analyzed in a public forum.


The U.S. government has learned much about the psychological makeup of assassins, not by studying the profiles of subjects, but by attempting to create them. The state-of-the-art of conditioning assassins has advanced considerably since the days of the Hashshishin and the garden fortress at Alamut.

From 1949 until 1974 the U.S. CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense conducted sophisticated mind and behavior control research, using students, agents, soldiers and prisoners as human guinea pigs in a number of experiments that used drugs, hypnosis, audio-visional and electronic programming techniques.

One such project, called ARTICHOKE, began using drugs for investigating interrogation techniques, which stemmed from attempts to understand brainwashing procedures used on American prisoners of war by the Chinese in North Korea. Eventually the program became directed towards finding “whether a person could be secretly induced to commit an assassination against his will.”

One CIA contract agent, Jessica Wilcox (aka Candy Jones), a model and radio personality, was programmed to commit suicide by her CIA psychiatrist (See: “Candy Jones,” by Donald Bain, Playboy Press).

Although both the CIA and the military claim that their research ended in 1974, there are indications that the mind control programs merely became “operational” when the “experimental” stage ended, and techniques for programming assassins were secretly blended in with the normal routine of clandestine and military affairs.

The discovery of a CIA handbook in Central America that gave guidelines on developing criminals as agents to eliminate selected government officials is evidence of this, along with the fact that it was used in Vietnam, supports the contention that the U.S. government uses assassination as a tool of foreign policy.


In the summer of 1975, a year after the government claimed it halted such research, Dr. Irwin Sarason organized a conference in Oslo, Norway for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which addressed the topic of “The Dimensions of Stress and Anxiety.”

Dr. Sarason had produced a film which showed the success of school students who asked questions, and presented the film to a group of juvenile delinquents, who learned how to ask questions and showed marked improvement in their studies.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research offered to fund Sarason’s work, provided it was classified, so it could be used by the Navy psychiatric lab in San Diego, California, where “spies were being trained to resist interrogation.”

Peter Watson, a former psychologist and a reporter for the London Sunday Times attended the Oslo conference and participated in a seminar conducted by U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Thomas Narut, a psychologist then assigned to the U.S. Navy Regional Medical Center in Naples, Italy.

Lt. Commander Narut gave a talk on “The Use of Symbolic Models and Verbal Intervention in Inducing and Reducing Stress.” He claimed his work involved teaching “combat readiness units” to cope with the stress of killing.

After his general discourse, Watson talked privately with Narut, who told the London Times correspondent that he had done his doctoral dissertation on whether certain films provoke anxiety. Narut said that he studied whether forcing men to do irrelevant tasks while watching violent films made them cope better with anxiety associated with violence.

Narut also told Watson that the U.S. Navy programmed assassins on an assembly line basis, and that he personally worked with men whom he referred to as “hit men and assassins,” who were involved in commando type operations and placed in U.S. embassies abroad. These men, Narut told Watson, were on call to kill selected victims when necessary. The U.S. Marine Corps, which is in charge of protecting embassies abroad, comes under the Department of Navy, and much of the advanced training for the Marines takes place at its bases in San Diego, California.

Narut said that drugs and hypnosis were no longer necessary, and that such conditioning was accomplished by a standardized behavior modification process called audio-visual desensitation. Subjects were desensitized to mayhem and carnage by viewing films of people being injured and killed in different ways, with mild bloodshed being succeeded by progressively violent scenes. They became acclimated to the brutality and eventually dissociated their feelings from the violence.

Narut was quoted as saying the best killers were classified as having “passive-aggressive” personalities, or men “with strong drives that were usually kept under tight control.” These types he said, “were usually calm, but from time to time would exhibit outbursts of temper during which they could literally kill without remorse.” Men with these “qualities” could be identified through psychological testing, using the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory test, which is used in schools, businesses and corporations, as well as the military, and can measure hostility, depression and psychopathy.

After subjects with the right psychological qualities were selected and recruited they were sent either to the Naples Medical Center or the Navy Neuropsychological Lab in San Diego, California, where according to Narut, they were audio-visually desensitized by being strapped into a chair with their head clamped in such a way that they couldn’t look away from the screen and their eyelids prevented from closing.

After Watson’s story about the conversation with Narut was published in the London Sunday Times, Narut called a press conference to say that he had been talking only in “theoretical” and not “practical” terms.


“You see, I had this plan to make myself somebody at last, a celebrity. To go down in history. Had this plan I was working on, though, in the meantime, I needed to stay as real with myself as I could. Because when you think of all those other guys, Oswald, Booth and Arty Bremer, the lot, if it’s one thing about them marks them out as real losers is they got a little unreal sometimes…” – Taxi Driver

There has been much discussion on the effects the media has on people and whether it can instigate action, but the question shouldn’t be whether or not the film “Taxi Driver” had a mental impact on John Hinckley, but whether the conditioning was coincidental or deliberate. Are Hinckley, Richardson and VandeWehe really “lone-nuts” acting on their own perverted psychological motives, or were they deliberately programmed by the government, military, the CIA or some sinister psychologists who specializes in such behavior modification?

John Hinckley’s father was a wealthy oil man from Dallas, Texas, where Hinckley grew up and went to school. Hinckley bought his gun at a shop on Elm Street, not far from the Dealey Plaza intersection where President Kennedy was ambushed.

Hinckley’s family moved to Evergreen, Colorado, where they were living in March, 1981. John W. Hinckley Sr. owned Vanderbilt Oil Company, and was active in a number of religious and charitable organizations, although he has more recently been devoting his time to promoting a foundation for mental health research.

Although Hinckley’s main problem seemed to simply be finding direction in his life, his parents recognized some mental disturbance in him, and Hinckley saw no less than three doctors about his mental condition in the year before the shooting. In Lubock, Texas, Hinckley saw a Dr. Rosen, who prescribed an anti-depressant called Serentil, and valium, a tranquilizer.

Hinckley also saw Dr. John Hooper, who gave him biofeedback treatments. His father is also quoted as saying, “I made arrangements with a psychologist by the name of Durrell Benjamin, our company psychologist, to see John.”

This doctor told Hinckley’s father that, “John was immature and that we needed to work out a long-range plan to make John self-sufficient.” Hinckley wanted to attend a writer’s school at Yale, and Benjamin recommended that he do so. Yale is where Jody Foster was attending school at the time.

They had Hinckley draw up a written agreement – contract that read: “I will receive the sum of $3,000 in checks, taken from my stock,… to last from September 17 to February 1st… and I do pledge to try to make the coming weeks and months as productive as possible. It is now or never. Thanks for the money and one more chance. John Hinckley, Jr.” The next day he left for New Haven, Connecticut and Yale, but he never enrolled in the writer’s school.

“I worked so hard for it. Swallowed pill after pill, wrote all night long,... making calculations and learned to make myself comfortable to the feel of these guns.” – Taxi Driver

Hinckley had seen a number of films with Jody Foster in them, some repeatedly, and in the month of August that year, he saw some on television. According to one report, “It was his feeling that the movies had been put no TV to excite him into action.”

Returning to his parent’s home in Colorado briefly, Hinckley went back to Lubbock, Texas where he purchased some weapons, the same caliber pistols bought by “Travis,” the hero of “Taxi Driver,” who he emulated. From Texas Hinckley went to Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, and then to Dayton, Ohio, where he stalked then President Carter, who was making a campaign stop. Hinckley then went back to New Haven to see Jody Foster, then went to New York City where he sought out young prostitutes. 

Traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska, Hinckley contacted one of the leading activists in the American Nazi party, and fraternized with rightwing military types, before going to Nashville, Tenn., where Carter was campaigning. Picked up at the Nashville airport where his guns had registered on a metal detector, Hinckley was arrested with unregistered weapons in a city where the President was visiting, yet he was never considered a threat to the President and placed on the “watch” list, as thousands of other Americans routinely are “red flagged.” 

After paying a fine Hinckley went back to New Haven where he checked into the Colony Inn Hotel before moving to the Sheraton Park Plaza, never in need of money. Returning to Texas, Hinckley purchased two more handguns and then traveled to New Haven, Washington and Colorado, where he saw Evergreen psychologist Dr. John Hooper.

In an effort to make Hinckley relax, Hooper prescribed a series of biofeedback treatments. According to an account in Rolling Stone Magazine, “He was given earphones similar to those he wore in the nearby pistol range when he was practicing shooting at human silhouettes. An electrode was attached to his forehead. But while he was supposed to be relaxing, he was actually fantasizing about assassination and Jody Foster.” Dr. Hooper however, said at the time he had never even heard of Jody Foster. 

Towards the end of 1980 Hinckley went to Washington D.C. where he was on December 8, when Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon. Hinckley then began stalking Ronald Reagan, and posed for pictures in front of the Ford Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated.

After seeing Dr. Hooper again in January, 1981, Hinckley went to New Hampshire in February, then to D.C. where he got a room at the Capitol Hill Quality Inn and visited the offices of Sen. Edward Kennedy, but Kennedy wasn’t in. He then visited the White House before going to New York where he planned to commit suicide at the Dakota, where Lennon was killed.

Returning to Colorado once again, on February 19th he left his parents a note saying, “Dear Mom and Dad; Your prodigal son has left again to exorcise some more demons.” 

In New Haven, Conn. Hinckley stalked Jody Foster, delivered her a note, and then traveled to New York, from where he called home at 4:30 a.m. on March 6th. Hinckley’s father contacted Dr. Hooper, who advised him to give his son $100 and say goodbye. A friend of Hinckley’s father gave him the money to fly home, and on Saturday, March 7, Hinckley’s father picked him up at the Denver airport.

Staying at the Golden Hours Motel in Lakewood for a week, Hinckley moved to the Motel 6 in Lakewood rather than stay at home. He registered under the name of “Travis,” like his “Taxi Driver” hero. On March 25th his mother drove him to the airport and put him on a plane to Hollywood, California, where he stayed for less than a day. After four days on a bus, Hinckley arrived in New Haven, via D.C., then went back to D.C. and got a room at the Park Central Hotel, less than two blocks from the White House. There he watched TV, ate fast foods and read a Washington Star newspaper that contained the President’s itinerary.

After writing a letter Hinckley picked up a John Lennon button, which he put into his left coat pocket, then put his .22 in his right pocket and proceeded to the Hilton Hotel where the President was making an appearance.

As Hinckley was shooting the president, quite by coincidence, his brother Scott Hinckley was at the White House with his good friend, the son of Vice President George Bush. Bush’s daughter reportedly arranged dates for Scott Hinckley, and Ms. Maureen Bush, a niece of George Bush, is said to have been photographed at a Nazi rally with John Hinckley. The ironies were compounded however, when Michael Richardson was arrested in New York.

In the two weeks after Hinckley’s attack on Reagan, the Secret Service investigated over 300 threats against the life of the President, and Richardson was the most interesting of the copy-cat assassins.


From Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, Richardson was arrested on April 7, 1981 at the New York City bus terminal with a loaded .32 cal. Pistol. He had been in New Haven, where he left a note in his hotel room saying he was leaving for Washington “to bring completion to Hinckley’s reality.”

“Our duel realities merged into a single vision,” wrote Richardson, and indeed their trails had previously crossed. Unlike Hinckley, Richardson had briefly served in the military. He was trained at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, from January 4 to March 31, 1977, and received an early honorable discharge after three months of basic training, but the reasons for his discharge were not disclosed. At his arrangement in New York however, U.S. Attorney John Martin said Richardson stabbed someone during his brief military stint.

After attending Delaware Community College in Pennsylvania in 1979, Richardson started school at the Rev. Carl McIntire’s fundamentalist bible school, Shelton College, near Coca Beach, Florida. He also reportedly went to Cape May, New Jersey, where he spent the summer at McIntire’s school there, earning extra money by helping to paint McIntire’s Christian Admiral Hotel on the beach. After two semesters, Richardson left Shelton and moved to Lakewood, Colorado, where he move in with his two sisters in December1980. 

Hinckley’s parents lived in Evergreen, Colorado, near Lakewood, and Hinckley had stayed at the Golden Hours motel in Lakewood in March 1981.

Richardson left Colorado in mid-March, Hinckley on March 25. In a letter mailed from Grand Junction, Colorado on March 25, and received by the Evangelist Magazine the day Reagan was shot, someone warned, or mysteriously predicted that Reagan would be shot and the country “turned to the left.”

Richardson’s family attorney, Joseph F. Moore, Jr. said that the connections were only “cosmic,” and not evidence of conspiracy. No one however, inquired as to whether Richardson underwent any psychiatric treatment while in Colorado, or looked into whether or not Hinckley’s doctors, particularly Dr. Hooper, also treated Richardson.

Besides their joint fixation with Jody Foster and guns, and their “cosmic” Lakewood, Colorado connections, Hinckley and Richardson were both affiliated with evangelical ministries. Richardson, a student of the Rev. Carl McIntire, pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, N.J. and Cape May, and president of Shelton College, was the founder of the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC).

McIntire was also a close, personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover, who shared McIntire’s fanatic anti-communist fervor. McIntire has frequently condemned the competing World Council of Christian Churches (WCCC), which includes parishes from Communist countries. McIntire’s radio show, the 20th Century Reformation Hour, was broadcast behind the Iron Curtain and called for a Christian crusade against communism.

John Hinckley’s father, who sponsored a philanthropic foundation that ran a Denver soup kitchen for the poor and homeless, and where his son sometimes dined, was also on the board of directors of World Vision, and ran the World Vision center in Denver.

Both MacIntire’s ICCC and Hinckley’s World Vision are members of the ecumenical federation called the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) of Evanston, Illinois. One of the main functions of both ICCC and World Vision, which has its headquarters in Redwood Valley, California, is to operate refugee camps, especially refugee camps that attend to those who have fled communist countries.

According to John Judge, in the June-July issue of The Continuing Inquiry magazine, “World Vision is an evangelical, anti-communist missionary operation that works around the globe…and administers refugee camps in Ghana (where the Jonestown massacre occurred), and at Sabra and Shatilla camps in Lebanon where the Israeli massacre occurred.” Judge says that World Vision also operated along the Honduran border where CIA mercenaries fought Nicaraguan Sandinistas and El Salvadorian revolutionaries and that Alpha 66 and Omega 7 anti-Castro Cubans terrorists were hired to run some of the camps. One such camp also employed Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman, who worked at the Haitian refugee camp at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas.

The CIA first began interviewing refugees from communist countries in East Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s as part of Reinhard Gehlen’s Operation Wringer, and the practice continued through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and religious organizations like the ICCC and World Vision. Providing food and shelter in exchange for intelligence information is only the basis for the cooperation, and CIA evaluation of the refugee intelligence indicated that children were the most reliable of sources. Some of the foreign missionaries not only accepted money and assistance in exchange for intelligence information, but provided access to select refugees so they could be recruited and trained as assets, operatives and agents.

It is purely speculative whether or not Chapman, Hinckley or Richardson were targeted, recruited, trained or conditioned because of their association with these ministries, but the possibility is there.

Besides these associations, there is Hinckley’s bizarre association with the Islamic Guerilla Army (IGA). On December 16, 1981, Jack Anderson reported, “…Hinckley is widely believed to have acted out a crazy desire to impress actress Jody Foster. It’s an explanation that has gained credence by its very absurdity… But there is a possibility that Hinckley became associated with some Iranian terrorists who call themselves the Islamic Guerrilla Army (IGA)…In January 1981 an informant told the FBI and Secret Service that the IGA planned to assassinate Reagan sometime between Mid-March and early April, and that one of the assassination teams had the code name of ‘Hicks’ – a student who had been arrested in Nashville in October for illegal possession of firearms…Another informant, a government undercover agent, identified Hinckley as the man he saw at the Denver airport in 1979 with leaders of the Earth Liberation Movement (ELM), a communist backed group with ties to the IGA.”

John Hinckley’s father said that, “(Conspiracy) is one of the first things we looked at. The government looked into it and didn’t find anything. There’s absolutely no truth, no substance to conspiracy. John is very ill; he is a sick person. He did this for a vary pathetic reason.”


Like Richardson, Michael VandeWehe also served in the military, where something strange happened to him. VandeWehe was charged with threatening the life of the president after Hinckley’s attack on Reagan even though he was already incarcerated in the Cape May County jail at Cape May Court House, New Jersey.

Born in Cooperstown, New York, VandeWehe grew up in the Chelsea section of Atlantic City. His brother Richard died in a motorcycle accident in 1975 while stationed in Okinawa as a Marine. Michael joined the Marines in 1978. His father noted, “He felt he had to take his brother’s place.”

After basic training Michael was transferred to Iceland, where he was stationed for two years. But something happened there that forced him to be sent to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, where he was treated in the psychiatric wing in May, 1980.

As for his stay in Iceland, his father said, “Something happened there, but we’re not sure what.” Released from the hospital in June of 1980, VandeWehe was discharged from the Service and returned to his parent’s home in Wildwood, New Jersey. Not permitted to move in with his parents, who stayed at the Sandman Towers senior citizen complex, named after former Congressman Charles Sandman, Michael got a room at a local boarding house.

When he missed a rent payment, he was locked out of his room and his belongings confiscated by his landlord. Arrested for burglary, theft and criminal mischief for taking merchandise from a burnt out Wildwood bar, VandeWehe was released and then rearrested and charged with aggravated assault for striking his landlord, who attempted to prevent him from removing his clothes from his room.

“You can’t take a young boy like this right from the hospital and put him out on the street,” his father said at the time. A week after Hinckley shot Reagan, VandeWehe wrote a letter from the Crest Haven jail that the Secret Service said, “made a direct threat against the life of the President.”

Although VandeWehe’s home in Wildwood is only a few miles from the Rev. Carl McIntire’s Christian Admiral Hotel and Shelton College in Cape May, there does not appear to be any known association between VandeWehe and McIntire or Richardson and their proximity seems only a coincidence. Much like the Lakewood, Colorado proximity between Hinckley and Richardson.

What is interesting however, is the last chapter of the book “The Parallax View,” a novel about a reporter who investigates and penetrates a private network of programmed assassins for hire. Although the screenplay of the movie based on the book, which stars Warren Beatty, was altered to provide for a different ending, the suspense novel ends on the two mile long coastal road that runs between VandeWehe’s Wildwood and Cape May, where McIntire and Richardson were at the Christian Admiral.

Also unlike the movie, in which a commission concludes there was no conspiracy in a political assassination, the book ends with a suspicious local policeman investigating an automobile accident, and concluding it is a murder.

“The movie isn’t over yet” – John Hinckley, Jr.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Michael Weiss on Moscow Diz


Michael Weiss

Russia’s Long History of Messing With Americans Minds Before the DNC Hack

Russia’s intelligence services have a long history of mingling sinister fiction with shards of fact and leaking through third parties to cover their tracks.

Lord Byron observed, in skewering one of his favorite poetic targets of derision, that while the English have no word so good as the French longueurs to describe tedious, uninterrupted stretches of writing, they nevertheless “have the thing.” Similarly, there is no proper American term for what Russian intelligence calls aktivniye meropriyatiye, or active measures, but by now most Americans really ought to be used to the thing, as it might well decide our next presidential election.
As The Daily Beast reported Monday, the FBI now suspects that a year-long hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails and their subsequent publication on WikiLeaks was actually the work of Russian intelligence.

The Kremlin, it is now widely believed, is trying to rob Hillary Clinton of her chance to be the next commander-in-chief because its favored candidate is Donald Trump, a mercenary authoritarian who behaves and sounds like a forbidding cross betweenVladimir Zhirinovsky and a Las Vegas pit boss. Trump, like Putin, wants to eviscerate NATO, dispense with “lecturing” the Russians on democracy and human rights, and lift any and all diplomatic or economic penalties on Moscow for its invasion and occupation of Ukraine.

Trump, like Putin, draws on a staff of consiglieri and advisers who have extensive experience in the financial and political sectors of the post-Soviet sphere, usually on behalf of those who wish the Berlin Wall had never come down.

According to a mounting pile of compelling news reports, the first of which broke in The Washington Post in June, two separate agencies of Russian spy services, the domestic FSB and the military GRU, gained access, independently of each other and without the other’s cognizance, to the DNC correspondence beginning in the summer of 2015 (the FSB) and followed by an intrusion registered in April of this year (the GRU).

Already, the “leaked” emails, showing the DNC cooking up ways to sink Bernie Sanders’s campaign on the basis of his suspected atheism, have deepened a schism within the Democratic Party as its nominating convention gets going. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is out of a job come Friday, and meanwhile she’s busy being booed at luncheons and confabs by incensed Bernie supporters in Philadelphia. Trump is already capitalizing on these embarrassments by egging on the Bernie Bros to stand their ground and reaffirming the “rigged” nature of the electoral system.
If Moscow Centre is indeed behind this bit of cyber skulduggery, then it represents the boldest intrusion ever by a past and present Cold War adversary into America’s political decision-making.
Indeed, the style and purpose of this intrusion bears an uncanny resemblance to old Cold War tradecraft.

An active measure is a time-honored KGB tactic for waging informational and psychological warfare designed, as retired KGB General Oleg Kalugin once defined it, “to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs.”

The most common subcategory of active measures is dezinformatsiya,or disinformation: feverish if believable lies cooked up by Moscow Centre and planted in friendly media outlets to make democratic nations look sinister.

As my colleague Peter Pomeranzev and I discovered in researching our report on the Kremlin’s weaponization of money, culture, and information, some of the most famous conspiracy theories to bombinate in backrooms, basements, street corners, college dorms were actually whole-cloth inventions of the Cheka.

For instance, a story suggesting that Jimmy Carter had a “Secret Plan to Put Black Africans and Black Americans at Odds”; that the United States used chemical weapons in the Korean War; that AIDS was an invention of the CIA; that the Jonestown massacre was by U.S. intelligence; that the United States tried to kill Pope John Paul II; that Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society were in cahoots to mount a coup d’├ętat in Washington, D.C.

Many in 1963 doubted that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering John F. Kennedy; but only a precious few ever saw their paranoid Grassy Knoll explanation transformed into a Hollywood blockbuster. American researcher Max Holland found that the KGB fabricated letter that got planted in the Italian newspaper Paese Sera was the first to allege that one of the suspects for the Kennedy assassination, Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, was actually an operative of Langley. The New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, got hold of a copy of that letter and while he never cited it in court, his film version Kevin Costner most certainly did in the paranoid Oliver Stone movie JFK.
Vasili Mitrokhin, a retired KGB archivist who defected to the West and smuggled out six enormous cases of Soviet foreign intelligence files, later recorded that the “KGB could fairly claim that far more Americans believed some version of its own conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination, involving a right-wing plot and the U.S. intelligence community, than still accept the main findings of the Warren Commission.”

Mitrokhin’s archive also settled another long-running debate about an actual CIA provocateur, the defector Philip Agee, whose KGB code name was PONT.

Agee had been an officer stationed in Latin America and was forced to quit the agency because he drank, was loose with government money and all too eager to take to bed the many wives of the many American diplomats in whose company he traveled.

Then, in 1973, as Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew recount in The Sword and the Shield, the first volume of a two-part history on the exfiltrated secrets of the U.S.S.R.’s special services, Agee walked right into the rezidentura in Mexico City.

He offered the Russians “reams of information about CIA operations,” according to Oleg Kalugin, who was then head of the KGB First Chief Directorate’s counterintelligence division. But the Soviets thought this too good to be true; Agee struck them as a “dangle,” a deep cover operative posing as a would-be defector in order to hawk faulty intelligence. So they turned him away. He next tried the Cubans, who found him legitimate.

Because of Havana’s close security relationship with Moscow (one that had actually been coerced by the Soviets through anti-Castro espionage and economic blackmail), Cuba’s own intelligence service, the DGI, shared their new asset with their KGB masters. “As I sat in my office in Moscow reading reports about the growing list of revelations coming from Agee,” Kalugin later wrote, “I cursed our officers for turning away such a prize.”

Agee’s first act as a Soviet spy was to name names of his old American comrades in a best-selling book titled Inside the Company: CIA Diary. It was first released in Britain in 1975 and possibly curated by Agee’s KGB and DGI handlers. He outed 250 CIA officers and agents before he set about exposing those stationed in the capital of America’s closest Cold War ally, London, where he now took temporary residence, much like another controversial “whistleblower.”

Agee was eventually expelled from Britain, owing to U.S. diplomatic pressure, but not before becoming a left-wing celebrity, feted and defended by a raft of Labour MPs andThe Guardian newspaper.

Miktrokhin and Andrew are generous in acquitting most of Agee’s admirers as mere useful idiots rather than duplicitous co-conspirators. Nevertheless, PONT’s KGB file boasted of his stature as a putative transparency advocate and martyr of free speech, notwithstanding his clandestine and destructive work on behalf of a communist superpower: “Campaigns of support for PONT,” the file noted, “were initiated in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Finland, Norway, Mexico and Venezuela.”

In 1978, Agee began publishing his own newsletter, Covert Action Information Bulletin, a WikiLeaks-style journal designed, in Agee’s own words, as a “worldwide campaign to destabilize the CIA through exposure of its operations and personnel.”

The Bulletin was a KGB and DGI operation; the entire project was given the code name RUPOR (Russian for “mouthpiece”). Besides its internationally recognizable founder, other editors included other Americans, such as the journalist Louis Wolf, and featured contributions from other former CIA officers, although Miktrokhin and Andrew state that there’s no evidence that anyone other than Agee knew which foreign governments were actually underwriting the Bulletin.

As an active measure, the pamphlet was a mixture of credible stolen intelligence anddezinformatsiya. Sometimes the KGB would feed Agee real morsels from Langley; elsewhere, when these proved impossible to come by, he was instructed to seek out open-source material “ranging from readers’ letters to crises around the world which could be blamed on the CIA,” as Mitrokhin and Andrew write. This is how the Jonestown massacre became an American crime.
The Russians and Cubans even set the schedule for when Western national security secrets, be they authentic or sham, were to be disgorged. Around the time of the Bulletin’s first issue, Agee and Wolf started handing out copies of a new book, Dirty Work: The CIA in Western Europe, which carried the names of another 700 CIA employees scattered across the free countries of the continent. The success of that volume encouraged a sequel, which was duly produced as Dirty Work II: The CIA in Africa. Its publication, the KGB and DGI jointly decided, would coincide with a Castro-hosted conference in Havana for the non-aligned nations in September 1979.

Closer to our own time, following the invasion of Ukraine, we have seen the recrudescence of active measures as a form of Russian “hybrid warfare.” Sometimes they’re aimed at the United States, as when a phone call between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was suddenly uploaded to the internet and framed to show a shadowy plot to not only influence the course of Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych period but also drive a wedge between Washington and Brussels.

(That phone call had Nuland at one point say that the UN ought to be brought in to facilitate a peace deal deal and “fuck the EU.”) Few doubt who intercepted this communication and posted it online; Nuland herself, in conversation with the BBC, smilingly called “the tradecraft really quite impressive.”

A subsequent phone exchange between former Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and former European Higher Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton appeared to call into question who, exactly, did the sniping on Kiev’s Independence Square during the Maidan Revolution—with the suggestion being that it was the opposition, not the Yanukovych government shooting civilians. (Paet had talked to a Ukrainian doctor who tended to the wounded on the square and had either misunderstood where she said the gunfire had come from or was just relaying to Ashton alternative theories.)

Finally, everyone remembers how the NSA listened in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cellphone calls, a bombshell report, tied to the Edward Snowden leaks, which put a frost on U.S.-German relations. Except that it seems the entire story, firstreported in Der Spiegel (and primarily written by a WikiLeaks associate, Jacob Appelbaum) was wrong—even if the vast majority of Snowden’s disclosures were genuinely and self-evidently scandalous.

Germany’s top prosecutor, Harald Range, opened an investigation in June 2014 and closed it a year later, citing a lack of evidence. “The documents published in the media so far that come from Edward Snowden also contain no evidence of surveillance of the mobile phone used by the chancellor solid enough for a court,” Range said. Prior to closing the case, he had noted that the supposed gotcha document proving the NSA was listening in on an allied head of state’s personal conversations was in fact “not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database.”

Max and Shelton on Tapes

Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Crafting a New Historical Genre
By Sheldon M. Stern and Max Holland  

    Though it has been slow to develop and achieve recognition, it is now becoming apparent that scholarly works based on the extraordinary cache of presidential recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation.

    The history profession is familiar with books that exploit new primary sources, or interpret old primary sources in a fresh way, along with works that are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. There is also an honored place in the canon for books that annotate the private papers of such prominent figures as Woodrow Wilson. Books based on audio recordings, however, are arguably distinct from these traditional categories. The main reason is that the historian shoulders an even larger burden in this new genre. He or she is obviously selecting, deciphering, and making judgments about a primary source, much like the editor of a documentary collection. But, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also creating a facsimile—while still endeavoring to produce a reliable, “original” source. In essence, the historian/editor unavoidably becomes the author of a “new” source because even a transcript alleged to be “verbatim” is irreducibly subjective at some level. As a result, the historian’s responsibility in this genre is a very unusual one, and requires the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of discovery and/or interpretation in the historical canon is quite comparable.

    As the audio recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies have become available, historians have eagerly taken up this unprecedented challenge—and understandably so. The attraction of being able to convey even a fraction of what actually transpired in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room from 1962 to 1969, and 1971 to 1973, is irresistible, the ultimate fantasy for many historians. The recordings offer the tantalizing prospect of history “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”—as it really was—in the famous formulation of the 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke.[1] Or as Columbia University professor Alan Brinkley put it in 1997, “No collection of manuscripts, no after-the-fact oral history, no contemporary account by a journalist will ever have the immediacy or the revelatory power of these conversations.”[2] Almost a dozen “tapes-based” books have been published since 1997, more are in the offing, and this does not count the growing number of conventional histories and/or biographies and articles in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals that selectively but increasingly rely on the presidential recordings for substantive insights, anecdotal asides, or simply colorful quotes.[3]

    One issue must be acknowledged before leveling any criticism: transcribing these tapes is far more difficult than it appears on the surface for subjective and objective reasons. There are knotty stylistic issues, for example, that have substantive consequences. When is a hesitation or “uh-huh” significant?[4] Something as seemingly minor as eliminating a pause, or “ironing out a cadence,” as one historian put it, can shift emphasis and even change meaning.[5] Not being able to fully render tone or intonation runs the same risk. If LBJ lapses into his most Southern dialect, and that is reflected in the transcript, does he risk being portrayed as some character out of a Mark Twain novel? 

Alternately, does it misrepresent LBJ to render him speaking the King’s English when he demonstrably does not? Reading even the most faithful transcript will never substitute for actually listening to the recordings themselves; as one historian put it, “transcripts are not interchangeable with the original tapes.”[6] A transcript, or a narrative that attempts to capture both the verbal and affectual dimensions of the tapes, can further refine our understanding. But only the tapes can be legitimately cited as the genuine primary source.

    These questions aside, the most daunting issue is the frequently poor audio quality of the tape recordings. It can be exasperating to try to decipher something as fundamental as who is speaking, particularly on the tapes from the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, which include many recordings of meetings. Even the most painstaking effort to transcribe the recordings is bound to result in some errors, the present authors’ own attempts included. Accordingly, all three presidential libraries have desisted from producing official transcripts—although without transcriptions the recordings are not user-friendly, despite the libraries’ best efforts to index and catalog them. The libraries have decided (wisely, in our view) to regard the recordings as the original document and everything after that as a facsimile or interpretation, almost a translation, so to speak, and one that must be vouched for by the scholar(s) who produced it.[7]

    Another factor, of course, is the enormous commitment of time and resources it would take for the presidential libraries to produce high-quality transcripts. When the Kennedy Library estimated, nearly 20 years ago, that it would take about one hundred hours of listening to produce an accurate transcript of a one-hour recording, it was widely suspected of manufacturing an excuse to avoid the work. But time and experience have proven that ratio to be right on target.[8] Producing books based on the tape recordings is (or ought to be) an extremely labor-intensive endeavor. It is microhistory, and presenting it accurately demands that the scholar be steeped in the subject matter. Often he or she must know the events of a given day, and sometimes a given hour. There is, in other words, a direct correlation between the time one invests in listening to the tapes, and in researching their context, and the sense one is able to make of them. Regardless of the difficulty in rendering accurate transcripts, the onus remains on those scholars of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies who willingly assume the burden and claim in print to have carried it off.

    The remainder of this essay will examine several of the most acclaimed works in this evolving historical genre, namely, the volumes based on the Kennedy recordings by Ernest May, Philip Zelikow, and now the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and the books on the Johnson recordings produced by Michael Beschloss.

     Stanley Kutler’s 1997 book, Abuse of Power, was published in the same year as Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s first effort, The Kennedy Tapes, and Michael Beschloss’sTaking Charge, and on that basis alone Kutler’s work would seem to merit inclusion.[9]Kutler’s book, moreover, has been criticized along some of the lines that will be enumerated below. In 1998, John Taylor, director of the Richard M. Nixon Library, charged that Kutler had intentionally truncated some transcripts to create the misleading impression that Nixon had foreknowledge of the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.[10] And historian Joan Hoff, who also culled the recordings carefully for her book on Richard Nixon, has seconded Taylor’s criticism.[11]Kutler recently declared, “Did I make mistakes? I’m sure I did. But I never knowingly changed an affirmative to a negative or vice-versa. I never added or subtracted words to alter the meaning. But the tapes are difficult . . . and the human ear is not perfect. Besides, I would rather be remembered as the guy who made sure that everyone could get their hands on the Nixon Tapes [by suing to secure their release].”[12] In any case, because the authors of this article are not experts on the Nixon recordings and presidency, we are not in a position to write about Kutler’s transcriptions, editing, and annotations.

The Kennedy Tapes

    In 1981, the John F. Kennedy Library (JFKL) began processing the recordings of the ExComm meetings during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and in 1983 started releasing them to the public. It took years to review and declassify all 22+ hours of recordings largely because the audio quality was frequently very poor. Consequently, more than 17 hours (77 percent) of the ExComm recordings were not released until 24 October 1996 (15+ hours) and 17 February 1997 (2 hours). Some of these last releases were among the hardest to transcribe.

    Notwithstanding the JFKL’s difficulties and its imposing estimates of the time required to do this work carefully, in October 1997, Harvard University Press (HUP) published Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis.[13] Given that the physical process of copy-editing and manufacturing a book normally takes seven or eight months, this would, to say the least, have been a notable feat even if the recordings had been crystal clear. Nonetheless, HUP declared that “These are the full and authenticated transcripts of those audio recordings.” The stunning achievement was explained by stressing the editors’ “monumental efforts over the past months” to transform “these crackling, rumbling, and hissing tapes . . . into readable transcriptions.”[14] The editors themselves supplied specific details: 

we commissioned a team of court reporters . . . [to prepare] draft transcripts from the recordings released by the JFK Library. We then asked an expert in audio forensics to improve the sound quality of most of the tapes. . . . The two of us then worked with the tapes and the court reporters’ drafts to produce the transcripts. . . . The laboriousness of this process would be hard to exaggerate. Each of us listened over and over to every sentence in the recordings. Even after a dozen replays at varying speeds, significant passages remained only partly comprehensible. . . . Notwithstanding the high professionalism of the court reporters, we had to amend and rewrite almost all their texts. For several especially difficult sessions, we prepared transcriptions ourselves from scratch. In a final stage, we asked some veterans of the Kennedy administration to review the tapes and our transcripts in order to clear up as many as possible of the remaining puzzles. The reader has here the best text that we can produce, but it is certainly not perfect.[15]

    Reviewers of The Kennedy Tapes took the assurances of these recognized Harvard scholars at face value. The “effort was herculean,” wrote the critic for The New York Times Book Review.”[16] The Economist reviewer declared that the editors had produced “the most accurate, lucid transcript that is at present possible ” [emphasis added].[17]The Wall Street Journal review enthused that the “verbatim” transcripts are not fictionalized or reconstructed dialogue: “this is the real thing.”[18] A reviewer in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concluded, “With the aid of court reporters and some alert ears, remarkable texts emerged. . . .”[19] “Painstakingly recovered from poor recordings,” wrote Henry Graff in the New Leader.[20] Alexander George summed up the scholarly consensus when he wrote, “Professors May and Zelikow’s meticulous work in transcribing the imperfect recording of President Kennedy’s secret tapes is a remarkable achievement.”[21] Another scholar called the transcripts the “jewel in the documentary crown” of material that had become available about the missile crisis.[22]

    Apparently, not a single reviewer of The Kennedy Tapes thought it necessary to listen to any of these tapes to confirm that the transcriptions were, in fact, reliable, and/or the best that could reasonably be expected. This was not surprising with regard to mass-circulation reviews, of course, but it extended to reviews in scholarly publications as well, despite the often nonsensical, fractured syntax of the transcribed conversations.[23] The authority and status of the editors, the reputation of their publisher, and the massive scope and detail of the work seemed proof enough.

    In 1998, Zelikow left Harvard’s Kennedy School to become director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Zelikow soon announced that he intended to dedicate a substantial portion of the Miller Center’s resources to the presidential recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.[24] “These audiotapes will do for the study of government what the discovery of Pompeii did for the study of Rome,” Zelikow declared in announcing the Miller Center’s new project. “The books and studies that emerge from this project will help replace the Hollywood image of White House decision-making with a real world understanding of how government actually works.”[25] In every respect, including their ambitious publication schedule, the model for this impressive enterprise was, of course, the universally-praised volume that Zelikow and May had edited with conspicuous speed.

    In fact, utilizing court reporters unfamiliar with the history and the cast of characters had resulted in transcripts riddled with errors, many of which went uncorrected in the final editing.[26] Speakers were repeatedly misidentified or not identified at all, and scores of passages that had been labeled “[unclear]” were, in fact, audible and discernable. These mistranscriptions, large and small, help explain why the transcripts often seemed nonsensical or studded with remarks that were nonsequiturs.[27] This was not a matter of inevitable and incidental mistakes sprinkled throughout the transcripts, but pervasive errors that significantly distorted the reliability of a unique source and undermined the very purpose behind publishing these transcripts.

    The planned chronological series of Miller Center volumes on the Kennedy recordings provided an opportunity to correct these problems but, unexpectedly, one of the authors of this article, Sheldon Stern, first publicly exposed the inadequacies of The Kennedy Tapes in The Atlantic Monthly.[28] In their response to the Atlantic article, May and Zelikow wrote, “We were bemused (though also wryly gratified)” to read about alleged errors in the transcriptions. “None of these amendments is very important. None of it changes what a reader of the transcripts takes away concerning the essence or even the minute details of the deliberations that took place in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.”[29] Besides being plainly incorrect, this was an odd and contradictory argument, given their earlier claim that The Kennedy Tapes had forced a drastic revision of prior accounts precisely because of the new and telling detail it contained.[30] Indeed, in presidential recordings, one might easily claim (as May and Zelikow sometimes explicitly did) that nuance is everything.[31] If it is not important, the tapes lose much of their historical power.

    Before Stern’s article, the Miller Center could have published substantially revised transcripts while simultaneously asserting that new technological wizardry was primarily responsible for the dramatically different transcripts. But Stern’s corrections were based on what can be described as technically pedestrian methods and the aural equivalent of elbow grease.[32] Consequently, Stern’s articles (he published a second, scholarly version in Presidential Studies Quarterly in September 2000) had the effect of causing the Miller Center to circle the wagons rather than embrace open and constructive criticism.[33] The response was to dispute as many errors as possible, to publicly deny the significance of errors that were undeniable, and in general, to pretend that nothing untoward had happened—and besides, these problems would all be corrected in what the editors said would become the deserved “focal point for scholarly attention,” i.e., the “authoritative reference works” to be published by W.W. Norton.[34] Indeed, the Miller Center would soon claim that 120 minutes of listening were necessary to render a single minute of transcript in these new volumes, a ratio that exceeded even the Kennedy Library's initial estimate.[35]

    When the Miller Center’s reference volumes were published by Norton in October 2001, academic reviewers again found it difficult to critique the new edition.[36] The claim that a team of expert scholars, using state-of-the-art technology, were responsible for these revised transcripts (about 35% of the 1,800 pages in these three volumes covered the missile crisis) continued to insulate the work from peer criticism. Historians were predictably reluctant to listen to the tapes themselves and, given the cutting-edge methods allegedly required for transcribing, assumed for a second time that the transcripts must be the best that could be done.

    A good part of the new missile crisis transcripts were, in fact, significantly more accurate—indeed, sometimes unrecognizable—when compared to the HUP edition.[37] As such, it was certainly a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, upon closer review, Stern discovered that the ExComm retranscriptions still contained many significant errors, some of which modified or changed the intent and meaning of speakers’ remarks.[38] And while the number of “[unclear]s” was drastically diminished, there were still many passages so marked that were, in fact, discernable to other listeners. In addition, words, phrases, sentences, or speakers were sometimes still missing altogether in these new transcripts. Some errors were particularly perplexing because they made no sense in the historical context of the conversations, and for that reason alone should have been flagged during the elaborate Miller Center editing process overseen by Tim Naftali, the director of the Presidential Recordings Program.[39]

    Another problem common to the HUP and Norton versions pertained to what May and Zelikow once called “verbal debris.”[40] “What we omit are the noncommunicative fragments that we believe those present would have filtered out for themselves,” the editors wrote in the preface to the HUP edition. “We believe that this gives the reader a truer sense of the actual dialogue as the participants themselves understood it.”[41] But this kind of editing is not as neutral as it sounds.[42] And while it may be appropriate in a commercial book intended for a wide audience, it becomes very problematic in what purport to be scholarly reference works meant to be consulted for decades.[43] As Joan Hoff pointed out in her 2003 AHA commentary on the presidential recordings, 

How does [excising ‘debris’] serve or preserve history when it is actually distorting history? . . . Presidential tapes constitute the raw and unpleasant way people communicate or, as often happens in conversations with presidents, do not communicate very well. By eliminating ‘verbal debris’ or ‘noncommunicative fragments’ the participants sound smarter and more rational than they usually are in reaching decisions. Future generations of historians need such untidy, unsanitized material, not neat transcripts which happen to fit mainstream historical interpretations at a certain point in time.[44]

    Although sustained criticism of an admittedly difficult task might seem niggling, it must be remembered that the Miller Center set the bar high for itself. Shortly after deciding to undertake the formidable task of making available the recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies, the Miller Center sought funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the grant-making division of the National Archives. The NHPRC, established in 1934, underwrites projects that preserve and disseminate archival-quality historical records. Its subsidies are the gold standard; it has underwritten the publication of superbly edited and annotated volumes of the Founding Fathers and other leading political figures. And from 2000 to 2004, the Miller Center received $505,000 in NHPRC funds to support a program that is supposed to reflect only the highest excellence and scholarship. When the three Norton volumes, described by the Miller Center as “perhaps the most reliable record of the Kennedy presidency ever published” were released in 2001, the Center acknowledged that their work “was made possible in part by a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).[45]
The Johnson Tapes
    In response to the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library (LBJL) began releasing recordings in April 1994 related to President Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath. Soon Harry Middleton, then the LBJL director, prevailed upon Lady Bird Johnson to have all of Lyndon Johnson’s tape recordings processed and released in chronological order.[46] The result has been a justifiable upsurge of interest in this controversial president, and a new round of scholarship as historians have sought to integrate information from the tapes with the standard wisdom.

    In comparison to the Kennedy and Nixon tapes, the Johnson recordings are relatively easy to transcribe, despite Beschloss’s assertion that “none of the tapes are easy to decipher.”[47] About ninety percent of the time there is no question as to whose voice was being recorded, since the vast majority of the recordings are of bilateral telephone conversations. There is a problem with overlapping voices, and to be sure, not all of the recordings’ audio quality is good, largely owing to the technological state-of-the-art at the time. Many recordings are only fair, and several are poor. Some key Johnson aides and advisers, such as Walter Jenkins and Abe Fortas, had an unfortunate inclination to mumble and speak in barely audible voices. Still, compared to the tapes made by LBJ’s predecessor and successor, it is a relatively easier task to produce reasonably accurate transcripts of the Johnson recordings, though as noted before, any rendering is at best a facsimile of the bona fide source and never a substitute for it.

    In 1997, Michael Beschloss brought out the first volume of what he eventually announced would be a trilogy on the Johnson recordings. Beschloss’s first LBJ book appears to have been completed as rapidly as the May and Zelikow HUP volume of the same year. The Johnson tape recordings for April through June 1964 were not released until 14 February 1997, and the July and August 1964 tapes were not released until 18 July 1997. That means, in short, that 54 percent of the tapes used by Beschloss in Taking Charge were not released until the year of publication—23 percent in February and 31 percent in July (the latter just three months before publication of the book on 17 October 1997). In Beschloss’s second volume, Reaching for Glory, 40 percent of the tapes were not released until 2001 (28 percent on January 12 and 12 percent on June 8). The book was published on 1 November 2001.

    Beschloss’s project differed from the initial May and Zelikow volume, and Kutler’s book as well, in that he did not restrict his selection to a particular subject. Rather, Beschloss presented a cross-section of select conversations from a defined chronological period, November 1963 to August 1964 in his first volume, Taking Charge, and September 1964 to August 1965 in his second volume, Reaching for Glory.[48] Although the publisher of both volumes, Simon & Schuster, is a commercial trade press, Beschloss cast his project in scholarly terms: 

I have conceived this trilogy in the style of an edited and annotated anthology of private letters written by a public figure in the days when leaders did business on paper, revealing their private purposes, methods and obsessions. . . . My chief standard in deciding which conversations to include in the book is whether they add something of historical importance . . . .
 The editor of a volume of new primary source material, like this one, has a different responsibility [than a historian writing a book of his own]—not to drown out the subject’s voice. . . . His task instead is preeminently to explain what the new material means and what it tells us beyond what we know already.[49]

    Beschloss also explained, in language reminiscent of May and Zelikow, that his transcripts were the product of a scholar’s meticulousness and attention to detail. To a degree, he had the benefit of earlier transcriptions rendered by Johnson’s secretarial pool. But these, Beschloss correctly noted, were “fragmentary, inaccurate, and unreliable for the historian.”[50] He described his own methodology and editorial conventions this way:

In creating this book, I have listened to virtually every Johnson White House tape . . . often many times—and have personally transcribed most of the conversations that appear here.[51] The main reason for this is accuracy. . . .  

[The] only way to make these tapes a reliable source is for a historian to be steeped in the daily history of LBJ’s presidency, armed with names, issues, and context, and to listen hard to every syllable—sometimes over and over again . . . .

I have edited each conversation to exclude extraneous material and repetition, but not where that might change the meaning. Ellipses appear where shorter parts of conversations have been pared; a larger break is used for longer deletions. The only words to be eliminated [emphasis added] without some kind of indication are “uhs,” “wells,” and similar interjections, but only in cases where they do not add meaning.[52]

    These statements resulted in the same presumption accorded the May and Zelikow volumes. Beschloss’s transcriptions of the LBJ recordings were greeted with uncritical enthusiasm, although again, no one apparently bothered to listen. Taking Charge was reviewed in both the Sunday and the daily New York Times.[53] Indeed, the newspaper thought so highly of the book that it ran an editorial, declaring the “publication of Lyndon Johnson’s secretly recorded tapes is an important event [emphasis added].”[54] Reviews in scholarly publications also took for granted the accuracy and fidelity of the “brilliantly edited” or “superbly edited” transcripts.[55] Beschloss “had to decipher impenetrable accents and ignore the background blare of chattering aides, TV commercials, and shuffling papers,” wrote one reviewer.[56]

    A closer, more learned look, however, would have uncovered numerous shortcomings in the transcripts, and frequent misrepresentations of the conversations in Beschloss’s annotations and footnotes.[57] In addition, explanations were frequently lacking when they were sorely needed, which can be just as misleading as the wrong contextual information. In Taking Charge, both the prologue (where Beschloss actually melds and expurgates five separate LBJ conversations about William Manchester’s book on the JFK assassination into one), and the appendix are conspicuous examples in which the context is minimal or not provided at all.[58] With respect to the Manchester-related conversations, for example, Johnson’s remarks about The Death of a President appear to be petulant—which they most certainly were not.

    The sole published criticism of the transcripts from Beschloss’s first volume was a 1999critique in the Los Angeles Times by one of the authors of this article, Max Holland.[59] It pointed out what was easily the most egregious mistake in the transcripts (Beschloss’s rendering the phrase “thread of it” as the word “threat”), which resulted in a significant interpretive error about the work of the Warren Commission.[60] Putting aside mistakes in transcription, misinterpretations in the annotations because of these mistakes, and other errors in Beschloss’s microhistory, the nub of the problem with his volumes is very similar to the one that has cast a shadow over the May/Zelikow and now the Miller Center effort. The critical element, indeed the raison d’etre of the project—reliable, accurate transcripts—is lacking.

    In Beschloss’s case, however, the problem is exacerbated by the editorial conventions he adopted to produce his “trilogy of snippets”—as Zelikow once described Beschloss’s project in a brief review.[61] Despite Beschloss’s pledge not to eliminate anything meaningful without leaving an indication, his marked and unmarked deletions are so liberal as to seem indiscriminate.[62] Readers simply have no way of knowing (unless they listen to the conversations themselves) whether a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, or much longer portion of the conversation has been omitted. If a reader were to prepare a full transcript of any redacted conversation that appears in the Beschloss volumes, he or she would immediately discern major differences in wording, sequence, organization, completeness, interpretation, and impact.[63] Put another way, even when Beschloss gets right all the words he chooses to put down, his conventions frequently produce transcripts that beggar any definition of the word. These transcripts simply cannot be cited or quoted with reasonable confidence by scholars—any more than scholars would rely on the selected and redacted documents in a college reader.


    If the presidential recordings, as May and Zelikow once wrote, are “historical treasures in a class with the papers of the Founding Fathers,” they ought to be treated as such by historians producing books that they claim are scholarly and authoritative. These recordings are public records held in trust by the National Archives for the American people, not a private trove to be cornered and exploited without public accountability.[64]

    “We obviously are devoted,” May and Zelikow have written, “to producing the best possible transcripts.” Scholarly critiques, they claimed, “spur on such work, letting us know that peers are reviewing it with care and offering constructive criticism.”[65] We agree completely. And that is why the Miller Center, which is an academic institution receiving NHPRC funds, has a special responsibility to see that errors are corrected openly and for the record—as historians have been assured they will be. In February 2003, Philip Zelikow spoke at an major conference on presidential recordings at the Kennedy Library. He announced that the Miller Center was establishing a new website that would allow scholars to submit corrections to the Center’s printed transcripts, with full attribution to the scholars making those corrections. Scholars, he explained, “should invite further comments and criticism and…try to welcome them. … I want to announce today that as of this morning, we have put out on the Internet a new website. . . to enable scholars to download our publications of corrected transcripts . . . [thus] providing a multi-media errata sheet. . . . That’s the way that scholars work.”[66]

    Two years later, the website exists ( but there are still no corrections and no process for submitting them. Indeed, the Miller Center website currently describes as the Presidential Recordings Program’s “signature website” and as “a clearinghouse for research on the tapes.” However, it does not mention Zelikow’s 2003 public commitment to establish an online errata system—which he reiterated in March 2004.[67] Scholars working independently on presidential recordings deserve open and unambiguous information from the Miller Center about ongoing corrections and revisions.

    It is especially incumbent upon Zelikow, Naftali, May, and the Miller Center to clarify the record because four distinct versions of “authoritative” missile crisis transcripts now exist (two published by HUP: hardcover in 1997 and paperback in 1998 and two published by Norton: hardcover in 2001 and paperback in 2002)—in addition to amendments and corrections that were incorporated in various printings without any notation or explanation. Scholars working with the transcripts have to sort out this muddle in order to decide which “authoritative” version to use. The 2002 Norton paperback, for example, uses the identical title and identifies the same two editors, May and Zelikow, as the HUP 1997 hardcover and 1998 paperback. In fact, it is actually a concise version of the substantially different 2001 Norton hardcover edition in which Naftali was an editor as well.

    The need for an open and public process for making corrections at the Miller Center is all the more acute because of what business historians call “barriers to market entry.” As Joan Hoff has pointed out, the first books derived from the tapes tend to be regarded as “authoritative” or “the Bible” regardless of serious transcription or editing mistakes. “Their very publication discourages others from undertaking their own comprehensive, literal transcriptions of the presidential tapes,” Hoff warned.[68]

    For his part Beschloss, whose work was not supported by taxpayers, has less of a public obligation. He has no more or less a duty than any historian has to correct errors in his work. But if he is going to continue his trilogy, some adjustments are clearly in order, perhaps a change in his editorial conventions so that readers can clearly understand the extent to which the conversations are redacted. In fact, simply adhering to his declared editorial conventions would be a marked improvement.
    [Postscript: In February 2006, the Miller Center finally erected a feature that permitted scholars to submit suggested corrections to its published transcipts.]

Sheldon M. Stern served as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston from 1977 through 1999 and worked extensively with the Kennedy tape recordings as they were being processed for release from 1983 to 1997. Holland was a research fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs from  1998 to 2003. A dispute between the Miller Center and Holland ended in a mutually-agreeable settlement.

[1] It has been suggested repeatedly that because the Nixon recordings were voice-activated, while Kennedy and Johnson had to select which conversations were taped, the former are more likely than the latter to be candid records of a president in action. Such an assertion does not withstand close scrutiny. Even presidents have no idea beforehand what direction a conversation or meeting will take, and hours of listening to the Kennedy or Johnson recordings will persuade even the most hardened cynic that the tapes are revealing of both men, warts and all. They were not posturing for posterity. In addition, and perhaps more to the point, none of these presidents made these tape recordings with the faintest thought that they would ever be released to the public within their lifetimes, indeed, if ever at all. But for the Watergate scandal, they might well have remained as secret as they were fully intended to be.
[2] Alan Brinkley, “D.C. Confidential,” The New York Times (hereafter NYT) Book Review, 19 October 1997. Not all historians, to be sure, are so enamored of the tapes. Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has warned that “a relentless focus on the elite decision-making process tends to fetishize and decontextualize it, stripping away its relationship to larger cultural, ideological, and social currents.” Paul Mitchinson, "All the Presidents' Tapes, Lingua Franca, February 2002, p. 58. Another scholar also warned against a wholesale embrace of “unmediated” history, maintaining that historians would find transcripts less valuable than their authors’ claimed. The “new material merely buttresses prevailing interpretations. . . . In no way does it alter historians’ fundamental understanding of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies.” Bruce J. Schulman, “Taping History,” The Journal of American History (hereafter JAH), September 1998, p. 576; other views on the recordings’ limitations have been expressed by Philip Terzian, “Real History vs. Reel History,” Wall Street Journal, 20 November 1997; Robert A. Divine, “Tale of the Presidential Tapes: A Review Essay,” Political Science Quarterly, Summer 1998); and Robert Dallek, “Tales of the Tapes,” Reviews in American History (hereafter RAH), June 1998.
[3] “Tapes-based” books run the gamut from surveys (e.g., Doyle) to annotated conversations of a defined chronological period or subject (e.g., Beschloss) to narratives on a specific subject constructed on the basis of the tapes (e.g., Stern). Since 1997, the following books fall within this definition: Michael Beschloss, ed., Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997); Stanley Kutler, ed., Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York: Free Press, 1997); Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); William Doyle,Inside the Oval Office: The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (New York: Kodansha International, 1999); Michael Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001); Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, and Tim Naftali, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, The Great Crises, Volumes 1-3 (New York: Norton, 2001); John Dean, The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court (New York: Free Press, 2001); John Prados, ed., The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on a President (New York: New Press, 2003); Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell, eds., Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes (New York: Norton, 20003); Sheldon M. Stern, Averting the ‘Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Max Holland, The Kennedy Assassination Tapes: The White House Conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson Regarding the Assassination, the Warren Commission, and theAftermath (New York: Knopf, 2004). Prominent historians who have used excerpts from the presidential recordings include Robert Dallek, Joan Hoff, and Taylor Branch, as references to recorded conversations are becoming increasingly prevalent (and necessary) in new histories, biographies, and documentary series (likeForeign Relations of the United States) that cover the period from 1962 to 1973. A recent example of a book that draws from the tapes is Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Laws That Changed America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
[4] In a paper presented at the 2003 American Historical Association (AHA) meeting, Joan Hoff made the case for transcripts that reflect “the good, the bad, and the ugly. This . . . means the uhs, the uh-huhs, the hums, the yeahs, the pauses, the talk-overs, the grunts, the expletives, the ethnic slurs, and the ungrammatical, unintelligible exchanges. These cannot be glossed over as extraneous to the historical value of the tapes. . . . When these guttural expressions are left out of any presidential tape transcript a misleading impression is conveyed that these presidents and their advisers were communicating with each other precisely, decisively, and efficiently. Nothing could be further from the truth . . . ” Joan Hoff, “Comments on the Presidential Tapes Session, 3 January 2003, AHA annual meeting (hereafter AHA Comments), p. 6.
[5] Schulman, “Taping History,” JAH, September 1998, p. 577.
[6] Ibid.
[7] As Hoff has suggested, however, archivists familiar with the voices on the tapes and thoroughly grounded in the history and context of the conversations would probably produce reliable transcripts. Hoff, AHA Comments, p. 17.
[8] Archivists at the National Archives estimated the same ratio was necessary to render a reasonably accurate transcript of one hour from the Nixon recordings. Hoff, AHA Comments, pp. 11-12.
[9] Kutler utilized 201 hours of Nixon tape recordings that were released in 1996 for his 1997 book. Kutler, Abuse of Power, xiv.
[10] John Taylor, “Cutting the Nixon Tapes,” The American Spectator, March 1998, pp. 49-50. In the paperback edition of Abuse of Power, Kutler changed his editorial commentary to correct this misleading impression.
[11] Hoff examined 2,700 pages of transcripts from the first 63 hours of the Watergate (a.k.a. “abuse of power”) tapes for her book, Nixon Reconsidered (New York: Basic Books, 1994). She criticized Kutler for not correcting a single transcript after errors had been pointed out to him, such as when he “cut and pasted two conversations between Nixon and [John] Dean for the morning and evening of March 16, 1973 in an egregiously arbitrary and misleading fashion.” Hoff, AHA Comments, p. 4.
[12] Kutler message to Stern, 1 January 2005
[13] Zelikow was already steeped in the subject matter. While teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School in the mid 1990s, he had begun revising Graham Allison’s book on the crisis, Essence of Decision (1971), in collaboration with Allison. Zelikow’s research led him to the tape recordings, and eventually a second collaboration with a Harvard professor, Ernest May. Paul Mitchinson, Lingua Franca, February 2000, p. 58.
[14] Press Release, Harvard University Press Publicity Department, August 1997. The editors claimed that “our work transcribing the missile-crisis tapes took the better part of a year.” May and Zelikow, “White House Tapes: Extraordinary Treasures for Historical Research,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (hereafter Chronicle), 28 November 1997, p. B5.
[15] May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, xiii.
[16] Barry Gewen, “Profile in Caution, NYT Book Review, 19 October 1997.
[17] “The Kennedy Tapes,” The Economist, 18 October 1997.
[18] Richard Tofel, “Inside the Missile Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, 23 September 1997.
[19] Joseph Losos, “Tapes of a Superpower in a Supercrisis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 16 November 1997.
[20] Henry Graff, “Fundamental Questions Remain, New Leader, 29 December 1997.
[21] The Kennedy Tapes, HUP website,
[22] Timothy McKeown, “The Cuban Missile Crisis and Politics as Usual,” The Journal of Politics, February 2000, p. 70.
[23] Lawrence Freedman, “The Kennedy Tapes,” International Affairs, April 1998 (an “enormous effort”); Dallek, “Tales of the Tapes,” RAH, June 1998 (“skillfully edited and annotated”); Gil Troy, “JFK: Celebrity-In-Chief or Commander-In-Chief?” RAH, September 1998 (“transcripts are sickeningly accurate”); Schulman, “Taping History,”JAH, September 1998 (“through herculean efforts); Mark White, “The Kennedy Tapes,” The History Teacher, November 1998 (transcripts of “almost undecipherable tapes” are “great contribution”); Philip Brenner, “The Kennedy Tapes,” The New England Quarterly, December 1998 (editors have “painstakingly deciphered the often jumbled discussions . . . . an enormous public service . . . ”); Mark White, “Revisiting the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Diplomatic History, Summer 1999 (editors “have converted what were muffled recordings into lucid, readable transcripts. . . . sterling work . . . .”) Freedman was the sole critic of the transcripts, writing that the “tapes themselves read like a rather bad radio script,” but he apparently thought they were a true rendering of the conversations. On the fractured nature of the transcripts, see, for example, Terry Sullivan, “Confronting the Kennedy Tapes: The May-Zelikow Transcripts and the Stern Assessments,” Presidential Studies Quarterly (hereafter PSQ), September 2000, pp. 595-596.
[24] Prior to becoming head of the Miller Center, Zelikow, together with May, had argued that the federal government should underwrite complete transcription of all the presidential tapes, an effort they estimated would take a decade and cost $1 million annually. May and Zelikow, “White House Tapes,” Chronicle, p. B5.
[25] Judith Miller, “A Trove of Telltale Tapes,” NYT, 27 June 1998. This comment is terribly ironic. May and Zelikow eventually sold the film rights to their 1997 book, and it became the basis of the 2000 production, Thirteen Days. The movie turned out to be a quintessentially misleading and fictionalized Hollywood treatment of the missile crisis, in which, among other things, the existence of the taping system, U.S. subversion of Castro’s regime, and Khrushchev’s complex motives for deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba were never mentioned. Ernest May explained his association with the movie in an article, “Thirteen Days in 145 Minutes,” The American Prospect, January 2001.
[26] A typical example of an uncorrected error likely created by a court reporter occurred on pages 637-638 of The Kennedy Tapes.
    McCone: —the Chinese passed this note to the Cuban ambassador, on page 8 [?], implying that the U.S.S.R. was an untrustworthy ally . . . .
     Unidentified: Could you repeat that, John?
     McCone: Yes, sir. Peiping, the Chinese Communists, sent a note to the Cuban ambassador in Peiping implying that the U.S.S.R. was an untrustworthy ally . . . .
The second rendering of McCone's remarks is accurate. Since he was essentially repeating himself, however, careful editing should have corrected “on page 8 [?]” to read as “in Peiping.”
[27] A typical example of an audible portion that was transcribed nonsensically in The Kennedy Tapes, from page 133:
    JFK: . . . I would think you [the Soviets would] have to go on the defensive, are not going to commit nuclear weapons to be used against the United States from Cuba . . . .
Corrected rendering:
    JFK: I would think you have to go on the assumption that they’re not going to permit nuclear weapons to be used against the United States from Cuba.
[28] Stern, “What JFK Really Said,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2000, pp. 122-128.
[29] May and Zelikow, "Letter to the Editor: What JFK Really Said," Atlantic Monthly, August 2000, p. 13.
[30] “Details drive debate,” wrote May and Zelikow on page 698 of their conclusion to The Kennedy Tapes. That perceptive insight would seem to underscore the desirability of getting details right in transcribing the recordings.
[31] While describing the historical importance of recordings versus recorded minutes, the editors wrote, the “Kennedy and Johnson tape recordings catch people’s verbal emphases, hesitations, and shifts in voice that written minutes do not reflect.” May and Zelikow, “White House Tapes,” Chronicle, p. B5.
[32] Stern used a home tape player and low-tech, analog audio cassettes from the JFKL.
[33] Stern, “Source Material: The 1997 Published Transcripts of the JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes: Too Good to Be True?” PSQ, September 2000.
[34] Zelikow and May, “Source Material,” PSQ, December 2000, pp. 794, 796.
[35] “JFK’s ‘Great Crises’ in Bookstores This Month,” Spectrum, a publication of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, Fall 2001.
[36] A review in Diplomatic History took note of Stern’s criticisms of the HUP edition, but then presumed that the new, revised transcripts were bound to be the best possible. James Giglio, “Kennedy on Tape,” Diplomatic History, November 2003, p. 748.
[37] May and Zelikow, in their response to Stern’s PSQ article, had assured users of The Kennedy Tapes that the reference volumes would not render the HUP edition unusable. “We think few will find the many amendments in our retranscriptions to be very important,” they asserted in December 2000. According to the editors, they nonetheless did urge HUP to issue a more fully revised work after the Miller Center volumes were published. “But the press disappointed us by deciding that, in their judgment, the amendments and the additions were not significant or interesting enough to justify the cost.” Zelikow and May, “Source Material,” PSQ, December 2000, pp. 793, 794.
[38] On the first day of Excomm meetings, for example, JFK observed, “If you go into Cuba in the way we’re talking about, and taking out all the planes and all the rest, then you really haven’t got much of an argument against invading.” The Norton version omitted (as did the HUP edition) the single word “out.” Aside from muddling the president’s observation, it could also leave the false impression that JFK was talking about air cover for a U.S. ground invasion when he was actually referring to destroying Soviet and Cuban aircraft on the island’s airfields. Naftali and Zelikow, Great Crises, vol. 2, p. 449; May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 98.
Another example of a flawed retranscription that changed the speakers’ meaning can be found in the rendition of an exchange from Saturday, October 27, easily the pivotal day of the entire crisis. From pages 492 and 493 of Great Crises, volume three, edited by Zelikow and May:
    McNamara: I would say only that we ought to keep some kind of pressure on tonight and tomorrow night that indicates we’re firm. Now if we call off these air strikes tonight, I think that settles that—
     JFK: I [unclear] want to do that, I think—
This rendition (similar to the one on page 612 of the HUP edition) should have been recognized as making no sense because there were no air strikes scheduled for Saturday night. McNamara was actually recommending that the Pentagon call up 24 Air Force reserve squadrons.
    McNamara: I would say only that we ought to keep some kind of pressure on tonight and tomorrow night that indicates we’re firm. Now if we call up these air squadrons tonight, I think that settles that.
     JFK: That’s right. We’re gonna do that, aren’t we?
[39] For additional examples of errors, see Stern, “The JFK Tapes: Round Two,” RAH, December 2002, pp. 680-688, and “The Published Cuban Missile Crisis Transcripts: Rounds One, Two and Beyond,” in Averting the ‘Final Failure,’ pp. 427-440.
The Miller Center’s process for producing transcripts, as distinguished from the May-Zelikow methodology, was described in detail in Zelikow and May, “Source Material,”PSQ, December 2000, pp. 795-796. “First, the work is done by trained professional historians who have done deep research on the period covered by the tapes and on some of the central themes of the meetings and conversations. . . . Second, each volume uses the team method. . . . Usually one or two scholars painstakingly produces a primary draft. . . .Two or more scholars then carefully go over that transcript, individually or sometimes two listening at the same time. . . . In the case of often-difficult meeting tapes, like the Kennedy recordings, every transcript has benefited from at least four listeners. The volume editors remain accountable for checking the quality and accuracy of all the work in their volume, knitting together the whole. All of this work is then reviewed by the general editors [Zelikow and May]. . . . Third, we use the best technology that the project can afford.”
[40] May and Zelikow, Kennedy Tapes, p. xiii.
[41] Ibid., pp. xiii-xiv.
[42] See also footnote 4.
[43] The Miller Center volumes explicitly state that its Presidential Recordings Program was undertaken “on the premise that these recordings will remain important historical sources for centuries to come.” Zelikow and May, Great Crises, p. xiii.
[44] Hoff, AHA Comments, p. 7.
[45] Spectrum, Fall 2001.
[46] Johnson’s original instructions were that the tapes would be opened no sooner than 2023, fifty years after his death.
[47] Beschloss, Taking Charge, p. 551. The fact that the Johnson recordings are played weekly on C-SPAN is good evidence that the audibility of these tapes is often excellent—despite lingering issues of punctuation.
[48] In addition, Taking Charge included several assassination-related conversations from late 1966 and early 1967.
[49] Beschloss, Taking Charge, p. 551; Reaching for Glory, pp. 429-430. The description in Reaching for Glory is only slightly different.
[50] Beschloss, Taking Charge, p. 551.
[51] Beschloss does not explain who else transcribed the balance of the conversations, or what percentage was represented by “most,” an issue also raised by Joan Hoff in her AHA Comments, p. 4. In Reaching for Glory, Beschloss described his methodology slightly differently. “Some of the tapes I have transcribed from scratch. For others I have started with rough transcripts created by LBJ’s secretaries or by a professional transcriber and listened repeatedly to the tapes, making substantial corrections, adding emphasis, punctuation, and transliteration of words.” Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, p. 431.
[52] Beschloss, Taking Charge, pp. 551-552.
[53] Brinkley, “D.C. Confidential,” NYT Book Review, 19 October 1997 (“superbly edited and annotated”); Michiko Kakutani, “Overhearing History: Johnson’s Secret Tapes,”NYT, 10 October 1997 (“expertly selected, edited, and footnoted”).
[54] Editorial, “LBJ, From the Inside,” NYT, 11 October 1997. Newsweek also published excerpts of Beschloss’s transcripts, and ABC News devoted several Nightline shows to readings of the Johnson (and Nixon) tapes, with commentary by Beschloss and other historians.
[55] Keith Kyle, “Taking Charge,” International Affairs, April 1999, p. 421; Dallek, “Tales of the Tapes,” RAH, p. 335. In a review of Beschloss’s second volume for Diplomatic History, John Prados chided the author for not telling the reader “much about his criteria for inclusion or exclusion” of a conversation. But questions about the nature of the transcripts themselves were not raised. Prados, “Looking for the Real Lyndon,”Diplomatic History, November 2003, pp. 752, 755-756.
[56] Schulman, “Taping History,” JAH, p. 574.
[57] For some examples of meaningful mistakes in Beschloss’s transcriptions and/or presentation of the conversations, see Holland, Kennedy Assassination Tapes, pp. 60, 61, 95, 240, 248, 251.
[58] One British reviewer specifically faulted Beschloss for the lack of context. Anthony Howard, “He Had It Taped,” Sunday Times ( London), 5 April 1998.
[59] By contrast, there was some criticism of Beschloss’s second volume for his interpretation of Johnson’s conversations on Vietnam. Jack Valenti, “LBJ’s Unwinnable War,” Washington Post, 28 November 2001, and in a rejoinder, Beschloss, “LBJ’s Secret War,” Washington Post, 1 December 2001. But again, the transcripts themselves were presumed to be above reproach. Michiko Kakutani, “Johnson Tapes Show a Man Full of Doubt, Even as Victor,” NYT, 13 November 2001 (“expertly edited and annotated”).
[60] Holland, “Tapes: Hearing a Wrong Leaning, er, Meaning,” Los Angeles Times, 1 August 1999. On 18 September 1964, the day the Warren Commission met to deliberate for the last time, Senator Richard Russell had a conversation with President Johnson. When the subject of the Commission arose, Russell said, “I tried my best to get in a dis-sent, but they’d come ‘round and trade me out of it by givin’ me a little old thread of it.” Russell was explaining that the other commissioners massaged the language until Russell had no grounds for a published dissent. In Beschloss’s rendition, Russell said, “I tried my best to get in a dis-sent, but they’d come ‘round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old threat.” The implication created is that pressure was exerted on Russell and that he signed the unanimous report under duress, which was quite untrue.
This error was striking for two reasons. First, it led Beschloss to misrepresent Russell’s perspective on the assassination, if not the Warren Report itself. And second, it was an inexplicable error to make, if only because had Earl Warren (or anyone else on the Commission) even vaguely threatened Russell, all hell would have broken loose.
In the revised “Editor’s Note” in Reaching for Glory, Beschloss pledged to correct errors in future printings of his Johnson volumes. Although there have not been, to the authors’ knowledge, subsequent printings of Taking Charge, Beschloss could have easily used the publication of Reaching for Glory in 2001 to correct this mistake.
[61] Zelikow, “Recent Books,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002.
[62] The editorial conventions were also not applied consistently, i.e., sometimes larger deletions were not marked off and/or ellipses not employed where they should have been in theory.
[63] See the comparison between the Holland and Beschloss treatments of a 22 November 1963 conversation between Johnson and Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg in Stern,“Presidential Tapes and Historical Interpretations,” RAH, December 2004, pp. 586-589.
[64] May and Zelikow, “White House Tapes,” Chronicle, p. B5.
[65] Zelikow and May, “Source Material,” PSQ, December 2000, p. 793.
[66] Zelikow presentation at the Presidential Tapes Conference, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, 16-17 February 2003.
[67] “Response of Philip Zelikow,” to Stern, “Errors Still Afflict the Transcripts of the Kennedy Tape Recordings,” History News Network, 15 March 2004.
[68] Hoff, AHA Comments, p. 9.
This essay first appeared on History News Network, 21 February 2005
© 2007 by Sheldon M. Stern and Max Holland