Testimony of Phillip Melanson

Hearing of 3/24/95 -- Boston, Massachusetts
I'd like to take this moment to call our first witness to testify today, Mr. Philip H. Melanson.

Mr. Melanson is the author of Spy Saga: Lee Harvey Oswald and U.S. Intelligence, which was published in 1990, and we appreciate, Mr. Melanson, your willingness to testify and provide us information today about what records we should be seeking.

MR. MELANSON: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Let me say that I am impressed that full disclosure is not only the board's mandate but the spirit with which it's approaching its work, and I think what I'm going to try to do is make a few suggestions about achieving that goal, given that there are some problems and impediments.

The first point I would urge is that your definition of assassination-related records include all U.S. Government files on Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the assassination.

As the board is aware, I'm sure, and much of the public, the enduring controversy of who Oswald really was, what he was, is an inherent part of the historical truth of this case. It's also been an area that's been subject to governmental secrecy over the decades and to deception. So, it's crucial that these be released as part of the record.

Oswald, as you know, is the most complex alleged or real political assassin in American history. Let me refresh our memories about that.

This is a young man who studied the Russian language in the Marine Corps, subscribed to Pravda, had proximity to a U-2 spy plane, defected, or fake defected, to Russia, came back, and had involvements with groups that looked both pro- and anti-Castro, and corresponded with or joined some of the most heavily-targeted domestic political groups of the era.

So, the files pre-assassination on Oswald are very rich, and just as the Warren Commission created assassination records out of Oswald's school transcripts, psychiatrist reports, Marine Corps disciplinary records, those of us who have a different view of Oswald want the full record of what our government agencies knew about him to be released.

And those agencies, let me say, a list of agencies that definitely have or should have had, given their mission, pre-assassination files on Oswald, would include the Marine Corps, the State Department, selective service, FBI, CIA, probably National Security Agency, and Army and Navy intelligence.

And I would also urge that as part of this outreach in pre-assassination Oswald, that the files of the groups that he joined or corresponded with be looked at carefully, as well, because these were groups, as I said, that were heavily targeted by U.S. intelligence, and the key to how they treated or thought of Oswald may lie in those files -- the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party, and the infamous American Civil Liberties Union.

I also urge the board to focus its disclosure spotlight on some of those agencies that have remained relatively in the shadows.

We're all aware of FBI and CIA and Secret Service, but many of us in the research community would like to see special attention paid to the National Security Agency and to Army intelligence, which has a very poor history of responsiveness, to be charitable, in this case, which indications are has material presently on Oswald, claimed that it destroyed routinely a file on Oswald.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is another agency.

So, these are things that need to be looked at and will shed light on who Oswald was.

Let me get to the part of my suggestions that relate to implementation, and if I am already reinforcing what the board is already thinking, so be it, because some of Chairman Tunheim's comments this morning parallel my suggestions.

I emphasize that the board should develop its own expertise about the files, and I can't stress that enough.

I think it's commendable that you're talking with assassination researchers who understand the case, many of whom are also expert on the files, but I also point out that there are experts who know very little or nothing about the Kennedy assassination who are exceedingly expert on the convoluted filing indices of FBI and CIA, and I hope you will draw upon these people at every stage.

Let me give you my own parallel example from another case.

As the director of the Robert Kennedy assassination archives at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, when we began to pursue the FBI files on the Robert Kennedy case, the Freedom of Information Act request was drafted in concert with authors who had written on the FBI, ex-agents, scholars knowledgeable in the field, and it was a six-page letter that I was the signatory to, much of the jargon of which I couldn't understand, but it produced 32,000 pages of records where previously similar requests not so detailed, not so expert, had produced one-tenth of that volume, and I think that's proof that, if you are able to tell the agencies where to look, what to look for, you're going to increase the yield tremendously.

I also urge -- and I think the chairman spoke to the fact that this is occurring. There is no replacement for the expertise of those who worked on the files contemporaneously, the people who generated them, who use them, who knew what they are about.

Present records custodians may not have that knowledge, and this is important not only in broadening the search but also, frankly, in overcoming the hide-and-seek games, as I call them, that some intelligence agencies play some of the time.

And I would refer to the examples that -- in the Robert Kennedy case, for example, if it hadn't been for the affidavit of a Los Angeles police officer, retired, we would not have known about the super-secret department file on the case that was stuck out at L.A. airport and not in the downtown files.

And similar things have happened in other cases, agents who work, know the convoluted filing system and where things might be hidden, as well as where they might be found. Your experts, outside experts, and your own expertise and staff, I don't mean to discount staff expertise clearly.

The other payoff here is tracing documents from documents and files from files, a very important activity that really requires a detailed knowledge of cryptographs and notations and filing numbers, and also what I call the mirror-image principle, that you will find some state and local agencies who have mandates that cause them to be in touch with Federal agencies and who will have Federal paper in their files that will lead to Federal agency files.

The example I would talk about here is the Dallas police criminal intelligence unit.

Both pre- and post-assassination, that unit within the police department definitely should have or would have had contact with the Central Intelligence Agency, with Army intelligence, with other agencies, and therefore, their files provide a good clue, in mirror-image fashion, to what the Federal agencies might hold.

I was very pleased to hear Chairman Tunheim talk this morning about the search for private records and the broadening of the search.

I applaud that tremendously, and I won't belabor it except to say that the history of disclosure in all three of the assassination cases -- Dr. King, Senator Kennedy, President Kennedy -- shows us time and time again that some of the most important materials, for varieties of reasons, are held in private hands or are held in public venues beyond the record custodian's purview, and need I remind us that, for example, the acoustical tape so crucial to the House Assassinations Committee work was brought to them from the home of a retired Dallas intelligence officer.

My favorite example in this venue is, when we were getting the District Attorney's files released in the Robert Kennedy case, in a branch office distant from downtown Los Angeles, an employee found a box in a storage closet marked "Sirhan Sirhan case" and sent it downtown, because he had heard on television that we were getting the files disclosed, and that's one of the things that I think is so valuable about your public hearings, your media contacts, and your taking this on the road, so to speak, because it alerts people to what's going on.

In that box happened to be the official filmed re-enactments of Robert Kennedy's murder done by the officials in 1968, an incredible trove of audiotapes of witness interviews, and so, it's very important to keep up that notion of outreach to not only private individuals and collections but things that may be sort of lost in the closets.

I also urge the board -- I know it's not an investigative body, I know it's got limited or scarce resources, but when you're talking to the agencies who hold these files, ask them the questions not only about what they can give you now but about what they should have been giving over the decades and what they should have preserved that they didn't preserve.

We're all about public disclosure, but also, in a certain sense, even though it's not your mission, you're holding these agencies accountable just by the questions you ask them and by your asking them to release files, and over the decades there has been an inexcusable refusal of the public right to know, an unaccountability of certain materials, and I urge you to ask.

Ask the CIA, when you're talking to them, about that mysterious photo of Oswald that everybody has been chasing that's so crucial.

If it's really Oswald in Mexico City, it makes the Warren Commission supporters very happy. If it's an Oswald imposter, it's a window onto conspiracy. Where did it go when it left the private safe of the Mexico City station chief?

And please ask all these Federal agencies, just to please me if you would, cathartically, does anybody have any snippet of an audiotape recording of the 48 hours of interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald when he was in custody and was talked to by revolving-door interviewers from state, local, Federal agencies too numerous to mention, and yet, we have no preserved record of that moment at which the alleged assassin of our President, who had ties to Cuba and ties to Russia, was being interrogated at the time of our peak national crisis.

So, I know you can't chase everything that's missing, but I urge you to select a few items and try to hold these agencies responsible.

My last point is to encourage you to reverse what has been the trend in disclosure in the last several decades for whatever disclosure we have had.

Agencies have taken the position, largely, that assassination-related records should be withheld if they relate to other secrets, ongoing operations, or intelligence sources and methods.

I am asking the board to disentangle these things, that when there are records held by the CIA or the FBI that are clearly assassination-related, do not accept the response that current operations preclude their release. They can and should be disentangled, and let me give you my example of that.

I and other researchers have focused on this anti-Castro Cuban group in Dallas, ALPHA-66, and without going into theory, which I know is not the Commission's bailiwick, let me just say about this group that it's a terrorist group created by the CIA.

It detested President Kennedy, by its own statements. It was in Dallas. It was illegally well-armed. CIA case officers were meeting with the meetings there. The CIA failed to report this group to the Secret Service, as protective procedure required.

The head of this group was mistaken for Lee Harvey Oswald in two incidents that we reported, one by the FBI, one by the Dallas police.

The point is that -- I don't need to go further to say that this is the subject of suspicion, if not intrigue.

The Rockefeller Commission asked the agency to respond about this, and their response was, in part, that they couldn't find such a book in the 1963 Dallas telephone book.

Their second response was that the street on which the group held its meetings could not be found in a Dallas street map, but that's sort of like saying that Beacon Street outside, you know, can't be found in Boston.

My point is that the agency has been terribly unresponsive to previous official investigations and that this is an area of suspicion.

So, ALPHA-66 files in Dallas should be released. The problem that we all face is as follows.

ALPHA-66 is still active, attempted an assassination of Castro, by their own admission, in 1983, and still exists in Miami, perhaps with agency sponsorship.

The fact that they are current and that their operations are current should not preclude the 1963 records from being released.

And finally, I think there is an extraordinary opportunity here that I know the board is aware of.

Not only is it your daunting task to help repair 30 years of distrust and governmental secrecy that have so eroded our democratic culture, but also, it's an extraordinary opportunity for the public right to know.

The idea that, for the first time, citizens will be the judge of the balance between governmental secrecy and what we know, rather than the agencies themselves or the courts, I think is extraordinary, and I just urge you that, at every step along the way -- and I think you're doing this -- consult with those rational, responsible, sober experts in all fields who can help you do your job better and do it in a more timely fashion, because you're aware and I'm aware the clock is running, and the work has to be done, and I thank you very much for allowing me to comment this morning.

CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: Thank you very much, Mr. Melanson.

Questions, board members? Go ahead.

DR. JOYCE: Mr. Melanson, in the course of your own research, have you made Freedom of Information requests of some of the agencies you've mentioned this morning, especially the CIA and the NSA, which you regarded as unresponsive, and whether, in the course of your work, in making those requests, if you have any leads that you would like to share with the board in assisting our effort to discover more documents.

MR. MELANSON: Yes, I would.

I have made Freedom of Information Act requests in the Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King assassination and President Kennedy's assassination to NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and Army intelligence, and what I would like to do is to prepare a memorandum with insights from those experiences that might be useful to the board and submit that to you, if that's your pleasure.

CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: We would very much appreciate that.

DR. HALL: I'd like, Mr. Chairman, to echo that question raised by my colleague and put it in a somewhat different way.

One of the interesting parts of your testimony relates to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the role of the CIA relative to the surveillance of Dr. King, as well as military intelligence.

You suggest that there are documents relating to the assassination of Dr. King filed in the western hemisphere division.

My question to you is twofold.

One, do you have comparable leads or suggestions for us relative to the assassination of the President beyond the materials associated with the 112th at Fort Sam Houston, question number one, and question number two, do you have or would you suggest any names to us of individuals coming out of the military intelligence operation whose personnel files and/or other military records may be of value to us to search?

MR. MELANSON: Yes. That's not something I'm prepared to do this morning, but in fact, I do have queues to other files, and I would like to prepare a list of individuals that relate to those files that I could submit to the board.

I don't have any direct experience in requesting like 112th material from Army intelligence, but I do have other requests that would be useful.

DR. HALL: I do think, if there are names of individuals associated with military intelligence, specifically the Army, it would be of great value to the board, since names can provide one route by which to begin to hunt.

MR. MELANSON: Absolutely.

DR. HALL: Thank you.

DR. NELSON: Have you had the opportunity or do you know of people who have had the opportunity to look at what the CIA and the FBI have released in the archives since you began your research, and have you found that a great deal of useful information is there and peripheral information is there? How do you assess that information that's come out so far?

MR. MELANSON: Come out so far? I think it's a fascinating mix of the useless and the absolutely essential, and that's what this is all about.

For all of the material on Oswald that's been released that tells us so very little about him or about government's relationship with him, the recent release indicated very clearly that, in fact, Oswald was debriefed on his way back from the Soviet Union, contrary to decades of denial of that event by the agency, when it made so much sense to researchers that it had to have occurred, is the kind of thing that helps fill in the picture and fill in the puzzle very clearly.

I also think that the material that you get to the public will be the most interesting, by definition.

What has been released has been the minimalist definition of what the agencies wanted to release or what we knew to pursue, and I think our feeling in the research community is that the really good stuff, the best of the stuff, is there and is forthcoming, and while not denying that what's been released so far has been crucial, and I say Spy Saga could not have been written without these files, but I'm looking forward to your releases making it look like a Cliff Notes version of its thesis, and I think that's what will happen.

CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: You hit on a topic earlier which I think is a very important topic.

Obviously, we are working with people within agencies today who know about the agencies and their files and their records today, but perhaps they are not aware of filing systems of 30 years ago or 25 years ago or task forces or compartments or other entities within agencies.

You may not have thoughts to provide us today, but if you have any thoughts on that issue, particularly how the CIA and perhaps other agencies were organized back during this era, we'd certainly appreciate that.

I think that will shed great light on who we should be looking for and where we should be looking for it.

MR. MELANSON: Great. I'd be very happy to do that.

CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: Any further questions?

DR. JOYCE: One thing.


DR. JOYCE: You also mentioned in your testimony the importance of records in private hands, and again, if you have leads on them, if you'd be willing to share them with us, as well, that would be most helpful.

MR. MELANSON: Okay. I will confess that I don't have any leads in the JFK case to what's been in private hands. I have examples from the other two cases, but I'm sure that there are researchers who do, and should be kept open.

DR. JOYCE: Thank you.

CHAIRMAN TUNHEIM: Thank you very much, Mr. Melanson. We appreciate your sharing your expertise with us today.

Search Go to testimony Go to Fair Play Releases E-mail ARRB Go to home page ARRB Info Top of ARRB page