the January-February 2000 issue (Vol. 7 No. 2)
Interview with Richard Sprague
By John Williams
WILLIAMS: Before you ever got appointed to the Committee at all, before it
was ever in anybody’s mind, is there something you can say about your own
reaction to the assassination, and whether, and to what extent it got any
interest on your part, or whether it hit you in any way?
SPRAGUE: Well, let me put it this way, probably the best way to respond to
your question. I had been, at the time of the assassination, a District Attorney
in Philadelphia, had been a prosecutor of murder cases. In fact the day that
the assassination of President Kennedy was announced, I was going into a
courtroom for the sentencing of somebody I had prosecuted for first-degree
murder, who was to get the death penalty, and that’s the occasion for hearing
about the assassination.
And obviously, I was as horror-struck, as I’m sure everyone else was. And I
went through a period of time where I watched on TV the funeral, and I was
watching TV and saw the assassination by Ruby of Oswald. I must say that when
the assassination occurred, my immediate reaction was that the President of the
United States is not assassinated by one person. There has to be a group of some
sort involved in the assassination.
My initial reaction of thinking had been, "I wonder what foreign
government was behind this?" I also recall reacting and felt that since
Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General of the United States, that because of
his own relationship as brother of the President, that Robert Kennedy would
leave no stone unturned in trying to get to the bottom of who was behind the
assassination. And at the time that Oswald was killed by Ruby, I remember the
thought flickering through my mind, whether Oswald was killed in order to keep
his mouth shut. That generally was my thinking back then.
The Warren Commission was appointed and came out with the conclusion that
Oswald was the lone gunman, and that there was no conspiracy. A person who
worked with me in the DA’s office, Arlen Specter, had been a junior lawyer
working with the Warren Commission. And I remember thinking when the report came
out, you know, I’d be interested in reading it, and finding out what the
factual determinations were, how solid they were. But I never got around to
reading the report.
And I guess in the course of time, I kind of accepted that report. I think
principally, on the grounds that as a prosecutor, I found it very hard to
believe that if there was a cover-up, that there could be so many disparate
individuals in high positions of our government that would be involved in a
cover-up. And it would seem to me that it would come asunder in some manner, so
I kind of just accepted it.
Arlen Specter, as you know, helped develop, if not was the author, of the
single-bullet theory. And I was aware of the controversy that existed about that
theory, and the people who suggested that it could not really be; or the people
who said that if you really looked at the Zapruder film, a number of people who
thought there was shooting from the front, and there were some people on the
knoll off to the front. I was aware of all that. I was aware that President
Johnson was convinced that there was a conspiracy.
So I had all that general knowledge. However, having said that, while I
worked with Arlen Specter—I was the first assistant with Arlen the DA in
Philadelphia for a full eight years, my having been in the DA’s office before
and after, and being really Arlen’s right-hand man, I never spoke to him about
the Warren Commission work, or what he did there, or his theory. I was involved
in my own work, and I guess it is a long way around to respond. I was aware of
everything. But I just accepted the Warren Commission report.
And when I would hear from time to time that there were books, Mark Lane’s
book, other books saying it was not true, I noted it with passing interest, but
nothing beyond. You know, as today, I have a general interest in why Clinton
felt the need to bomb Iraq on the night before an impeachment vote, that these
were acts of war, since there was not a need to bomb. And there are questions
that pop up in my mind. But am I spending my time really studying it, analyzing
it? The answer is no.
That is really the framework of where I was before I got involved with the
House Assassinations Committee, not having really read—actually, I shouldn’t
use the word "not having really read"—not having read anything pro
or con on the matter, not having engaged really in discussions about it. At my
family table, I believe very much in discussions of current events, but never
seemed to get into a discussion about the facts of the Kennedy assassination,
although I had friends sometimes pooh-pooh that it was done by a single person.
WILLIAMS: Now, where did that change in terms of your—I don’t suppose the
reasoning so much, but then someone approached you or something happened to
change that in terms of...
SPRAGUE: Well, here is what I recall. I did become aware that there seemed to
be more questions being stated publicly concerning the findings of whether there
were errors in the Warren Commission, and something being taken for granted. I
think Mark Lane’s book was being given greater circulation, Rush to Judgment
was given greater prominence at that time, and attacks on the Warren Commission.
But I think a matter that came up, at least, I believe, in the public eye, and
it’s certainly something that I became aware of, Schweiker’s Intelligence
Committee came up with intelligence concerning Castro, which then started to
raise more questions.
That seemed to start, at least as I recall, to give greater prominence to
questions being raised about the validity of the Warren Commission Report. And
then the next thing that sort of stands out in my mind, prior to the election of
Carter as President of the United States, the House of Representatives
authorized in a resolution, the creation of a Select Committee to investigate
the assassination of Martin Luther King and President Kennedy. And that pretty
much was the stage. And all of these things I noted with interest, not again,
enough of an interest to do any digging, do any reading, but just aware of this
because I do believe in staying up to date.
WILLIAMS: Kind of like in with the daily news.
SPRAGUE: That’s right. Where are they going with it? And then at some point
in time, I recall getting a call from, I think it was Mark Lane, who I didn’t
know, had never spoken to. And Mark Lane told me that my name was being
considered, or was going to be submitted to the House Select Committee, if I was
interested. And I am not sure if he said that Chairman Downing had asked him to
call me or if he was to submit names to Chairman Downing, but I was asked if it
would be something that I might consider.
And I have to back up one second here, just so maybe you understand me a
little better. Even though I was in public service as a DA, a prosecutor for
many, many years, when requests had come to me to take other public matters, if
it was something that interested me, I would take it. For example, the
assassination of Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter, and then I was
contacted and asked would I take an additional assignment, to handle that
investigation for the people, I took it.
When I was asked by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to undertake an
investigation against one of the justices in the Supreme Court, I took it. I was
asked by a District Attorney of another county to undertake an investigation, I
did it. So that I have—if it involved matters of interest to me, I was always
willing to take additional matters. So when I was asked about this, I said
"Yes, I would be interested if a number of conditions were met."
When I say that was my response, I may have first said I want to think about
it, I’ll get back to you. But I then spoke to Mark Lane, who I knew had spoke
directly to Downing. (Rep. Tom Downing was the first chairman of the House
Select Committee on Assassinations, Eds.) But I ended up speaking to Downing.
And I thought it over, said that I would be willing to take it on certain
conditions. The conditions were that I did not want this to be a
political-oriented investigation. That as far as I could see in legislative
investigations, the problems with them were that they were very politically
And I really wondered, is the legislature a proper vehicle for investigation
of a murder? Or is that something that you leave for a grand jury, or the
executive branch? And I had that concern, which I expressed. And I said that one
of my conditions would be, I do not want any of this nonsense of a majority
counsel representing the majority party, and a minority counsel representing the
minority party. I wanted it clear that I was the General Counsel, there was no
majority or minority. I was Counsel for the entire Committee. I did not want
there to be a diffusion of responsibility between a Director administratively,
and Counsel. I wanted to be, in effect, the whole show. I would take it if I was
the Director, Executive Director over everyone in the title, and General
WILLIAMS: Had there been any talk of the other arrangement?
SPRAGUE: There had been no discussion. I just laid it down what my
requirements would be.
WILLIAMS: What your conditions were.
SPRAGUE: And my view was, if they didn’t want to accept it, fine. I had
other things to do with my life. The second condition was that—and again, it
was really an off-shoot from the first—I was aware of the problems in this
majority/minority that arise from the selection of hiring of personnel. And I
wanted it clear that all hiring, from the file clerks to the lawyers to
everybody, would be by me. There was to be no Congressman, nobody else, that had
one iota of a voice in the hiring.
I didn’t mind if people wanted to suggest to me look at X, Y or Z. But the
determination was to be mine. And secondly, that I had the absolute right to
fire. That it was not dependent on a vote by anybody—and this included the
chairman—had no authority of hiring or firing. It was mine.
WILLIAMS: You wanted the power to put together a staff that you could work
together and not be torn apart by political complications.
SPRAGUE: Right, and that would have no loyalty to any members of Congress,
but that would just be focused, really, in terms of what I wanted done, and
recognizing that the power lay with me, that they didn’t have to play up to
any Congressman, anybody. That was a second condition.
A third condition was that there had to be a provision for an ample budget to
do the kind of investigation that I wanted done. And that I needed start-up
money to at least be able to start recruiting, with the idea of then examining
what I thought needed to be done to then be able to submit a budget. It seems to
me there was a fourth condition, which right now—oh, yes, that was it. And I
wanted it agreed that there would not be any time limitation.
I did not want to be told "You gotta wrap this up in 60 to 90
days." It think time limitations are a terrible, terrible restriction in
any ability to do a proper investigative job, as Senator Thompson and his recent
effort in investigating campaign money, limitations that he had agreed to, which
he shouldn’t have.
I also—those were basically my conditions. There may have been another one,
and if so it’ll come back to me as we go along. I also, though, made it clear
that in my recruiting of staff, I was not going to hire members of FBI or the
CIA or federal agencies either, because to do a thorough investigation, those
agencies’ actions would be part of the investigation. And I did not want
anyone that would have any conflict of interest, any view of being protective of
WILLIAMS: Had you stated that—I’m curious to know—had you stated that
right up front to Downing?
SPRAGUE: Yes. Yes. And I also made clear the way in which I saw, I wanted it
understood from the beginning that I intended to proceed with the investigation,
that I was going to treat this as though it was a murder case, and that I
intended to work anew. I wasn’t bound by whatever there had been determined by
anybody. I was going to treat this from the word "go" as a murder
case, examine all the circumstances of the murder, the findings, retain our own
experts on both murders. Remember, I was dealing with King as well as Kennedy.
WILLIAMS: That sounds like a fifth condition.
SPRAGUE: Well, it could be, maybe that was it. And that I was going to—at
the same time that I was treating this as—each of these as a murder case and
track them through, I was also, because I felt that it was very important to the
American public that we examine with an open mind all that had been published of
Mark Lane’s theory, Weisberg’s theory, whoever theories, the Warren
Commission’s conclusions. And that we ultimately not only publish the results
of our own investigation, but that we lay out to the American public the
examination of what each and every supporter or critic has said and what was in
support of it and what were the defects of it.
As best as I can recall, that was what I put forth. I was welcomed with both
arms around me, told that my conditions had been agreed to—oh, one last
condition. I was going to do this as a public service, I was not to get paid for
it. I had my own private income, I was going to be able to continue with that,
that I would give this full-time.
SPRAGUE: For example, I was teaching as well at Temple Law School, and I
enjoyed mixing with the youngsters in classes. Kicking back ideas keeps you
fresh, keeps you on your toes, and I did that each Friday evening, and I wanted
to be able to continue with that. That was it, and those conditions were agreed
WILLIAMS: Now when you say that, can you recall Downing’s response at all?
SPRAGUE: Downing’s response was he was enthusiastic about it. I had never
met Downing. I came down to Washington, I met with Downing. I thought very
highly of him. He seemed to be absolutely—and I do believe Downing was
absolutely supportive of that approach. Downing took me around to meet other
members of the Committee. And I would say that the initial response and reaction
by the Committee members was enthusiastic. And as a matter of fact, while they
ended up only criticizing me, the fact the New York Times wrote an editorial
about what a great appointment this was, treated me as a white knight who would
do this as a thorough, seasoned investigator, prosecutor, without politics being
involved. So that’s I guess the answer to your question.
WILLIAMS: Yes. Okay, so then after seeing Downing—I am going to turn—look
back for a moment. Was there any kind of process that went through your mind in
terms of your own qualifications? Did you do any kind of thinking about that in
terms of how you would fit for this position? Because that’s a big
undertaking. Or had you figured by that time, this is something I am ready for
without much real…?
SPRAGUE: Maybe it was a fault of mine. I never had much qualms about my
ability to undertake, really, whatever I decide to undertake. And I never had
any question about my ability to do this, provided the commitments to me were
stuck to. Now I must tell, and maybe we’ll get into it in subsequent
questions. Of course, one of my assumptions was that there was really a
commitment by the Congress of the United States, when the resolution created
this Committee, to really have an investigation of the two assassinations, and
that the Congress of the United States would be whole-heartedly behind it and
that they would give you the proper funding.
Now if you say to me today, "Well, Dick did you go and speak to anyone
higher than Downing, to see where was the Congress of the United States, where
was Tip O’Neill, the Speaker of the House?" Where was majority leader,
who became speaker, Jim Wright in all of this? The answer is "No," I
didn’t have any contacts with them until after I was down there, which I can
SPRAGUE: But the assumption was what I just said, and as I went along I
WILLIAMS: Yes. As far as you were concerned at that time, Downing knew what
he was talking about. And as far as you felt here, the reception you got from
the Committee members represented the commitment Congress was making to you. And
that seemed solid at the time.
WILLIAMS: Really no reason to question it.
SPRAGUE: That’s right. The only thing that first happened that took me back
a little bit after I accepted it, I learned that Downing was not going to run
for re-election. And that therefore, his term as Chairman was going to end upon
his term of office being over. And then the question arose, who is going to be
the next Chairman? I had had enough—by the time I really learned of that, I
had had enough contacts with the Committee, and forgive me if I mistake names of
the members of the Committee, you can probably help me. I think there was
somebody named Preyer [Richardson Preyer was a representative from North
Carolina. Ed. Note] Preyer, that was it, who impressed me very much. Preyer was
a very impressive person, and I really hoped that he would become Chairman in
place of Downing. I did learn, I think from Downing, that one of the people who
had been somewhat of a problem for him was Gonzales. And lo and behold, Gonzales
was going to then become the Chairman in place of Downing, which I can get to as
we go along. [Henry Gonzalez was a representative from Texas. Ed. Note]
I guess the bottom line of all of this is, there were the high hopes, the
understandings, agreement that I just told you. When I got to Washington, I
learned that the leadership of the Democratic Party was not as much in support
of this investigation as I had kind of assumed. For example, I learned that
prior to the  Carter election, the Black Caucus had been formed, in the
House of Representatives, and that the Black Caucus had very much wanted an
investigation into the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Until this time, the Congress had refused all the push to get a reopening of
the Kennedy investigation. And I had always been curious, how come they all of a
sudden agreed to King and Kennedy? What I learned when I got to Washington was
that when the Black Caucus had been formed and with the Carter election coming
up, the Democratic leadership wanted the Black Caucus to feel they had real
input, real power with the Democratic organization. And since the Black Caucus
wanted an investigation into King, they wanted to give the Black Caucus what
But they felt from a country standpoint, they could not quite have an
investigation of King without coupling it with Kennedy. And that was really the
political motivation for at least forming the Committee prior to the Carter
election, so that as a result there wasn’t quite the enamorment with the idea
of an investigation. It was created for political purposes. Secondly, I was at a
really early stage—I can’t remember quite when—was advised that –Richard
Helms, former Director of the CIA and later ambassador to Iran, had sent word
back indirectly that the investigation as to the Kennedy assassination really
ought not to proceed, and that the Kennedy family really could find it
WILLIAMS: Do you remember how you became aware of that, and through what
SPRAGUE: No, I’ve tried to rack my brain since, but somehow I was made
aware of that. For example, you asked me how I became aware of the motivation of
the situation. There were so many people who were giving me information, I just
can’t tell you.
WILLIAMS: Things were happening fast.
SPRAGUE: Although as I go along, I do know that Tip O’Neill ended up asking
me to do something which I do think was counterproductive to the success, at
least toward the investigation while I was there. And I do know, there is no
secret about this, I remember—and I am sort of jumping ahead of myself here.
JOHN : Sure.
SPRAGUE: But it maybe fits in. But at a certain point in time, I mean we were
in the press. I mean, if I sneezed, it became a headline in the press, which we
can get get. Everything I did was a big story. And Tip and Jim Wright called one
day saying, "We’d like to get an update of where we are in this
investigation." And I remember coming over with the two deputies there,
headed to Wright’s offices, and I think we had a luncheon. My deputies were
Bob Tanenbaum of the Kennedy part—and I can get into how I organized
this—and Bob Lehner for the King investigation.
We went over and sat down with Wright. And he struck me as somebody with an
attention span of all of ten seconds. And Wright said, you know, "Tell me
where you are in the investigation," and all of a sudden he interrupts me
and says, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. What are you telling that and that
for?" He said, "You haven’t gotten to Sirhan, Sirhan." And I
looked at him, "Sirhan, Sirhan?" "Yes, he did the shooting."
And we said, "Sirhan, Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy."
And he said, "Of course, that’s what you’re investigating." We
said, "No, we’re investigating the assassination of President
Kennedy." And Wright said, "Oh, yes, yes. That’s right." I
mean, I’m relating—now this is a majority leader of the House of
Representatives. That’s the kind of situation we ran into.
When I got to Washington, and again, I cannot say enough complimentary words
about Downing. Downing was absolutely superb in terms of backing and sticking to
what he said, but because he was leaving, he really didn’t stay in his office.
He turned over his office to me. Now, we were given—and this is my best
recollection…but this is the first time I really saw what I thought was not
sticking to commitments.
Before I went down there, [I asked] what kind of a budget do you have right
now preliminarily? And I was told, I think I was told $150,000 for hiring staff.
And I said, "Wait a minute, you are telling me I have a $150,000 budget to
hire a whole staff, forget it." And I was told, "Oh, no, no, no. You
don’t understand the way that Congress works. There is $150,000 which is
allocated which will run out." I think this was September or something…
"That’s what you can spend right now. So if you hire somebody—I’m
just making up a salary—for $50,000, and their salary then for the remaining
three months is, let’s say, $15,000, you still hire at the $50,000 salary, but
you’ve the $15,000 to pay them here. And in the new budget, the full year’s
salary will be there."
And that was made, you know, absolutely clear to me. And so when I get down
there, remember, I started out it was me alone. No secretary, no office. I’m
working out of Downing’s office. And what I did do, having been a prosecutor
for years, I put out word that I was interested in top notch prosecutors from
around the country. People who had had superb investigative prosecutorial
experience, state investigators, local, not federal people, and I was going to
recruit from that.
And let me say, the response that I got really was a breath of fresh air, in
terms of the type of people who responded. Really even to this day, you know, it
just was such a wonderful feeling that there’s that kind of talent and that
kind of capable people with ability around this country. I thought wonderful,
wonderful people. And in that process, I started interviewing. And again, in
view of my original condition, even though it was terrible in terms of time
consumption, I did not delegate that to anybody.
I reviewed all the applications, and set up the interviews. And in that
process, I started setting salaries, recruiting the staff. I met Bob Tanenbaum,
who came from [Henry] Morgenthau’s office in New York. I met Bob Lehner,
neither of whom I had ever met before in my life. What I wanted to do here, I
didn’t want this to be a cozy place of people that I knew either.
SPRAGUE: I really wanted top notch talent that all were imbued with a spirit
of doing a job.
WILLIAMS: And I get the impression from what you’re saying, if I am reading
that correctly, that in proportion to the response you had, if something had
happened, for instance, where Lehner or Tanenbaum were not interested, you had
several different choices you could have made from highly qualified people.
SPRAGUE: There’s no question about that. And I did an interviewing and
culling-out process, and hired from secretaries to clerks to filing people, to
the Tanenbaums and Lehners.
And my idea was looking at organizations, looking at myself at the top,
having Tanenbaum with a team carrying out the investigation and the review, in
terms of what people had said and done, critics pro and con, on the Kennedy
side, having Lehner as the Chief Deputy under me on the King side with a staff.
Available to both was what was needed, like a librarian. What we needed is
access to all that had been filed, we needed as the investigation would be
proceeding, somebody that would see that everything was filed and distributed
within that area.
That was the basic concept here. I also, as I started getting more people
hired, wanted to use a couple of people like Tanenbaum and Lehner—because
certain names I can recall, some others—sort of as a think tank. I am a big
believer in working as a team. I don’t think that all wisdom flows through me,
and I wanted there to be a group whose thoughts or ideas and suggestions,
analysis, and evaluation, and that was the concept.
WILLIAMS: Had you in mind, like you mentioned, these people who would be
reviewing the information, had you in mind street detectives who would be out
WILLIAMS: And how would you conclude the number of those needed, or were you
just feeling your way along on that?
SPRAGUE: Feeling my way along. And I guess I sort of have to break it down
here, as to prior to the end of the of year and after the end of the year. But
the idea was to have an investigator, non-federal people in each area for
purposes of interviewing, for purposes of giving them leads, as though we were
starting the investigation from there. I did recognize that time makes much more
difficult doing an investigation that anything really, particularly a homicide.
And I did end up with a feeling that with the amount of time since the two
assassinations, that if there was to be a thorough investigation and an analysis
of the various pro and con views, that this was probably the last chance. I
ended up feeling that if it was defeated at that time, it never will come to
fruition and people will continue with their beliefs, pro and con thereafter. So
I say that in terms part of what we said at the beginning.
WILLIAMS: You bet. I hear you loud and clear.
SPRAGUE: We started recruiting, which included detectives. And again, as I
recruited, I was perfectly willing to hear recommendations from the attorneys we
had hired. For example, Tanenbaum recommended some detective that had worked
very closely with him, who I interviewed, who impressed me and we hired. So the
whole idea was to use them with these lawyers.
Now, one of the criteria I was using in the hiring of lawyers, as far as I
got, and that becomes an important limitation, "as far as I got," was
I did not want lawyers who sat at the desk. I wanted people who had been active
investigators, who when they were assigned homicides back in the prosecutorial
days of State offices, had gone to the scenes and worked with the police, and
that was the whole idea here. As I was hiring, I was also having a study being
made by each respective side as to what they really felt were the needs of that
side to do the investigation, the examination, what experts were needed.
WILLIAMS: This would be Tanenbaum and Lehner.
SPRAGUE: Right. And to give me recommendations for manpower, to give me
recommendations in terms of budgetary needs. I also did arrange, while I was
going about this recruiting, because I wanted the staff, even though it was a
skeleton staff, to have some things to do. I didn’t want them all sitting
while I’m doing all of the recruiting and interviewing, I wanted to put them
to some work. I did start to have them starting to review material that been
published. I remember that we brought in a number of people who had been
critics. I forget the person’s name in the Zapruder film, again, if you want,
I’ll get his name, the guy that enhanced it.
WILLIAMS: Robert Groden.
SPRAGUE: Groden, that was it. We brought Groden in and we had him show and
then analyze it, and explain it. We had some people come in and sort of lay out
difficult things, and we were open to everybody. And I really didn’t
distinguish, I wasn’t trying to make value judgments. The fact that somebody
thought somebody was a crackpot didn’t mean anything to me. I felt that my job
was to do analysis. So I was having that done.
And again, and this may become not important from your standpoint, but who
knows, it may explain my tenure on the Commission. Wanting my people to go
out—oh, and I hired [Gaeton] Fonzi, who was a person I thought very highly of.
And while Fonzi had his own views, that made no difference to me because I
wanted people who I knew would not be beholden to the Federal government, and
who would carry out investigations that I gave them, and I felt would do a
thorough job. That was my criteria. Fonzi, I think, is outstanding and a
terrific person to have.
And I know he has his certain views of what he thinks happened, and that is
fine with me. I don’t mind that, as long as it didn’t blind him to looking
thoroughly and fairly, which I felt he would do. So we were doing that. Now you
got to understand, as I said, initially I didn’t even have a secretary. I was
making personal calls until I could get a secretary and do this and that. And
working on getting space and getting furniture and all that.
But we were doing some preliminary interviewing. One of my thoughts had been,
just like your having a tape recorder here, that it would be a helpful tool if
in interviewing, because we didn’t have a secretary to take along, if we, with
the interviewee’s permission, tape record the interview. And we had, I think,
I had gotten one tape recorder, so that in terms of ultimately our budget
requests, because—and we had done some interviews, as you are doing now, I
felt it would be very helpful to our investigators to have along a tape recorder
I also had the thought that since part of this was a thorough investigation
where I had some question on an the interview about somebody telling the truth,
maybe we could pull that interview and put it under one of these stress
analyzers, and not that I think they are so great, but any little bit is a
helpful investigative tool.
SPRAGUE: I say that because jumping ahead, at a certain point I was accused
of wanting to wiretap and engage in unconstitutional efforts in this
investigation. And let me tell you that in over seventeen years as a prosecutor,
even back in the days where wiretapping was lawful, I never have wiretapped in
my entire life, and I don’t like it. I think it is dirty and I have never done
it and never had any intent to—and I want you to be aware of that, as that
becomes germane to this story.
WILLIAMS: Yes, I can recall reading that, I think.
SPRAGUE: Well, I’ll get into that as we go along.
SPRAGUE: But I…
WILLIAMS: This was premised on this—just this decision that you had made to
SPRAGUE: Right, right.
WILLIAMS: Somebody blew that up into wiretapping.
SPRAGUE: Absolutely. And it may take you in an area of interest in terms of
the press, because I came away with this with that as the most fascinating area
from my standpoint. But in any event—so I had the people engaging in some
work, and I’ll get back to that in a moment. As we were getting to the end of
the year, I all of a sudden was told from, I think it was Tip O’Neill’s
office, or it may have been from Gonzales, who was becoming the new Chairman,
because by now I have hired people with that $150,000 that I had to play with,
whose—the budget for them for the following year, with a full year’s salary,
would have been—I’m making up a figure, I don’t remember what it is, but
let’s say $500,000.
And all of a sudden at the end of the year I am told, "You have
overspent your budget." To which I responded, "What do you mean I’ve
overspent the budget? I was told I would have a budget, I had this for…",
"Oh, no, no. That represents your entire budget, and you’re not going to
have more than $150,000 for the next year."
WILLIAMS: Oh my gosh!
SPRAGUE: Yeah, well, and I’ve got people now hired whose salary far exceeds
that. And my reaction was stronger than what you just said.
WILLIAMS: Oh, I can bet it was!
SPRAGUE: And I said, "Well, that’s preposterous! It’s
ridiculous!" And I was dealing with Gonzales.
WILLIAMS: Now was this new, like had you been told previously of this other
arrangement by Downing, and then now you’re getting a different story from
SPRAGUE: I had been told all along that the $150,000 was mine to spend and
that would represent just the portion of their annual salary, which we would
have the funding for the following year, plus more, when I came up with my
entire budget. So, for example, if, let’s say two days before the end of the
year, I still was saying—and again I am making this up—if for example, I had
$20,000, I could hire like yet 10 people because for the remaining two days I
had enough for their salary.
WILLIAMS: For that time.
SPRAGUE: But all of a sudden I’m finding out what I told you.
WILLIAMS: This was not true.
SPRAGUE: And I had discussions about this with the Committee members that
they had to fight to get this budget. And in the new Congress they have an
appropriation that they call a continuing funding until there’s a new budget.
Well, all I had now was that same lousy $150,000, and the new budget doesn’t
come up until, I forget what time. And the bottom line is that my staff went for
I think they went for two to three weeks, just out of loyalty to me, without
getting paid a penny, continuing their work.
WILLIAMS: This was into the new year.
SPRAGUE: That’s right, which again, is a credit to them. Somewhere along
the line, and as I say, we can back up for more detailed questions.
SPRAGUE: I decided, you know, I said we had this think tank, and one of the
things I set in motion was, let’s interview James Earl Ray. We collected a
fair amount of information, and I thought, well, let’s start with interviewing
him. Also in the Kennedy thing, because the Committee was chomping at the bit
for, "Let’s get some things underway." And I can understand that.
And by the way, I think I came up with a budget, a proposed budget for the
next year, and I think it was like $14 million. [This figure appears to be for
two years. Eds. Note] And all of a sudden, it’s like that was the big red
flag, how dare! And when you think what they are paying now. And I remember
arguing that $14 million was less than the cost of one airplane.
Well, when the budget came out, all the people who really didn’t want the
investigation used that—and that was an outrage. And I’ll get back to that
in a moment, because a number of things came to a head, let me tell you. But I
did decide, let us pick an area, that even though I am still recruiting, and
I’m now fighting a battle to get a budget, and I’m trying to get funding for
the people, that we’ll do some investigation.
As I say in King, let’s go interview James Earl Ray, and some other things.
And Kennedy, this was after talks with Tanenbaum, let’s look at some areas,
and one that stands out in my mind, there had been a representation, back in the
days of the Warren Commission, that on a certain day, Oswald was in Dallas prior
to the assassination of Kennedy, and seen talking to him was [Sylvia Odio].
And the Warren Commission discounted that, gave no credence to that, on the
basis that Oswald was in Mexico City that same day and obviously could not have
been in two places at one time. So we decided, well, let’s take a look at
And here you can get more details from Bob Tanenbaum, but I’ll give you my
recollection of this thing. Because this brought other matters to a head. And by
the way, at that time George Bush was the head of the CIA. And in my request for
information, I was told there would be full cooperation, and that they would
provide what we wanted. Keep that in mind, because that changes.
So anyway, looking into the Warren Commission Report, we wanted to find out
on what basis did the Warren Commission accept that Oswald was in Mexico City.
And the report from the Warren Commission was that Oswald had gone into, I
believe—I may have my embassys’ wrong here, I think the Cuban Embassy, and
he had called over at the Russian Embassy. And there had been a photographic
surveillance by the CIA, as well as a wiretap catching some of those photographs
catching Oswald going into the Cuban Embassy, and there was a wiretapped
conversation of Oswald calling whoever it was at the Russian Embassy.
So we said, "Fine, let’s see the photographs." Well, the short of
it is, there were no photographs. And why did the Warren Commission accept it?
They accepted it because they had been told that by the CIA. So then we wanted
to know how come—we want to see the photographs for that day. What do we want
to see? Is there still a photograph of Oswald going into the Cuban Embassy? I
assume it is the Cuban, I am not sure, but I believe it was the Cuban Embassy.
And then we were told, there were no photographs from that day because the
camera wasn’t working. So then when this was reported back to me, I
demanded—I wanted to see what photographs there were the day before and the
day after. I was all of a sudden very curious, how come a camera—how long a
time was this camera not working? Was it just that day?
And secondly, I wanted to see the repair bills if these cameras were not
working. I wanted to see what was done for the repair. Hold that to the side for
now. So, but then we decided, well, let’s ask for the copy of the wiretap, of
the actual recording. And the CIA responded, "We don’t have that. It is
not in existence. Because once we transcribe something, we reuse the tape. And
we had transcribed this conversation before the assassination of Kennedy without
knowing at that time any importance to Oswald. There was no need, therefore, to
have kept the tape, and we had reused the tape."
The problem with that arose because we had gotten access to an FBI document
which stated that after the arrest of Oswald, a FBI agent who had at least taken
part in the interrogation of Oswald, had listened to the CIA tape, and in his
report said the voice on the CIA tape was not the voice of Oswald. So, if that
was true, it showed that that tape was in existence after the assassination of
Kennedy. So keep that in mind.
So then, we thought, let’s look at the transcript. Which transcript had
been produced to the Warren Commission? And of course what we noted, which I
think strikes anybody who looks at that transcript, it was an innocuous
conversation, and some—the interpreter says that the speaker spoke in broken
Russian, I believe it was. But that the voice on there introduces himself as
"Lee Henry Oswald," which, if Oswald was trying to disguise who he is,
I mean, whoever heard of giving your first and last name, and only changing your
But the Warren Commission had accepted that transcript as proof that he was
in Mexico City at the time. So then, we decided, well, let’s see if we can
find the person who was the interpreter and the stenographer, the typist, for
the transcript. And we located them. It was a husband and wife team in Mexico
City. Tanenbaum can give you more details.
And our people spoke to them. They looked at the transcript. She said this is
not the transcript that I typed. The interpreter disputed things that were on
there, and we asked, "Do you still have the typewriter that you used,"
and they still had it, and we brought it back to Washington. And I will make a
bet with you right now that that typewriter is still sitting in Washington.
Nobody knows what the hell it is doing there. Nobody followed through and had
the typewriter compared with the type on the transcript, which is something…
WILLIAMS: Oh, wow!
SPRAGUE: This is the kind of thing we were doing. And we also had done,
let’s say federal, record checks along the following lines. I was interested
in, of those Americans that had defected to Russia, what was the time sequence
when they decided they wanted to come back to this country, before they were
allowed to come back?
And there was a startling difference between Oswald and others. His time for
coming back was much, much quicker. We also checked into those that, when they
came back were debriefed by the FBI with one exception. Oswald was not debriefed
by the FBI. Now, I’m not saying that this, therefore that we jumped to the
conclusion, "Ah, ha! The CIA is involved in the assassination." I am
just giving you an idea of the areas of inquiry, in what I believe was the
thoroughness with which we were trying to undertake.
WILLIAMS: Right. You were still letting the evidence go walking, and right
WILLIAMS: You were going to hold your options open until you accumulated
enough evidence. . .
SPRAGUE: We were just going to do that type of thorough thing. I demanded the
records from the CIA, and now there was an abrupt refusal, and I subpoenaed
them. At that point, Gonzales, who was Chairman of the Committee, ordered the
CIA, or told the CIA that they need not respond to my subpoena, and fired me,
and ordered the U.S. Marshals come in and remove me from my office.
WILLIAMS: Oh, so that firing was directly after you had subpoenaed the
records from the Central Intelligence Agency.
SPRAGUE: Right. But there’s more involved in it than the timing...
SPRAGUE: ... if you checked the record. That came up after that. He ordered
my firing. He ordered marshals to remove me from my office in what I’m sure
was the first and only time in the history of the United States Congress. The
rest of the Committee, backed me to a man and overrode the Chairman, and ordered
that I remain, and the marshals were directed to get off.
Of course, that led to Gonzales taking it up in the House of Representatives,
and the House backed the rest of the Committee. And he resigned and Stokes came
on. [Louis Stokes was the Representative from Ohio. Eds. Note] I’m sure
that’s the only time in the history in the United States Congress that in the
fight between the Chairman and the Director, that the Chairman got bounced.
But there’s a terrible price paid for that. Every Congressman dreams of
being Chairman of a Committee and being all powerful. It ultimately did not sit
well with the Congress that a Chairman got ousted, and...
JOHN : The chief counsel.
SPRAGUE: ... the chief counsel stayed in. And that rubbed a lot more. But
I’ve got to back up a second. When I proposed the budget, and those that did
not want this investigation jumped on this thing, this terrible: "Who does
Sprague think he is, that much money." It was a realistic budget to do the
kind of job that had to be done. You know, and I met with Schweiker [Sen.
Richard Schweiker was a Republican from Pennsylvania. Eds. Note] and I sat down
with Schweiker before he went out of office. I got good ideas, I think, from him
as to things that we wanted to do.
WILLIAMS: So you had done some thinking through of this whole thing in terms
of your initial budget...
SPRAGUE: Oh, yes. And also—and I had a committee here—I mean, Gonzales,
really in terms of being a leader and head of the Committee, it was night and
day different from Downing. Members of his own Committee despised him. The
Committee was concerned about how they were going to get more funding.
I know I wanted to do the kind of job I said. They wanted to do something
dramatic to help get new funding. And I remember they wanted to call some
mobsters, like Trafficante, in to have him take the Fifth Amendment, which I
protested. They said they wanted him—like ask questions, when did you stop
murdering Kennedy, and take the Fifth Amendment, and you get a headline. All
that was nonsense to try to help get funding, which was no—again, no way to
run it. But in this fight to get funding, and I think because he knew exactly
what he was doing, at least in retrospect, Tip O’Neill asked me to address the
WILLIAMS: The entire House?
SPRAGUE: Now you say the entire House, I think it may have been the
WILLIAMS: The Democratic Caucus.
SPRAGUE: I think that was it. They don’t let a non-member of Congress
really speak to them from the pit of the Congress. Tip O’Neill arranged for me
to do it. And so here I am speaking right in the pit, whatever you call it, the
pit of the House of Representatives, with the Congress around me, to tell them
why I need this budget, which I did. And they listened in a half-way fashion,
some did and some did not.
The effect of that was, well, I think I am a very quiet, honest person. I
don’t go around trying to stir things up. I just try to do my job. I’m not
somebody who you would think, well, people would notice or pay attention to. For
some reason, in my public life, it’s the opposite.
And the Committee had become known from the early start of it as "The
Sprague Committee," which rubbed a lot of—I mean, whoever heard of a
Committee being named, again, for the chief counsel? It’s like the Chairman,
you know, but not the chief counsel. That rubbed people wrong.
But Tip O’Neill’s maneuver in having me talk—he didn’t have the
Chairman– he didn’t have a member of the Committee, he didn’t have
Gonzales do it, he had me. It had a lot of the members of Congress thinking,
"Who the hell is this guy who thinks he is bigger than any of the
Congressmen? It’s not the Chairman, it’s not Committee, this guy is talking
to us, like he’s riding over everybody." And if Tip O’Neill was trying
to create, in a very subtle way, a political reaction, he was very successful.
Because that, coupled with "The Sprague Committee," the fact that I
unseated a Chairman, led to a very bad reaction. Now, at or about this time, all
of a sudden, and this came up, and if you check your records, the timing here,
because you asked when did Gonzales fire me, it’s after he countermanded the
subpoena to the CIA.
And just at that time—and I am not a big conspiracy buff—when I say
"at that time," I mean what I say, the subpoenas of the CIA, lo and
behold, the Los Angeles Times comes out with an article, and it was prefaced
upon a letter that a Congressman from out west, a former FBI agent [Rep. Don
Edwards of California. Eds.].
I think he had it put in the Congressional Record, because you see, that
protects him from a suit. And, anyway, the substance of it was, I guess maybe
the Los Angeles Times came out first, and then he wrote his letter. … But
anyway, the whole idea between the Times and Edwards was that I was going to go
about this investigation in a reckless manner.
I was going to be doing it by using unconstitutional means, violating due
process. I wanted to wiretap, and I was trying to get wiretap equipment. I mean,
a horrendous attack. I immediately—and again, the timing of this is with the
subpoena of the CIA, my being upheld by the Committee, but I immediately saw the
threat politically of this, and we had a PR man on our staff, because I wasn’t
going to take—with all the work I was doing, I was going to deal with the
press. And we had hired a fellow who did that.
This was a friend of mine named Burt Chardak, who’s still alive, you could
interview him, because he’s a newspaper man. And this is the first time he
sees it from the other side. And he’s in Florida, and I can get his address
WILLIAMS: That would be great.
SPRAGUE: But Burt Chardak, a very good, savvy newspaper man, was our PR man.
I immediately told him to contact the press around the nation, editorial boards,
let them have the facts in the sense as I just gave them to you, take the time,
which he did. Not one newspaper in this entire country or one editorial board
contacted us to at least get more information. Not one newspaper or editorial
board around this country printed our side of it.
But with the attack by the Los Angeles Times, it was then picked up
immediately by the Washington Post, and the New York Times, all of whom carried
similar editorials, which then led to editorials all around the country about
what a terrible ogre and what a terrible person I was. That’s the scenario at
WILLIAMS: The failure to check that, in other words, made you wonder what was
going on out there.
SPRAGUE: Oh, absolutely. And to this day, while I’m certainly not a
conspiracy buff, and I don’t believe for a moment the New York Times, the
Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times were all in bed with each other, to
this day I find that the most fascinating part of my stint there.
But, let me just finish this aspect of it. Then the New York Times decided to
really get in. And remember, I was the fair-haired boy at the beginning, now I
was a horrible monster. They assigned a reporter named Burnham. I can’t think
of Burnham’s first name—David Burnham? And he subsequently—I don’t think
it was Fonzi—but he admitted it to somebody, that they assigned him to try to
do a hatchet job on me.
WILLIAMS: He came here to dig up stuff.
SPRAGUE: Yes. And what he did is he then dug up an attack by the Philadelphia
Inquirer on me from years back, which ultimately the Inquirer got hit with a $34
million judgment, and which was upheld to the tune of $24 million, the highest
award against a newspaper for defamation of a public official in the United
States. But Burnham, this was before that trial, Burnham dug up their attack on
me and had The Times publish it as though it was true.
And that was the main attack on me. At this point, and by the way, I must
tell you, in my fights with Gonzales, he had tried to unseat me even earlier and
appoint somebody that was a friend of his as chief counsel, you know, none of
which I would accept, because it violated my conditions. And ultimately, when
Stokes got appointed—and by the way, I had to testify before the whole
Committee in response to the Burnham article and relate what the true facts
were, which as I say, the best way in terms of history to show the true facts is
that they had a $34 million judgment, which was ultimately upheld at $24 million
But Stokes finally said to me that the only way the Committee would get their
budget—and it would have to be reduced to a terrible amount, I think like
14 million would be made down to 4 million at some time—was that I had to give
them back the power to hire and fire, which I refused. I said "No
way." And they ultimately said that "You’re going to have to agree
to a lower budget and not hiring and firing in order for us to get the budget
through." And I had a meeting with my staff, who still wanted me to stay. I
had good loyalty, but I mean the staff felt that they had a real non-political
professional who was fighting and was doing the right thing. And I told them
"No," let the work of the Committee go on. I had had enough of this,
and I was out.
WILLIAMS: So it was your resignation. You weren’t actually fired, or would
you say that you were pressured, in a way, to resign?
SPRAGUE: No, no, it was my decision. I was told that I had to accept the
change in the conditions in order for the budget to be approved. And I
wouldn’t accept that, and by midnight or something, I drafted a letter of
resignation, and gave it. And there were a number of members of the Committee
that did not want me to. And even after the fact, I think one of them said, one
or two even voted to not accept it.
WILLIAMS: So Congressional members were supporting you in saying
SPRAGUE: That’s right. Stokes was adamant, Preyer. There was a great number
of them in my corner. But there was no way that I would—let me say this, it
gets back to maybe what I said at the beginning. A legislative committee dealing
with political figures, they each have their own political future, their
constituencies, their own interests at heart, is not the proper vehicle for an
investigation of this nature.
One of my good friends in Washington, Joe Rauh, who I’m sure you’ve heard
of. Joe Rauh was a great crusader, liberal lawyer. He helped found the Americans
for Democratic Action. He really was the author of the civil rights legislation
that Johnson signed. He had been Jock Yablonski’s personal lawyer, and
that’s how we met.
WILLIAMS: I see.
SPRAGUE: He was very, very—I mean, he was everywhere in the Democratic
liberal establishment in Washington. A very good friend of mine. And he came to
the view that I might be a great investigator, prosecutor, but that combination
does not mix with a political animal like the Congress of the United States.
WILLIAMS: I was wondering before as you were talking, because you said this
has happened at other times in your life, that you suddenly found that you had
become larger than life as you get into some kind of conflict like this. I
wonder if it’s because, in a way, you are a quiet, fairly gentle,
straightforward person, but highly determined. You have a strong will about what
SPRAGUE: Well, I think that’s part of it. There’s no doubt that, you
know, I believe I listen. I believe if you talk to people in this office, it is
a hard-working office. But I think everybody will tell you that after I listen,
I make up my mind that’s the way.
George Burkley, Assistant White House Physician at the time of this
photo. He became JFK's personal physician in July 1963.
The Warren Commission
was faced with contradictions in the medical evidence. The Parkland
Hospital doctors who treated the mortally wounded President
described an entrance wound in the throat and a large occipital
(rearward) wound in Kennedy's head. The autopsy doctors declared the
throat wound to be one of exit, and drawings they produced of
Kennedy's head wound showed it to be largely on the right side. At
issue in these varying descriptions is whether shots came from the
front or the rear.
One man was best
address these conflicting
accounts - the President's personal physician Dr. George
Burkley. Burkley rode in the Dallas motorcade, was present at
Parkland Hospital, rode Air Force One to Washington with the body,
and was present at the autopsy, by some accounts running it. He
signed the White House Death
certificate, wrote "verified" on a "face sheet" created during
the autopsy, and took physical possession of JFK's brain and tissue
The Warren Commission
never interviewed him.
Though Burkley was
continually mentioned by other Commission witnesses, the only
statements from the doctor himself to appear in the Warren
Commission's 26 volumes is CE 1126, a report Burkley wrote 2 days
before the Commission was announced.
In 1976, Burkley's
lawyer William Illig contacted Richard Sprague of the HSCA, saying
that his client had information that "others besides Oswald must
have participated." Sprague was ousted days later, and the
reconstituted HSCA and its medical panel never took Burkley's
testimony. Instead, a short phone contact the following year was
followed up yet months later, when the HSCA was done with all its
public medical presentations, with an strange affidavit signed by
Burkley. The affidavit, in which Burkley attested to his constant
presence with Kennedy's body from Parkland Hospital on, seemed
almost solely devoted to refuting David Lifton's as yet-unpublished
The ARRB in the mid
1990s contacted the family of the now-deceased Burkley, and
initially received verbal permission to obtain the lawyer Illig's
files. But Burkley's daughter subsequently changed her mind and in
the end declined to sign the necessary waiver.
Questions abound about
Burkley's handling of the now-missing brain of JFK, his role at the
autopsy, and his involvement in the 1965 transfer of autopsy
materials into the Kennedy family's hands. Did the Warren Commission
and HSCA avoid Burkley because they were afraid of what he would
say? In a 1967 oral history, Burkley was asked whether he agreed
with the Warren Commission's view on the number of shots. Burkley's
reply: "I would not care to be quoted on that."