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ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Last fall the House of Representatives decided to try to answer once and for all the persistent doubts about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The House set up a Special, or Select, Committee to investigate once again what actually happened in Dallas, to ask again the nagging questions about how many shots were fired, by whom and from where; questions about foreign involvement, domestic cover-up, motives and connections. Black Congressmen insisted that the Committee also investigate similar questions about the killing of Martin Luther King. Tonight that Committee`s work is at a virtual standstill, embroiled in a tangled drama not involving the assassinations but those appointed to investigate. Tonight we look at that drama and what`s behind it. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: And it`s drama, Robin, with all the characteristics of satirical comedy -- something Art Buchwald might write to make Congress look foolish. Here`s what happened, when the new Congress convened in January Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas took over chairmanship of that House Assassinations Committee. It wasn`t long before he was tangled with the Committee`s chief counsel, Richard Sprague, over Sprague`s request for a $6.5 million annual budget, and his administrative and investigative techniques, among other things. So last week Gonzalez fired Sprague, giving him until five o`clock one afternoon to clear out of his office. But Sprague refused to vacate. Then the eleven other members of the Committee rescinded the firing and asked him to stay on. Sprague of course agreed. Then Gonzalez got the Attorney General`s office to refuse further FBI files and documents to Sprague and his staff. A few days later there was a Committee meeting. All of the players were present, the final fight was to be fought, the matter resolved. But before Gonzalez could bring up the Sprague matter the other members adjourned the meeting. Then another meeting was set for Monday; but Gonzalez, now sick in bed back home in Texas, couldn`t make it. Tonight he`s still in Texas and Sprague is still in his office, and the matter is still very much unresolved. Now, those are just the high points of the total story. One man who has been following the rolls and pitches of this Committee from the very beginning is George Lardner, Jr., of the Washington Post. Mr. Lardner, what is your reading on why Gonzalez is so determined to get rid of Sprague?
GEORGE LARDNER, JR.: I think he just feels that he`s got to be the boss, and Sprague was promised that he would be the boss; and there`s just this irreconcilable difference between them. When Sprague was hired last fall he was promised he would have complete authority in hiring and firing by Congressman Downing, which was probably an easy promise for Downing to make because he was leaving.
LEHRER: He didn`t run for re-election.
LARDNER: No, he was just gone; and Gonzalez came aboard and he was already a little nettled, I think it`s fair to say, about having been passed over for the chairmanship the first time around because he was the first one to introduce a resolution calling for an investigation like this. So when he finally got to be chairman he told Sprague he had to fire some people, he had hired too many, he was spending too much. And Sprague, probably relying on what Downing had promised him, said, "No," and Gonzalez couldn`t sit still for that. He told the House Rules Committee a couple of weeks ago that he comes from bronco-busting country...
LEHRER: South Texas.
LEHRER: What about Sprague, now? Sprague seems equally determined to stay as Gonzalez is to get rid of him. What`s Sprague`s motivation to stay, to hang in there so tough?
LARDNER: Part of it, I suppose -- although he isn`t talking much for publication these days-- but part of it, I suppose, is that he has all eleven other members of the Committee apparently on his side. At least, in the initial showdown. Some of them are saying, well, they told Sprague to stay on the job because Henry didn`t follow the right procedure and that their action shouldn`t be taken as any final indication of what they`re going to do. We`ll just have to wait for the next...
LEHRER: Right. I know this is a tricky question, but do you think Sprague knew he was on this firm ground, that he had the support of those eleven other members when he refused to vacate in that first confrontation when Gonzalez first fired him?
LARDNER: Yes, I do because there had been a couple of what they like to call informal secret meetings of Committee members the previous Monday and Tuesday. The first Monday meeting, Sprague wasn`t there but Gonzales broached the idea of getting rid of some Committee staffers. And the upshot, as I gather, of that meeting was for Sprague to be brought in -- "Let`s see how he feels." And then the next morning Gonzalez and Sprague had a disagreement in Gonzalez` office and there was another informal meeting later that day. There was no vote, but it was plain that Gonzalez was all alone in insisting that there be some firings.
LEHRER: All right, now this is a very unusual matter, George, where members of Congress would side with a staff member over one of their own and chairman of a Committee. Why are they doing this?
LARDNER: Well, it depends on who you talk to. If you talk to Gonzalez and his people, they say the other members just don`t realize how insulting, in effect, and insubordinate Sprague has been. If you talk to the other members you get the impression that they`re upset because Henry just up and fired him without even calling them, which he did. And so they initially told Sprague to stay put until we have a meeting. And then last week, as Henry was about to launch his attack, calling Sprague a rattlesnake several times. ,
LEHRER: "A rattlesnake that needs to be stomped on;" that was the direct quote.
LARDNER: That`s right. But he did it only for us; the rest of the Committee had moved out -- adjourned over his protests.
LEHRER: Yeah, and then he was just left to have a press conference, right?
LARDNER: That`s right. We took the Committee members` chairs.
LEHRER: I see. Okay, thank you. Another reporter who`s been on this story from the beginning is Nicholas Horrock, first for the New York Times and now with Newsweek magazine, where he heads its Special Projects unit. Is it a personality problem, or do you think there`s something more substantial involved in this Sprague-Gonzalez thing?
NICHOLAS HORROCK: The actual confrontation apparently is some personality -- mainly personality. But I think there`s a problem with the investigation, and a problem with how Mr. Sprague came down to Washington. When I first met him and when other reporters talked to him last fall he seemed totally unwilling to play the Congressional game, and there is some of it that has to be done; it`s done by Committee counsels routinely. That is understanding the leadership, trying to find out where your power lies. Instead he constantly said, "I`m going to set up this budget, I`m going straight full-steam ahead and if I don`t get it I`m going to quit." And I think last year he was probably deluded a little because not only Mr. Downing but other people weren`t focusing on the problem; they were running for re-election. Carl Albert was leaving the Congress. So Mr. Sprague may have felt that he had support where it didn`t exist, and the real test came after January 20 with the new Congress.
LEHRER: You know, Nick, some people have suggested that the Committee has been shot down through a conspiracy of unnamed people, but the conspirators are usually considered to be members of the intelligence community. Do you think there`s anything to that?
HORROCK: No. I think that one lacks any kind of base. I think that the intelligent agencies -- that is, the FBI and the CIA -- clearly were embarrassed about what they did at that time, and there`s a lot of things...
LEHRER: You mean at the time of the assassination.
HORROCK: At the time of the first investigation, withholding information and bureaucratic problem. But I think that we have new managements in those long since, and I think that they were willing to turn over substantial information on any of the details; and furthermore I don`t believe that that kind of a conspiracy of ex-agents works very effectively. I heard the same thing a few weeks ago when Ted Sorensen didn`t get a nomination; that`s a popular view but there is very little evidence of it.
LEHRER: You`ll have to admit, though, Nick, it is right out of the Cointel pro guidebook for destroying someone, because the fact is the Committee is in really bad shape now and all these factors seem to have all come together at one time. I`m not pushing the theory, I just...
HORROCK: I can understand where you could see that, but again, who are the people doing it? In fact they are Congressmen themselves, they are people within the framework of the Congress. I think the former agents` clubs and so forth have been rather silent on the whole matter.
LEHRER: What about those who say that of course the Kennedy family did not want this investigation in the first place and that that has been a problem and has eventually caused the problems that we have right now because of that.
HORROCK: The Kennedys don`t want the investigation. Several times that I`ve had to work on investigations, stories where I`ve had to call them about it, their press representatives and others really tell you that re-opens for them a terrible tragedy. But that`s quite a different matter than using their political influence, particularly with Tip O`Neill, the Majority Leader, who is from their state and a personal friend of course -- that`s quite a different matter. I cannot see the Kennedy`s picking up a telephone -- Senator Kennedy or anyone else -- and saying, "Put a stop to this investigation." They understand politics; they don`t want to be in that role. And so I think that`s highly unlikely. I read some of the things that suggested that.
LEHRER: Do you think, though, that in the final analysis the investigation would have even gotten this far had the King assassination investigation not been appended to it?
HORROCK: No, I think it needed the King assassination. I think that is the one -- put aside all of our national emotion -- serious investigators found more question about how that was handled. It had been re-investigated far less; there are some serious questions. But more important, it has behind it -- to me, that`s the main purpose that you get your black caucus pressure. Black members of Congress are going along using their influence to support this committee because they want a re-opening of the King investigation and are not against the reopening of the Kennedy one but that`s a parallel subject for them. So I think the King thing had a lot to do with the real gut support for it in the beginning.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: As you see, there are different ways of looking at this mess in Washington, and as Jim says, one angle suggests a conspiracy of some sort to sabotage the Committee`s work. One reporter who has referred to that possibility is Jerry Policoff, a freelance journalist. Policoff has been researching the Kennedy assassination for eleven years and has been covering the Gonzalez Committee story for New Times magazine. Jerry, do you believe there is a conspiracy to sabotage the Committee?
JERRY POLICOFF: I don`t think that it boils down to a concerted conspiracy on the part of the press, but I do believe that there`s an attitude inherent in the press that has existed going back to 1964, during the life of the Warren Commission and following the report of the Warren Commission. The press, I think, was a little bit too quick to endorse the findings of the Warren Commission, to accept leaks of the Warren Commission and to endorse the feeling that we had to put rumors of conspiracy behind this and go on to other things.
MacNEIL: Any conspiracy you might be thinking about is not the sort of ex-agents` club that Nick Horrock was talking about, or anything like that. You`re talking about the behavior of the press.
POLICOFF: I think you really can`t take it out of context like that. I think one of the unfortunate things is that Nick Horrock has been the recipient of some of the leaks from the intelligence agencies that I think are designed to push any further investigation of the Kennedy assassination in a particular direction -- in a direction that leads away from any involvement, either in the assassination or in any cover- up, from the intelligence agencies. And I think it`s understandable because Nick Horrock has printed some of those stories that he would be anxious to discount the possibility.
MacNEIL: Well, we`ll ask him about that in a minute. But first of all, what would be the motive of organs of the press, like Newsweek or Washington Post or the New York Times, in undoing the Committee?
POLICOFF: I don`t think it`s a conscious effort to undo the Committee. I think it goes back to an attitude. The press as a whole, as an institution, overwhelmingly endorsed the lone-assassin findings of the Warren Commission. The Warren Report was published by the New York Times in association with Bantam in association with the Book-of-the Month Club; the entire findings were published as a supplement by the New York Times. The same attitude prevailed with the Washington Post, with the Washington Star, with Newsweek, with the Washington press corps in general, and it basically wasn`t very good reporting, it wasn`t very factual reporting. It was pretty much based on faith.
Now, times have changed; Watergate has changed a lot of things, but...
MaCNEIL: Mind you, immediately after the assassination report came out of the Warren Commission there weren`t very many other people questioning it right away, either, were there? It took a while for that...
POLICOFF: No, but if you want to look at really almost immediately after the assassination, before there was any chance to investigate the assassination thoroughly -- discounting whether there was a conspiracy or not -- the story being touted around by the FBI was that there was no conspiracy; and the initial findings of the FBI which were completed very shortly after the assassination were leaked by Mr. Hoover directly to the press. The Warren Commission within twelve days after it had begun its field report of the assassination -- begun investigating what had happened -- was leaking findings to the press that there was no conspiracy, and that`s what the report would show. Now, I don`t think this was responsible reporting and I think really, when we come down to it now, the press has not acted very responsibly in this matter and I think...
MacNEIL: Let`s come back to the Committee for a moment, and back to the Sprague-Gonzalez fracas that`s going on at the moment. What is your opinion of that yourself and the way the press has been covering that?
POLICOFF: I don`t want to be, in the position of endorsing everything that`s happened with the Gonzalez Committee and with Mr. Sprague; I think there have been some serious mistakes down there.
I think Mr. Sprague has shown some poor judgment on several occasions. I think Mr. Gonzalez has shown worse judgment on several occasions with his dealings with the rest of the Committee. I do think that some of the reporting -- particularly the reporting of the New York Times -has been very unfactual in terms of what`s going on n the Committee. I think a lot of the reporting has been slanted towards really highlighting the personality disputes between Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Sprague, where the real issue is whether the investigation should be conducted; I think something that`s been ignored completely is the staff that`s been assembled, the attitudes of the other eleven committee members. It`s really become, in the press, a reporting of all the circus characteristics of this thing.
MacNEIL: Okay. Well, let`s come on in a few minutes to whether there should be an investigation and questions like that. For the moment let`s go back to, first of all, George Lardner. What do you feel about Jerry Policoff`s observations?
LARDNER: I think he`s going back a little too far into history. The Warren Commission report was full of inadequacies, I think, and it was not recognized properly at the time. But then to jump from there to the coverage of the House Assassinations Committee and to somehow connect the two up seems to me to not be valid. The circus atmosphere that Mr. Policoff speaks of is there -- in fact, there`s very little else under the tent that is to be seen. The press would probably be happy to report what the investigators are doing,` what they`re finding but are not telling anybody -- nor, I suppose, should they. But beyond that I don`t think they`re finding or doing very much at this point in time. I checked over at the Committee today; they can`t even make long-distance phone calls, not even collect long-distance phone calls, that the Capitol Hill operator won`t put them through. This is at the orders of chairman Gonzalez. So when you have developments like that popping you in the face I don`t think it`s unfair to go ahead and report them.
MacNEIL: Mr. Horrock?
HORROCK: The main reason, or the best basis for this investigation, was to lay the minds of the American people at rest that the Warren Commission had been right or wrong and to clear up contradictions and innuendo. In fact, can a committee who has become a circus whether the press covers it or not -- has done it on its own -- now give us a valid report that`s going to be a stamp of this kind of credibility? I think Sprague came down with some awfully good ideas. The idea of using police officers instead of somebody in a federal law enforcement complex -- these were good. But instead of that we don`t have that; we find him, I think, taking on a battle role, we have Gonzales in a battle with him. And I can`t see, even if they can figure out how to get a budget and survive March, why should we give any more credence to their investigation after this kind of a start than we are going to the Warren Commission? We had the same problem with the Pike Committee; the Pike Committee started out to do a good investigation of Central Intelligence Agency, was the most aggressive of the two committees investigating that. But again, by injudicious activity and arguing and bantering in themselves they lost all their credence and by the end of it the Senate report is the one we now all talk of. The House committee had gotten started on good things but it lost a lot of the credibility.
MacNEIL: So is your point that the Committee is demolishing itself and it`s not the press that`s, by witnessing it, is demolishing it?
HORROCK: That`s right. The other thing is, and to underscore what George said, I would venture to say any active reporter now covering that Committee was not covering the Warren Commission. The editors by and large have changed. And this idea that there`s some kind of a continuing cover-up or a continuing interest in avoiding ... most of the people covering this present Committee have made their reputations on covering conspiracy, have made the money that they`ve earned for the past five or six years on nothing but government conspiracy. So if they were going to conspire I would think it would be to perpetuate. We all need a good investigation; that makes heroes of us all. So no, I think it would cut the other way.
MacNEIL: Want to reply to that?
POLICOFF: Yeah. If we really look at this from the beginning, one of the first things that got the Committee in trouble was the reporting by the Los Angeles Times that the Committee intended to secretly record potential witnesses, people being talked to by investigators and subjecting them to psychological stress evaluators. Now, I`ve seen a transcript of that meeting; in reading the article I think it`s very interesting -- every single statement in that article begins with "Mr. Sprague said," "Sprague contended," "He said," except the paragraph which has caused the biggest ruckus, which was, "The Committee also intends to conduct secret surveillance of witnesses and subject their statements to psychological stress evaluators," which are voice- activated lie detectors.
MacNEIL: Because those items had been called for in the budget requested by Sprague.
POLICOFF: Well, it didn`t say that. The implication of the article was that -- yeah, I think it was an inference drawn from that, but it did not say that.
LEHRER: Excuse me. George Lardner wants to respond to that particular point.
LARDNER: Yeah, I`d like to say something about that. The day the L.A. Times article appeared -- or the day after, I can`t recall which -- committee was having a meeting; Don Edwards` letter was delivered to Gonzalez...
LEHRER: Don Edwards is chairman of the House...
LARDNER: The House Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, and took umbrage at what he had read in the L.A. Times. And at that melting or in the hallway outside, a spokesman for the Committee assumed at the time that Sprague had meant to secretly record people with those transmitters and then subject them to psychological stress, evaluators. Sprague by then was denying any such intent, saying all he meant to do was have investigators wear them and so if they were tailing somebody from bar to bar they could say, "Hey, Joe, so-and-so is leaving the bar." Edwards wrote another letter in response to that explanation, saying he didn`t see why a House Committee should be tailing people. But beyond that, Sprague around the same time gave an interview to Skeptic magazine in which he clearly said that he intended to subject people to psychological stress evaluators without telling them about it, and gave some examples from his career as a Philadelphia prosecutor, where they called somebody up--- some foreman of a plant over the phone -- and said, "Did you do it?" and questions like that, and the guy said, "No." And they subjected him to the test and then showed he was lying or thought he was lying, and they started tailing Joe.
LEHRER: Sprague, of course, is central to this. Mr. Policoff, would you not concede -- a minute ago you said that Sprague was guilty of some bad judgment -- would you concede that this was bad judgment on Sprague`s part and has caused a lot of his own problems?
POLICOFF: I would concede that some of the things that Sprague had in mind -- psychological stress evaluators are one of them -- I think the transmitters, regardless of what he intended to use them for I think that was bad judgment. I think that was something that he should have anticipated Congress would have had problems with. The thing is, Sprague came down here as prosecutor, and Sprague was told to conduct the investigation the way he saw fit. Now, I think the problem was that nothing was laid out. Congress didn`t lay out -- and I think Downing didn`t lay out, and that was a fault of Mr. Downing`s -- exactly what type of procedures would be proper and what procedures wouldn`t be proper. Now, maybe Congress doesn`t want to conduct an investigation that way, and I think that`s a determination that ought to be made; but I don`t think that one can automatically draw fault with the fact that a person who is brought down with a-background as a prosecutor, with a background in a district attorney`s office, that that person intends to use the same techniques that he used in the district attorney`s office.
LEHRER: Let me ask Nick Horrock a question about Sprague. Is Sprague his own worst enemy in this case?
HORROCK: I think he`s coming on. I want to home in particularly on this point. When we say that Congress didn`t set out a pattern of what would be proper, I find even a prosecutor will think twice before he would use a technique like stress evaluator, because he`s bound to get caught up in the challenge of the fact that the guy wasn`t fully advised of his rights, fully conscious of what was happening to him. And where has Sprague been for two or three years? We`ve done nothing in this city but uncover misuse of these very techniques by all the agencies he`s out to investigate; so it seems to me that would be a flag to him.
POLICOFF: I think one of the things we have to deal with is that the position of the Committee from the very beginning, whether from a civil liberties point of view you prove it or not, the position of the Committee from the beginning was that all witnesses would be recorded, and they would be recorded openly with their consent. If they did not consent they would not be recorded. Now, that`s something also that really hasn`t been followed in the press.
LEHRER: Mr. Policoff, let me just ask you what your assessment is. - Where is this all going to end? Has this Committee had it, or is there a compromise going to be worked out? What`s your prediction?
POLICOFF: I think that unless the Speaker of the House can work out a compromise that`s acceptable to Mr. Gonzalez and acceptable to the other members of the Committee the Committee will die.
LEHRER: You think that should happen; or do you agree with what Nick Horrock said a while ago, that it wouldn`t have credibility now because of the circus?
POLICOFF: No, I don`t necessarily agree with that. I think there`s going to be a difficult time restoring credibility; but I think the staff that`s been compiled down there is an excellent one and they haven`t really been given a chance.
LEHRER: George Lardner, what`s your view of what`s going to happen?
LARDNER: I don`t know. I think that the leadership is trying to work out a compromise, but they haven`t gotten very far, so far as I can tell. The basic trouble, I think, is that the Committee -- or a majority of it -- is for Sprague, but that wouldn`t be true on the House floor by any means. Gonzalez would win on the House floor. So they`ve got to, it seems to me, try to work out a compromise where it doesn`t get to the House floor and still make Gonzalez happy within the Committee. And Jim Wright, the House Majority Leader, said today that it would be a mistake to speculate that both Sprague and Gonzalez are going to go; but I don`t see how you can speculate that both Gonzalez and Sprague are going to stay. So that`s about where we are.
LEHRER: Nick Horrock?
HORROCK: I`ll stand with their predictions on the future of the Committee, but I think the question is the future of the investigation; I think it`s in deep trouble. I think it was a highly difficult, real ly impossible investigation to re-open a murder of a man twelve years -- fifteen years -- gone by and to find the witnesses and then have all this circus as the starting point. I don`t think it`s going to serve the purpose.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Thank you in Washington; good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Policoff. Jim Lehrer and I will be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Assassination Committee
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The main topic of this episode is Assassination Committee. The guests are Jerry Policoff, George Lardner Jr, Nicholas Horrock. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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