From the Kennedy assasination files, a memo on torture
by Lucius Lomax
Posted on August 9, 2008
As Americans reconsider to what lengths we are ready to go in order to obtain information from our enemies, either perceived or real, we may be having the wrong debate.
The question may not be whether to torture or not, but do we need to interrogate at all? This reevaluation of our options for intelligence-gathering comes from no less an authority than famed Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski.
In December 1963—less than a month after the assassination of President Kennedy—the national commission chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren began to investigate the events in Dallas and was facing the prospect of seeking testimony from a potentially hostile witness. At the time, Leon Jaworski was serving as special counsel to the Texas Court of Inquiry, a short-lived attempt by the state attorney general to come to his own conclusion about the questions of conspiracy and murder. The state inquiry and the presidential commission were cooperating and in a letter Jaworski offered his thoughts to Washington on how to get a reluctant witness—or even a possible war criminal—to talk. That, after all, had been Colonel Jaworski’s work in the Army during the Second World War.
Torture, you’ll be happy to know, was not among his suggestions. In fact this former military prosecutor preferred a surprisingly touchy-feely approach to the art of making people talk when it’s not something they really want to do.
“In assembling evidence from some of the most difficult witnesses in the trials during World War II,” former Colonel Jaworski wrote to Lee Rankin, the Warren Commission’s general counsel, “I found that German soldiers and civilians, as well as Russian and Polish slave laborers, gave infinitely more information when asked to write their recollections leisurely than they furnished under interrogation. In several instances I was unable to get more than scant information by resorting to lengthy and tedious interrogation, whereas the suggestion that the individual involved provide a written statement usually brought forth an astounding abundance of information. This was true even in cases where the individual involved had occupied a prominent position in the Nazi hierarchy and was possessed of a high degree of intelligence.”
The idea seemed to be to “let them journal”—to allow the accused to explain why he (in our present cases) attacked Americans or built bombs or did whatever the U.S. justice system or U.S. military accuses him of doing. If you allow a suspect to recount his own version of events, Jaworski seemed to be arguing—in effect, giving the prisoner the chance to explain the “why”—the who and how and what follow.
Clearly Colonel Jaworski (as he was called even after his military service ended) did not lack the disposition to make hard choices as a prosecutor. His Watergate record speaks for itself. And while he refused to participate in the Nuremburg trials because he believed the Nazis were being held accountable to laws that did not exist when they committed their acts, he still prosecuted five German prisoners of war for the murder of an informant in a prison camp in Oklahoma—and the men were hanged. Despite this generally aggressive view of his job description, Jaworski found the journaling technique was effective. Prisoners seemed to warm to it, he told the Warren Commission.
“One may speculate as to the reason for such a reaction. It may be due to the feeling that the testimony is accurately recorded by being written by the witnesses, and hence the witness feels safer in disclosing it. There may be other psychological factors involved. I particularly favored this method of obtaining a statement because in instances where it was in effect a confession, the statement was less vulnerable to the attack of involuntariness.”
The reluctant witness the Warren Commission was preparing to interview was Marina Oswald, widow of the accused assassin. Mrs. Oswald had apparently been less than 100 percent cooperative up to that point. In the aftermath of the president’s killing, this “high profile subject” was a special case.
Marina Oswald was not a terrorist but she was married to one and that presented certain difficulties. Her home country was at war with the United States, even if it was merely a cold war, and she was suddenly alone in a foreign land and afraid that she would be held to blame for the acts of others.
There was also Mrs. Oswald’s command of English, which was problematic.
“What I am leading up to is the advisability of Oswald’s wife being asked to furnish such a recording of her recollections in her own handwriting," Jaworski wrote to the Warren Commission’s top lawyer. "I am sure you realize that the predicate would have to be carefully laid. Both the person approaching her as well as the interpreter should be carefully chosen so that she would not become suspicious of the request. She should be made to understand that only the truth is sought and her interest in the development of the truth should be stimulated. Inasmuch as it appears that she would like to continue to live in this country, I have the feeling that if she were properly approached, she would be quite cooperative.”
It’s safe to say that most of the jihadists in custody do not want to live in the United States—but presumably at least some of them do want to live, and that desire may be equally useful as leverage. And while it is unlikely that anyone could phrase any request to a prisoner in Guantanamo so that it doesn’t raise suspicions, Mrs. Oswald herself was under no illusions about what was being asked of her. The information the commission wanted, according to Jaworski, left little doubt: “She should be requested to comment in detail on certain phases of this matter. For instance, (1) the names or such identifying factors as she can furnish of all persons with whom Oswald had any dealings during the time of their marriage; (2) did he at any time mention any contacts with representatives of the Russian government and if so, where, when, etc.; (3) his complete comments at the time of the General Walker incident; (4) why she believes Oswald was the assassin.” Jaworski recommended giving Mrs. Oswald “two or three days or longer” to record her recollections.
“Such an undertaking may not develop more than has been obtained from her, but I would be greatly surprised if it did not.”
One facet of Colonel Jaworski’s advice might not be appropriate in today’s circumstances. Speaking of who should approach Mrs. Oswald to seek her cooperation, Jaworski offered a unique suggestion.
“I question that this should be done by the FBI in that this agency probably has an image in her thinking that is not conducive to obtaining the best results.” In our present environment however—after the scandal of Abu Ghraib, and with the gulag at Guantanamo still in operation—the FBI is probably exactly who should be doing the interrogation. The FBI has reportedly been more humane, if not more effective, than both the military and the CIA.
Regardless of who might eventually be chosen to question the shooter’s widow, however, Jaworski predicted good results if his methods were followed. “I know of no finer document you could have in your possession than a statement written in her own handwriting in the Russian language,” he told Lee Rankin.
In the end Colonel Jaworski’s approach was used. In her actual testimony before the Warren Commission, Mrs. Oswald began by identifying and validating as her own words a long written statement she gave prior to coming to speak in person.
Her oral testimony that day was described later by a Texas official who was keeping notes for the Court of Inquiry. “When asked ‘you arrived at the conclusion your husband had killed the president?’ she said, ‘Yes, unfortunately, yes.’” The opinion of the widow carried great weight with the commission, and apparently writing out her thoughts had allowed her views to gel, with the kind of damning detail that only a wife could provide. “She stated that when she saw him at the police station ‘I could see by his eyes that he was guilty. Rather he tried to appear brave.
“’However, by his eyes I could tell that he was afraid.’”
Lucius Lomax is a freelance writer in Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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