In the Room Where it Happened
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
So, it was 35 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and I was the Director of Congressional Affairs at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC. I had arrived at the Archives as a summer intern in 1971 and navigated my way through the bureaucracy to what I would describe as my dream job, the Archives guy on Capitol Hill.
For most of those 35 years, the Archives had been ground zero for collection, preservation, and analysis of the records associated with the assassination of President Kennedy. We held the records of the Warren Commission, including Oswald’s rifle, the recovered bullet and bullet fragments, the windshield of the Presidential limousine, a section of curbstone from Dealey Plaza, and the blood-stained clothing of the President and Governor Connally. All the autopsy photographs, the original Zapruder film, and all records of the subsequent congressional investigations into the assassination were in our holdings. In a separate transfer, we held the bloodstained pink suit worn in Dallas by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Finally, in deference to the wishes of the Kennedy family, even the original medical equipment, gurneys, and wall tiles from Parkland Hospitals’ Trauma Room No.1 were boxed and stored in the Archive’s Federal Records Center in Fort Worth, Texas. We acquired these items when the trauma room was renovated in the 1970’s. The Kennedys were concerned that the artifacts might have fallen into the hands of ghoulish collectors or a museum outside of their control.
I had for some years been designated as the key liaison between Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (President Kennedy’s youngest brother), and the National Archives. I was the Congressional guy for the Archives, and Senator Kennedy was a very powerful steward of the Kennedy Library (an Archives facility) in Boston, Massachusetts. This afforded me the unique opportunity to meet one-on-one with the Senator and his staff anytime the Archives was considering decisions that would have any effect on the JFK Library or the assassination records.
After the release of the Oliver Stone’s provocative, though fictional movie JFK in 1991, there was a renewed public outcry to reopen the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy and to determine whether there had been a government conspiracy to assassinate the President. The movie had promoted the idea that Vice President Johnson and the CIA were involved in a murder plot.
Our oversight committee chairman, Senator John Glenn of Ohio was at the forefront of the records access issue and personally drove the congressional response. I worked closely with Steve Cohen of his staff as we drafted legislation.
The effort resulted in The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, or the JFK Records Act, a public law passed by the United States Congress, effective October 26, 1992. It directed the National Archives to establish a collection of records to be known as the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection. It stated that “the collection shall consist of copies of all U.S. government records relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, which shall be transmitted to the National Archives”.
To add to the credibility of the effort, the law established an independent agency, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), to consider and render decisions when a U.S. government office sought to postpone the disclosure of assassination records. The goal of the legislation was not just to collect all evidence, but to open 100% of it to the public.
The ARRB collected assassination records starting in 1992 and produced its final report in 1998. While no new earth-shattering evidence was found, virtually all records were declassified, the vast majority of known records were consolidated into one collection, and the effort was considered a measured success.
That brings us to September of 1998. Here are two excerpts from the final report of the ARRB:
In April 1995, a member of the public wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno to advise her that Warren Commission Exhibit 567 (CE 567) bullet fragment may have embedded in it tiny strands of fiber that the writer believed came from President Kennedy's shirt collar. In January 1996, John Keeney, Acting Assistant Attorney General, wrote to FBI Director Louis Freeh requesting that the FBI "initiate an inquiry into specific aspects of the assassination theory related to collected bullet fragments and residues now in the possession of the federal government."
In March 1996, the Review Board, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and NARA [the National Archives] began a series of meetings to discuss re-examination of the ballistics evidence. In June 1996, the FBI provided its report to the Review Board and stated that "a complete fiber analysis could be conducted on the fibrous debris adhering to CE 567 and the materials composing the shirt and the tie [of President Kennedy]."
In August 1998, after lengthy consideration about whether the testing would be appropriate, NARA finally agreed to allow limited testing of CE 567 to complete the earlier recommendation of the HSCA's Firearms Panel. NARA also determined that the bullet fragment should be tested for "suspected biological tissue and/or organic material," the presence of which was noted by the HSCA in 1978 and the FBI in 1996.
English translation: In the years after the assassination, forensic science had improved, and a more comprehensive analysis of the bullet fragments was possible. The National Archives was reluctant to allow the testing based on the archival principle that nothing should be done to archival records that would in any way alter, or potentially destroy them. We needed assurances that any new forensic testing would not in any way harm the bullet fragments.
And so, what was the big deal about fabric possibly being attached to the bullet fragments?
Most eyewitnesses said that three shots were fired at the President’s limousine. The Warren Commission concluded that one missed the car entirely, hit a curbstone in Dealey Plaza and was never recovered. The second (“Magic Bullet”) hit the President from behind, came through his neck, hit the Governor in the back and was found lodged in the Governor’s right wrist. The third shot hit the President in the head and ricocheted inside the car, hitting, among other things, the inside of the windshield. Bullet fragments had been recovered from the front seat of the limousine and were thought to have been from this third and fatal shot.
If fabric from the President or Governor Connally’s clothing was embedded in the recovered fragments, it would put into question the so called “Magic Bullet Theory” from the Warren Commission Report. This critical, foundational theory was that one bullet hit both the President and Governor Connally and was recovered in pristine condition from the Governor’s right wrist. Without that explanation of the trajectory of this second shot from the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald, the credibility of the report would have unraveled.
So, the stage was set to begin new testing of these bullet fragments by new experts with new techniques.
I briefed Melody Miller, long time Kennedy confidant and personal assistant to Senator Ted Kennedy. Melody had been a very young White House assistant to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days just after the assassination, a personal secretary to the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy and was a memory bank of all things Kennedy. A tall striking blonde who looked much younger than her 53 years, she was one of the nicest, most intelligent, and toughest staffers I ever worked with on the Hill. She trusted me to give her the facts, and I trusted that she would ask all the right questions to keep the National Archives (and me) out of harm’s way with the Senator and the Kennedy family. In 1998, Jacqueline Kennedy was no longer alive, so Caroline and John Jr. joined their Uncle Ted as the keepers of the flame. Sensitivity to the image, the name, and the legacy was beyond measure and I knew it.
As usual, the briefing occurred in a small sitting room off Senator Kennedy’s personal office, Russell Senate Office Building, Room 317. The room was long and narrow with one door to the Senator’s office and one to the hallway, a high ceiling, a large bright window, and dark green walls with a museum of signed photos, family images, and toothy Kennedy smiles everywhere you looked. If you were a “Kennedyphile”, this was as close to heaven as you could get. The Kennedy Library held a wonderful collection of Kennedy photography and artifacts, but these were the personal pictures and mementoes that meant enough to be on the Senator’s walls. I met three times in that room with the Senator (on one occasion including his beloved Portuguese Water Spaniel “Splash”). The seating was always the same…visitors on the long federal-period couch that dominated one wall, and the Senator and/or his staff in the chairs on the other side. Kennedy always had lingering issues due to having suffered a broken back in a plane crash in 1964 and preferred the straightest chair in the room.
Melody, always a great listener, was attentive to all the pertinent facts involved in this new test of the evidence and she carefully studied the letters and documents that I brought to illustrate where we were going and why. I remember that she pressed me repeatedly on the “why” of this reexamination of the evidence and the hardest question to answer, what were we expecting to gain from this exercise. She, the Senator, and the Kennedy family had lived through years of conspiracy speculation, intrusive examinations of their private and public lives, and theories about Mafia, Cuban, and now even US Government involvement in the assassination. While their position in society and the protections that are afforded to high-ranking officials could protect them from some of this, there was no place to hide from much of the talk and speculation. They were tired of it. Though they were always professional, I knew that reopening discussions about the assassination was as unwanted a part of their day as one could imagine.
What made that day’s discussion a bit easier was the fact that the request to reexamine the evidence had come down the line from Attorney General Janet Reno. As the Attorney General, appointed by then-President Bill Clinton, her opinion went a long way towards lifting the heat from the National Archives in this discussion. Janet Reno would not be making this request unless it was important to pursue and would not in her judgement be an unnecessary intrusion into the life and legacy of JFK. The 1996 letter from Reno’s office to FBI Director Louis Freeh was the key document for Melody to forward to the Senator.
As I was leaving, Melody asked me one question that makes this story possible, “will you be in the room when they open the boxes to reexamine the evidence?” I honestly had not anticipated the question, nor had I given this much thought. The Archives had always operated on a very stringent “need to know” basis with highly sensitive collections. The Warren Commission evidence was housed in a locked cage inside a locked stack area at the National Archives at College Park, and only a handful of people in the National Archives had access. The materials were only touched by the staff for preservation purposes, and were off limits to researchers, the public, and the press. I would even bet that some Archivists of the United States had come and gone in those 35 years and not seen inside those evidence boxes. It was just something that you didn’t ask to do, as strange as that might seem to a curious public.
There was obviously going to be a formal meeting between the new experts and our custodian archival staff to show the bullet fragments and the clothing to them and go over the protocols and goals of the inquiry.
“I don’t really know whether I’ll be able to be in the room”, I replied. “Why?”
I don’t recall her exact words, but I do remember that she made it crystal clear that she thought that the Senator would expect me to be in the room, so that I could describe in detail the discussion and what was going to be done going forward. They never wanted a secondhand account of anything.
“If that is what the boss wants, I will convey to Governor Carlin (former Governor of Kansas and President Clinton’s appointee as Archivist of the United States) his wishes. I will be there.”
A room was designated at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (Archives II) for the meeting. As noted above, that was the building where the Warren Commission collection was housed in 1998 and where most of the testing was to occur. Movement of these historic materials from room to room was a well-planned activity, and a building-to-building transfer was like a complicated military maneuver. When Archives II opened in 1994 to alleviate a space shortage at the original 1934 building on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the Kennedy assassination collection was moved in the dark of night under strict security to its new vault in Maryland. Even that had been explained ahead of time to Senator Kennedy.
As I walked into the room that day, there were approximately 18 of us in attendance. Guests included representatives of the FBI Laboratory in Washington DC, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education. The remainder of the group was Archives staff and folks from the Assassination Materials Review Board. Microphones were in place to back up a stenographer who would be recording the proceedings and microscopes and other devices were at the front of the room, brought in by the experts to make a preliminary examination of the bullet fragments. Along the right side of the room on long tables were 3 large gray Hollinger boxes, maybe 40 inches long, 30 inches wide, and 6 inches deep. Hollinger boxes were archival boxes designed and produced for the Archives by a company in Virginia. They were acid free, assembled at the corners with aluminum fasteners, and made of a water absorbent fiber that would wick water away from the precious records contained inside.
I immediately presumed that these were the clothing boxes and that another smaller box sitting nearby held the bullet fragments
After Archives officials welcomed the group and outlined the purpose of the meeting, each of the experts introduced themselves and presented the specialties and capabilities of their organizations. The FBI, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and the Armed Forces DNA Lab would be conducting the tests, and the Smithsonian was offering independent peer experts to review all proceedings. If there was any doubt before walking into that room that we had assembled the right people for this task, I remember being in awe of the credentials represented and clear on why each person was there.
After some further discussion, the experts were offered the opportunity to see inside the gray boxes. Steve Tilley, the lead Archives expert on the Warren Commission records stepped forward and opened the first box containing the shirt and tie that President Kennedy wore on the day of the assassination. I remember getting up from my chair and stepping forward with the rest of the group and from three feet, seeing the President’s shirt. My eyes were immediately fixed on 35-year-old blood stains, now dark brown with age, covering about two thirds of the front of the shirt. While neatly arranged, you could immediately see that the sleeves were sliced from cuff to shoulder where the trauma doctors had cut the clothes off the President in Parkland Hospital. After the initial shock, I also remember being surprised by the style of the shirt, not plain white as I had assumed, but a white shirt with a repeating blue three-pin-stripe pattern.
No matter how sophisticated I became over a 35-year career with the Archives, no matter how many thousands of incredible documents and artifacts that I had seen and touched, I had the same thought each time. My God, this is it…this is really it.
Steve directed our attention to the hole in the shirt just above the second button, identified as the exit hole from the first shot that hit the President. While the shirt was not moved, Steve said that this matched a hole in the shirt high on the President’s back that would have been the entrance wound from this same bullet. This would have been the so called “magic bullet” that then also went through Governor Connally’s body and lodged in his right wrist.
That same box held a separate plastic envelope with a second exhibit, the President’s patterned blue tie from that day. In the trauma room effort to cut the President’s clothes from his body, the lower portion of the tail end of the tie had been severed, so the tie was in two pieces in the exhibit case. However, the nick in the tie where the first bullet had exited exposed a portion of the tie’s white lining that is plainly visible.
The President’s suit coat was the next item to be opened and I don’t remember anything remarkable about it other than yes, this was it, and I was standing a couple feet away looking at it. It too had been cut from the President’s body on the operating table and was sliced up the arms and across the back. Unlike the shirt, Steve Tilley did turn this over so that the experts could see the hole in the back of the suit that represented the entrance wound from bullet two. While blood stains had clearly darkened the fabric, it was not as dramatic a specimen as the shirt.
Finally, Steve turned to the last box on the table, the one holding Governor Connally’s suit jacket from that day. While not part of the original Warren Commission evidence, Mrs. Connally had given the suit to the National Archives shortly after the Governor’s death in 1993. It was the only item in the room that provided a moment of levity on that very serious day.
When Steve opened the box, we immediately noted the distinctive smell of carbon tetrachloride even before the suit coat was visible to us. The scientists began to laugh when they saw that Mrs. Connally had sent the jacket out to the dry cleaners before she donated it to the Archives…it was even still wearing its plastic bag with the cleaning ticket attached. They immediately recognized that Mrs. Connally’s gesture toward cleanliness and etiquette had destroyed any ability to positively link chemically treated fabric to a 35-year-old bullet fragment. The box was closed, and the smiling scientists turned their attention to the bullet fragments.
While not the most dramatic moments of the day, the next steps certainly proved the most interesting. After we all took turns looking at the bullet fragments with the naked eye, the folks from the FBI Lab put them under one of the microscopes at the front of the room. In turn, each of the scientists looked at the fragments and gave their opinion as to whether the fibrous material attached was of a fabric or human origin and whether there was enough to get a DNA sample without damage to the artifact. While they each offered divergent opinions as to what they were seeing, they agreed that there was enough material from which to get a DNA sample.
Unfortunately, the other thing that they agreed on that day was that evidence handling had come a long way since 1963. Prior to modern DNA testing, the only thing that detectives could glean from evidence was blood type, and that did not require careful handling. Likely, even if the material on the fragment was of a human and not fabric origin, it would be difficult to link it to the President. Police detectives, the FBI, prosecutors, and many others had probably handled these fragments without plastic gloves over the years, and a multitude of conflicting DNA samples would be on the evidence.
Next steps were agreed to regarding the testing and we filed out of the room knowing that we had been witness to both historical artifacts and the making of history. I briefed Melody Miller by phone on the steps that had been taken and promised to keep her informed along the way.
Sixteen months later, with all testing complete, the National Archives distributed a press release that stated in part:
In requesting such tests, the Department of Justice said that if "alleged fiber evidence embedded in the bullet nose recovered from the front seat of the limousine" was "consistent with the President's shirt collar, tie, and tie liner," then there might have been a "different trajectory than that previously identified" by the Warren Commission. Scientists concluded from the test that the fibers were of a non-textile origin and did not come from the clothing of John F. Kennedy, nor of John B. Connally. The Department of Justice also had speculated that the organic fragments might shed light on the assassination, but DNA analysis of them proved inconclusive.
We hoped against hope that that report would prove conclusive and stop some of the speculation about the assassination. But we knew that it would not. Conspiracy theory has become its own cottage industry in America and with speculation and books still being written about the assassination of President Lincoln, the reexamination of the history of the Kennedy assassination will long outlive our children and grandchildren.
Postscript: In May of 2007 I retired from the National Archives and became the Director of Government Relations and Public Affairs at the Legal Services Corporation. During that transition, I checked my phone messages one day, and heard the distinctive voice of Senator Edward Kennedy with a message of thanks for my service at the Archives. He said in part, “John, you were always there for me and my family and for that we are very grateful”. Like the days described above, that was a phone message I’ll never forget.