Monday, March 12, 2012

Presidential Tapes & Transcripts

Air Force One Radio Transmission Tapes & Transcripts – 11/22/63
By William Kelly

There are a number of transcripts based on the Air Force One Radio transmission tapes, including the official LBJ Library transcript, one prepared by Kathy Cunningham (which is reported to have been donated to a Florida college library), and another one prepared for Max Holland and included in part in his book The Kennedy Assassination Tapes (Knopf, NY, 2004). The documentary film First 24 Hours also makes extensive use of the tapes and exhibited some of the transcripts as captions.

Since I didn’t have access to any of these when I obtained my cassette tape copy in the early 1980s (from the JFK Assassination Information Center in Dallas), I made my own transcript, and posted it on line at the web site.

When Mary Ferrell Archives obtained a copy of the audio tapes and posted it on line at their web site a few years ago, I went over it again, and upgraded my transcript according to their on line audio version.

With the recent discovery of the new Air Force One Radio Tapes found among the effects of President Kennedy’s Military Aide Gen. Clifton (which is reported to be 40 minutes longer than the previously known tape), [and its posting on line by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and Government Printing Office (GPO)], I transcribed the new parts and merged them with my previous transcript.

I intend to study the tapes some more and make continuous corrections and additions until the transcript is as complete as possible.

I am also working with military radio men and audio technicians to translate the codes, slang and abbreviated conversations that are contained on the tape.

I have also asked some specialists I know if they can make a high fidelity recording of the two versions and merge them as I have merged the transcripts, so we will have one continuous tape in chronological order that will make for easier study and analysis.

Forensic Analysis of the Air Force One Radio Transmission Tapes

Both Nathan Raab, current owner of the Clifton copy of the AF1 radio transmission tapes, and attorney Dan Alcorn, have independently suggested that a forensic analysis be conducted on the existing tapes to determine exactly what they contain, a fine idea.

While this analysis would normally cost thousands of dollars, just as ITEK and KODAK did work on the Zapruder film on a “pro bono” basis, there are some private and academic institutions out there that should be willing to conduct the necessary tests, possibly professors using students as a class project.

Besides being able to hear some of the conversations that are punctuated by static and fade-outs, a forensic analysis will be able to time the conversations so we know when they took place (by comparing them with the Andrews Log and news reports), and place them in proper chronological order, as well as determine when and where there are edits and splices on the tapes, so we know where missing portions are located even if we don’t know what is missing.

By identifying the locations of some of the radio stations that are on the tapes – other than WHCA, such as Andrews AFB and Collins Radio HQ, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, additional, unedited copies of the tapes may be located. [ie. Jim Lesar has written a letter to Rockwell-Collins Radio Co. in Cedar Rapids, asking them if they have a copy of the Air Force One Radio Tapes).

Max Holland (in his book The Kennedy Assassination Tapes, 2004, p. xii), who was associated with the Miller Center project dedicated to transcribing the Presidential tapes, writes about the tapes and the transcripts and makes some important points:

“In the first weeks of the Johnson administration, it was anticipated that the secretarial staff would keep pace with the president and churn out transcripts with only a few days’ delay. The burden soon proved overwhelming, but even if it had not, the secretarial transcripts are not to be relied on. The quality varied considerably, as different secretaries understood the word transcript to mean different things. As the staff fell further and further behind, the secretaries increasingly resorted to conveying the gist of what was said rather than making a word-by-word rendering, and many nuances, if not the meaning itself, were often lost.”

“Fashioning a transcript is every bit as subjective as selecting which conversations to transcribe, if not more so. The instant one commits a spoken conversation to paper, it becomes a facsimile of that communication. One truth is clear from the outset: to get the most out of the conversation, there is no substitute for listening to them oneself.”

“The first question is how far one strays from presenting a verbatim transcript. If there is a guiding principle here, it is that these transcripts are meant to be read. They are accurate as to the substance of the conversation, but are not verbatim, as one might find in a reference work. Rendering the conversations in that manner would tend to make them harder and perhaps tedious to read. Thus, sounds like ‘ah’ occur in these transcripts to be sure, but certainly not as frequently as they are uttered. They are rendered sparingly, most often to convey that the speaker is searching for the right word or thought, in my admittedly subjective opinion. The rule of thumb is akin to the one journalists follow when quoting a public figure. Similarly, in bilateral telephone conversations, the person at thee other end of the line will often acknowledge what is being said by saying ‘yes,’ ‘yeah,’ ‘humm,’ or ‘uh-huh.’ These are also not conveyed as often as they can be heard.”

“….With respect to the Air Force One (AF1) conversations only, many audible transmissions have been redacted out. It is difficult to label any conversation from November 22 routine, and the confusion and urgency conveyed in nearly every transmission are testimony to the emotion of the day. Still, such topics as the parceling out of radio frequency assignments, reports from SAM 86972 about its unscheduled landing in Honolulu, and the reconfiguration of Secret Service assignments were judged to be of too little interest. None of the substantive conversation have been left out, though even here they have been edited to eliminate some of the coordination via Andrews Air Force Base that must occur before, say, McGeorge Bundy in the Situation Room can speak to a Secret Service agent aboard AF1. One other convention employed with respect to AF1 conversations is that individuals are identified as speaking only when their identity is known for certain. Otherwise, the location of the speaker is given. The times for the AF1 conversations are often approximations, based upon known reference points. They are presented in the order they are heard on the tapes, which may differ.”


“The rule of thumb was to provide enough context about a conversation, including the speaker’s background, so that the full meaning could be extracted. Very few conversations are wholly self-evident, and even a conversation that sounds simple on the surface can take on a quite different meaning after being deciphered. Newspapers were often critical in this regard, as Johnson and his staffers are often reacting to articles published that very day. In each case, the precise article being referred to was consulted….”

“It should be noted that many aspects of the assassination are never discussed by President Johnson in the extant tape recordings. No attempt has been made to incorporate information that is relevant to the assassination but beyond the ken of the president. This is a narrative of the issue as seen from a special perspective – that of President Johnson only – and does not purport to be a comprehensive history of the assassination and its aftermath.”

I met Max Holland in September 2004 at a conference in DC where he gave a talk around the time of the publication of his book on the very subject of the Presidential tapes as they reflect on the assassination. John Judge bought a copy of the book for me as a gift and I had Max sign it for me, which he did with the note, “I hope you find it interesting.”

At that opportunity I asked him if he knew what “Liberty” station was, and when he said no, he didn’t, I was kind of disappointed that he wasn’t familiar with my 1994 COPA conference talk on “The Collins Radio Connections” ten years earlier. I recall that he was there, the year John McAdams infiltrated the conference under an assumed name and was unmasked when he was interviewed by a reporter as a typical conference attendee. Holland was there to “cover” the conference for the Nation, and in doing so totally trashed COPA. But he must have neglected to attend my short lecture and failed to read about it as posted on the internet for the previous decade. That was okay though, as I knew I was way ahead of him then, as far as the research goes, and confirmed this when I read in his book that he “redacted” all of the technical talk about frequencies and such as unnecessary and insignificant.

While I kind of expected that from Holland, who I knew was writing a book with the predetermined conclusion that the Warren Commission got it right after all, I was disappointed to read Doug Horne’s Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) Memo on the Air Force One radio tapes, in which he too makes note that the identity of the “Liberty” station was unknown. While I can’t force people to read my work, I knew Doug Horne and that he was familiar with most of the assassination literature, and that if he had known “Liberty” was the “Fish Bowl” radio center at the Collins Radio headquarters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he could have possibly tracked down unedited original copies of the tapes.

In his Memo Horne also recommends that the ARRB should not make a more complete and accurate transcript of the Air Force One radio tapes, as they are edited and incomplete, and they should wait until they obtain a complete unedited copy, which has yet to happen.

I am quite confident however, that such tapes exist, as the Clifton tapes have shown, and that even if the originals were destroyed and/or disappeared, multiple originals exist, copies were made, and transcripts of the unedited originals were made, as T.H. White, William Manchester and Pierre Salinger read them.

So we know both the unedited tapes and the unedited transcripts once existed, copies were made, and there is no record of them being destroyed, which there should be, so they probably still exist somewhere, on a shelf in a closet or basement or in an attic or under a bed somewhere. And they will surface some day.

Have all of the known locations of radio station receivers and transmitters been searched for copies of tapes, including WHCA, SAM Andrews, “Brandywine,” the State Dept., Pentagon, Offut AFB (SAC Command Post), and Collins Radio?

It has also been suggested that amateur HAM radio buffs often listened in and may have privately recorded the AF1 radio transmission, and some foreign countries most certainly targeted them – especially the Soviet listening post at Lourdes, Cuba. Perhaps they have the tapes? Or possibly a friendly ally like Canada or Australia?

In the meantime, we are left to ponder over what we have to work with.


1) What are the differences between the LBJ Library Tapes and the Clifton Tapes?
2) Can these tapes be recorded in high-fidelity and merged, with the best of the two versions used for analysis?
3) Can everybody on the tapes be identified?
4) Can everything that is said be understood and transcribed correctly?
5) Are there any background conversations that can be understood and transcribed correctly (as Doug Horne suggests re: black Cadillac)
6) Can the places were the tapes have been edited be detected?
7) Are any of those on the tapes or mentioned on the tapes still alive?
8) Do the tapes refer to new persons we weren't aware or or familiar with before?
9) Do the tapes refer to new records or sources of records that we didn't know about before?
10) Are there any other outstanding questions the tapes can help answer or lead to answers?

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