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Richard Sprague from Gaeton Fonzi's "The Last Investigation"
Philadelphia's Richard Sprague as the Committee's chief counsel. Sprague had gotten national attention with his successful prosecution of United Mine Workers President Tony Boyle for the murder of UMW reformer Joseph Yablonski. In Philadelphia, where as First Assistant District Attorney he had run up a record of 69 homicide convictions out of 70 prosecutions, Sprague was known as tough, tenacious and independent. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind when I heard of Sprague's appointment that the Kennedy assassination would finally get what it needed: a no-holds-barred, honest investigation. Which just goes to show how ignorant of the ways of Washington both Sprague and I were.
When he took the job, Sprague had done so with the stipulation that he would have complete authority to hire his own staff and run the investigation as he saw fit. He proposed setting up two separate staffs, one for Kennedy and one foe King.
He insisted on handling both cases as if they were homicide investigations.
In the annals of the John F. Kennedy assassination, it was a novel approach. And, judging from the reaction of many Congressman, it was a far too radical approach.
The key factors that drove Richard Sprague to resign as Chief Counsel of the Assassinations Committee appeared, at the time, to be apparent and on the surface. His proposed use of certain investigative equipment, his demand for a expensive, unrestricted investigation, his refusal to pay politics with Chairman Gonzalez -- all were apparent grounds for the vociferous criticism which, in the long run, was debilitating to the Committee's efforts to get on with its job. However, after his resignation and a brief respite from the turmoil of Washington, Sprague was able to view his experience in a broader perspective.
Shortly after he returned from Acapulco, he was interviewed by Robert Sam Anson of New Times magazine. Sprague admitted that, with the barrages flying at him from all directions, he and the staff had little time to actually investigate. By his reckoning, he said, he spent "point zero one percent" of his time examining the actual evidence. Yet, he told Anson, if he had it to do over again, he would begin his investigation of the Kennedy assassination by probing "Oswald's ties to the Central Intelligence Agency." Recently, I asked Sprague why he had come to that conclusion. "Well," he said, "when I first thought about it I decided that the House leadership really hadn't intended for there to be an investigation. The Committee was set up to appease the Black Caucus in an election year. I still believe that was a factor. But when I looked back at what happened, it suddenly became very clear that the problems began only after I ran up against the CIA. That's when my troubles really started."
In the early months of the Committee's life, Sprague's critics both in Congress and in the press were not only keeping him busy dodging the shots, they were also demanding that the Committee produce some sensational new evidence to justify its continuance. Sprague, therefore, was forced to take some wild swings at what appeared to be a few obvious targets. One area that very apparently needed closer examination was the CIA's handling of the initial investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald's activities in Mexico City.
According to the information supplied to the Warren Commission by the CIA, a man who identified himself as Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Cuban consulate in Mexico City on September 27th, 1963. (That, by the way, the House Assassinations Committee would later conflictingly conclude, was possibly one of the dates Oswald appeared at Silvia Odio's door in Dallas.) The Agency told the Commission that Oswald had been in Mexico City from September 26th to October 3rd. During the time, said the Agency, Oswald made a number of visits to both the Cuban Embassy and the Russian Embassy attempting to get an in-transit visa to Russia by way of Cuba. The CIA also claimed that when Oswald visited the Russian Embassy he spoke with a Soviet consul who was really a KGB intelligence officer. It was later learned, however, that CIA headquarters in Washington was not informed of the incident until October 9th, and then told only that Oswald had contacted the Soviet Embassy on October 1st. The CIA station in Mexico City told headquarters that it had obtained a photograph of Oswald visited the Embassy and described the man in the photo as approximately 35 years old, six feet tall, with an athletic build, a balding top and receding hairline.
When the Warren Commission asked the CIA for photos of Oswald taken in Mexico City, the ones it produced depicted the man described in the original teletype -- obviously not Oswald. Notified of this discrepancy, the CIA said simply it had made a mistake and that there were no photographs of Oswald taken in Mexico City. It never identified the man in the photos. In fact, the CIA was able to produce very little hard evidence regarding Oswald's activities in Mexico City. "For example," Commission Counsel J. Lee Ranking complained, "they had no record of Oswald's daily movements while in Mexico City, nor could they confirm the date of his departure or his mode of travels."
Some Warren Commission critics would later interpret the incident as an attempt by certain CIA personnel to falsely link Oswald to Communist connections even before the Kennedy assassination. When Sprague first approached this area, he discovered that the CIA officer in charge of reporting such information from Mexico City at the time of Oswald's visit was former Bay of Pigs propaganda chief David Atlee Phillips.
In the biography, The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service (published in 1977), David Phillips spends just a few pages on the Kennedy assassination and the Mexico City incident. He blames the cable discrepancy on a mistake by an underling. He explains the lack of an Oswald photography on the CIA's inability to maintain camera coverage of the Cuban and Russian embassies on an around-the-clock and weekend basis. A seemingly strange deficiency at a period so close to the Cuban missile crisis)
Sprague called David Phillips to testify before the Assassinations Committee in November, 1976. According to Sprague, Phillips said that the CIA had monitored and tape recorded Oswald's conversations with the Soviet Embassy. The tape was then transcribed by a CIA employee who then mistakenly coupled it with a photograph of a person who was not Oswald. Phillips said that the actual recording was routinely destroyed or re-used about a week after it was received.
Sprague subsequently discovered an FBI memorandum to the Secret Service dated November 23rd, 1963. It referred to the CIA notification of the man who visited the Russian Embassy. The memo noted that "Special Agents of this Bureau who have conversed with Oswald in Dallas, Tex., have observed photographs of the individual referred to above and have listened to a recording of his voice. These Special Agents are of the opinion that the above-referred-to individual was not Lee Harvey Oswald."
Sprague was intrigued: How could the FBI agents have listened to a tape recording in November when Phillips said it had been destroyed in October? Sprague decided to push the CIA for an answer. He wanted complete information about the CIA's operation in Mexico City and total access to all its employees who may have had anything to do with the photographs, tape recordings and transcripts. The Agency balked. Sprague pushed harder. Finally the Agency agreed that Sprague could have access to the information if he agreed to sign a CIA Secrecy Agreement. Sprague refused. He contended that would be in direct conflict with House Resolution 222 which established the Assassination Committee and authorized it investigate the agencies of the United States Government. "How," he asked, "can I possible sign an agreement with an agency I'm supposed to be investigating?" He indicated he would subpoena the CIA's records.
Shortly afterwards, the first attempt to get the Assassinations Committee reconstituted was blocked.
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