Philip H. Melanson was born in Salem in 1945. he obtained his bachelor's, master's and doctorate at the University of Connecticut.
Melanson joined the staff of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth in 1971. He taught history and this included the popular course "Political Assassinations in America". He was also director of the Policy Studies Program and coordinator of the Robert F. Kennedy Archive. Over the years Melanson obtained the release of more than 175,000 pages of official documents on the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.
Melanson published fifteen books during his career including Political Science and Political Knowledge (1977), Politics of Protection: United States Secret Service (1984), The Murkin Conspiracy: Investigation into the Assassination of Martin Luther King (1989), Spy Saga: Lee Harvey Oswald and U.S. Intelligence (1990), The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination: New Revelations on the Conspiracy and Cover Up (1991), Martin Luther King Assassination: New Revelations on the Conspiracy and Cover Up (1994), Shadow Play: The Murder of Robert F. Kennedy (1997), Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency (2002) and Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Public's Right to Know (2002).
Philip H. Melanson died of cancer on 18th September, 2006. Just before his death he completed a manuscript that examined the relationship between the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency in the war against drugs.
It was primary night in California, June 4, 1968. As Robert Kennedy addressed his cheering supporters in the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel, Paul Schrade looked on with pride and admiration. An hour earlier Schrade had been upstairs with the senator, working on the details of his speech. Now from the stage of the Los Angeles hotel he watched as Kennedy declared victory and assumed his place as a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
When he had finished speaking, Robert Kennedy stepped off the stage into a dimly lit hallway en route to another press conference. He spotted Schrade and called out for him to follow. Kennedy then passed through a set of swinging doors into a narrow food-preparation area, where he paused to shake hands with several busboys. "Finally," Schrade thought as he observed the scene, "a real president."
Just then Schrade experienced what felt like a severe electric shock-the thought raced through his mind that he had stepped in some water with live television wires. Schrade's body began to convulse uncontrollably. As he fell to the floor he was certain he was being electrocuted.
When he regained consciousness a short while later, Paul Schrade felt bruises on his chest where he had been stepped upon by a panicking crowd. There was a sharper pain in his forehead where a bullet lodged in his skull. A short distance away Robert Kennedy lay mortally wounded.
Years later, the pain of that awakening still scarred Schrade deeply. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, to everyone's satisfaction, had been convicted of Robert Kennedy's murder, but Schrade was troubled because the wound in his own head made no sense, given the explanation offered for it by the Los Angeles police. When he tried to find out more, Schrade discovered that the police files on the crime were sealed.
In 1974, at the urging of former New York congressman Allard Lowenstein, Paul Schrade joined a small group of citizens trying to open the secret police files. A year later he became a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to force disclosure. In the decade that followed, Schrade took the fight to Mayor Thomas Bradley and the Los Angeles Police Commission.
Finally public pressure prevailed. In 1988 the police files in the Robert Kennedy assassination were made available for inspection by the California State Archives in Sacramento. Schrade and a small group of researchers (including this book's coauthor Philip Melanson) then began to sift slowly through the more than fifty thousand pages of released documents.
On April 2, 1992, almost twenty-four years after the assassination, a silver-haired Paul Schrade, accompanied by several colleagues, walked down the polished corridors of the Los Angeles County Courthouse pulling a small wagon carrying five heavy boxes. In the boxes were copies of a "request," a formal petition asking the Los Angeles County Grand Jury to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department for "willfull and corrupt misconduct" in the investigation of the murder of Robert Kennedy. Accompanying the request were eight hundred pages of exhibits offered to back up claims of the LAPD's "destruction of evidence, falsification of evidence and coercion of witnesses."
In addition to that of Paul Schrade, the petition to the grand jury bore the signatures of over fifty prominent citizens, including historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., former RFK press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, former Watergate prosecutor Sam Dash, author Norman Mailer, farm workers' leader Cesar Chavez, and Harvard law professor Gary Bellow.
The request was also signed by several men who played a direct role in the events surrounding the assassination. One of these was William Bailey. On the night of the murder, Bailey was an agent for the FBI stationed in Los Angeles. He inspected the crime scene and interviewed witnesses a few hours after the shooting. Over time Bailey became convinced that the official version of the murder was a fabrication.
William Bailey now teaches criminal justice at a small college in New Jersey. Each year he puts on a mock trial of Sirhan in which the class sits as jury. "First I present the prosecution case in the best way 1 know," he told the authors, "then the defense. I have never been able to convict Sirhan." As Bailey explains it, his trial of Sirhan is a tutorial in the suspension of judgment. "I want to show them," he says, speaking of his students, "that in criminal investigations, things are not always what they seem."
Dr. Cyril Wecht also signed the grand jury petition. Wecht is a lawyer, a medical doctor, and a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In days following the death of Robert Kennedy, Wecht worked with Los Angeles County coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi on the autopsy report. What he discovered disturbed him greatly. To Wecht, the evidence strongly suggested that Sirhan Sirhan was not the source of the bullets that struck Robert Kennedy.
Several weeks after the murder Dr. Wecht was contacted by the mother of Sirhan Sirhan. She asked if he would represent her son in court. Wecht was stunned and flattered, but after several days,' consideration he declined, in part because he was not an active criminal lawyer. Wecht felt justified in this decision when Sirhan secured the services of several highly respected attorneys. A year later he would be dismayed when these men did not introduce at Sirhan's trial any of the potentially exonerating evidence.
"There's no question that Sirhan deserves a new trial," Wecht said recently. "This case has never been as simple as it looked. Forensically speaking, it's a puzzle."
Though Schrade, Bailey, and Wecht, among others, have struggled with the facts of this murder for more than a quarter century, the assassination of Robert Kennedy was not regarded as a puzzle by those who investigated the crime. The case against Sirhan Sirhan, in the public mind, could hardly have been more open and shut. Robert Kennedy was shot and killed, and Sirhan Sirhan, firing a pistol, was apprehended only a few feet away. In time, the accused assassin would admit to the crime, offer a motive, and assert that he acted alone-a prosecutor's dream: Rumors of conspiracy seemed, for once, not only unfounded, but easily refuted.
But this seemingly most apparent of the 1960s political assassinations turns out to be, in many ways, the most complex; certainly, the most bizarre. For example, while the accused assassin insisted he acted alone, reliable witnesses saw him being led to the crime by a beautiful woman, who, shortly thereafter, was seen running from the hotel laughing. She then vanished. More disturbing, ballistic evidence collected by the police and the coroner strongly suggested that a second gun was fired during the murder, and that Sirhan Sirhan may not have shot Robert Kennedy at all. Some of the most important pieces of this evidence also vanished. Most strange is that, despite his admission of guilt, the confessed assassin seemed, genuinely, to have no memory of the crime. What did this mean? Normally, one would expect a murder trial to sort through these circumstances to separate fact from fiction. Not in this case.
The trial of Sirhan Sirhan was, from the beginning, a self conscious event. "We are aware that this is not just another criminal case," Los Angeles district attorney Evelle Younger announced. "We are aware the whole nation, even the whole world, is watching." So many newsmen, in fact, attended the trial, that a second courtroom had to be outfitted with video monitors to accommodate the overflow. Those in attendance spoke about the trial in reverential terms.
Time magazine labeled it "a classic of criminal jurisprudence." Others called it "the trial Lee Harvey Oswald never had," "the trial of the century," or "a showcase of American justice." Anticipating, incorrectly, a parallel proceeding against the accused assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, the New York Times asserted, "both will represent trials of the American system of justice as much as they will trials of the men in the dock."
In the late 1960s, the image of legal authority in America badly needed reaffirmation. The country, it seemed, was fracturing along racial and generational lines. Each week hundreds of young men died in an unpopular Asian war, riots were increasingly common on university campuses and in the streets of the nation's cities, and political murders were occurring with unprecedented frequency.
For its part, the government appeared powerless to stop the political violence, and the American judicial system seemed un
able to cope with these events after the fact. Lee Oswald, the accused assassin of President John Kennedy, forcefully asserted during his brief public moment that he was a patsy. He was then shot to death on TV by a local hoodlum before any legal proceedings could begin. James Earl Ray, the accused assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, alleged in his brief public moment that he was a victim of a conspiracy. He was also quickly hustled off the stage without a trial.
It then fell to the prosecutors and defenders of Sirhan Sirhan to reassert the authority and integrity of American justice. It is clear that those involved understood and accepted this mandate, but, in so doing, they became careless with the truth. There were some who were guilty of worse. Destruction of evidence, coercion of witnesses-these were acts of volition.
Far more common were sins born of vanity and ignorance in otherwise honorable men. Each act of neglect, each deceit in pursuit of an adjudicated truth, seemed small given the assumed certainty of the defendant's guilt and the greater good of the nation's honor. But the secrecy, the negligence, and the deceit accumulated, until what was acted out in that small Los Angeles courtroom was not a glowing tribute to American jurisprudence, but rather a farcical shadow play in which historical truth and the rights of the defendant were sacrificed at the altar of public justice.
The first point I would urge is that your definition of assassination-related records include all U.S. Government files on Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the assassination.
As the board is aware, I'm sure, and much of the public, the enduring controversy of who Oswald really was, what he was, is an inherent part of the historical truth of this case. It's also been an area that's been subject to governmental secrecy over the decades and to deception. So, it's crucial that these be released as part of the record.
Oswald, as you know, is the most complex alleged or real political assassin in American history. Let me refresh our memories about that.
This is a young man who studied the Russian language in the Marine Corps, subscribed to Pravda, had proximity to a U-2 spy plane, defected, or fake defected, to Russia, came back, and had involvements with groups that looked both pro- and anti-Castro, and corresponded with or joined some of the most heavily-targeted domestic political groups of the era.
So, the files pre-assassination on Oswald are very rich, and just as the Warren Commission created assassination records out of Oswald's school transcripts, psychiatrist reports, Marine Corps disciplinary records, those of us who have a different view of Oswald want the full record of what our government agencies knew about him to be released.
And those agencies, let me say, a list of agencies that definitely have or should have had, given their mission, pre-assassination files on Oswald, would include the Marine Corps, the State Department, selective service, FBI, CIA, probably National Security Agency, and Army and Navy intelligence.
And I would also urge that as part of this outreach in pre-assassination Oswald, that the files of the groups that he joined or corresponded with be looked at carefully, as well, because these were groups, as I said, that were heavily targeted by U.S. intelligence, and the key to how they treated or thought of Oswald may lie in those files -- the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party, and the infamous American Civil Liberties Union.
I also urge the board to focus its disclosure spotlight on some of those agencies that have remained relatively in the shadows.
We're all aware of FBI and CIA and Secret Service, but many of us in the research community would like to see special attention paid to the National Security Agency and to Army intelligence, which has a very poor history of responsiveness, to be charitable, in this case, which indications are has material presently on Oswald, claimed that it destroyed routinely a file on Oswald.
Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is another agency.
So, these are things that need to be looked at and will shed light on who Oswald was.
Let me get to the part of my suggestions that relate to implementation, and if I am already reinforcing what the board is already thinking, so be it, because some of Chairman Tunheim's comments this morning parallel my suggestions.
I emphasize that the board should develop its own expertise about the files, and I can't stress that enough.
I think it's commendable that you're talking with assassination researchers who understand the case, many of whom are also expert on the files, but I also point out that there are experts who know very little or nothing about the Kennedy assassination who are exceedingly expert on the convoluted filing indices of FBI and CIA, and I hope you will draw upon these people at every stage.
Let me give you my own parallel example from another case.
As the director of the Robert Kennedy assassination archives at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, when we began to pursue the FBI files on the Robert Kennedy case, the Freedom of Information Act request was drafted in concert with authors who had written on the FBI, ex-agents, scholars knowledgeable in the field, and it was a six-page letter that I was the signatory to, much of the jargon of which I couldn't understand, but it produced 32,000 pages of records where previously similar requests not so detailed, not so expert, had produced one-tenth of that volume, and I think that's proof that, if you are able to tell the agencies where to look, what to look for, you're going to increase the yield tremendously.
I also urge - and I think the chairman spoke to the fact that this is occurring. There is no replacement for the expertise of those who worked on the files contemporaneously, the people who generated them, who use them, who knew what they are about.
Present records custodians may not have that knowledge, and this is important not only in broadening the search but also, frankly, in overcoming the hide-and-seek games, as I call them, that some intelligence agencies play some of the time.
And I would refer to the examples that -- in the Robert Kennedy case, for example, if it hadn't been for the affidavit of a Los Angeles police officer, retired, we would not have known about the super-secret department file on the case that was stuck out at L.A. airport and not in the downtown files.
And similar things have happened in other cases, agents who work, know the convoluted filing system and where things might be hidden, as well as where they might be found. Your experts, outside experts, and your own expertise and staff, I don't mean to discount staff expertise clearly.
The other payoff here is tracing documents from documents and files from files, a very important activity that really requires a detailed knowledge of cryptographs and notations and filing numbers, and also what I call the mirror-image principle, that you will find some state and local agencies who have mandates that cause them to be in touch with Federal agencies and who will have Federal paper in their files that will lead to Federal agency files.
The example I would talk about here is the Dallas police criminal intelligence unit.
Both pre- and post-assassination, that unit within the police department definitely should have or would have had contact with the Central Intelligence Agency, with Army intelligence, with other agencies, and therefore, their files provide a good clue, in mirror-image fashion, to what the Federal agencies might hold.
I was very pleased to hear Chairman Tunheim talk this morning about the search for private records and the broadening of the search.
I applaud that tremendously, and I won't belabor it except to say that the history of disclosure in all three of the assassination cases - Dr. King, Senator Kennedy, President Kennedy - shows us time and time again that some of the most important materials, for varieties of reasons, are held in private hands or are held in public venues beyond the record custodian's purview, and need I remind us that, for example, the acoustical tape so crucial to the House Assassinations Committee work was brought to them from the home of a retired Dallas intelligence officer.
My favorite example in this venue is, when we were getting the District Attorney's files released in the Robert Kennedy case, in a branch office distant from downtown Los Angeles, an employee found a box in a storage closet marked "Sirhan Sirhan case" and sent it downtown, because he had heard on television that we were getting the files disclosed, and that's one of the things that I think is so valuable about your public hearings, your media contacts, and your taking this on the road, so to speak, because it alerts people to what's going on.
In that box happened to be the official filmed re-enactments of Robert Kennedy's murder done by the officials in 1968, an incredible trove of audiotapes of witness interviews, and so, it's very important to keep up that notion of outreach to not only private individuals and collections but things that may be sort of lost in the closets.
I also urge the board -- I know it's not an investigative body, I know it's got limited or scarce resources, but when you're talking to the agencies who hold these files, ask them the questions not only about what they can give you now but about what they should have been giving over the decades and what they should have preserved that they didn't preserve.
We're all about public disclosure, but also, in a certain sense, even though it's not your mission, you're holding these agencies accountable just by the questions you ask them and by your asking them to release files, and over the decades there has been an inexcusable refusal of the public right to know, an unaccountability of certain materials, and I urge you to ask.
Ask the CIA, when you're talking to them, about that mysterious photo of Oswald that everybody has been chasing that's so crucial.
If it's really Oswald in Mexico City, it makes the Warren Commission supporters very happy. If it's an Oswald imposter, it's a window onto conspiracy. Where did it go when it left the private safe of the Mexico City station chief?
And please ask all these Federal agencies, just to please me if you would, cathartically, does anybody have any snippet of an audiotape recording of the 48 hours of interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald when he was in custody and was talked to by revolving-door interviewers from state, local, Federal agencies too numerous to mention, and yet, we have no preserved record of that moment at which the alleged assassin of our President, who had ties to Cuba and ties to Russia, was being interrogated at the time of our peak national crisis.
So, I know you can't chase everything that's missing, but I urge you to select a few items and try to hold these agencies responsible.
My last point is to encourage you to reverse what has been the trend in disclosure in the last several decades for whatever disclosure we have had.
Agencies have taken the position, largely, that assassination-related records should be withheld if they relate to other secrets, ongoing operations, or intelligence sources and methods.
I am asking the board to disentangle these things, that when there are records held by the CIA or the FBI that are clearly assassination-related, do not accept the response that current operations preclude their release. They can and should be disentangled, and let me give you my example of that.
I and other researchers have focused on this anti-Castro Cuban group in Dallas, ALPHA-66, and without going into theory, which I know is not the Commission's bailiwick, let me just say about this group that it's a terrorist group created by the CIA.
It detested President Kennedy, by its own statements. It was in Dallas. It was illegally well-armed. CIA case officers were meeting with the meetings there. The CIA failed to report this group to the Secret Service, as protective procedure required.
The head of this group was mistaken for Lee Harvey Oswald in two incidents that we reported, one by the FBI, one by the Dallas police.
The point is that - I don't need to go further to say that this is the subject of suspicion, if not intrigue.
The Rockefeller Commission asked the agency to respond about this, and their response was, in part, that they couldn't find such a book in the 1963 Dallas telephone book.
Their second response was that the street on which the group held its meetings could not be found in a Dallas street map, but that's sort of like saying that Beacon Street outside, you know, can't be found in Boston.
My point is that the agency has been terribly unresponsive to previous official investigations and that this is an area of suspicion.
So, ALPHA-66 files in Dallas should be released. The problem that we all face is as follows.
ALPHA-66 is still active, attempted an assassination of Castro, by their own admission, in 1983, and still exists in Miami, perhaps with agency sponsorship.
The fact that they are current and that their operations are current should not preclude the 1963 records from being released.
And finally, I think there is an extraordinary opportunity here that I know the board is aware of.
Not only is it your daunting task to help repair 30 years of distrust and governmental secrecy that have so eroded our democratic culture, but also, it's an extraordinary opportunity for the public right to know.
The idea that, for the first time, citizens will be the judge of the balance between governmental secrecy and what we know, rather than the agencies themselves or the courts, I think is extraordinary, and I just urge you that, at every step along the way -- and I think you're doing this -- consult with those rational, responsible, sober experts in all fields who can help you do your job better and do it in a more timely fashion, because you're aware and I'm aware the clock is running, and the work has to be done, and I thank you very much for allowing me to comment this morning.
Dr. Philip H. Melanson, a career-long UMass Dartmouth professor regarded as one of the nation's experts on political violence and government secrecy, died Monday at 61 after a long battle with cancer, according to friends and university officials.
A quarter century ago, Dr. Melanson began building a donation of 30 boxes of documents for the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archive, which for years has been the world's largest collection on the subject.
He wrote 15 books, 14 articles, and appeared in countless interviews and seminars on the subject of political assassinations and government secrecy. Dr. Melanson, with a matter-of-fact style of writing, has been one of the chief skeptics of the official story that 24-year-old Palestinian Sirhan B. Sirhan was the lone assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968.
He built his case on evidence obtained through dogged pursuit of once-sealed documents from the Los Angeles Police Department and the city's District Attorney's Office.
He was similarly skeptical of the story that James Earl Ray acted alone in the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1969.
Dr. Melanson was in constant demand as a subject and consultant on television, radio, film and book projects on the subject around the world.
"In his life he was a very private person and yet he had a very public persona," said Dr. Clyde Barrow, director of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis.
Dr. Barrow, who said he knew Dr. Melanson for 20 years and has been close friends with him for the last 10, said Dr. Melanson was steadfast in his pursuit of what he saw as the hidden truth behind the assassinations.
"He was always very persistent, always proud of his own work and the reception it received from people who followed the issue," he said. "He was not so happy with the official version of events."
His last book, yet unpublished, is an examination of the relationship between the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency "and the methods by which the CIA undermined the war against drugs," said Dr. Barrow.
Dr. Melanson's course, "Political Assassinations in America," has been a favorite for 20 years on the campus where he spent his entire professional career. A native of Salem, he obtained his bachelor's, master's and doctorate at the University of Connecticut.
UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack called Dr. Melanson "a terrific guy" who did "absolutely fabulous work on the Robert F. Kennedy assassination and tremendous research into secrecy and public files and public information, and how it is that we are able to access information."
In approximately 100 Freedom of Information Act requests over the years, Dr. Melanson was able to obtain the release of more than 175,000 pages of official documents during his research into assassinations, according to UMass Dartmouth.
He was chancellor professor of policy studies, director of the Policy Studies Program and coordinator of the RFK archive, which will soon have a new repository as part of a library expansion plan, said Dr. MacCormack.
Dr. Melanson lectured widely to audiences at institutions of higher learning, law enforcement conferences, military installations and civil rights organizations.
He was a consultant to various television and movie productions in the United States, Canada, Germany and Japan, and was an expert witness or consultant in three court cases involving the release of government documents.
Dr. Melanson appeared on a wide array of television news programs in the United States as well as on the British Broadcasting Corp. He was a consultant to the Assassination Records Review Board, a commission appointed by President Clinton to oversee the release of records pertaining to the assassination of President Kennedy.
In Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Public's Right to Know, Philip H. Melanson explains how citizens can access executive-branch information by understanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act. He feels that every citizen should understand and use these methods of obtaining information as a check and balance to government authority.
Because of the conflict between government security and the public's fight-to-know, citizens must understand government issues so they can advise their legislators how to vote. Melanson, arguing that the executive branch might operate outside the law if not given some type of oversight, provides evidence of the government's inappropriate behavior by citing former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's targeting of Martin Luther King; former President Lyndon B. Johnson's lying to the American public during the Vietnam crisis; the lack of a thorough investigation into Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968; and the use of intelligence assets to track domestic groups protesting the Vietnam war during the early 1970s.
Melanson acknowledges the need for government secrecy to protect national security and shows that across the executive branch, specifically the FBI and CIA, many agencies used the national-security stamp to hide mistakes and inappropriate behavior. When these agencies release information, complete pages are often blackened out. Also, the same request might result in receiving 20 pages of information one time and 3 pages the next, suggesting that there is no consistency in handling requests. And often, agencies will not respond to requests in accordance with FOIA and Privacy Act requirements, forcing the requestor to use legal means or congressional contacts to force the agency into compliance. Finally, these agencies allow access to requestors only if they are departmental persons. For example, when former CIA director Robert M. Gates wrote From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997), he had access to information that the public could not have obtained.
To remedy the problem of obtaining information, Melanson outlines 10 changes lawmakers must make to ensure that citizens have the information they need. Two notable changes would be that after 20 years all classified information automatically would be declassified and that the standard for withholding information be changed from data that "could" cause harm to data that "would significantly" cause harm to national security. The problem with the second recommendation is determining what information would fall into which category.
Secrecy Wars is a useful book for military professionals, especially those in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. Although the laws to increase public access to records are unlikely to change anytime soon, this book opens the issue for debate.