Mystery surrounds the role of transcriber of Kennedy's secret White House tapes

April 04, 1993|By Philip Bennett | Philip Bennett,Boston Globe

BOSTON -- During the winter that followed the death of Joh F. Kennedy, a young naval aide was summoned to the Executive Office Building in Washington and instructed to begin transcribing reels of White House tapes secretly recorded by the president.

The job put George Dalton in elite company. Only a handful of people even knew that the tapes existed: JFK's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln; his brother, Robert F. Kennedy; the two Secret Service technicians who installed and ran the system.

But over the next decade, by many accounts, no single person would have greater access to the tapes -- those eventually donated to the Kennedy Library in 1975 and several the library said were left out of the donation -- than Mr. Dalton.

Mr. Dalton's role has mystified archivists who have tried to reconstruct the handling of the tapes during the 12 years that they were private property of the Kennedy family. Particularly, scholars have asked whether the collection, widely regarded as a unique record of the Kennedy presidency, is complete or edited.

As Mr. Dalton left the Navy, performed chores for Robert Kennedy and found work in the household of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his contact with the tapes raised more unanswered questions:

For whom and why did he prepare transcripts in the 1960s? Did he have authority to screen or alter tapes? And why and for whom did he continue in the 1970s, according to several accounts, to remove private Kennedy records, including tapes, from a family vault in the National Archives warehouse in Waltham, Mass.?

"I always felt that the story of the tapes was incomplete because we weren't able to interview Dalton," said William W. Moss, the former chief archivist at the Kennedy Library in Boston, who wrote the library's official history of the tapes. Mr. Moss called questions about Mr. Dalton a "significant gap."

No one in a position to fill the gap seems eager to do so today. Approached at his home on a Florida golf course, Mr. Dalton, said to have become a prosperous gas station owner after leaving the Kennedys' employ, refused to discuss his work on the tapes.

In a letter to the Boston Globe, Mr. Dalton wrote: "I have no information to contribute to your interest in the history, content, or historical significance of any tape recordings which may have been made during the Kennedy Administration."

Senator Kennedy's chief of staff, Paul Donovan, confirmed that Mr. Dalton joined the senator's household staff in the early 1970s but added, "Mr. Dalton did not work on the tapes at the direction of Senator Kennedy."

Mr. Donovan also said: "Senator Kennedy has no specific knowledge about the tapes."

The Kennedy White House recordings have been the subject of renewed interest as scholars, former Kennedy aides and family members have recently advocated declassifying more than 200 hours of tapes that remain closed to researchers and the public.

The tapes deal with many of the most dramatic moments and important foreign policy decisions of the Kennedy presidency, such as the Cuban missile crisis and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Scholars say an audio record of how Kennedy made decisions under enormous pressure would contribute to a fuller picture of his personality.

Kennedy Library officials, saying they support releasing remaining tapes, sent part of the collection this month to the National Security Council for classification review. Included in the shipment were transcripts prepared by Mr. Dalton.

Last month the library refused a request to see any of Mr. Dalton's material, even that pertaining to nonclassified information. A spokesman said that Mr. Dalton's work, officially called the "primitive transcripts" because it is alleged to be rife with inaccuracies, has yet to be organized by the library.

Mr. Dalton was a familiar figure to library staffers at the time the existence of the tape collection was made public in 1973. Three sources said Mr. Dalton regularly removed items from a vault containing tapes and other private Kennedy material at the federal archives records center in Waltham. Former library officials say Mr. Dalton had the combination to the lock on a file cabinet containing the tapes. No other library staffers at the time knew the combination.

"Dalton would appear every now and then and take stuff from there," recalled Dan Fenn, the former director of the library. "He was very secretive about it. He didn't tell us what he was doing there, what family stuff he was taking or why. He would just sort of appear."

When library officials took custody of the tapes in 1975, they discovered that some were carelessly wound backward on their reels, officials now say, and at least nine numbered tape boxes were empty. At least four of these missing audio tapes correspond to rough transcripts made by Mr. Dalton.

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