One of the more fascinating loose ends of November 22, 1963 is the rather mysterious flight by LBJ’s aide Col. Howard Burris to Texas on the eve of the assassination.  John Newman is one of the few to have written about Burris by name although a handful of us have studied him as best we could. Newman points out that it was Burris who seems to have been responsible for serving as a CIA back-channel to LBJ. Of course its well known that Johnson had a network of folks within various government agencies (including the Department of Agriculture – OK, don’t laugh, a Dept of Ag guy functioned as lead political advance man for the trip to Dallas).

Newman examines Burris’s role in regard to the trip to Vietnam where Johnson served as President Kennedy’s representative – its clear that Kennedy wanted Johnson to do little more than “show the flag” but as it turned out, Johnson ended up holding a press conference in which he parroted the CIA line of dramatically increased military support – effectively backing JFK into a corner on further commitments.   Kennedy was quite unhappy with that and Newman tells the whole story in some detail, including his attempts to discuss it with Burris, who would say little but did remark that of course he was Johnson’s adviser on international affairs (and we have a number of documents of reports he prepared for Johnson on that subject) but that he was also connected to and getting input from “the boys in the woodwork.”

By itself, that would be interesting, as would Burris later reported ties to Richard Helms and his eventual, highly lucrative oil dealings and connections to Iranian royalty.

While it would be very informative to understand his real connections to the intelligence community, of even more interest is a flight that he took to Texas at the time of the Dallas visit. When asked about the trip, he stated that he was carrying down background and briefing papers for Johnson who intended to confront Kennedy on certain international issues during the JFK visit to Johnson’s ranch.  Given that on November 22, Johnson was totally focused on the political implications of Kennedy’s visit to Texas (and not at all happy with JFK’s apparent popularity), totally immersed in the Democratic warfare over seating at the Governor’s reception for JFK and beyond that not all that involved with international affairs in any case – well the idea that he would be going head to head with JFK on something about international policy seems to need some special explanation.

None of that of course was forthcoming from Burris.  He flew down; he flew back. And he later stated that on his flight back he hitched a ride on an AF jet figher, the pilot became unconscious and he had to fly the plane back and land it – quite a feat for a WWII multi-engine bomber pilot who apparently had never piloted a jet.  And even more interesting in that a study of his expense reports reveal he was paid for a flight back on a commercial airliner.

So – what was the real purpose for the trip to Texas to see Johnson at the very last minute during the Texas trip?  Was it really to prep Johnson for a head to head with JFK on something (perhaps Vietnam with Johnson acting as a stalking horse for others) or was it to carry some other communication to Johnson?

We don’t know, although the few who have studied Col. Burris, and his friend Delk Simpson, have turned up more details on probable connections to the Agency, and more interesting rumors about both men, the whole subject remains largely a mystery.  And I’ve personally been surprised that those researches and authors who want to put LBJ in a key role in a conspiracy against JFK have not devoted a lot more time and interest to Col. Burris?

As for me, his flight to Texas and his explanation for it both continue to trouble me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Larry Hancock

Larry Hancock is a leading historian-researcher in the JFK assassination. Co-author with Connie Kritzberg of November Patriots and author of the 2003 research analysis publication titled also Someone Would Have Talked. In addition, Hancock has published several document collections addressing the 112th Army Intelligence Group, John Martino, and Richard Case Nagell. In 2000, Hancock received the prestigious Mary Ferrell New Frontier Award for the contribution of new evidence in the Kennedy assassination case. In 2001, he was also awarded the Mary Ferrell Legacy Award for his contributions of documents released under the JFK Act.

9 responses »

  1. Zach Robertson says:

    Larry, was Col. Howard Burris ever associated with Ed Lansdale?

    • Zach, not as I recall. Would have to pull my files but Burris’ career was fairly standard Air Force all the way to his retirement -after which he went to work for an aircraft mfg. No sign of his being “seconded” to the Agency as Lansdale was. That’s just from memory; I do have his service record and much of his correspondence and reports to Johnson.

  2. Zach Robertson says:

    Thanks Larry. Very interesting stuff!

  3. Alan Kent says:

    Of course, “associated” is a broad term…Inasmuch as Col. Burris seemed to be part of (or at least knowledgeable about) the McGarr-LBJ gambit to introduce the issue of combat troops to Diem during the ’61 Johnson visit to Saigon, and that plan precisely matched Gen. Lansdale’s suggestion that he had inserted in the late April ’61 Laos Annex Report, it would not be shocking if Lansdale was one of the “boys in the woodwork” that Burris referred to in his interviews with Newman. But, it would certainly be speculative.

    • Good point Alan, Lansdale is also a good candidate because of their mutual Air Force connection. But although Lansdale might be in the woodwork, he was often out on his own from the Agency. Prodos writes that Lansdale really irritated Colby during the 61 Tylor-Rostow trip. Apparently Lodge had written to Rusk asking that the Saigon CIA COS be relieved and replaced by Lansdale. McCone responded to Rusk that the CIA had no confidence in Lansdale and the officers would not accept him as Saigon station chief. Makes one wonder how happy McCone was when JFK installed Lansdale as head of Mongoose and made the Agency just a support group for the Cuba project?

      All of which leads me to think Burris had some deeper connections to real Agency insiders rather than just Lansdale…

  4. Anonymous says:

    Burris as well as others could have worked with the CIA and the others not know, right?

    • Certainly that’s correct, in the circles Burris worked in he would have routinely been in touch with individuals who might have been passing information to the Agency and not have been Agency employees. He might have been receiving information under the same circumstances. It was not at all unusual for military officers to perform assignments for the Agency and then go back to regular duty. Knowing who was in exactly what role at any given time might be difficult. And of course the Agency was very sophisticated at circulating information it wanted to receive attention – hence the back channel concept. As Alan pointed out, in regard to Vietnam, Burris may have received information from Lansdale and passed it on to Johnson. Lansdale was an Air Force officer at times working for the Agency but at other times on special assignments for the NSC staff and even the President. I suspect that explains Burris use of the term “Boys in the Woodwork”, he would know they were “connected” but he might even have to guess at any point to whom and for what purpose.

      The FBI was more straight forward about things – I love the fact that the CIA designated James Angleton as their liaison with the FBI but as far as Hoover and the Bureau was concerned, Angleton was classified as an informant. In fact Hoover had a special category of “informants” who worked in various government officers, they could even be secretaries or clerical level – as long as they passed along “information” about their department – and even better, their bosses.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Larry, was Burris the person that several months before the Kennedy’s assassination, who asked Johnson what would be his position regarding Vietnam in case something would happen to the President Kennedy? What would you do?, will you keep on the withdrawal of american troops as scheduled?, or would you reverse the situation?

    • I’ve got a modest sized file of Burris correspondence with Johnson and I’ve seen nothing of that sort – nor do I recall actually hearing that before? Burris did write a variety of international briefing memoranda for Johnson but not that much specifically on Vietnam. Johnson had been known to lean towards more support for the south and had actually mousetrapped JFK on his trip there, putting in play some requests for support that he did at his own initiative – which
      just happened to match what the CIA was pushing for. I don’t really think Burris would have had to ask Johnson the question, Johnson hated getting beaten and you could pretty well bet he would not pull out.

      Sorry, wish I could be more specific but that’s a new one on me, Larry

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