I previously noted that some of the “official” versions of who did what on Nov. 22, 1963 are a bit difficult to believe – the Director of the FBI going home at regular time to watch TV for news, the Director of the CIA going to RFK’s home for private conversation rather than to the office, the lack of apparent effort by the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs to establish immediate communications with the new President…..the latter is especially interesting given how much time, money and planning had been in place to ensure National Command level communications with the President.

For example, an Air Force transport carried a communications van along on Presidential trips, it was set up in Dallas. A team of communications specialists was sent with the President to establish a local comm center and maintain channels from AF1 and the trailer to the Secret Service channels and the standard procedure was always to have the President literally within a couple of minutes of an open circuit. And beyond that, we’ve all heard about the military officer carrying the “bomb bag” which contained the SIOP codes for different nuclear responses.  As of 1963 only two individuals were designated as “national command authority” with the legal power to select a response and issue the command – the acting President and the Secretary of Defense.

What we do think we know is that at 1:40 pm EST the Pentagon issued an alert based on reports of the attack in Dallas and that by 1:55 the Secretary of Defense had met briefly with the Joint Chiefs and ordered a general information alert transmitted to all commands.  However it would not be until 2:15 that a Defcon 3 alert was issued by the Joint Chiefs. Perhaps what is more amazing as their is no record that the Sec of Defense or the Chiefs attempted to get in touch with the President’s party via the communications network set up in Dallas for just that purpose – and that no one in the party used the network for that purpose either. For the first hour to two hours everyone seems to have been largely relying on the AP wire service and national news networks. Even more surprisingly, the Chairmain of the Joint Chiefs told Manchester he had wondered if the bomb bag officer was with Johnson – but apparently had not checked – and indeed the officer had been separated from Johnson’s party for some time, only management with considerable argument to eventually get onto AF1 at Love Field. For his part, although sources at both Parkland and on AF1 reported that Johnson was concerned about a Soviet move and “missiles flying” he appears to have made no effort to get the SIOP code officer near him, to have contacted the National Command Center, the Sec of Defense, etc. Nor did any of President Kennedy’s military aides appear to have asserted themselves in regard to national security protocols. Its actually uncertain whether Johnson had ever been briefed on the SIOP options, release code process etc.

For context in considering all this, recall that this is not much more than a year following the Cuban missile crisis – which certainly established that the Soviet leadership was capable of high risk actions – and came at a time of absolutely total US strategic superiority in both numbers of atomic weapons, numbers of delivery systems and hardened and mobile missile platforms – which the Soviets lacked (and the Soviets clearly realized their relative weakness).

OK, so what does all this mean. First it means that if the assassination of the President had been an act to break the national chain of command it would have been accompanied by a simultaneous missile attack (defense plans assumed that the Soviets would be able to smuggle atomic weapons into DC and other key targets, not to mention using close in sub based missile attacks and bombs covertly placed on freighters on the eastern seaboard).  Now perhaps this explains why with everyone still alive after 30 minutes and no missiles on the warning radar, everyone seems to have been relatively casual about communications?

Of course it also means that if it had actually been part of a Soviet first strike (one of desperation based rumors that the US was considering its own first strike based on its short term total superiority – as had been proposed to JFK)  then DC and the Command Authority there would have been gone, the new President would have been totally out of touch – and the General Powers at SAC would no doubt have made his own decision for a total SIOP strike not just against Russia but every Communist target in the plan.

Another point of interest is that its quite common within the military to access major actions in after action reports, intended to improve performance. Yet there is no sign that with all the analysis that followed the President’s murder, that anyone in the national command structure made the effort to assess how well the Presidential communications, command structure had really worked – if they did those studies have been well concealed.  And over following years, even during the continuing cold war, their are some real questions as to how well any of the Presidents were really prepared and trained for national command (despite what you see in the movies). There is even an interesting incident where in one case the President’s SIOP command codes were misplaced for several months – but that’s another story.










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.

2 responses »

  1. Alan Kent says:

    It does seem surreal, doesn’t it? The apparent lack of attention to systems that were supposed to be critical to national security in a time of crisis…LBJ making his initial recorded call to Waddy Bullion’s office, etc…

    Larry, it might be useful to speak to the issue of the absence of code books. John Judge interviewed several SAC pilots who were in the air (flying out of Omaha) at the time of the assassination, and they reportedly told him that they were unable to access the machinery for communicating with superiors on the possibility of a nuclear situation because the physical code books were missing. Judge interprets this as part of the process of a coup d’etat. I have wondered if it might bespeak foreknowledge of the assassination on the part of someone at (or near) the top of the Air Force command structure. Perhaps an attempt to forestall a precipitate response by Gen. Power.

    But, I don’t know the procedures involved in the nuclear code books (circa 1963) or what would need to happen in the process of either changing the codes or removing code books. I seem to recall that you had knowledge in that area, being an ex-Air Force guy…

    • Alan, I wonder if you or someone could get more details about the missing code books. The only instance I have heard about was that the folks on the Congressional plane flying to Japan could not locate their code book (that appears to have been a SAM/Special Air Mission aircraft) however that aircraft was not SAC and was not part of the National command net per se so its a little unclear what they were talking about – actually it could have been as simple as the fairly short code list maintained by the Situation Room and Secret Service to designate Administration and Congressional personalities so they could identify themselves by code name and understand who was being referred to by code name on the other end. You can tell that’s an issue for the Congressional plane when they are trying to talk back to Washington, it’s pretty apparent on the AF1/SAM tape.

      As to planes flying out of Omaha, that’s unlikely be SAC bombers, there were alert aircraft on the ground but given that SAC only went
      to Defcon 3 there was no official launch of alert aircraft (note I say official, it remains to be seen if there was more of a real
      military response than is in the official record). The SAC bombers that would have been airborne were the “Chrome Dome” rotation flights going out and back on the regular airborne force rotations. And they should have never have gotten into the air without checking all aspects of their Emergency Message System including code manuals – that would be a court marshal offense (do that one time in SAC and you would have been
      history). For that matter as I recall they needed those simply to exchange normal secure messages during the flight. Since SAC radio was
      single side band, voice codes were mandatory even for routine operations. Now if the SAC pilots were saying that they did not even have their SIOP code book, that would be even more radical. As to planes flying out of Omaha, that could be he airborne command center (actually their were several command center aircraft airborne or on alert at any time, not only in the US but in the other commands as well as the Navy seaborne emergency command ship and here were at least half a dozen or more SAC radio relay aircraft up to maintain the SAC command net). Having them airborne without a checkout of all their comm systems would be an even more massive issue than one or more bombers.

      Anyway, drop me an email and we can chat about how that would tie into a coup, no attack messages would be issued without the President or Vice President’s involvement – certainly its always possible that Powers himself could bypass national command authority or that some SAC wing commander could – many fiction books written about that – but for a political coup, well I’m pondering how it fits?

      In any event the issue of missing SAC codes is certainly something we can check into but as usual we need some detail, if you or someone can get that from John Judge I think we have the resources to dig into it.

      — Larry

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