Kennedy Secret White House Recordings: Collection Specifications

Kennedy Secret White House Recordings: Collection Specifications

Vital Statistics

  • Collection size: 260 hours approx.
  • Begin Date: July 30, 1962
  • End Date: November 8, 1963
  • Processing Status: In progress. 


Zelikow & May, Preface to The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy (2001)

[Extract from Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, Preface to The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises, volumes 1-3 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), pp.xvii-xxiv.]

Before and after becoming president, Kennedy had made use of a recording device called a Dictaphone, mostly for dictating letters or notes. In the summer of 1962 he asked Secret Service Agent Robert Bouck to conceal recording devices in the Cabinet Room, the Oval Office, and a study/library in the Mansion. Without explaining why, Bouck obtained Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorders, high-quality machines for the period, from the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He placed two of these machines in the basement of the West Wing of the White House in a room reserved for storing private presidential files. He placed another in the basement of the Executive Mansion.

The West Wing machines were connected by wire to two microphones in the Cabinet Room and two in the Oval Office. Those in the Cabinet Room were on the outside wall, placed in two spots covered by drapes where once there had been wall fixtures. They were activated by a switch at the President’s place at the Cabinet table, easily mistaken for a buzzer press. Of the microphones in the Oval Office, one was in the kneehole of the President’s desk, the other concealed in a coffee table across the room. Each could be turned on or off with a single push on an inconspicuous button.

We do not know where the microphone in the study of the Mansion was located. In any case, Bouck, who had chief responsibility for the system, said in 1976, in an oral history interview, that President Kennedy “did almost no recording in the Mansion.” Of the machine in the basement of the Mansion, he said: “Except for one or two short recordings, I don’t think it was ever used.” So far, except possibly for one short recording included in these volumes, no tape from the Mansion machine has turned up.

President Kennedy also had a Dictaphone hooked up to a telephone in the Oval Office and possibly also to a telephone in his bedroom. He could activate it, and so could his private secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who knew of the secret microphones, often made sure that they were turned off if the President had forgotten to do so, and took charge of finished reels of tape when they were brought to her by Bouck or Bouck’s assistant, Agent Chester Miller.

Though Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy’s secretary, Angie Novello, certainly knew of the tapes and dictabelts by some point in 1963, it is not clear that they had this knowledge earlier. Anecdotes suggest that the President’s close aide and scheduler, Kenneth O’Donnell, might have known about the system and might have told another aide, Dave Powers, but the anecdotes are unsupported. Most White House insiders, including counsel Theodore Sorensen, who had been Kennedy’s closest aide in the Senate, were astonished when they learned later that their words had been secretly captured on tape. After Kennedy’s assassination, Evelyn Lincoln was quickly displaced by President Johnson’s secretaries. She arranged, however, for the Secret Service agents to pull out all the microphones, wires, and recorders and took the tapes and dictabelts to her newly assigned offices in the Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Though Robert Kennedy had charge of these and all other records from the Kennedy White House, Lincoln retained physical custody.

During Kennedy’s presidency, it appears that some conversations were transcribed. Though Lincoln attempted to make some other transcripts, she never had much time for doing so. George Dalton, a former Navy Petty Officer and general chore man for the Kennedy family, took on the job. “Dalton transcripts” have not been released. . . .

The most plausible explanation for Kennedy’s making secret tape recordings is that he wanted material to be used later in writing a memoir. For various reasons it seems unlikely that he wanted them for current business. He had himself written histories and was by most accounts prone to asking historians’ questions: How did this situation develop? What had previous administrations done? He knew how hard it was to answer such questions from surviving documentary records. And he faced the apparent likelihood that, even if reelected in 1964, he would be an out-of-work ex-president when not quite 51 years old.

Did Kennedy tape just to have material putting himself in a favorable light? On some occasions, he must have refrained from pushing an “on” button because he wanted no record of a meeting or conversation. Especially on early tapes, there are pauses at moments when the President was speaking of tactics for dealing with legislative leaders. Almost certainly, he made recordings only when he thought the occasions important. As a result, the tapes record relatively little humdrum White House business such as meetings with citizen delegations or conferences with congressmen and others about patronage.

[1] See Timothy Naftali, “The Origins of ‘Thirteen Days,’” Miller Center Report 15, no. 2 (summer 1999): 23–24. 
[2] Philip Bennett, “Mystery Surrounds Role of JFK Tapes Transcriber,” Boston Globe, 31 March 1993, p. 1; Seymour M. Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), pp. 454–55.


Powers, "History of Presidential Audio Recordings," (1996)

[Extract from John Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use" (1996). Used with permission.]

John F. Kennedy was the first president to extensively record his meetings and telephone conversations. In all, he recorded over 300 meetings held in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room onto 127 reel-to-reel analog tapes, totaling over 248 hours of conversation. He also recorded 275 of his telephone conversations onto 73 Dictabelts, totaling twelve hours of conversation. [1] The system was a well-guarded and closely-held secret. Top Kennedy aides, such as Ted Sorensen and Dave Powers were unaware of the system. Only the President, his personal Secretary Evelyn Lincoln, Robert Kennedy, and the technicians who installed and maintained the system knew of its existence. [2]

Beginning in the summer and fall of 1962, Kennedy selectively recorded meetings and telephone conversations discussing -many sensitive domestic and foreign policy matters. He recorded discussions with his aides and state officials during the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. He recorded discussions concerning the railroad strike and steel price and wage increases. He recorded meetings and telephone conversations with legislators discussing tax cut proposals and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; other topics included civil rights, Vietnam, and NATO. Finally, Kennedy recorded almost every meeting and telephone call he participated in during the Cuban missile crisis. [3]

In a 1982 interview with Newsweek, Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, stated that Kennedy decided to install a taping system following the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Lincoln said that Kennedy was furious that members of the military and Defense Department who initially argued for and supported the invasion in private, publicly stated that they were opposed to the plan after the invasion failed. [4] On another occasion, Lincoln stated that Kennedy had never listened to any of the tapes or Dictabelts and had never asked that a transcript be prepared. Instead, she said they were to be used in preparing and writing the President's memoirs after he left office. [5]

The Cabinet Room and Oval Office Recording System 

President Kennedy recorded many of his Oval Office and Cabinet Room meetings between July 30, 1962, and November 8, 1963. The system was designed and installed by Secret Service agent Robert Bouck who was responsible for protecting the White House from electronic eavesdropping. A single recording system was connected to both the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. This system was located underneath the Oval Office.

In the Cabinet Room, wires led up from the basement to microphones hidden in the light fixtures behind the President's chair. The President could manually activate the system by pressing a switch located on the underside of the table by his place. [6] In the Oval Office, the microphones were located in the kneewell of the President's desk. Wires were drilled through the floor and led to the room below where the recording machine was kept. The on/off switch was also located in the kneewell of his desk. [7]

The microphones, in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room were connected to one machine located underneath the Oval Office. Bouck installed this system in July 1962. Chester Miller, another Secret Service agent, assisted Bouck in checking the machine and changing the reels of tape as necessary. At some point, Bouck installed a second machine that would automatically begin recording when the tape on the first machine ran out. Each tape had a recording time of up to two hours. [8] The agents gave the completed tapes to Evelyn Lincoln who placed them in a locked cabinet in a small room behind her desk in the West Wing for safekeeping. [9]

The agents numbered each reel sequentially, beginning with “1” and ending with “118.” On tapes where the meeting continued onto a second reel, the agents added the suffix “a” to indicate that it was a continuation. However the numerical system was not precise: several numbers were omitted. [10]

A second numerical system exists. This numbering system begins on the 97th tape and continues through to the end of the series. Each tape in this numbering system begins with the letter “A.” Strangely, the first number is “A33,” and this progression continues until the series ends with “A57.” Archivists believe that the Secret Service agents monitoring the system assigned these numbers to the tapes. Still other tapes had no numbers on them at all. Four tapes were marked with an "XX,” "XXX,” or "XXXX,” and one tape was completely unmarked. Archivists at the Kennedy Library were able to locate their positions within the series and assign them a number. [11] Lastly, there are four numbered transcripts in the series for which there are no tapes.

Sometimes, a tape may contain a recording of only one meeting. On other occasions, a tape may contain recordings of two or more meetings. There are conversations and meetings recorded in each area (Cabinet Room and Oval Office) on one tape since the microphones from each location went to a single system. If the President forgot to turn his switch off, the tape recorded room noise and other unintended and miscellaneous conversations. Often, the President did not begin recording until the meeting was well underway. On at least two occasions, cleaning personnel accidentally activated the system. On many occasions, a meeting continued from one reel onto the next when the second recording machine activated. [12]

The quality of the sounds recorded on the tapes varies greatly from tape to tape as well as voice to voice. The placement of the microphones affected the intelligibility of the recorded voices. Voices too close to the microphones are distorted; voices too far away from the microphones are inaudible. Some participants mumbled, while others yelled. The microphones picked up many background noises such as helicopter rotor noise, air conditioning, clattering of cups, scribbling of pens, and rustling of papers, to name a few, that obscured the recordings of the conversations. The microphones in the kneewell of the President's desk in the Oval Office also recorded loud and clear the President's knees and legs knocking against the desk. [13]

The Telephone Dictabelt Recording System

The President recorded many of his telephone conversations between September 10, 1962, and October 29, 1963, using a Dictaphone system. The Dictaphone machine recorded conversations onto a Dictabelt Record (hereafter referred to as a Dictabelt) which was shaped like a belt. The Dictaphone machine would etch grooves into the Dictabelt as the belt spun in the machine, recording the conversation. [14] In all, there are seventy-three Dictabelts, totaling approximately twelve hours of conversations. According to the “Presidential Recordings Finding Aid” at the Kennedy Library, these Dictabelts contain “at least 280 separate conversations or fragments of conversations,” and one belt contains a memorandum dictated by the President for Evelyn Lincoln to transcribe. [15]

There are conflicting accounts of who installed the telephone system. Evelyn Lincoln recalled that the Dictaphone system was installed by the telephone company and that the two Secret Service agents responsible for operating the Cabinet Room and Oval Office recording system were unaware of its installation. [16] However, Sergeant Joseph Wilson, an electronics technician in the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), stated that he installed the Kennedy Dictabelt recording system. He recalled that the system was "an early model of the Dictabelt machine.” [17] Both Lincoln and Wilson recall that the Dictaphone machine was located in a cabinet by Lincoln's desk. The machine was connected by wires to the common telephone line shared by her desk and the telephone on the President's desk in the Oval Office. [18]

The President would signal Lincoln to record .a conversation by pressing a button on his desk. A red light would light up on her desk and she would then start the machine. On occasion, the machine was left running after the intended conversation was recorded and unintended conversations were then recorded. [19] Other times, the telephone was left off the hook and the machine inadvertently recorded office conversations. [20]

Each Dictabelt could record between fifteen and twenty minutes of conversation. The belts were red and made of sturdy plastic. When the machine was recording, a needle made grooves in the plastic. After a belt was fully recorded, Lincoln would note the dates and participants on a piece of paper and store it along with the belt in a locked cabinet in a small room next to the oval office. [21]

The numbering scheme employed by Lincoln on the Dictabelt series is more perplexing than the numbering system on the Cabinet Room and Oval Office meetings series. In the case of the Dictabelts, Lincoln numbered seventy Dictabelts "1" through "28", thereby assigning the same number to more than one belt. [22] In an interview with Kennedy Library archivist, William Moss, Lincoln stated that she did not recall why she used this numbering system. The first number corresponds to the first Dictabelt recorded and the last number corresponds to last Dictabelt recorded. [23]

Aftermath of the Assassination

Robert Bouck personally dismantled and removed the reel-to-reel tape recording system from the Cabinet Room and Oval Office on November 22, 1963, immediately after learning of the President's death. However, it seems the Dictaphone recording machine remained operational during this period and was still in place when President Johnson moved into the West Wing. [24]

As stated earlier, the President Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, was responsible for custody of all of the recordings. After the assassination, Lincoln moved from her office in the West Wing to an office in the old Executive Office Building, taking the tapes and Dictabelts with her. [25]

President Kennedy's presidential materials initially were deposited in the main National Archives building in Washington, D.C. Later, they were moved to the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, pending receipt of a deed of gift donating the materials to the government. The deed of gift donating the Kennedy materials included a section that stated:

This gift ... shall not and is not intended to apply to or embrace such items as John [F.] Kennedy had not intended to be deposited…or which are determined by the donors to be of special or private interest to the personal, family and business affairs... [26]

Although the tapes and Dictabelts were stored in the Waltham Records Center and later in the Kennedy Library, they were excluded from the 1965 deed of gift and the Kennedy family retained ownership. [27] Between 1965 and 1973, many tapes and Dictabelts were periodically removed by Kennedy family aides. Transcription, which began immediately after the assassination, continued during this period. [26] It is possible that the executors of the estate wanted to evaluate these records and determine whether President Kennedy intended to donate them to the government or if he intended to keep them private. [29]

On July 17, 1973, the day after Alexander Butterfield’s stunning revelation, Kennedy Library Director Dan Penn, announced that President Kennedy also had a similar recording system and that the Library had received both Dictabelts and tapes. The collection included 125 tapes and 68 Dictabelt recordings. [30] On May 23, 1976, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, Jack Eckerd, accepted the deed of gift transferring ownership of these recordings from the Kennedy family to the- government. [31]

The Kennedy Library archival staff began an extensive effort to preserve and process the tapes and Dictabelts in late 1981. In 1982, the first increment of recordings and transcripts were made available to the public. These dealt strictly with domestic policy issues, especially the integration of the University of Mississippi.

More recently, the archival staff began reviewing the tapes and Dictabelts dealing with foreign policy matters. The National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Departments of State and Defense declassified or sanitized many recordings of the "Ex Comm" meetings held during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These recordings, along with the other released tapes, provide many valuable insights detailing the inner workings of the Kennedy White House that were heretofore unknown.

[1] Presidential Recordings finding aid, John F. Kennedy Library. As there is little or no documentation surrounding President Kennedy’s recording systems, I have had to rely almost completely on this finding aid for information. 
[2] Ibid. See also: “JFK extensively taped meetings, log reveal,” Austin American Statesman, February 4, 1982, pages A-1 and A-12.
[3] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library. 
[4] “The Kennedy Tapes,” Newsweek, July 4, 1982.
[5] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library. See also:New York Times, December 17, 1995, Section 2, page 1.
[6] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Letter, Allan Goodrich, Audio-visual archivist, Kennedy Library, to John Powers, May 8, 1995.
[9] Ibid. 
[10] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library. Archivists at the Kennedy Library believe that there are four missing tapes (they have transcripts for four meetings for which there are not tapes). However, they also believe that on occasion, for unknown reasons, Lincoln “skipped” a number when assigning a tape a number. They believe this occurred on at least four occasions. 
[11] Ibid. In these cases, the archivists were able to determine that they corresponded with the “skipped” numbers. All but four numbers have been accounted for. It is possible that these four numbers were simply skipped. 
[12] Ibid. 
[13] Ibid.
[14] Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations: JFK Assassination Related Conversations finding aid, Johnson Library.
[15] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library. President Kennedy kept a Dictaphone machine in the Oval Office next to his desk. The Dictaphone machine is plainly evident in many photographs taken of Kennedy sitting in the Oval Office. He used this machine, apparently, for dictation. President Nixon also kept a Dictaphone machine in both the Oval Office and his hideaway EOB office. Nixon used these machines to dictate personal letters for Rose Mary Woods, his personal secretary, to transcribe. The machines also functioned like a diary; he sued them to record his personal observations and thoughts. 
[16] Ibid. See also: Robert Bouck Oral History, p. 2. Bouck stated that he was not involved in the installation of the telephone recording system. He added that he believed that WHCA was responsible for its installation. 
[17] Telephone interview with Joseph Wilson on April 15, 1996.
[18] Ibid. and Presidential Recordings finding aid. 
[19] Ibid. This would also explain why conversations between the President and members of his family were recorded as well as many conversations between Lincoln and other individuals. This also occurred in some of President Johnson’s Dictabelt recordings.
[20] Ibid. This also happened frequently on Johnson’s Dictabelt recordings.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid. Originally there were seventy belts in the series. The Kennedy Library staff located three other belts in other parts of Kennedy’s files. Lincoln only numbered the original seventy.
[23] Ibid. 
[24] Ibid. See also: Telephone interview with Joseph Wilson, April 15, 1996. Neither Bouck nor Miller removed the system. In addition, the first Dictabelt recordings from the Johnson administration are on the same color red belts that the Kennedy system used. Soon afterwards the belt color would change to blue.
[25] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library.
[26] Jacqueline Kennedy, Edward Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, donors to Lawson Knott, Acting Administrator of General Services, February 25, 1965. John F. Kennedy deed of gift, Office of Presidential Libraries, National Archives and records Administration.
[27] Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library. 
[28] Ibid. Robert Kennedy asked Evelyn Lincoln to begin transcribing the tapes and Dictabelts as soon as she moved into the Old Executive Office building after the assassination. Transcription continued after the materials were moved to Massachusetts and after Robert Kennedy’s death. It is not known how many tapes and Dictabelts were removed and not returned. At least one Dictabelt and four tapes are missing from the collection. 
[29] A committee, headed by former Kennedy aide Burke Marshall, now reviews some sensitive documents and tapes to ensure that their donation is consistent with the terms of the deed of gift. 
[30] Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990. p. 196. The number of tapes and Dictabelts noted by Fenn eventually proved incorrect after a thorough inventory was taken. 
[31] John F. Kennedy deed of gift. Apparently, only one Dictabelt was not included in this deed. The Dictabelt contained a private conversation between President Kennedy and his wife that Evelyn Lincoln recorded accidentally.


JFK Library Descriptions and Documents



Summary and Contents

The Presidential Recordings are located in the President's Office Files which is part of the Presidential Papers of John F. Kennedy. The recordings were donated to the Library in the 1976 addendum to the 1965 deed of gift from President Kennedy's estate. There are approximately 248 hours of meetings and 12 hours of telephone conversations. Background and technical information on the recordings and a preliminary list of the dates and subjects of the meetings and telephone conversations is given in the Register to the Presidential Recordings of White House Meetings and Telephone Conversations.

Meetings and telephone conversations on many domestic matters have been processed and are currently available for research use. Forty-two meetings and 53 telephone conversations have been opened on the following subjects: civil rights, 1963 tax cut, railroad work rules dispute, winning Senate support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In addition, sanitized transcripts of five National Security Council meetings held in October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis are also available. Early openings were in both transcript and tape format, later releases in tape format accompanied by a brief participant and content log. The Library intends to open future recordings in tape format. The status of recordings is indicated on the indexes: Current Status of Meetings and Telephone Recordings. If you are interested in specific tapes and would like to be notified when they are processed, you may fill out an “Openings Notification Form” available from the Research Room.

Recordings concerning foreign policy and national security matters are handled in accordance with Executive Orders and applicable regulations which prescribe procedures for the safeguarding and declassification of national security classified information.
In February 1993, Tapes 30-39 containing National Security Council Executive Committee Meetings held between October 18, 1962 and October 26, 1962, were submitted to the National Security Council for review in accordance with Section 3.4 Executive Order 12356. At present we do not know how long this review may take since this is the first submission of these audio recordings.

Presidential Recordings Register, June 1983 Special Supplement of April 15, 1985 Researcher Update, March 1993
Current Status of Meetings Recordings Current Status of Telephone Recordings 2/94


White House Meetings and Telephone Conversations 1962-1963 [1]

The presidential recordings of White House meetings and telephone conversations are a series of the President's office Files of the Presidential Papers of John F. Kennedy. They were deeded to the United States along with other papers and historical materials belonging to the estate of John F. Kennedy in February 1965 by Jacqueline B. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy. The John F. Kennedy Library assumed formal dominion and control over the presidential recordings in May 1976 as the result of an exchange of letters between the surviving donors and the Administrator of General Services attesting and acknowledging that the recordings are a part of the 1965 gift and that the terms and conditions of the 1965 deed apply to them.

The manuscripts portion of the President's Office Files is covered by a separate register and was opened to research in January 1974. The President's Office Files are the files that were kept by John F. Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, for his ready access and convenience adjacent to the Oval office in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln was also keeper of the audiotape and Dictabelt recordings of meetings and telephone conversations, hence the association of these recordings with the President's office Files even though they did not come to the Kennedy Library as an integral part of those files. Existence of the recordings was first announced by the Director of the John F. Kennedy Library in July 1973, and a number of articles in the national press reported the announcement. In December 1981, a preliminary list of audiotapes and Dictabelts, identifying the known contents to that date, was first made available to researchers at the Kennedy Library. The preliminary list was subsequently published in national newspapers in February 1982.

Although the first items from the presidential recordings were not opened to public research by the Kennedy Library until June 1983, there had been earlier publication, almost unnoticed in the national press, of a few of the telephone conversations between President Kennedy and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. These conversations, dealing with the 1962 integration crisis at the University of Mississippi, first came to light in 1964 and were subsequently quoted in several books dealing with the Kennedy, administration and civil rights. The transcripts of these conversations, found in the justice subseries of the Departments and Agencies series of the President's Office Files, were opened to research at the Kennedy Library in 1974 along with the remainder of the President's Office Files. However, at the time there was little or no association of these items with the larger body of material in the presidential recordings.

The materials opened in 1983 by the Kennedy Library are the remaining recordings of telephone conversations and White House meetings concerning the University of Mississippi crisis and the recordings having to do with the 1962-1963 tax cut proposals of the Kennedy administration. Additional segments of the recordings are opened as they can be processed and reviewed to protect national security and privacy. It is estimated at the time of this writing that perhaps as much as 75 percent of the material requires national security protection under existing Executive Order, laws, and implementing regulations. It is also estimated that probably less than 1 percent of the material is going to require protection on grounds of personal privacy. The donors assigned copyright that they might have in the recordings to the United States, however, copyright of the donors does not extend beyond statements uttered by John F. Kennedy, his minor children, and the donors themselves. Statements uttered by officials of the United States government in the course of their duties are considered to be in the public domain. Users of this material are cautioned, however, that not all persons recorded were members of the Kennedy family or government officials. A number of the people recorded were, at the time of recording, private citizens. Therefore, those intending to quote from this material beyond the accepted limits of fair use are cautioned to determine the copyright implications of any intended publication.

Processing of these materials will continue, and additional segments will be opened to public research as the material can be processed and as the restrictions on national security and privacy information expire. A list of the meeting recordings and telephone conversations, with known contents as of the date of this writing (subject to future revision and updating as processing continues) is attached to this register.

William W. Moss 
Chief Archivist June 1983


Legal Terms and Conditions Applicable to the Recordings as Part of the "Papers and Other Historical Materials" of John F. Kennedy Deeded to the United States Under the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955

The presidential recordings are part of the Presidential Papers of John F. Kennedy, deeded to the United States by deed of gift, February 1965, in accordance with Chapter 21, Title 44, United States Code, commonly known as the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955.

In 1963, all White House files, with three exceptions, were considered to be the property of John F. Kennedy. The three exceptions were:
a. such files as members of the President's staff might claim as their own personal property;

b. files of the Bureau of the Budget and other statutory offices in the Executive office of the President; and

c. such other files as might be left behind for the White House permanent administrative staff and the National Archives to dispose of in the future.

Prior to the Presidential Records Act of 1978 (effective beginning January 20, 1981), each President was free to define the scope and content of his personal property to be removed from the White House when be left office. This authority extended to working files of the presidency and was grounded in a tradition dating back to the first President, George Washington. All Presidents prior to Ronald Reagan were under no constitutional or statutory obligation to preserve the records of their presidencies, much less to make them public or to donate them to the United States. A growing sense of the value of presidential records, beginning in the late 19th century, led to a tradition beginning with Theodore Roosevelt that the papers should be saved and preserved for posterity. This was given statutory encouragement in the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. The latter does not require former Presidents to donate their papers to the United States. It merely enabled the U.S. Government to undertake the responsibility of accepting such gifts when offered, and under such terms and conditions acceptable to the U.S. Government as the donors might wish to impose.

It was in this context and under this statutory condition that the executors of the estate of John F. Kennedy in February 1965 donated his “papers and other historical materials” to the United States for deposit in a presidential library to be built in Massachusetts. The deed covering this donation is a public record and is available for examination at the Kennedy Library and at the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Included in the deed are the terms and conditions, including restrictions, under which the U.S. Government agreed to administer the materials. The deed was signed jointly on February 25, 1965, by Jacqueline B. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy. It was accepted by Lawson B. Knott, Jr., Acting Administrator of General Services.

While the deed encourages the prompt and full opening of the papers and other historical materials to public research, it also recognizes the need to protect personal privacy and national security. Among the provisions of the deed are those that exempt certain classes of papers and other materials from the gift entirely, and others that restrict certain material from public research. These exemptions and restrictions include the following:

a. Any material that John F. Kennedy never intended to donate to the Kennedy Library is specifically exempted from the gift, and the donors reserve the right to decide just what that material might be and to require its return from the Kennedy Library.

b. Any material concerning the private family business of the president and his family, such as personal correspondence, personal business matters, or medical records, is not to be opened to the public without the express written permission of the donors.

c. Any national security information (whether marked classified or not, under current regulations) may be opened to the public after proper review and declassification in accordance with current laws and Executive Orders protecting national security classified material.
d. Any material not covered by paragraph c., above, that might jeopardize national defense or foreign relations or that might tend to injure, harass, or embarrass any person, is to be restricted for so long as the reason for that restriction remains valid.

e. Any materials containing statements made by or to John F. Kennedy in confidence are to be restricted for so long as the justification for the confidentiality remains valid.

Under a strict and literal reading of the deed provisions, a blanket restriction could have been imposed on any or all of the presidential recordings. Indeed, the entire body of material could have been exempted from the gift under the provisions paraphrased in paragraph a., above. However, neither the donors, nor the Archivist of the United States, nor the Director of the Kennedy Library has advocated the application of such a blanket restriction or exemption. Therefore, the recordings must be examined, one by one, to determine if the restrictions in paragraphs b. through e., above, apply in whole or in part to each.

In the case of national security classified information, neither the donors nor the Kennedy Library staff or representatives of either have the authority to release such material to the public. Under current regulations (Executive Order 12356 of April 2, 1982, and implementing instructions and regulations), advice and opinion on the continued need for classification protection must be sought from appropriate agencies of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, and such advice is to be authoritative in guiding decisions made to continue classification protection or to open the material to the public.

With respect to the remaining criteria, each item is examined carefully by the staff of the Kennedy Library, and portions found to be appropriate for restriction are recommended to the director for such restriction. The director, in turn, submits these recommendations with his own review and opinions as necessary to a committee of reviewers appointed by the donors. This committee consists of Burke Marshall as chairman, Theodore C. Sorensen, and Samuel H. Beer. The committee reviews the recommendations and approves or disapproves of the restrictions proposed.

Note that to date, including the first materials released from the presidential recordings, the committee has never sought to impose restrictions on materials recommended for opening by the Library staff. They have, on rare occasions, overruled the staff recommendations to restrict and have authorized opening of material.

If material is restricted under criterion a. or criterion b., above, the donors have reserved the right to impose a peremptory "Donor Restriction." This restriction may be appealed only to the donors through their special representative, Burke Marshall. Note that this restriction has been employed rarely, and then only in the interests of personal privacy.

Other material restricted under the provisions of paragraphs d. and e., above, is known as "Archivist Restricted" material. These restrictions are based on staff judgments alone and they may be appealed to the Director of the Kennedy Library for review. If the director sustains the restriction, it may be further appealed to the National Archives Review Committee for a further review.

All of the presidential recordings containing topics pertaining to national defense, intelligence, nuclear weapons, nuclear strategy, foreign policy, and other similar matters will be submitted routinely for classification review and advice from appropriate Executive Branch agencies before a decision is made on whether to open them to public research or to keep them closed.

Custody and Actions Concerning The Presidential Recordings of White House Meetings and Telephone Conversations From 1975 To 1983

Immediately upon receiving the materials into custody in August 1975, the Kennedy Library made a list of the tapes, Dictabelts, and transcripts. No attempt at that time was made to match tapes to transcripts or Dictabelts to transcripts. A simple inventory of items received was all that was done. The second step was to prepare audiotape copies of the recordings to ensure preservation of the original sound images. An archival master tape was prepared from each audiotape and Dictabelt, and from the archival master further reference or processing copies were produced. In the course of this project, tapes were timed and the beginnings and endings of meeting or conversation events were noted on work sheets, and the recordings were superficially examined for evidence of breaks, erasures, or other technical anomalies. None were noted. There was no listening for content identification in this project. In the course of making copies, great care was taken to ensure that the recording heads were removed from all playback equipment to prevent any inadvertent erasure of sound image on the originals or archival masters. All copies are complete and exact copies of the originals, except that reference copies at a faster recording speed (3 3/4 ips) tend to be longer and take up more reels than the originals.

Between 1975 and 1981 little- was done in the way of content identification. A few transcripts of some selected items were prepared for the purpose of familiarizing staff members with the material and to assess the relative value of the content summaries and transcripts that had been delivered. It became apparent that the transcript materials that came with the tapes and Dictabelts would be inadequate for any serious effort to identify contents thoroughly, and that additional work would have to be done by the Kennedy Library staff. Some modest effort was made to understand the numbering system found on the tapes and transcripts, but this was not done in any great detail. Although the existence of the materials had been made known as early as July 1973, researcher interest in the tapes was modest and there was little impetus to proceed with transcription or further processing. This was fortunate, for the Kennedy Library was seriously preoccupied in the period from 1975 to 1980 with building and establishing a new building and exhibits, a task which occupied most of the staff for five years.

In December 1981, in response to the first direct and explicit request for a list of the recordings, the interim rough list (essentially little more than an inventory of the numbered transcripts) was made available to researchers at the Kennedy Library. Subsequent publication of these interim lists called greater attention to the materials, and the Kennedy Library staff began a first phase project to transcribe some of the recordings.

Materials Selected for First Phase Project

Audiotape and Dictabelt recordings relating to the 1962 integration crisis at the University of Mississippi and to the 1962-1963 tax cut proposals were chosen for the first phase project. The following criteria entered into this decision:

a. Both topics are represented in the presidential recordings by large numbers of items (phone conversations and meetings) around coherent topics;

b. Both topics are ones likely to be free of any national security information restrictions;

c. Both topics are ones likely to be free of any privacy restrictions;

d. Both topics are of proven interest to many researchers at the Kennedy Library;

e. Both topics contain information that can add significantly to the understanding of American politics and government by scholars and by the general public;

f. At least some of the material had been published earlier;

g. The quantity of material is a manageable one, permitting the Kennedy Library to process it without inordinate delay; and

h. Other topics considered were deficient in one or more of these criteria.

This group of materials constitutes only about 5 percent of the whole. The tax cut proposal materials include recordings of 3 telephone conversations and 13 meetings. The University of Mississippi materials include 17 telephone conversations and 3 White House meetings. Verbatim transcripts, requiring from 30 hours per hour of recording to 155 hours per hour of recording to produce, were prepared for the first phase group of materials to be released to public research.

Transcripts versus Content Logs

For several reasons, verbatim transcripts may have to be abandoned after the first phase project. They are extremely expensive to prepare, and ambiguous interpretations of what may be heard are far too common to guarantee 100 percent accuracy. Therefore, future material released is likely to appear in the form of an audio recording supported by a comprehensive and detailed content log rather than a verbatim transcription.


Audiotapes (Meeting Recordings)

There are 127 audiotapes. The initial inventory counted 125 reels of tape, but subsequent examination of the tapes on the reels showed that two reels actually held two separate tape segments each. Further examination showed that two tapes were recordings of empty office sounds, with no conversations or meetings anywhere on the tapes, and that another tape was completely blank with no recording whatsoever. Thus, there are 127 tapes, 124 of which contain meetings or conversations. The 124 tapes with meetings and conversations have a combined running time of about 248 hours.

The substance recorded on the tapes is predominantly meetings with the president in either the Oval Office or in the Cabinet Room. None of the recordings appear to be located elsewhere. Some tapes have only one meeting, others have several, and in still other cases a meeting is continued from one tape to another. Sometimes the recording does not begin until the meeting is already under way, and sometimes it ends before the end of the meeting. At other times the recording was left on and recording continued long after the end of a meeting. On some occasions the recording was apparently turned on accidentally by custodial personnel cleaning the oval office or Cabinet Room. Because of the fragmentary nature of some of the truncated meetings and conversations, and because of the tendency of some meetings and conversations to merge into one another as they do in the normal course of a business day, it is not possible to give a precise count of the number of separate meetings and conversations. However, a rough count indicates the number to be well over 300. Some meetings and conversations are only a few minutes in length, but many last for periods from one-half hour to two hours.
While the recording was deliberate in the sense that it required manual operation to start and stop the recording, there does not seem to be a systematic pattern to its use. It was not, based on the material recorded, used with daily regularity, although it was used often. Nor was it used on some occasions when one might have expected it, such as the October 18, 1962 meeting with Andrei Gromyko.

The earliest established date for material recorded is 30 July 1962, and the latest is 8 November 1963. About 60 percent of the material recorded covers topics in international and foreign policy, including international economics. Another 15 percent deals with national defense. Further small amounts of material on intelligence, space, and atomic energy bring to at least 75 percent the proportion subject to national security protection. The remaining 25 percent of the substance is civil rights, the domestic economy, labor disputes, and other similar matters. There is some, but very little in the way of partisan politics apart from the context of the substantive matters of administration policy and legislation.

Dictabelts (Telephone Conversations)

There are 73 Dictabelts. The initial inventory produced a count of only 27, but that was based on a numbering system that included several belts for each numeral. Furthermore, three additional belts were found among the President's Office Files and other papers, and were added to the collection because of the similarity in medium and content. The total is, therefore, 73 Dictabelts, including the three additions. The Dictabelts record approximately 12 hours of conversations, chiefly telephone conversations, most of them less than 5 minutes in length. One belt carries only brief memoranda dictated by the president for Evelyn Lincoln to type up, and these may have been dictated on a machine known to have been kept adjacent to the president's desk in the Oval Office. On at least two occasions it would appear that the phone was left off the hook or perhaps improperly cradled, for the conversations seem to be in the office rather than on the phone.

The substance of the material is predominantly telephone conversations between the president and other people, probably from either the president's phone in the Oval Office or from Evelyn Lincoln's phone in her office nearby. Mrs. Lincoln is also heard often as a party to a conversation, and occasionally others are heard without either Mrs. Lincoln or the president being a party to the conversation.

The earliest date for material on the Dictabelts is 10 September 1962, and the latest date is 29 October 1963. There are at least 280 separate conversations or fragments of conversations recorded. Only a small portion of the material, perhaps less than 10 percent, deals with foreign affairs or national defense and is subject to national security protection. Still less, perhaps less than 1 percent, are private family conversations subject to privacy protection. The largest group of items around one coherent subject are the recordings associated with the 1962 integration crisis at the University of Mississippi. While legislation and congressional liaison loom large as a joint category in this material, the subjects within that category are many and varied. Domestic politics, civil rights, legislation, and the economy account for most of the conversations, plus those in defense and foreign affairs already mentioned.
The Dictabelt recording was manually operated and therefore deliberate like the audiotape system, however, it shows the same lack of systematic regularity and a certain amount of whimsical or accidental recording. Frequent although inconsistent use is indicated by the material.


Audiotape Characteristics

Both sound quality and tape characteristics vary widely. Tape thickness is either 1-mil or 1 1/2-mil, with the former predominant. Recording speeds vary between 3 3/4 inches per second and 17/8 inches per second, with the latter appearing almost exclusively from tape #62 onwards in the list. Most of the tapes are four-channel tapes, with channels #2 and #4 used nearly exclusively for recording. There are some single channel (full track) tapes. In very few cases does recording appear on two tracks simultaneously in the same location. In some cases the recording shifts from one track to the other.

Sound quality varies with distance of the speaker from the hidden microphones. Those too close tend to produce an overload, with attendant sound distortion, while those too far away are very difficult to make out clearly. Voice quality also affects the quality of the audio image. When voices drop in pitch and volume they tend to become unintelligible. At many points speakers talking at the same time override each other, or there is a general babble of voices making comprehension impossible. Background interference, whether air conditioning machinery, the sounds of nearby pneumatic drills or helicopters, the rapping of hard items such as smoking pipes against glass ash trays, the rustling of paper, or the banginq of legs against tables all frequently swamp intelligible conversation.

Some tapes show considerable neglect and wear such as creased ends and curled edges due to poor winding and storage. At least four of the tape segments (see items 5A, 11A, 15A, and 72A in the list) were found wound onto only two reels, something not found elsewhere in the materials. Some of this wear can no doubt be attributed to the use of original tapes between 1964 and 1975 for transcribing the rough transcripts delivered with the tapes. Otherwise, preliminary examination of the tapes during the aforementioned duplication process indicates that they are whole and in fair condition, without breaks, splices, or evidence of erasures. This conclusion will, of course, continue to be tested further and will be subject to verification as more sophisticated equipment is applied in the future, but nothing heard to date on the tapes indicates any substantial damage or erasures.

Dictabelt Characteristics

The Dictabelts are standard, patent, plastic, "sleeve" belts, red in color, on which the recording Dictaphone produced grooves like a phonograph record. Each belt has a capacity of about 15-20 minutes of recording, not all of which was used in every case.

As received, the belts had been mashed flat and held together with paper clips, to which were attached slips identifying them by number. Some belts had sustained cracks due to storage conditions and being mashed flat, and upon playback several produced disconcerting echoes that distorted sound, as well as repeats and skips in sound.

It proved difficult to obtain exactly the correct playback speed to reproduce voice sounds normally, and nearly all the copies have a slightly higher pitch and speed than one would normally associate with each of the speakers. In some cases there are background noises that override speakers' voices. However, in most cases, due to the alternating pattern of only two speakers at a time, the telephone recordings are more consistently intelligible than the meeting recordings.

Rough Transcript Attempts

Prior to August 1975, someone at the behest of Robert Kennedy attempted to transcribe the audiotape and Dictabelt recordings. The results are uneven, and often poor to the point of being unusable or misleading. At best they are rough content summaries. They are not considered adequate either as finding aids or as transcripts of contents.

It is important to note that early lists of contents, including those nationally published in February 1982, relied chiefly on these inadequate transcripts for content information and tape or Dictabelt number identifications. Errors in those lists and later revisions will be corrected as new information comes to light.

The transcripts prepared of the telephone conversations were much better than those prepared for the meeting recordings, but even these were riddled with errors and omissions. Satisfactory as a rough, first-draft transcript, each requires careful auditing, proofreading, and correcting before it can stand as an adequate transcript.

Numbering and Inventory

As indicated earlier in this text, the numbering systems found on the materials as received made inventory control very difficult. Those who read this description need to become familiar with and to follow the attached lists giving the numbering systems in the far left-hand columns.

a. Audiotapes

As received, two primary numbering systems were discovered applied to the tapes. A numerical series from #1 to #118, with frequent use of the letter "A" as a suffix (26, 26A, 27, 27A, etc.) and with several numbers omitted, appeared to be the principal system used. These numbers appeared on the boxes in which the reels of tape were stored. It is believed that these numbers were assigned by Evelyn Lincoln as she received the tapes.

The second numerical series has an "A" prefix and runs from #A33 to #A57 with one omission. The two series overlap, with #A33 equating to #97, #A34 to #98, etc. While the "A##" series numbers are occasionally found on the boxes (particularly for the last three reels), they are more often found on small slips inside the boxes, giving the impression that they may have been assigned by the Secret Service personnel who changed the reels.

To complicate matters further, one tape was received without any number at all; two were received marked identically with "XX;" one was received marked with "XXX;" and one was received with "XXXX" The unnumbered tape and those marked "XXX" and "XXXX" were identified by content dating as belonging in the numerical series at #64, #67, and at #69, thus filling in three of the "gaps" in the numbering system as listed. The two "XX" tapes proved to have two separate and distinct tape segments on each reel. From content dating of each segment, these four "tapes" were placed by the Kennedy Library into the sequence at places where there had been no numbers in the initial inventory at #5A, #11A, #15A, and #72A. This still leaves several numbers in the sequence for which there are no materials. Numbers 19, 84, 91, and 105 may plausibly be explained as casualties of a careless numbering system application. There are no corresponding rough transcripts for any of these numbers, and there are no tapes. The conclusion that there never was any tape #105 can be supported by the fact that the meeting at the end of tape #104 continues at the beginning of tape #106, and that the "A##" series runs smoothly from "A40' (equates to #104) to "A41" (equates to #106) without interruption.

There are four numbered rough transcripts (#92, #93, #94, and #95) for which no recordings have yet been located among the existing tapes. The Kennedy Library is currently in the process of examining all the recording tracks on all the tapes and logging the content details in an effort to determine the location of the recordings these rough transcripts represent.

b. Dictabelts

Numbering of the Dictabelts is slightly less complicated. As found, they were numbered #1 through #28. However, many of the numbers were found to cover more than one (up to ten) belts. So, letter designations (excepting "I" to avoid confusion with "1") have been added to the numbers to designate each separate belt.

Dictabelt #1 and its corresponding rough transcript were both removed from the collection before it was turned over to the Kennedy Library. The removal was on grounds of privacy. Nothing is known of its contents. Item 2B in the list of Dictabelts has a rough transcript but no corresponding belt, and it is not known what happened to the belt that would have corresponded to the transcript delivered.

Three belts were added to the original number of 70 belts by the Kennedy Library. These three were discovered among other files of the Presidential Papers, and they were added solely because of the medium of recording. Two are telephone conversations and one is dictated memoranda.

Each belt contains one or more conversations. Each conversation is designated by an additional number. Thus, "4A.3" denotes the third conversation on Dictabelt 4A. [2] In some cases, a further letter may be added to indicate preceding or following conversation fragments (often fragments of operator "chatter").

[1] At the time of first publication of this register, none of the material reported herein was open to public research, therefore, researchers should inquire of the Kennedy Library staff which, if any, of the materials they are interested in have been opened to research. 
All written transcripts are imperfect abstracts of spoken conversation. Variations in sound quality and in the aural acuity of listeners can and do produce wide variations in what is heard. Even though transcripts may be prepared at great effort and with great care, many points of ambiguity are inevitable, and erroneous interpretations from transcripts are always possible. To ensure full confidence in any and all quotations from the Presidential recordings, users are strongly urged to check all transcript renditions against actual tape recordings before publication.
[2] Item segments within each audiotape of meetings will have similar designations in the future as content details are identified. For instance, "109.4" will indicate the fourth meeting or recorded event on audiotape #109, and it may be expressed as "audiotape #109, item #4."