As president, Dwight Eisenhower laid down strict rules for reports on meetings of the National Security Council: no direct quotations.
A memo concerning an Aug. 18, 1960, meeting about the Congo's troublesome first premier, Patrice Lumumba, made public this week at the National Archives after years of gathering dust, suggests the wisdom of the rule--at least as far as Ike was concerned.
The official note taker at that meeting, Robert H. Johnson, vividly recalled Eisenhower turning to CIA Director Allen Dulles "in the full hearing of all those in attendance and saying something to the effect that Lumumba should be eliminated."
After that, "according to Mr. Johnson, there was a stunned silence for about 15 seconds and the meeting continued."
Johnson made the statements in a conversation with the director of the select Senate intelligence committee on June 10, 1975, in the midst of its investigation of U.S. assassination plots against foreign leaders. However, Johnson was a bit more circumspect when he was called before the committee on June 18.
At the hearing, he recalled Eisenhower as saying "something--I can no longer recall the words--that came across to me as an order for the assassination of Lumumba, who was then at the center of political conflict and controversy in the Congo."
The Senate committee, headed by the late Frank Church (D-Idaho), finally decided there was "a reasonable inference" that Eisenhower had authorized Lumumba's assassination, but stopped short of a firm finding. The CIA acted as though the president had given the go-ahead, sending one of its scientists to the Congo in September 1960 with a vial of deadly poison that could be injected into something Lumumba might eat.
"In high quarters here, it is the clear-cut conclusion that if [Lumumba] continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will at best be chaos and at worst pave the way to Communist takeover. . . . His removal must be an urgent and prime objective," Dulles cabled the CIA station chief in the Congo on Aug. 26, 1960.
The poison, however, was never used, and CIA operatives were unable to get to Lumumba before he was eventually captured by Congolese rivals and killed on Jan. 17, 1961. The Church committee concluded cautiously that "it does not appear from the evidence that the United States was in any way involved in the killing."
Fresh questions about that have arisen recently in Belgium, the Congo's old colonial master, where a parliamentary inquiry was started in May into the Belgian government's possible involvement in the 35-year-old Lumumba's murder. (The Congo was known later for many years as Zaire.)
The investigation was prompted by a book published in Belgium last year that says the Brussels government engineered Lumumba's capture and execution and even helped dispose of the body. It was cut up with a hacksaw and dissolved in sulfuric acid, according to a Belgian police commissioner who went on Belgian TV last year, displaying a bullet and two of what he said were Lumumba's teeth.
Whether Washington was involved in or aware of the final scheme remains unclear.
NSC note taker Johnson's Senate testimony on June 18, 1975, was set down and explored at length--along with the differing recollections of other officials present at the 1960 NSC meeting--in the Church committee's 1975 report on assassination plots. But what he said in his June 10 interview remained secret for 25 years. The only reference to it was an ambiguous footnote stating that "one NSC staff member . . . believed that he witnessed a presidential order to assassinate Lumumba."
The reason the memo has come to light now, along with thousands of other pages of secret records from the assassination inquiry and a related subcommittee investigation of President Kennedy's murder, is the watchfulness of archivist Steven Tilley, the man in charge of the mountainous collection of JFK records at the archives.
After Congress passed the JFK assassination records law in 1992, the Senate intelligence committee yielded up dozens of boxes of documents under the requirement for all records "related" to the president's assassination to be made public.
Looking at the published reports of the Church committee, Tilley found a lot of footnotes to documents that were still missing. He recommended that the JFK review board conduct a fresh search of the committee's holdings.
"For some materials, we found microfilm copies, but not the originals," said Ronald G. Haron, the review board's last general counsel. He said some documents were never found in any form.
The review board went out of business in September 1998 and the job of securing the documents' declassification was left to Tilley. He said there are a small number of documents still awaiting review by the Justice Department.