The JFK White House Tape Recordings

On July 16, 1973, in testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that President Nixon had installed a taping system in the White House to secretly record his meetings and discussions. The Kennedy Library soon acknowledged that audio recordings of meetings dealing with "highly sensitive national defense and foreign policy," as well as tapes of presidential telephone conversations, had also been made during the Kennedy administration. In fact, it is now known that some taping was done by every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon. Hundreds of hours of tapes have been declassified, the vast majority from the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

There is no definitive answer to the question of why President Kennedy installed the first practical White House taping system. Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, recalled that the president was enraged after the April, 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster when several advisers who had supported the invasion in closed meetings claimed later to have opposed it; she also maintained that the president simply wanted accurate records for writing his memoirs. Robert Bouck, the Secret Service agent who installed the recording devices, claimed that the president personally asked him to set up the taping system but never mentioned a reason. He, too, speculated that JFK wanted to create an accurate record of his administration for his personal use after he left the White House.

Bouck installed taping systems in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room in the spring of 1962. The actual recording device was confined to one of two rooms in the basement. The President did not have access to the tape recorder itself; he could only turn the system on or off in the Oval Office by hitting a "very sensitive" switch concealed in a pen socket on his desk, in a bookend near his favorite chair or in a coffee table in front of the fireplace his desk. The Cabinet Room switch was installed on the underside of the conference table in front of JFK’s chair. The Oval Office microphones were hidden in the desk knee well and in a table across the room; the Cabinet Room microphones were mounted on the outside wall directly behind JFK’s chair in spaces that once held light fixtures.

A separate Dictaphone taping system was installed in the Oval Office and possibly in the president’s bedroom around September, 1962, to record telephone conversations. Since the reel-to-reel tapes could record for a maximum of about two hours, Bouck subsequently installed a second back up tape machine which was automatically activated if the first machine ran out of tape. The agents put the tapes in a plain sealed envelope and turned them over to Lincoln for storage in a locked cabinet near her White House desk.

On November 22, 1963, after receiving confirmation of the president’s death in Texas, Bouck disconnected the taping system. The records of the Kennedy administration, including 248 hours of meeting tapes and 12 hours of telephone dictabelts, were moved to the National Archives in Washington and later transferred to the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. Finally, in 1976, the tapes were legally deeded to the Kennedy Library and the National Archives. Many of the tapes, most significantly more than 20 hours of recordings from the ExComm (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council) meetings during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were gradually declassified over the next two decades.