Many may be surprised to learn that a decade before Richard Nixon famously installed a secret taping system in the White House, President John F. Kennedy did the same thing. It plays a key role in my The Tunnels book, as the transcripts reveal not only his reactions to the Berlin crisis, and escapes at the Wall, but the many days leading to, and during, the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK is a key player in the book, thanks to his attempts to suppress NBC and CBS coverage of tunnel escapes at the Wall. Here’s how it began, an excerpt from the book:
The order had come directly from the President, so there was no question in the mind of Secret Service Agent Robert Bouck that it was a serious matter. He was to install a secret recording system in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. Three previous presidents had installed listening devices, but they had used them sparingly. Franklin Roosevelt made a few recordings in 1940; Truman and Eisenhower left behind less than a dozen hours of tapes each. Kennedy’s plan would give him far more opportunity than that.
JFK had used a Dictaphone for years, as a U.S. Senator and to recite notes for his book, Profiles in Courage, and other writings. He still had one in the Oval Office for dictating speeches. Now he wanted to document face-to-face conversations with aides and visitors, for his own use and/or for the historical record. Without telling anyone why (keeping the secret in service), Bouck ordered high-quality Tandberg tape recorders from the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He stashed them in a file room in the basement of the West Wing and from there ran wires to a pair of microphones in the Oval Office and a pair in the Cabinet Room. At Kennedy’s direction, he installed the Oval Office microphones under the President’s desk and in a coffee table. Kennedy could activate them with the discrete push of a button on his desk. The microphones in the Cabinet Room were hidden behind drapes and could be turned on and off by a button at the head of the table where JFK sat.
Kennedy had not decided whom to inform about this, beyond his private secretary and Secret Service agents. He also hadn’t decided how often he would activate the system—which meetings to tape and which to ignore. Would he only record foreign policy debates during a crisis in case questions arose later? He had told Agent Bouck that his prime motivation for installing the system was fear of a crisis involving the Soviets that might produce heated internal debates. But what about purely political or campaign discussions? Might they one day reveal him in a bad light? And what would his clueless aides and visitors think if the secret taping system were ever exposed? His brother Bobby had recently joked (with a serious edge) in a note to CIA director John McCone that their father had instructed his sons, “Never write it down.” Now JFK had decided, not for the first time, to betray the wishes of Joseph P. Kennedy.