Scientists Work to Preserve 'JFK' Recording

Aug. 7, 2004 -- It's billed as "the only known sound recording of JFK's assassination."

The irony is, it's also been shown over and over to be no such thing — and to be irrelevant.

But never mind. There's a little lesson in all this about how to manage the scourge of doubt — even if you're not one of the more tiresome conspiracy theorists.

Dictabelt Dilemma

The National Archives has announced that it is asking scientists to see if they can make a state-of-the-art digital copy of the recording. It was made that November day in 1963 on a now outmoded "Dictabelt" that was rolling in a "Dictaphone" in a Dallas police station.

The latest office technology of its day, the Dictaphone was considered a wonder of convenience when it first appeared. You inserted a Dictabelt — a broad loop of flexible plastic — and a sort of phonograph needle recorded on it whatever you dictated into the attached microphone.

It could also be hooked up to record a telephone conversation or radio transmission.

As JFK entered Dealey Plaza, one of the motorcycles farther back in the motorcade had a radio microphone stuck in the on position. The sound was captured on this Dictabelt back at headquarters.

In 1964, the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired three shots from the Book Depository Building and was acting alone.

But in 1979, scientists stunned a congressional committee — which was also about to conclude that Oswald acted alone — by declaring that the very latest technology could now detect four shots on this Dictabelt — the three from Oswald and a fourth from … someone else.

Fourth Shot?

To the ear, the recording sounds mostly like hiss and static. A number of other scientists said in 1979 (and later) that they could not detect any shots on the Dictabelt.

But the scientists at the 1979 hearing had the latest oscilloscopes and wave form monitors — technology that looked even more mysterious and impressive in those days than it does now.

A second shooter? "That means a conspiracy!" said one analyst testifying before the committee, his comments televised worldwide.

Another analyst even told the committee of "… the probability of 95 percent or better there was indeed a shot fired from the grassy knoll."

This apparent fourth shot, detected by science, blew the lid off of a whole new Pandora's box of conspiracy theories.

It fueled conjectures ranging from Castro to Moscow to LBJ to the Mafia to the military industrial complex — each alone and in every possible combination — among many other theories.

High-Tech Check

Twenty-five years after that, the latest new technology will now be marshaled to make a digital copy of the worn and damaged Dictabelt before it crumbles completely.

As physicist Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs explains, they can now use a beam of light: "You can have a virtual needle read the surface, then what's picked up by this virtual needle can be interpreted by the computer as sound."

The latest digital technology, far more efficient than the 1979 analog technology, can separate out every least bit of sound. Conspiracy theorists are waiting for technicians to eliminate everything that does not sound like shooting — and then listen for that fourth shot.

Never mind that a computer reconstruction of the motorcade has shown that the motorcycle — and that microphone — was far back from the spot where in 1979 the scientists said it would have to be to have caught the sound of the shots.

Never mind that the motorcycle cop also insisted over and over that he was nowhere near that spot yet.

Never mind that experts say they can hear the cop's voice on the tape talking of the new route they were taking to the hospital after JFK was shot — which would prove that the part of the recording with the supposed shots wasn't even made till well after the shooting.

And never mind that both the FBI and an independent panel from the National Science Foundation rejected the recording.

Deflect the Doubters

Even if this famous bit of acoustic evidence now seems irrelevant to the case, there's still at least one good reason to preserve it.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss puts it this way: "If we lost this piece of evidence, I guarantee you you'd have conspiracy theorists saying this was the key to the puzzle, someone lost it deliberately."

It's part of the human condition. We get stuck with doubts about the past. Nothing lasts forever, but sometimes, if the evidence can be preserved, we can at least manage the scourge of doubt by thinking, OK, maybe they'll know what to make of that evidence in the future.

Some memories are even like that.

And for the conspiracy theorists to dream about? Well, who knows, maybe just maybe the new digital analysis will be able to capture the faintest echoes of shots bouncing off the buildings in Dealey Plaza, even if the cop was so far away — assuming, that is, that the Dictabelt was actually recording at the time the shots were fired.

Such corridors of thought are endless. But for those who, subconsciously or otherwise, fear that the JFK speculations might someday peter out, don't worry. There's lots of time. The new digital copy won't even be ready for arguing about until at next summer at the earliest.

Bill Blakemore's television report originally aired on World News Tonight on Aug. 3.