WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama today bestowed posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom awards on the "Deep Six" team of national security operatives who carried out the extrajudicial killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
"For too long, these heroes have gone unsung," the president said in a Rose Garden ceremony with the surviving widows and children of the six men -- a super-secret team comprised of agents of the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service, along with two Green Berets -- who staged the successful operation at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, more than four decades ago.
"They executed their assignment with professionalism and patriotism, setting a standard that our special ops still follow today in similar actions all over the world," said President Obama. "They were shadow warriors, whose noble mission could not be acknowledged in those tense and turbulent times. But today, we have a better understanding of the hard choices and tough actions that are required to preserve our national security. Today we can openly praise what once was kept hidden. This is the kind of progress that makes America great."
The existence of the Deep Six team only came to light two months ago, after the discovery of a set of mislabeled archival material at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. The material included tapes and transcripts of the Oval Office meetings of a hitherto unknown "Special Committee on National Security." The members of the Committee were: President Johnson; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; CIA Director Richard Helms; National Security Advisor Walter Rostow; Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and his deputy, Paul Nitze; and Deputy Attorney General Warren Christopher, whose boss, Attorney General Ramsey Clark, was considered "a loose cannon" and kept out of the loop of the Committee's deliberations.
On the tapes, members of the Special Committee discuss the "serious national security threat' posed by Dr. King's increasingly strident denunciations of the American war effort in Vietnam and his description of the United States as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
In one meeting, Helms is heard to remark: "This agitator is blatantly and directly giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war. He can bring millions of Negroes and misguided whites out onto the streets at any time. He can set our cities on fire, shut down our economy. How long can we live with such an imminent threat to our way of life?" In another, Hoover says that King's organization is "rotten with Communists from top to bottom. There is little doubt he's getting money from Moscow to sponsor all these race riots. We are nursing a viper in our bosom."
Clifford's suggestion of arresting King and trying him for treason was shot down by Rostow: "The Constitution is not a suicide note. Legal niceties must give way to higher priorities. You cannot give an extremist an international platform to spread his poison. And what if he calls on the Negroes to attack the courtroom? There could be a bloodbath." Johnson gave the final order to initiate the operation in February 1968.
During the award ceremony, Obama praised Johnson for making the "gutsy" call. "I can see him now. I've been there myself," Obama said. "He's all alone. This is his decision. Nobody is standing there with him."
"Some people might disagree with that call today," Obama added. "But I'm not here to pass judgement. We must look forward, not back. The President has all the facts, and it is his responsibility to make the necessary decisions to protect national security. The elimination of this credible threat in 1968 was lawful and met the constitutional requirement for due process. As we recognize today, 'due process' and 'judicial' process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security.
"And so President Johnson was well within his rights to order the assassination of Martin Luther King -- and the Deep Six team are worthy of these honors for carrying out the president's tough decision with such exemplary dispatch. All that mattered that day was the mission. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example."
After the ceremony, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would be seeking to vacate, posthumously, the convictions of German officials at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. "As the president wisely said, we have a better understanding of these issues today," said Holder. "We now know that national leaders alone have the power to determine the proper way to confront threats to their nation's security, even if this means the elimination of these threats by extrajudicial methods. Thus any order of a leader pertaining to national security must be deemed legal, and no subordinate should be punished for carrying it out. It is our hope we can restore some measure of justice, however belated, to those who were only acting on the noble principles that guide our policies today."