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Technorati Tags: 11 Seconds in Dallas, Dealey Plaza, Elm Street, forensic metallurgy, Forensic Metallurgy Associates, Frank DeRonja, House Select Committee on Assassinations, HSCA, James Tague, Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndal Shaneyfelt, Max Holland, Position A, Robert Frazier, shooting reconstruction, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government
Harpers. 686 pp. $29.99
By David M. Barrett
A key indicator of where David Talbot is going in his portrait of CIA Director Allen W. Dulles comes from his treatment of C. Wright Mills and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mills was a Columbia University sociologist whose 1956 book, The Power Elite, caused a minor sensation in the seemingly placid ‘50s. Liberal and conservative scholars alike depicted the American political process as a balancing act among competing interests, which included big business, organized labor, farmers, and professional groups. But Mills, as Talbot notes approvingly, did not believe such a perspective was “adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works.” Instead, Mills posited a Marxist-lite critique that presented governance in the United States as an elaborate conspiracy theory of unaccountable elites. He argued that corporate, military, and governmental leaders worked hand-in-glove solely to enrich and empower themselves and the institutions they headed, and cast doubt on the belief that the United States was some version of a democracy.
How did presidents—America’s nominal leaders—fit into this system of elite control? According to the Millisian analysis, Eisenhower’s prime directive was to preserve an elite that benefited from a “permanent war economy.” That would seem to be at odds with Ike’s famous parting shot, in which he warned Americans that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist . . . . Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Perhaps that portion of Eisenhower’s nationally-televised farewell address from January 1961 was a gaffe, which Michael Kinsley famously defined as a politician accidentally telling the truth.
Much more often, according to Talbot, President Eisenhower acted the role of an amiable dunce who followed the diktats of the power elite. Ike had been “a peace-loving warrior” during the great global conflict of the previous decade, but by the time he sought the presidency in 1952 he was an “aging general,” well-meaning perhaps but subject to manipulation and oftentimes just plain clueless. He obligingly took orders from the “Dulles-Dewey group” (a combination brain trust and bank consisting of future CIA Director Allen, his brother and future Secretary of State John Foster, and former GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey). These were the men, for example, who “tapped [Richard] Nixon for vice president.”
Unfortunately, as in so many episodes related in the book, the true story is at odds with Talbot’s invented version. After the GOP convention nominated Eisenhower, Herbert Brownell, Ike’s campaign manager (who would become attorney general), told Eisenhower the time had come to select a running mate. After ruminating for awhile, the nominee handed his short list to Brownell, who then consulted leading Republican pols, including Dewey, but not the Dulleses. How Nixon got picked is recounted in an exhaustively researched new book about Eisenhower and Nixon, The President and His Apprentice, by Irwin F. Gellman.
Talbot goes on to assert that during the eight-year Eisenhower presidency, no one in the administration—not even Ike himself—matched the Dulles brothers in power. In particular, the president is depicted as knowing shockingly little about what Allen Dulles and the CIA were up to, while lacking the intelligence and energy to insist on knowing. These portraits of Ike and the Dulleses are a graphic novel (comic book) rendering of the national and international politics of the 1950s, and not in a good way. The charge that Eisenhower was an amiable dunce is an old and political one, dating back to the time he was still in office. Eisenhower was so popular and scandal-free that Democrats had little choice but to claim he was more interested in playing golf than running the country. While researching The CIA and Congress, the majority of which dealt with the Eisenhower era, I saw some episodes of an out-of-touch Ike, especially during the last few years of his White House tenure, which were illness-plagued. But there was more frequent evidence of a shrewd political figure. It may be going a tad too far to claim that Eisenhower’s was a “hidden-hand” presidency, a revisionist argument political scientist Fred Greenstein first put forward in 1982. But the five-star general surely was not a cipher.
Talbot’s book, of course, really purports to be an expose about Allen Dulles’s directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here there are serious problems, rooted in a number of bad choices by the author. Among them:
Hillary’s Personal Conspiracy Theorist
By Max Holland
The controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s extant and missing emails briefly put long-time Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal back in the news, with more surely to come after June 16. That is the day when Blumenthal is scheduled to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which is investigating the deaths of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on 11 September 2012. It turns out that Blumenthal, Hillary’s “Svengali-like confidant since the 1990s,” advised the secretary on Libya.
Decades have passed since Andrew Sullivan rightly termed Blumenthal “the most pro-Clinton writer on the planet,” capable of making Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Kennedy-worship look downright tame by comparison. And it has been many years since Blumenthal’s less savory turn as a White House aide, speechwriter, in-house intellectual, press corps whisperer, and compiler of dossiers on aggressive reporters during the Bill Clinton’s second term. Consequently, news organizations felt compelled to remind their audiences of Blumenthal’s résumé: as NPR’s Ron Elving put it, “Who Is Clinton Confidant Sidney Blumenthal?”
Oddly, one salient fact was invariably missing from these profiles. While they often noted (as did the National Review and Bloomberg) that Blumenthal’s penchant for conspiracy theories had once earned him the nickname “Grassy Knoll” inside the White House, the fact is Blumenthal’s moniker is not figurative, but literal. Four decades ago, Blumenthal was not only in league with JFK assassination buffs who claimed shots were fired from the proverbial grassy knoll—he also argued earnestly that “the reason the hopes of the ‘60s were not realized was because a group of people at the top made certain they were dashed.”
The previous sentence comes from Government By Gunplay, a 1976 paperback book edited by Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian—Yazijian being one of the founding members of what was called the Assassination Investigation Bureau (AIB), then headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Technorati Tags: Assassination Information Bureau, Bill Clinton, Bob Katz, Carl Oglesby, Clay Shaw, David Lifton, Government By Gunplay, Harvey Yazijian, Hillary Clinton, House Select Committee on Assassinations, House Select Committee on Benghazi, Jeff Gerth, Jim Garrison, Kennedy assassination, Mark Lane, Oliver Stone, Ralph Schoenman, Sidney Blumenthal, Sylvia Meagher, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
Man of a Million Fragments: The True Story of Clay Shaw
Donald H. Carpenter
Donald H. Carpenter LLC. 669 pp. $35.99
By Stephen Roy
The torrent of words and images about the John F. Kennedy assassination, especially the investigation by former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, makes it easy to accept superficial profiles of the accused, while losing sight of who they really were.
Clay Lavergne Shaw is a prominent example of this phenomenon, second only, perhaps, to Lee Harvey Oswald. Arrested by Garrison in 1967 and charged with conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, Shaw was tried in 1969 and acquitted by a jury after less than one hour of deliberations.
Most people “know” Shaw from Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK”. Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Shaw as a flamboyantly gay secret warrior, adroitly if not infuriatingly dodging Jim Garrison’s probing questions. Stone’s simplistic portrayal of Shaw created a one-dimensional, if not cartoon-like, image of a nuanced individual. Melodramatic and inaccurate, it left movie-goers to believe that Shaw had successfully concealed his role in Kennedy’s assassination.
Now, Louisiana-born accountant and author Donald H. Carpenter has righted that portrait in the first full-scale biography of Clay Shaw. Carpenter has spent years scouring the scouring the documentary record for the “million fragments” of Shaw’s life, and supplemented the paper trial with interviews with many people who knew or interacted with Shaw. Earlier attempts to trace Shaw’s life and career focused on the controversy over his role in the Garrison investigation, either “bad Shaw/good Garrison” or “good Shaw/bad Garrison,” depending on the writer’s bias. Carpenter has his biases, but they are understated in favor of a Facts on File-style chronological recitation of the fragments of Shaw’s life. He stops short of making a sweeping judgment of Garrison’s case, but a savvy reader can easily detect that he doesn't find it impressive.
Man of a Million Fragments is not an assassination book: it is a biography. There is no in-depth discussion of the mechanics of the assassination or Oswald’s life. Carpenter focuses on Clay Shaw the man. But because Shaw’s life was forever changed by Garrison’s prosecution, Carpenter traces it in detail, and recognizes its fundamental legal weaknesses.
Technorati Tags: Charles I. Spiesel, CIA, Clay Shaw, David W. Ferrie, Domestic Contact Service, Donald H. Carpenter, JFK, Jim Garrison, Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, Man of a Million Fragments, New Orleans, Oliver Stone, Perry Raymond Russo, Stephen Roy, Tommy Lee Jones
The Kennedy Half-Century:
The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy
Larry J. Sabato
Bloomsbury. 603 pp. $30
By David Reitzes
Evaluating a president’s place in history, even with the benefit of hindsight, is seldom easy. Applying the proper perspective to as iconic a figure as John F. Kennedy has proven well-nigh impossible. From the instant his presidency was cut short by a burst of gunfire fifty years ago, mythology has overwhelmed reality.
Any historian who tackles this subject is therefore, by definition, audacious. But Larry J. Sabato is doubly so. To his ever-lasting credit, Sabato believes Kennedy’s term in office, the assassination, and the aftermath are an indivisible historical whole and must be written about as such.
. . . [I]t is impossible to understand the Kennedy legacy without understanding the assassination—the sequence of events, as well as what most Americans think happened and why. Millions have never been, and will never be, satisfied with the official findings of two separate government inquiries—not least because the inquiries came to opposite conclusions on the critical question of conspiracy. The assassination dictated that JFK would not have the time create a full record and make his whole claim on history. For fifty years the unfinished record of the man and his presidency has stirred Americans as they mourned an unconscionable loss and wondered what might have been. This “ghost legacy” is as powerful as the real one.
This is a bracing change from the approach of most historians who have written about Kennedy, whose tendency has been to treat the assassination as an unwanted complication. Of course, it is not easy to write about an event that remains a controversial mystery to so many, with a majority of Americans consistently believing that the truth about it has never been told Consequently, it’s not unusual to see historians handle the subject rather dismissively, as Robert Dallek did in An Unfinished Life:
Despite an authoritative 1993 book, Case Closed, by attorney Gerald Posner refuting numerous conspiracy theories, the public, inflamed by a popular 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK, believed otherwise . . . . The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people. The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential . . . as Kennedy.
Despite Sabato’s willingness to undertake the necessary task of making history whole again, The Kennedy Half-Century is a great disappointment. Sabato’s in-depth treatment of the assassination is precisely where the book falters. The author often ends up sounding more like a fevered assassination buff, pandering to popular, uninformed opinion about the assassination, rather than someone who was a Rhodes Scholar, founder of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and is the University Professor of Politics at UVA.
Technorati Tags: Bill Newman, David Reitzes, Dealey Plaza, Earl Warren, Jefferson Morley, John F. Kennedy, Kennedy assassination, Larry J. Sabato, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nicholas Katzenbach, Robert Dallek, Warren Commission
By Kenneth Scearce
In the Zapruder film, the earliest obvious reaction we can see to the commencement of the assassination is that of Rosemary Willis. Rosemary Willis was 10 years old when she witnessed President Kennedy’s murder. She can be seen in the Zapruder film after it resumes at frame 133, running along the south side of Elm Street, in a red skirt and a white, hooded jacket. During the first 5 seconds of the restarted film, Ms. Willis turns her gaze away from Kennedy towards the Book Depository, slows from a run, and stops abruptly. Her body language clearly strikes a pose of thunderstruck bewilderment while almost everyone else visible in the Zapruder film appears nonplussed.
The two animations below were created by Gerda Dunckel from the Zapruder film (the copyright of which is owned by The Sixth Floor Museum). The animations run from the Zapruder film’s first frame, Z133 to Z221, ending just before the second shot was fired at Z222.
The first animation is a close-up focused on Ms. Willis:
The second animation is an extreme close-up of Ms. Willis:
Initially, during frames 133—160 of the Zapruder film, Ms. Willis keeps time with the president’s Lincoln Continental. Soon, however, certainly by no later than Z161, Ms. Willis begins to slow down noticeably (her swinging arms have dropped by Z161 as she slows, compared to the height of her arms in previous frames). By Z197 (and probably earlier), Ms. Willis has come to a complete stop. During this sequence, Ms. Willis is facing in the direction not of President Kennedy to her right front, but of the Book Depository to her right rear. This is very odd—unless something more significant than watching President Kennedy had caught her attention.
Technorati Tags: 11 Seconds in Dallas, George Hickey, Gerda Dunckel, HSCA, Jack Ready, Kennedy assassination, Kenneth Scearce, Paul Landis, Rosemary Willis, Secret Service, Six Seconds, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union
Basic Books. 267 pp. $27.99
Editor’s Note: In the half-century since President Kennedy’s death, one arm is capable of holding all the reliable works that attempt to understand the assassination by understanding the assassin. Two of the most outstanding in this niche are Jean Davison’s Oswald’s Game (1983) and Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale (1995), the latter notable for the author’s negotiated access to the Minsk KGB’s file on and surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Yet the book against which all such efforts must be measured is Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee, which is being reissued this fall by the Steerforth Press. As Thomas Powers observed in his 1977 New York Times review, Marina and Lee was a “miraculous book . . . miraculous because McMillan had the wit, courage, and perseverance to go back to the heart of the story and the art to give it life.” McMillan restored agency to Oswald, and by so doing left no room for the tapestry of conspiracy theories that had been woven around him, possible only so long as he remained a cipher. So rich was the book’s texture that when Mailer sat down to write his Oswald biography, he quoted long passages from Marina and Lee verbatim, and in his acknowledgments wrote that a “special statement is necessary to cover the contribution of Priscilla Johnson McMillan.”
The 50th anniversary is ripe for another look at Oswald, if only because the end of the cold war opened a window for reportage that had not been possible earlier. What is not explicable or defensible is Peter Savodnik’s calculated neglect of Marina and Lee in The Interloper. Savodnik, regrettably, did not think he could pull off his book without pretending that McMillan’s book did not exist.
Despite this shabby behavior, The Interloper is one of the few books deserving of attention on this anniversary. Washington Decoded asked Priscilla Johnson McMillan, a member of its editorial board, for her considered opinion.
The Interloper may be the one book appearing this year that attempts to understand the Kennedy assassination by taking a microscopic look at the assassin. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic view of Lee Harvey Oswald, a view so human that it crowds out and leaves no room for mechanistic theories of a conspiracy.
The author, Peter Savodnik, is a Russian-speaking writer who spent many months in Minsk, the city in which Oswald lived during most of his 2½ years in the Soviet Union. There, Savodnik interviewed Erich Titovets, a man who knew Oswald fairly well, and the very few others who remember the interloper who arrived in 1960 hoping to remain forever. Savodnik even traveled to Israel to interview Ella German, the attractive Jewish woman whose rejection of Oswald’s marriage proposal in January 1961 had much to do with the American’s rejection of Soviet life and eventual decision to return to the United States.
Savodnik sees Oswald as a seeker after something affirmative who, in reaction against a childhood of moving from place to unhappy place with a selfish, unstable mother, longed for a home and steady sense of purpose. But Oswald wanted something more. He was a Marxist who idealized the Soviet Union as a country that treated all of its citizens equally and provided baseline amenities to everyone. What he found instead was a bureaucracy such as he had encountered in the Marine Corps and ‘round the clock surveillance by the KGB. He recorded his hopes and disappointments in his “Historic Diary” and in “The Collective,” several essays he wrote while in Minsk.
Naturally, Savodnik uses Oswald’s writing to trace his feelings about his life in the USSR and concludes that he felt isolated and alone, having failed to connect and find a place for himself within the society he had idealized from afar. It was in Minsk, Savodnik says, that Oswald realized that he would always be a outsider, an interloper, and where the “desperation and fury coursing through his whole life were most fully on display.” Savodnik goes so far as to say that if the reader understands Oswald’s life in Minsk, he or she will understand much about how the Kennedy assassination came about.
This claim is a stretch: the anger and violence that were to characterize Oswald’s behavior after his return to the United States were barely visible during his time in Minsk.
Technorati Tags: Jean Davison, Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina and Lee, Norman Mailer, Oswald's Game, Oswald's Tale, Peter Savodnik, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, The Interloper, Thomas Powers
New Light on a Lingering Forensic Controversy
By John Canal
The exact entry site of President Kennedy’s head wound is the most perplexing medico-legal controversy stemming from the assassination. It has confounded assassination researchers and credentialed experts for decades.
Conflicting conclusions over the entry wound’s location—and the tightly-associated debate over the damage to the cranium—have lingered for so long they seem irresolvable.
Factoring in a simple technique familiar to every skilled mortician, however, makes it possible to resolve the contradictions between the findings of the original pathologists and the official inquiries that revisited the medical evidence in 1968, 1975, 1978, and 1998. It is finally possible to square this particular circle and put the issue to a well-deserved rest.
The Controversy in a Nutshell
All five of the official forensic investigations have been unanimous on one point: a single, high-velocity missile entered the rear of the president’s head, with the instant, gruesome results captured in the Zapruder film beginning at frame 313. Expert opinion is in disagreement about almost everything aside from that.
The three military officers/physicians who performed the postmortem on the night of November 22 placed the entry wound near Kennedy’s external occipital protuberance (EOP), a little knob typically about two inches above the hairline. The autopsy report stated, “Situated in the posterior scalp approximately 2.5 cm. laterally to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance is a lacerated wound measuring 15 x 6 mm. In the underlying bone is a corresponding wound . . . .”
These prosectors also noted the grievous damage to JFK’s head. They described a large irregular defect of the scalp and skull on the right involving chiefly the parietal bone but extending somewhat into the temporal and occipital regions. (The parietal bone extends from the occipital bone, which is essentially the back of the head, to the frontal bone, essentially the forehead.) This finding was consistent with the recollections of more than 25 eyewitnesses, most of them medically-trained, who reported seeing an exit-like wound about the size of a small orange in the rear of the president’s head.
Figure 1 is one unofficial attempt from 1967 to depict the damage to the back of the head (BOH) as described in Dr. Robert N. McClelland’s testimony before the Warren Commission. McClelland’s description was one of the more precise eyewitness accounts. But accounts of the damage to this area understandably varied, as the majority of medical personnel had been preoccupied with trying to resuscitate JFK at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital.
The BOH opening, in all likelihood, was created after the bullet’s explosive impact exposed the president’s brain through a tear in the rear scalp and an opening between two or more dislodged (but not blown-out or missing) pieces of loose rear skull. This observation is supported by the fact that the lateral X-ray shows no missing rear bone whatsoever. Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, one of the prosectors, did say in 1996 that he repositioned some bone pieces before the X-rays and photos were taken; it seems logical that he pushed some loose pieces of skull (dislodged but still adhering to the scalp) roughly back into place.
The initial postmortem finding regarding the location of the entry wound in the head was accepted until 1968. In that year Attorney General Ramsey Clark commissioned four experts to revisit the postmortem because of a public controversy that had arisen over the findings. While the so-called Clark Panel did not have the decided advantage of examining the body directly, it was composed entirely of forensic experts, whereas only one of the prosectors had training in that specialty. Citing one X-ray in particular, these experts declared that the prosectors had incorrectly located the rear entry wound in the head. The Clark Panel Report claimed the X-ray in question revealed the entry to be as high as the area of the president’s cowlick, or almost four inches (or ten centimeters) higher than the location established back in November 1963.
A single photographic view was also cited to underpin the Clark Panel’s correction; number 42 representing that view is reproduced here as Figure 2. This photograph was presumed to have been taken just after JFK’s corpse arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital, site of the autopsy, and it presumably showed the entry wound well above the EOP—in the vicinity of the president’s cowlick rather than near the EOP. The Clark Panel made no mention of the dubious practice it had engaged in of using a movable body part, such as the scalp, to locate the entrance wound. Normally, as one wound-ballistics expert put it, the “location of a penetrating wound to the cranium is usually pinpointed by the cratered hole in the skull.”
The other manifest difference between the Clark Panel and the findings of the original prosectors concerned the visible damage to the rear of the president’s head. The Clark Panel reported what seemed self-evident from Figure 2: aside from the cowlick entrance wound, the BOH was relatively unscathed; indeed, the scalp was apparently intact.
The bottom line was that the Clark Panel findings did not fundamentally change the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired the one bullet that penetrated the president’s skull, in addition to the separate shot that pierced JFK’s upper back. Nonetheless, the amended conclusions were stunning: assertion of a four-inch error in the entry wound, and refutation of visible BOH damage. The notion that the postmortem contained such gross errors in the first place left doubt where there should have been absolute certainty.
Technorati Tags: ARRB, Assassination Records Review Board, autopsy protocol, Barb Junkkarinen, Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Chad Zimmerman, Clark Panel, Dr. George Burkley, Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, Dr. James Humes, Dr. Michael Baden, Dr. Pierre Finck, Dr. Robert Karnei, Dr. Robert McClelland, forensic pathology, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Jim Garrison, John Canal, John Stringer, Josiah Thompson, Kennedy assassination, Larry Sturdivan, Paul Hoch, Ramsey Clark
Richard Belzer & David Wayne
Skyhorse Publishing. 368 pp. $26.95
By Ron Capshaw
As the historiography of the Kennedy assassination approaches its 50th year, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the Oswald-did-it-alone thesis of the much-maligned Warren Commission. The Dallas Police Department (DPD) in recent years unearthed records that showed Oswald’s fingerprints on the trigger of the Mannlicher-Carcano. The DPD also revealed that the tramps arrested on the day of the shooting were in fact tramps and not fleeing assassins or point men for the plot.
For those who argue that anything coming out of the DPD, that collection of Southern crackers in collusion with the military-industrial complex, is suspect, there are those who present evidence with no political axe to grind. Computer analysis of supposed bullet trajectories from the grassy knoll show that for a head shot to have come from there the shooter would have had to be elevated 40 feet from the ground—a matter that witnesses that day might have noticed. A non-partisan sniper recently tried to duplicate a shot from the grassy knoll and concluded that it would have passed through the president’s head and ripped Jackie’s face off.
But Oswald as the lone assassin seems to run aground when the matter of the mysteriously dying witnesses comes up. Even those that believe in the Warren thesis contradict themselves about the witnesses. A stalwart liberal friend of mine once said in the same breath that he believed Oswald did it alone and that the deaths of the witnesses was very much mob behavior.
And we have Jack Ruby to thank for this, or “Sparky” as he was known to his friends. Ruby’s televised murder of Oswald set tongues wagging, or as Christopher Hitchens said, once Oswald’s mouth had been shut, “everyone else’s was free to open.”
Richard Belzer’s is certainly open. Belzer is one of these actors who take their film or TV roles to heart. We’ve seen this all before: Jessica Lange, or Sissy Spacek, believe that by playing farmers, they acquire the expertise to testify before Congress on the plight of the agrarian community. Belzer plays a homicide detective on TV, but somewhere from script to his own writings, the concept of empirical and forensic evidence seems to have eluded him.
Hit List, with its CIA using dart guns to induce cancer and/or heart attacks, goes beyond even Oliver Stone, who after all, only showed a witness dying by having lethal pills shoved down his throat. Jack Ruby is injected with cancer while in prison; Guy Bannister suffers a heart attack by dart. Even J. Edgar Hoover is not immune from a death-dealing poison administered by White House operatives. Lee Bowers, the railroad man in a 14-foot-high tower, not noticing the 26-foot-higher platform of the grassy knoll sniper, is drugged before being run off the road and killed by driver on a dirt road in Midlothian, Texas. (Geraldo Rivera posed the best rebuttal to the need for Bowers’s supposed murder when he rhetorically asked, why kill Bowers when it seemed he already told all he knew?).
The authors could have been on surer footing with the death of Eladio De Valle and Johnny Rosselli. Both were killed in violent ways; De Valle, with ties to the anti-Castro community in Miami, was shot in the heart and had his head split open with an axe; Rosselli was found in a 55 gallon oil drum stabbed, shot, and legs sawn off.
But that is not enough. Belzer argues that both Ferrie’s death in New Orleans and De Valle’s in Miami were coordinated by the assassins to occur at the same time (walkie- talkies anyone?).
On Ruby, they cannot argue for any pre-planned assassination of Oswald. In a death- bed interview with his defense attorney, while those “injected cancer cells” were supposedly raging, Ruby stated he never knew Oswald and intercepted him quite by accident, as he was out telegraphing money to one of his strippers at the Western Union office near police headquarters. That Ruby did not know exactly what he was going to do beforehand is evidenced by him leaving his beloved dog, who he bizarrely called his “wife,” in the car.
That he did it, not on orders from the mob or Allen Dulles or Hunt oil, but to keep Jackie from the stress of a trial, was borne out in a comment he made to Assistant DA Bill Alexander after being arrested: “That son of a bitch killed my president!”
Like Oliver Stone, Belzer quotes Ruby’s jailhouse testimony to Earl Warren about the conspiracy of Nazi-types taking over the country and how he believes he cannot talk freely in Dallas. Like Stone though, Belzer cherry picks Ruby’s testimony, leaving out key comments that contradict the Belzer/Stone thesis.
Ruby also said, “No one else requested me to do anything. I never spoke to anyone about attempting to do anything. No subversive organization gave me any idea. No underworld person made any effort to contact me. It all happened that Sunday morning.”
Belzer lays much stock in the Ruby quote that “a whole new form of government is going to take over our country” without providing the preceding quote that made suspect anything Ruby said about conspiracies, i.e., the “Jewish people are being exterminated at this moment.”
Like many conspiracy-mongers, Belzer gives the CIA a wet-work capability they simply did not have. After all, this group couldn’t knock off Castro, and their attempts—poison scuba suits, exploding cigars—were the last word in musical comedy (apparently those cancer-causing blow darts weren’t considered). William F. Buckley, in a bit of gallows humor, concluded that the CIA couldn’t have killed Kennedy because the president was murdered. If actually tasked with the assignment, the CIA would have characteristically missed JFK and killed everyone else.
Belzer details many other journalists and witnesses who were allegedly knocked off. But consider who wasn’t killed. Why not LBJ? After all, he should have earned the wrath of the anti-Castro/CIA group since, right after assuming office, called off the Kennedy brothers’ “goddamn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean” (JFK was a better bet for the Castro plots, as before November 22, he had stepped up the assassination plots against the dictator). If the CIA/mafia had such a reach as to kill J. Edgar Hoover then why not slip some cancer-causing cells into one of Johnson’s sirloin steaks?
At the same time, eyewitnesses like Jean Hill, who had the seemingly dangerous testimony of having seen a man firing from the grassy knoll, lived till 2000. Victoria Adams, who claimed she didn’t see Oswald running down the Depository stairs beside her after the shots were fired (and hence, he could not have been on the sixth floor) was alive until several years ago. Marina Oswald, the person closest to Oswald, is still up and running. Perhaps they had quicker reflexes to dodge those darts.
Historians and even some conspiracy theorists may consider Belzer a trespassing amateur. But the reality is that the former stand-up comedian, and the CIA he conjures up are made for each other. Both inadvertently provide us all with prat-falling comedy.
©2013 by Ron Capshaw
By Max Holland
Ever since the Church Committee’s investigation of the intelligence community in the mid-1970s—if not earlier—it has been well known that Robert F. Kennedy was deeply involved in the Kennedy administration’s efforts to subvert and overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro. RFK regularly attended meetings of the so-called Special Group of the National Security Council, which directed and coordinated US policy toward Cuba, including most covert operations. And as Harris Wofford observed in his 1980 book, Of Kennedys and Kings, within the Special Group the attorney general
was the driving force behind the clandestine effort to overthrow Castro. From inside accounts of the pressure he was putting on the CIA to “get Castro,” he seemed like a wild man who was out-CIAing the CIA.
Still, extant records specifying RFK’s direct involvement are few and far between.
One of seven documents released by the National Archives in response to a Judicial Watch lawsuit, however, is an EYES ONLY memo that reveals Robert F. Kennedy personally signed off on a sabotage operation against Cuba in November 1963.
The November 1963 document released to Judicial Watch is a brief, one-page proposal for a “low-key sabotage operation” with the plan to be accomplished by a commando group on or about 8 November 1963. Using demolition charges and incendiaries, the commandos were to destroy a pier and warehouse on the northern coast “as part of our continuing long-range program.”
Sterling J. Cottrell, the coordinator of Cuban affairs, submitted the sabotage proposal to Robert Kennedy on November 4. The next day, the operation was one of several items discussed at a special meeting of the Special Group (SG), which included RFK; McGeorge Bundy, the president’s national security adviser; John McCone, CIA director; Richard Helms, CIA deputy director for plans; U. Alexis Johnson, deputy undersecretary of State for political affairs; Cyrus Vance, secretary of the army; Dr. Albert “Bud” Wheelon, CIA deputy director for science & technology; Colonel Ralph Steakley of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Bruce Cheever, deputy to Desmond FitzGerald, the head of the CIA’s Special Affairs Staff, which ran espionage, paramilitary, and other intelligence operations against Castro.
Cheever presented the proposal, which had been given the designation No. 3111, to the Special Group. The SG tentatively approved the operation along with two others: No. 3112, a sabotage operation directed against a sawmill located in northern Oriente province; and No. 3115, which involved the infiltration of a radio operator to provide communications for a “ratline,” an emergency escape route for Agency assets and agents in Cuba.
At the conclusion of the November 5 special meeting, Mac Bundy put all three operations in a “fail safe ” status. They were to proceed as planned “pending concurrence in each case by higher authority ”—meaning until the president himself signed off on them. The next day, however, President Kennedy disapproved all Cuban operations scheduled to run before November 12. Thus, only one of the three operations, No. 3115, received presidential sanction.
In the mid-1990s, the November 4 document was one of seven identified by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) as “assassination-related” and contained in the papers of Robert F. Kennedy. But none of the seven were released, according to the ARRB, by the time it ceased operating in September 1998. Records in the RFK papers required the express permission of an RFK Donor Committee before they could be released. As of January 2011, according to an internal memo from the John F. Kennedy Library, the seven documents remained closed because the RFK Donor Committee “never formally ruled to open them.” However, after Judicial Watch filed the lawsuit it turned out that six of the documents were in fact open to the public because copies of them existed in files not controlled by the Donor Committee. They had already been released and were available in the JFK Assassination Records Collection at the NARA II facility in College Park, Maryland. Only the document cited above had not been made part of the Assassination Records collection.
The Judicial Watch lawsuit was filed subsequent to a December 2012 Freedom of Information Act request by Washington Decoded’s editor Max Holland. Upon notification that all seven documents were open to researchers, the lawsuit was dropped. Nonetheless, further steps are being taken to ensure the availability of all government records in the RFK papers that are related in any way to the JFK assassination.
Villanova Professor David M. Barrett, a member of Washington Decoded’s editorial board, provided the documents about what happened to proposed operation No. 3111.
©2013 by Max Holland
Technorati Tags: assassination, CIA, covert operations, Cuba, Fidel Castro, Havana, John F. Kennedy, John McCone, McGeorge Bundy, Richard Helms, Robert F. Kennedy, sabotage, Special Group, Sterling Cottrell, Washington
By David M. Barrett & Max Holland
No matter how controversial the use of drones to kill al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders in Afghanistan or Pakistan may be, historians in the future won’t have to struggle over ambiguous, fragmentary evidence about who ordered them. Everyone understands it was President Barack Obama.
It wasn’t always so clear-cut.
In stark contrast, a half-century later there is still a lingering controversy over whether the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro (and some other Third World leaders) were ever authorized by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. By the CIA’s own admission, we do know the Agency was involved in attempts to kill/overthrow Castro as the leader of Cuba. But the doctrine of plausible deniability meant there was no paper trail—an express order—traceable from the CIA back to the Oval Office. Consequently, various defenders of these presidents have often claimed (the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. comes to mind) that it was unthinkable that President Kennedy would ever have given an order to “eliminate” Castro. More objective observers, noting the cold-blooded qualities required of and sometimes displayed by presidents, consider it entirely likely that in some cryptic, unrecorded way, Eisenhower and Kennedy did tell their heads of the Central Intelligence Agency to do so.
Curiously, since it was the CIA that attempted to kill Castro in the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, the question of whether its directors authorized those attempts might seem more easily answered. Indeed, evidence is reasonably clear that Allen W. Dulles, who served Eisenhower as director of central intelligence (DCI) for eight years and then Kennedy for nine months, sanctioned such operations.
The record regarding John A. McCone, whom Kennedy appointed as DCI in the autumn of 1961, has been unclear and even bizarre. Specifically, is it possible that the CIA carried out assassination plots without his approval or even in the face of his disapproval? It seems an absurd proposition if not a very disturbing one. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, in which Washington failed, in almost the most humiliating way possible, to overthrow Castro, some critics blamed the president for not authorizing sufficient air support for the Cuban exiles organized by the CIA to carry out the operation. Kennedy then chose McCone to succeed Dulles precisely because McCone had a widespread, well-deserved reputation as an aggressive, capable administrator and a ferocious Cold Warrior. He was also a Republican who might well have been Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense had the GOP won the 1960 election. As Kennedy once privately observed to his brother Robert, the selection of McCone was “useful.”
Nonetheless, when evidence of the CIA assassination plots surfaced publicly a decade and a half later, the retired McCone insisted he had not known of any such plans. McCone advocated many aggressive actions against the Cuban leader’s regime, but claimed to have feared excommunication from the Catholic Church if he even discussed, much less approved, assassination plots. Yes, he recalled, a few colleagues in the Kennedy administration had occasionally made passing remarks about getting rid of Castro, but he had always squelched those suggestions.
A Senate select committee headed by Frank Church (D-Idaho) in the mid-1970s investigated, among other things, assassination plots from the Eisenhower-Kennedy era. Several CIA and other Kennedy administration officials had vague memories of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara raising the idea at a 10 August 1962 meeting, and McCone was supposed to have fiercely objected to the topic being discussed. Yet the official, detailed notes from that meeting do not show the topic being raised, and McNamara and other key officials who were there claimed to recall no such conversation.
Former DCI Richard M. Helms, who served as the deputy director of Plans (covert operations) under McCone, chose not to illuminate Church committee members about the particulars of that August 10 discussion. But on the general question of whether McCone knew of assassination plots carried out by the CIA while he was DCI, Helms stated that McCone “was involved in this up to his scuppers . . . I don’t understand how it was he didn’t hear about some of these things that he claims he didn’t.”
Now, however, new and dispositive evidence is available derived from a meeting held eleven days later. We recently found notes from a cryptic telephone call McCone made to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on 21 August 1962, notes that have sat unnoticed for years in a box at the National Archives. They support the claim that while McCone opposed any open discussion of assassination proposals, he was witting and did not oppose the efforts as a matter of principle.
Last Word: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK
Skyhorse Publishing. 304 pp. $24.95
By Mel Ayton
The idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was somehow connected to the CIA is a legitimate line of inquiry considering how many allegations have been made that posit the Agency has not released all its files pertaining to the assassination.
The non-release of some CIA files, including those of Agency officers William Harvey (sealed until 2063) and George Joannides, only helps fuel suspicion that a cabal of operatives, known to be involved in an enterprise designed to either kill or topple Fidel Castro, enlisted Lee Harvey Oswald or used Oswald as a “patsy” in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.
Conspiracy writers have named singularly, or as a group, such CIA officers as William Harvey, George Joannides, James Angleton, David Atlee Phillips, E. Howard Hunt, and David Morales, amongst others. It is the considered opinion of this reviewer that any additional CIA files will not support the allegations of CIA involvement in the assassination and will likely develop into a farce along the lines of the false Morales/Joannides/Campbell connection to the RFK assassination. However, the central ethical tenet for journalists and historians is to illuminate the unknown therefore it is in the interests of everyone that these files be released.
Outside of the wild and speculative books that attempt to tie in the CIA to the JFK assassination, there have been a number of respected authors (including Bayard Stockton, Vincent Bugliosi, Gus Russo, Evan Thomas, Tim Weiner, Jefferson Morley, and Peter Grose) who have researched the allegation. Most discovered curious, but essentially ephemeral, Oswald connections to anti-Castro Cubans and their CIA handlers. Additionally, alleged CIA/Oswald connections were investigated by the Warren Commission, Rockefeller Commission, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities (Church Committee), as well as the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). All these investigatory bodies found no credible evidence to support CIA involvement or culpability in the assassination.
Vincent Bugliosi, in his 1,600 page opus about the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History, concluded that conspiracy theorists have been unable to come up with “any evidence connecting the CIA to Oswald.” Bugliosi meticulously researched the JFK/CIA allegations that had been circulating since the sixties and observed that “. . . the only books written that suggest the CIA was behind the assassination are those by conspiracy theorists . . . . on the other hand, a considerable number of books have been written about the CIA and its history, warts and all, and not one of their authors, even though they had every ethical, professional (Pulitzer Prize, esteem of peers. etc.) and commercial reason to expose the CIA . . . . as being behind the assassination, found the need to devote no more than a paragraph or two in their long books to Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination.”
Bayard Stockton, an ex-CIA agent who later worked as a journalist for Newsweek, may be the exception as he devotes a chapter of his 2006 book to the allegations. He researched the possibility of CIA involvement in the JFK assassination for his biography of CIA officer William Harvey. Stockton interviewed many former officials and Harvey’s wife, all of whom reacted with “horror and disbelief” about the allegations. Stockton wrote that although a conclusive decision could not be made until the CIA releases all its documents, there was no credible evidence to blame the CIA. “I find it very hard to believe,” Stockton wrote, “that sworn officers of the CIA plotted the death of the president of the United States. I think the Agency’s top echelon knew more than it has admitted and was embarrassed that it had not yielded its knowledge instantly.”
Those who have an interest in learning more about the purported role the CIA played in the JFK assassination will be disappointed in what Mark Lane has to offer in his new book Last Word. He offers absolutely nothing new to the “CIA-did-it” literature. He will also likely upset many serious researchers who have been receptive to claims of CIA malfeasance because he has partly built his arguments around preposterous propositions, including the notion that the witness testimony and physical evidence “proves” a second shooter was involved in the assassination. Those old canards were debunked years ago.
Judging from website reports, Lane’s supporters are unaware of his previous shenanigans which stretch back to December 1963; yes, Lane was present at the creation. In 1966, Lane’s first book, Rush to Judgment, was persuasive with the mainstream media who were taken in by Lane’s lawyerly tricks and silver tongue as he debated supporters of the Warren Commission around the world. As Commission lawyer Wesley Liebeler observed, Lane’s antics during these debates reminded him of “an old legend about frogs jumping from the mouth of a perfidious man every time he speaks . . . . If (Lane) talks for five minutes, it takes an hour to straighten out the record.” Even the counter-culture Rolling Stone magazine characterized Lane as a “huckster” and “hearse chaser.” Bugliosi describes Lane as having “infidelity to the truth” . . . a person who commits “outright fabrications” . . . “a fraud in his preachments about the known assassin” . . . and that he had “deliberately distorted the evidence” and repeatedly omitted “evidence damaging to his side.”
In Rush to Judgment, Lane abused the Warren Commission testimony of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer, and others like Charles Brehm, an alleged “grassy knoll” witness, who said Lane took his statements out of context and added a different meaning to them. Lane also omitted the statements of key witnesses like Johnny C Brewer, who observed a nervous Oswald avoid police patrols after the shooting of Officer Tippit.
But Lane has a long history of playing fast and loose with the facts. In the early 1970s he used unreliable testimony to accuse American soldiers of multiple atrocities during the Vietnam War, according to New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan, a prominent critic of US involvement in the Vietnam War. Sheehan investigated the accounts in Lane’s book, Conversations with Americans Testimony from 32 Vietnam Veterans, and found most of them to be bogus.
In the late 1970s, as a lawyer for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray, Lane appeared before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), a congressional probe into the circumstances surrounding the separate assassinations of the civil rights leader and President Kennedy. HSCA said of Lane in its report, “Many of the allegations of conspiracy that the committee investigated were first raised by Mark Lane . . . . As has been noted, the facts were often at variance with Lane's assertions . . . . Lane was willing to advocate conspiracy theories publicly without having checked the factual basis for them . . . . . Lane's conduct resulted in public misperception about the assassination of Dr. King and must be condemned.”
With the publication of his latest book Lane’s modus operandi has clearly not changed. In fact, his new tome depends on readers’ ignorance, and no independent knowledge of the dramatis personae of the assassination literature or how the CIA behaved at the time of the assassination. For example, the author of the book’s introduction resurrects the myth that FBI agents listened to a tape recording of a “Lee Oswald” at the Soviet embassy during the assassin’s trip to Mexico City weeks before the assassination. The allegation that such a tape existed was debunked many years ago by HSCA. The story of the existence of tapes had originated with only one FBI agent out of many who handled the transcripts of the tapes because the tapes had been copied over as per the CIA’s usual procedures. 
There are literally tens of thousands of documents and items of evidence in the JFK case. There are therefore endless opportunities for conspiracy writers to add a word here or a word there to give a different contextual meaning to either a witness statement or a government document. The vast majority of readers simply do not have the time to wade through the relevant documents. As Victor Navasky observed in a 2010 article, “The Rosenberg Variations” in The Nation, “we live in a state of opinion trusteeship. None of us have the time and few of us the ability to do our own research on all the complex, problematic issues of our day.” Consequently, many conspiracy supporters mistake crude manipulation for scholarship.
JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters
By James W. Douglass
Orbis Books. 510 pp. $30
By John McAdams
James Douglass treads a familiar path in JFK and the Unspeakable. It is yet another book that claims John Kennedy was killed because he had decided to withdraw from Vietnam. Kennedy’s “rejection of Cold War politics was considered treasonous by forces in his own government,” according to Douglass, and supposedly made JFK’s violent removal an urgent necessity.
What makes Douglass’s volume unique is that his argument is dressed up in verbiage unfamiliar to JFK assassination buffs. Most authors of books on the assassination attempt to cloak their political views, and pretend to arrive at the truth about the assassination after a supposedly objective analysis of the facts. Douglass wears his politics on his sleeve. He is a Catholic “peace activist” and disciple of Thomas Merton, whose observations infuse the book. Self-styled activists like Douglass have a long history of being opposed to the use of military power by the United States, although they don’t seem to mind as much when military power is used by America’s adversaries. And while they employ religious rhetoric to justify and rationalize their unilateral pacifism, their worldview, ultimately, is indistinguishable from that of secular leftists like Oliver Stone (who, not surprisingly, is a big fan of Douglass’s book).
Douglass’s key villain—the “Unspeakable” of his title—turns out to be the same kind of opaque nemesis that Stone is fond of conjuring up. The best identification Douglass can offer is “shadowy intelligence agencies using intermediaries and scapegoats under the cover of ‘plausible deniability,’” and even more vaguely, “an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.” How convenient: a culprit who is indescribable. In essence, though, Douglass’s evil-doer is indistinguishable from that bogeyman of vulgar, atheistic, and leftist radicals from the ‘60s: the “military-industrial complex,” except that he adds to the stew the Central Intelligence Agency.
By Max Holland
Under the editorship of Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair has become the most reliable purveyor of Camelot nostalgia.
The latest cover story in the October 2009 issue is unlike its predecessors though. It’s neither a syrupy excerpt from a fawning book, nor an amply-illustrated puff piece. Instead, Sam Kashner’s “A Clash of Camelots” purports to be a serious, original piece of journalism about the 1966-67 “Manchester affair,” the first episode to tarnish the Kennedys’ escutcheon following the 1963 assassination of JFK. As the table of contents states, “[VF contributing editor] Sam Kashner unearths the story behind [William Manchester’s The Death of a President,] a best-seller that captivated the nation, divided the Kennedys, and nearly destroyed the author.”
Still, there wouldn’t be much to criticize—and it would be churlish to do so—if this boast were only the issue. The genuine problem is the article’s many errors of commission and omission, including Kashner’s uncritical acceptance of clichés and untruths in Manchester’s own narrative that have been circulating for 42 years. Some of these issues have long been points of dispute, while the truth about others has only become known recently, through the release of such sources as the once-secret Lyndon Johnson tape recordings.
Here are some of the outstanding errors of fact, interpretation, and history in “A Clash of Camelots.”
On October 28, Bloomsbury USA published Brothers in Arms, Gus Russo’s second book on the Kennedy assassination, co-authored with Stephen Molton. The book came well-blurbed, with Diane McWhorter, Joe Califano, and Daniel Schorr singing its praises.
Bloomsbury’s press release boasted that Brothers in Arms contained “explosive new information” about the role of Castro’s Cuba in the assassination. One of the specific disclosures was advertised as coming from “deathbed interviews” of Marty Underwood, “one of LBJ’s closest confidantes, a man who also was in charge of Johnson’s international security arrangements.” At LBJ’s behest, Underwood allegedly went on a secret mission to Mexico City in 1968 to find out what the CIA really knew about Cuban involvement in JFK’s assassination. Underwood’s “revelations, supported by his contemporaneous notes, reveal a shocking truth that was too dangerous to be disclosed . . . until after his passing.”
Next month, Washington Decoded will review Brothers in Arms in full, and examine all its allegations in light of the available evidence. This month is devoted solely to the backstory about Marty Underwood’s shocking truth.
If it weren’t so pathetic, the backstory might actually be amusing.
Death of a President and Birth of a Fabricator
Underwood’s penchant for telling tall tales first became evident in 1967, with publication of William Manchester’s The Death of a President.
Manchester interviewed Underwood on June 21, 1965 for the book, which was originally envisioned as the Kennedys’ authorized account of the assassination. How and why Manchester came to interview Underwood, who was the advance man for only the Houston leg of the Texas trip, is not precisely known. The advance men for the Fort Worth and Dallas legs, Jeb Byrne and Jack Puterbaugh, were not interviewed, although their recollections would seem to have been even more valuable to Manchester’s narrative. The only plausible explanation for why Byrne and Puterbaugh were ignored is that Manchester believed Underwood was present during the devastating aftermath, in particular, the moment when Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One.
But Underwood was not there.
Manchester put Underwood on the airplane, and even identified him in the iconic picture of the swearing-in that was taken by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton.
The spectators who were to be framed in Stoughton’s lens were a lopsided group. [Presidential physician George] Burkley stood behind someone else . . . there were [press secretary Mac] Kilduff and his two pool reporters [Newsweek’s Charles Roberts and UPI’s Merriman Smith]. There was [Martin] Underwood, and there were three Kennedy secretaries—Evelyn [Lincoln], Mary [Gallagher], and Pam [Turnure]—each of whom was led in by Jack Valenti and Lem Johns.
It was conceivable, of course, that Manchester made this mistake on his own, because The Death of a President had more than its share of factual mistakes. But another passage in the book made it clear that the source of the false claim had to be Underwood himself.
According to this passage, Underwood was sound asleep in Houston’s Rice Hotel, 600 miles [sic] away, when the shots were fired in Dallas. In the mistaken belief that he was an important part of the presidential entourage, the hotel’s staff roused Underwood out of bed and rushed him to the airport, where he just managed to catch a scheduled flight to Dallas. “Afterward [Underwood] would have only the haziest recollection of how he had got there . . . . He was nowhere near as important as the Rice management had thought him to be. Except as a dazed witness to the upcoming [swearing-in] ceremony he was useless.” 
Not only was Underwood not captured in Stoughton’s famous picture—nor in any of the 21 stills made immediately before, during, and after the ceremony—Underwood was not even on board the airplane, as a manifest prepared by the Secret Service in February 1964 proves. Manchester was deceived by Underwood, who in his spare time actually studied and collected information about how con men operated, according to Jeb Byrne, one of his advance team colleagues from the 1960s. One of the lessons Underwood learned, apparently, was how to construct a lie out of a kernel of truth. In this instance, Underwood did actually rush from Houston to Dallas. But he returned to Washington aboard Air Force Two, not the airplane carrying a new president and the body of John F. Kennedy.
Among his peers, Underwood, who was divorced for a second time in 1962, had a reputation even back then for embellishing his peripheral role as an advance man, always making him more central to events than he was. When queried about why Underwood inserted himself in this iconic moment, Harold Pachios, who worked alongside Underwood as an advance man in the 1960s, recalled in October 2006 that Underwood was a “lonely guy who battled a drinking problem . . . and wanted to be important.”
Putting himself aboard Air Force One, at a moment of national trauma, would not be Underwood’s last fabrication, and far from his worst. In the years to come, he would hoodwink two of the biggest names in American journalism.
Technorati Tags: ABC News, ARRB, Bill Moyers, Death of a President, Fabian Escalante, Gus Russo, Jack Puterbaugh, Jack Valenti, Jeb Byrne, Judith Exner, Judy Campbell, Ken O'Donnell, Kennedy assassination, Lancer Productions, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark Obenhaus, Martin Underwood, Marty Underwood, Peter Jennings, Seymour Hersh, Stephen Molton, Washington Post, William Manchester
By Max Holland & Kenneth R. Scearce
In March 2007, the inaugural issue of Washington Decoded posited a radical new description of the shooting sequence in Dealey Plaza.
“11 Seconds in Dallas, Not Six” argued that the Zapruder film did not capture in full the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. Rather, the iconic movie recorded an assassination that had already commenced. Lee Harvey Oswald’s errant first shot was fired about 1.4 seconds before Abe Zapruder started his camera, or just after the president’s limousine reached a point on Elm Street identified by the Warren Commission in 1964 as “Position A,” which was “not on the Zapruder film” (figure 1).
This new explanation changed nothing, and everything, at the same time. In the first sense, it only underscored that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed President Kennedy. But it also lay to rest the notion, which had long haunted the official story, that Oswald’s feat of marksmanship was anything exceptional. Firing three shots in 11 seconds took no great skill.
Yet the presumption made at the outset—that Zapruder had captured the assassination in full—was never seriously questioned. As the critic Richard B. Woodward insightfully observed in 2003, the assassination quickly became “fused with one representation, so much so that Kennedy’s death [was] virtually unimaginable without Zapruder’s film.”
The March 2007 essay in Washington Decoded, and a subsequent Op-Ed in The New York Times, made the case for an 11 second-long shooting sequence on the basis of numerous earwitness and eyewitness testimonies, and because Oswald’s first shot missed—most likely because it ricocheted off a traffic-light mast overhanging Elm Street (see figure 1). An independent November 2007 essay by Kenneth Scearce, a co-author of this article, examined how the Zapruder film itself provided additional corroboration.
This new essay takes another fresh look at some old evidence, including several films from Dealey Plaza, to see if there were any additional clues that might have been overlooked during all those years the Zapruder film exerted its grip on the collective imagination. Several pieces of old evidence turn out to corroborate the observation that a shot was fired before Zapruder restarted his “Zoomatic.”
The new paradigm of 11 seconds cannot, in all likelihood, be proven beyond a reasonable doubt today, as might have been in the case in 1963 or 1964 had the traffic mast been examined promptly for metallic residue. But three shots in 11 seconds should now be regarded as the depiction with the greatest fidelity to all the known facts.
Technorati Tags: 1963, Abraham Zapruder, Dealey Plaza, Elsie Dorman, John Connally, Kennedy assassination, Kenneth Scearce, Lee Harvey Oswald, Max Holland, November 22, Texas School Book Depository, Tina Towner, Warren Commission, Warren Report
By Mel Ayton
It has often been said that lurid theories about the Lincoln and JFK assassinations have thrived because neither John Wilkes Booth nor Lee Harvey Oswald received their day in court. The concept of due process is so embedded in the American psyche, in other words, that its denial inexorably gives rise to conspiratorial explanations.
The aftermath of Robert F. Kennedy’s June 1968 assassination, however, challenges this somewhat comforting observation.
In this instance, the assassin was literally caught red-handed—tackled by Kennedy’s bodyguards moments after the shots were fired, a .22 caliber revolver still in hand. When the trial of Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old native of Palestine, opened seven months later, his defense counsel explained, “There will be no denial of the fact that our client . . . fired the shot that killed Senator Kennedy.” Instead, Sirhan’s lawyers mounted a defense of not guilty because of “diminished capacity,” the only way to spare their client from what seemed to be his likely fate, the gas chamber at San Quentin.
Sirhan’s counsel had no other choice because the presiding judge, Herbert Van Walker, exercising his discretion, had summarily rejected a plea bargain that would have exchanged life imprisonment for a guilty plea. “We don’t want another Dallas,” Walker reportedly observed, repeating the mantra uttered moments after Sirhan’s apprehension. Walker believed, presumably, that prosecuting Sirhan to the full extent of the law would avert the uncertainty that was already rampant with respect to the first Kennedy assassination. The Sirhan case was being tried at virtually the same time the awful miscarriage of justice in New Orleans—the circus-like persecution of Clay Shaw by district attorney Jim Garrison—was coming to a head. And that debacle was the direct outgrowth of the doubt and disbelief which existed because of Jack Ruby’s vigilantism, and the denial of due process for Oswald.
Sirhan Sirhan had his day in court, indeed, several months. Because of the extraordinary security precautions employed, Sirhan’s prosecution was judged the most expensive US trial ever held, costing the county of Los Angeles $900,000 ($5.3 million in 2007 dollars). And despite the best efforts of his lawyers, Sirhan received the ultimate sanction. The only factor which saved him from being executed decades ago was that three years after his sentence was handed down in May 1969, the state Supreme Court declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional. Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Corcoran State Prison near Fresno, an infamous maximum-security facility, is where he remains to this day—along with other notorious inmates such as Charles Manson.
Judge Walker was not a naïve man, but even a cynic might have been hard pressed in 1969 to foresee how conspiracy theorists would succeed in twisting the facts in a ceaseless effort to raise doubts about what amounted to an open and shut case. Today it comes as little surprise, given the absence of any editorial vetting on the internet, to find many websites and blogs saturated with bogus revelations and mindless repetition of supposed “facts” that were, in actuality, refuted or rationally explained years ago. The tide of nonsense is sufficiently high that on occasion, and as if by osmosis, palpable falsehoods are accepted and propagated by even the most venerable news organizations, as will be seen below.
Technorati Tags: ABC News, Ambassador Hotel, BBC Newsnight, CIA, Dan Moldea, David Morales, David Talbot, Discovery Times Channel, George Joannides, Gordon Campbell, Jefferson Morley, Jim Garrison, John Wilkes Booth, Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark Lane, Mel Ayton, Philip Harrison, Philip Van Praag, RFK assassination, Robert Blair Kaiser, Robert F. Kennedy, Robert Joling, Shane O'Sullivan, Sirhan B. Sirhan, Steve Barber, The Forgotten Terrorist, William Turner
By Max Holland and Tara Marie Egan
Last October, when the Lyndon B. Johnson Library released a new batch of recordings, one of the most revealing conversations went literally unnoticed. Yet, the 13½ minute conversation between President Johnson and Justice Abe Fortas on January 11, 1967—the day after LBJ had delivered his third State of the Union address to Congress—underscores one of the most striking insights ever to come from the once-secret tapes.
At the outset, in error, Lyndon Johnson blamed Robert F. Kennedy for fomenting the disbelief in the Warren Report that was widespread by late 1966. Indeed, both Johnson and Fortas viewed RFK’s reach and influence with such suspicion that to them, it seemed conceivable that The New York Times had aborted its 1966 investigation into the Warren Commission because the Times’s findings had turned out to be too “favorable.” Publication of a single story, much less a series, that put the commission in a positive light would supposedly run counter to Kennedy’s interests and might incur his displeasure, or so Johnson and Fortas mistakenly thought.
Johnson’s toxic notions about RFK, to be sure, were not entirely unwarranted. A prima facie case could be made that Robert Kennedy was bent on putting the Warren Commission into disrepute. By the fall of 1966, despite a growing chorus of criticism of the Report, Kennedy, then the junior senator from New York, resolutely persisted in his policy of “no comment” with respect to all the controversies that had arisen in the assassination’s wake. His refusal to put a damper on the damaging speculation—in a way that only the slain president’s brother could—had the net effect of allowing baseless criticism to grow and deepen. In addition, Kennedy acolytes, like former White House aide Richard Goodwin, were writing or speaking out about alleged shortcomings in the Warren Commission’s investigation. In the absence of comment from Kennedy, it was not unreasonable to believe Goodwin was acting as Kennedy’s agent, writing what the New York senator dared not say himself.
Finally, of course, Johnson had every reason to believe Kennedy was intent on impugning the Warren Commission because of the publishing spectacle that had simply become known as the “Manchester affair.” Part soap opera, part opéra bouffe, this scandal had fixated the publishing world for more than three months by January 1967. Retained by the Kennedys to write the “authorized” version of the most agonizing four days in American history, Manchester had produced a book, The Death of a President, that depicted Lyndon Johnson in an unflattering light—an uncouth power-grabber from the very state with the unspeakable city that was responsible for the assassination. Sitting presidents had never been treated this way by a major New York publisher like Harper & Row. And although Johnson’s popularity was fast declining, the vast majority of the American people still appreciated the thoughtful and sensitive manner he had displayed immediately after the assassination, when the entire nation was on edge after the wrenching presidential transition. Now Manchester, the Kennedys’ chosen instrument, was trying to rob Johnson of his finest hour. The conversation with Fortas occurred two days after the first excerpt from Manchester’s book had been published in Look magazine.
Johnson’s near-paranoia about Robert Kennedy, however, could not have been more mistaken in this instance. The one person with the most to lose, and nothing to gain, from a re-investigation of the assassination was RFK himself. Re-opening the assassination would threaten again to expose one of the darkest secrets from the Kennedy presidency, namely, that RFK had been the leading advocate and motive force behind the CIA’s plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Any re-investigation would almost surely tug again at the loose strands from these plots, and, as in 1964, threaten to unravel them. Ultimately, JFK’s martyrdom would be put at risk, as would RFK’s ambition to lead a Kennedy restoration, which might be the only way to repair the bottomless grief he felt over his brother’s assassination.
Sooner than President Johnson could imagine, he would gradually become disabused of the notion that Robert Kennedy was intent on undermining public confidence in the Warren Report. Just five days after the conversation with Fortas, Washington columnist Drew Pearson would approach Johnson privately and tell him about an astonishing rumor: that the CIA had attempted to assassinate Castro numerous times in the early 1960s, and that most of these attempts had occurred at RFK’s direction, when the then-attorney general was “riding herd” on the agency for his brother.
Johnson, though so embittered that he was inclined to believe the worst about RFK, still found Pearson’s story incredible. Later he would liken it to someone “tellin’ me that Lady Bird was taking dope.” But as the rumor continued to gather force, the president would turn to CIA Director Richard Helms and ask for a full report. On May 10, five months after LBJ’s conversation with Fortas, the president would learn directly from Helms that the rumor was true, save for one aspect: there was no evidence that Castro had retaliated by ordering the assassination of President Kennedy.
Helms’s caveat would fall on unreceptive ears. Confirmation of the efforts to assassinate Castro astounded Johnson. That, together with the president’s innate proclivity to relate things that were not connected, meant that LBJ would go to his grave believing that “Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first.”
Technorati Tags: Abe Fortas, Arthur Schlesinger, Bill Moyers, CIA, Eddie Weisl, Fidel Castro, JFK, John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, Max Holland, RFK, Robert F. Kennedy, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Warren Commission, Warren Report
FORTY-FOUR years ago today, a clothing company owner named Abraham Zapruder filmed the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. And for 44 years, most people have presumed that his home movie captured the assassination in its entirety. This presumption has led to deep misunderstandings.
The majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots fired. Lawmen found three cartridges in Lee Harvey Oswald’s nest on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Yet Zapruder’s film captured only two shots clearly. As a result, the film has been scoured for evidence of another shot, presumably the first one fired at the president. Research has yielded contradictory findings.
But what if Zapruder simply hadn’t turned on his camera in time?
Zapruder’s 26-second movie has two distinct parts. Approximately seven seconds after he started filming from the north side of Elm Street, Zapruder stopped his Bell & Howell Zoomatic at frame 132 because only Dallas police motorcycles were driving by. He did not restart his camera until the president’s limousine was clearly in view. Consequently, Z 133 is the first frame to actually show the president’s Lincoln—a frame exposed several seconds after the car had made the sharp turn onto Elm Street from Houston Street, and, we believe, after Oswald had squeezed off his first shot.
Several witnesses saw a man firing from the sixth floor. No one’s recollection about the first shot was more precise, though, than that of a ninth grader named Amos L. Euins. He told the Dallas County sheriff, “About the time the car got near the black and white sign, I heard a shot.”
As the photograph from a December 1963 restaging shows, the president’s limousine would have passed a black and white sign before Zapruder restarted his camera (the ghost image here approximates the location of the Lincoln at the moment Zapruder started his camera again). View this photo.
If one discards the notion that Zapruder recorded the shooting sequence in full, it has the virtue of solving several puzzles that have consistently defied explanation. The most exasperating one is how did Oswald, who was able to hit President Kennedy in his upper back at a distance of around 190 feet, and then in the head at a distance of 265 feet, manage to miss so badly on the first and closest shot?
A first shot earlier than anyone has ever posited gives a plausible answer. About 1.4 seconds before Zapruder restarted filming, a horizontal traffic mast extending over Elm Street temporarily obscured Oswald’s view of his target. That mast was never examined during any of the official investigations. Yet if this mast deflected the first shot, that would surely explain why the bullet missed not only the president, but the whole limousine. Significantly, the highway sign cited by Amos Euins was just a few feet west of the traffic light’s vertical post in 1963.
In May 1964, with the help of surveyors, the Warren Commission first considered the idea that a shot could have been fired before Zapruder restarted his camera. The commission later heard testimony that included references to what the staff labeled “Position A.” It did not appear on the Zapruder film, but represented the “first point at which a person in the sixth-floor window of the book building . . . could have gotten a shot at the president after the car had rounded the corner.”
If the commission had followed up this insight, it would have conceivably been able to describe the duration and intervals of the shooting sequence: that Oswald fired three shots in approximately 11.2 seconds, with intervals of 6.3 seconds and 4.9 seconds between the shots.
Why would this have mattered? Because the lack of a clear explanation for the shooting sequence was a key reason the Warren Report fell into disrepute.
And why has it taken so long to realize that the assassination and the Zapruder film are not one and the same? Part of the answer lies in the power of the film itself. As the critic Richard B. Woodward wrote in The Times in 2003, the assassination became “fused with one representation, so much so that Kennedy’s death is virtually unimaginable without Zapruder’s film.” To that, one has to add the element of distraction. The Warren Commission did not pursue its May 1964 insight because it was fixated not on the shot that missed but on the ones that killed the president.
If this belated revelation changes nothing from one perspective—Oswald still did it—it simultaneously changes everything, if only because it disrupts the state of mind of everyone who has ever been transfixed by the Zapruder film. The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started.
Reprinted from The New York Times © 2007, The New York Times Company
All rights reserved.
Not surprisingly, the radical explanation presented here (and earlier, in “11 Seconds in Dallas, Not Six”) has come under attack. Somewhat surprisingly, the most vociferous critics have not been conspiracy theorists, but come from the ranks of those who agree that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin in Dealey Plaza.
These critics are not only wedded to the Zapruder film for intellectual and emotional reasons. The most strident have a vested interest in an explanation that literally depends on the belief that the film equals the assassination. They are unable to conceive that anything of moment occurred outside the film, even though it is now patently clear that the notion that Zapruder captured the assassination in full was never more than an unwarranted presumption, however understandable.
The photograph that accompanied The New York Times Op-Ed—which depicted, from Oswald’s perspective, how belatedly Zapruder began filming—has not been challenged in any meaningful way. In their heated effort to impeach the one picture that says it all, the oft-condescending critics embrace the pettifoggery that has long been the hallmark of conspiracy theorists.
They also gloss over a critical and inconvenient fact. The initial essay found that three shots fired in approximately 11 seconds is in accord with five evidentiary considerations: ear-witness testimony; eyewitness statements; the fact that the first shot fired missed; Oswald’s mentality (which is, admittedly, a subjective issue); and lastly, the Warren Commission’s discovery of “Position A” in May 1964.
To these five, a Seattle lawyer named Ken Scearce recently, and independently, added a sixth consideration: the Zapruder film itself. Altogether, no other explanation previously offered fits all these six elements as neatly and plausibly. No other explanation comports with the balance and totality of all the available evidence.
The same cannot be said for explanations that stubbornly insist the assassination must fit within the mesmerizing time and space defined by the Zapruder film because . . . well, just because it has always been that way.
An expanded version of the “11 Seconds” analysis is being prepared, and will incorporate additional evidentiary elements.
Editor’s Note: November is indelibly associated with the assassination of President Kennedy, and the fall is normally the period when major new books and articles are timed to appear. Because May marked what would have been John F. Kennedy’s 90th birthday, however, several notable new books appeared last month, including Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, David Talbot’s Brothers, Burton Hersh’s Bobby and J. Edgar, and James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. (Reclaiming History has already been reviewed for The Wall Street Journal and this website, and Brothers will be reviewed here in July.
Despite the unanticipated burst of attention, one aspect of November 22nd remains glossed over: the motivation that drove Lee Harvey Oswald to commit political murder. Washington Decoded is pleased to publish a new essay by the journalist and author who knew Oswald best, and wrote one of the lamentably few reliable books about the assassin of President Kennedy.
After decades of speculation about a grassy knoll, the Zapruder film, and an acoustical tape, the man behind it all is too often overlooked. Lee Oswald was not a cardboard figure but a human being, and although he had barely turned twenty-four at the time he killed President Kennedy, he had a motive.
Oswald was a believing Marxist, and his motive was to strike the deadliest blow he could imagine at capitalism in the United States. Oswald had been headed that way most of his sentient life. He had, by his account, become seriously interested in politics at fifteen or sixteen, when someone on a street corner in the Bronx handed him a leaflet about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed two years earlier as spies for the Soviet Union. At eighteen, huddled in his Marine Corps barracks in Japan, he studied Russian from a Berlitz phrase book. And at nineteen, he wangled a hardship discharge from the Marines and made the arduous journey by steamship and train to the USSR.
Arriving there as a tourist, he immediately proclaimed to Russian authorities and officials of the U.S. embassy in Moscow that he intended to relinquish his U.S. citizenship and become a citizen of the USSR. It was at that moment in his life, November, 1959, that I happened to meet and talk with him.
I was a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance in search of a human interest story and he had just marked his twentieth birthday. I had no way of knowing that this boy dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, and dark red tie—he looked like an American college student—had, two weeks earlier, slashed his wrists in his hotel bathtub in a gesture of desperation after being informed by Soviet officials that he could not remain in the Soviet Union. Throughout our conversation, which took place over several hours in my room at the Metropole Hotel, I asked Oswald why he was defecting to the USSR, while he tried to engage me in a discussion of Marxist economics.
When I asked what would become of him if he returned to the United States, he replied that his lot would be that of “workers everywhere.” He would be ground down by capitalism as his mother, a practical nurse, had been. He spoke bitterly of racial discrimination in the United States, but did not disclose that as a schoolboy he had taken action against it by riding in the black section of the segregated buses of New Orleans.
While I realized that Oswald was angry at the country he was hoping to leave behind, I also sensed that his desire to live in the Soviet Union had something theoretical about it. He had traveled thousands of miles to get there, but had ventured no more than two blocks on his own and preferred to sit by himself in his hotel room rather than go sight-seeing in Moscow. So far as I could see, his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union was based on neither knowledge of, or curiosity about, everyday life there.
The Russians refused Oswald’s plea for citizenship but allowed him to remain in their country. He, whether from anger at the way he claimed to have been treated by U.S. consul Richard E. Snyder, or from desire to leave himself an “out,” refused to return to the American embassy to reclaim the passport he had left behind.
In early 1960, a couple of months after I met him, Oswald was sent to the provincial city of Minsk and given a job at the Minsk Radio Plant. There he distinguished himself as a below-average worker, but embarked on an eight-month romance with a woman named Ella German of which he seemed to be proud. But Ella jilted him, and Oswald, to spite her, married nineteen-year-old pharmacist Marina Prusakova. Her friends and his co-workers quickly taught him the daily realities of Soviet life.
His disenchantment with the poverty, lack of amusement, and ubiquitous spying can be found in what he called his “Historic Diary” and in “The Collective,” an essay he started to write in the USSR. After less than two years in Minsk, Oswald opened a correspondence with the once-hated U.S. consul, Richard E. Snyder, in Moscow, seeking to return to the United States. Snyder’s superiors in Washington determined that, having left his passport at the embassy that angry autumn of 1959, Oswald had retained his citizenship.
In June, 1962, he was allowed to return to America, bringing Marina and their three month-old daughter, June. That summer and fall, and throughout the following winter, he held a series of menial, disheartening jobs, first repairing houses in Fort Worth, then as apprentice at a printing plant in Dallas. Oswald’s criticisms of the society around him returned with a vengeance, and his reading of two left-wing publications, The Worker, mouthpiece of the U.S. Communist Party, and The Militant, newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, helped focus his discontent. Oswald said of The Militant that “you can see what they want you to do by reading between the lines.”
By Max Holland
Just when you thought you deserved a respite, here comes the thirtieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. More than 450 books and tens of thousands of articles have been published, and numerous documentaries and feature films produced, about November 22, 1963. Yet this anniversary will yield a bumper crop of offerings in every medium.
The persistent disbelief attached to the Warren Report, the ceaseless re-examinations, have to be grounded in unfinished business, some yearning that goes well beyond narrow questions such as whether all pertinent government documents have been released. In a letter to The New York Times, William Manchester skillfully identified this unrequited need last year. The author of The Death of a President wrote:
There is an aesthetic principle here. . . . If you put the murdered president of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something. A conspiracy, of course, would do the job nicely.
There is an aesthetic principle here. . . . If you put the murdered president of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.
A conspiracy, of course, would do the job nicely.
If great events demand great causes, as Manchester argues, thirst for a conspiracy will never be slaked. As he stands, Oswald is unequal to the task of assassinating a president who, fairly or not, is sometimes rated higher than Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps this anniversary ought to be an occasion to re-examine that imbalance, if possible, adjust the scales, and make the assassination coherent. In addition to marking thirty years, this November is the first major anniversary since the geopolitical rules changed and exaggerated passions and fears abated. Its more than possible that our understanding of the assassination, like so much else, has been obscured by cold war exigencies. New documentary evidence, not only about the assassination but also about Kennedy’s Cuba policy, has been released, and principal officials are talking, some after a long silence.
In his first Weekly published after the assassination, I.F. Stone wrote a passionate and piercing column on the fallen president entitled “We All Had a Finger on That Trigger”:
Let us ask ourselves honest questions. How many Americans have not assumed--with approval--that the CIA was probably trying to find a way to assassinate Castro? How many would not applaud if the CIA succeeded? . . . Have we not become conditioned to the notion that we should have a secret agency of government--the CIA--with secret funds, to wield the dagger beneath the cloak against leaders we dislike? Even some of our best young liberal intellectuals can see nothing wrong in this picture except that the “operational” functions of [the] CIA should be kept separate from its intelligence evaluations! . . Where the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young president was slain.
Let us ask ourselves honest questions. How many Americans have not assumed--with approval--that the CIA was probably trying to find a way to assassinate Castro? How many would not applaud if the CIA succeeded? . . . Have we not become conditioned to the notion that we should have a secret agency of government--the CIA--with secret funds, to wield the dagger beneath the cloak against leaders we dislike? Even some of our best young liberal intellectuals can see nothing wrong in this picture except that the “operational” functions of [the] CIA should be kept separate from its intelligence evaluations! . . Where the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young president was slain.
Drawing a rhetorical, unproven connection between the cold war mindset and Oswald’s stunning act was vintage Izzy Stone. With virtually every American still in shock, it took a journalistic dissenter to hold up the assassination against a backdrop of political violence contributed to by the United States. In retrospect, I.F. Stone was closer to understanding the context of the assassination than almost anyone at the time.
The full story is a bipartisan one. The Eisenhower administration was hardly shy about subverting unsympathetic Third World regimes, and uncounted soldiers and civilians died during CIA-backed shadow wars and coups in the 1950s. But ostensibly adverse trends apparent in 1959 raised a new question: If thousands of deaths were acceptable, why not the murder of particular persons? It might be a less costly way to nip unfriendly regimes in the bud or oust a pro-Western but repressive ruler who might engender a Communist takeover. “Executive action,” the assassination of actual or potential leaders deemed inimical, was added to the CIA’s bag of covert tactics. In fragmented and frequently violent Third World polities, executive action appeared quite feasible, the rewards worthwhile, the risks tolerable.
Technorati Tags: Case Closed, CIA, David Belin, Fidel Castro, Gerald Posner, Jim Garrison, John McCone, Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndon Johnson, Max Holland, Oliver Stone, Richard Helms, Robert Kennedy, Warren Commission, Warren Report
This letter-to-the-editor appeared in the Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2001.
To suggest, as Max Holland does [in “The Demon in Jim Garrison”] that Jim Garrison somehow is the root cause of Americans’ current distrust in their government is absurd. Garrison himself, a combat veteran who had served in the US military for 23 years, accepted the Warren Commission’s verdict on the Kennedy assassination for three years. By the time he started his investigation, a substantial number of Americans already believed there was a conspiracy and a cover-up. So Garrison was catching up to the American people, not leading them.
Americans’ distrust of their government stems from decades of lies and cover-ups by arms of the government, including the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s and ’50s: the Warren Commission: the executive branch (especially during the Vietnam War; the “credibility gap” existed long before Garrison said a word about the Kennedy assassination): and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (e.g., COINTELPRO, etc.). As the lies have accumulated, so Americans’ distrust of their government has grown.
Holland’s comparison of Garrison to Senator Joseph McCarthy shows that he lacks a fundamental understanding of McCarthyism. The essence of McCarthyism was that a member of Congress or a witness before a witch-hunting congressional committee could throw accusations around about Communists and spies in the State Department or in Hollywood or in labor unions without ever having to produce any evidence. The accusers were not accountable because they were protected by congressional immunity. Those accused did not have the right to scrutinize the evidence or to confront or cross-examine their accusers. In other words, Joseph McCarthy never operated under the rules of law.
Jim Garrison, as a prosecutor, brought his accusations through the legal process. Clay Shaw was indicted by a grand jury of 22, had a pretrial hearing before three judges, and received a full trial. The evidence was available to him. He was able to confront his accusers and to cross-examine them. The fact that Garrison lost the case does not make him a Joseph McCarthy. Prosecutors bring cases all the time that do not gain convictions.
And in the Shaw case, there are many reasons why Garrison lost. His investigation was sabotaged from day one. Every single one of his requests for extradition of witnesses from other states was denied. Federal attorneys refused to serve his subpoenas on Allen Dulles and other former Central Intelligence Agency officials. Garrison’s offices were bugged, and he was constantly under surveillance by the FBI. His requests for crucial evidence such as Lee Harvey Oswald’s tax records and the Kennedy autopsy photos were denied. Key witnesses such as David Ferrie and Eladio del Valle died under mysterious circumstances. The CIA, as reported by former CIA official Victor Marchetti, was helping Shaw at trial. Garrison’s files were stolen by a “volunteer” and given to Shaw’s defense attorneys before trial. And Garrison was pilloried in the press.
Garrison’s treatment by the press was part of an orchestrated effort by the CIA to discredit critics of the Warren Commission. A CIA memo dated April 1, 1967, outlined the strategy and called for the agency’s “assets” in the media (writers and editors) to publish stories about the critics that said they were politically motivated, financially motivated, ego-maniacal, crazy, sloppy in their research, etc. This is exactly the inaccurate portrait of Garrison that emerged in the press.
Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, describes what actually led him to the conclusion that the CIA was involved. He gradually uncovered pieces of evidence and witnesses, beginning with David Ferrie, who worked for the CIA; a gunrunning raid by CIA operatives in Houma, Louisiana; the fact that several of Oswald’s coworkers at Reily Coffee Company in New Orleans now worked at NASA; the fact that Oswald was working out of an office that was running the CIA’s local training camps for Operation MONGOOSE; many eyewitnesses who saw Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, and Oswald together, etc.
There is no doubt that the Paese Sera article was another piece of the puzzle for Garrison, but he had neither the staff nor the resources to go to Europe and follow up its leads. And it was not the centerpiece of his thinking that Holland makes it out to be.
A final note: During the shooting of our film in New Orleans, we noted that in spontaneous encounters on the street or in places of business, Jim was constantly hailed and approached by local supporters with great respect, greetings, and smiles. He was a clear favorite of the African American population and white working class, and was a popular, twice-elected district attorney who ran on and enforced a reform slate. The only hatred we found directed at him was expressed by people with special interests in the case, or by the power structure of the city.
We continue to be amazed and appalled at the disproportionate obloquy and scandal directed at Mr. Garrison. Anyone really interested in witnessing the man’s probity and clear-headedness need only watch his 30-minute address (without any notes) on national TV, granted him by the Federal Communications Commission after NBC aired a clearly biased and uncorroborated disinformation piece about him.
Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar
Santa Monica, California
Editor’s Note: For Oliver Stone’s critique of this story, click here.
By Max Holland
On March 1, 1967, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison arrested a prominent local businessman named Clay Shaw and charged him with master-minding the crime of the century: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a bizarre and groundless accusation by a supremely ambitious prosecutor, but Shaw was not its only victim. This terrible miscarriage of justice was to have immense, if largely unappreciated, consequences for the political culture of the United States.
Of all the legacies of the 1960s, none has been more unambiguously negative than the American public’s corrosive cynicism toward the federal government. Although that attitude is commonly traced to the disillusioning experiences of Vietnam and Watergate, its genesis lies in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Well before anti-war protests were common, lingering dissatisfaction with the official verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone broadened into a widespread conviction that the federal government was incompetent or suppressing the truth or, in the worst case, covering up its own complicity in the assassination. Today, national polls consistently show that a vast majority of Americans (upward of 75 percent) do not accept that Oswald alone killed President Kennedy. Many also believe that a co-conspirator lurked in Washington, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) always the prime suspect.
No individual was more responsible for fomenting these beliefs than Shaw’s nemesis, Jim Garrison. There were other critics of the Warren Commission’s official report on the assassination, but none had the authority of a duly- elected law enforcement official; none could match the flamboyant Garrison’s skill in casting himself as the archetypal lone hero battling for the truth; and none was more adept at manipulating the Zeitgeist of the 1960s. His audacity and lack of scruple were breathtaking, though camouflaged by lean good looks that made Garrison appear like a prosecutor ordered up by central casting. Not since Senator Joseph McCarthy had America seen such a cunning demagogue.
Initially, Garrison explained that, in indicting Shaw, he was only assuming an unsought, even unwanted, burden. The federal government’s bungling of the case left an honest prosecutor no other choice, he asserted. Soon that rationale was replaced by a far darker fable. Within two months of Shaw’s arrest, Garrison began articulating a truly radical critique that challenged not only the veracity of the Warren Report but the federal government’s very legitimacy. Ultimately, he would claim that the people’s elected leader had been removed in a CIA-led mutiny, and that the plotters had been allowed to walk away unscathed. As he wrote in his 1988 memoir, On the Trail of the Assassins, “What happened at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’état. I believe that it was instigated and planned long in advance by fanatical anticommunists in the United States intelligence community.”
The fact that a New Orleans jury delivered a resounding verdict of “not guilty” after Shaw’s 1969 trial barely hindered Garrison’s ability to market this myth of CIA complicity. He would argue that the “validity” of his investigation ought not to be judged on its technical, legal results. And one has to admit that, in the court of public opinion at least, Garrison (who died in 1992) by and large succeeded, albeit with Hollywood’s help.
Until recently, it was impossible to revisit this episode as a historian would, by examining primary documents. Garrison’s records were in the possession of his descendants and his successors in office; Shaw’s papers were in the hands of his attorneys and friends; the CIA’s records were secured in agency vaults. But all that began to change after Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, JFK, which breathed new life into Garrison’s decades-old charges. As the end of the Cold War eased concerns about secrecy, Congress in 1992 passed the far-reaching JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. It not only freed highly classified documents from government bureaucracies but authorized the gathering of primary materials from nongovernmental sources.
What emerges from these papers, and from other, unexpected quarters, is an altogether new view of the Garrison story. The district attorney who legitimated the notion of CIA complicity emerges as an all-too-willing accomplice to a falsehood. Garrison allowed himself to be taken in by a lie, a lie that may well have been part and parcel of the Soviet KGB’s relentless propagation of disinformation during the Cold War.
Technorati Tags: CIA, Clay Shaw, dezinformatsiya, disinformation, Jim Garrison, Kennedy assassination, KGB, Lee Harvey Oswald, Max Holland, Mitrokhin, Oliver Stone, Paese Sera, Richard Helms, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zachary Sklar