Friday, January 27, 2012

Now, Finally -- Who Really Did Murder JFK? II


My blogette of January 9 on the death of JFK stirred up responses across the cybergalaxy. A correspondent in Germany was excited by my brief autopsy of the JFK assassination and divulged that this blog is developing a following in Central Europe.  An acquaintance closer to home was affronted, and demanded to be taken off the access list.  One professional skeptic in Minneapolis seemed to question whether Lee Harvey Oswald stopped by the Texas Book Depository that fateful noon primarily to grab a Coke.

A thoughtful follower of this blog and a fellow longtime student of assassination literature, Joyce Hall of Dallas, tended to second what I laid out in the piece but obviously felt that I hadn't gone far enough.  She recommended JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglas, a personal friend of hers.  As it happens, I'd read Douglas' very solid book shortly after it came out and cited in in the trade paperback edition of Bobby and J. Edgar.  Douglas' excellent study bristles with the implication that the JFK assasination was the result of a government-wide conspiracy, the sort of plotting suggested by Oliver Stone in JFK.

The backup villain in this sort of projection is usually the CIA.  Having myself spent the nineteen-eighties researching the Agency and inteviewing its top veterans for my 1992 book The Old Boys, over many, many hours of personal contact I had developed a fairly profound relationship with a number of of the CIA's key functionaries during the sixties, especially the operations chieftains Richard Helms and Dick Bissell and that dreaded counterintelligence sparkplug James Jesus Angleton.  I had found all three to be as cagey as they needed to be yet in the end individuals of character, worried about our direction under Reagan, with CIA Director William Casey currently ramping up our shadow war with Nicaragua.

By 1963 Bissell was out, along with Allen Dulles, victims of the foul-ups that produced the Bay of Pigs.  Helms was running operations.  Richard Helms was the consummate bureaucrat -- fussy, protective of his subordinates, sensitive to the intentions of his bosses but willing to dissent when he felt an operation was ill-advised; Helms had risked his career by refusing to attend the planning sessions prior to the Bay of Pigs, which he had decided was doomed from the start.  A well-bred Ivy-League moderate, Helms was a regular around the liberal Georgetown social circuit frequented by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. -- a fellow OSS veteran -- and Senator John Kennedy.

Conspiracy theorists since Mark Lane have tended to lumber the Agency with the primary responsibility for the Kennedy assassination.  Mafia participation was secondary; Mob involvement would provide a fallback explanation in case investigators got too close.  Court cases and near-deathbed confessions have established that middle-level CIA operations professionals like E. Howard Hunt and Gerry Patrick Hemming did indeed have advance knowledge of some sort of plot involving the president and were in fact moving weapons into Dallas before the shooting.  In Mexico City the seasoned CIA disinformation specialist David Attlee Phillips was helping contrive a "legend" around a purported visit in September of 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald during which he ostensibly visited the Soviet Embassy and attempted to speak with KGB assassination honcho Valery V. Kostikov.  There were sightings of a supposed second Oswald, often passing under his cover name, Alek Hidell, buying weapons or barging in on Silvia Odio, the daughter of an important anti-Castro activist.  The CIA was clearly preparing the ground and setting Oswald up.

The logic here depends on a misperception of the covert warfare culture of the period.  The distinction between  CIA line operations and bump-and-run mobster-style wipeouts was arbitrary.  As Watergate demonstrated, White House-mandated crews like The Plumbers never hesitated to break and enter and pillage and intimidate without benefit of any court order.  By agreement with the U.S. government, the top figures in the Cosa Nostra took on a contract to ice Fidel Castro.  Lee Harvey Oswald was pulling in stipends from both the CIA and the FBI during the months before the president was shot, and Jack Ruby, a regular with the Chicago Outfit, ran guns to Castro as part of an Agency reinsurance scheme before Castro came to power and carried enough cash to Cuba later on to bail Santo Trafficante out of a Cuban lockup. The top Mob "facilitator," Johnny Rosselli, wore the bars of a U.S. Army colonel and worked directly under Bobby Kennedy through much of 1962 while he was attempting to mount raids and sabotage Cuban sugar refineries during Operation Mongoose.

To comprehend what twitched throughout the entire spider's web you will have to look at Chapter XIX of my book Bobby and J. Edgar. My point here is that cross-connections had developed.  Senior gangsters had collaborated with government agencies since World War II, when Lucky Luciano arranged with the OSS for his Cosa Nostra pals to take out the Nazi defenses in Sicily ahead of the Allied landings.  Once the orders had gone out, no by-the-book intelligence officer had a lot of control.

Individuals like James Files, who probably did shoot the president from the Grassy Knoll, worked directly for the Outfit while dropping out to moonlight for the Agency, in Files' case in Laos.  In the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination a senior CIA official at Helms' level obviously felt he had no choice except to try and protect such feckless operatives as Howard Hunt and subsequently, when Lee Harvey Oswald's New Orleans CIA files surfaced, to destroy them immediately.  But this does not mean Helms signed off on -- or knew in advance about -- any supposed Agency scheme to murder the president.  There is a lot of evidence that the Agency's scenario and the Mob's scenario in Dallas diverged, sharply. On the ground, it was the Mob that pulled the triggers. It was in Helms' nature to protect his subordinates, as he would prove when he stonewalled the Warren Commission and refused to release relevant CIA cables.  Years later Helms was caught lying about the Agency's involvement with Chile by a Congressional Committee and heavily fined.  This he accepted too, with aplomb.

Invective tends to be simple, but history is complicated.  Ransacking FBI files, I came across a good many clues as to what in fact did happen that history-convulsing noon in Dallas.  Don't miss my next blog. Meanwhile, you can get my no-holds-barred treatment of the first decades of the CIA, The Old Boys, directly from us, electronically, at a very modest price. For a deeper vision of how the secret world works read my novel The Nature of the Beast. Also available as a document; go to

This blog is a little late -- Google crashed into our blogger universe earlier this week and reorganized everything.  I hope we are OK now -- and that you all are too.

Burton Hersh

Monday, January 9, 2012

Now, Finally -- Who Really Did Murder JFK?


I know, I know -- this subject has come up before.  It will again.  The fact is, the circumstances that led to the shooting of JFK work like a bleeding ulcer at the belly of our history, they sap us and confuse us, they prevent us from understanding properly how our society works and what the risks really are for anybody -- at any level -- who takes on entrenched American power.

I was reminded of the potency of our unacknowledged fears recently by an e-mail from a friend of more than forty years, a kindly and generous-spirited lawyer who has been a backroom presence in top Democratic circles going back to the Eleanor-Roosevelt-Adlai Stevenson era.  My friend has important connections in the filmmaking business.  I recently developed a film script based on my book Bobby and J. Edgar, and it occurred to me that my friend might be inclined to pass along the script to one of his Hollywood  friends.

A week after he received the script my friend got back with his appraisal.  He was still unshakably loyal to the Kennedy family, my friend wrote, and beyond that "...I must in good conscience disagree with many of the scenes in your screenplay... no one has been able to prove indisputably that the Mob killed JFK...that Hoffa tried to strangle Bobby, that the Kennedys arranged to have Marilyn killed, etc. etc..."

I replied at once.  My script -- see my book Bobby and J. Edgar for details -- never suggested that the Kennedys arranged to kill Marilyn Monroe -- the point was that the Mob tracked Bob Kennedy to Marilyn's house in Brentwood, hours before she died, and sent their own specialists in to dispatch her in order to frame Bobby, who as attorney general had started to round up key members of the Mob.  Hoffa's attempt to strangle Bobby comes directly from a book by Frank Ragano, Hoffa's lawyer, who was there.  But most wounding and inaccurate of all was the familiar statement that "no one" has proved "indisputably" that the Mob killed JFK.

I hear this sort of thing from time to time and I am reminded of the arguments put forward by the defenders of creationism, who point out miniscule gaps in the fossil record in hopes of discrediting the theory of evolution.  Such statements are profoundly uninformed.  "If Oswald wasn't the only shooter, why haven't the conspirators stepped forward by now?" is the standard challenge.

The truth is, at all levels, dozens and dozens of people implicated in the Kennedy assassination have indeed stepped forward.  For chapter and verse have a look at Bobby and J. Edgar and the extensive notes on Chapter Nineteen.  Starting with his fellow workers in the second floor cafeteria of the Dallas Schoolbook Depository, who watched Oswald having a soft drink while he was purportedly four floors higher shooting Kennedy several hundred feet away through the foliage, to the eyewitnesses who testified overwhelmingly that the fatal shot came from the front, the "grassy knoll," the evidence against Oswald was contradicted from the start.  Surgeons at Parkland hospital who attempted to save Kennedy would insist that the entry wound was found in the president's right temple.  The police who grabbed Oswald found no indication of powder burns on his cheek or hands, unavoidable if he had discharged a weapon that day.  James Files has testified from the Illinois State Penetentiary that he was stationed on the grassy knoll, and that he pulled the trigger.

The chief counsel who conducted a years-long investigation of the shooting for the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, the distinguished Notre Dame Law Professor Robert Blakey, concluded that there were several shooters -- a conspiracy -- and that the Mob was likely to have been behind it.   When the two key mobsters who probably saw to the orchestration of the assassination, Johnny Rosselli and Sam Giancana, were subpoenaed to appear before the Church Committee, both were found murdered days before they could testify, Giancana with a "Corsican necklace" of bullet wounds around his neck and Rosselli chopped up like chicken parts and floating in an oil drum in Chesapeake Bay.  Meanwhile, key CIA records dealing with the assassination remain sequestered, until the middle of the twenty-first century.  Not a conspiracy?

You decide.  At least as fascinating is what led up to the assassination and what it would lead us into. Richard Nixon, no mean hand when it came to conspiracies himself, remarked on one of the Watergate tapes that the Warren Commission Report remained "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated" on the American people.  Of course, that was decades before the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

Have a wonderful 2012.