Monday, February 27, 2012

Now, Finally -- Who Really Did Murder JFK? The Critics


Hello again.  Back after it, turning over several of the more unfamiliar rocks of history in hopes of identifying the reptiles who deranged our history.

I think I began to understand why the killing of JFK has gone so long without conclusive investigation once my own treatment of the event, Chapter XIX of Bobby and J. Edgar, began to pull in flak.  Characteristically -- as when it helped get the drums beating prior to the invasion of Iraq -- The New York Times has continued to defend the Warren Commission conclusions, emphasized at the time by its liberal drum-beater Anthony Lewis.  A lot of history is agreed upon at Georgetown cocktail parties.

When Bobby and J. Edgar appeared in 2007 the review fell to David Corn, stammering out opinions at the time as a punster for The Nation.  Having identified the stricken president as "a sex-crazed, drug-dependent, ailment-ridden party-boy politician," Corn attenpted to delegitimize my book on the basis of my having interviewed only fifty-four new subjects, "about a quarter of them..authors and journalists...."  Since Jack Kennedy started out as a journalist after World War II, and a number of his closest friends were writers, I couldn't quite figure out how their profession disqualified these sources, especially since many of them worked in Kennedy's administration.  Why bring up the hundreds of interviews supporting my two prior books about Edward Kennedy? But these are apparently finer distinctions than Corn can permit himself.
Had he looked at the seventy-two pages of source notes in the back -- thousands of entries, a great many from the FBI files and Kennedy family archives to which I had unlimited access -- he would have known why many informed reviewers and commentators tend to attach the adjective "meticulous" to my preparation of material.

After attacking the appropriateness of my bibliographical sources -- almost all of which were books written by players, people in the room, as the Kennedy years were unfolding, and many of whom -- Bobby Baker, Robert Maheu, Richard Goodwin, et. al. --  I took pains to pin them down with extensive interviews of my own.  Corn asserts that "when the book reaches Nov. 22, truly jumps the rails."  I cite "one book of uncertain credibility" on a statement of Gerald Ford -- since backed up on the Watergate tapes by Richard Nixon -- , while books written by the Giancana family and based on first-hand  testimony by the Giancana's daughter and nephew and brother, Corn dismisses as "unreliable."

Corn -- like my other critics -- apparently cannot trouble himself to produce one morsel of evidence to counter the hard and detailed specifics -- ballistic, surgical, autopsy, documentary, forensic -- that I was able to produce in support of my interpretation of events.  Always the dismissive adjective -- "sleazy, eye-popping, discredited" -- in lieu of any investment of serious journalistic digging to counter my reading.  Much easier to brush it off. The Attorney General of Texas testified before the Warren Commission that Oswald was on the FBI payroll?  Well, J. Edgar Hoover says he wasn't, so that's that. What Corn -- and The Times -- appear to maintain their confidence in is the inherently contradictory and largely unsubstiantated case thrown together in the months following the  Kennedy assassination against a dupe dispatched promptly by a Mafia hireling before Oswald could be interrogated anywhere near a court.

Davis Corn has been around a while.  Earlier in his career he wrote a book about Ted Shackley, a hard-nosed operations specialist for the CIA who ran "low-intensity" wars during the sixties and seventies, a covert-warfare manager I knew fairly well.  We had lunch regularly when I was in D.C. researching The Old Boys. Corn's book was spotty, poorly focused, and missed the substance of Shackley's career while subsisting on inaccurate rumors.  Corn met Shackley once, at Shackley's insistence exclusively in the presence of Shackley's lawyers. 

On July 17th, 1979, the Chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Louis Stokes, called a press conference to announce the committee's final report after almost a decade spent investigating the murder of JFK.  The report specified that "Scientific acoustical evidence established a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy."  There had been a conspiracy.  Media across the spectrum scrambled to ignore or dismiss these results.  A new wave of Warren Commission apologists was soon being  lined up to hit the beaches of public opinion. 

But that must wait until our next blog, Countrysnoops.  Enjoy what's left of February.

Burton Hersh

Saturday, February 18, 2012

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


So.  Here we are again, circling reality a half century later and hoping enough dots will come up to connect.  The following might help set the focal distance.

Last week I tried to tip in enough detail about Lee Harvey Oswald to suggest that he was neither a solitary nut case taking potshots at the presidential motorcade through heavy foliage nor an innocent passerby, essentially unconnected to the events of the afternoon.  Oswald was a player -- a minor player, complicitous in the anti-Castro intelligence scrimmaging of the previous summer in New Orleans and apparently in touch with the cast of underworld technicians and mid-level Agency operatives that converged on Dallas that weekend in November to welcome the president.

CIA files remain largely embargoed, but FBI records tell quite a lot.  I have to conclude that the Bureau came fairly late to the party, and got dragged in mostly for the cover-up. What could be more embarrassing for Hoover, after all, than to have to admit that Oswald was on the Bureau's payroll for a year before the shooting?  Early Bureau warnings that Kennedy was at risk had headed off motorcades in Chicago and Miami -- the rabid segregationist Joseph Milteer had inadvertently alerted the Bureau.  Combing out Bureau records while researching Bobby and J. Edgar, I myself ran into extremely telling documents.  A regular CIA pilot, Robert "Tosh" Plumlee, who had since 1956 been flying the top "strategizer" for the Chicago Outfit, Johnny Rosselli, on Company errands, asserted in an affidavit that Rosselli was on "a mission, we were told, to abort a pending attempt on the President's life...."

Another heavy clue turns up in the transcription of a telephone call between LBJ and Hoover the day after the assassination.  The freshly sworn-in president wants more information about Oswald's purported visit to Mexico City in September.  "No, that's one angle that's very confusing for this reason," J. Edgar responds.  ""We have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet Empassy, using Oswald's name.  That picture and tape do not correspond" to Oswald.  It had started to dawn on individuals at the top of the government that the scenario they were depending on to hang this crime on Oswald was already falling apart.

What makes the most sense is the projection developed by Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann in Ultimate Sacrifice.  Kennedy administration officials as high as ex-Secretary of State Dean Rusk have acknowledged U.S. military planning -- troops training -- throughout the Caribbean just then in anticipation of "C-Day."  This meant another attempt to invade Cuba late in 1963, to expunge Communism "ninety miles from America's shore," as JFK so often put it, and guarantee the president's reelection in 1964. What was obviously needed was a pretext, a "bloody shirt" with which to enrage the citizenry and assure widespread public backing.

An attempted assassination of the president ought to light the fuse.  The "legend" the disinformation specialists around the Agency had concocted for Oswald -- a fervent "Fair Play for Cuba" advocate, purported to conspire with a Soviet assassination expert in Mexico City -- left him the perfect fall guy.  But Johnny Rosselli's boss, Sam Giancana, Al Capone's successor -- after single-handedly raising enough money and stuffing enough ballot boxes in Illinois to get JFK elected as a personal favor to well-connected old Joe -- found himself hammered day and night by tough guys from Bob Kennedy's Justice Department.  Along with Johnny Rosselli, Giancana sent down James Files and Charlie Nicoretti, his two best button men, who took out the president.  Giancana reasoned that the government was far too implicated by then to blow the whistle, and he was right.  The planners still had Oswald, at least as long as he never got to trial.

All this is well documented in Bobby and J. Edgar.  Perhaps the most tragic survivor was Robert Kennedy. I knew Bob fairly well the final couple of years of his life.  He was profoundly troubled.  Often -- and correctly -- referred to as the "co-president" during his brother's days in power -- "I couldn't have done it without him," Bobby liked to gibe, Bob was a frustrated and defensive senator. Catholic that he was, guilt played a very large part.  In 1967, interviewed by Jack Anderson, Rosselli concluded that "Robert Kennedy may have approved an assassination plot which then possibly backfired against his late brother."  He added that the oil boys put up the money for this big-store operation.

Bobby wanted Castro's scalp, perhaps a little too badly, as he himself would remark sadly while running for president. During the Mongoose years Robert Kennedy had worked closely with Johnny Rosselli, who had been busting heads and arranging payoffs for Joseph P. Kennedy since the nineteen-twenties.  But whatever
either Robert Kennedy or the Agency had scripted that afternoon in Dallas, it was Sam Giancana who seems to have decided the outcome.

Once it had happened, everybody involved started shoveling.  Robert Kennedy recommended Allen Dulles -- whom his brother had canned for incompetence -- and John McCloy, the go-along voice of The Establishment.  When New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison began to investigate the New Orleans prelude to the assassination, Bob sent his investigative attack dog Walter Sheridan down in the role of producer of an NBC documentary to discredit Garrison's witnesses. Bob moved his brother's brain around -- an early examination might have determined the angle of the entry wound and the character of the bullet -- for years.  One day he himself would get at the truth behind the loss of his brother, Bobby assured the curious.  That was apparently enough.

One additional note. This President's Day would mark the eightieth birthday of Edward M. Kennedy, were he still with us.  I wish he were.  His compelling personality and unique knowledge of even the finest detail of pending legislation made the Congress workable for decades.  He had his susceptibilities, but he had so much to offer the country that his loss proved crippling, immediately.  I knew him from his undergraduate days in college, wrote about him for four decades, and ultimately put together Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.  Most critics have concluded that it is definitive, and I hope they are right.  I expect to point up his amazing record on these pages before long.  Let us commemorate here his life and career.

Burton Hersh

Saturday, February 11, 2012

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


So here we are, closing in on it, tiptoeing deeper and deeper into The Heart of Darkness.  This week I want to take a closer look at Lee Harvey Oswald, who was either the primary perpetrator or peripheral to the JFK assassination, depending on which camp you've managed to join at this point. Either the solitary demonic shooter or a fall guy caught up in the assassination.

The flunkies who drafted the Warren Commission Report tended to treat Oswald as some kind of twitchy obsessive, extremely unstable, a low-rent cultural drifter who acted on impulse that day in Dallas to claim his place in history.  All this bears very little resemblance to what becomes apparent upon a careful examination of Oswald's authentic biography.  To anybody familiar with the processes through which the intelligence community develops its assets, Oswald's undercover history probably begins with his months as a Marine stationed at the U.S. Naval Facility outside Atsugi, Japan, from where the U-2s that overflew the Soviet Union originated.  Half-educated, highly neurotic, Oswald abruptly developed such an interest in Russia that he buckled down and picked up this very difficult language in his off-hours, arranged for an early discharge -- not an easy thing to get during the Cold-War fifties -- and defected by way of Helsinki, proclaiming to the English-language press once he had made his way to Moscow that he had a lot of U-2 technology to share with the Soviets.

This was an era when the CIA was scratching around somewhat desperately for whatever it could find out about the "denied areas," the Soviet Union especially.  CIA Counterintelligence, overseen by James J. Angleton, had a defector-redefector program designed to infiltrate people into Russia and then bring them back with whatever they could pick up.  Jane Roman, who helped run this arrangement, indicated to me when I was researching The Old Boys that Oswald had participated. Interestingly, after flagrantly announcing that he was in Moscow to sell out vital American secrets, Oswald was permitted by U.S. authorities to come back immediately when largely on a whim he decided to, no fuss at all.

Back in the United States Oswald  skipped from job to job in Texas while establishing a close working relationship with that mysterious Baltic Baron George de Mohrenschild, an important CIA asset in the Domestic Contact Program.  By the spring and summer of 1963 his handlers had obviously decided that Oswald was ready to play a more meaningful part here.  He turned up in New Orleans -- where Oswald had grown up and where his uncle, "Dutz" Murret, was an important functionary in the Carlos Marcello branch of the Cosa Nostra.  According to the CIA case officer who ran him, Hunter Leake, Oswald helped out with CIA training operations on Lake Pontchartrain while doubling as an agent provocateur around The Big Easy, promoting his Fair Play for Cuba Committee.  I have gone deeply into all of this in the text and the second-edition expanded notes for Bobby and J. Edgar.

Back in the Dallas area Oswald seems to have bounced around throughout that fateful summer and fall of 1963.  I interviewed Ruth Paine, a no-nonsense Quaker lady who sublet an apartment to Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, and their daughter on the Paine property on the outskirts of Dallas; as the fall wore on Oswald rented an in-town place near the Texas Schoolbook Depository, where he had started a job.  The previous summer Ruth Paine, concerned about Marina's well-being, had visited the Oswalds in their squalid little flat in New Orleans.  Like so many others, Ruth found Oswald abrupt, hard to track, difficult to mother, and utterly self-interested.  She remembered him toying with the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle he is so often pictured holding, and in the end she concluded that Oswald was indeed involved in the shooting of John Kennedy.

In all probability he was, one way or another.  A scenario was quite clearly being worked up with Lee Harvey Oswald in a major role.  Whichever interests were masterminding the event regarded Oswald as available, serviceable.  The key here was creating a persona -- not always populated by the tangible Oswald  -- who would seem to be taking a series of steps that would leave him convincingly in position to fire a weapon out the sixth-floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository while John Kennedy was passing below.  Thus it became convenient to generate one or more stand-ins, quasi-Oswalds, to sign Oswald's nom-de-guerre, Alek Hidell, at the post office for delivery of the identifiable weapon, or storm around Mexico City to enlist a Soviet assassination specialist, or show up at a soiree for revenge-seeking Cubans.  As with so many Agency operations, the important thing at that stage was to flesh out the back story.

A great deal of important detail comes through in the extensive private investigation of the JFK killing undertaken by a Dutch businessman, Willem Dankbaar, who hired three veteran FBI retirees to track down anybody implicated in the tragedy and sort the whole thing out.  The great find was James Files, already implicated in books by the Giancana family, finishing out a full life of inspired bloodletting in the Illinois State penetentiary.  Long a dependable button man for the Outfit, Files claimed to have fired the hollow-point bullet from the Grassy Knoll that blew Kennedy's brains out. 

As interesting to assassination buffs was Files' rendition of events during the week preceding the shooting.  Files maintained that he had been flown into Dallas from Chicago and squired around the city by Oswald, who Files knew in any case after collaborating with him earlier in the year running submachine guns to the Cuban resistance.  Oswald supposedly took Files to a rifle range to sharpen up his eye and recommended the vantage point on the Grassy Knoll. Then Files drove Johnny Rosselli --  flown into Fort Worth by a regular CIA pilot, Robert "Tosh" Plumlee -- to a meeting in a Fort Worth Pancake House with Jack Ruby.

Another of those borderline-underworld types so useful to the Agency who showed up in Dallas was Chauncy Holt. Also a dependable pilot, Holt procured the Secret Service badges-of-the-day flashed by the ersatz Secret Service operatives who shooed away the curious from the Grassy Knoll before and after the muzzle flash there.  A lot of technical talent had started to materialize in Dallas that week.

Everybody had his contribution.  Part of Oswald's utility stemmed from his enhanced -- and deniable -- background as low-level functionary for several federal agencies.  Apart from what by 1963 had turned into a wide-ranging assortment of  covert chores for CIA, Oswald had been picking up a regular paycheck as an FBI informant.  Stymied in his efforts to conduct a proper state investigation of the Kennedy assassination -- police paraffin tests had revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald hadn't fired a rifle the day of the shooting -- Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr -- see Wikipedia -- would testify before the Warren Commission that "Oswald was working as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and received $200 a month from September 1962 until his death in November 1963."  Hoover shrugged his shoulders, and denied everything.

By then, of course, what had probably been intended and what had happened that noontime in Dallas had diverged, catastrophically.  The game of creating a pretext for invading Cuba had turned in moments into the game of bureaucratic survival.  Lee Harvey Oswald would be the first to be sacrificed.

For chapter and verse, there will be another installment.  Wait!

Burton Hersh

Friday, February 3, 2012

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


We move on now to another phase of the investigation.  What happened that noon in Dallas?  A comment came in from one of you out there named "Richard," semi-nameless but right to the point.  "It's very unlikely that the CIA or any government entity played a role in JFK's murder," he notes.  "Those institutions are hardwired to wreck havoc in somebody else's sandbox." Then he cites Richard Posner, yet, on Oswald's guilt.

"Richard" is probably right, in a way, and wrong here.  In Bobby and J. Edgar I laid out the extent to which, in 1963, the CIA had bases to support Operation Mongoose all around the Caribbean rim, from Opa Locka near Miami to Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana.  As I hope I established last week, at the operational level distinctions between CIA operatives and talent recruited from penitentiaries and exile groups and the executive level of well-integrated gangland organizations tended to fall away. The Church and Schweiker Committee investigations in the Senate during the mid-seventies staked all that out.  Senator Richard Schweiker would later comment to Mark Lane that, under investigation, the Warren Committee Report " had collapsed like a house of cards...snuffed out before it began senior officials who directed the cover-up."  Insofar as CIA involvement is concerned, the real question is where, at what level, the traditional compartmentation and the sharing of information on a need-to-know basis breaks down and responsibility begins.

When the word of his brother's shooting reached him at Hickory Hill, Robert Kennedy's first impulse was to call in the director of the CIA, whom his brother had installed to replace Allen Dulles in September of 1961, the California industrialist John McCone, and demand of McCone:  "Did you kill my brother?"  McCone, a somber Catholic layman and a friend of Joseph P. Kennedy, never quite got the hang of intelligence work -- partly because his savvier underlings made sure they told him very little -- and assured the attorney general that he had not. Next down the chain of command was the head of the Directorate of Plans -- the Ivy-League gentlemen involved at that stage were still too delicate to call their shop Operations - , Richard Helms.  The fact was, the senior intelligence staff around the Agency never really liked the administration's plotting against Cuba.  As I noted earlier, Helms sat out the Bay of Pigs.  His right-hand man, Sam Halpern, whom I always found amazingly outspoken when I interviewed him for The Old Boys, later commented that "Everyone at CIA was surprised at Kennedy's obsession with Fidel....It was a personal thing.  The Kennedy family felt personally burnt by the Bay of Pigs and sought revenge."

By now we are getting down to the operational stalwarts.  Perhaps the key figure here was E. Howard Hunt, "Eduardo," a snobby covert-warfare adept who moved over from his post as a staff assistant to Helms to help train the leadership of Brigade 2506, the fifteen hundred or so Cuban irregulars sacrificed in the feckless invasion. Hunt would remain very close to the Cuban survivors, as would David Atlee Phillips, who roamed the Western Hemisphere for decades, convulsing democracies objectionable to Washington.

I knew Phillips fairly well: early in the eighties I was a founding member of the David Atlee Phillips New England Chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.  Phillips showed up at our weekend meetings, regularly. A former actor, Phillips made sure to look the part -- hat brim pulled down, trenchcoat, dark aviator glasses, a terse, insider delivery, a dedicated chain-smoker.  An English publication accused Phillips of having had a hand in the Kennedy assassination; Phillips sued in England, and won.  Phillips always professed to be very indignant at the charge that he or the Agency might have taken out an American president.  Failing finally, Phillips -- who had to have been instrumental in setting up the Mexico City "legend" prior to Oswald's purported visit -- confessed that "My private opinion is that JFK was done in by a conspiracy, likely including rogue American intelligence people."

My own guess at this point is that there was in fact a CIA involvement at a number of points in the big-store operation that resulted in the shooting of John Kennedy in Dallas, but that important individuals like Helms, who never were permitted to get anywhere near the details, realized afterwards that they had been complicit -- if always well insulated, at arms-length -- in the execution of a very sophisticated game plan calculated to achieve an entirely different outcome.  Afterwards, the frenzy of cover-your-ass extended halfway across the bureaucracy. 

How this could be must wait until my next blog.

Be patient,

Burton Hersh