Sunday, December 29, 2013

Before the Jihad VII


Again, a poke at the world. I thought it might be time to let you in on one of the projects I have been developing on the side, this with some international implications.  Several winters ago I happened to get into a conversation before a meeting in Tampa with the speaker of the evening, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the brother of the Saudi king and for decades the Saudi chief of intelligence.  A quick, accessible, genuinely urbane gentleman in his sixties -- the prince was educated at Deerfield and Georgetown --, Prince Turki gave me his card and invited me to continue to exchange ideas with him via the internet.  Once he was back in Riyadh I followed that up, and we have since gone back and forth as several issues between our countries have surfaced.

For many years Prince Turki has functioned, mostly behind the scenes, as a principal wirepuller throughout the Middle East.  His attempts to broker and direct U.S. involvement in Afghanistan can easily be tracked in Steve Coll's indispensable volume Ghost Wars. With that in mind I wrote him in March of 2012 to empathize the extent of war-weariness that prevails in the United States at the moment and suggesting that "If indeed you do have a degree of contact with the Taliban leadership, now would be the time to reactivate it."

He wrote back:  "My relationship with the Taliban ended on a sour note.  They refused to hand over Bin Laden to me which let to the Kingdom suspending relations with them...I am fully retired and have no wish to have any contact with the Taliban."

We moved on.  When a New York Times interview with the prince led him to remark that the apparent withdrawal of American commitment to the region raised the possibility of a Saudi atomic bomb, I wrote him urging him to reconsider.  Atomic weapons were "yesterday's nightmare," I stressed, costly at every stage and turning their possessors into targets.  He got back within a day or two, thanking me for my commentary, which he had circulated among his brothers and which he said had had an impact.

On December 18, submitting to an interview with Steven Erlanger of  The New York Times, Prince Turki noted that "We've seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white."  He called the world's failure to stop the conflict in Syria "almost a criminal negligence."  The Saudis were turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council in protest against big-power veto power.

I tried another e-mail.  "There is a profound disconnect here," I wrote the prince.  "As the Kingdom appears to back away, policy-makers in Washington who are already troubled by the increasing presence of the jihadist elements within the Syrian opposition and alert to the profound war weariness of the American public after our expensive and feckless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They see us as increasingly isolated, again at the point of being dragged into another conflict....  There is a general feeling here  -- and one that extends across the political spectrum -- that if it is to come to boots on the ground in Syria, they ought to be Saudi boots, or Turkish boots, or Jordanian boots...we are at the end of the cycle."

I held my breath after that:  pretty direct stuff.  A reply came back.  "Mr. Hersh," the prince wrote, "Thank you.  ...a super power does not always see the others in the room.  Saudi Arabia's concerns are global....  America's unsolicited red line stand is what led not only the Kingdom , but the rest of the world to expect action.  The sudden reversal is what led to anger.  No one has asked for American boots on the ground.  What the Kingdom expects is consistency and consideration.  Raising expectations and then dashing them does not keep or win friends.

What the prince's graceful if forceful reply leaves out is that fact that Obama's threat worked:  The danger from Syria's stores of poison gas was eliminated, and without sending in the Tomahawks. The fact is, the ground in Syria is shifting.  "The hope is," I responded to Prince Turki's incisive comments, "that the current negotiations with Iran lead to at least a partial demilitarization of the region, with some diplomatic settlement in Syria.  I suspect that the fear of Al Qaeda elements will entice policymakers here to prop up Assad and stage new elections."

Not long after I wrote that I had the chance to exchange ideas with Christopher Hill, our last ambassador in Iraq.  His expectations paralleled mine.  Perhaps our most experienced diplomat in the Middle East, Hill is extremely skeptical about the consequences of the "Arab Spring" and worried about the price we will have to pay once again trapped in the region-wide Sunni-Shiite civil war. Meanwhile, our own oil and gas production is on the upswing while our consumption falls. Prince Turki no doubt has grounds to be worried.

Best to all of you for 2014.

Burton Hersh  


Monday, December 9, 2013

Dealey Plaza Revisited II


So we meet again, huddled around the lavapit.  The fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination has come and gone, but vapors continue to rise.  Let us investigate further.

One upshot that this reinvigorated national interest in JFK and the Kennedys appears to have encouraged is a movement to revise and sanitize history, to rub away elements of reality that boosters, or the family, or implicated elements of the power structure continue to find uncomfortable.  In my last blog I alluded to the insistence by Joe Kennedy's latest biographer, Professor David Nasaw, that Joe had nothing to do with the American underworld throughout his long, contentious career.  The fact is, there is a compounding record, from FBI documents to testimony by Joe's co-conspirators in the underworld to relatives of the Ambassador -- one, John Davis, refers without apology to Joe as "a bootlegger" in his important books, while another, Gore Vidal, recounts in his memoirs having walked in on Joe and Frank Costello, the boss of the New York crime families, both bollicky bareass on adjacent tables in Joe's apartment off Central Park South being ministered to by a Teamster masseur.  Gus Russo's solid books document Joe Kennedy's traffic with the Chicago Outfit virtually week to week once JFK was in play.  Hearsay, Professor Nasaw would maintain, not from authenticated documents.

When my book Bobby and J. Edgar came out I got mail from experts of every political persuasion.  Conservative Richard Whalen, whose The Founding Father stands as definitive on Joe, called it "A major contribution to the vast literature of the Kennedys.  I believe that [Hersh's] original research on [Joe Kennedy's] secret mob connections and his bootlegging career among other revelations shed important new light on this mystery-shrouded subject."  Robert Maheu, Howard Hughes' uniquely connected longtime alter ego, who reintroduced the CIA to the principal chiefs of the Mafia, wrote, "This is an amazing book.  It covers the history of the period to a depth I've never run into before."  

Before my last blog even got distributed I got a telephone call from the deeply affronted Professor Nasaw.
What seemed to offend him most was my observation that his biography was "Apparently sponsored by Jean Smith, Joe's surviving child...."  Nasaw would admit that he had been prompted to write the book by Smith, and that arrangements had been finalized by a brief talk with Ted Kennedy.  Then there had been an exchange of lawyers' papers, with the understanding that Nasaw was to receive complete access to Joe's papers in the Kennedy Library but was under no obligation to let the family vet the manuscript.  Webster's defines sponsorship as "person or agency that gives endorsement or vouches for some person or thing."  Let the reader parse the implications. Having myself had total access to Joe Kennedy's papers -- no lawyers, no pre-arrangements -- I discovered even in this well-culled archive a number of letters back and forth with everybody from well connected Mob affiliates to the senior economist on Hermann Goering's staff.  You just had to know who was who.

Another development that should prove alarming to civil libertarians is the takeover by right-wing billionaires of what had previously been comparatively free-wheeling media outlets.  For years The History Channel explored alternative versions as to what happened when JFK was shot, even featuring the recollections of a previously unknown girlfriend of Oswald's from New Orleans, with whom Oswald supposedly conducted cancer research  the summer before the shooting. Some were on target; others would be harder to substantiate.  Then Rupert Murdoch bought the outlet.  From then on -- straight Warren Commission apologia, no investigative reporting whatsoever.

More recent was a Nova segment built around the testimony of a father-son team of purported ballistics experts, Luke and Michael Haag, who claim to base their conclusions as to the validity of The Magic Bullet projection on recently developed laser and Doppler technology.  Their reading presumes that Kennedy was leaning forward when the fatal shots were fired and that he took a bullet at the base of his neck, both presumptions nullified by the Zapruder and other films of the event and the findings of Dr. Charles Cranshaw, the surgeon at Parkland Hospital who examined the stricken president immediately after he was brought in and determined that the first bullet hit him in mid-back.  The back of his head was gone, an exit wound the size of a cantaloupe. Most observers, including Kenny O'Donnell and  Dave Powers, riding in the car behind the president, saw the muzzle flash from the fence above the Grassy Knoll and watched the back of JFK's head fly off, with Jackie scrambling to grab her husband's skull and brains bouncing along the trunk of the convertible.  Both Governor Connally and his wife insisted that there were two shots from the rear, then one from the front -- a conspiracy.  When the U. S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations studied the evidence, it came to the same conclusions.

The Haags would maintain that the bullet from Oswald's old mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle "came out" of JFK and "started tumbling...and that's how it hit Connally...these are not really tough shots."  Oswald. they claim, was a crack shot and could have hit these moving targets several hundred feet away, through heavy foliage.  The fact was, Oswald was a limited shooter -- he barely qualified on the range as a Marine, a "marksman," and hadn't been practicing regularly.  Marine sharpshooters were unable to duplicate these "not really tough shots," and in their laboratories FBI technicians were unable to get Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano to fire.

What is most notable about this "expert testimony" is that it appeared on Nova at all.  Perhaps there is something of an explanation in the fact that David Koch, bankroller of hard-right causes across the board, is now a principal underwriter of the PBS series.  Another -- of three -- is the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation.  In America these days, our history is apparently turning into what Big Money decides it is.

Keep those Christmas lights on!

Burton Hersh