My comments on the JFK and the media panel at the Duquesne "Passing the Torch" conference
The following are my prepared remarks for the special program I spoke on last week during the “Passing the Torch” conference on the JFK assassination at the Senator John Heinz Heinz History Center. The other participants included writers Jeff Morley, David Talbot, Russ Baker and Jerry Policoff and our special guest, film director Oliver Stone.
I skipped the paragraph on Max Holland, below, because he was in the front row and I feared he would use that as an excuse to disrupt the event. But I got him the next day, with a shout-out from the stage re winning the CIA’s “Studies in Intelligence” award, “the first person outside the government” to do so, and said I was glad the love went both ways.
My interest in the JFK case was initially sparked, ironically, by the mainstream media. I had been working on Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign and saw up close how the press completely misrepresented things that happened. I thought, if the media could be that wrong about a presidential campaign, what else might they be wrong about?
Early in my research, it became clear that the notion that Oswald acted alone was simply not supported by the evidence. I read Arlen Specter’s questioning of Parkland doctor Malcolm Perry and was shocked to find Specter leading the witness. Perry clearly thought the wound in Kennedy’s neck indicated a shot from the front. Specter clearly didn’t want Perry saying that.
My first thought was that Specter’s agenda was so obvious no serious journalist could have missed it. My second thought was, no serious journalist ever read this.
But the more I learned, ignorance alone could not excuse the shoddy reporting on this case. The media could talk at length about the theories I call collectively, the “anybody but the CIA did it” theory. But the media has never addressed the myriad and strong evidence that high-level people in the CIA planned the assassination of a president they had come to see as a threat to their very existence. Why couldn’t the media go there?
I found the answer in Mark Lane’s book “Plausible Denial.” He talked about Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who had interviewed Oswald before the assassination and written an inaccurate book about him after. Lane made a strong, if circumstantial, case that she worked for the CIA. We’ve since found out she did - her handler wrote that she could be “encouraged to write” pretty much whatever the CIA wanted, and her file listed her as a “witting collaborator,” which begs the question, what is an “unwitting collaborator?”
I then read that now-famous memo the CIA sent its media assets instructing them how to discredit critics of the Warren Report. I found this stunning. Here was the chief suspect, the CIA, having the power to destroy the credibility of anyone who might factually accuse them.
So I formed a theory. If the CIA really had killed Kennedy, anyone devoting a lot of time and energy to tell me that they hadn’t was likely working for the CIA. The value of any theory is its predictive value. This particular theory has proven remarkably accurate over time.
One journalist in particular, James Phelan, author of a famous book about Howard Hughes, had gone out of his way – to the point of bribing a witness – to sabotage New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw back in the 60s. That was WAY beyond the bounds of professional journalism, so naturally, I figured Phelan was likely connected to the CIA. I started digging and it didn’t take me long to find a significant connection.
I was the first to note the relationship between Phelan and Robert Maheu, the man the CIA had tapped to run its Castro assassination plots. During the Garrison investigation, Phelan had met with Garrison in Las Vegas. Garrison trusted Phelan because he had previously written a favorable article about him. But rather than using the nearest copy machine, Phelan had taken Garrison’s documents to Maheu’s office to be photocopied. Given Maheu’s relationship with the CIA, which was ongoing during the entire period he worked for Howard Hughes, I thought that was pretty stunning. Essentially, Phelan was making Garrison’s key files available to the CIA.
When I posted about Phelan’s relationship with the CIA online, Phelan called me up at home and tried to threaten me with a lawsuit. But I knew I had only told facts, so he’d have no case. I also figured he wouldn’t dare enter into a process where I could legally learn even more about his life. I was right. I never heard from him again.
When Gerald Posner wrote his factually inaccurate “Oswald did it” book “Case Closed” that got a lot of attention on the fortieth anniversary, I figured he probably had connections to the CIA. I found his previous nonfiction books had all been written with help from the intelligence community, and his sole fiction work at that point was a novel about the CIA that lauded the old guard covert operators over the new guard bureaucrats. Indeed, Posner even said he’d been promised CIA cooperation for Case Closed by his editor Bob Loomis (who, by the way, had been James Phelan’s editor).
Edward Epstein, who attacked Garrison and later tried to pin the assassination on the Soviets, turned out to be a protégé of the man who held the most secret files on Oswald – CIA counterintelligence legend James Angleton, one of the top suspects for a direct CIA conspirator!
My theory’s holding up pretty well, isn’t it? Funny what you can find when you ask the right question.
What’s scary is how naïve the press is. They never seem to consider that members in their own ranks could be deliberately misleading them. For example, reporter Hugh Aynesworth holds sway over the JFK case in Dallas, despite the fact that Aynesworth has openly bragged about how he lied to a reporter about a key item regarding Oswald. Why would you take seriously someone who brags he misled other journalists?
Would it surprise you to learn that Aynesworth applied to work for the CIA a month before the assassination? We have his application. Of course, on the record, the CIA rejected him. But as anyone who knows the CIA understands, that’s also standard operating procedure. As Gordon Novel once put it, “no one ever works for the CIA,” even when they do.
Does Max Holland work for the CIA? All I know is that he writes for them. When he couldn’t get an anti-Garrison article published by his former employer, The Nation magazine, he found a ready publisher at CIA in their “Studies in Intelligence” newsletter. He even won their award, claiming to be “the first person outside the US government to do so.” Curiously, his vita shows a lot of fellowships from foundations, which have often been conduits for CIA funding. Maybe he was just an “unwitting collaborator.”
But it’s not just individual journalists who work hand in hand with the CIA. It’s entire media organizations. The president of CBS for decades worked with the CIA directly. The New York Times was the CIA’s most powerful asset. The Washington Post under Katherine Graham and later Ben Bradlee kept the CIA’s secrets. ABC, NBC other major media sources have documented relationships with the CIA.
When the Church and Pike Committees started investigating the CIA’s media operations, that was the one thing the CIA refused to give up. Congress could not pry that information from the Agency.
By 1991, the CIA had become so all-powerful in the media that pretense was no longer necessary. In December of 1991, less than a year before the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination, CIA Director Robert Gates laid out, in a memo titled “Greater CIA Openness,” that its Public Affairs Office:
“has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network in the nation. This has helped us turn some intelligence failure stories into intelligence success stories, and it has contributed to the accuracy of countless others. In many instances, we have persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests or jeopardized sources and methods.”
It should be clear that any organization that brags about its ability to change “intelligence failures” into “intelligence success stories” is, at its heart, an anti-democratic organization. The public simply cannot make intelligent choices about politics when failures are misrepresented as successes. No business could survive such misrepresentation for long. But intelligence agencies get away with it.
We have to know the truth about our past and present in order to plan adequately for our future. And it’s hard. Sorting good information from bad in this case isn’t easy. It took me years to understand just how solid the scientific evidence is that Oswald never fired a rifle on November 22. And I was actively interested in the case. I can see why journalists would shy away from that. It takes a Herculean effort.
And that’s the unfairness of ridiculing “conspiracy theorists.” Some of them are the ones who have done the heavy lifting, the historical mining that the mainstream media has failed to do. To group the nuttiest with the most informed is labelism at its worst. Imagine reading this in the New York Times: “these Jews should be ridiculed, even shunned. It’s time we marginalized Jews the way we’ve marginalized smokers … make [them] stand in the rain with the other outcasts.” That’s what Bryan Burrough in the New York Times wrote about conspiracy theorists, not Jews. But we hear the problem more clearly when we substitute a different group of people. It’s intolerable. It’s actually hate speech.
Conspiracies happen. I was a juror on a conspiracy trial. Pretending they don’t is not only ahistorical, it’s irresponsible.
And conspiracy theories serve a useful purpose. They ask, essentially, what if we’re being lied to, and that’s a question that, as history has shown, journalists should be asking far more often than they do. WMD, anyone?
If the press had looked seriously into the Kennedy assassination, they would found a conspiracy. Had the press then reported the conspiracy, there could have been prosecutions. Had there been prosecutions, we might not have lost Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. NOT challenging the official story was the same as giving future conspirators a blank check, which was taken and cashed, several times over.
The media has been an accessory to these crimes and more through silence, ignorance and misrepresentation. My hope is that journalists get more diligent and less naïve. My other hope is that the public gets savvier, and treats the news as the stage-managed affair it all too often is. After fifty years, it’s time we grew up.