When walking the floor at Javits for BookExpo America, I always have several considerations in mind. One is that since I am a writer and am developing a few long-form manuscripts, I make a point of checking which publishers are putting out titles in a similar vein as the projects I’m working on; lingering at their booths affords chances to engage in conversation any editors, agents or other industry personnel who might be there, and hence afford proposal opportunities. As I am also a reader, I always spend time ‘browsing the stacks’ of the show, seeing what diverse books and other sundry items are being promoted, with no objective other than satisfying my general curiosity. Occasionally, these two preoccupations merge.
Given that I have for some years been developing a multimedia publishing project (Transmedia, in marketing-speak) focusing on US political history, there were a number of publishers whose booths I made a point of visiting – and one which I wasn’t previously aware of that piqued my interest. Although Skyhorse Publishing [www.skyhorsepublishing.com] has a broad range of titles (in categories as diverse as Health & Wellness, Antiques, Games, Arts & Crafts, Business, Fiction, Cooking, etc.), the covers on display that caught my eye were their political conspiracy-related titles, many of which clearly were occasioned by the upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of this year. When I inquired about review copies of a few specific titles, I was informed that some books they had on hand to distribute to the press were already exhausted, while some others had yet to be published in their finished form (for these latter, as with many promoted books at the show, the cover art had been developed in anticipation of future publishing, and enclosed pages without any text). It was suggested I give them my contact information, so they could get titles to me as they became available; the ensuing months have seen a number of Skyhorse books on the topic come my way, and thus it’s now possible to survey the various angles they cover.
Before reviewing these it’s worth mentioning that the six titles I was sent do not represent even half of the Kennedyana that Skyhorse has in their catalog; besides those I received there are the following – On The Trail Of The Assassins: One Man’s Quest To Solve The Murder Of President Kennedy by Jim Garrison; November 22, 1963: Reflections On The Life, Assassination And Legacy of John F. Kennedy by Dean R. Owen; Act Of Treason: The Role Of J. Edgar Hoover In The Assassination Of President Kennedy by Mark North; Betrayal In Dallas: LBJ, The Pearl Street Mafia And The Murder Of President Kennedy by Mark North; The Kennedy Brothers: The Rise And Fall Of Jack And Bobby by Richard D. Mahoney; JFK: The CIA, Vietnam And The Plot To Assassinate John F. Kennedy by Col. Fletcher L. Prouty (the former CIA operative known as “X,” whose theories were the basis of Oliver Stone’s movie by the same name). These, along with those I have read, could comprise a mini-library.
Since I have seen all nine episodes of the fascinating ITV/History Channel series The Men Who Killed Kennedy, produced and directed by Nigel Turner (these are all available on YouTube), most of the theories, hypotheses and logistics surrounding the crime are familiar to me, as is the rogues gallery of potential suspects and collaborators, as well as the various witnesses (those lucky to survive long enough to relate their tales) whose testimony combines to expose the serious flaws in the official version of the assassination as published in the Warren Commission Report. So, I did not approach these books as someone who needed any convincing as to the criminal collusion behind the murder, but rather as a chance to see what new perspectives they may offer on any personalities, relationships, or related circumstances that might shed new light on how it was done, as well as to see how effectively the respective authors presented their findings.
Along with the forensic evidence in any crime and what directions it may point in, criminal investigators always focus on suspects who possess motive, means and opportunity in the course of separating true prospects from mere suspects. When the capital crime in question is one that will effect regime change – a coup d’état in the richest and most powerful nation on earth, no less – then certainly there are an abundance of people with requisite motive; this was especially so in the case of the Kennedys, whose evolving policies portended hazards economic, legal and otherwise for both those who opposed their rise and also some of their own erstwhile political patrons. The magnitude of any conceivable deadly solution to the problems their rule posed to powerful interests, however, meant that the greater obstacle to ultimate success involved the issues of means and opportunity – the mechanics of making “The Big Event” happen – in addition to the perhaps even more formidable challenge of shielding its architects from detection or prosecution. Accordingly, any individual or group of people plotting the murder of Kennedy would need to possess not only the technical abilities to carry out the hit, but also have access to, influence over, or themselves be in the employ of any entities which might be expected to investigate any evidence of the crime.
Which, is a pretty good description of the CIA. In Patrick Nolan’s CIA Rogues And The Killing Of The Kennedys: How And Why US Agents Conspired To Assassinate JFK And RFK, he analyzes Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 murder in addition to that of this brother 5 years previously. The book begins with a foreword by former director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Lab, and current Professor of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, Dr. Henry C. Lee, who states that “the bullet evidence, the ballistics, and the autopsy findings point away from the official Warren Commission version” of the JFK assassination, with “a high probability that more than one weapon was fired.” What follows is the assertion of Nolan, a forensic historian who’s taught at Hofstra and St. John’s Universities, that regarding both Kennedy deaths “Richard Helms and James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s chiefs of counterintelligence, possessed the means of planning and executing this type of operation without drawing suspicion,” while relying upon a “band of conspirators and mob allies” to commit the murders. Linking the profiles of Lee Harvey Oswald (who Nolan throughout disconcertingly refers to simply as ‘Lee’) and Sirhan Sirhan as ‘lone nut’ gunmen, whose firing positions did not cohere with the entry wounds of the fatal shots, Nolan charts how Helms proposed the MKULTRA program in 1953 as a means of using mind control, effected with the use of pharmaceuticals, hypnosis and other techniques, to create unwitting assassins directed at those the Agency regarded as America’s foes, both international and domestic (it won approval by then-CIA head Allen Dulles, who later was forced out by JFK in 1961 in wake of the botched Bay of Pigs operation intended to initiate regime change in Cuba; when he resurfaced as a prime member of the Warren Commission, he assured that any CIA role in JFK’s death would be concealed).
As it so happened, the techniques employed in the MKULTRA program could not develop reliable CIA assets/assassins, but rather resulted in subjects with addled memories, erratic behavior or worse – vegetative states. The unpredictability of persons thereby conditioned made them unacceptable risks to the Agency as potential killers, but did make them useful in another way – as fall guys who could be placed on the scene of a targeted hit. Thus the program was continued as a pivotal element ensuring CIA involvement would be undetectable in ‘wet jobs’ wherein the actual assassins were often drawn from the ranks of professional killers and/or (in the case of foreign initiatives) military or rebel forces. From 1953 leading up to November 22, 1963, the Agency had abundant international theatres available to essay their deadly practices, abetting successful coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960-61), the Dominican Republic (1961), Iraq (1963), and South Vietnam (1963), as well as chancing a failed coup in Indonesia and a number of thwarted attempts to take out Fidel Castro in Cuba. One can think of these as ‘off-Broadway’ productions that enabled the Agency to rehearse their stagecraft before mounting a bigger, more consequential production on home territory whence circumstances dictated.
Of course, the 1947 Charter for the CIA forbade domestic covert ops without Congressional authorization – American-based intelligence activities were the province of the FBI – but this presented no deterrent for the kinds of self-assured, self-righteous men who comprised the seminal leadership of the Agency; more often than not they were patrician East Coast-bred, Ivy League-educated sorts, the “best and brightest” who believed the world was theirs to shape and mold at will. Considering Helms, Nolan recognizes the dimensions an unchecked expression of such a mindset can manifest, entitling one explanatory chapter ‘The Sociopathy Test.’ Appositely, it bridges chapters respectively dedicated to Helms and Angleton, the sepulchral counterintelligence master responsible for much of the essential culture of the Agency. Along with a number of CIA sachems, these two began their intelligence careers in its World War II forerunner, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and late in Angleton’s life, his health decimated by a lifetime of prodigious alcohol and cigarette use – he died before reaching age 70 – the spymaster conceded to convey limited disclosures about his formative role to author Joseph Trento. “You know how I got to be in charge of counterintelligence?” he recalled, “I agreed not to polygraph or require detailed background checks on Allen Dulles and 60 of his closest friends” – which was critical, because “they were afraid that their own business dealings with Hitler’s pals would come out.” He further noted that “the founding fathers of U.S. Intelligence were liars. The better you lied and the more you betrayed, the more likely you would be promoted. These people attracted and promoted each other.”
With an organizational ethos built on such relationships, no one should have been surprised to discover that overseas wartime espionage tactics would naturally segue into similar practices on the home front. In addition to partnering with Helms in carrying out MKULTRA, Angleton instituted a wide range of domestic spying programs, set up to appear as foreign initiatives to outsiders. These included HT/Lingual, the extensive program he set up in 1955 to illegally open and read mail, and what came to be known as Operation CHAOS, conceived to monitor, infiltrate and compromise (via mail openings, break-ins, wire taps and surveillance) any groups which held the potential to develop any membership or influence that might counter the CIA’s aims. Angleton almost never brought news of any of his Agency business home, but one rare instance was the account his wife related of the night in mid-1963 when he scaled a wall and broke into the French Embassy in Washington, where he and accomplices found the French intelligence service’s code book and other documents and photographed them; the ostensible reason for the escapade of seeking out information of any “moles” was almost certainly a cover for the true purpose: obtaining knowledge of the entreaties President Kennedy was making without any CIA input towards de Gaulle to enlist French assistance in seeking a peaceable resolution to the situation in Vietnam.
In many ways the evolving American presence in Southeast Asia echoed the events of a few years earlier in Cuba. The CIA had established a position of advisory and economic patronage to foreign nationals intent on steering events in a direction deemed more favorable towards US interests, and while that principle alone was acceptable to the Kennedy Administration it was the undisclosed and unauthorized aspects of Agency operations (even then-CIA Director John McCone was in the dark about their activities in Laos, as well as the planned November 1, 1963 deposition of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was killed the next day) that persuaded JFK to find a way out of the engagement that was less aggressive and entangling than what his Intelligence and Military commanders were prepared to do, either with or without his awareness or approval. For their part, the CIA could not have welcomed a re-run in Vietnam of the denouement in Cuba, which by this time was a market US interests across the board were frozen out of, and when on October 11, 1963 President Kennedy ordered the withdrawal of one thousand US troops, with the remainder of the twelve thousand in Vietnam to be replaced by the Vietnamese by the end of 1965, it must have been clear beyond any doubt that the Commander-In-Chief did not share Agency imperatives in the region. When the withdrawal order was made public on November 20, 1963 US casualties in Vietnam to that date numbered only 73 – and two days later JFK was dead; 4 days after that LBJ reversed the withdrawal order, and by the time the US brought its last troops home from Southeast Asia the American dead there totaled 58,209 soldiers.
The unfolding scenario in Cuba just after Kennedy assumed office foreshadowed more than the staging in Vietnam as the next venue of the perpetual CIA road trip of global destabilization. Once Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959 and began to purge Cuba of American influence and money, including the mob presence in casinos and hotels, there were multiple forces preoccupied with ending his rule and restoring the power and profits they’d enjoyed there previously. The planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion preceded JFK’s entry into the White House – in fact, he’d been briefed about it by the time of his debates with Richard Nixon – and so the objective of effecting regime change in Cuba is something the new administration accepted at least in terms of policy continuity; Bobby particularly was an avid advocate of removing the sole Communist autocracy from the Western Hemisphere. However, the debacle on April 17, 1961 made plain to the Kennedys that the greater threat to American security arose from its own shores, in light of what unauthorized measures and associates the CIA employed. While the President approved of Americans being involved with the training, arming and financing of insurgencies, he drew the line at direct participation by US nationals on foreign soil – and was aghast to learn that two CIA operatives led things at the Bay of Pigs; that concomitant plans to kill Castro made use of Mafia hit men horrified both JFK and his brother, whose primary job qualification to head the Department of Justice was his role on the McClellan Committee investigating mob activities from 1957-59. (Indeed, the full extent of CIA skullduggery in Cuba only came to light in 2005 with the release of documents detailing that the true motive behind the Bay of Pigs incursion – the establishment of a beachhead whose prolonged besiegement would be used to justify a formal US military intervention in Cuba via air strikes – was concealed from the executive branch.) The revelations behind the Bay of Pigs fiasco prompted JFK’s vow “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds,” and he started by demanding the resignations of Agency Director Dulles and Deputy Director of Plans Richard Bissell (as well as their USAF cohort General Charles Cabell), but with Dulles loyalists still entrenched at the CIA – Helms moving up to assume Bissell’s command – the brain trust there must have begun to conclude that the 35th President stood as the kind of figure they saw as an impediment to both United States security and their own prerogatives.
The CIA had dedicated much of the previous decade to developing the means to eliminate such obstacles, and with the clearance their personnel had to liaise with and coordinate law enforcement throughout the national security apparatus, Nolan’s book rightly concentrates on the crucial role the Agency would necessarily have in the investigation (and hence, potential plotting) of any potential coup-by-conspiracy on US soil. A very different focus, especially with regards to causative factors, is presented in The Poison Patriarch: How The Betrayals Of Joseph P. Kennedy Caused The Assassination Of JFK by Mark Shaw. A former criminal defense attorney who’s authored 21 books, Shaw foregrounds elements that altogether too many lawyer/authors do – primarily legal proceedings and personalities. In a sense the book can be considered a sequel to Shaw’s earlier title Melvin Belli: King Of The Courtroom, as the famed San Francisco-based attorney’s defense of Jack Ruby after his murder of Lee Harvey Oswald comprises the core of the work. This undoubtedly “offers a completely new perspective regarding the twin assassinations in Dallas in 1963,” as the author propounds in his opening of Chapter One, yet it fails to fulfill his claim of providing “the most plausible explanation to date as to who killed President Kennedy, and why”; he certainly expends much text “straying far afield,” as he concedes, but does not put forth a strong case.
There are curious aspects indeed to Belli’s involvement as Ruby’s counsel, enough to warrant a closer examination. To begin with, the self-described “King of Torts,” whose very successful practice centered on personal injury civil cases, was a strange choice for a case that required a criminal defense attorney. Shaw infers that mob connections may have been behind his being hired, but despite circumstantial observations – Belli offered two conflicting explanations as to how and why he was hired; a number of his professional associates are quoted attesting to his being “a bona fide Mafia wannabe”; he’d previously represented LA-based gangster Mickey Cohen – none of this adds up to a direct link to the underworld bosses deemed the most likely players in any JFK assassination plot. Also peculiar was Belli’s defense strategy – a psychomotor epilepsy insanity defense for Ruby’s actions on November 24; most legal minds in Texas thought the best possible verdict in the case would be a reduced sentence, which, considering the killer in question was a man many in the US had some sympathy for due to his dispatching the person regarded as sole killer of their elected leader, could have been won with a defense of ‘murder without malice’. Perhaps of greatest consequence, Belli never put Ruby on the stand in the course of his handling of his case, despite his client telling reporters “I wanted to tell my story”; Shaw’s interpretation: Belli was brought in to silence Ruby, as Ruby was impelled to silence Oswald.
Belli is not the only attorney Shaw profiles in the meandering path he takes to reach his conclusions. In 1994 Frank Ragano told of his history representing underworld figures in the book Mob Lawyer, and in it he recalls a conversation with Tampa boss Santo Trafficante, who, when he learns that Ragano has hired Belli as his counsel in a libel suit, tells the barrister “whatever you do, don’t ask him about Jack Ruby. Don’t get involved. It’s none of your business.” The implication is that Belli became Ruby’s counsel at Mafia behest, and Trafficante was himself one of those behind it. Ragano also claimed to have been a go-between for three of his clients who all had a vested interest in seeing Jack and particularly Bobby Kennedy leave their perches of power (primarily due to the younger brother’s aggressive prosecutions of each of them). Allegedly Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa, realizing that if he and/or associates took out Bobby they’d still have to deal with Jack – who could be counted on to avenge his brother’s murder – put out a contract in early 1963 on the president, delivered via Ragano to New Orleans don Carlos Marcello and to Trafficante. The story occasioned much skepticism, and moreover the latter two didn’t need the spur of Hoffa to prod them into envisioning any deadly schemes aimed at the Kennedys. Each had faced the withering interrogations of RFK during the McClellan Hearings, then came under further scrutiny once Bobby became Attorney General and stepped up the DOJ’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section – Department attorneys were increased from 17 to 63, defendants indicted going from 121 to 615, and convictions went from 73 to 288. The resulting numerous cases against mobsters included Marcello’s deportation on April 4, 1961 (though he was smuggled back into the US two months later). Meanwhile JFK’s retreat from Cuba inflamed antipathy as well, since Trafficante had been the mob boss in Havana before Castro’s takeover (Ragano claims that in 1957 Trafficante set up then-senator JFK “to frolic with three sexy young Cuban prostitutes at the Commodoro Hotel in Havana”).
It’s almost natural that Shaw, an attorney, would sift through the trials and writings of other attorneys in order to gain insight into the disputed or undisputed crimes their clients may have committed, but the rhetorical flourish he closes with seems driven more by the need to fashion a fresh angle (for the sake of publication) to explain what is perhaps both the most-controversial and most-examined murder in history than the straight-forward direction his analysis points in. Whether Ragano’s tale of Hoffa is true or not, it seems more probable than possible that Trafficante and Marcello – with or without the collusion of other mobsters (Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli principal among them) – were somehow involved in the conspiracy to assassinate JFK; if so, they were nonetheless responsible for their own actions. Shaw however identifies Kennedy paterfamilias Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as the most culpable actor, often in language rife with hyperbole; when he writes, “the man to blame must be Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Instead of wild-eyed theories that lead nowhere, Joe bears the ultimate responsibility” he even lapses into error, as Joe Jr. was the favored eldest son lost in WWII.
The role of mob connections in first helping Joe Kennedy Sr. build his fortune and later secure the Presidency for his second-eldest son has been detailed by many observers, but few of the countless writers surveying this territory would characterize him as “the poison patriarch, the dominating father who infected his sons with venomous moral and ethical defects through his own arrogance and sinful behavior,” as he “abused power at every turn, drove these men toward hatred, revenge, and murder” as Shaw does. More than simply serving as a Machiavellian role model for his sons (the compulsive womanizing that both JFK and RFK seemingly inherited from their father is noted), Shaw says Joe Senior’s influence extended to the formation of the cabinet, as “Kennedy family confidant John Seigenthaler confirmed to this author that Joe was insistent on Bobby being attorney general.” It’s this presumed directive that gives the book it’s title, because, in light of both Bobby’s track record established in the McClellan Hearings and Mafioso Bill Bonnano’s recollection that Joe Sr. “specifically told us that if Jack was elected he was gonna make Bobby ambassador to Ireland or something like that,” such a move could only be seen as a double-cross by Joe Kennedy’s mob cronies. And yet, the selection would be made by Jack, not Joe, and accepting the position was Bobby’s call to make, not Joe’s. Apparently Bobby took some time to make a decision, as Seigenthaler also told Shaw he shepherded him around to garner the opinions of prominent Washington hands (including J. Edgar Hoover, former President Harry S. Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and other political figures such as Senator William Fulbright), and “nearly all of them told him not to take the job as AG.”
Once he did take it, it was Bobby’s purview to determine how best to direct the resources of his Department, and not his father’s. The aforementioned crusade he enjoined against organized crime he surely knew carried risks, which he acknowledged in the aftermath of his brother’s murder, saying to a colleague “I thought they would get one of us,” but that “I thought it would be me.” Nor was he alone in that premonition; as Ruby’s prosecutor Bill Alexander related to Shaw: “I was surprised that JFK got killed because I knew Bobby Kennedy was going to get killed,” given that he “had too many enemies, many more than his brother.” Yet, Shaw calls his and Jack’s father “the one man more responsible than any other for the death of his son” in 1963, “the one who, figuratively speaking, killed John.”
TO BE CONTINUED…..