Ron Rosenbaum

Two New JFK Assassination Books: What to Think (1)

I’m going to sort of live-blog, over an extended period, my reading of Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History and David Talbot’s Brothers. Bugliosi’s massive 1500 page book is an attempt to disprove all conspiracy theories and validate the Warren Commission conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Talbot’s book about the relationship between JFK and RFK gives credence to several conspiracy possibilities and clearly suggests the case has not been solved in any convincing way.

Before beginning let me set out the arc of my own thinking about the question which I’ve written about and researched sporadically ever since I became a writer. I can trace my fascination with the controversy to the time I attended a lecture by one of the first most outspoken Warren Commission critics, Mark Lane.

From the beginning there were always two categories of criticism of the Warren Report: that the investigation was deeply flawed. And that it’s two conclusions–Oswald was a lone gunman and that he acted on his own, with no confederates or backing from others–were wrong.

It’s important to remember that a badly flawed investigation can still come up with the correct conclusions. I guess the best way to describe my own trajectory is that I went from believing that a flawed investigation came to the wrong conclusions to a belief that a flawed investigation was right on the first premise of its conclusion–that Oswald was the lone gunman–but had failed to prove that he acted alone in the sense that he wasn’t shooting Kennedy on behalf of some group of associates, real or imagined–pro or anti-Castro Cubans, the KGB, the CIA, the Mafia, right wing Southern racists, the military industrial complex etc.

The Warren Commission in other words had failed to solve the problem of motive. The report was weakest in sorting out Oswald’s actual political allegiances and personal psychology. So I’ve come to think that Oswald was the only one who fired shots that day but that a real and significant aspect of the case remains unsolved: what went on inside Oswald’s head, what were his motives and were any of his dubious political zig zags–as a marine he defected to the U.S.S.R., supposedly embracing communism, then re-defected to the U.S. with his Russian wife, and proceeded to engage in pro-Castro activities although some have seen this as a front for anti-communist, anti-Castro infiltration motives. or was he infiltrating anti-Castro groups for pro-Castro reasons? (Just what was Oswald up to when he visited the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City the month before the assassination and asked for a visa to visit Cuba? Did he want to go there to ingratiate himself with the Fidelistas, to further infiltrate them or to assassinate Fidel?)

Did any of his encounters with Cuban and anti-Castro intelligence assets, with the KGB, the CIA, even (at some remove) the Mafia have some causal relationship to the assassination. Or was it the act of a lone gunman acting out of deranged self-aggrandizing motives. or did he have a political motive: revenge for U.S./Kennedy sponsored assassination attempts on Castro? That’s what people from LBJ to RFK seemed to believe at one time or another.

I spent some time investigating the question of Oswald’s allegiances, re tracing his steps in New Orleans in the summer before the assassination in the shadowy territory between pro and anti Castro groups, the landscape filled with various informers fanatics and front groups that Oswald navigated in New Orleans and Dallas. (even visiting the famous address– 544 Camp Street–that played host to a seething warren of pro and anti-Castro groups Oswald had strange relations with. (You can read my account–“Oswald’s Ghost”–in %%AMAZON=0060934468 The Secret Parts of Fortune%%.

So when I read about Bugliosi’s book and his claim that his two-decade-long investigation had put to rest all doubts, quashed all conspiracy theories, I was hopeful that at last we could achieve (that dread word) “closure”. Then I heard about one of the features of Talbot’s book, the Howard Hunt “confession”, one that seems particularly dubious to me. But Talbot’s book does serve to give credence to the doubts about, the mystery of Oswald’s motivation, doubts far more widespread than I’d ben aware of, though I’d known of some.

So I decided to approach both books a bit at a time focussing on the question of motive.

Let me begin with a hole in Bugliosi’ s book, a late-breaking development that he was likely unaware of before his book went to press: the new take on the Nosenko case in CIA counterintelligence veteran pete Bagley’s memoir Spy Wars. A new take which has forced me to reconsider the case and it’s relation to Oswald and the Kennedy assassination.

You remember Yury Nosenko, right? He was the KGB defector who gained asylum in the U.S. in 1964–while the Warren Report investigation was still ongoing–with the sensational claim that he seen Oswald’s KGB file and that the file disproved any notion that he could have been working on behalf of the Soviet Union in killing Kennedy.

It was, in a way, welcome news because, although evidence of KGB complicity was absent, Oswald had been a defector to the Soviets, which raised the question of whether his re-defection to the U.S. might have been part of some mission, one that unfolded on November 22. 1963.

Potential Soviet complicity with Oswald (retaliation for the supposed humiliation of the 10962 Cuban Missile crisis?) caused fears of nuclear war. No one wanted t hat. Nosenko’s message was accepted although within months Nosenko himself was targeted by CIA counter intelligence, led by James Jesus Angleton, who accused him of being a “false defector” sent to the U.S. to spread “disinformation”.

Which might mean his testimony there was no KGB connection to the assassination was fabricated to cover-up a real connection.

For nearly 15 within the CIA and longer outside, the theory that Nosenko was a “KGB plant” became conventional wisdom. Although no one seemed to want to take the KGB assassination complicity implication seriously.

Then after Angleton was fired, the verdict on Nosenko within CIA was reversed and what seemed to me to be a air tight case for his legitimacy was made by British journalist Tom Mangold (a case cited and adopted by by Bugliosi).

But just last month Yale University Press published the memoir of Angleton deputy Pete Bagley in which, to my surprise, Bagley made a remarkably strong case for the Angletonian view that Nosenko was in some way a plant a witting or unwitting conveyor of disinformation which called his Oswald reassurances into question.

In an essay inThe New York Observer (Feb. 12, 2007) “The Spy Who Came in From Geneva”, I argued that Bagley’s book may call for a “re revision” of thinking about Nosenko and “goes a long way to rehabilitate the Angletonian view” long dismissed as paranoid.

It’s a minor point, I don’t believe there’s evidence the KGB had anything to do with the assassination of JFK, yet Nosenko–the revised standard conventional view of him–occupies a large place in Bugliosi’s dismissal of the possibility of KGB involvement. It causes him to cite all sorts of self serving statements by KGB and Soviet leaders about how “shocked, shocked” they were about the assassination and how they couldn’t imagine why anyone would entertain the notion of their involvement.

Bugliosi’s reliance on self serving statements (what are they going to say: “yeah we did it”?) here and in his examination of the possibility of Cuban/Castro involvement illustrates a weakness in his argumentation. Attempting to refute a report that Castro had spoken before the assassination of the possibility that assassination attempts on him might “boomerang”–lead to revenge–and another even more persuasive report that Castro knew of Oswald’s visit to the Cuban Embassy and of threats against Kennedy he made there, Bugliosi relies on Castro’s personal denial. Such reports were ridiculous on the face of it, Castro unsurprisingly says.

Well of course he’d say that now. Self serving statements are admitted as evidence when they support Bugliosi’s view of the case when, if they hadn’t he’d cross examine them to death and then leave them for dead in his withering prosecutorial way. This doesn’t mean I agree with the reports that suggest Cuban or Castro involvement. It’s just that Bugliosi’s claim that he’s blown every theory out of the water shouldn’t rely so heavily on self serving denials.

It also illustrates the tragedy of Bugliosi’s truly heroic effort: new information continues to emerge, adding, undermining, subverting what we know, or think we know. I will focus in my next posts on his evaluation of various conspiracy theories, particularly the KGB and Castro ones and critique his method of argumentation. Not to take anything away from his epic effort, but to sharpen the debate.