The headline, alas, says it all: Did CIA Director Allen Dulles Order the Hit on JFK? asks The Daily Beast.
The problem with this question is that it is based on the pervasive but erroneous assumption that the only way to understand the story of how an American president (JFK) lost power and his life (on November 22) is to talk about conspiracies as depicted in Hollywood movies and crime fiction.
Next up: Did President Nixon supply masking tape to the Watergate burglars?
The only answer to such a loaded question is, um, no, probably not. But why are you asking?
The Devil’s Chessboard
I know from personal experience that no journalist should be blamed for a headline they didn’t write. So I don’t necessarily fault the DB reviewer, Brown University professor James Warren, for his generally thoughtful review of The Devil’s Chessboard. David Talbot’s has written a “disturbing, compulsively readable” book about Dulles, he writes.
“The rise of Dulles’s CIA, ‘the most potent agency of the Eisenhower era,’ further undermined an American democracy “already seriously compromised by growing corporate power.” Eisenhower himself left office with a pointed warned of the dangers of a military-industrial complex.
Like Talbot, Warren is fair to Dulles and to the CIA.
“On Dulles’s watch, the CIA did a very good job of keeping track of what the Soviets did to forward their agenda around the globe. It formed a reasonably accurate picture of Soviet military and nuclear capabilities and its fundamental foreign policy objectives. This painstaking, laborious work was hardly the stuff of James Bond novels, but it laid the foundation for American defense and foreign policy during the height of the Cold War, and thus must be given a fair amount of credit for the prevention of nuclear holocaust. We do not and cannot know the full extent of either Allen Dulles’s or the CIA’s contribution to the West’s victory in the Cold War, but an educated guess is that it was considerable on both counts.”
Warren correctly observes Talbot’s book does not systematically attempt to assess the nature of Soviet threat to American interests that the CIA as assigned to repel. However, Talbot does show that the threat was usually overblown, at least in the Third World.
But when its comes to the death of JFK, Warren finds Talbot has committed a cardinal sin: He doesn’t have a JFK conspiracy theory that fits on a bumper sticker. He can’t tweet a 140-character Dallas scenario fit for snarky repartee by savants such as Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow.
As Warren puts it:
“Talbot’s reconstruction of the plot engineered by Dulles to assassinate JFK contains so many key and bit players, and is so packed with qualifications concerning their actions, whereabouts, and intentions, that it’s close to impossible to keep one’s bearings.”
Talbot’s mistake is that he’s too dang careful!
The JFK Web
First of all, let me welcome the good professor to the Internet’s ongoing seminar about JFK’s assassination. The Internet is host to millions of emotionally needy people who express their obsessions in thousands of stupid JFK conspiracy theories. But the JFK Web, the online community of people interested in the truth about November 22, 1963, for its own sake, is the setting for a fairly high-level ongoing seminar in assassination studies.
From Talbot to former New York Times reporter Phil Shenon to former CIA analyst Brian Latell to retired Cuban intelligence officer Fabian Escalante to Professor John McAdams to the seven doctors who tried to save Kennedy’s life — not to mention quality Web sites like JFK Lancer, WhoWhatWhy and MaryFerrell.com — the people who haunt the JFK Web know what they are talking about.
And if you want to join the discussion, you better know what you are talking about. If you go in armed with only a theory, you will get schooled. I know that from hard experience too. The discipline of the crowd has the salutary effect of elevating the JFK discussion.
So while the JFK Web flares daily with passionate discussion about everything from the state of American democracy to the curious story of Lee Oswald’s wallet, about the only thing all the most knowledgeable participants agree on is this: the actions, whereabouts, and intentions of key and bit players in the JFK assassination story are contested. It’s hard to keep one’s bearings.
It is a homely truth, to be sure. It doesn’t drive traffic or disrupt industries or win awards. It is merely true: Discerning causality in the events leading to JFK’s violent death is difficult.
But it is worth noting too that, thanks to the Internet, never have so many people had such ease of access to such high-quality information about the Dallas tragedy. Bill Simpich, an attorney in San Francisco, goes so far as to argue that “the JFK case is being solved, thanks largely to the brute force of the power of the Internet. “
What he means, I think, is that the Web’s capacity to collate and curate and disseminate information can and will decisively clarify the causes of the Kennedy’s death in coming years.
That may be West Coast techno-optimism but it’s certainly possible. There is no logical or empirical reason why civil society, empowered by the Internet and other new technologies, could not forge a factual and coherent JFK narrative that makes more sense than today’s most popular theories, including the Warren Commission’s theory.
We shall see. An early test will come in October 2017 when the CIA is required by law to release 1,100 documents related to JFK’s assassination that it has heretofore chosen not to release to the public for reasons of “national security.”
So despite the handicap of continuing governmental obfuscation, Talbot navigates the terrain of the JFK story with the enterprise and care of good investigative reporter — and the kindly DB critic taxes him for NOT having a bleeping conspiracy theory that soothes the Daily Beast’s RSS feed and satisfies the bitch goddess of Twitter.
That’s what you get for being careful these days.
Engineers and CEOs
We can see the gist of the problem in Warren’s blithe phrase, “the plot engineered by Dulles.” Leave aside that Talbot’s account makes clear that Allen Dulles was no engineer. He was, in Talbot’s useful phrase, the “chairman of the board.” When it came to power plays, Dulles didn’t engineer. He delegated.
If the avuncular spymaster wanted to gun down a threat to U.S. national security, he delegated the chore to competent subordinates such as William K. Harvey. He was the respected career officer who ran the CIA’s ZR-RIFLE assassination program from 1960 to 1963. The CIA’s still secret JFK files include 123 pages on Harvey’s secret operations.
Warren doesn’t mention but Talbot cites a story from a credible CIA source that Harvey visited Dallas in late 1963. At the time, Harvey served as the chief of the CIA’s station in Rome. He was also a raging alcoholic who carried a gun, often pointed it at people to get his way, and was bitterly contemptuous of President Kennedy and his liberal polices.
Why did Bill Harvey’s duties (or personal life) take him to the city where JFK would die? That question has never been addressed by CIA spokesmen. But Harvey’s widow has some interesting things to say about her husband’s opinion of JFK’s character and the patriotism of a certain Mafia hit man in this JFK Facts video exclusive.
Warren, unfortunately, does not mention Talbot’s reporting on Harvey.
The future of the JFK story
Talbot argues that: 1) somebody in the national security agencies skilled in the black arts of assassination and false flag operations engineered the ambush in Dallas; 2) Dulles gave the proverbial nod to their plans; and most incisively, 3) the identity of the latter is more important than the identity of the former.
That is a nuanced argument that goes against the conspiratorial grain of American popular culture. Warren is right to suggest that Talbot has not proven his Dulles scenario beyond a reasonable doubt. But why is that the only standard of proof in this discussion?
David Talbot is a journalistic historian (and — full disclosure — a personal friend). He is not a prosecutor seeking to convict Allen Dulles of conspiracy. He is not making his case to a jury of Dulles’s peers for the sake of depriving the man of his liberty. Dulles is dead and Talbot isn’t addressing a courtroom. The law of conspiracy is not terribly relevant.
The real question that Talbot’s book raises is this: Did a faction within the U.S. government — embodied, if not led, by Dulles — orchestrate the events of November 1963?
Talbot’s accomplishment is to show that this is a legitimate question in 2015. At a time when the official story of Osama bin Laden’s assassination is being called into question by the New York Times, Talbot’s narrative of the JFK story is not only plausible, it is relevant.
And still the conspiratorial mindset prevails in coverage of the JFK story. This is the mindset that tells headline writers, book reviewers, and senior editors across the political spectrum: If you want to write credibly about the JFK assassination story you must endorse or disprove the government’s official theory.
This is the conspiratorial mindset of the American journalism, and it is a peculiar thing. You could attribute it to the paranoid style of the American life. You could call it lamestream liberal laziness. You could call it MSM eyewash. Call it what you want. It will soon be defunct, rendered obsolete by the brute power of the force of the Internet.