Max Holland vs. Oliver Stone: A debate about the CIA and JFK

In response to Max Holland’s recent JFK piece in the Daily Beast, Jim DiEugenio writes:

Sixteen years ago Max Holland wrote an article for The Wilson Quarterly. It was entitled “The Demon in Jim Garrison”.   A few months later, Holland wrote another essay on Garrison, it was published in Studies in Intelligence, an official CIA journal. In 2004, Holland gave a lecture on Jim Garrison at the Assassination Archives Research Center conference. On April 28 Holland published an essay on Jim Garrison in The Daily Beast. All four of them are essentially the same. For sixteen years Max Holland has been marketing his same essay on Jim Garrison.

Which is surprising. Because all of these articles/lectures were done after 1998, the termination date of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). That government body had been tasked with locating and releasing all records still classified about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

One area that the ARRB was able to obtain many previously secret records was the JFK investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. William Davy’s 1999 book, Let Justice Be Done, explores this documentary record. Holland ignores it.

The  latest version of Holland’s indictment on Garrison–and now Oliver Stone, is titled, “How the KGB Duped Oliver Stone.” It begins with a story published in the New Orleans States Item on April 25, 1967, under the headline “Mounting Evidence Links CIA to ‘Plot’ Probe.” The article is presented as a great propaganda triumph for Moscow. Holland never fully describes what was in the article, a key point we shall return to.)

Holland goes on to write about the arrest of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw on JFK conspiracy charges on March 1, 1967. He characterizes the arrest of Shaw as “outlandish and baseless.” The reasons Garrison had indicted and arrested had already been reviewed back in 1963 by the FBI and found wanting, he says.

But, Holland continues, the arrest of Shaw created headlines around the world. And this led to a series of articles about Shaw’s work in Rome for a mysterious business entity called Centro Mondiale Commerciale (CMC). Within days Paese Sera, a left-wing Italians newspaper, reported that CMC might have been a creation of the CIA, and a center of funding for illegal covert activities. Garrison received copies of these Paese Sera articles and began to center his investigation on possible CIA complicity in the Kennedy murder.

Holland says Garrison was really an unsuspecting dupe of Moscow. How? Because Paese Sera was really a conduit for KGB disinformation. Because Oliver Stone based his 1991 film JFK on Garrison’s memoir On the Trail of the Assassins, Holland alleged that he too was a Moscow dupe.

Holland’s source for this? The controversial Mitrokin archives. Vasili Mitrokhin was a former archivist for the KGB. In 1992 he defected to the United Kingdom. As Russian scholar Amy Knight has noted, the story behind Mitrokin and his defection strains credulity. But it began a whole new genre of academic studies and books. With a skeptical eye, she surveyed the books in all of their questionable aspects i. e. the sales and marketing of former Russian intelligence employees who spirited out their notes on KGB files.

This new area of trade and barter reached its apogee in the instance of Alexander Vassiliev, still another former Russian intelligence officer who defected to England. In that case, it was shown that Vassiliev’s “notes” at times actually distorted the original memorandum beyond recognition.

Suffice it to say that, as Knight suggested, there seems to be a rather lucrative business in using former KGB officers’ notes—in the case of Mitrokin, 25,000 pages of them– to somehow revive the Cold War charges of both Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover.

Needless to say, once in England, Mitrokhin was furnished with an official in-house British MI5 author. In turn, Christopher Andrew set up a syndication deal with Rupert Murdoch. The subsequent volume was called The Sword and the Shield.

In 1995, the political angle behind the barter became manifest. Based on the word of still another Russian intelligence defector, Murdoch and his subordinates accused former Labor Party leader Michael Foot of accepting funds from KGB agents. Foot promptly sued for libel. Understandably, Murdoch did not want to appear in court, so he settled the case in Foot’s favor. )

Mitrokin’s notes said that the late Mark Lane had been aided by two secret donations from the KGB: one for $1,500 and one for $500. As Lane later replied, the only donation he received even close to those amounts was from the extraordinarily wealthy Corliss Lamont, an heir to the J.P. Morgan fortune. Not a likely candidate for a KGB agent.

Further, according to the Mitrokhin notes, the transfer occurred in New York City in 1966. As Lane has noted, he was living in London that year, finishing up and editing his book Rush to Judgment, which was being published by a British house. (Lane, Last Word, pp. 92-93)

Third, the next largest donation Lane got for further research was from Woody Allen. It was for $50. Lane kept records of his donations.

In other words, the Mitrokhin charges against him were hogwash. Consequently, he challenged the veracity of the book in a letter to the author. Predictably, Andrew never replied. (ibid, p. 96).

Holland’s Tunnel Vision

Which brings us to Holland’s pretext for writing this article—in all its forms. Clay Shaw was arrested on March 1, 1967. Three days later, Paese Sera began publishing its six-part series on the mysterious and suspicious activities of the CMC in Italy. (Holland only mentions the first day of publication, which scants the depth of the paper’s reporting.)

Holland implies that there was a cause-effect relationship between the two events. He bases this on one of the notes in the Mitrokhin archive. That note says that in 1967, the Russians started a disinformation scheme in that Italian newspaper that was later picked up in New York. (ibid, p. 73) That is it. There is no specificity to the accusation. There is no mention in the Mitrokhin note of Jim Garrison, Clay Shaw, the CMC or any New York publication that picked up the story. In short, the Mitrokhin note does not confirm Holland’s claim.

Realizing how that paucity of evidence presented a problem, Holland had once said that there was a mention of the Paesa Sera series in the socialist New York weekly the National Guardian. But this was only done because they had a contributor who lived in Rome. I

Previously, Holland had realized how thin this gruel was. So he had added the testimony of CIA director Richard Helms before a congressional committee. Seeking to discredit Paesa Sera as a communist front, Helms cited a story in which the paper said the CIA was complicit in the attempts to overthrow French president Charles DeGaulle. As Gary Aguilar has pointed out, the story published by Paesa Sera was true. Even Andrew Tully, an author sympathetic to the CIA, admitted this after the 1962 coup attempted coup by French generals opposed to DeGaulle’s handling of the war in Algeria.

The complicity of the CIA with DeGaulle’s enemies was reported even earlier than that in The New York Times by Scotty Reston. (NY Times, April 29, 1961) More recently, David Talbot hammered the point home with multiple sources in his biography of Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard. (See pps. 412-24). So Paese Sera’s previous reporting on the CIA was well-founded.

Another implication of Holland’s essay is that, somehow, the KGB dreamed up the story and gave it to Paese Sera on the occasion of Shaw’s arrest. As anyone in the newspaper business knows, usually the next day’s paper is locked down the night before. Which would mean that the KGB would have had to put the story together in about 48 hours.

This author had the opportunity to read the six-part Paesa Sera series in translation. The idea that a foreign intelligence service could put together such a story on such brief notice is hard to buy. The lengthy, detailed reporting was the result of a weeks-long inquiry into the whole business enterprise of the CMC. The idea that the KGB generated and “planted” such a complex story on short notice is improbable.

What Holland Omits

The truth is simpler. Paese Sera was interested in the Centro Mondiale Commerciale in 1967 for the same reason government and law enforcement officials were interested: Because the CMC truly was a mysterious business agency with a suspect past.

Prior to moving to Italy, the enterprise had been kicked out of Basel, Switzerland in 1957 for reasons were similar to those that Paese Sera complained about a decade later: murky financing and the questionable character of the company directors, including one George Mandel, who had been accused of working the Jewish refugee racket during World War II.

When this unsavory fact surfaced in the Swiss press, Mandel threatened to sue the paper—but he didn’t. The editor was disappointed. He commented, “Too bad. We would have heard some great things at the trial.” (State Department Memorandum of April 9, 1958)

But further, as questions about the financing in Basel began to crest, another director of the firm, former Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Nagy, mentioned J. Henry Schroder Banking Corporation as a source of funds. He also mentioned J & W Seligman. As William Davy writes in his book, Allen Dulles had been general counsel to Schroder prior to becoming CIA Director. When the Dulles brothers law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, was still dealing with the Nazis in the thirties, they used Schroder’s as their conduit. When Dulles became Director of Central Intelligence,  he opened up a fifty million dollar emergency fund with Schroder’s. It was later reported that Schroder’s served as one of the recurring cut outs for the Agency to transfer funds. (Davy, pp. 96-97)

This important back-story in Switzerland is ignored by Holland. The Paesa Sera story was verifiable: the CMC apparently did have a connection to CIA director Allen Dulles. In 1958, because of all the controversy in Basel, Nagy decided to move the enterprise to Italy.

This is when Clay Shaw entered the picture. According to a State Department cable, Shaw had shown great interest in the project from its outset. (Davy, p. 97) The CMC’s board members in Italy were much the same as in Switzerland, augmented by a former member of Mussolini’s cabinet, and the son-in-law of Hjalmar Schacht, financial guru of the Third Reich. They represented “a small cross-section of the aging royalists with whom Shaw liked to hobnob on his European jaunts and whose names and phone numbers were kept in his address book.” (ibid, p. 98)

Paese Sera was not the only newspaper that reported on the controversial company. So did other leading Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and Il Messaggero, as well as Le Devoir in Montreal. Their reporting could not have been planted by the KGB

Le Devoir reported on the company because its general counsel was Louis Bloomfield, a Montreal corporate and international lawyer. Looking through what has been released of Bloomfield’s papers, researcher Maurice Phillips has discovered that Bloomfield was an important player in the CMC scheme. He actually coordinated meetings and investments for Nagy from some of the wealthiest men in the world, who were somehow interested in the CMC e.g. Edmund deRothschild, and David Rockefeller. (Letter from Bloomfield to Dr. E W. Imfeld, 2/10/60)

Phillips has also uncovered documents that show that Nagy was a CIA asset and he queried the Agency, offering them the use of CMC in any capacity. (March 24, 1967 CIA memo, released in 1998.)

(Phillips is now involved in a legal dispute with the Bloomfield estate, which seeks to cut off any further access to these papers.)

Finally, there is information about the CIA and the CMC from Regis Kennedy, an FBI agent. Kennedy was J. Edgar Hoover’s man on the ground in the Castro exile community in New Orleans, along with senior agent Warren DeBrueys.

“Shaw was a CIA agent who had done work of an unspecified nature over a five year period in Italy,” Kennedy said. (Davy, p. 100) That description, of course, perfectly matches both the time span and the location of the CMC as reported by Paesa Sera.

Therefore, in two strands of Holland’s yarn—concerning the CIA and the DeGaulle overthrow, and the Agency connections to the Centro Mondiale Commerciale—it turns out that Paese Sera was right and Holland was, shall we say, obtuse.

After all the controversy in Italy, the CMC left and went to Johannesburg, South Africa.

Holland’s Defense of Clay Shaw

But Holland goes even further.  In summarizing the declassified record, he conceals from the reader the new documents about Clay Shaw. The author writes that both the Warren Commission and the FBI investigated the true identity of a calling himself “Clay Bertrand,” who was involved in the JFK story. On November 22, 1963, New Orleans lawyer Dean Andrews said “Clem Bertrand” called him and told him  to go to Dallas and defend Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been arrested for killing President Kennedy.

Holland writes that the Bureau and the Commission determined that this allegation was false, and that “Bertrand” was not even a real person.

There is no evidence that the Warren Commission ever did any kind of search for the true identity of Clay Bertrand. If Holland has such evidence he should annotate it.

The FBI did investigate the issue. And the results were pretty much contrary to what Holland describes. In 1967, the Justice Department admitted that the FBI had investigated Clay Shaw back in 1963. (Davy, p. 191) This announcement caused much consternation at FBI headquarters. Because the obvious follow up question would be: Why was the FBI investigating Shaw as part of its original inquiry into the Kennedy murder?

J. Edgar Hoover did not want to answer that question. So the Justice Department issued a second announcement: The FBI had not conducted any inquiry about Shaw in 1963. As the declassified record demonstrates, this was not true. In fact, on March 3, 1967 The New York Times reported “A Justice Department official said tonight that his agency was convinced that Mr. Bertrand and Mr. Shaw were the same man….”

Behind the scenes, FBI official Cartha DeLoach admitted that, in December of 1963, several [emphasis added] parties had furnished the FBI information about Shaw. (Davy, p. 192) Before Shaw was arrested, the FBI had multiple sources saying that Garrison was correct: Shaw was “Bertrand.” (ibid, p. 193)

The Bureau knew this and concealed it. Therefore, they never had to answer the question: Why was the FBI investigating Clay Shaw back in 1963? And Clay Shaw never had to answer the question: Why did you call an attorney to represent Oswald?

The Role of the CIA

One of the most bizarre statements in Holland’s essay is that it was because of the Paese Sera article that Garrison began to focus on the CIA as his chief suspect in the Kennedy murder. Again, this does not align with the record, or even with what Garrison himself has written.

It is very clear what led Garrison to suspect CIA involvement in JFK’s murder: Oswald’s Russian language test in the military, and the origins of the pro-Castro flyers Oswald was passing out on Canal Street in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.

The former was a strong indication Oswald was receiving Russian language training in the Marines, which suggests he might have been prepared in advance for his defection to Russia upon his early release. As per the latter, some of the  flyers Oswald was handing out in New Orleans were stamped with the address: 544 Camp Street.

As depicted in Stone’s film, Garrison visited this building in downtown New Orleans. It turned out that Oswald had been seen there at the office of former FBI agent Guy Banister. It turned out that (as depicted accurately in Stone’s JFK,) Banister’s office was a clearinghouse for many Cuban exiles, along with Oswald’s longtime friend, David Ferrie.

And Garrison later learned that both Banister and Ferrie were involved with both the Bay of Pigs landing, and Operation Mongoose, the secret war against Cuba, also depicted in Stone’s film. Both of these were CIA sanctioned, supplied, and backed.

The more Garrison looked into the denizens of 544 Camp Street, the more he discovered how residents of the address, like Sergio Arcacha Smith, were related to the Cuban Revolutionary Council. The CRC. The was the CIA’s anti-Castro Cuban government in exile, created by Howard Hunt.

Therefore, Garrison reasoned, the only way to explain Oswald’s presence amid all these CIA agents and Castro haters was that he was an agent provocateur against the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which was billed on the literature as being located at that address.

Garrison goes through all of this in his memoir, On the Trail of the Assassins. Holland is familiar with this book but ignores what it says about his thesis. (See pp. 22-25 and 34-36)

The CIA v. Garrison

Another point that caused Garrison to consider the CIA as a chief suspect was the infiltration of his office. And also the fact that suspects and witnesses in his case were being furnished lawyers associated with the CIA.

The ARRB reinforced the story with the release of declassified files in the late 1990s. The ARRB records revealed that the CIA maintained what it call a Cleared Attorneys Panel in major U.S. cities in 1967. This panel was called upon when the Agency got stuck in sensitive situations.

The launching of Jim Garrison’s investigation in February 1967 caused word to get out in the clear attorneys in New Orleans and soon letters were being sent to CIA Director Richard Helms to volunteer for work on it. (Letter from James Quaid, May 15, 1967)

This directly relates to theThe New Orleans States Item article that Holland cited at the top of his Daily Beast essay. Holland did not mention the substance of the article, one of the very few in the New Orleans papers that actually treated Garrison fairly. The story reported how the CIA had underminedGarrison’s investigation.

The reporting team had talked to one of the witnesses Garrison was trying to extradite back to New Orleans. His name was Gordon Novel. He had had volunteered for Garrison’s probe masquerading as an electronics expert who could ensure his office was not bugged. He ended up doing the opposite. Again, as Stone’s film shows, he wired the office for sound and sold some of the tapes to the producer of an upcoming NBC special. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second edition, pp. 232-34)

When Garrison requested Novel testify before the grand jury, he fled the state. It later turned out that Novel had worked for the CIA since the Bay of Pigs operation. And he planned on using those credentials for his defense–if Garrison ever got him back to New Orleans.

In other words, a former CIA operative was ingratiating himself with the DA. He was then wiring his office and selling the tapes to an upcoming negative TV special. And, as Garrison revealed in his October 1967 Playboy interview, one of Novel’s attorneys was being paid by the CIA.

Kind of interesting, no? Not to Holland, who leaves it out of his story.

Crisis of Confidence

But perhaps the worst part of Holland’s work is his charge that it was Jim Garrison who caused a loss of belief by Americans in the democratic institutions of their government. This really touches upon the whole issue of how how Holland manipulates history.

First, it was not Garrison who provoked serious doubts about the Warren Commission. It was a wave of books, articles, and radio appearances by the first critics of the Warren Report, who preceded Jim Garrison. That is, writers like Edward Epstein, Vincent Salandria, Harold Weisberg, and Mark Lane. By 1967, the Gallup Poll revealed that belief in the Warren Report’s “Oswald Did It Alone” concept was at about 30 percent .

What drove it even lower—to 11 percent in 1976—were three major events, which we all know about. They were, in order, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the exposes of the Church Committee concerning the crimes of the CIA and FBI. This all began in 1965—with the first insertion of American combat troops into Vietnam—and continued until the last reports of the Church Committee in 1976.

The unfolding of these three events on national TV, radio, and in daily newspapers, was incessant and, in its cumulative effect, oceanic. They literally dominated all news cycles for over ten years. Has Holland completely forgotten about the Tet Offensive and the cover up of the slaughter of civilians at My Lai? What about Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre? Or the indictments of more than sixty members of his administration, and the convictions of over forty of them? Perhaps he missed the Church Committee’s exposure of the attempts by the CIA to assassinate Patrice Lumumba of the Congo? Or J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO programs to infiltrate, disrupt, and sometimes eliminate leftist groups?

The tremendous impact of these three events drove down all belief in government. And anyone can see this by looking at the graph in Kevin Phillips’ 1995 book Arrogant Capitol, which first appeared in US News and World Report. The drop off in belief in government begins in 1964, the year the Warren Report was issued, three years before Jim Garrison’s inquiry was made public. This would suggest that, from the beginning–and without the influence of Garrison or Paesa Sera–the American public thought something was awry with the official story of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Holland’s 2017 rewrite of his 16-year-old essay is as faulty and problematic as his first version. It contributes to the polarization of America over the murder of John F. Kennedy.



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