How the KGB Tried to Stop the Plot to Murder John Kennedy
“… The Soviets had found out about a plot to kill Kennedy. Fearing they would be blamed for the murder, they hired Nagell to infiltrate the plot and stop it. A book published in 2007 by a former Romanian intelligence officer notes that in the spring of 1963 just such action was requested by a KGB Chief named General Ivan Fadeykin. …”
Richard Case Nagell: The Most Important Witness
On the Trail of the JFK Assassins, by Dick Russell
Reviewed by James DiEugenio
Dick Russell’s new book is an anthology of his life’s work on the JFK assassination. And one of the most revealing things about the book is 1.) How long he has been at it, and 2.) How many pieces he has written on the subject.
The author has had a long and varied career in journalism writing about many other subjects. Russell has written for several mainstream publications e.g. TV Guide and Sports Illustrated. In fact, he was on the staff of both those magazines. And he has published more than one acclaimed book. Two of them being Eye of the Whale, and Black Genius. The main area of interest in his writing career has been the environment. So it was a bit surprising to me to discover that Russell had spent so much time and effort on what most mainstream publishers consider an eccentric topic.
At the beginning of the book, Russell describes how he graduated from the University of Kansas journalism school and almost immediately secured a job that many young writers would consider a godsend. He was a staff writer with Sports Illustrated. But he resigned just six months later. (Why he did so is not really explained.) While making a tour around the world he met a former friend of CIA Director Allen Dulles. This man told him that Madame Nhu had President Kennedy killed as an act of revenge for the death of her husband Diem. (Interesting that Dulles seems to be the first to spread this disinformation story.)
A few years later, Russell was freelancing for journals like The Village Voice. He secured an assignment to write about the fledgling Assassination Information Bureau which was set up to cover the formation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). It was while doing this report that Russell first heard of Richard Popkins’s work on the programmed assassin Luis Castillo. The then editor of the Voice, Gloria Steinem’s former CIA colleague Clay Felker, tried to discourage him from hanging out with such goofballs. But Russell persevered. And so his JFK writing sidelight, and the book, was off and running.
There are over forty chapters in the anthology. Not all of them are devoted to separate subjects. For instance, both the first and second chapters of the book are about Popkin and Castillo. The way one measures a book like this is by this question: How many of the essays are really important, insightful, and worth preserving? By that standard the book measures small. Many of the chapters are so ephemeral, I took almost no notes. Some of the work, like a section on Antonio Veciana, is just plain dated. I mean after Gaeton Fonzi’s marvelous The Last Investigation there is not much to add on this guy. And since Russell’s work on him was from the mid-seventies, it has been superseded many times. Further, some of the chapters just do not go anywhere. Or if they do, it’s not very far. Some examples here are the sections on Gordon Novel, Ronald Augustinovich, Gerry Hemming, Larry Howard, and Loran Hall. These are all quite interesting characters. And in their own ways—except for perhaps Augustinovich—they are important to the JFK case. That is, if they had been rendered in full. Or at least close to it. But Russell does not take their stories far enough to make the profiles really worth preserving, or even reading. This, of course, may owe to the fact that magazine pieces are not meant to be done in depth or at length.
There are other pieces that I felt amounted to little more than meandering speculation. For instance, ever since Richard Case Nagell told Russell that David Ferrie hypnotized Lee Harvey Oswald, Russell has spent a lot of time and energy attempting to show that somehow, in some way, the CIA’s MK/Ultra program figured in the JFK assassination. Unfortunately, that misguided penchant appears again here. And at much too great a length for my taste. And, even worse, without any intrinsic evidentiary justification. The author here goes on for six chapters, from pages 236-277, revisiting this diaphanous concept. Much of this reads like the worst vein of Kennedy assassination research—right down there with the infamous Canfield-Weberman ear identification of Howard Hunt as one of the tramps in Dealey Plaza. It seems to me to amount to nothing more than conspiracy smoke. Largely because it is based on unnamed sources, strained associations, and unreliable witnesses e.g. Marina Oswald channeled through Priscilla Johnson.
There are more questionable pieces. Russell did a couple of interviews with Marina Oswald in 1992. Now there is a woman who one could spend hours with talking about just two people: Ruth Paine and Priscilla Johnson. Russell does not do much with her. She says that the Warren Commission translation of her testimony makes her sound like a fifth grader. She says there are a few things wrong with the backyard photos. In the original pictures she says the rifle was different, there were more angles, different photos, and the background stairs are in the wrong place. And that’s about it. (I should add: John Armstrong’s book goes further on both these matters than Marina does here.) The rest of the section deals with her attempts to try and legally reopen the case. Which consisted of one meeting with some lawyers in Cambridge. Was this really worth including? There is a mildly interesting chapter about the strange death of CIA officer John Paisley. But any connection to the JFK case here is rather strained. And there is a concluding interview with Doug Horne who did much of the medical investigation for the Assassination Records Review Board. This should have been a humdinger of an interview. For me it was not. Russell has never shown much interest in the physical evidence in the JFK case. And I thought this interview revealed that lack of interest. Having just done a lot of research in this area for Section Four of my review of Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History ,I can see many relevant questions that should have been asked but were not. The value of this interview comes almost entirely from the subject and not the interviewer.
With the (rather large) ration of negative aspects now delineated, I want to mention some of the book’s more positive attributes. Russell has always been good on the private investigation of Warren Commissioner Richard Russell. Russell was the Georgia senator who suspected from the start that the Commission was a dog and pony show governed by J. Edgar Hoover and Nicolas Katzenbach. So he used people on his personal staff along with other acquaintances to conduct his own inquiry. One of the people he consulted with was Colonel Philip Corso, a retired Army Intelligence officer who had been on the staff of the National Security Council under Eisenhower. Corso did some investigating for the Commissioner and found out some interesting tidbits. He concluded that the Mannlicher-Carcano could not have performed as the official story leads us to believe. (p. 126) He also concluded that there was a Second Oswald. (ibid) Further, that Oswald had gone to Russia as part of a fake defector program being run out of the Office of Naval Intelligence. (p. 127) After doing all this inquiry he told Russell that his opinion was the assassination was a project of rogue CIA agents and anti-Castro Cubans. (ibid) Russell tended to agree with him but he said he could never get the other members of the panel to believe him.
The opening two chapters on Richard Popkin and the investigation of the Luis Castillo case are interesting. (And, by the way, it is through Popkin that Russell ended up learning about Richard Case Nagell. (p. 17) For those unaware of this fascinating case: Castillo was captured by the intelligence forces of the Philippine government in 1967. They concluded that he was a programmed assassin whose mission was to assassinate President Marcos. Once he was in custody, the government hired a psychologist named Victor Arcega to try and deprogram him. It turned out that Castillo was a Puerto Rican who was raised in the USA. And further, he seems to have been programmed as an assassin in the USA. After being beaten by a fellow prisoner, Castillo did not want to go through any further deprogramming sessions. So Arcega left and moved to Los Angeles. He was there the night of the RFK murder. When he read up on the case of Sirhan and the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, he recognized the parallels in the two cases. He decided to return to his native Canada.
Chapters 5 and 6 about Senator Richard Schweiker of the Church Committee and the HSCA’s first counsel, attorney Richard Sprague, are also worth reading. Especially the latter. Compared to the vast majority of official investigators on the JFK case, these two men come off exceptionally well. Schweiker sounds like Jim Garrison: “The Kennedy assassination is a mirror image proposition. What makes it hard to know what happened is that you’re struggling to find out the real focus in the mirror. And you really need two reversible ones.” (p. 42) Here’s another Garrison echo: “The more witnesses we talk to, the more they raised the fact that the Warren Commission really is a house of cards. Now it’s just prodding, pushing, shaking the tree enough to have it fall.” (ibid) Schweiker had one of his staff members, Dave Marston, working the JFK case about 90% of his time. And another worked on it full time. Further, 8 of the 11 Church Committee members consulted with him on a regular basis. (p. 43) Schweiker’s exemplary efforts gave great ballast to the creation of the HSCA and the appointment of Richard Sprague.
The Sprague chapter is even better. It begins with his appointment as Chief Counsel and all the anxious anticipation that this choice placed in those interested in the JFK case. It then follows through with the attacks on him in the media, his mini-war with Representative Henry Gonzalez, and his eventual forced resignation. Russell interviewed him in his office in Philadelphia as the HSCA was winding down under his successor Robert Blakey in the summer of 1978. Sprague comes off as a man who went into his new job with some hopes and ideals that were eventually crushed into the ground. Again, in some respects, he comes off like Jim Garrison. Consider this comment on the media: “I feel that for some reason—and to me it’s the most fascinating part of my whole Washington experience—there is some manipulation of the press that’s successful enough that it’s not interested in a real investigation … There was a total dishonesty in the reporting of newspapers that I would otherwise have confidence in, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. This attitude by the press was most successful in taking advantage of … individual Congressmen who were manipulated such that the press could achieve a tone to kill the investigation.” And then comes the capper in this regard: ” … there is a greater ability to manipulate public opinion by certain agencies of government than I would have believed possible … . I’ve become more interested in the media than the assassination.” (pgs. 52-53) He then goes on to get specific about particular instances of this with David Burnham of the Times, and Jeremiah O’Leary of the Washington Star. (p. 52) He notes that once he was gone, Burnham was taken off the HSCA beat. Coincidence or conspiracy?
Further, Sprague believed that it was his investigation of Oswald that made him a target of the media. Sprague came to the conclusion that there was more of a connection between Oswald and the intelligence community “than has ever surfaced.” (p. 56) Two of the areas he was interested in were Oswald in Mexico City and the puzzle of why Oswald was not debriefed by the CIA on his return from Russia. And further, he was not going to sign any non-disclosure agreements with the intelligence community. (p. 55) In other words: what he saw, the public would see.. And if he had to subpoena information, he would. In other words, we were finally going to get the whole story about Oswald. Sprague is convinced it was this uncompromising attitude in this area that got him sacked. As he tells it: “Because of where I was at, and the timing of these attacks, that convinces me that the motivation came to kill me off.” Sprague has nothing but disdain for Blakey and his investigation. He calls it a “charade” and a “fiasco”. (pgs. 55. 56) And he concludes by commenting on Richard Helms and James Angleton. (p. 57) He says that he had a source who told him Helms had gotten the word to a Kennedy family member that the Kennedys should not back a reopening of the JFK case. He concludes that “Obviously Helms himself was one of the people that I ultimately wanted very much to interview. But not until I would be thoroughly prepared.” (ibid) In his comments on Angleton, he very interestingly compares him to Tony Boyle in the Jock Yablonski murder case. Boyle is the man Sprague convicted for the murder of labor leader Yablonksi.
Russell penned a well-written piece about Jim Garrison in 1976. This was an article printed in Harper’s Weekly entitled “The Vindication of Jim Garrison.” It was meant to coincide of course with the installation of the HSCA. Garrison describes a conspiracy made up of elements of the CIA, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, and parts of the Mob. (p. 97) In other words, he had Anthony Summers’ design before Summers did, and before the HSCA actually got going. From here, Russell then goes into a short narrative of the Garrison inquiry and quite properly writes, “The full story of how Garrison was hamstrung would fill a volume.” Which, we now know via declassified documents, is absolutely true. Unfortunately, no one has yet written that volume. But he does include Victor Marchetti’s discussion of CIA executive meetings in which the Agency’s attempts to torpedo Garrison were kept off the record. Comments were made that such matters would be discussed after the meeting, or “We’ll pick this up later in my office.” (p. 101) And Russell details some of the actual subterfuges, like the CIA paying for certain lawyers and the CIA cooperating with judges in not serving subpoenas. (p. 101) Again, things that we can prove today with documents.
He concludes this profile of Garrison with revelations about David Ferrie supplied by his friend Ray Broshears. He first contrasts what Broshears said to him in the seventies with what Warren Commission lawyer Wesley Liebeler told the public in 1967: Liebeler had seen the FBI file on Ferrie and he announced there was nothing to indicate Ferrie was involved in the JFK case at all. (p. 107) Yet Broshears told Russell that Ferrie called him in San Francisco shortly before his death and told him he was going to be killed. “The next thing I knew, he was dead. They said he killed himself. But he didn’t. You know it, and I know it.”(ibid) About Ferrie’s trip to Texas on the day of the assassination: “David was to meet a plane. He was going to fly them [the assassins] on to Mexico, and eventually to South Africa.” But the call Ferrie got at the skating rink told him he was not needed for that assignment. (Ibid) And finally: “He told me Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill the president. He was very adamant about it, and I believed him. All the things he told me about Oswald, I doubt he could have shot a rabbit 50 feet away.” Obviously Broshears is one of the many key witnesses Liebeler never talked to.
Another important witness, George DeMohrenschildt, agreed with Ferrie. He says Oswald was the most honest man he knew, “And I will tell you this—I am sure he did not shoot the president.” (p. 133) He also told the author that CIA station chief J. Walton Moore had cleared Oswald in advance for him to approach him. (p. 135) If he had not, he would never have spoken to him. Which, of course, tells us a lot about George DeMohrenschildt’s relations with the CIA, let alone Oswald’s. Personally, I am glad someone besides Edward Epstein has confirmed this story. The capper for me in this section on the DeMohrenschildts was a quote from his wife Jeanna: “Of course, the truth of the assassination has not come out. It will never come out. But we know it was a vast conspiracy.” (p. 135) Recall, this is the couple that originally did the Warren Commissions’ bidding by caricaturing Oswald mercilessly in their testimony as doing things like shooting off his rifle in public parks. Evidently, they later came to feel guilty about what they had been made to do.
Chapter 33 chronicles the famous meeting in the Bahamas in 1995 between employees of Castro’s G-2—including Fabian Escalante—and some selected Kennedy researchers. Also on hand were Arturo Rodriguez and Carlos Lechuga. Russell summarizes some important findings presented by Escalante. First, they had verified from their end that Maurice Bishop was David Phillips. Second, they had an informant in Eladio del Valle’s organization in 1962 who said del Valle had told him that Kennedy had to be killed to solve the Cuban problem. (As an aside here, Russell adds that Nagell told him that one of the two Cuban exiles manipulating Oswald was linked to del Valle.) Third, Escalante has become convinced that what caused the exiles to act was that word had leaked out about the Attwood/Lechuga talks authorized by JFK to create a détente between the US and Cuba. Fourth, Escalante confirmed that the Daniel Harker story used by David Phillips, Gus Russo and others to lend some credence to the Castro did it angle was a distortion. He says that what Castro actually uttered was “American leaders should be careful because the anti-Castro operations were something nobody could control.”
Finally, Escalante said that Phillips had arranged to have letters addressed to Oswald from Cuba. And he showed these in a slideshow. There were five of them: two from before the assassination, three from afterwards. One of the letters, intercepted by G-2, was dated November 14th and addressed to Oswald at a hotel in Miami where he was never at. Arturo Rodriguez concluded that the text was of a conspiratorial character and that all of the letters were written by the same person, “as part of a plan to blame our country for the assassination.” (p. 223) This would be the provocation for the invasion of Cuba, which—despite the claims of Lamar Waldron—Kennedy never authorized.
I should conclude this review with a discussion of Chapter 34 where Russell adds some new information on Nagell. In 1967, Nagell had written Warren Commissioner Richard Russell about being assigned by the KGB to initiate certain action against Oswald, who was the “indispensable tool in the conspiracy”. (p. 225) That is, the Soviets had found out about a plot to kill Kennedy. Fearing they would be blamed for the murder, they hired Nagell to infiltrate the plot and stop it. A book published in 2007 by a former Romanian intelligence officer notes that in the spring of 1963 just such action was requested by a KGB Chief named General Ivan Fadeykin: that is, the search for an agent to neutralize Oswald.
A second interesting development is support of Nagell’s testimony is this: Nagell wrote a friend of his that his intelligence work in 1962-63 was to be paid for through American Express. And, in fact, during his trial, the prosecution objected to any mention of American Express. Why? Well, when Oswald handed a note to Lt. Francis Martello in New Orleans, in the margin was the espionage number of Michael Jelisavcic. Who was this Jelisavcic? He was a CIA asset stationed with American Express in Moscow at the time of Oswald’s defection. The FBI was aware of this fact. Hoover wrote a note to an agent in New York that in any interview of Jelisavcic, he should be closely questioned about his name and phone number being in the address book of Oswald.