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Thom Hartmann's book on the JFK Assassination

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I have a lot of respect for Thom Hartmann. I'm a regular listener of his radio program. But I'm unable to reconcile his contribution to the book Ultimate Sacrifice (by Lamar Waldron with Thom Hartmann, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2005), which lays exclusive blame for the JFK assassination on members of the Mafia. I know nothing about the principal author, Lamar Waldron, but I'm disappointed in Hartmann for supporting the book's conclusions.

Ultimate Sacrifice provides thorough documentation of the Mafia's collaboration with the CIA on various plots, assassinations, and acts of sabotage against Cuba. Maybe better than any other source, it details a long-classified Kennedy Administration plan to kill Castro and install a US-friendly regime in his place. And it gives extensive coverage of the activities of the intelligence agents, informants, Cuban Exiles, and Mafia figures in and around the JFK assassination. But the authors' allegation that three Mafia families (with some help from Jimmy Hoffa) killed JFK without substantial involvement of elements of the US government is naïve, and detrimental to our long-term national interest in a legal and responsible government.

In explaining away our government's role in the JFK assassination there has always been a dilemma. If it's maintained that elements of the US government and powerful interests behind the government weren't involved in the assassination, either the lone gunman theory has to be defended (always a circus), or some compelling reasons have to be found for the cover-up of conspiracy. In opting for the latter, the authors have satisfied themselves with the discovery of various personal intrigues and secondary conspiracies. The centerpiece of Ultimate Sacrifice is the story of a Kennedy Administration plan for a "palace coup" in Cuba, including US military assistance - massive if need be - to guarantee success in overthrowing the Castro government. The authors argue that the involvement of the Mafia in the plan provided a cover for their conspiracy to kill JFK, and that issues of national security and policy, including protection of the plan, discouraged an in-depth investigation of the assassination.

But think about it: The authors claim that the US was prepared to engineer and support a coup against Castro with whatever military force might be necessary, but was supposedly concerned that the plan, if revealed, even after it was abandoned, would constitute a terrible threat to national security, and might even bring about a nuclear war with the USSR. This is so illogical that only a parochial American perspective could account for it. First, the use of force is obviously more provocative than a revelation of an unused plan to use force. Second, the existence of US plans, not to mention operations to overthrow the Castro regime may have been a secret to the American public, but it was hardly breaking news to Cuba and the USSR.

It's not just that the protection of the plan as an option is alleged to have led to a cover-up and obstructed the investigation of the conspiracy. The plan was quickly abandoned after JFK was gone and RFK was marginalized, but its continued suppression even up to the present time has supposedly been considered more important than bringing conspirators to justice for the murder of a President.

A secondary reason the authors give for the cover-up of the conspiracy and obstruction of justice for the high crime of JFK's assassination was the avoidance of embarrassment to various government agencies. Certainly, embarrassment would be the lot (at the very least) of those who were responsible for keeping the President safe but failed to do so out of incompetence or dereliction. But for embarrassment to be a prevailing factor in a cover-up there would have to have been no one in the various chains of command who was both beyond reproach and seriously disturbed about the murder of a President. Anyone beyond blame who was committed to accountability and justice, in a government innocent of the crime, would only be elevated, both morally and professionally, by insisting on full disclosure and punishment. The Director of the CIA John McCone, for one, who had been deceived about various CIA-Mafia collaborations, and also, no doubt, about CIA involvement in the JFK assassination, would hardly have been more concerned about his agency's embarrassment than about uncovering those who had deceived and betrayed him.

Another motive offered by the authors for the cover-up was protection of national intelligence secrets, agents, and informants. But investigations and prosecutions can and do regularly proceed with whatever safeguards are considered necessary. Closed-door sessions and presentations of evidence are a common and accepted remedy when national security is involved. The Warren Commission and the Congressional investigation of the assassination both used closed doors, without repercussions. And in fact the prosecution of Jack Ruby went ahead without public disclosure of his intimate ties with the Mafia. The government could have gone after the Mafia, and concealed any sensitive evidence at the same time; in the event, they chose only to destroy or bury the evidence. All this is fairly obvious. Frankly, one has to be in psychological denial to believe that a legitimate concern for secrets would preclude justice for a murdered President, and punishment for those involved in the treasonous act.

The implication of the theory offered in Ultimate Sacrifice is that any crime could be committed, even assassination of a President, so long as certain complications can be contrived. (Are you involved in law enforcement? A member or asset of an intelligence service? Under surveillance by a national security agency? Have some important dirt on someone or some several at the top? Hate the President? Got a patsy lined up? What's holding you back?)

Ultimate Sacrifice is a story with one overriding theme. The Kennedy Administration plot to overthrow Castro is regarded as the principle determining virtually everything that happened, before, during, and after the JFK assassination. The authors' interpretation of the reason for the falsification of the autopsy is a good example. RFK's interference to limit the scope of the autopsy is attributed to his desire to preserve the anti-Castro plot by ensuring that there would be a single shooter to blame, so no one involved in both the plot and the assassination would be implicated or discovered by a thorough investigation. Aside from the absurdity of RFK being more concerned about his pet conspiracy than exposing the conspiracy that killed his brother, there is an entirely reasonable alternative explanation for RFK's behavior: The Kennedy family didn't want the autopsy to uncover JFK's serious medical problems - problems so serious he shouldn't have even been a candidate for President, and shouldn't have been supported by those who knew of his conditions. Just hours after the assassination, when a conspiracy to falsify the autopsy to protect the conspirators couldn't have been suspected, when the significance of the nature and location of the wounds couldn't have been anticipated, the Kennedy family's desire to protect the President's legacy and avoid exposure of their own culpability by limiting the scope of the autopsy to the immediate cause of death is understandable; an overriding urge to preserve a plot against Castro, and in effect, to protect JFK's killers, is not.

The authors are right to finger the Mafia and the Cuban Exiles as participants in JFK's assassination. Clearly, they had motives to kill him and important roles in the conspiracy. The Mafia was being aggressively prosecuted by the Kennedy Administration. The Exiles felt betrayed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and by the tightening restrictions and controls being put on their anti-Castro activities. But they would have been foolish to kill the President without support of powerful interests in and behind the US government. And they would have been unable to engineer the preconditions and the cover-up without help from those on the inside.

(I've recently been informed of a film clip on YouTube entitled "JFK Assassination: Secret Service Stand down" showing Secret Service agents being waved off the back of the Kennedy limo as it left the airport for the parade through Dallas. There has been extensive documentation published elsewhere of government involvement in the assassination, but this clip may be the most blatant and graphic evidence. See also "AMBUSH! How the Secret Service set up JFK" and "JFK's Head Wound", and "Who Killed JFK: The altered medical evidence" - all on YouTube.)

It's not easy, emotionally, to confront the possibility, and then the overwhelming evidence, that members of our own government would conspire to kill our President. Waldron and Hartmann evidently found it prohibitive. Agencies of the US government are portrayed as unintentionally and clumsily facilitating the murder and escape from justice, as when "someone, probably a Secret Service agent, starts scrubbing the blood off the President's limo, unintentionally removing what would have been crucial evidence" (p728). (Presumably, the complete destruction of the limo is to be considered unintentional too.) In a footnote they state: "We do not believe the CIA as an organization killed JFK, or that it was the work of a large clique inside the CIA. More than anything, the CIA's decades-long, organizational cover-up was designed to hide intelligence failures and protect reputations, under the guise of protecting those involved in [the anti-Castro plot]" (p59). Although they recognize that "the CIA was assuming a leading role in the [anti-Castro] assassination and coup plots" (p390), and they acknowledge that the CIA often used assassins recruited from the underworld, and even used the Mafia to assassinate Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (pp395-396), the same modus is somehow considered unthinkable within our borders, against our leaders. They presume that the Mafia initiated the plan to kill JFK, not that they were enlisted to help do so, as in the combined anti-Castro plots. They presume that agents and informants in contact with both the Mafia and CIA were answering to the Mafia, never to the CIA. They reach loose and easy conclusions, as in the belief that the government altered the autopsy because they needed time to formulate a response to the conspiracy - overlooking the problem that a falsified autopsy can't be undone if a massive response is to be justified, and all that would actually be needed to buy time would be a suppression of details about the wounds.

With regard to Oswald, the authors reach for the idea that he was being monitored by US intelligence in case the KGB would try to recruit him, rather than describe him as being supervised as a low-level operative and potential patsy. Between "monitored" and "supervised" there's a subtle but important distinction, and in effect, exoneration for the government. The authors' account requires that the circumstances leading to Oswald's positioning at the book depository (done without Mafia involvement) is ignored, and it's necessary to regard the KGB (much like the CIA) as organizationally inept, which they had to be if they hadn't already identified Oswald as a US agent when he was in the USSR, hadn't attempted to recruit him there, and had fallen for the obvious ruse of his act as a pro-Castro activist. Without these flights of credulity and more, the authors' only alternative would be to recognize Oswald as a fall-guy for conspirators in the US government as well as the Mafia.

The US government is consistently regarded in the best possible light, guilty at most of bumbling and blushing. The authors acknowledge that rogue elements in the CIA were continuing to work with the Mafia, against the directive of the Kennedy Administration, and (astonishingly) without the knowledge of the Director of the CIA. But careerist elements in the CIA would have no motive to risk their jobs, defying their superiors by maintaining conspiracies with the Mafia, unless they had powerful friends higher up in US circles of power directing them to do so. And the CIA at the top wouldn't fail to discover the betrayal after the fact, and retaliate, if powerful forces, more powerful than the CIA, and certainly more powerful than the Mafia, weren't involved. As it happened, the highest of the rogues, Deputy Director Richard Helms, wasn't punished, he was promoted.

The authors seem to embrace, at least in regard to the JFK assassination, the Autonomous Actor view of history, seemingly unconscious of backstage political forces and interests. The Kennedys, as if they were two impervious individuals, are considered to have had a personal grudge against the Mafia, and a passionate desire to bring "freedom" to Cuba. RFK, in particular, is treated as if he had a heroic compulsion to remove the Castro regime at all costs, and was "devastated" when the plan was abandoned by LBJ. Nixon, the recent Vice President, whose "pressure ... in 1960 must have been extreme for the CIA to have dealt directly with the mob bosses" (p388), had some seemingly personal idiosyncrasy egging at him, a persuasive enough explanation in the authors' opinions to account for elements of the CIA conspiring with the Mafia - allegedly against their will, but with enough resolve to defy and deceive, in the new Administration, their Director, the Attorney General, and the President. Three Mafia chieftains are considered to have decided among themselves to kill the President, as if such an eccentric act wouldn't result in an all-out nationwide pogrom against the Mob. And LBJ, apparently alone, and as if on a whim, is said to have shut down the Kennedys' anti-Castro plot soon after becoming President.

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of (more...)

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