Tag Archives: CIA

Intended Talk to COPA by Anthony Summers: Where the JFK Case Sits 11/22/2013

Dallas talk for COPA….November 22, ’13…..from Anthony Summers
(did not go ahead, because of technical problems)

Greetings from Ireland. You in Dallas have experienced an extraordinary couple of days, again. I thank John Judge for his invitation.

Let me say now that I am well aware that this group embraces people with widely divergent views – many no doubt far, far from my own. My intention tonight, as you wind up the program of the day, is to offer some new information but no great sensation. Merely, on this fiftieth milestone day to assess where the case sits in 2013 – as I see it after my own reporting. What I say may seem conservative. And if it does, then that may not be such a bad idea.

Fifty years…To many in the wider public, by now, our subject is too far in the past to matter – or an entertainment.

It wasn’t, of course and never should have become that.

One could start worse than with the words of Jacqueline Kennedy, as she recalled the moment of the assassination – just a week after it occurred, in an interview for Life magazine. What she said was suppressed for years, deemed too raw to be published. You may know what she said, but I read it now because – even now – it takes us back with a jolt:

Mrs. Kennedy said: “You know, when he was shot, he had such a wonderful expression on his face…[Then] he looked puzzled…he had his hand out. I could see a piece of his skull coming off. It was flesh-coloured, not white. He was holding out his hand – and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from his head…”

As the presidential limousine gathered speed, Mrs. Kennedy believed she cried:
“I love you, Jack…I kept saying, ‘Jack, Jack, Jack’…All the ride to the
hospital, I kept bending over him saying, ‘Jack, Jack, can you hear me? I love you, Jack.’ I kept holding the top of his head down, trying to keep the…”
She could not finish the sentence.

What happened on November 22, 1963 was brutally brief. The findings of the two official enquiries have been reiterated ad nauseam. The Warren Commission’s version – the one the mainstream media has always favored (without really paying attention to the second investigation or thinking out of the box) had the murder committed by former Marine Oswald, a recently returned defector to the then Soviet Union, a leftwinger who had lately seemed to be an activist on behalf of Castro’s Cuba.

Oswald had got off three shots, as the Commission had it, in between about 5 seconds and rather less than eight seconds (depending on which shots hit and which may have missed). He had then run for it, and soon after killed Officer Tippit. The Commission had it that Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald two days later, had “no significant link” to the Mafia.

In 1979, the House Committee on Assassinations would show conclusively that, to the contrary, Ruby in fact had links to organized crime from his youth until just before the assassination. The Committee would also find links between Oswald’s family and organized crime.

The way the Committee saw it, on its reading of all the evidence, physical, acoustics, and the human testimony was – just as had the Commission – that Oswald was an assassin. It also thought, however, that another – unknown – gunman – had probably fired at the President on November 22 – from in front.

There had thus – that unfortunate word “probably” – probably been a conspiracy.

The Committee suspected the Mob, but could pin nothing on Mafia leaders. And, though you had to look harder for that than you did for the suspicions about organised crime, the murkier parts of the anti-Castro movement.

The bulk of the U.S. media, however, virtually ignored the congressional finding of probable conspiracy. There was no clamor for action. Barely a soul noticed when the Justice Department failed to follow through as the Committee had recommended. Although the Committee’s former Chief Counsel Robert Blakey has said – quite seriously – that he believed that back then around 1980 – a tough investigation could have brought conspirators to trial.

With one official probe saying Oswald did it alone and another pointing to conspiracy, it is not a bit surprising that the American public’s skepticism has never gone away. Some 60 % of those Americans polled in a study this year believe there was a conspiracy.

On the other hand, it would be fatuous to think now – has been for decades – that anyone official is going to do anything about it. To think otherwise is to yodel in the wilderness.

And yet. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, has just said publicly that he has “serious doubts” Oswald acted alone.

The New Yorker two days ran a lengthy piece by John Cassidy. He wrote:
“There’s a substantive reason why the doubters survive: the official version of events begs questions; in some aspects, it beggars belief….Questioning the official version of history is a sign of democratic vigor.”
Yes, it is.
My book on the case was first published three decades ago as Conspiracy, a title deriving – at my publisher’s insistence, and over my strenuous objections – from the House Committee’s conclusion.…I thought I’d be labelled a “conspiracy theorist”, a fate worse than “reputation death” for a journalist who takes his work seriously. Mysteriously, however, I got away with it, and most of the mainstream press – even the ever-nose-in-the-air New York Times, for godsake, welcomed the book.

A couple of editions later, when I updated the book, a new publisher agreed to the title it now carries – Not in Your Lifetime. I took this new title from the answer Chief Justice Warren gave in 1964 when asked if all the investigation’s information would be made public. He replied: “Yes, there will come a time. But it might not be in your lifetime. I am not referring to anything especially, but there may be some things that involve security. This would be preserved but not made public.”

Warren was thinking, he said, of stays by the alleged assassin in the Soviet Union and Mexico, and there may indeed have been national security ramifications at that time.

Since then, of course, and against the wishes of some federal agencies, millions of pages of documents have been released – thanks to the JFK Records Act. Not that, fifty years on, we yet have it all. Some Army Intelligence and Secret Service records have been destroyed. There are questions as to the whereabouts of some Naval Intelligence material. The Central Intelligence Agency – the CIA – is withholding 1,171 documents as “national security classified.” “I think.” former Assassinations Committee chief counsel Blakey has said, “the Agency is playing the Archives.”

If anything has kept me going this year, when I’ve produced a new, updated edition of my book, it’s the challenge presented by those continued withholdings. I’ve dropped a lot of material that seems to me surplus to requirements, or is never going to go anywhere, brought what I’ve sustained up to date, and considered what we have left.

I think the one thing anyone seriously focused on this case knows is that – after all this time and effort by so many people – all we know is that much remains unknown.

A primary reason I’ve kept working on the case,, when I should perhaps have known better, is what I learned at the outset about the press coverage of the case. It was shamefully delinquent at the time and has stayed delinquent. If you’re kind enough to read the new edition of my book, which I believe may be available at the door, take a look at how very rarely, in some hundred pages of Notes at the end, I quote from major media sources. I quote them hardly at all because…few reporters did any real work.

I have as little patience with the bogus experts who have wasted time and distracted attention from the real issues – or the Hollywood distortions. Really early on, when I was working as a young journalist at the BBC in London, I had the unpleasant experience of seeing Mark Lane, heady no doubt with the hoohhah about his book Rush to Judgement, cause an unjustifable public furore and flounce out of a television studio. It was grandstanding, made no point, achieved nothing – except to make doubt look disreputable.

Oliver Stone, with his immensely successful movie JFK, used distorted information to lead a whole generation to think the assassination was somehow connected to the Vietnam War and “the military-industrial complex.” He said the assassination was “sacred history” to which one had to be faithful, or words to that effect, while maintaining that he had artistic license to make the film as he wished. You can’t have it both ways – though Stone and I have since become friends.

The further glorification Stone gave to former District Attorney Jim Garrison, moreover, troubled me. Garrison made a circus out of a crucial evidence scene, New Orleans, and I think set serious research back years and years. When I finally met him, in the late 1970s, he behaved as though we were in the middle of a very bad spy movie – and asked me to meet him in a sauna bath. To the extent that a reporter comes to a conclusion about an interviewee on the basis – to a degree – of instinct – I thought him quite seriously unstable.

There are the time-wasters and gossip merchants – I’m thinking of the “a-Secret-Service-agent-did-it” notion. Or: “It was LBJ”. And of course the complete nutcases. Some of the more extreme theories reposing in the Loonies file in our office, include:

* A letter on the grand notepaper of the “Institute of Moral and Political Law,” advising that “the JFK mystery is solved!” The assassin, you see, was George Bush Sr.!

* A missive enclosing photos “proving” that there had been a small dog in the limousine with the President on the day he died. The pooch was somehow involved in the murder plot!

* An initially sane-sounding letter that closes with an offer to prove that JFK was not killed, merely “removed from office.” Crouched down on the floor, he escaped the bullets….
Back in the real world, what of the actual evidence in the case? You don’t have to be a lunatic or a “conspiracy theorist” to harbour multiple questions about the evidence the Warren Commission handed down as certainties. Millions now know, largely thanks to people like you, how badly the autopsy and the ballistics evidence was handled. One would hope, I think, that a homeless person’s autopsy would be handled better than was John Kennedy’s.

A lot of people – I watch it on the Internet – still give serious time and debate time to the studying the wounds, the trajectories, the bullet fragments – and all that. I admire some of those who work in that area, but I long since distanced myself. Nothing is ever going to be proved one way or the other about the physical side of the evidence. It’s vaguely satisfying to those who oppose the Warren account, I suppose, that the Livermore National Laboratory, no less, in 2007, cast new doubt on the Single Bullet Theory. But I think we should accept that the physical evidence area is now what the lawyers call a non liquet – something that can never be resolved for certain. Better, now, to look elsewhere.

Fingerprint evidence can of course be crucial, and Oswald’s prints were found on book cartons near the window from which he allegedly fired. Yet that proved nothing. As an employee, the alleged assassin had been legitimately working in that very area.

What, though, of the palm-print found on one of the boxes, one never identified? Whose was that? We don’t know, not least because – in a ludicrous oversight – not all those who worked in the building were fingerprinted. Why not? Because, after Oswald had been arrested, the building superintendent asked that the fingerprinting process be halted. Incredibly, law enforcement officials obliged.

There is, as you know, much more. The possibility, for example, that Oswald was not on the infamous Sixth Floor at the time shots were fired. He claimed he had been in a downstairs lunchroom at the time, and there were witnesses who appeared to support his story.

One of them, whom I believe I interviewed for the first time, Caroline Arnold, the secretary to a senior executive in the building. She told me she saw Oswald in the lunchroom at 12.15 p.m. or perhaps as late as 12.25 p.m. I found her credible and have had no cause to change my mind. Had the motorcade been on time – in fact it ran five minutes late and went by at 12.30 – the President would have passed the building at 12:25.

Would a would-be assassin who planned to kill the President have been sitting around downstairs as late as 12:15, or anything after that?

There is something else that’s toweringly important. The cliché is that murderers should have “motive, means and opportunity.” Well, Oswald had the opportunity and he had the means – a rifle. But, motive? The Commission never figured out a satisfactory motive for Oswald. The overall testimony was that he rather liked the President, and there is not a jot of even half reliable evidence that he loathed him – let alone wished to do away with him.

Could Oswald have been, as he claimed, a “patsy” – set up to take the blame? His behavior that day sure leaves it highly likely he was guilty of something, but it is not at all evidence that means that he killed the President.

Any serious look at the case involves disentangling the threads that run through Oswald’s activity in the months and years before the assassination:

* The clandestine operations of U.S. intelligence.

* And the Cuba factor.

In a talk like this, I can only sketch in the outlines of the intelligence angle. Consider, though, Oswald’s three-year defection to the Soviet Union and his return the year before the assassination. This was a former U.S. Marine who had had access – at the height of the Cold War – to information on the operations of the U-2 spy plane. On defecting, he had said openly that he had undertaken to give the Soviets what he knew. This was a self-declared would-be traitor. Would you not think that, on returning to the United States, Oswald would have been – at a minimum – severely interrogated?

The official line, however, has been that Oswald was allowed to return home and melt back into life as a law-abiding citizen. It doesn’t wash, and snippets of evidence indicate otherwise. There’s that CIA document, long withheld in its full version, that shows officials discussed “the laying on of interviews” on his return. A senior member of the Soviet Russia Division wrote that his department “had an OI [that’s Operational Intelligence] in Oswald.”

Here, briefly, a speculation – and I try in my book to speculate very little. Were this leftwing defector-cum-traitor – think, somewhat, a sort of junior league Edward Snowden – interrogated on his return, he may have been given options. “You’re a traitor,” subject to a lengthy stay in jail.” Or, perhaps, “You’re a traitor, and you could go to jail. Or you could perhaps be useful to us. Maintain your leftwing stance, and we may get you to do things for us.”

Back to the facts. Oswald did return to civilian life, did go back to his focus on socialist activity – and especially on Communist Cuba. Remember the date he returned. This was shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The armed standoff – and the propaganda war – between the United States and the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba was at its most tense.

Oswald joined the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee, went to New Orleans – the city of his birth – and ostensibly went about setting up a local branch of Fair Play for Cuba there. I say “ostensibly” because there are indications that it was all a charade. He reported a clash in the street with some anti-Castro Cuban exiles a week before it actually occurred. Stuff like that just won’t go away. When it did occur, and Oswald was arrested for disturbing the peace, two police officers got the impression there was some sort of “set up,” that Oswald was “being used.”

Used, used by whom? The files show that the Fair Play for Cuba Committee was being targeted, bugged and infiltrated, by the FBI. The anti-Castro group with which Oswald “clashed,” moreover – the DRE – was being run by the CIA as part of the secret war against Cuba, a war that involved both armed raids on Cuba by armed exile fighters and complex propaganda operations.

We know the anti-Castro group that had the supposed clash with Oswald reported back to a CIA case officer. I obtained an interview with a former paid tool of the FBI, Joseph Burton – the Bureau described him as a “valuable and reliable source” – whose job back then was to pose as a Marxist and infiltrate radical groups. He said Oswald had been “connected with the FBI”…that FBI agents had spoken of “owning” Oswald.”

The FBI and the CIA, often historically at loggerheads, were cooperating to an unusual extent at this time. In September, 1963, a CIA officer and a senior FBI official met to discuss new plans for action against the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee. The CIA “advised that it was “giving some consideration to countering the activities of [the Committee] in foreign countries”…..and giving thought to planting deceptive information which might embarrass the Committee.”

The day after that memo was written, Oswald applied for a Tourist Card for a visit to Mexico. A new passport had been issued to him within twenty-four hours – even though his application stated he might wish to return to the Soviet Union. Funny that, you may think – given Oswald‘s background as a defector and traitor.

Oswald did go to Mexico City, and his six-day visit remains one of the most mysterious – yet telltale – episodes of the entire story. It makes for a fresh chapter in the new edition of my book – though here we must zip past it in a couple of minutes. Oswald’s ostensible purpose in Mexico, of course, was to go to the Cuban and Soviet embassies – armed with his credentials as a pro-Castro activist – to try to get a visa for travel to Cuba. He failed. The Cubans – I went to Mexico and Cuba and talked to relevant witnesses – suspected he might well be a CIA agent provocateur.

The signs are that the CIA did indeed hope to use Oswald, wittingly or unwittingly, as a cog in its covert anti-Castro operations. I say perhaps unwittingly, for there are indications that an Agency impostor used Oswald’s identity in Mexico City. The House Assassinations Committee took the possibility seriously – and separate information, nothing to do with Oswald, establishes that the use of impostors by the CIA was a common ploy. “A standard operation was to impersonate Americans in telephone contact with the Soviet Embassy,” said Jeremy Gunn, the former Executive Director of the Assassinations Records Review Board.
More important – and this is more stuff that just won’t go away – is the tangle of information that arose from the CIA’s photographic and audio surveillance of the Communist embassies. Both the Cuban and Soviet embassies were covered by cameras monitoring comings and goings. CIA microphones were planted inside the Cuban embassy, especially, and telephone calls were all bugged.

Two of the calls Oswald supposedly made to the Soviet Embassy appear not to have been made by the real Oswald. Could one not establish whether that is so by comparing the voice on the tape with the known voice of the authentic Oswald? A good specimen was available, a recent broadcast he had done in connection with his pro-Castro activity in New Orleans.

Well no, said the CIA. It claimed the Mexico surveillance tapes had been “routinely” wiped weeks before the assassination – because, it claimed, Oswald had supposedly, been of no interest at the time.
Except, we now know from the draft memoir left behind by the then CIA station chief in Mexico City, Winston Scott, that – in his words – Oswald “had been a person of great interest to us” during his visit. “We kept a special watch” on him.
Except, too, that we now know the tapes were not routinely wiped before the assassination. Senior Warren Commission counsel William Coleman and his fellow Commission attorney David Slawson, and – in his retirement – the CIA station chief’s deputy, all told me that they listened to Oswald’s tape-recorded voice in April 1964 months after the assassination. What became of the recording – and indeed of the photographs that must have been snapped of Oswald on one of a total of five visits to the Communist embassies?

The CIA has offered no satisfactory answer. We do know, though, that – when Station Chief Scott died some years afterwards – CIA Counterintelligence’s James Angelton flew down to Mexico within hours, searched through the deceased man’s belongings, seized Scott’s draft memoir and what has been described as a stack of reel-to-reel tapes labelled “Oswald,” and ordered that they be flown to headquarters in Washington. Though some of the memoir has since been returned to the station chief’s next of kin, it appears that the other material was disposed of under a CIA “destruction order.”

There is still , meanwhile, the extraordinary episode that has been called the “Rosetta Stone” of the case, which probably occurred when the authentic Oswald was on his way from Mexico to Dallas, where he was to spend the few remaining weeks before the assassination. I refer to the testimony of the Odio sisters, Cuban exiles Silvia and Annie. I know, I know, this is a hoary old angle. But it is as central to the case as ever it was. The sisters were visited by a trio of men who said they were anti-Castro militants. Two of them, Hispanics, introduced their companion, an American who – the sisters would insist after the assassination looked just like Oswald – as “Oswald,” “Leon Oswald.”

Later, in what seemed to be a very deliberate way, the leader of the group would say Oswald was an “ex-Marine…an expert marksman…” who said “we should have shot Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs…should have done something like that.”

This posed a problem for the Warren Commission probe into the assassination – one that never was resolved. Commission attorneys took the view that the Odio women were excellent, credible witnesses and that their account seemed truthful. (I obtained what I believe were the first independent interviews with them – and I share that view.) Silvia and Annie’s account, of course, suggests that there was an attempt to set Oswald up – just weeks before the assassination – as a would-be presidential assassin.

Today, there is more. In the attempts to establish who the two Hispanics who had accompanied this “Oswald” had been, investigators took statements from a man who initially led them down a false trail – offering what Congress’ Committee called a “fabrication.” That man, a fellow named Loran Hall, alias Pascillo, had served in the U.S. Army, reportedly trained in counter-intelligence, was indeed involved with the anti-Castro campaign in the New Orleans area, and – earlier – had worked for Mafia boss Santo Trafficante.

Trafficante was one of the two Mafia bosses who has been linked repeatedly to the assassination of the President.

Which brings us to the issue of motive and – if Oswald didn’t kill the President, or at any rate didn’t do it on his own – Whodunnit?

Who might have had a motive to kill Kennedy? Though Oswald had lived for quite a long period in Russia, and though available information makes it clear that Soviet intelligence took a real interest in him while he was there, no serious observer considers the Soviets desired the President’s death or had any part in the assassination.

The theory that Castro’s Cuba was behind the tragedy has received serious attention over the years – not least, recently, in the context of the possibility that Castro learned of CIA efforts to kill him – and struck first. The so-called supporting evidence for such a theory, however, is flimsy. Militating against it is the fact that – had Washington discovered Cuba had a hand in the assassination – U.S. retaliation could have been expected to be devastating, would have swept the Castro revolution away once and for all.

Of the plausible suspects, that leaves the anti-Castro exiles, Mafia bosses – and, I don’t reject the possibility, elements within the CIA. There is no inherent conflict in lumping those three groups together. All three were committed to the fight against Castro – the Mafia because the Revolution had robbed them of a gambling and hotel goldmine, the anti-Castro people and their CIA backers for obvious reasons. Many anti-Castro fighters loathed Kennedy with a passion because of the way they considered he had betrayed their cause at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, by the way he resolved the Missile Crisis and by his subsequent clampdown on their activity. Mafia bosses, notably Trafficante and New Orleans’ Carlos Marcello, hated the President – and had even allegedly threatened to kill him – because the Kennedy administration was conducting an unprecedented onslaught on organized crime. If the anti-Castro groups and the Mob bosses plotted to kill Kennedy, seeing to it that the crime was blamed on a pro-Castro activist would have seemed a masterstroke.

After all this – and we’ve only scratched the surface – the endgame.
Have there been plausible admissions?

I call the final chapter of my book “Hints and Deceptions.” On this 50th anniversary, you may have heard discussion of admissions Mafia bosses Trafficante and Carlos Marcello supposedly made in old age. I’ve looked hard at those stories, and the alleged confession stories turn out to be really questionable.

I set much more store by other apparent admissions, some of them gleaned from my own interviewing. One has been around for a long time. Trafficante associate John Martino should be high on any suspect list. His connection with the Mafia boss aside, he had worked in a casino in Cuba before the revolution, had done time in a Castro jail, worked on both the military and propaganda campaign to topple Castro afterward – and was amongst those who spun tales after the assassination about Oswald’s alleged links to the Cuban regime.

Martino’s wife Florence told me her husband spoke of an imminent assassination attempt on the morning of November 22, hours before it took place. According to her and the couple’s son Edward, the news from Dallas – when it came – seemed “more like confirmation.” Much later, when he was dying of heart disease, Martino told an associate – whom I also interviewed – that he had been “part of” the assassination.

Martino said: “The anti-Castro people put Oswald together. Oswald didn’t know who he was working for….Oswald made a mistake….They had Ruby kill him.”

And he referred to a second gunman who had been involved, a “Cuban” who had been “the other trigger.”

In 2007, in the company of former Assassinations Committee chief counsel Professor Blakey, I visited Miami to speak with a Cuban no one had heard of before. The man, who was in his eighties, had made contact saying there was something he wanted to get off his chest before he died. What he had to say is, in Blakey’s view, “a breakthrough of historical importance.” I’ve put it on the record in the new edition of my book.

While in a Castro prison in the mid-1960s – on a minor charge involving illegal currency offenses – the man said – he learned that an anti-Castro fighter he had known well since their student days, had spoken of his “participacion” – participation – in the assassination of the President.

The fighter’s name was Herminio Diaz. He had worked in one of Mafia boss Trafficante’s casinos, and is listed in CIA files. It is a matter of record that he had had in the past shot dead a former Cuban chief of police, had tried to kill the President of Costa Rica, and had plotted to kill the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He was a crack marksman, a known assassin – and he was in the United States in 1963.

After fifty years, this may be the first plausible identification of an unknown gunman who perhaps fired at President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

In the fog of remaining knowns and unknowns, now and then, are the elements that could perhaps tell us whether and how Oswald – the very public pro-Castro Marxist – may have been set up to take the blame. Just visible in the thick of the evidence are the outlines of what may have happened.

In New Orleans, there was the anti-Castro group that had clashed with “pro-Castro” Oswald in that charade of a confrontation. That group was funded and supervised by the CIA – a fact that the CIA failed to reveal to the Warren Commission.
In Mexico City was senior CIA officer David Phillips – he had previously been the CIA’s man in Havana – running anti-Castro propaganda (with oversight over the operations in New Orleans) and in charge of the surveillance operations against the Cuban and Soviet embassies during Oswald’s visit. Phillips may have been one and the same as “Maurice Bishop”, an intelligence officer who – after the assassination – sought to fabricate information linking Oswald to the Castro Cubans.

There’s new information on the Phillips/ “Bishop” issue. This year, while I was preparing my book, former Clandestine Services officer Glenn Carle told us he asked Phillips whether he had been “Bishop”. “Phillips’ reaction,” Carle said, was to acknowledge that he was the man in question…but he did not explicitly confirm to me that he had done what he was accused of doing: meeting with Oswald. He avoided discussing this point.”
How to interpret it all?

Did Oswald shoot the President off his own bat, without any known motive, as the official account claimed? Did U.S. intelligence officers use Oswald as a minor cog in a covert anti-Castro propaganda scheme – one that had nothing whatsoever to do with the assassination – then, to avoid exposure, rush to cover up after November 22nd – with the effect of making themselves appear to have something far more serious to conceal? Did the anti-Castro people kill Kennedy without the knowledge of their CIA handlers, seeking to make the pro-Castro Oswald take the fall?

After all the work and all the years, I do not pretend to know the answer.

What is clear, though, is that elements of the truth have been kept secret, are being kept secret still – not least by the CIA. It has emerged that George Joannides, the officer brought in from retirement to liaise with Congress’ Assassinations Committee, to decide what Agency documents investigators could and could not see, was none other – though the CIA concealed this from the Committee – than the very CIA officer who, in 1963, had been case officer to the DRE, the anti-Castro group that had the purported clash with Oswald in New Orleans!
This was a gross deception. One that former chief counsel Blakey has called “criminal…a wilful obstruction of justice…I no longer believe anything the Agency told us.” Professor Anna Nelson, who served on the Assassination Records Review Board, has suggested there be a congressional probe of “the CIA’s alleged corruption of its inquiry into the Kennedy assassination.”

Don’t hold your breath.

A drunk, cynical stage character, in Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh, says, “To hell with the truth…As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything.”

In fact, of course, history is very, very relevant – and getting to the truth about the assassination of President Kennedy has mattered greatly.

That said, it is very late now, probably too late, to be able to take the case much further. I leave the last word – ironically enough – to a former Warren Commission counsel – he later became a judge – Burt Griffin. He felt “betrayed,” he told, because the CIA – and the FBI – deliberately misled us….Consider the possible reality that under the American system of civil liberties and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it is virtually impossible to prosecute or uncover a well-conceived and well-executed conspiracy.”

There is a further moral to draw from that quote. I first cited it in the original edition of my book, in 1980. We have moved forward a snail’s pace or two since then. Not much, but history matters!

Thank you all for listening, and the very best from Ireland.


Filed under General

Lee Harvey Oswald: A Simple Defector?

By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

In December 1958, Lee Harvey Oswald – U.S. Marine and putative assassin of John F. Kennedy – ended his tour of duty in the Pacific, and was transferred to the El Toro Air Station in California. There, colleagues recalled, Oswald showed a remarkable interest in world affairs – and was especially preoccupied with things Russian.

Oswald applied to take a proficiency examination in Russian. He failed, but showed a basic level knowledge. He was observed laboring over his Russian books, played Russian records, and began addressing people in Russian – whether they understood him or not.

Marine friends nicknamed him “Comrade Oswaldskovich”. A fellow Marine with whom he discussed politics, gained the impression that Oswald thought Communism “the best system in the world”. This was apparently tolerated by the U.S. Marine Corps. Later, oddly, the Warren Commission’s Chief Counsel Lee Rankin asked for further investigation of what Oswald had “studied at the Monterey School”. The Monterey School provided crash languages courses for military personnel – and the reference has never been explained.

In August 1959 Oswald asked for an early release from the Corps on the ground that his ailing mother needed him. He applied for a passport, openly stating that he intended to travel to Russia and Cuba. This did not square with the notion of going home to look after his mother, but there is no sign that the Marine Corps raised any query. The passport was forthcoming, and on September 11, 1959, Oswald was out of the U.S. Marines and on his way.

By mid-October Oswald was in the Soviet Union. Within weeks, he walked into the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. There, according to the Consul Richard Snyder and Vice-Consul John McVickar, Oswald declared his wish to renounce his American citizenship. He slapped his passport down on the table, along with a formal letter that ended, “I affirm that my allegiance is to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

Oswald declared that he had “voluntarily told Soviet officials that he would make known to them all information concerning the Marine Corps and his speciality therein, radar operation, as he possessed.” He added, in what may have been a reference to his Marine service at a secret U-2 spy plane base, “that he might know something of special interest.” On the face of it, Oswald was now not only a defector, but a traitor.

Oswald’s Soviet adventure lasted two and half years. Then, supposedly disillusioned with life in the workers’ state, he requested permission to return to the United States. By June 1962, he, his Russian wife Marina and new baby were back in the U.S.

What is the truth about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union? Some speculated that he was part of a covert program to slip individuals into the Soviet Union in the guise of defectors, “sleepers” who could gather information of use to U.S. intelligence. There had been a sudden rash of turncoats in the eighteen months up to 1960, two former Navy men, five Army personnel stationed in West Germany, and two employees of the National Security Agency.

The official story has it that when Oswald defected he went to the American Embassy in Moscow once, visiting the consular office on the ground floor. Yet Joan Hallett, who was married to the Assistant Naval Attaché and worked as a receptionist at the embassy, told us that Consul Richard Snyder and the security officer “took him upstairs to the working floors, a secure area where the Ambassador and the political, economic, and military officers were.” According to Hallett, Oswald came to the embassy “several times” in 1959. Was Hallet mistaken?

Congress’ Assassinations Committee later expressed itself as “extremely troubled” by the fact that the C.I.A., which had previously employed Consul Richard Snyder, was “unable to explain” a reference in his Agency file to “cover.”

There are oddities, too, about the Navy’s response to Oswald’s defection. In California, where he had last served, aircraft call signs, codes, and radio and radar frequencies were changed. Oswald’s former associates recalled being questioned about him by visiting officials in civilian clothes.

In another respect, though, Oswald’s defection was not handled in the same way as those of other military enlisted men. Damage assessments were conducted following the defections of the only two enlisted men known to have gone over to Communist nations before the Oswald episode—and of two others who defected soon after him. In Oswald’s case however, no “formal damage assessment was conducted.”

The callow twenty-year-old Oswald was an improbable candidate for a mission behind the Iron Curtain. Could it be, though, that at a time of concern about the increased number of U.S. defectors, he was seen as a source of information on how the Soviets handled military defectors? Was Oswald an unwitting tool, a genuine leftist whose communications could be monitored and in time—potentially—debriefed? Was he, perhaps unwittingly, primed with false information designed to deceive his Soviet hosts?

The concept of Oswald being used in such way is not merely the notion of conspiracy theorists. A former Chief Security Officer at the State Department, Otto Otepka, said that in 1963 his office engaged in a study of American defectors that included Oswald. Five months before the Kennedy assassination, according to Otepka, the State Department was still uncertain whether Oswald was or had been “one of ours or one of theirs.”

The way the American military and intelligence authorities treated Oswald’s return, or claimed they did, remains unexplained. On leaving active duty, Oswald had signed a form that said clearly that personnel could be recalled “for trial by court-martial for unlawful disclosure of information” and listed the penalties for doing so. There is no known evidence to indicate that the Navy considered prosecuting Oswald.

Marine Corps records reflect no interest in even talking with the prodigal on his return from Russia, let alone putting him on trial. The Office of Naval Intelligence told the FBI it contemplated no action against Oswald.
The FBI, for its part, had not placed Oswald on the list of the thousands of people categorized by the Bureau as potentially disloyal. It had opened a “security case” on him because of his defection, and FBI agents in Texas did pay him a visit on his return. They asked whether he had been approached by Soviet intelligence while in the USSR, and Oswald said he had not. When he declined to take a lie-detector test though, that, effectively, was that. The Oswald “security case” was closed shortly afterward.

At the State Department, meanwhile, a senior official had written that any risk involved in returning Oswald’s passport “would be more than offset by the opportunity provided the United States to obtain information from Mr. Oswald concerning his activities in the Soviet Union.” According to the record, though, Oswald never was comprehensively debriefed.

What of the CIA? Some former defectors were interviewed by the Agency on their return. Robert Webster, a former Rand Development Corporation employee who defected at the same time as Oswald, had been brought to Washington and debriefed by CIA officers and U.S. Air Force personnel for two weeks.

There are parallels between the stories of Webster and Oswald. Webster, a plastics expert working at an American exhibit in Moscow, told U.S. officials of his intention to defect less than two weeks before Oswald did. A former Navy man, Webster had a relationship with a Soviet woman thought to have been linked to the KGB. Marina Prusakova, the Russian woman Oswald married, was also suspected of having intelligence connections. Webster left the USSR, also apparently disillusioned, a fortnight before Oswald.

Oswald and Marina seem, moreover, either to have met Webster or to have learned about him. Marina’s Russian address book contained an address for an apartment building in which Webster had lived. Years later, she told an acquaintance that her husband Lee had defected after working at an exhibition in Moscow. That description matched Webster’s history not Oswald’s. In 1961, when arranging his return to the United States, Oswald himself reportedly “asked about the fate of a young man named Webster who had come to the Soviet Union shortly before he did…”
There are CIA and FBI files, as well, on another American, Marvin Kantor, who was in Russia at the same time as Oswald. Kantor spent time in 1958 and 1959 in Minsk, where Oswald also lived while in the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding official denials that Oswald faced such questioning – the House Assassinations Committee was told the CIA questioned only some returning defectors – tantalizing leads suggest that he did.

One CIA memorandum indicates that officials discussed “the laying on of interviews” with Oswald on his return to the States. Its author, Thomas Casasin [a pseudonym], who had been a senior member of the Soviet Russia Division department responsible for “research related to clandestine operations” in the USSR, recalled having discussed Oswald with two senior colleagues in 1962. In a memo written after the assassination, Casasin wrote:

1. It makes little difference now, but REDWOOD had at one time an OI interest in Oswald. As soon as I had heard Oswald’s name, I recalled that as Chief of the 6 Branch I had discussed . . . the laying on of interview(s) through KUJUMP or other suitable channels. At the moment I don’t recall if this was discussed while Oswald and his family were en route to our country or if it was after their arrival.

2. . . . We were particularly interested in the OI Oswald might provide on the Minsk factory in which he had been employed, on certain sections of the city itself, and of course we sought the usual BI that might help develop target personality dossiers.

“REDWOOD,” we now know, was a CIA cryptonym for “action indicator for information” for the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division. “KUJUMP” was the cryptonym for the Agency’s “Domestic Contact Division.” “OI” stood for “Operational Intelligence.”
The recollections of another former CIA officer—if truthful—would indicate that Oswald was indeed debriefed on coming home. Donald Deneselya, who in 1962 worked in the Soviet branch of the Directorate of Intelligence, was fired by the CIA in 1964—and is thus a controversial figure. According to Deneselya, though, he “reviewed a contact report from representatives of a CIA field office who had interviewed a former U.S. Marine who had worked at the Minsk radio plant following his defection to the USSR.” The Marine, who Deneselya thought may have been Oswald, had been living with his family in Minsk. The contact report he saw, he said, had been four or five pages long.

Denesleya’s claim does not stand entirely alone. A Washington psychiatrist once employed by the CIA recalled having been asked to meet a young American just back from Russia. This had been at the right time, in mid-1962, and the subject had been married to a Soviet wife. After the assassination, the psychiatrist thought he recognized photographs of Oswald as the man he had questioned for the CIA.

Was the man Oswald? There are numerous CIA reports on Marvin Kantor, the other American who had been in Minsk, and who—like Oswald— had once been a Marine. Details about Kantor, however, do not fit the man referred to by either Deneselya or by the psychiatrist. There remains the possibility that the unnamed psychiatrist’s subject might have been returned defector Robert Webster. Webster had lived with a woman in the USSR, but he had not married her and did not bring her with him to the United States.

A former Deputy Chief of the Domestic Contact Division, speaking on condition that he not be identified, has said the CIA did indeed debrief Oswald.
That someone in U.S. intelligence would have questioned the returning Oswald – not least because he had himself declared traitorous intentions while in Moscow – would seem hugely likely. The Agency’s denial of interest in Oswald, author and former Army intelligence officer John Newman has said, is “a big billboard saying there’s something else. . . . There’s an unexplained anomaly, and among the questions it poses is whether or not the Agency had an association with Oswald.”



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The “New Yorker’s” Reflections on Kennedy and the Assassination

This article is currently being edited. Coming soon.

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Iraq, Al Qaeda & 9/11: The Connection that Wasn’t

Robbyn Swan

In the early hours of March 19, 2003, a pair of F-117 fighters launched the first salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom, their satellite guided missiles exploding into Dora Farm, one of Saddam Hussein’s private compounds. Over the coming days, much of the news-channel addicted world sat transfixed as waves of American Tomahawk missiles thundered into Baghdad. Polls suggested that, for many of the Americans viewing those events, Iraq’s role in the September 11 attacks made it an enemy deserving retribution.

Ten years on the events of 2003 have been marked by a flurry of articles justifiably revisiting the issue of whether or not the Bush administration lied – or was simply mistaken –   about Saddam’s WMD capability. These reports have missed the first falsehood that Bush and his people conjured up to justify war against Iraq – their attempt to link Saddam to the 9/11 attacks which they did from almost the night of September 11. In the context of those frightening days, that linkage was an emotive, powerful force in making war on Iraq acceptable to the American people and the U.S. Congress. The pursuit of that lie led to the forgery of incriminating evidence and became an element in the torture of U.S. detainees.

In the eighteen months before the war the Bush administration persistently seeded the notion that there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11. While never alleging a direct Iraqi role, President Bush repeatedly linked Hussein’s name to that of bin Laden.

In his address to the nation of October 7, 2002, for example, Bush said: “We know that Iraq and al Qaeda  have had high-level  contacts  that go back a decade. . . . After September 11, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.” The President mentioned 9/11 eight times at his press conference just before the invasion of Iraq.

“The White House played endless semantic games on the issue,” The New York Times’ Philip Shenon later wrote.  “When pressed, Bush was careful not to allege that Iraq had any role in the 9/11 attacks, at least no direct role. But he insisted that if Saddam Hussein had remained in power, he…would have been tempted  to hand over [weapons of mass destruction]  to his supposed ally Osama bin Laden. Vice President Cheney went further…suggesting repeatedly, almost obsessively, that Iraq may in fact have been involved in the September 11 plot.”

Polls from the time reveal how effective the PR campaign was. One found that 57 percent of Americans believed Hussein had helped the 9/11 terrorists, another that 44 percent thought that “most” or “some” of the hijackers had been Iraqi. (In fact, none were.) Another, six months into the war, revealed that 69 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in 9/11.

In his first address to the nation after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush had hinted at what was to come.  “Evil, despicable acts of terror,” the President  had said, “have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” In a line the he himself scripted, Bush emphasized that the U.S. would henceforth make “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.”

Afterward, Bush met with key officials, the group he was to call his “war council.” The words “al Qaeda” and “Osama bin Laden” had been on everyone’s lips for hours. Amid the talk of reprisals and push-back, CIA director George Tenet stressed the link between al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, according to counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came out with the comment.  “You know,” he said, “we’ve got to do Iraq.”

“Everyone looked at him…like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ” Clarke was to recall. “And I made the point certainly that night…that Iraq had nothing  to do with 9/11.

“That didn’t seem to faze Rumsfeld…It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It really didn’t, because from the first weeks of the administration they were talking about Iraq.”

On the evening of September 12th, Clarke recalled, Bush quietly took him aside to say, “Look . . . I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way…Just look. I want to know any shred.”

“Absolutely, we will look . . .” Clarke responded.  “But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al Qaeda and not  found  any real linkages to Iraq.”

“Look into Iraq, Saddam,” the President reiterated, and walked away.

In the days following the attack, a report linking Mohammed Atta to Iraqi intelligence made headlines. An informant had reported to Czech intelligence that photographs of lead hijacker Atta resembled a man he had seen meeting with an Iraqi diplomat  and suspected  spy, Ahmad al-Ani,  in Prague on April 9, 2001. Investigation indicated that neither Atta nor al-Ani had been in Prague  at the time alleged. Atta was recorded  on closed-circuit  TV  footage in Florida on April 4, and his cell phone was used in the state on the 6th, 9th, 10th, and 11th. Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi, moreover, apparently signed a lease on an apartment on the 11th. This information, while not certain proof, strongly suggests that Atta was in the United States on date in question. CIA analysts characterized the alleged Prague sighting as “highly unlikely.”

“Unlikely” or not, the report crept into pre-war intelligence briefings as having been a “known contact” between al Qaeda and Iraq.

A second allegation, propagated by Laurie  Mylroie,  a scholar associated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute,  proposed that Ramzi Yousef – the terrorist responsible for the 1993 WorldTradeCenter  bombing – had been an Iraqi agent using a stolen  identity.  Investigation by the FBI and others indicates that the theory is unsupported by hard evidence. Nevertheless, the claim proved durable.

None of the leads suggesting an Iraqi link to the attacks proved out.  “We went back ten years,” said former CIA bin Laden unit chief Michael Scheuer, who looked into the matter at the request of Director Tenet. “We examined about 20,000 documents, probably something along the  line of 75,000 pages of information, and there was no connection between [al Qaeda] and Saddam.”

A January 2003 report entitled “Iraqi Support for Terrorism,” was the last in-depth analysis the CIA produced prior to the beginning of hostilities.  “The intelligence community,” it concluded, “has no credible information that Baghdad had foreknowledge of the 11 September  attacks…”

Nevertheless, on the weekend before the U.S. launched its attack on Iraq, Vice President Cheney appeared on “Meet the Press” to make a final pitch about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. “We know,” Cheney said, “he has a long standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al Qaeda organization.”

*          *            *

After exhaustive trawls of the record, official probes concluded that senior Bush administration officials applied inordinate pressure to try to establish that there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11, and that American torture of al Qaeda prisoners was a result of such pressure.  CIA  analysts noted  that  “questions  regarding  al Qaeda’s ties to the Iraqi regime were among the first presented  to senior operational  planner  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed  following his capture.” KSM, whose case  is currently before a military tribunal at Guantanamo, was one of those most persistently subjected to torture.

The  CIA’s Charles  Duelfer,  who was in charge of interrogations of Iraqi officials after the invasion, recalled being “asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used” on a detainee who might have knowledge of links between the Hussein regime and al Qaeda.

The  notion  was turned  down.  Duelfer  noted,  however,  that  it had originated “in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA).”  Two U.S. intelligence  officers, meanwhile,  have said flatly that the suggestion came from Vice President  Cheney’s office.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent and why extreme methods  were used,” a former senior intelligence official said in 2009. “The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack [after 9/11]. But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney  and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between  al Qaeda  and Iraq….”

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Major Paul Burney, told military investigators  that  interrogators at Guantánamo were under “pressure to resort to measures that might produce” evidence of ties between al Qaeda  and Iraq.

In the absence of real evidence, according  to Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind’s 2008 book, The Way of the World, it was in one instance  fabricated.  Suskind has reported  that in fall 2003 – when the U.S. administration was struggling to justify the invasion of Iraq – the White  House asked the CIA to collaborate  in the forgery of a document  stating that hijacker leader Atta had spent time training in Iraq.

The forgery took the form of a purported memo to Saddam Hussein from the former head of the Iraqi intelligence service, Tahir Habbusch al-Tikriti, dated  two months  before  9/11.  Signed by Habbusch, the memo stated  that  Atta had spent  time  in Iraq learning “to lead the team which will be responsible  for attacking  the targets that we have agreed to destroy.”

The  story of fakery provoked vigorous  denials from the CIA. Rebuttals  included  a carefully phrased  statement  from Suskind’s  primary  source,  a former  head of the  CIA’s  Near  East  Division named Rob Richer – to  which Suskind responded  by publishing a transcript  of one of his interviews with Richer.

In contrast to Suskind’s allegation, CIA analyst Nada Bakos wrote in the March edition of Wired magazine, the Agency itself vigorously examined the Habbusch letter and concluded that it was a forgery. “Our Branch Chief, Karen, walked into Cheney’s office with everything we’d uncovered…It seemed airtight. These were forgeries.” Bakos recalled. “I wasn’t there, but I heard the vice president was gracious and thanked her.”

Another former CIA officer, Philip Giraldi, meanwhile, placed responsibility  for  the  fabrication  on  the  Pentagon’s  Office  of Special Plans, and said it had been done at the instigation  of Vice President  Cheney.  According to Giraldi, the Pentagon, unlike the CIA, had “no restrictions on it regarding  the  production of false information to mislead the  public” and had “its own false documents  center.”

If it happened, the forgery was the most flagrant attempt to blame 9/11  on Iraq.

In 2008, the Senate Intelligence Committee produced its “Report on Whether Public Statements  Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence  Information.” “It’s my belief that the Bush administration was fixated on Iraq and used the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda as justification for overthrowing Saddam  Hussein,” said its chairman, John D. Rockefeller.  “To accomplish  this, top  administration officials made repeated statements  that falsely linked Iraq and al Qaeda as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11. Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretences.

In the ten years since the invasion of Iraq, reputable estimates indicate, almost 5,000 coalition servicemen and women have died. That number is dwarfed by the almost 150, 000 Iraqis – more than 80% of them civilians – who have also lost their lives. They died as the result of an attack on a nation that many Americans had been falsely led to believe bore some if not all of the responsibility for the attacks of September  11.

As former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in an article for the Daily Beast on March 18, “mobilizing Congress and the American people” to go to war against Iraq, “required a considerable messaging effort.” That messaging effort began with a spurious linkage to 9/11.


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Afghanistan: Back When It All Began

  October 11, 2011                                               

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded coalition forces in 2009-10 in Afghanistan, caused a stir last week with his suggestion that the U.S. is only just past the 50% mark in terms of achieving its goals – particularly that of  “creating a legitimate government that the Afghan people believe in, and therefore providing a counterweight to the Taliban.” “I think that’s going to be a hard last percentage to close,” McChrystal added.

Speaking almost ten years to the day since the conflict began, McChrystal charged that the U.S. had gone into that conflict with a “very superficial understanding of the situation and history,” didn’t speak the language or adequately grasp either the number of “forces at play” or the “players”. To the catalogue of early mistakes McChrystal added the burden of having opened a second front in Iraq, which not only stretched resources but fundamentally “changed the Muslim world’s view of America’s effort… much of the Muslim world now questioned what we were doing…”

Really to understand where the general is coming from, it may be useful to turn back the calendar to the closing months of 2001, when the seeds of the  current U.S. predicament were sown.



The way America would react to the Al Qaeda assault on 9/11 had been immediately clear. Evident within forty-five minutes of the first strike on the World Trade Center, when Bush spoke to the nation from the schoolroom in Florida promising to “hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.” Evident two hours later at an Air Force base in Louisiana, away from the microphones, when he told aides, “We’re gonna get the bastards.” By the end of September, when he addressed a joint session of Congress,  Bush was referring to the coming fight as the “war on terror”.

            The vast majority of the American people agreed that there had to be severe retribution. At a memorial service on September 14th, with four U.S. presidents in the congregation, the National Cathedral had reverberated to the roar of almost a thousand people singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword…the watch fires of a hundred circling camps…the trumpet that shall never call retreat…Let us die to make men free…”

The September 11 onslaught had been judged an act of war, and the response was to be war. Bush made clear from the start that bin Laden and his followers would not be the only targets. In his address to the nation on the night of the attacks, the President had said the U.S. would “make no distinction between those who planned these acts and those who harbor them.” Within an hour of the television appearance, he was discussing what that would mean with the group he was to call his “war council” – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, CIA Director Tenet, Condoleeza Rice, Richard Clarke, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and key generals.

The talk in the Situation Room at the White House was uncompromising. The Taliban were soon to propose trying bin Laden in Afghanistan or handing him over for trial in another Muslim country, but America would turn a deaf ear. “We’re not only going to strike the rattlesnake,” Bush said at this time, “We’re going to strike the rancher.”

The administration never even considered negotiating with the Taliban, Condoleezza Rice said later. Washington was eventually to issue a formal ultimatum – promptly rejected – demanding that Afghanistan hand over the Saudi exile or “share in his fate.”

The weekend following the attacks, after the frenzy of the first fraught days, Bush flew his war council to the calm of the presidential retreat at Camp David.  CIA Director Tenet and his Counterterrorism chief Cofer Black briefed Bush’s team on the Agency’s plan for “Destroying International Terrorism.” They described what they called the “Initial Hook,” an operation designed to trap Al Qaida inside Afghanistan and destroy it.

The objective was to be achieved by a numerically small CIA paramilitary component and U.S. Special Forces, working with Afghan forces that had long been fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shelton, outlined the crucial bomb and missile strikes that would precede and support the operation. “When we’re through with them,” Black had assured Bush, the Al Qaeda terrorists would “have flies walking across their eyeballs.”

On September 20, the CIA’s Cofer Black gathered the team that was to spearhead the covert operation in Afghanistan. He dispensed with any notion of taking the terrorist leader alive. “Gentlemen, I want to give you your marching orders and I want to make them very clear. I have discussed this with the President, and he is in full agreement…I don’t want bin Laden and his thugs captured. I want them dead. Alive and in prison here in the United States, they’ll become a symbol, a rallying point…They must be killed. I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden’s head to the President. I promised him I would do that.”

In the field, three men led the operations that targeted bin Laden, two veteran CIA officers, and a Special Forces officer with the unit popularly known as Delta Force. Their teams in the early months numbered only some seventy men, including a dozen Green Berets, Air Force tacticians, communications experts, and a small group of elite British commandos.

“The mission is straightforward,” Black told a colleague back in Washington,” “We locate the enemy wherever they are across the planet. We find them and we kill them.”

The first CIA team was on the ground in Afghanistan just two weeks after 9/11, armed with not only their weapons but three million dollars in $100 bills. The cash, lugged around in duffel bags, was used mostly to grease the palms of anti-Taliban warlords. For a mission that targeted the Taliban as much as bin Laden, buying their loyalty was essential. Brilliant American management of the warlords and their forces, combined with devastating use of airpower, would defeat and decimate the Taliban soldiers – though they were often valiant fighters – in little more than two months.

Getting Osama bin Laden was to prove another matter altogether.

In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar written just before the American attack began, bin Laden forecast that the coming U.S. campaign in Afghanistan would cause “great long-term economic burdens”…force America to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan…” Two weeks on, with the bombing continuing, the Taliban’s military commander – a longtime bin Laden ally – claimed his soldiers were holding their ground. Bin Laden was “safe and sound…in good spirits.”

The CIA’s team had only poor intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. There were attempts to persuade them that he had left the country soon after 9/11. Other reports put him either in the Afghan capital, Kabul, or at Jalalabad, nearer to the border with Pakistan. Bin Laden and a large group of fighters were seen arriving in Jalalabad in a convoy of white Toyota trucks. American bombs were already falling on the city, and their stay was brief.

Bin Laden apparently spoke of wanting to stay and fight. He was dissuaded. The convoy – some 300 vehicles – left soon afterward. At least one of those in the group said they were on their way “to their base at Tora Bora.”

Tora Bora, which translates as “Black Widow,” lies almost sixteen thousand feet above sea level on Towr Ghar – the “Black Dust” – a series of rocky ridges and peaks, ten precipitous miles from the border of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. A legend now, it was at the time a media fantasy. By November 27th a British newspaper was reporting that it was a “purpose-built guerrilla lair…350 yards beneath a solid mountain. There are small rooms and big rooms, and the wall and floor are cemented…It has its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydro-electric generator…driven by water from the peaks of the mountains.”

The reality was far more primitive. Bin Laden’s first wife, who had spent time there, remembered a place with no electricity and no running water, where life was hard at the best of times. In the early December of 2001, in the icy Afghan winter, it became a desolate killing ground.

From their base at an abandoned schoolhouse, the pursuing Americans struggled with multiple obstacles. Tora Bora is not one place but a series of natural ramparts and cave complexes, a frustratingly difficult place to attack. Afghan generals, whose troops were key to the mission, were often intransigent, rarely dependable, and partial to negotiating with an Al Qaeda enemy that the Delta Force and CIA commanders wanted only to destroy. The Afghan inhabitants of the mountains were at best uncertain sources of information. The Americans could dole out cash, but these were people who had enjoyed bin Laden’s largesse for years..

            Berntsen, heading the CIA detachment, encountered reluctance when he begged for more U.S. military support. The operation to hunt down bin Laden, the team was told, was “flawed,” too high risk. The reluctance to commit American ground forces was only going to get worse. What the United States did deliver was the bludgeon of pulverizing airpower. Often guided by forward observation teams, waves of bombers flew from bases in the U.S and carriers in the Persian Gulf to bombard the Al Qaeda positions. AC-130 Spectre gunships pounded them by night.

            Decimated but not yet finally broken, bin Laden’s defenders clung on. Intercepts picked up an Al Qaeda commander giving movement orders, ordering up land mines, exhorting his men to “victory or death.”  On the afternoon of December 13th, Delta Force’s Major Fury and his men listened to a voice they were sure was that of bin Laden. “His Arabic prose sounded beautiful, soothing, and peaceful,” Fury recalled, “I paraphrase him…‘Our prayers have not been answered. Times are dire…Things might have been different…I’m sorry for getting you into this battle. If you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.’”

            According to the ex-Marine expert at recognizing the Saudi’s voice, bin Laden then gathered his men around him in prayer. There was the sound of mules, used for transport in the high mountains, and people moving around. Then silence.

By the time the bombing and the shooting stopped, Tora Bora was devastated, a wasteland of shattered rocks and broken trees. The detritus of war: spent ammunition, bloody bandages, torn fragments of documents in Arabic script – and not a trace of Osama bin Laden.

            Convinced that their quarry escaped, those who risked their lives to kill him cast bitter blame on those from whom they had taken their orders. The Delta Force operatives, Fury said, had not been allowed to engage in “real war fighting.” Had they been, he thought, things could have turned out differently. Being held back had been like “working in an invisible cage.”

The CIA’s Gary Berntsen had in vain requested a force of eight hundred U.S. troops – to block the “back door”, the mountain escape route to Pakistan. “We need Rangers [special operations combat troops] now!,” he had begged with ever-increasing urgency, “The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!” He had been rebuffed every time.

Why were the troops refused, and who was responsible for the refusal? Military decisions were transmitted by the generals, directly to Berntsen by the officer commanding Joint Special Operations Command, Major General Dell Dailey, who in turn answered to General Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief at U.S. Central Command, the man running the Afghanistan operation.

“We have not said,” Franks remarked at a press briefing just before the fighting at Tora Bora, “that Osama bin Laden is a target of this effort.” It was a strange comment, even taking into account security considerations, given what Fury and Berntsen have said of the explicit orders they had been given. In a 2004 memoir, Franks skirted any discussion of the decision not to use U.S. troops to trap bin Laden. As recently as 2009, the general said he had doubted whether bin Laden was even at Tora Bora. Notwithstanding the certainty expressed by the CIA and Delta Force commanders on the spot, he claimed the intelligence had been “conflicting.”

Delta Force’s Major Fury placed responsibility elsewhere. “The generals,” he said, “were not operating alone. Civilian political figures were also at the control panel….I was not in those air-conditioned rooms with leather chairs when they came up with some of the strangest decisions I have ever encountered…at times, we were micromanaged by higher-ups unknown, even to the point of being ordered to send the exact grid coordinates of our teams back to various folks in Washington.”

The two civilian higher-ups involved with Franks in the decision-making were Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the man ultimately responsible as Commander-in-Chief, President Bush. Bush, who six days after 9/11 had indicated that he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive”.

The President “never took his eye off the ball when it came to bin Laden,” according to General Franks. Through October and into November, Bush had appeared still keen to “get” bin Laden. In late November, at a CIA briefing, he was told Tora Bora had become the focus, that Afghan forces were inadequate to do the job, that U.S. troops were required. “We’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” the CIA briefer warned. The President seemed surprised. In Afghanistan in early December, shortly before the massive BLU-82 bomb was unleashed on Tora Bora, those heading the fight in the field were told that POTUS – the acronym for the President – had been personally “asking for details.”

According to CIA sources, Bush would reportedly remain “obsessed” with the hunt for bin Laden even months after Tora Bora. In public though, far from talking of getting him dead or alive, he seemed to downgrade his importance. “Terror’s bigger than one person,” the President said in March, 2002, “he’s a person who has been marginalized…I don’t know where he is. Nor, you know, I just don’t spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you…I truly am not that concerned about him.”

The record, perhaps, explains the sea change in the priority given to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. On November 21st, a couple of weeks before the final battles in the mountains and bin Laden’s disappearance, the President had taken Rumsfeld aside for a conversation that he insisted must remain secret. He wanted a war plan forIraq, and insisted that General Franks get working on it immediately.

Franks, already up to his eyes dealing with the conflict inAfghanistan, could barely believe what he was hearing. “Goddamn!” he exclaimed to a fellow general, “What the fuck are they talking about?” The huge pressure he was under had been ratcheted up another notch. From then on, not least in early December, when there were repeated appeals for U.S. troops to block bin Laden’s escape route, the general was constantly plagued with requests for plans as to how to attack Iraq. At a crucial stage of the Tora Bora episode, Bush’s primary focus had begun to shift – and a shift in the Commander-in-Chief’s focus meant distracting the attention of his overworked general from the fight in Afghanistan.




That’s the bungling with which the saga began.

The 140,000 strong U.S. led coalition combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan in 2014. It looks, however, as though this year may prove to be the costliest yet in terms of civilian lives lost. Some observers, moreover, suggest Afghanistan is again teetering on the brink of all-out civil war. If the U.S. is to meet its goal of presiding over an orderly transition and leaving with the hope of a secure future for ordinary Afghans, the problems of the past must be acknowledged and overcome. The omens, though, are poor.




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