HISTORICAL ANALYSIS - When Oliver Stone first ambles through Dealey Plaza in Dallas in the opening frames his new documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, I couldn’t help but think the man is a soldier.
Rumpled, restless, and searching, the 75-year old director looks around the scene of the murder of President John F. Kennedy with the gaze of a combatant and a survivor.
Stone is the dogged veteran of a culture war that has been going on for thirty years since the release of his 1991 Oscar-winning feature film, JFK, a struggle to define American history that ripples through the culture with every new development in the ever-evolving JFK story. He is also a Vietnam veteran who did a dangerous tour of combat duty, as depicted his 1987 film Platoon. The man risked his life for his country, I thought, a sacrifice that few of his harshest critics have ever made.
When I shared that thought with Stone in a telephone interview, he demurred. “Serving as a soldier doesn’t give me any better political insights than someone who did not,” he insisted, with the modesty that has recurred in our occasional conversations over the years. As film critic Ann Hornaday observed in a recent Washington Post piece that was actually fair to the Oscar-winning director. “To spend time with Oliver Stone is to enter a different kind of looking glass,” Hornaday wrote, “A man often caricatured as wild-eyed provocateur is thoughtful, easygoing and generous even at his most contrarian.”
Knowing Stone personally, I can say the canard that he is a fabulist or a fanatic is unfounded and unfair. In person, he is thoughtful, playfully aggressive, and occasionally insecure. The word “encyclopedic” does not do justice to his knowledge of American history or the cinema or politics. His anti-imperialist digressions offend conservatives who believe in the civilizing mission of American empire. His conspiratorial take on JFK’s assassination bothers liberal intellectuals still huddled in that last redoubt of American exceptionalism, the Warren Commission report, which assured a doubting public that it couldn’t happen here. He has made at least four terrific movies (JFK, Nixon, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July), and many more good ones than duds. Viewed with any detachment, he is an accomplished if heretical interpreter of the world, an iconoclastic moralist who distills his search for truth in celluloid.
Reviewing the Record
Stone and his writing partner James DiEugenio perform a basic task of journalism and history in their new documentary JFK Revisited, a task curiously ignored by our newspapers of record and academic historians. In the two-hour film, available on Showtime, the Oscar-winning director revisits a significant historical event—the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963–in light of substantial new evidence. You wouldn’t know it from the predictable media abuse, but his method is time-tested and honorable.
The Washington Post performed this function in June 2007 when the CIA declassified “the Family Jewels,” a file of allegations of CIA misconduct collected in 1973 amidst the Watergate scandal. Under court order, the Agency finally coughed up the 600-plus pages of material 33 years later. I was the World News editor at Washingtopost.com at the time and role player in the journalistic full-court press that followed.
Bob Woodward took the lead while other senior reporters sifted the papers for new information about Watergate scandal. We looked for what was new and what it meant for historical understanding of the Watergate affair. At the Postweb site, we strove to put the new information in context so readers could make sense of a major event in Washington memory. The in-depth coverage was capped by Woodward’s incisive take on what was truly newsworthy: CIA director Richard Helms emerged from the new files as “the perfect Watergate enabler.”This was proficient journalism as the first draft of history.
Stone’s granular documentary, narrated by actors Whoopi Goldberg and Donald Sutherland, seeks to do the same for JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963: make sense of the newest information. A huge body of new information has come into the record since Stone made his movie. The commercial and critical success of JFK shamed Congress into releasing millions of pages of long-secret government files related to Kennedy’s assassination. Since passage of the 1992 JFK Records Act, federal agencies have made public more than 319,000 once-secret government records, amounting to a new historical record of JFK’s assassination, that is much more comprehensive and detailed than the record available to Stone in 1991.
What to make of this new information?
Stone and DiEugenio interviewed scores of witnesses and experts, me included. They asked us the same basic question about the JFK story that the Post asked about the Family Jewels: what do we know today that we didn’t know yesterday?
Leave aside the conclusions of JFK Revisited for a moment, and note its curious lack of their competition. The Washington Post has never comprehensively reviewed the new historical record of JFK’s assassination that has emerged since the 1990s. Nor has the New York Times, despite voluminous new evidence and a steady stream of newsworthy disclosures.
Since the 1990s, we have learned, among other things, about Operation Northwoods, a top-secret Pentagon plan—a policy conspiracy, if you will– to provoke a war with Cuba in 1963 via violent deceptive operations on U.S. soil. We have learned the surprising extent of the CIA’s pre-assassination surveillance of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. We have learned about Agency propaganda operations involving Oswald before and after Kennedy was killed. We have learned about possible tampering with the photographic record of Kennedy’s autopsy, and we have learned about the CIA’s obstruction of Congress’s JFK investigation in the late 1970s.
On December 15, came yet another revelation. Under an October 22 order from President Biden, the CIA released 953 documents in their entirety for the first time, including two cables about Oswald written six weeks before Kennedy was killed. For the first time in 58 years, these two messages were completely declassified.
The last detail to become public was the identity of the CIA contract employee who initiated a request for more information about Oswald, an itinerant ex-Marine who contacted the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. The information was no smoking gun but the delay in disclosure was significant and revealing. Why didn’t the CIA release this trivial information long ago?
As I told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Daily, the most likely explanation is that everything about the Oswald cables of October 1963 was extraordinarily sensitive. The CIA lied about their existence on November 22, 1963, telling the FBI they knew little about the accused assassin. We now know one of the Oswald cables was drafted by six top CIA officials. The authors included the assistant deputy director of the clandestine service, the counterintelligence liaison to the FBI, and the chief of operations in Agency’s Western Hemisphere division.
If the document made public in December 2021 had been disclosed in December 1963, the Warren Commission’s investigation would have been much different. The CIA would have been investigated for incompetence or worse.
Here’s what these covert operators knew about the accused assassin while President Kennedy was still alive. They knew that Oswald, a former Marines Corps radar operator, had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959; that he offered to share military secrets with the enemy; that he returned with a Russian wife in June 1962; that he went public with his support for Fidel Castro in the summer of 1963; that he had been arrested for fighting with CIA-funded Cubans; and that he made contact with Valeriy Kostikov, a Soviet intelligence officer, in Mexico City in October 1963.
With all this information in mind, the CIA sent a reassuring cable—now available to the public in its entirety for the first time—telling its Mexico City office that Oswald’s two and half year stay in the Soviet Union had had an “maturing effect” on him. Forty-three days later, Kennedy was dead and Oswald was under arrest for the crime.
The next day Oswald denied he killed Kennedy (a fact that goes unmentioned in every critical review of JFK Revisited that I have read.) Oswald was then killed in police custody by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with organized crime connections that the Warren Commission failed to investigate. At the same time, the CIA was already hiding documents related to JFK’s assassination from outside view, a practice that continues to this day, six decades later.
The New Fact Pattern
When one looks at the historical record of Kennedy’s assassination as a whole and with fresh eyes, there emerges a new fact pattern and new questions.
Responsible citizens and curious young people—not crazed conspiracy theorists–want to know: Were these senior operations officers wholly inept when it came to detecting the threat that Oswald posed to President Kennedy?
Defenders of the official theory of a lone gunman shrug off the question. These officials, they say, had no indication that Oswald posed a threat to the president. With no reason to take action, they simply overlooked him.
The problem with this reasonable-sounding proposition is that there is no corroboration for it. That is to say, there is no CIA document–no Inspector General’s report, for example–accounting for the actions of the authors of the Oswald cables, sent on October 10, 1963. The Warren Commission offered no explanation because they were not shown the cable. In the last 58 years, the Agency has never explained these officials’ failure to take action after Oswald was overheard making contact with a known KGB officer.
What we do know is that the CIA dissembled. When the Warren Commission asked about Oswald in May 1964, deputy director Richard Helms–the future Watergate enabler–testified that the Agency had only “minimal” information about him before Kennedy was killed. That statement, we now know, was false.
The Agency’s information was more like maximal. By the time President Kennedy left Washington for a political trip to Texas on November 21, 1963 the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff had a file containing 42 documents detailing Oswald’s whereabouts, politics, personal life, and foreign contacts. The Agency had even intercepted and read his mail, according to a document declassified in 2000. The story of the supposed lone gunman, as told in the Warren Commission report, implied the CIA knew little about him, which simply wasn’t true..
In fact, the men and women of the CIA monitored Oswald’s movements for four years before Kennedy was killed. Indeed, they followed him all the way to Dallas. As I reported in the Daily Beast in 2017, a declassified routing slip shows that CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton received an FBI report that Oswald was living in Texas on November 15, one week before Kennedy was killed.
Was the CIA hiding embarrassment about its failure to detect the threat Oswald posed? Or was someone in the Agency concealing a covert operation involving Oswald. I pointed out in a paywalled November 22 piece for the Herald that among the secret JFK records still held by the Agency are administrative files on five undercover officers who known to have monitored Oswald’s activities and movements before JFK was killed. *
Of course, reasonable people can differ on the meaning of such revelations, which is why you would think newspapers of record would summarize and analyze the new JFK evidence and, if they could, ratify the official theory of a lone gunman. You would think wrong. The editors of the Post and the Times have studiously avoided any comprehensive review of the JFK files released since the 1990s, preferring to repeat the mantra “there’s no smoking gun” and to assail Stone, the man responsible for putting millions of pages of JFK files into the public record.
What accounts for this curious lack of curiosity? I think it’s because the new evidence tends to undermine, not affirm, the notion of a lone gunman but I may be biased.
Self-interest is surely a factor. It is easy for the Washington Post to revisit Watergate (and for the New York Times to revisit the Pentagon Papers) because those stories reflect well on their institutions. By contrast, neither the Post nor the Times has distinguished itself on the JFK assassination story. What has been learned in the last 20 years was not uncovered by any news organization but by a civilian panel, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), which was created by the 1992 JFK Records Act–which Congress approved because of the popularity of Stone’s movie.
Cultural conformity also shapes the narratives adopted by cohesive elite organizations like the Post and Times. To delve into the work of the ARRB is to implicitly credit Stone with serving the public interest. Without the crusading director, the government’s documentation of the JFK assassination story would have stayed where the CIA wanted it: in Langley’s vaults beyond the view of the American people. Given a choice between the CIA and Oliver Stone, ambitious Washington journalists do not hesitate. They know the safest path to promotion is to avoid the new information found by the ARRB, to express no opinion on the JFK story, or to endorse the infirm theory of a lone gunman.
In October, for example, the Post published an online quiz about conspiracy theories, created by data analyst Dylan Byler and data visualizer Wan Yu. The authors asserted “the evidence is clear” that Kennedy was killed one man alone for no reason. None of their editors had the nerve to tell the data reporters that their claim is empirically and incontrovertibly false.
Post editors who have followed JFK developments over the last 20 years (and there are some) know beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence supporting the official theory is not clear. Many well-informed and astute power players, including Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Charles DeGaulle, Joseph Califano and John Kerry, concluded that the Warren Commission was wrong. They all said, privately or publicly, that Kennedy was killed by his enemies, not by one man alone. To the Post’s credit, the editors did categorize Byler and Wu’s display of historical ignorance as “opinion.”
While the Post and Times avert their eyes from the new historical record, Stone and DiEugenio have done the journalistic chore of reporting on it. Not surprisingly, they believe the new records support the interpretation that Stone offered 30 years ago in JFK: Kennedy was killed by enemies in his own government who opposed his liberal policies on Cuba and Vietnam and who had the ability to lay the blame on Oswald.
To make his case Stone drills down on key evidentiary issues in interviews with subject area experts illustrated with new records. He examines the story of the so-called “magic bullet,” producing new evidence that the Warren Commission’s claim that one bullet caused seven wounds in Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally is factually unsupportable.
He brings forward the long-ignored testimony of three women indicating that Oswald was almost certainly not on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository at the time he supposedly fired at the presidential motorcade. He highlights the sworn testimony of photo technician Saundra Spencer who testified she developed photographs of Kennedy’s head wound showing that he had been hit by a shot from the front, photos not found in the official record of JFK’s autopsy.
He reviews the declassified documentation of Kennedy’s approach to Vietnam showing how U.S. policy changed drastically after Kennedy’s removal from the presidency.
Rather than examine whether JFK Revisited proves its claims in each of these areas, Stone’s critics savage him with an oddly tangential attack on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whose scattershot prosecution of a JFK conspiracy in 1969 ended in acquittal of businessman Clay Shaw, the only man he charged.
A Straw Man
In a sustained attack on Stone in the Washington Post, professor Alecia Longargued that Garrison’s investigation was motivated by homophobia. Shaw was a closeted gay man and Garrison used his private life to smear him, she contends in a new book. Long’s unsubtle implication is that anyone who believes Kennedy was killed by his enemies is an ignorant bigot prone to QAnon-type fantasies.
If Long thinks that Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Charles De Gaulle and Fidel Castro were deluded fabulists driven by homophobia, her argument is unconvincing, if not totally wrong.
The truth that Long and other critics are loathe to acknowledge is that plenty of serious political observers rejected the Warren Commission’s conclusion, not because they were ignorant or misinformed or hateful but because they knew more than the investigators and the general public.
When Lyndon Johnson told aide Marvin Watson in April 1967 that he thought the CIA had something do with Kennedy’s assassination, was he influenced by Garrison’s homophobia? No. He was speaking from long experience as a power broker at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
When Fidel Castro warned of “a Machiavellian plot” to blame Cuba for the crime of Dallas, was he a deluded fool animated by prejudice? No. He was a canny tactician who knew all about CIA assassination plots because his security forces had dismantled hundreds of them.
Long, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, acknowledges that the CIA was “undeniably guilty of dissemblance, if not outright deceit, but no documents have been released that indicate intelligence agency participation in the assassination.”
She seems mercifully unaware of the declassified documentation of the CIA’s surveillance and manipulation of Oswald, as well as the organizing principle of covert operations, which is to make sure they stay secret from conception to eternity–even from people inside the CIA. Her innocence gives her unwarranted confidence in the Agency’s veracity.
Rather than consider the new fact pattern found in the historical record, Long pledges allegiance to the theory of a lone gunman, which, let us remember, was duly endorsed by the racist Kennedy-hater J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Helms, the only CIA director ever convicted of a crime, If you don’t believe Hoover and Helms on JFK’s assassination, Professor Long argues, you’re a fool.
I submit she’s got it exactly backwards.
A KGB Plot?
On Rolling Stone’s web site, former New York Times reporter Tim Weiner recycled the contrived claim that Stone’s movie was the product of, drumroll please, a KGB disinformation plot. Weiner’s piece in does not mention the Assassination Records Review Board, or any information that has emerged since the late 1990s. The omission is striking.
Rather than report on new evidence, Weiner retails what he calls “the origin story” of Stone’s movie. This is a yarn first spun by Max Holland, a pro-CIA writer whose theory about the gunfire that killed Kennedy has been repudiated by defenders of the Warren Commission. Following Holland’s dubious lead, Weiner argues that an article published in an Italian newspaper in March 1967 speculating about a CIA conspiracy to kill Kennedy was planted by the KGB and read by Garrison. On that one article, Garrison supposedly built his conspiracy case. Because Stone portrayed Garrison heroically in his movie, the argument goes, the director got his “loony” interpretation of November 22 from a hostile intelligence agency.
It’s an ungainly contraption of an argument. As DiEugenio has pointed out in a heated post on his Kennedys and King blog, the Italian article was published after Garrison launched his investigation
But the most distinctive feature of Weiner’s critique, like Long’s, is its irrelevance. Whatever one thinks of Garrison’s failed prosecution in 1969 and Stone’s award-winning film in 1991, those events do not and cannot change the facts of what happened on November 22, 1963.
Was Garrison a ruthless homophobe? Was Stone the dupe of wily communists? A more pertinent question would be, what do such loaded questions tell us about the causes of Kennedy’s assassination? About Oswald’s guilt or innocence? They tell us absolutely nothing. Stone’s critics are more adept at constructing straw men than facing the facts.
Yes, JFK the movie influenced public thinking, but Oliver Stone didn’t make Americans believe in a conspiracy. Two statistically valid polls done by the National Opinion Research Center in late November 1963 found more than 60 percent of people in Dallas and nationwide believed more than one person was involved in Kennedy’s assassination. At the time, Stone attending boarding school in Pennsylvania.
Despite the insinuations of Stone’s critics, suspicions of conspiracy did not originate in Hollywood or the fantasies of theorists but in the circumstances of the crime in Dallas, and the CIA’s consistent record of denial, deception, and delay ever since.
My Interview With Oliver
As Stone’s findings about the CIA’s role in the events of 1963, JFK Revisited is based, in part, on interviews with me and historian John Newman. Newman is a historian and former Army Intelligence officer who pioneered research on the CIA and FBI files. He has written four books on JFK’s policies in Vietnam and Cuba. I have written three biographies of top CIA officials involved in the events of 1963. In attacks on Stone, I looked for attacks on our work and was relieved to find none.
Stone interviewed Newman about what the new files show about Kennedy’s intentions in Vietnam. He asked me about the CIA’s pre-assassination file on Oswald and what it tells about covert operations involving the accused assassin.
Newman and I cited documents and interviews to support our view that top Agency officers had a keen interest in Oswald held on a need-to-know basis six weeks before Kennedy was killed.
We described the new evidence that has come to light in the last 20 years. Newman explained how the FBI removed Oswald’s name from a security watchlist after he contacted the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City. I talked about how a covert political action program, code named AMSPELL, generated propaganda about Oswald before and after Kennedy was killed. I detailed how George Joannides, a Miami-based covert action specialist CIA ran that operation in 1963 and obstructed Congress’s JFK investigation in 1978.
We don’t claim any one of these facts is “smoking gun” proof of a conspiracy. But they are facts, facts that most readers of the Washington Post, the New York Times and Rolling Stone do not know. If Newman and I are wrong on the facts–or mistaken in our analysis–some expert refutation would seem to be in order.
Radio silence. Weiner, author of a good history of the CIA, did not contest anything we said. He didn’t dispute our factual claims. He didn’t question our documentation. He didn’t interview scholars who could refute us, support us, or comment knowledgably. Like Professor Long, he changed the subject.
In the end, Stone’s critics argue anachronistically. They deploy identity politics and Cold War propaganda to impugn a phantom of their own imagination and spare themselves the trouble of asking most basic journalistic question about the new JFK files: What do we know today, that we didn’t know yesterday?
A Dissenting Note
While I’m satisfied with my contribution to JFK Revisited, I must dissent from one of Stone’s claims. About halfway through the film, he says “Conspiracy theories have become conspiracy facts.” Stone is an intellectual pugilist, and this is the journalistic equivalent of leading with your jaw, which heavyweight boxers are prone to do. With a great deal of respect, I disagree.
Conspiracy is a legal concept that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a specific individual is guilty in a court of law. In the case of the murdered president, I see no such proof. But that does not mean the official theory of a lone gunman is true. That’s the type of non sequitur offered by O.J. Simpson who, after his acquittal of double murder said, in effect, “I wasn’t convicted in a court of law, therefore I’m innocent.” Of course, when Simpson faced a civil suit in which the legal standard was not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but “the preponderance of evidence,” he was swiftly found culpable.
After 30 years of reporting on the CIA’s role in the JFK story, I am not persuaded by the Agency’s O.J. Simpson defense. I see no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that any one CIA employee was guilty of plotting to kill Kennedy. But that does not mean CIA officers were innocent of malfeasance in the wrongful death of the president. To the contrary, I think, like LBJ and Castro, that the preponderance of evidence shows Kennedy was killed by enemies in his own government. These enemies cannot yet be identified because of the bizarre and suspicious secrecy that still surrounds the JFK files 58 years after the fact.
The State of the Case
Rest assured, I didn’t come by my views via the KGB or QAnon or even Oliver Stone. My thinking has been most influenced recently by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a retired CIA officer who teaches, ironically enough, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His espionage credentials are impressive. He is playing a leading role in the counterintelligence investigation that snared Soviet spy Aldrich Ames. He ran operations deep in the sphere of Russian influence. As his memoir, State of Mind: Faith and CIA demonstrates, he is a creative thinker with a penetrating mind.
In a compelling presentation to JFK researchers in Dallas in November 2019, Mowatt-Larssen made a cogent case that the gunfire in Dealey Plaza was the product of a tightly compartmentalized operation, mounted by Kennedy’s enemies in the ranks of the CIA that was probably known to only four or five people. Mowatt-Larssen’ interpretation strikes me as more convincing than the large conspiracy that Stone evokes in JFK the movie and implies in JFK Revisited.
While I cannot identify the leaders in such a conspiracy, if there was one, I can identify one participant, the late George Joannides. He was the Miami-based undercover officer whose agents generated propaganda about Oswald and Castro before and after JFK was killed. Fifteen years later, he was called out of retirement to stonewall the House Select Committee on Assassination, a performance that won him a CIA medal.
His story was partially uncovered by my 16 year-long Freedom of Information lawsuit for Joannides’s files, as covered by the Associated Press and USA Today. But key documents remain out of public view, thanks to a split appellate court decision by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. In his last ruling before ascending to the Supreme Court in July 2018, Kavanaugh ruled that the CIA deserved “deference upon deference” when it came to JFK records. In their refusal to confront the new historical record of Kennedy’s assassination, our newspapers of records and Stone’s critics, display a Kavanaughian deference at the expense of their own credibility.
To be sure, there is no evidence that Joannides (who died in 1991) was witting to a plot to kill Kennedy. There is abundant evidence that he was an accessory after the fact. Joannides did not conspire to kill the president. He blocked the investigation of those who probably did.
I say “probably” because we don’t have all the evidence. The CIA continues to withhold 44 documents about Joannides’s secret operations, including an unexplained high-level security clearance in the summer of 1963 and a missing performance evaluation from September 1978 when he was stonewalling congressional investigators.
The withholding of these ancient documents is not smoking gun proof of conspiracy but it is solid evidence that the CIA still has something significant to hide about JFK’s assassination. If and when Joannides’s personnel file and thousands of other still-secret CIA records become public, the question of a large vs small conspiracy–or no conspiracy at all–will be clarified. We won’t see those files until December 15, 2022 at the earliest.
Until then, I can say Oliver Stone represented my views fairly and accurately, and none of his critics have disputed the analysis I shared with him and his audience. So, while there is much to be learned about the role of certain senior CIA officers in monitoring and manipulating Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, JFK Revisited stands out as a journalistic service that the Washington Post and the New York Times have so far shirked.
- * Note to fact checkers: I’m referring to CIA files of Birch O’Neal, Angleton’s aide who opened the Agency’s first file on Oswald in 1959; J. Walton Moore, the CIA’s man in Dallas who knew Oswald had returned to Texas in June 1962; Ann Goodpasture, Angleton’s protégé who ran the surveillance operations that picked up on Oswald’s conversations with Cuban and Russian officials; David Phillips, chief of Cuba operations in Mexico City who had trouble keeping his Oswald stories straight; and George Joannides, who obstructed Congress’s JFK investigation in 1978. Their still-redacted files are searchable at the Web site of the Mary Ferrell Foundation. ↑
(Jefferson Morley is the author of the forthcoming Scorpions’ Dance; The President, the Spymaster and Watergate, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in June 2022.)