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J.F.K. Conspiracy a KGB Hoax?

National Post, 4 August 2001

A note: For some of my recent posts on this issue, see here and here.

Did the CIA conspire to murder president John F. Kennedy? According to a 1997 poll, just over half of Americans consider the direct involvement of federal officials in the assassination either "very likely" or "somewhat likely."

But one U.S. researcher believes that the public is fingering the wrong conspiracy for the wrong crime. Max Holland, a Research Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says that newly released documents suggest that the KGB might have planted critical evidence about CIA involvement in the assassination. The result? The prosecution (and persecution) of an innocent man, and a cancer at the heart of American democracy.

Jim GarrisonA contributing editor for the left-wing U.S. weekly The Nation, Mr. Holland is now completing a book on the Warren Commission, which concluded in 1964 that Kennedy had been assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. Mr. Holland is among the remaining 13% of Americans who still support that view. In a recent issue of Wilson Quarterly, Mr. Holland takes aim at one of the earliest and most influential conspiracy theorists , New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Mr. Garrison was lionized in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK , with Kevin Costner portraying the prosecutor as a humble but dedicated truth-seeker. Not so, says Mr. Holland. In fact, Mr. Garrison appears to have been taken in by an elaborate hoax spread by the KGB — and published in Italian and Canadian newspapers.

For readers of Christopher Andrew’s The Mitrokhin Archive (1999), the story might have a familiar ring. As Mr. Andrew explains over the phone, the KGB "spread such conspiracy theories as a regular part of its influence and operations." For instance, documents smuggled out of Russia by Vasilii Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist, suggest that the KGB secretly subsidized the work of Mark Lane, one of the most respected of the commission’s critics — possibly without Mr. Lane’s knowledge.

But no one played a more important role in spreading the notion of CIA complicity in Mr. Kennedy’s assassination than Jim Garrison. Mr. Garrison, who died in 1992, attracted fame and ridicule for his 1967 arrest of Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman accused of masterminding the assassination.

Initially, Mr. Garrison called the assassination a "homosexual thrill-killing"; Mr. Kennedy had been chosen as a target because he was "a successful, handsome, popular, wealthy, virile man." But Mr. Garrison’s theory quickly evolved. "What happened at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’état," he wrote in his 1988 memoir, On the Trail of the Assassins. "I believe that it was instigated and planned long in advance by fanatical anti-communists in the United States intelligence community."

What changed his mind? According to Mr. Garrison’s memoirs, it was stories in the Italian left-wing press that first "exposed" Mr. Shaw’s "extensive international role as an employee of the CIA." In JFK , a critical scene has Mr. Garrison taunting Mr. Shaw with clippings from these very articles, and questioning Mr. Shaw’s association with a trade promotion group known as Centro Mondiale Commerciale (CMC). This company, Mr. Costner drawls, was "a creature of the CIA for the transfer of funds in Italy for illegal political-espionage activity." The first North American reports of these charges appeared in articles written by Louis Wiznitzer for Montreal’s Le Devoir. (One of CMC’s stakeholders was a Montreal resident named L.M. Bloomfield.) In his memoirs, Mr. Garrison specifically singles out the importance of Le Devoir‘s stories.

But Mr. Holland believes that the CIA-CMC connection is a fantasy. In a batch of Mitrokhin documents released in Italy in 1999 , Mr. Holland came across a brief mention of a successful 1967 "emplacement" of disinformation through the very newspaper praised by Mr. Garrison. Recently declassified CIA documents also appear to discredit the newspaper reports.

Salvatore Panzeca, a Louisiana defence attorney who was on the legal team that helped acquit Mr. Shaw, says he feels vindicated. "We defended an innocent man charged with one of the most terrible crimes in our history," he says. "That’s the bottom line."

But Zachary Sklar, who co-wrote the screenplay of JFK and worked with Mr. Garrison on his memoirs, is skeptical. "I don’t think the story has any significance at all," he says. "Is it possible that the KGB planted such a story? Of course it is. Does it mean that it’s true or not true? Who knows? That’s what has to be checked out." Mr. Sklar admits that the stories influenced Garrison, but points out that Shaw was arrested before they appeared.

According to Patricia Lambert, whose 1999 book False Witness was severely critical of the Garrison investigation, the stories may help explain "Garrison’s determination to continue to pursue his investigation even though some of those around him urged him not to." And she is troubled by evidence of KGB manipulation. "It’s as though the KGB won this little war," says Ms. Lambert. "We won the Cold War, and they won the psychological war. It’s horrifying to me to think that the KGB might actually have shaped our thinking on this event."

Mr. Holland agrees. If the strong circumstantial evidence is to be believed, then it might be the "single most effective active measure undertaken by the KGB against the United States." Mr. Holland points to the "corrosive cynicism" that Americans continue to harbour about their own government. "Garrison is the one who legitimated the notion of CIA complicity. People gave him the benefit of the doubt because he was an elected official, and there was no reason to believe he was reckless — just like they gave Joseph McCarthy the benefit of the doubt. They were both audacious liars."

Will the revelation help stamp out the embers of conspiracy speculation? Not a chance. Joan Mellen, a Temple University English professor now working on a biography of Mr. Garrison, remains deeply suspicious of both message and messenger. "Where are all these [Mitrokhin] documents coming from?" she asks. "This Christopher Andrew — who is he, and what are his connections? . . . And where does this Holland come from? I really think you should be doing a story on Holland as a purveyor of disinformation."