Monday, October 27, 2008

Brothers In Arms: The Kennedys, the Castros, and the Politics of Murder


Like a great many students of the assassination, I have come to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald alone, fired the fatal shots that killed President Kennedy forty-five years ago next month. One nagging question remains: Why?

Quite a few authors have attempted to answer that question over the last four decades and of course millions of pages of documents have been released since the original 1964 Warren Commission investigation to color our perception of what happened in Dallas and why.

Brothers In Arms: The Kennedys, the Castros, and the Politics of Murder by Gus Russo and Stephen Molton (Bloomsbury, 2008), just out this week, is the latest to tackle the assassination question and it’s a jaw dropper.

From Cuban intelligence agent Maria Luisa Calderon’s intercepted telephone conversation (tape recorded just ninety minutes after the shots in Dallas and best appreciated in its original audio form) to multiple reports of Cuban agents stationed at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City packing up and blowing town shortly after the Kennedy murder, Brothers In Arms doesn’t just light a powder keg under the question of Cuban complicity in the Kennedy assassination, it sets off a nuclear explosion.

If anyone else had authored this book, I might have had considerable doubts about the veracity of the remarkable new information presented between the book’s clapboard covers – especially in the wake of a recent flood of, shall we say, less than stellar efforts by authors claiming to uncover bonafide evidence of the big CIA-based, right-wing conspiracy so central to most conspiracy claims and so eagerly embraced by a legion of conspiracy fans who are more than happy to accept the notion that our own government killed Kennedy despite disturbing evidence to the contrary.

The material presented in Brothers In Arms, however, comes largely from the work of investigative journalist Gus Russo, who I’ve known and admired for many years. The author of Supermob, The Outfit, and Live by the Sword (the last two which were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), Russo has worked as an investigative reporter for PBS’s Frontline, ABC News Special Reports, and Dan Rather’s CBS Reports, and as a consultant for programs such as 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, and Eye to Eye with Connie Chung.

Russo has had far more face-to-face time with officers of the Dallas Police, FBI, CIA, and Secret Service, as well as presidential advisers, U.S. congressional investigators, and numerous foreign intelligence service officers than anyone I know.

In some paranoid corners of the so-called “JFK assassination research community,” Russo’s contacts and connections make him the enemy. The reality, of course, is that Russo’s connections give him unprecedented access to perhaps the only people who can still shed light on the questions surrounding Oswald’s horrific deed.

As Russo and co-author Stephen Molton report, “Although one might expect all these agents’ disparate agendas to cloud the issue, in fact the opposite was true. A pattern reflecting the true essence of the Kennedy story began to emerge. Among this hierarchy, there is a startling amount of agreement. When trying to ferret out the facts of history, there is nothing more impressive than this sort of unanimity by agents with traditionally opposing agendas.”

One person who proved central to Russo’s research was German documentary filmmaker and investigative reporter Wilfried “Willi” Huismann, who persuaded the German television network WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln) to underwrite new research into the labyrinth of foreign intrigue surrounding the Kennedy case. The result was the 2006 German television documentary Rendezvous with Death which received rave reviews in Europe but was roundly criticized in the U.S. (the program was never broadcast in the United States) for failing to offer documented support for many of its reported claims.

Truth is, while the documentary film itself offered limited support for its charges – which is more an indictment of the European-style versus American-style of documentary filmmaking than the actual research that went into the film – Huismann, Russo, and their collaborators assembled a treasure trove of documentation from KGB, Cuban, Mexican Secret Police, and recently unredacted U.S. government files to support the film’s thesis. The essence of that documentation is presented in Brothers In Arms.

Here are just a few of Russo and Molton’s revelations:
  • Fabian “Roberto” Escalante Font, who later became a top Cuban Intelligence officer, attended spy school in Minsk, USSR, during the period would-be defector Oswald was there.

  • The Soviets sent Oswald’s encrypted KGB file to Cuban Intelligence in July, 1962 (shortly after Oswald’s return to the U.S.), instructing the Cubans “to observe Oswald in the U.S.”

  • Dr. Rolando Cubela Secades, (who was assigned the CIA code name AM/LASH) met with Oswald and recruited him as “a foreign collaborator” in the fall of 1962.

  • During a 1966 interrogation session, following his arrest for an attempted assassination of Fidel Castro, Rolando Cubela (a.k.a. AM/LASH), in an attempt to have his punishment mitigated, reminded his captors that it was his initial meetings with Oswald that led to the ultimate removal of Fidel Castro’s archenemy President Kennedy. Dr. Cubela told his interrogators that he met “repeatedly, several times” with Oswald beginning in late 1962.

  • CIA debriefing files on Cubela from early 1963, which had been stolen by a KGB “penetration agent” and spirited to the Soviet Union, noted that Cubela told the CIA that the shooter in the then-unsolved General Edwin A. Walker attempted murder was a Dallas resident named Lee Oswald.

  • Oswald attended a party at the home of Silvia Duran’s brother-in-law, Ruben Duran, and was in the company of two Americans and “a Latin American Negro man with red hair.”

  • Oswald was seen meeting with a tall, slim, black man with red hair identified as Cesar Morales Mesa, a Cuban Intelligence officer who used the cover names ‘Carlos,’ ‘Ernesto,’ or ‘Ernie,’ in the garage of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City in 1963. Morales Mesa was working with the Mexican Secret Service (DFS) in counterespionage.

  • A G2 Cuban Intelligence agent told an associate on November 20, 1963, that “a crazy American” claimed he was willing to kill Kennedy and had been promised safe refuge and money when he got to Mexico after the killing.

  • Maria Luisa Calderon, a DGI Cuban Intelligence agent, seemed to know in advance that Oswald would attempt to kill Kennedy. Calderon discussed a plane scheduled to arrive in Mexico City at 4:00 p.m. on November 22nd.

  • Cuban intelligence agents planned to kill Oswald if he made it to Mexico after the assassination.

  • Silvia Duran was arrested by Mexican Secret Police and beaten. She confessed that she had an affair with Oswald. Luis Alberu, a CIA asset, confirmed the Duran-Oswald affair with Duran in 1967.

  • Vladimir Rodriguez Lahera, a DGI Cuban Intelligence defector, told the CIA in May, 1964, that Oswald had contacts with Cuban intelligence agents before his trip to Mexico City in September 1963, and had maintained contact with them after his return to the United States. Among those who dealt with Oswald were Manuel Vega Perez and Rogelio Rodriguez Lopez (two DGI staff officers assigned to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City), and Maria Luisa Calderon, who was Oswald’s contact.

  • In March 1968, Win Scott, CIA station chief in Mexico City, told LBJ confidant Marty Underwood that in the early morning hours of November 22, 1963, a small Cuban airplane carrying Fabian “Roberto” Escalante Font, a top Cuban Intelligence officer and confidant of Fidel and Raul Castro, landed at Mexico City. Escalante transferred to another waiting plane which immediately took off for Dallas. Later that evening, Escalante returned from Dallas, transferred back to the Cuban airplane and left for Havana. Escalante had also been definitely identified as having been in Mexico City in September 1963 at the same time Oswald was there. It was Scott’s belief that Escalante had been sent to Dallas by Castro as “an observer.”

  • In 1976, Fabian “Roberto” Escalante Font, who had risen to the head of the Cuban Department of State Security (DSE), denied the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) access to key Cuban witnesses to Oswald’s Mexico City trip including Maria Luisa Calderon.

That’s just for starters. There is much, much more in this 545 page tome – all of it intriguing and delivered in a richly readable form. On-line you’ll find more Brothers In Arms material including an additional appendix by Russo and Molton entitled, “The Sordid History of Cuba’s Spy Apparatus,” as well as a collection of “The Marty Underwood-Win Scott Papers.”

There will no doubt be cynics and others who will point to the inconsistencies in the various accounts presented in Brothers in Arms; eager to dismiss Russo and Molton’s work as too fantastic to believe, or worse, an effort by “the enemy” to once again blame Kennedy’s death on the Fidel Castro. That would be a mistake.

After reading the manuscript for Brothers In Arms, I re-read another intriguing work, a paperback re-issue of John Newman’s Oswald and the CIA (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008), which includes a new updated chapter. Newman’s thesis is nearly the polar opposite of Russo and Molton’s thesis – Oswald was used (wittingly or unwittingly) by rogue elements of the CIA to assassinate Kennedy and blame the crime on the Castro regime.

This has been a common theme in conspiracy literature since first suggested, oddly enough, by Soviet Radio TASS in the hours after the assassination, and later embraced by a legion of left-leaning conspiracy authors and theorists.

While Newman offers some important information on the FBI and CIA’s handling of the Oswald file(s), and the disturbing implications, there are some rather large holes in the logic of Newman’s theory when it comes to the particulars of the “plot.” Even Newman acknowledges that it is more suspicion than substance.

Personally, I find the idea that Oswald was involved with the Cubans to be far more compelling simply because Oswald repeatedly revealed himself to be a committed leftist during the course of his twenty-four short years.

On the other hand, it could be that the real truth of the Kennedy assassination lies in the gray area between these politically charged right and left factions.

I don’t profess to have an answer to the why behind Oswald’s deed. But, I’m always fascinated by well-researched and impeccably realized works like Brothers In Arms.

When such power luminaries as Joseph A. Califano, a close confidant of Robert F. Kennedy and former Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Special Assistant for Domestic Affairs to President Lyndon Johnson, write an endorsement which includes, “…Each chapter [of Brothers In Arms] peels off another layer of the subterfuge and cover-ups that have hidden the facts about Robert Kennedy’s determination to assassinate Castro and Castro’s involvement in the assassination of President John Kennedy. What Robert Kennedy (to protect his family’s legacy) and Lyndon Johnson (to protect the national security) kept secret from the Warren Commission is at last available to the American people and the world,” you can’t help but sit up and take notice, you know?

Perhaps even more astounding than Mr. Califano’s assessment of Brothers In Arms is the comment made by Jeremy Gunn, the Assassination Record Review Board’s (ARRB) chief intelligence analyst. Gunn, who handled the Escalante-Underwood story for the ARRB and who saw still classified material about Escalante at CIA told Russo, “The single most interesting part of the story is Mexico City, and the single most tantalizing lead we received was your report on Escalante, which we followed up aggressively. I went to CIA and saw their file on him [Escalante], which I can’t discuss because it’s classified. All I will say is that I saw some things there that made my jaw drop. Bottom line; follow Escalante, especially where he was before the assassination.”

As a result of Gunn’s comments and Russo’s work on the Cuban question, a swell of new interest in declassifying the files on Escalante and other Cuban agents has been taking place behind the scenes for the last two years at the National Archives as official new demands are made for foreign governments to come clean with what they know. That is hardly the kind of action that results from fantasy-based conspiracy theories without teeth.

Is Brothers In Arms the final chapter to the story of Lee Harvey Oswald? The authors believe it is. For myself, I am always a bit skeptical of any final solution to the Kennedy assassination. I’ve read plenty of so-called final solutions over the past three and a-half decades, and no doubt so have you.

However, after forty-five years, the passing of many of the principal players, and access to millions of pages of documentary evidence, one eventually gets to the point of asking: How much evidence constitutes enough proof?

Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote, “To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.” Historians know that proofs based on mathematics or courtroom standards are unattainable in all but the rarest of circumstances. Those who crave a “smoking gun” in the Kennedy assassination are inevitably frustrated by the realities of historical research.

Russo and Molton are convinced that the conclusions presented in Brothers In Arms finally explain the disparate actions of all the key players before, during, and after the events of Dallas given the “vicissitudes of human memory and the woeful incompleteness of the written record, not to mention the basic human propensity to exaggerate and dissemble.”

I believe they’ve come as close as anyone to explaining why Oswald might have pulled the trigger in Dallas. Moreover, their book represents the first believable, unified conspiracy theory written about the Kennedy assassination to date.

Anyway you cut it, Gus Russo and Stephen Molton’s Brothers In Arms is a rare, sobering, valuable contribution to factual literature on the Kennedy case and a must read book no matter what you now believe about November, 1963.

Monday, October 20, 2008

J. Carl Day Dead at 94: Investigated scene of JFK shooting

by JOE SIMNACHER / The Dallas Morning News

J. Carl Day was embarrassed by the way people around the world interpreted his hoisting of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle in Dallas police headquarters the evening of Nov. 22, 1963.

Many accused the Dallas police lieutenant and crime lab chief of waving the rifle as if to display a trophy. He said his action was actually that of a dutiful fingerprint expert, protectively lifting evidence above an unexpected hoard of reporters.

It was also a snapshot of one day in Mr. Day's more than 35-year career with the Dallas Police Department.

Mr. Day, 94, died Thursday [10/16] of natural causes at a Duncanville nursing home.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Monday at First United Methodist Church in Duncanville.

Mr. Day had no idea he was stepping onto a world stage that evening after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy nearly 45 years ago, said his daughter, Janice Hoyt of Dallas.

He was examining the rifle when homicide Capt. Will Fritz asked him to bring the weapon to the third floor of the Police Department to see if Marina Oswald could identify it as her husband's.

"Well when I got off at the third floor, I was shocked," he said for his oral history for The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. He lifted the rifle above the fray to protect the evidence.

"He was embarrassed about that," Mrs. Hoyt said.

Mr. Day was born in Dallas, where he graduated from Sunset High School. He worked at several jobs before applying to join the Dallas Police Department as a means of landing well-paying and dependable employment.

He joined the department in 1940 and worked there until enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He served with the shore patrol based in Dallas.

After the war, Mr. Day returned to the Police Department, where he served in burglary and homicide before being assigned to the identification bureau in 1948.

Mr. Day spent the next 28 years with the identification bureau and saw it evolve into a more modern crime lab.

He developed a remarkable talent for his work, his daughter said.

"He took pride in everything he did," Mrs. Hoyt said. "They now have computers [for identification methods], but then he had to do it from memory."

Her father could recognize a line or whorl from a fingerprint and link it to a case, his daughter said.

Mr. Day was heavily involved in the crime scene investigation surrounding the Kennedy assassination. He arrived at the Texas School Book Depository soon after the shooting. He gathered fingerprint evidence, took photographs and carefully transported the rifle to police headquarters.

He retired in January 1977 and began traveling with his wife in their Airstream trailer, his daughter said.

Mr. Day didn't have many hobbies but simply enjoyed being with his family.

When asked in his oral history what he was doing in retirement, Mr. Day quipped: "Nothing that I don't have to."

He did occasional fingerprint analysis for defense attorneys, something that made the former longtime police lieutenant somewhat uneasy, his daughter said.

"It was kind of strange for him, because all the sudden he was on the defense side," his daughter said. "He was so proud of being a Dallas policeman and so loyal to the Dallas police."

He was a member of Oak Cliff United Methodist Church for 56 years before joining First United Methodist Church in Duncanville.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Day is survived by his wife, Elaine Day of Dallas; a son, Carl Randall Day of Dallas; and four grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.

Source: Dallas Morning News