After a week of media overkill triggered by the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the American public is left as bewildered as ever by the “crime of the 20th century.” ABC News took the part of the establishment media this time (a role played on past JFK anniversaries by CBS and the New York Times), reassuring us in a two-hour Thursday special report hosted by Peter Jennings that the Warren Commission got it right in 1964: Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, case closed. But a poll released by the network itself in time for its special underscored just how unconvincing the public finds this official version: four decades after the president’s murder, 68 percent of Americans stubbornly refuse to believe that Oswald was a lone assassin, and the same number think there was “an official cover-up” to hide the truth about the assassination from the public.
This deep cloud of suspicion has enabled conspiracy theories to flourish, and the wildest one this season is being advanced by none other than White House spokesman Scott McClellan’s father, Barr, who worked in the late ’60s for a Texas law firm that represented Lyndon Johnson. In a new book, “Blood, Money & Power,” McClellan charges that LBJ conspired with his old boss, power attorney Edward Clark, and Texas oil interests to replace Kennedy through the barrel of a gun.
McClellan’s allegation fits the flamboyant pattern set by the master of fevered conspiracy dreams, Oliver Stone, who is back this anniversary with a new director’s cut of “JFK,” his 1991 indictment of the CIA, the military-industrial complex and, yes, LBJ. Only a Hollywood moviemaker as gloriously and arrogantly wrong-headed about history as Stone could have seized upon the corrupt and supremely weird New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison — who brought, and spectacularly lost, the only legal case related to the assassination before a jury — as a great American hero.
But if moonstruck conspiracy-weavers like Stone and McClellan give JFK conspiracy research a bad name, that doesn’t mean the Warren Commission was right. As even its most resolute defenders — such as Gerald Posner, author of the 1993 bestseller “Case Closed” — concede, the distinguished panel headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was denied key pieces of the puzzle by the FBI and the CIA. And the most important pieces of information related to the CIA/Mafia plot against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the illegal FBI surveillance of Mafia leaders, which revealed a widespread and murderous hostility toward President Kennedy and his crime-busting brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The Warren panel did have a neon-bright sign pointing to the Mafia right before its eyes — Jack Ruby, the Mob-connected nightclub owner who murdered Oswald on national television — but the commission inexplicably decided not to pursue this angle. Commission investigators credulously accepted the word of a Chicago hood named Lenny Patrick that Ruby had no underworld ties, when in fact it was Patrick himself who had run Ruby out of town for stepping on his gambling turf.
Bobby Kennedy was not so credulous. Kennedy, who according to his biographer Evan Thomas “regarded the Warren Commission as a public relations exercise to reassure the public,” immediately turned his suspicions on the Mafia, CIA, and anti-Castro Cubans after his brother’s murder. He would accept the solemn word of fellow Irish Catholic John McCone, the CIA director, that the agency had nothing to do with the crime. But he would go to his grave in 1968 suspecting that JFK was the victim of a plot, and his thoughts lingered darkly on the lords of the underworld. In the years after JFK’s assassination, as Bobby was elected to the Senate from New York in 1964 and then ran for president in 1968, he would launch more than one of his old Mafia-hunting Justice Department associates on a search for the truth, including Walter Sheridan and Ed Guthman, and even his press secretary Frank Mankiewicz.
“Bobby said to me, ‘You look into this, read everything you can, so if it gets to a point where I can do something about this, you can tell me what I need to know,’” Mankiewicz recently told me. “I became an assassination buff. I came to the conclusion that there was some sort of conspiracy, probably between the Mob, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, and maybe rogue CIA agents. Every so often I would bring this up with Bobby. I told him who I thought was involved. But it was like he couldn’t focus on it, he’d get this look of pain or more like numbness on his face. It just tore him apart.”
Kennedy had reason to be haunted by his brother’s death: he knew that his organized-crime crusade as JFK’s attorney general might have triggered Jack’s murder. Like a long line of American politicians — including his legendary rivals Johnson and Nixon — Jack Kennedy was not above using the Mafia for favors. The family patriarch Joe Kennedy had organized crime ties dating back to his bootlegging days and the Kennedys used these connections to deliver money and votes during the 1960 presidential campaign, principally in the West Virginia primary and in Chicago during the general election, which tipped the key Illinois electoral vote into the Democratic column. The priapic JFK was also quite happy to move in Frank Sinatra’s hedonistic social circle and share women like Judith Campbell with Mafia dons (until Bobby, Jack’s vigilant keeper, warned his brother to drop both the singer and the call girl). As president, Kennedy allowed the CIA to continue its unholy alliance with the Mafia to kill Castro, a covert operation hatched in the final days of the Eisenhower administration.
And yet, as attorney general, Bobby Kennedy waged a merciless war against these very same underworld kingpins. While FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had long insisted there was no such thing as the Mafia, Kennedy knew better, and he took the number of organized crime convictions from a mere 35 in 1960 to 288 in 1963, a figure that doubled within a year as a result of the momentum built up in the last months of the Kennedy reign. Bobby created a “Get Hoffa” unit in the Justice Department to hound the Teamster leader, who had turned the union’s pension fund into a piggy bank for the Mob. He even unceremoniously deported the powerful godfather of Louisiana, Carlos Marcello, who had cops, FBI agents and politicians in his pocket.
Bobby was the Kennedy family’s avenging angel. And if his family had stooped to conquer in American politics, he would remove the stain from their name by ridding the country of the underworld bosses who were subverting American government, business and labor.
Not surprisingly, organized crime leaders were outraged by what they saw as a Kennedy double cross. And no Mafia lord was more venomously agitated against the Kennedy brothers than Marcello, who spent two nightmarish months of exile in Central America before slipping secretly back into the country. According to the testimony of a Marcello business colleague named Edward Becker later given to government investigators, the New Orleans godfather made an ominous threat in fall 1962. “Don’t worry about that little Bobby sonofabitch,” said Marcello. He said he would make sure the “dog” stopped biting, not by cutting off its tail — Bobby — but its head, the president. Marcello also spoke of taking out “insurance” for the president’s assassination by “setting up a nut to take the blame … the way they do it all the time in Sicily.”
Lee Harvey Oswald was known to the Marcello organization through Marcello’s private investigator David Ferrie, a strange fixture in many JFK conspiracy theories. (Ferrie had a rare disease that caused him to lose all his hair, which he replaced with bad mohawk hairpieces and fake eyebrows.) Ferrie, a former Eastern Airlines pilot who was active in secretive anti-Castro operations, had served as the commander of Oswald’s teenage civil air patrol unit and was seen socializing with him in New Orleans during the summer of 1963.
Bobby Kennedy never got into a position to reopen the file on his brother’s assassination — as he told a crowd of California college students he would in 1968 if elected president. But one of the young federal prosecutors who had worked for him at the Justice Department — inspired by the battle cry in Shakespeare’s “Henry the Fifth,” they and Bobby referred to themselves as “we band of brothers” — would. In 1977, G. Robert Blakey, who had worked on Bobby’s “Get Hoffa” team, was named chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the only government panel besides the Warren Commission to investigate JFK’s murder. Blakey, an organized crime expert who wrote the 1970 RICO act, would go into the two-year, $6 million probe believing the committee would reach the same conclusions as the Warren Commission. He would emerge as the Warren Report’s most authoritative critic and a firm believer that Kennedy had died as the result of a conspiracy, masterminded by Marcello and his Mafia ally, Santo Trafficante, the Florida godfather who had been driven out of the lucrative Havana casino business by Castro and who had been recruited in the CIA plot to kill the Cuban leader.
The Assassinations Committee was expected to corroborate the Warren Report, but in its final days of hearings, the panel heard surprising testimony from three acoustics experts that pushed the investigators in the conspiracy direction. Sound evidence inadvertently recorded by a Dallas motorcycle patrolman’s microphone, they testified, proved there was a fourth shot in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22 — and it came from the direction of the infamous grassy knoll. Since Oswald only had enough time to fire three shots from his Book Depository perch and couldn’t possibly have fired from the grassy knoll, it meant a second shooter — and a conspiracy.
The committee issued its stunning final report in July 1979: Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” And while the committee found no evidence that “the national syndicate of organized crime, as a group” or “anti-Castro Cuban groups, as groups” were involved in the plot, it could not “preclude the possibility that individual members of (these organizations) may have been involved.”
Afterwards, the committee’s acoustics findings were cast in doubt by a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which asserted that the sounds contained on the police dictabelt were simply static. In 2001, the NAS panel was in turn challenged by a study conducted by government scientist D.B. Thomas and published in the British forensics journal Science and Justice, which found that there was indeed a fourth shot from the grassy knoll.
Because of the dispute surrounding the Assassination Committee’s acoustics evidence, the committee’s report has lost credibility over the years. In its Thursday special report, ABC News put Blakey briefly on camera, only to dismiss his organized crime theory and to offer another technical rebuttal of the acoustics-based second-shooter theory.
But Blakey’s case is not as easily brushed aside as ABC would have it. His case is not just based on the sound evidence from Dealey Plaza, which might or might not stand the test of time, but on voluminous research compiled by his committee staff on Oswald, Ruby, and alleged Mafia conspirators Marcello and Trafficante. Blakey presents this case, including new information unearthed after the committee’s report, in his 1981 book, “Fatal Hour: The Assassination of President Kennedy by Organized Crime,” which was revised in 1992. It’s a case that many assassination experts find persuasive, including former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Jonathan Kwitny, who declared flatly, “Bob Blakey’s staff cracked the case.”
Last Sunday, as the 40th anniversary media circus began, I sat down with Blakey in his home in South Bend, Ind., close to the Notre Dame campus, where he has taught law since 1980. During a two-hour interview, the 67-year-old Blakey, who combines the no-nonsense manner of a federal prosecutor with the intimidating Socratic style of the professor from “The Paper Chase,” made two things as clear as a court summons: He still believes there was a conspiracy, but he is no conspiracy freak.
“There’s no doubt that Oswald fired the fatal shots, all the forensic evidence points to it, and his conduct is consistent with it,” said Blakey. “I’m a former federal prosecutor and I could have convicted him with no problem. But then 48 hours later, Oswald himself is shot by Ruby — and then Ruby becomes a major factor.”
Blakey believes that Oswald was supposed to be silenced by the second shooter as he emerged from the Book Depository in police custody — but he eluded both the police and his executioner, who was likely one of Trafficante’s Cuban henchmen. So the Mafia conspirators behind the assassination drafted Ruby to do the job. “Ruby was always a wannabe around organized crime. He knew the Mob leaders in Dallas, Joe Civello and Joe Campisi, both of whom were connected to Marcello. The night before the assassination, Ruby met with Campisi” — who later visited him in jail.
“Now put yourself in Ruby’s position,” continued Blakey. “The Mafia comes to you, Campisi says, ‘I want you to kill Oswald’ — what are Ruby’s choices? At that point he knows there was a conspiracy involving the Mob to kill the president. So he either does it or he’s dead. It’s just that simple. And the deal is, look, you do this for us and we’ll take care of you down the line. Plus, you’ll be one of us, which is what he’s always wanted to be. And he probably won’t be executed for the crime, it’ll be murder without malice, he’ll do some years and then walk out a hero.”
“Now what was Ruby’s conduct during his interrogation by the Warren Commission? He’s saying loud and clear, ‘Get me out of here — take me to Washington.’ Why? Because the local cops are corrupt and he knows it. If he were to say something there to investigators and it got out, he could be killed right in jail. So when he’s interviewed by the Warren Commission, he says, ‘I’ll tell you the whole truth if you take me to Washington.’ He was pleading with them, but they paid no attention to it.”
For Blakey, Ruby is the “Rosetta Stone” of the crime, “because he’s Mob-connected. The Warren Commission said he wasn’t — and they were just wrong. Ruby’s associations all point toward organized crime, his whole life had been in that.”
Mafia leaders, acknowledged Blakey, don’t normally hit high elected officials. (At least American ones don’t: The Italian Mafia, as detailed in Alexander Stille’s “Excellent Cadavers” and Peter Robb’s “Midnight in Sicily,” has no such compunction.) But they felt that under Bobby Kennedy’s crusade they were fighting for their existence — and they believed that Jack Kennedy had “crossed the line” by accepting their favors, that he was “corrupt” and therefore a legitimate target.
But Blakey emphasizes the assassination was not sanctioned by the Mafia’s national commission; it was a local, closely-held conspiracy, based in Carlos Marcello’s New Orleans, outside of FBI surveillance, which was focused on cities like New York and Chicago, and outside of the national Mafia’s oversight.
“The bigger you make this conspiracy, the less plausible it is,” said Blakey, “Principle No. 1: You only involve people you’d trust with your life — and then you kill them afterward. This is Sicilian. The conspiracy buffs make this as wide as possible — they think it has to be government. It just doesn’t work this way.”
Blakey does believes that Trafficante probably recruited anti-Castro Cubans — who were angered at JFK’s failure to remove Castro — to take part in the plot. But that’s about as far as he’s willing to cast his net.
While Marcello, according to Blakey, was the principal driver of the plot, Trafficante was an important co-conspirator. Blakey’s theory about the two Mafia leaders was given significant corroboration in 1994 when Frank Ragano, the long-time attorney for Santo Trafficante (and Jimmy Hoffa), published an eye-opening memoir, “Mob Lawyer,” with the assistance of veteran New York Times organized crime reporter Selwyn Raab. Ragano revealed that in March, 1987, a seriously ill Trafficante, facing emergency heart bypass surgery that he would not survive, told him that he and Marcello were responsible for JFK’s murder. “That Bobby made life miserable for me and my friends,” Trafficante told his trusted lawyer. “Who would have thought that someday (John Kennedy) would be president and he would name his goddam brother attorney general? Goddam Bobby. I think Carlos fucked up in getting rid of Giovanni (John) — maybe it should have been Bobby.” Blakey, who talked with the now-deceased Ragano before he published his book, finds the account persuasive, as have other organized crime experts like Raab and journalist Nicholas Pileggi.
Over the years, conspiracy theorists have attacked Blakey for his exclusive focus on the Mafia. As the House Assassinations chief counsel, he clashed with some of his younger, more aggressive investigators over how combative an approach to take with the CIA in ferreting out evidence. While some of them bitterly complained about CIA stonewalling, Blakey publicly praised the agency’s cooperation. But in recent years there has been a development in the JFK case that has made even the cautious Blakey reevaluate his view of the CIA.
In April 2001, Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley revealed in an article for the weekly Miami New Times that George Joannides, the agent assigned by the CIA to act as a liaison with the House Assassinations Committee, had actually played a role in the Oswald story. Morley revealed that Joannides, the CIA’s top Miami psychological warfare specialist in Miami, had financed and guided the anti-Castro Cuban group, the DRE, that Oswald tried to infiltrate in the summer of 1963. Blakey was stunned by the revelation.
Today Blakey says that if he had known Joannides’ background, he would have immediately relieved him of his duties and made him “a witness under oath.”
The CIA subterfuge, in direct defiance of a congressional committee, clearly still unnerves Blakey. “There’s no agency file on the Oswald connection. The CIA has come up with explanations — oh, the DRE were loose cannons and we were pulling away from them, therefore there’s no reason for reporting it. But I don’t buy it.”
What were Joannides and the CIA trying to hide? Blakey speculates that the agency was “probably trying to avoid embarrassment — if the agency was financing one of these anti-Castro groups and Oswald was connected to it, whoa!” In the emotionally turbulent aftermath of the assassination, the revelation that the CIA was monitoring the president’s future assassin would have been explosive.
Was there something darker than that involved in the apparent CIA coverup? “Well, I don’t know,” said Blakey, “and that’s the problem. You can’t talk about what you don’t know. You can only speculate.” Blakey denies that the CIA as an institution was involved; if rogue agents took part, they were strictly acting on their own.
Joannides is beyond any further inquiry. “He’s dead,” said Blakey, “everybody’s dead, that’s one of the problems with this. I think that’s why the 40th anniversary has been so big. The media knows that on the 50th anniversary there won’t be any talking heads left. This is their last shot.”
The Kennedy story has already grown irrelevant to most Americans, says Blakey, half of whom are under the age of 25. “I know it for a fact, I teach them — this is just not a big deal for them. They grew up in a different world.”
So what will history conclude about the assassination?
“My guess is that the Warren Commission will carry the day — because it’s too hard for people to grasp the other stuff. The Assassination Committee’s work has been reduced to the acoustics.”
Maybe, says Blakey, if he could have told the story in its full mythic power — the charismatic leader who makes a deal with the underworld to gain the throne; the younger, intensely loyal brother who angers the gods of the underworld and brings about the beloved leader’s death, and is himself cut down before he can avenge that murder. “It really is the stuff of Greek tragedy. But I’m a prosecutor, I told it the way I know how.”
David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.More David Talbot.