Blogs > Cliopatria > Don Bohning: Review of David Talbot's Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

Aug 13, 2007 3:54 pm


Don Bohning: Review of David Talbot's Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years



Click here to read an exchange between David Talbot and Don Bohning about this review.

[Mr. Bohning covered Latin America for The Miami Herald for almost four decades. His first-hand knowledge of the Cuban exile community, the CIA, and their anti-Castro activities from the late 1950s into the late 1970s is probably unrivaled among American journalists, according to historian Max Holland. Before and after retiring, Bohning spent 10 years researching the U.S. government’s secret war against Cuba, and in 2005 published a reliable and unsparing book about Washington’s fixation on Cuba from 1959 to 1965.]

David Talbot believes John F. Kennedy’s assassination was not the deranged act of a lone gunman, but the result of a much larger conspiracy.

Talbot’s prime suspects are identified in Brothers’ opening pages: “The CIA, Mafia and Cuba—Bobby [Kennedy] knew they were intertwined. The CIA had formed a sinister alliance with underworld bosses to assassinate Fidel Castro, working with mob-connected Cuban exile leaders.”[2] Consequently, immediately after the assassination of his brother the president, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy began hunting for the responsible party within this trio of possible culprits, according to Talbot.

A central thesis of Brothers is that Bobby Kennedy only gave lip service to the U.S. government’s official verdict. While publicly endorsing the Warren Commission’s findings of a lone gunman, RFK believed the assassination was a conspiracy and quietly dedicated himself to identifying those responsible. This quest, in turn, helped fuel his 1968 presidential run, which ended tragically with his own assassination in June of that year. Talbot was a teen-age volunteer in that campaign in which RFK won the California primary, only to be mortally wounded minutes after his victory speech. Undoubtedly, this was a formative moment in Talbot’s life; unfortunately, he shows little evidence of having moved on from a 16-year-old’s starry-eyed view of the Kennedys.

An inextricable sub-theme of Brothers involves the U.S. government’s efforts, beginning in late 1959 under President Eisenhower and persisting until 1965, to rid Cuba of Fidel Castro. Essentially, Talbot contends that unintended consequences from these efforts, or “blowback” in intelligence lingo, precipitated John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I do not profess to be a student of the Kennedy presidency or the assassination per se, yet I do know something about the U.S. government’s secret war against Cuba. And when it comes to the subject of Cuba and the Kennedys, Brothers is not only a disappointment, but strives to turn that history upside down. Talbot attempts to do this via a familiar tactic: he draws from the recollections of staunch Kennedy friends and insiders, with proven track records of bending the historical record so that it reflects kindly on the Kennedy brothers. But in a new twist, Talbot also dredges up on the most dubious sources imaginable to further his argument.

An example of the latter is Angelo Murgado Kennedy, a Bay of Pigs veteran who claims to have been close to Robert Kennedy.[3] Had Talbot asked any of Murgado’s fellow veterans, he would have heard him described as a “persistent liar,” “a charlatan,” and a man with “no credibility”—and these are the printable comments.[4]

Murgado’s name first surfaced in Joan Mellen’s risible, mind-numbing conspiracy book, Farewell to Justice, in which she defended the indefensible—the 1967-69 persecution of Clay Shaw by an out-of-control New Orleans prosecutor named Jim Garrison. Prior to Mellen’s 2005 book, Murgado had been virtually unheard of amongst the Cuban fighters identified in the rather robust literature about the Bay of Pigs.[5] Yet in Mellen’s book Murgado suddenly appeared as a member of the inner circle—he was part of RFK’s intelligence “brain trust” on Cuba.[6]

Curious about Murgado’s bona fides, right after Mellen’s book appeared I asked Erneido Oliva, the deputy commander of the Bay of Pigs brigade, and the late Rafael Quintero, one of the first Cuban nationals to enlist in the brigade, about Murgado. Oliva and Quintero (who died in October 2006) were both known for having grown close to Robert Kennedy in the aftermath of the debacle. They told me then they had never heard of Murgado. Oliva went further and wrote in an e-mail that Mellen’s description of Murgado as having been part of RFK’s “brain trust” was BS, and spelled it with capital letters. When asked again about Murgado in light of Talbot’s book, Oliva repeated that he had never heard of Murgado until I brought up his name in 2005.

Murgado is not instrumental to Talbot’s tale, but he is exceptionally useful. Through him Talbot buttresses the notion that hard-line Cuban exiles hated President Kennedy, presumably to the point where they were motivated to kill him. Murgado, elaborating on the tale he first told Mellen, was so alarmed by the murderous talk in Miami’s exile community that he approached RFK and offered to keep an eye on the most dangerous exile elements for the attorney general. Murgado told Talbot how he and two other prominent Cuban exiles met with RFK at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach. “I was thinking we have to control and keep a sharp look on our Cubans, the ones that were hating Kennedy,” Talbot quotes Murgado as saying. “I was afraid that one of our guys would go crazy. Bobby told us to come up with a plan and do it . . . . He was fanatic about his brother, he would do anything to take care of him.”[7]

In the summer of 1963, Murgado’s alleged surveillance work led him to New Orleans, of all places, where he came across a “curious gringo” named Lee Harvey Oswald.[8] Murgado’s team, Talbot writes, “came to the conclusion that Oswald was an FBI informant,” and after returning to Florida the dutiful Murgado reported on his surveillance targets, including “the mysterious Oswald.”[9]

Are we really supposed to find this bunkum credible? To believe Murgado is to believe that Robert Kennedy preferred to entrust his brother’s security to an obscure Cuban exile rather than the one agency actually charged with protecting the president, the U.S. Secret Service. More to the point, Murgado is a former building inspector for the city of Miami who plead guilty in 1999 to accepting bribes in return for zoning favors.[10] Even criminals sometimes tell the truth, of course, but surely Murgado’s word is subject to a big discount, and his claims are not to be believed absent rock-solid corroboration. In place of confirmation, however, Talbot suggests that Murgado should be believed because his story has “not been refuted.”[11]

Everything about Talbot’s credulous use of Murgado can also be applied to Talbot’s use of unproven assertions allegedly made by E. Howard Hunt, the recently deceased former CIA officer most noted for leading the Watergate break-in during the 1972 presidential campaign. Talbot supplies information that was not even directly propagated by Hunt, but comes from his long-estranged son, St. John Hunt, a meth addict for 20 years, meth dealer for 10 of those years, and twice-convicted felon.[12]...

RESPONSE BY DAVID TALBOT 8-6-07

In his review of my book, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, Don Bohning asserts that I take a “starry-eyed” view of the Kennedys. But Bohning comes to this conclusion because he has chosen to view this historical chapter through his own prism – that of his CIA sources. In the interests of full disclosure, Bohning – or the editors of History News Network – had a duty to reveal that Bohning was named in declassified CIA documents as one of the Miami journalists whom the CIA regarded as an agency asset in the 1960s. But neither Bohning, nor HNN in its editor’s note, disclosed this pertinent information.

A CIA memo dated June 5, 1968 states that Bohning was known within the agency as AMCARBON 3  -- AMCARBON was the cryptonym that the CIA used to identify friendly reporters and editors who covered Cuba. (AMCARBON 1 was Bohning’s colleague at the Miami Herald, Latin America editor Al Burt.) According to the agency memo, which dealt with New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison’s investigation of the Kennedy assassination, Bohning passed along information about the Garrison probe to the CIA.  A follow-up agency memo, dated June 14, revealed that “Bohning was granted a Provisional Security Approval on 21 August 1967 and a Covert Security Approval on 14 November 1967 for use as a confidential informant.”

A declassified CIA memo dated April 9, 1964 explained that the CIA’s covert media campaign in Miami aimed “to work out a relationship with [South Florida] news media which would insure that they did not turn the publicity spotlight on those [CIA] activities in South Florida which might come to their attention...and give [the CIA’s Miami station] an outlet into the press which could be used for surfacing certain select propaganda items.”

While researching my book, I contacted Bohning to ask him about his reported ties to the CIA. Was he indeed AMCARBON 3? “I still do not know but… it is possible,” Bohning replied in one of a series of amicable e-mails and phone calls we exchanged. “There were several people in the Herald newsroom during the 1960s who had contact with the CIA station chief in Miami.”

Bohning took pains to explain that he was not a paid functionary of the CIA, insisting he was simply a dutiful reporter working every source he could as he went about his job. And, as I wrote back to him, I’m fully aware that agency officials – looking to score bureaucratic points with their superiors – could sometimes make empty boasts that they had certain journalists in their pocket. I also told him that I understood that many journalists, particularly in those Cold War days, thought it was permissible to swap information with intelligence sources. But in evaluating a journalist’s credibility, it is important for readers to know of these cozy government relationships. The fact that Bohning was given a CIA code as an agency asset and was identified as an agency informant is a relevant piece of information that the readers of Washington Decoded have a right to know.

Even more relevant is that, over the years, Bohning’s journalism has consistently reflected his intelligence sources’ points of view, with little or no critical perspective. Bohning’s book, The Castro Obsession, is essentially the CIA’s one-dimensional view of that historical drama, pure and simple, down to the agency’s self-serving claim that it was the Kennedys’ fanaticism that drove the spy outfit to take extreme measures against the Castro regime. Bohning’s decision to invoke former CIA director and convicted liar Richard Helms’ conversation with Henry Kissinger, another master of deceit, as proof that Robert Kennedy was behind the Castro plots speaks for itself.

In Bohning’s eagerness to shine the best possible light on the CIA, he goes as far as to attempt to exonerate David Morales – a notorious CIA agent whose hard-drinking and violent ways alienated him not only from many of his colleagues but from his own family, as I discovered in my research. Among my “thin” sources on Morales were not only those who worked and lived with him, but his attorney, who told more than one reporter that Morales implicated himself in the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers.

In discussing my “tendentious” view of the CIA’s dissembling on the Bay of Pigs operation, Bohning seeks to exculpate disgraced covert operations chief Richard Bissell, the architect of the fiasco. Bohning writes that he doubts Bissell lied to JFK about the doomed plan’s chances for success. And yet this is precisely the way that the Miami Herald, Bohning’s own newspaper, covered the story when the CIA’s internal history of the Bay of Pigs was finally released in August 2005. “Bissell owed it to JFK to tell him” the truth about the Bay of Pigs plan, the newspaper quoted a historian who had studied the CIA documents. But “there is no evidence that he did.” Bohning too was quoted in the Herald article, and his view of Bissell was decidedly less trusting than it is in his review of my book. “Bissell seems to have had a habit of not telling people things they needed to know,” Bohning told the Herald.

Bohning’s pro-CIA bias also compels him to brush aside former Congressional investigator Gaeton Fonzi’ strong suspicions of a CIA involvement in the assassination. It is true that the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which found evidence of a conspiracy in its 1979 report, did not include the CIA in its list of suspects. But Bohning stops conveniently short of what has happened in ensuing years. After Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley revealed that the CIA’s liaison with the committee, a veteran agent named George Joannides, had withheld information about his own connection to Lee Harvey Oswald from the committee and undermined its investigation in other ways, a furious G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel of the committee, retracted his earlier statement that the agency had fully cooperated with the Congressional investigation. Instead, said Blakey, the CIA was guilty of obstruction of justice. Blakey told me, as I reported in my book, that he now believes that Mafia-linked “rogue” intelligence agents might have been involved in the assassination. In short, these developments have bolstered Fonzi’s earlier suspicions.

Bohning criticizes me for accepting the credibility of a source named Angelo Murgado, a Bay of Pigs veteran aligned with the Cuban exile leader Manuel Artime – and as Bohing concedes, a minor figure in my book. But Bohning provides no evidence that Murgado’s story about investigating suspicious activity in the Cuban exile world for Bobby Kennedy is false. The exile community is known for its flamboyant internal disputes. Bohning solicits comments about Murgado from his own corners of this world and chooses to accept their validity. But many of the sources in the anti-Castro movement that Bohning has cultivated over the years have their own dubious pasts and shady agendas. I was forthright with my readers about Murgado’s drawbacks as a source, including his criminal record, which Bohning presents as if he’s revealing it for the first time. I tried to put Murgado’s statements in their proper context and allow readers to make their own conclusion. But Bohning is rarely as transparent about his sources and their motivations in his Cuba reporting.

Bohning is equally selective in rejecting Howard Hunt’s late-hour confessions about Dallas. Until the final years of his life, Hunt – a CIA veteran of the anti-Castro wars and the notorious ringleader of the Watergate burglary team – took a view of the Kennedy assassination that was espoused within agency circles in his day, i.e., that JFK was the victim of a Havana and Moscow-connected plot. This Communist plot theory of the assassination was rejected by the Warren Commission (whose work Bohning continues to find persuasive), as well as investigators for the Church Committee and the House Assassinations Committee, as well as most reputable researchers. But Hunt’s unfounded charges about a Communist conspiracy never landed him in hot water with critics like Bohning. It was only when Hunt broke ranks to implicate members of the CIA – and himself – in the crime that Bohning felt compelled to heatedly question his credibility.

Unlike his earlier charges, Hunt’s allegations of a CIA connection to Dallas were based on what he claimed was first-hand, eyewitness evidence. Hunt told his son, St. John, that he was invited to a meeting at a CIA safe house in Miami where the plot to kill Kennedy was discussed, and he implicated himself in the plot as a “benchwarmer.” It is true that during his career, Hunt did indeed act as a CIA disinformation specialist, and he might have had inexplicably devious reasons for fingering former colleagues like Morales, as well as himself, in the crime. And his son, St. John, did indeed once lead a roguish, drug-fueled life, as he has freely told the press and as I reported in my book. But I have seen the confessional notes written in the senior Hunt’s own hand, and have heard his guarded confessions on tape – as have other journalists. The authenticity of this material is undisputed. So,  despite his colorful past, St. John’s character is not the central issue here. It’s the material that his father himself left behind as his last will and testament. Bohning has no reason to dismiss Howard Hunt’s sensational allegations out of hand – other than his blind faith in CIA sources who still stick to the party line on Dallas. While Hunt’s confessions are clearly not the definitive word on the subject, they are at least worthy of further investigation on the part of serious, independent journalists and researchers.

But when it comes to the subject of the CIA’s secret war on Cuba – an operation that Robert Kennedy, among other knowledgeable insiders, believed was the source of the assassination plot against his brother – Don Bohning is an obviously partisan chronicler. Again and again Bohning has chosen to present the CIA in the most flattering light and its critics in the most negative. I accept Bohning’s insistence that he was not a CIA stooge. But he should stop acting like one.

DON BOHNING'S REPLY 8/6/07

It’s too bad that David Talbot devoted his entire response to critiquing my review of his book, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, rather than at least try and offer a defense for his errors and distortions of history.

His modus operandi, however, appears to be aimed more at going after those who criticize him than acknowledging his own deficiencies, i.e., his insulting internet remarks about Mel Ayton, the British historian who was the first to debunk a BBC report last fall that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA.

It is true that reporting by Talbot and his colleague, Jeff Morley, expanded on the evidence but they were certainly not the first to report on it. In fact, Morley contacted me – saying he was writing a piece for the New Yorker which never materialized - to put them in touch with Manny Chavez, a retired air force intelligence and friend of CIA operative David Morales, one of those the BBC report implicated in the RFK assassination.

I had put Ayton in touch with Chavez and Grayston Lynch, a CIA contract employe who also knew Morales, several weeks before and Ayton had an article on the internet weeks before Talbot and Morley published their own version. Talbot vilified Ayton by, among other things, calling him a horse’s rear end for his temerity to complain that he was first.

It’s interesting to note also that the Morley/Talbot piece says they had a death certificate dated in 1962 [six years before the RFK assassination] for Gordon Campbell, a ranking official at the JMWave CIA station in Miami who the BBC also implicated in the slaying. At the same time, a recent book by Bradley Ayers, a former Army Ranger assigned to JMWAVE in 1963 and the apparent original source for the BBC’s story, claims to have had meetings with Campbell at JMWAVE a year after Talbot and Morley claim his death certificate says he died.

It’s true, as I note in the preface to my own book, The Castro Obsession: US Covert Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965, that I had contact with the CIA beginning in 1965 through the early 1970s, as did dozens of other journalists who covered foreign affairs in those days; just as they had contacts with American and foreign diplomats and other U.S. government and foreign officials. The appropriate editors at The Miami Herald were well aware of those contacts throughout that time.

Talbot is correct when he says in his response that while researching his book he had asked about my reported ties to the CIA, but that is not the excuse he gave to my publisher, Potomac Books, to get in touch with me.

In July 2005, a couple of months after my book was published, I received word from my publisher saying David Talbot, the founder of Salon.com, was trying to get in touch with me. I had never heard of David Talbot, but had a vague idea of Salon.com so provided Talbot with my phone number. After I hung up, I “googled” Talbot for some background on him and discovered he was among the Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs.

Shortly after that, on July 7, 2005, I sent him an e-mail [of which I still have a copy.] beginning: “Out of curiousity, after our conversation, I did a google search and see you have been among those who question the Warren report on the Kennedy assassination. I believe I told you – and I said in my book – I have seen no convincing evidence yet to convince me to disbelieve the findings of the Warren Commission, although it obviously left a lot of dangling uncertainties.”

To my knowledge, no review of my book was ever written by Talbot, and I am assuming that by telling him I still accepted the Warren Commission report, flawed as it might be, that I was not of the right persuasion for his needs.

I have never filed a Freedom of Information Act on myself, but subsequently have seen the declassified documents that identify me as Amcarbon3, whatever that means. As for being a CIA informant, I guess that if having lunch occasionally and exchanging news about the Cuban exile community that also qualifies me as an informant for the State Department, the Commerce Department, any other U.S. government agency that dealt with Cuba as well as various Latin American foreign ministers and other officials.

As far as I am concerned, none of my contacts with the CIA violated any journalist ethics, as did Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin’s close friend Tad Szulc of the New York Times certainly did by promoting a clandestine program – codenamed AMTRUNK - through the CIA and aimed at subverting Cuban military officers.

Declassified documents show that among those who met with Szulc at a safe house in the Washington area was David Morales, who Talbot all but ties to the Kennedy assassination.

Talbot might also have asked Goodwin about AMTRUNK when he interviewed him for Brothers, as well as Operation Mongoose, the covert anti-Castro program developed by Goodwin, but which rated not a single mention by Talbot.

Obviously, as Talbot suggests, I view events through my own prism, just as he or anyone else does, but I have tried throughout my journalistic career to do it without resorting to distortion, such as Talbot obviously does.

As noted in my review of Brothers, Talbot recites from a Miami Herald story of August 12, 2005, based on Volume III of the late CIA historian Jack Pfeiffer’s history of the Bay of Pigs. In it, Pfeiffer notes that a memo had been prepared in November 1960 for a briefing on the project by CIA Director Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, the head of CIA covert operations and, as such, in charge of what was to become the Bay of Pigs.

The memo says that the plan as conceived was unachievable. Talbot writes that “there is no evidence that Bissell informed Kennedy of the CIA’s bleak assessment.” What he doesn’t say is that neither is there any evidence that he didn’t.

The very next paragraph in The Miami Herald story, which Talbot conveniently chose to ignore but which he obviously read, is that “Historians say it is unclear whether” Dulles and Bissell passed the assessment along to Kennedy.

As Talbot notes in his rebuttal, I am correctly quoted in the same story as saying that “Bissell seems to have had a habit of not telling people things they needed to know.” That was mostly a reference to his dealings with Jake Esterline, the CIA’s project director for the Bay of Pigs, and Marine Col. Jack Hawkins, the project’s paramilitary chief, which I knew something about, but could have applied to Bissell in this case as well.

In the case of the Kennedy briefing it would seem more likely the grim assessment may have been passed on to Kennedy since Dulles also was present. It’s unlikely anyone, including Talbot, will ever know for sure, even though Talbot seems to think otherwise.

In this case, Talbot couldn’t even get the source correct for uncovering Pfeiffer’s Volume III. If he had, he could have read the volume first hand, instead of relying on the Herald story, by going to Villanova University Professor David Barrett’s website.

Talbot attributes the volume’s declassification to the non-profit National Security Archive, which has obtained a wealth of Cuba material under the Freedom of Information Act, but in this case it was Barrett who found the Pfeiffer document in the National Archives and posted it on his website.

Talbot also errs in saying Bissell was the architect for the 1954 coup in Guatemala that ousted President Jacobo Arbenz from office. It was not Bissell, but the late Frank Wisner, who was in charge, as Bissell himself acknowledges in his memoirs.

As noted in the review, Bissell also is accused by Talbot of sending word to the Bay of Pigs training camps in Guatemala for the Brigade members to “mutiny” if the invasion is called off at the last minute. There is absolutely no evidence that indicates Bissell sent any such message, again despite Talbot’s categorical assertion otherwise.

In terms of distorting history, Talbot also does it with my own book as well. An example can be found on page 49 of Brothers when, referenced to my book, he writes: “The Bay of Pigs catastrophe sent shock waves through the agency, particularly among the agents who had worked closely with the Cuban émigrés on the operation. CIA men muttered darkly [dark appears to be a favored Talbot word throughout] that Kennedy was guilty of ‘criminal negligence’ or even worse.”

Contrary to what Talbot implies, the episode occurred on the eve of the Bay of Pigs, not after, following President Kennedy’s last minute cancellation of the D-Day air cover. The ire expressed in the above paragraph was directed, not at Kennedy, but at Bissell and Gen. Charles Cabell, the deputy director, after Cabell had returned from a session with Secretary of State Dean Rusk in an unsuccessful effort to get the air cover restored. Rusk got Kennedy on the phone and offered it to Bissell and Cabell to make their point directly with the President. They declined. Bissell went home, leaving Cabell to return to headquarters to deliver the bad news and face the music of irate subordinates.

As I wrote: “Cabell was greeted by a firestorm of anger when he returned to Quarters Eye and delivered the message. Hawkins, according to Bissell, yelled, “Goddamn it, this is criminal negligence.” It apparently suited Talbot’s scenario to have the people “mutter darkly” against Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs failure, rather than before it had even begun.

Another selective quote taken by Talbot from my own book, obviously to reinforce the idea that the CIA and Cuban exiles were involved in the Kennedy assassination, is one by Rafael Quintero, a Cuban exile who was close to Bobby Kennedy.

Many Cuban exiles hoped/believed that the missile crisis would bring an invasion of Cuba that would spell end of Fidel Castro’s rule. Instead, an agreement was reached between Moscow and Washington for the withdrawal of the missiles.

Quintero had been one of sixty commandos chosen to parachute into Cuba. His reaction at the time of the agreement, as he told me, was “Talk about the word treason at the Bay of Pigs, this was even bigger for us, the people involved.” It’s a quote that Talbot uses that certainly serves his purpose of throwing suspicion on Cuban exiles in the Kennedy assassination.

What he doesn’t tell you is that Bobby Kennedy had called Roberto San Roman and Quintero to Washington at the start of the missile crisis and wanted them to get a boat and sink a Russian ship attempting to break the naval quarantine that had been set up by the United States. That, presumably, would provide an excuse for an invasion. [A version of the same incident also is reported by Evan Thomas in his biography of Robert Kennedy.]

Neither does Talbot tell his readers – which can also be found in my book - that Quintero came to believe, as he told me, that had Bobby Kennedy lived, Castro would be have been long gone. Quintero also supported – as did Talbot – in Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the presidency, which you don’t read in Brothers.

As for Howard Hunt and David Morales, I never met either one. But I would agree with Talbot that Morales had a reputation – even among some of his colleagues – of being somewhat of a thug.

Be that as it may, it is no excuse for erroneously putting him in Bolivia at the time of Che Guevara’s capture and death [according to the Larry Sternfield, the CIA station chief in Bolivia at the time and would certainly know], or in the Chilean presidential palace at the time of President Salvador Allende’s suicide when it was under bombardment by the Chilean military. And just as Morales had a reputation for being “thuggish,” so did Hunt have a reputation among many of his colleagues, of being a blowhard.

Finally, it is inconceivable that Talbot could write about the Kennedys and Cuba without a single mention of Operation Mongoose, the post Bay of Pigs campaign to unseat Castro, headed by Bobby Kennedy, through his surrogate, Gen. Edward Lansdale; a covert program that contributed to the Soviet decision to install nuclear missiles in Cuba.

It might also be noted that I attended, as an observer, a 1996 conference on the Bay of Pigs, which also included discussion of Mongoose, sponsored by the National Security Archive on St. Simon’s Island off the Georgia coast. As we were walking out of one session, I asked the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was in attendance, if he had learned anything from it. His reply: “Yes, the CIA didn’t like Mongoose any better than we [in the White House] did.”

Talbot’s selective use or non-use of information available is obviously filtered through his own prism of events.

DAVID TALBOT'S REPLY 8-12-07

Mr. Bohning's latest remarks are so rambling and wrongheaded that they're not worth another detailed rebuttal. But two of his statements cry out for a response. First, Bohning has clearly only read selective passages of"Brothers," or he would not make the utterly false claim that it does not include"a single mention of Operation Mongoose, the post Bay of Pigs campaign to unseat Castro, headed by Bobby Kennedy." A quick look at my book's index would have demonstrated for Bohning that I devote 10 pages to Operation Mongoose. And if he had read those pages, he would have seen how critical I was of the doomed program and Robert Kennedy's intemperate leadership of it.

Finally, since Bohning returns to the delicate subject of his CIA connections, let me challenge him directly on his characterization of that relationship. Does he truly think there is nothing"unethical" about a journalist slipping information about an ongoing criminal investigation to a government agency whose charter forbids it from getting involved in domestic affairs? According to the CIA documents that I cited above, that is precisely what Bohning did when he passed along information about Jim Garrison's New Orleans investigation to the spy agency in the late 1960s. In the interest of history, it would be enlightening to know the full extent to which journalists like Bohning acted as confidential government informants on the Garrison case and other JFK-related matters.

DON BOHNING'S REPLY 8/13/07

Unfortunately, as he did with his previous rebuttal to my critique, Talbot makes no effort to explain his own many errors, omissions and distortions contained in his account of U.S.-Cuba relations during the Kennedy administration, some of which I described in my review of his book on Washingtondecoded.com. To help him, and readers, to remember, a catalog of but a few such examples are provided here.

On page 47, citing a Miami Herald story of August 15, 2005, Talbot states categorically, without any evidence, that the recently available third volume on the Bay of Pigs by the late CIA historian Jack Pfeiffer “contained proof that [CIA covert operations chief Richard] Bissell concealed the operation’s bleak prospect when he briefed him about it shortly before [it was after] JFK’s election.”  The report contains no such proof. Pfeiffer cites a briefing memo prepared for Bissell and CIA Director Allen Dulles that said the plan as proposed at the time – five months before the Bay of Pigs - was “unachievable." Talbot chooses to ignore a sentence in the same story that says: “Historians say it is unclear whether CIA director Allen Dulles and his deputy passed this assessment along three days later, at Kennedy’s post-election national security briefing in Palm Beach.”

On page 11, he introduces Bay of Pigs veteran Angelo Murgado Kennedy, [whose credibility has been questioned since he first surfaced in Joan Mellen’s 2005 book, Farewell to Justice, a defense of Garrison's investigation into JFK’s assassination] as a credible source, and devotes several pages to him later in Brothers. As Talbot does note, Murgado was convicted of bribery as a City of Miami building inspector but says no one has refuted Murgado’s claims of being close to and working for Bobby Kennedy.  Yet Talbot dismisses as a “convicted liar” former CIA director Richard Helms who is quoted in a declassified document telling Henry Kissinger that Bobby Kennedy was running an assassination plot against Fidel Castro. As far as I know, no one except Talbot has refuted those claims either.  One might also wonder if Talbot would have acknowledged that Murgado was a convicted felon if not for an email I sent him on November 29, 2005, in response to his request for information on Murgado.  I told him in the email that four different people had “told me separately that they do not believe Murgado/Kennedy to be a credible source.” The four included Erneido Oliva, deputy commander of the Bay of Pigs brigade, who was extremely close to Bobby Kennedy. I added that I had heard “two reports…that Murgado may have been fired or had a felony conviction for something he did while working either the City of Miami or City of Hialeah zoning department.”

On page 46, Talbot again categorically attributes to Bissell something for which he provides no evidence, when he writes “… Bissell had sent a very different message to the military leaders of the Bay of Pigs brigade in their Guatemala training camp. They were informed that ‘there are forces in the administration trying to block the invasion” and if these ‘forces’ succeeded the brigade leaders were to mutiny against their U.S. advisors and proceed with the invasion.”

Unfortunately, I must confess to some sloppiness myself in my earlier rebuttal, saying that Talbot did not mention Operation Mongoose in Brothers. Having read the book some weeks ago, the point I had noted to myself and intended to make was nowhere does he tell readers that Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, described by Talbot as being a “benign influence in White House foreign policy,” headed the task force that created the Mongoose program. As a single example of his “benign influence,” Goodwin recommended an August 22, 1961, memo to President Kennedy that the United States “continue and step up covert activities aimed, in the first instance, at destruction of economic units, and diversion of resources into anti-underground activities.”

Additionally, the memo came within the same time frame as Goodwin’s much ballyhooed meeting with Cuba’s Che Guevara at a hemisphere meeting in Uruguay; a meeting to which Talbot devotes several pages. Nor does Talbot mention that Mongoose not only contributed to the Soviet decision to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, as Castro made clear at a 2002 missile crisis conference in Havana, but the aftermath of Mongoose lingers today in the form of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, was first imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department in February 1962, as a component of the multi-agency Mongoose program.

The above represents only a very small sample of the obvious tweaking or overlooking of the facts employed by Talbot in writing about U.S.-Cuba relations during the Kennedy administration.

While not an error per se, given what is now known, it is difficult to understand how Talbot could write, as he does, that the Kennedy focus on Cuba “was not simply a morbid one. John Kennedy had an intellectual and even playful curiosity about the Cuban experiment.”


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George Robert Gaston - 7/30/2007

It is a most unfortunate circumstance that Lee Harvey Oswald was a third rate little communist, and not a third rate little klansman. Had he been a right wing nut, thereby fitting the New York Times and Washington Post models, we would not have to deal with about three quarters of the conspiracy theory books that waste ink every year.


Mel Ayton - 7/16/2007

Don Bohning has accomplished what The New York Times and The Washington Post failed to do. He has exposed David Talbot's questionable journalistic ethics and practices--an ethical approach to research I was to meet head-on when Talbot investigated the recent allegations that CIA officers had been present at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

In a response to a David Talbot interview promoting his book ‘Brothers’, (http://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Unredacted_-_Episode_6_-_Transcript)
JFK assassination researcher Steve Barber posted a comment on a JFK assassination forum informing its members that Talbot was being disingenuous by inferring he had been the first researcher (together with Jefferson Morley) to successfully debunk claims made by Irish screenwriter Shane O’Sullivan that CIA officers (George Joannides, Gordon Campbell and David Morales) had been allegedly present at the Ambassador Hotel on the night RFK was assassinated. Barber informed forum members that I was the first researcher to challenge and debunk O’Sullivan’s claims in an article written for History News Network the week or so following the airing of O’Sullivan’s BBC Newsnight story. (http://hnn.us/articles/32193.html)

The definitive aspect of my HNN article lies in these simple facts:
*Close friends of Morales--Air Force intelligence officer Manny Chavez who was assigned to the CIA’s Miami station, JMWAVE, and his wife, along with CIA officer Grayston Lynch and his wife--looked at the photos taken from the Ambassador Hotel film footage I provided--which were the same photos used by O’Sullivan--and stated that the man in the photos was definitely not Morales. Manny Chavez even had the photos enhanced and sent them to Luis Rodriguez, another close friend of Morales, who agreed with Chavez and Lynch that the man in the photos was not Morales.
*I received confirmation about Gordon Campbell’s misidentification from Grayston Lynch who knew Campbell as he worked closely with him.

Talbot responded to Barber’s JFK forum post by writing, “Excuse me, but what the hell are you talking (about)? You seem to be very sure of yourself for someone who is talking out of his rear end. Are you implying that Jeff Morley and I somehow leached off Mel Ayton's research? If so, that's an absurd and reckless charge to be throwing around. I have a vague idea of who Ayton is, but I've never read anything he's written. Ayton's report was welcome but hardly definitive. We can all agree that the BBC's story was erroneous. . . . I can assure you that we broke ground no one else has in the course of knocking down O'Sullivan's charges about the RFK assassination. There was no way you could do that unless you did the reporting--i.e., left the armchair in your study--as Jeff and I did, traveling from Washington to Miami to Arizona to California to interview family members, colleagues and friends of Morales, Joannides, etc. If Mr. Ayton or anyone else you know has done this, I'd love to see the fruits of their labor. . . . I have no idea who you are, but you're full of shit and obviously have no conception of what original reporting is. Ayton simply rehashes the same old same old. And for you to make the wild claim that I sucked off his research--when I've never read anything by the man until today and when you never even bothered to ask me--shows how clueless you are when it comes to basic investigation. You're an irresponsible person and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Barber responded to Talbot’s post by suggesting Talbot
“ . . . check out the ‘fruit of Mel Ayton’s labor’ by reading (the HNN) article--in the age of the internet you don’t have to travel around the world to produce excellent research results. You would have thought that Talbot, the brains behind Salon.com, would have known this (Check the date attached to the HNN article).”

As any reader can judge I was not “rehashing the same old, same old” as Talbot so indelicately put it. And this wasn’t “new ground” Talbot and Morley were breaking but simply an extension of my research to find others who knew the purported CIA officers allegedly present at the Ambassador Hotel. Talbot’s sources eventually confirmed the statements made by Lynch, Chavez and Rodriguez. To many journalists Lynch et al’s statements to me would be characterized as “definitive.”

It would appear that David Talbot has been playing fast and loose with the facts surrounding the debunking of Shane O’Sullivan’s allegations. Manny Chavez told Talbot about my article when Talbot eventually interviewed him. Manny also told Talbot about our correspondence. And it was Manny Chavez who decisively exposed David Talbot as having been less than truthful about his “vague” recollection of me. Manny wrote, “ . . . so happy to hear from you but regret that David Talbot did not give you credit for having debunked the Morales involvement first, which you certainly did and deserving of at least an acknowledgment. During my interview with Talbot and Morley I specifically told them that I had been in contact with you and that I had informed you that the person in the photo, who Sullivan had identified as Morales, was definitely not the Morales I knew. Bernice, my wife, who also knew Morales, also told them that she could not identify the person in the photo.”

There is nothing wrong or sinister about following up my initial research into Shane O’Sullivan’s RFK/CIA allegations by traveling across the country and finding new sources who could verify whether or not the persons named by O'Sullivan are who he says they are. What is particularly shocking is the fact that in interviews about his book Talbot does not give me any credit for the initial ground-breaking research in the matter. In this sense he has “leached off my research.”

POSTSCRIPT: Following the publication of Don Bohning's article a David Talbot supporter attempted to damage Bohning's credibility by publishing a CIA document on the Mary Ferrell Foundation website (don't be fooled by the 'foundation' bit in the title - it's a conspiracy website)suggesting there was something suspicious and sinister about the former Miami reporter's connections to the CIA in the 1960s -a connection not at all unusual and commonplace in the world of journalism.The smear was posted without any attempt to advise readers of the true circumstances of the 'connection'. All they had to do was ask Mr Bohning about the document and they would have discovered the truth of the matter.But this is not the way conspiracists work

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