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Reply From a Conspiracy Believer

by Gaeton Fonzi

Vincent Bugliosi must be exhausted. He not only churned out more than 1600 pages of tautologically strained contentions to support his book’s pretentious title, Reclaiming History, he must be weary from wrestling with the multitude of distortions and twisted conclusions he was forced to make to support his primary assertion.

His primary assertion? Swallow that mouthful of Dr. Pepper before you read this: “...it has been established beyond all doubt that Oswald killed Kennedy.”

Fearful of endowing his abhorrent duplicity with any hint of legitimacy, I hesitate to take the time and effort to respond to all the ungrounded contentions he makes about my role as a federal investigator in the case and about certain areas of evidence with which I was involved. There are, however, two very significant segments of the investigation that Bugliosi, with clever distortion and selected omission of facts, defiles truth and history. And having cited as a source my own book, The Last Investigation, he had to be well aware of its documented adherence to the historical facts. (Former U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker graciously provided a jacket blurb citing the book for exactly that : “A rarity among Kennedy assassination books, [it] does not indulge in sensational or bizarre conspiracy theories.”)

One key contention that Bugliosi repeatedly makes is that my approach to the investigation was biased because, before I was hired by the HSCA, I “had long been a conspiracy theorist.” Bugliosi uses the term “conspiracy theorist” with the same poisonous implication that Joe McCarthy used when he stigmatized anyone who defied him as a “Communist sympathizer.” In my case, Bugliosi was forced to characterize my viewpoint as anything but objective in order to distort the validity of certain evidence I had discovered – evidence that knocked hell out of his and the Warren Commission’s crucial single bullet theory and the branding of Oswald as the lone assassin.

Bugliosi is wrong. I was never a “conspiracy theorist.” I went from an agnostic to a conspiracy believer. Like millions of Americans and almost all journalists whose Fourth Estate responsibility mandates that they maintain a critical oversight of our Government, I didn’t question the Warren Report when it was published. Didn’t even read it. Its assertions and conclusions came to me from the daily press and the national news networks. And the most respected and nationally influential newspapers – including The New York Times – editorially praised the Report and instantly endorsed its conclusions. This despite the fact that the 26-volumes of evidence which the Commission claimed backed its critical conclusions weren’t available to the press until more than two months after the release of the Report.

I was then writing feature articles for Philadelphia Magazine. By the time the Warren Report was published, a Philadelphian named Arlen Specter who had worked for the Commission returned home to run and win a job as the city’s district attorney. Specter was a bright, ambitious young lawyer who, it turned out, was being credited with postulating “the single-bullet theory,” essential to the Commission’s lone assassin contention. An interview with the budding celebrity Specter was a natural for a local publication.

I had known Specter and respected his integrity. He was exceptionally smart, unabashedly ambitious and articulate enough to once be captain of the Yale Debating Team. If there were seeming inconsistencies in the Commission Report and disparities between its conclusions and the evidence, Arlen Specter would explain it all. After all, he was there.

Before I interviewed Specter, I got access to a copy of the Report and the 26 volumes of evidence. It would later turn out that I was the first reporter to confront Specter knowing the details of the evidence from which the Commission drew its conclusions. And I had especially studied the evidence in that area of the case – the actual killing itself, the shots and the trajectories – out of which Specter pulled the single-bullet theory critical to the Commission’s conclusions.

After two sessions and almost four hours of interviewing Specter, I came away with great doubts about the key conclusions in the Warren Commission Report. While vigorously defending his single-bullet theory, Specter admitted that one of the principal factors in favor of the theory was that there was no other way to explain what happened to the bullet which emerged from the President’s neck – unless it also hit Connally. (Connally later testified that he disagreed because he heard the first shot but wasn’t hit until later.) Specter had an answer but no factual explanation to the Commission’s claim that a single bullet went through President Kennedy’s body before it went through and did extensive damage to Governor Connally’s body before it emerged in what appeared to be pristine condition.

Specter’s answer to that anomaly: “It’s possible.”

I was, however, much more shaken by Specter’s responses to questions I asked about the locations of the bullet holes in Kennedy’s shirt and jacket and the location of the so-called exit hole in his throat. Considering the sixth-floor shooting lair from which Oswald was supposedly firing and the downward trajectory of the bullet, the shot had to hit Kennedy high in his back and then track downward in order to emerge at the lower part of Kennedy's throat. In the Report itself, an artist’s profile rendering of Kennedy’s head and shoulders showed exactly that.

However, actual photographs of Kennedy’s jacket and shirt which were not in the Warren Commission Report but released as supplemental evidence by the FBI indicate exactly where the bullet entered his back. The holes in both the jacket and shirt were almost six inches from the top of the collars, and well below the so-called exit wound in Kennedy’s throat.

Specter attempted to explain this discrepancy by pointing out that Kennedy was waving to the crowd when he was hit and that gesture led both the jacket and shirt to ride up his back and double over. I pointed out that both Kennedy’s jacket and shirt were tailored tightly and, if they both became rolled up by his waving, wouldn’t they each have two bullet holes in them?

At that point, Specter became uncharacteristically nervous and began to stammer a bit. Suddenly he jumped from his chair behind his desk and quickly came behind me, grabbed my arm and began waving it. See, he said, see how your jacket rides up? See... well, it doesn’t do it much in your case but it normally it does.

Was Specter saying there was no inconsistency between the Commission’s location of the wound and the holes in the clothing?

Specter’s exact response, including his hesitancies, as recorded: “No, not at all. That gave us a lot of concern. First time we lined up the shirt...after all, we lined up the shirt....and the hole in the shirt is right about, right about the knot of the tie, came right about here in a slit in the front....”

But, I asked, where in the back did it hit Kennedy?

“Well, the back hole, when the shirt is laid down, comes....aah....well, I forget exactly where it came, but it certainly wasn’t higher, enough higher to...aah....understand the....aah....the angle of decline which....”

Was it lower? Was it lower in the slit in the front?

“Well, I think that....that if you took the shirt without allowing for its being pulled up, that it would either have been in line or somewhat lower.”

Somewhat lower?

“Perhaps. I....I don’t want to say because I don’t really remember....”

Don’t really remember? The man who was responsible for developing the theory that would keep the whole Warren Commission Report afloat says in 1966, about crucial evidence relating to that theory, “I don’t really remember?” I couldn’t believe I was listening to the bumbling, evasive efforts of a former member of the Yale Debating Team. What Specter was admitting was that the Single Bullet Theory was not really even a probability, it was a possibility!

Arlen Specter attempting to demonstrate the possibility of the single bullet theory
Arlen Specter attempting to demonstrate the possibility of the single bullet theory.

I felt the implications of that were enormous. If the Single Bullet theory wasn’t built on unassailable evidence – and Specter himself dramatically illustrated that it wasn’t – the Warren Commission’s final conclusions were more than suspect. In fact, the mendacious cornerstone upon which the Warren Commission built its case against Lee Harvey Oswald was so transparently, almost arrogantly distorted, so much so that the early independent researchers were jolted with a patriotic zeal to pursue and reveal to the public the truth about President Kennedy’s assassination. These researchers started by doing something the press and almost all the public hadn’t done: Read the Warren Commission Report and check the validity of its conclusions against the evidence in the 26 volumes of evidence.

Thus were Conspiracy Believers born.

* * *

Let’s talk about another area of JFK’s assassination probe in which, because of my position as an official government investigator, I had singular knowledge of the details and facts. And maybe that’s why Bugliosi never approached me to get his facts right. The search for an intelligence agent who used the name of Maurice Bishop was a multi-mirrored exercise out of an intricate game of spy play.

Like any adept fact-spinning defense attorney would, Bugliosi lays a heavy camouflage of half-truths and foggy distortions on those particular areas of evidence which unerringly point to a conspiracy. He does it in the face of Arlen Specter’s admission that his Single Bullet theory rests on the negative assumption that there is no other way it could have happened. But Bugliosi also blatantly ignores any evidence which isn’t to his liking. If Bugliosi, for instance, had approached me – the single lead HSCA investigator handling the Committee’s search for Maurice Bishop -- because he simply wanted to make his book as truthful and factually correct as possible, he wouldn’t have had to distort and stretch the truth as much as he did in order to support so many of his asinine conclusions.

The search for Bishop began before the formation of the HSCA, when I was working for the JFK subcommittee of the Church Senate Intelligence Committee. I first approached a Miami Cuban named Antonio Veciana, the founder and chief finance officer of Alpha 66, one of the most militant anti-Castro groups in action at the time of Kennedy’s assassination.

Bugliosi, in questioning Veciana’s credibility about the existence of Bishop and his contact with Lee Harvey Oswald, fails to note that, in my initial approach to Veciana, there was no initial mention of the JFK case. My interest, I hedged, was in the relationship between Miami’s anti-Castro groups and the U.S. intelligence agencies. In a world of strong egos and jealous rivalries, Veciana’s reputation among anti-Castro group leaders as trustworthy and honest was, I discovered, very unusual. He had a background in accounting and banking. As a matter of fact, he was still in Cuba in 1960 when an American approached him in his bank office in mid-1960. Veciana thought the American was interested in banking with him but as the conversation went on it became apparent the American was recruiting him for anti-Castro activities. Veciana had been leaning that way and his close friends knew it, including the owner of the bank, Julio Lobo, also known as the Sugar Kind of Cuba and who, we later learned, worked closely with the CIA.

The American said his name was Maurice Bishop and Veciana wound up working closely with him as his strategic planner and advisor from 1960 until 1973, including at least two Castro assassination attempts. After the first failed attempt, Veciana and his family were forced to flee Cuba for Miami. There he was approached again by Bishop and their anti-Castro activities resumed. Not all of their work together involved military actions or assassination attempts; some involved sophisticated economic schemes to sabotage Cuba’s monetary system. Bishop would call Veciana to meet him at irregular intervals in a variety of cities in the U.S. and Latin America. One such meeting took place in the lobby of a tall office building in Dallas in the late summer of 1963. As Veciana entered he saw Bishop appearing to finish up a conversation with a young man whom Veciana would later recognize on television as Lee Harvey Oswald. Bishop never introduced Veciana to Oswald and Veciana, like a good intelligence agent, never asked about him.

Bugliosi questions both the existence of a Maurice Bishop and the fact that Bishop was in truth David Atlee Phillips, once one of the CIA’s most talented covert operatives, an agent who would later be elevated to the Agency’s highest supervisory rank as Chief of the Western Hemisphere Division. However, in dismissing the fact that Bishop was in reality David Phillips, nowhere does Bugliosi reveal or put into context how the confirming details were developed – in intelligence work, perhaps the most important factor in judging the validity of information.

Antonio Veciana, leader of the militant Cuban exile group Alpha-66
Antonio Veciana, leader of the militant Cuban exile group Alpha-66. Veciana told Fonzi about his handler, a "Maurice Bishop," identified by Fonzi as CIA propaganda expert David Phillips.

When Veciana first revealed the existence of a Maurice Bishop, the Church Committee was in the midst of probing the CIA’s unauthorized activities. In reaction, David Atlee Phillips had “retired” from the Agency to form the Retired Intelligence Officers Association to defend the Agency from unfavorable public criticism. He had gotten some press notice, including a brief article with his photo in People magazine. I wasn’t aware of that when I was questioning Veciana about “Bishop,” nor had I ever heard of Phillips. After exhausting our short list of possible CIA agents who had worked anti-Castro activities, showing Veciana as many photos as we could get, we decided to have him work with a police artist to develop a sketch of Bishop. When Senator Schweiker saw the sketch, he said the face looked familiar. Perhaps, Schweiker guessed, he was one of the string of CIA agents called to testify before the Church Committee in secret sessions. That evening he recalled the name of one of the agents who strikingly resembled the sketch of Bishop. His name, Schweiker remembered, was David Atlee Phillips.

A sketch of Maurice Bishop
A sketch of "Maurice Bishop" produced from Veciana's description at left, and CIA officer David Phillips at right.

Bugliosi knows all that because he read The Last Investigation. At least he listed it as a source. The book reveals the surfeit of junctions that testify to the multiple points of “coincidences” between Bishop’s and Phillips’ activities, locations and contacts. It reveals the labyrinthine reasons for Veciana’s decision not to publicly identify Phillips as Bishop, including his secret desire to re-establish a relationship with “Bishop” and resume anti-Castro terrorist activities, a passion he continued to pursue despite an attempt on his life. More significantly, the book reveals the story behind the dramatic circumstance that led Phillips to perjure himself in sworn testimony before the House Assassination Committee. That involved an issue that would have confirmed his covert identity as Maurice Bishop. (Since I had witnesses willing to confirm Phillips had lied, I strongly urged HSCA chief counsel Bob Blakey to pursue the perjury charges. Blakey refused. At that point, the Committee staffers were working on final reports and pursuing an issue involving the CIA’s relationship with Oswald would have opened doors no Committee member wanted touched.)

Yet Bugliosi misleadingly concludes: “The effort to find “Bishop” was likewise unsuccessful.”

That is simply not true. There were enough mating circumstances of time, place and activity and enough witnesses, including retired CIA agents who confirmed an awareness of Phillips’ use of the name of Bishop as covert cover. More significantly, anyone who takes the time and effort to write a 1600-plus page book on any subject surely must keep abreast of developments in the subject area while the project is in progress. Thus Bugliosi shouldn’t be able to claim ignorance of the subsequent revelations regarding the Bishop-Phillips issue which emerged after the life of the Assassination Committee. This includes Phillips’ operational activities with his closest CIA associate, David Sanchez Morales, a trained hit man for the Agency. (Morales, partying one night with hometown friends he considered trustworthy, began a drunken tirade against President Kennedy, ranting about the “traitorous” deals the President had made with Khrushchev and Castro. Morales ended his rant by muttering: “Well, we took care of that son of a bitch, didn’t we?”

Among the more recent revelations – yet well within the time period in which Bugliosi was still researching and writing his book – were disclosures from the former head of Cuban State Security, General Fabian Escalante. While still working undercover in Havana running a “public relations” business, Phillips was kept under regular surveillance by Escalante’s men. This included the time period in which “Bishop” recruited Veciana and planned their first Castro assassination attempt in October, 1961.

Plans for the attempt were centered on a welcoming ceremony for visiting Russian spaceman Yuri Gagarin. Castro was scheduled to appear on the balcony of the Presidential Palace and Veciana’s shooters would be firing their weapons, including a bazooka, from an eighth-floor apartment across the street. Veciana had rented the apartment in the name of his mother-in-law. Bishop, he said, had told him they were fortunate to have found it available because its owner, an American woman, was returning to the States.

The assassination attempt had to be aborted. At the last moment, having received a tip that something was going to happen, General Escalante flooded the area around the Palace with scores of his agents. Bishop had arranged for Veciana to flee the island by boat the night before, leaving the actual hit to his trusted firing team. However, when the firing team saw Escalante’s men swarming around the area, they left their weapons in the apartment and fled the scene. Moments later, Escalante’s men stormed the apartment and found the weapons.

Escalante was very familiar with the apartment. It had been kept under surveillance for quite some time because the American woman who owned it was a spy and the apartment had been used as a covert meeting base for CIA operatives in Havana. Among those seen visiting the apartment long before Bishop and Veciana planned their Castro assassination attempt was David Atlee Phillips.

In sum, then, there seems to be something mysteriously significant about Bugliosi writing a 1600-page book loaded with almost as much misleading information and mis-spun interpretation of the evidence as the Warren Commission Report.

* * *

Gaeton Fonzi
Gaeton Fonzi.

Gaeton Fonzi was an investigator for both the Church Committee and the House Select Committee on Investigations. His discoveries and an accounting of the failure of the latter body are recounted in his book The Last Investigation.


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