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Review: Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba and the Garrison Case (Second Edition)

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Coauthored with Zachary Sklar

The most controversial crime of the 20th century -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- occurred 50 years ago and remains unsolved. In a case filled with stranger-than-fiction and larger-than-life characters, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison is perhaps the largest and most important -- and also the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood.

James DiEugenio, coeditor of the independent research magazine Probe and cofounder of Citizens for Truth about the Kennedy Assassination, first tackled the subject of Garrison and the JFK assassination in 1992 with his groundbreaking book Destiny Betrayed. Twenty-one years later, drawing on new documents made public by the Assassination Records Review Board and expanding his own research, DiEugenio has refined his central arguments and added considerable new material for a second edition.

The centerpiece of DiEugenio's riveting book is Garrison's investigation of local New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw. In 1967, Garrison charged Shaw with conspiracy to assassinate the president -- the only prosecution in the JFK case ever to reach a court of law. After nearly three years of legal wrangling and a circus-like trial, Shaw was acquitted by a jury that deliberated for less than one hour.

The mainstream press dismissed Garrison -- a World War II vet, former FBI agent and popular anti-corruption DA -- as a reckless egomaniacal politician who played fast and loose with the facts, bribed and coerced witnesses, and ruined the life of an innocent upstanding citizen. Worse yet, Garrison was accused of being both a dupe of the KGB and on the take from the Mafia. Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson even printed an unsubstantiated rumor that Garrison had fondled a little boy in the New Orleans Athletic Club. It wasn't just the mainstream press that bought into this portrait of Garrison. Many conspiracy researchers seemed to accept it too.

As DiEugenio demonstrates in damning detail, all of these accusations were false and were part of an orchestrated smear campaign by the CIA. An Agency memorandum, #1035-960, dated April 1, 1967 and directed to all station chiefs, laid out a plan to use Agency "propaganda assets" in the media -- i.e. writers and editors -- to discredit Warren Commission critics with precisely the kinds of accusations that were used against Garrison.

DiEugenio has found numerous newly released documents that show how the campaign was implemented against Garrison. Writers Jim Phelan, Hugh Aynesworth, and David Chandler all published devastating (and unsubstantiated) attacks on Garrison's investigation and at the same time were reporting back to both the Agency and the FBI. Walter Sheridan, who tried to bribe several of Garrison's witnesses while producing a scathing documentary for NBC, had worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, and the National Security Agency.

The media campaign to destroy Garrison's personal credibility was part of a larger strategy to sabotage the case against Shaw. DiEugenio documents that no fewer than nine Agency assets infiltrated the District Attorney's office as "volunteers."

Even before Shaw was charged, the Agency had begun a "Garrison Group" to monitor the DA's investigation. That group continued to meet in private with Agency Director Richard Helms, according to former agent Victor Marchetti, all the way through the Shaw conspiracy trial. The conclusion DiEugenio reaches is that it was not Clay Shaw but the People of New Orleans and their District Attorney who never had a chance at a fair trial.

Garrison's case was sabotaged from day one. All his attempts to extradite witnesses (including former and current CIA directors Allen Dulles and Richard Helms) from other states were denied -- something that had never happened in his previous years as DA. The released documents reveal precisely how the CIA intervened with U.S. Attorneys and federal judges to make sure Garrison would not get any cooperation. Similarly, the DA's requests for Oswald's tax records and photos and X-rays from the JFK autopsy were denied.

In addition, several key witnesses -- David Ferrie, Guy Banister, Eladio del Valle -- died under mysterious circumstances, and others simply disappeared. Garrison's offices were bugged by the FBI, and he and his staff were under constant surveillance. As if this were not enough, before the trial began, "volunteer" Tom Bethell stole Garrison's files and handed them over to Shaw's attorneys, who also were being helped by the CIA.

Garrison wasn't sure what Clay Shaw's exact role was. But he believed that the former director of CIA fronts Permindex and Centro Mondiale Commerciale was part of a conspiracy that involved fanatical Cold Warriors in the CIA and right-wing members of the Cuban exile community in New Orleans. DiEugenio's research shows what Garrison was never able to prove: that Shaw had a covert security clearance and a long history in intelligence that went back to the OSS during World War II and continued with the CIA. And it also demonstrates just how close Garrison was to uncovering the truth about the assassination -- which is why the Agency tried to destroy him.

While DiEugenio's thorough treatment of the Shaw case is disturbing, his chapters on Kennedy's political evolution and the threat the changing president posed to the military-industrial-intelligence complex are even more illuminating. The author traces Kennedy's views on colonialism and nationalism back to a seven-week trip to Asia that the young Congressman took in 1951. In Saigon, American diplomat Edmund Gullion persuaded Kennedy that the French could not win in Vietnam because Ho Chi Minh and his rebels were not engaged in an ideological struggle for communism but a nationalistic battle against colonialism.

Kennedy never forgot that lesson. In 1957, he spoke out on the Senate floor against French colonialism in Algeria. And during his brief presidency he sought a peaceful end to colonialism not just in Vietnam but in Congo, Indonesia and Laos as well. It is true that Kennedy's positions were not always consistent. His public pronouncements, particularly during the presidential campaign, were hawkish and anti-Communist. But DiEugenio makes a compelling case that the campaign talk was a political necessity so Kennedy would not appear weak against the well-established anti-Communist Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Once in the Oval Office, Kennedy tried to achieve his goal of ending the Cold War with the Soviets while allowing Third World colonies to gain independence. DiEugenio lays out for the reader the stark differences in approach between Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, in places like the Congo, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba. In each of these countries, Kennedy was trying to achieve peace without military intervention -- over the protests of his own advisers and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Most galling to the Cold Warriors in the military and intelligence establishments were Kennedy's refusal to provide air cover for the botched invasion of Cuba in 1961; his refusal to invade Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962; his signing of a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union in 1963; his dismantling of the CIA's anti-Castro Operation Mongoose and his back-channel efforts to establish relations with Cuba in 1963; and perhaps most important, his order in National Security Action Memorandum 263 to remove 1,000 advisers from Vietnam by Christmas of 1963 and all U.S. advisers by the end of 1965.

After the assassination, Lyndon Johnson quickly reversed JFK's policies in Vietnam, Cuba, the Congo, Indonesia and Laos. Literally millions of people were killed in military operations all over the globe to make sure that the old Cold War ideology prevailed and natural resources, cheap labor and markets were kept accessible for American corporations to exploit.

In clear prose and with meticulous source notes, DiEugenio has laid out both the context and the consequences of the most important political assassination of our time. At the same time, he has helped restore the good reputation of Jim Garrison, the one person who came closest to finding the truth. DiEugenio's book joins a list of outstanding contributions to the JFK assassination literature, including JFK and the Unspeakable by Jim Douglass, A Farewell to Justice by Joan Mellen, and Let Justice Be Done by William Davy. For anyone interested in the meaning of the assassination of John Kennedy, Destiny Betrayed is a must-read.

Oliver Stone is the director and co-writer of the film JFK, which will be re-released in November in theaters and in a new Blu-Ray edition.

Zachary Sklar is the co-writer of JFK and editor of Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Full disclosure: He wrote the introduction for Sheridan Square Press's first edition of Destiny Betrayed.