Dick Russell’s second book on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, On the Trail of the JFK Assassins, is an important contribution to the subject’s literature. Russell intertwines some of his previously published articles with chapters of never-before-published information, offering updated perspectives on previous revelations and adding new information to the case.
Russell’s combination of talents is rare in the research community: he brings a reporter’s process, a novelist’s flair, and a researcher’s deep curiosity to the case. The result is an eminently readable volume. It’s far easier to tackle this series of articles than his 800+ page previous volume, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which Russell notes his friends have jokingly called The Book That Grew Too Much.
I must thank Lachy Hulme, an Australian friend of Russell’s, for prompting Russell to resurface his previous articles originally published in The Village Voice, Harpers Weekly, Argosy Magazine, New Times, High Times, and other outlets. In retrospect, these pieces were remarkably insightful. For example, at a time when some of the leading voices in the community were desperately trying to pull the case away from the milieu New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison first discovered, the nexus between the intelligence community, the anti-Castro Cubans, and the CIA’s Mob associates, Russell kept the focus on this crowd and added to the evidence with interviews of some of the case’s most colorful characters.
Jim Garrison gets a fairer treatment here than in much of the literature, a welcome relief from the Garrison bashing most critics feel compelled to perpetrate. Indeed, much of what we have learned since the HSCA has served to bolster Garrison’s position. The title of Russell’s book is itself a nod to Garrison’s earlier account of his own investigation into the case, On the Trail of the Assassins.
Russell shows his obvious fascination with intelligence agents, the “spooks” who inhabit that netherworld between observable reality and the covert world we civilians rarely encounter, who perform operations most Americans know nothing about, sometimes to their later chagrin. A character who called himself by the pseudonym “Captain Sam” quite aptly describes why pursuing the truth through the people closest to the crime can be a frustrating endeavor:
“[T]here’s one thing you should know from the start. Half of what I’ll tell you might be the truth, and the other half bullshit. But all of it is what I was told. That’s part of the game in the intelligence business. You confuse your own operatives with false information; maybe nobody knows the full truth about a particular assignment.”
And therein lies the rub of investigating covert operations. Even those who want to help can unintentionally mislead, despite the best of intentions. And then there are the others, who mislead on purpose. Russell appears to have walked a fine line between letting the spooks have their say without giving weight to statements that contradict provable facts about the case.
Ironically, I was just about to write up, for a presentation I was preparing, the story of Luis Castillo, who appeared to be a CIA asset hypnoprogrammed to assassinate a foreign leader and then kill himself afterwards. He was arrested in advance of his assignment by authorities, and his weapons were confiscated. Nonetheless, at the appointed time, he mimed shooting a gun at someone else, from within his prison walls, and then mimed killing himself. I had just pulled out the Turner/Christian book on the Robert Kennedy assassination, which contained a brief discussion of Castillo, when Russell’s book arrived in my mail. I had no idea that Russell, along with Jeff Cohen, the founder of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), had done extensive research on the Castillo case, and had talked to Victor Arcega, the man who was able to uncover, through hypnosis, some of Castillo’s hypnotic programming. Russell’s article on Castillo is, I believe, a must read, not the least for how Dr. Herbert Spiegel helped spike a book deal on Castillo. There’s a reason such stories rarely reach the public, and it’s not always because the story isn’t true. It’s because it isn’t provably true, which is an unfortunately high standard. I’m grateful that Russell gives us the data and lets us make up our own minds.
One of the most interesting throughlines across the old and new articles is the focus on the CIA’s mind control programs and possible connections between those programs and certain participants in the JFK assassination story. While I’ve never believed Oswald was under hypnosis at the time of the Kennedy assassination, the topic is endlessly fascinating, and, I believe, very important to understand the Robert Kennedy assassination, which is touched on in passing in this volume. I’m not at all convinced that Luis Castillo, for example, was in Dealey Plaza, as some of his memories suggest. But it seems obvious to me he was used in a CIA program involving an assassination plot against the leader of another country, albeit (and thankfully) an unsuccessful one.
One of my favorite articles in the book was “The Media, the CIA, and the Cover-Up.” Russell recounts key points in the media history of the case, and shows the direct connections between key stories in the cover-up and the CIA assets behind those stories. I’ve longed to read just such an article for years. It was a pleasure to find the people behind the media cover-up and their connections to the Agency so clearly laid out here.
The book includes some fascinating interviews. Russell recounts a long interview with Senator Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.), who became increasingly concerned by the “fingerprints of intelligence” he found all over Lee Harvey Oswald during his work with the Church Committee.
Richard Sprague, who briefly headed the House Select Committee on Assassinations before the CIA’s media assets started a drumbeat for his removal, noted in his interview with Russell that he had become more interested in the media’s coverage of the case than the facts of the assassination itself, a sentiment I share. To me, one of the points of studying the history of the Kennedy assassination is to explore how someone gets away with such a crime, how the crime can be effectively covered up for years, and how the cover-up, in the end, when unraveled, presents some of the best evidence of conspiracy itself.
Speaking of cover-ups, there’s an interesting little story in here regarding a favorite subject of mine, Gordon Novel. Most people who know Gordon know he can lie with the best of them. But few understand why he lies about this case. Russell shows no particular curiosity along those lines, which is a shame, since he has such a provocative tidbit to share that, with some additional context, could become a lot more interesting.
One of my favorite chapters had to do with Russell’s hilarious, amateurish trip to KGB headquarters in Moscow, accompanied by an associate who—well, you just have to read his account. I could see the ending coming a mile away, and was bemused that Russell did not, at the time.
This book will appeal to a broad cross-section of readers. People with only a casual interest in the JFK case will find much to ponder here. Researchers who have been at this for years will learn some startling new information throughout, and especially at the end of the book in Russell’s dynamite interview of Doug Horne, the ARRB’s key medical evidence researcher. Those who enjoy spook tales will laugh at the various characters Russell interacts with throughout the 320-page volume. And because the book is a series of self-contained chapters and articles, it’s easy to reach “closure” every few pages. I’m not fond of books that keep me up all night while I search for an appropriate stopping point. The truth about this case is, after all, disturbing enough.