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David Talbot's Reply to Bohning Review in Washington Decoded

by David Talbot

[Editor's note: this letter is David Talbot's reply to Don Bohning's review of Brothers: A Hidden History of the Kennedy Years . For more on the book, see the Unredacted interview with David Talbot.]

In his Washington Decoded 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 Max Holland, editor of Washington Decoded – 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 Holland in his 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 March 19, 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.”

[editor's note: these AMCARBON memos detailing the Agency relationship with the Miami Herald and journalists Al Burt and Don Bohning were first written about by Joan Mellen in her 2005 book A Farewell to Justice.]

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.

-- David Talbot

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