From Russia, With Love

How the KGB Duped Oliver Stone

Many Americans believe that JFK was assassinated as the result of some sort of conspiracy, perhaps even by the CIA—the direct result of a KGB influence operation.

Helping defeat Hillary Clinton is not the most successful influence operation Moscow has ever mounted against the United States. The most momentous, yes. But any covert activity that is exposed so rapidly and incites a backlash cannot be deemed an unalloyed accomplishment.

Moscow’s single most effective influence operation remains the one induced 50 years ago this month, when the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item published a front-page story on April 25, 1967, entitled “Mounting Evidence Links CIA to ‘Plot’ Probe.” It was an operation that culminated in an unimaginable achievement—inclusion in a Hollywood blockbuster by Oliver Stone that contends the CIA was instrumental in JFK's assassination.

That probe, as every conscious American knew, was district attorney Jim Garrison’s re-investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination amid a pronounced erosion of public confidence in the Warren Report. On March 1, 1967, Garrison had ostentatiously announced the arrest of Clay Shaw, a respected businessman, and charged him with complicity in JFK’s death. It was an outlandish and baseless accusation, yet Shaw would prove far from the only victim. The miscarriage of justice that unfolded over the next two years would have vast, if largely unappreciated, consequences for America’s political culture.

It would take a separate article (or even book) to explain why Garrison ordered Clay Shaw’s arrest in the first place (and some very good ones have been written, including Patricia Lambert’s False Witness). Suffice it to say that at the time of the arrest and until later in March, Garrison’s theory of the case was that JFK’s assassination was actually a “homosexual thrill-killing.” The president had been murdered in broad daylight because he was everything the conspirators were not: “a successful, handsome, popular, wealthy, virile man.” Under this scenario, Shaw, who was gay but closeted, also went by the name of Clay Bertrand, a mysterious person linked to the assassination. “Bertrand” had supposedly tried to arrange a defense counsel for Lee Harvey Oswald during the weekend following his capture on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The Warren Commission and FBI thoroughly investigated the “Bertrand” allegation in 1964, and had concluded (correctly) that it was a fabrication concocted by a publicity-seeking New Orleans attorney named Dean Andrews. “Bertrand” was not even a real person.

Nonetheless, Shaw’s surprise arrest in 1967 naturally precipitated a media firestorm the likes of which had not been seen since the assassination itself. As reporters from near and far flocked to New Orleans—the universal reaction being that Garrison “must have something”—headlines appeared around the globe, including in Paese Sera, a small-circulation newspaper published in Rome. The story that ran in its pages on March 4, however, was unlike any other. Clay Shaw, Paese Sera alleged, had been involved in “pseudo-commercial” activities in Italy while serving on the board of the defunct Centro Mondiale Commerciale. Ostensibly devoted to making Rome a commerce hub, the CMC had actually been “a creature of the CIA… set up as a cover for the transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds [sic] for illegal political-espionage activities.”

​One axiom of successful disinformation is that context creates the illusion of what might be true. Here the plausibility of Paese Sera’s falsehood was strengthened immeasurably by a separate media firestorm that had been ignited Feb. 14. On that day, Ramparts magazine had published full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, proclaiming that its March issue would reveal how the CIA “infiltrated and subverted” the National Student Association. Since then, media outlets had been racing to outdo the upstart Ramparts by exposing covert CIA subsidies to other organizations in the United States as well as abroad, including anti-communists in Italy. Paese Sera’s “scoop,” moreover, was built around a few undeniable facts: The CMC had existed from 1958 to 1962; Shaw had been a board member; and now he was charged with conspiracy.

​In three weeks Garrison had the Italian newspaper clipping in hand. Overnight the DA dispensed with his “thrill-killing” theory and persuaded himself that because he had inadvertently nabbed an important “company man,” the CIA was implicated in the assassination. “Garrison now is hot on the CIA angle,” wrote Richard Billings in his diary on April 3; Billings was a Life magazine editor given privileged access to the investigation in return for what was expected to be a blockbuster cover story. Or as Garrison himself recalled years later, “I didn’t know exactly how Shaw was involved. But with Shaw I grabbed a toehold on the conspiracy. I wasn’t about to let go because of the technicalities.”

Garrison didn’t know that Paese Sera belonged to a select group of allegedly non-communist periodicals used to propagate disinformation, rather than have these stories originate in Communist Party organs. Paese Sera’s long-suspected role in Moscow’s active measures was confirmed beyond any doubt in 1999, when historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrohkin published The Sword and the Shield, a history of the KGB that is a treasure trove of disclosures about Soviet clandestine and subversive activities during the cold war.

Now it happened to be true that from 1948 to 1956, Shaw, like hundreds of other American businessmen, had volunteered economic information to the CIA’s Domestic Contact Service, routinely gathered during his frequent trips abroad, mostly to Latin America. Shaw’s insights, however, were no more than what could be gleaned from a close reading of The Wall Street Journal, and he was never a covert operative. His relationship with the agency ended before the CMC was even founded, and that trade promotion organization was never a CIA front.

The Italian defense, interior, and foreign affairs ministries thus denied Paese Sera’s supposed scoop, while the Rome Daily American observed that “the only thing the Communist-leaning Paese Sera forgot to throw [into its snow job] was the kitchen sink.” Still, throughout March and into April the story promptly gained traction in the left-wing French, Italian, Greek, and Canadian press. Moscow’s Pravda picked up the story too, publishing it under the simple headline, “Clay Shaw of the CIA.”

In the United States there was almost no coverage at all. This dearth was a problem for a DA whose modus operandi required a steady drumbeat of positive publicity. Garrison himself dared not bring up the allegation openly, as he later explained to Bertrand Russell, the famed British philosopher, who was also an avid JFK conspiracy theorist. Doing so might hand skeptics in the media the ammunition to destroy his already-controversial probe. So Garrison leaked.

On April 25, the New Orleans States-Item published its copyrighted story, reporting that Shaw, still the only person indicted, had been linked to the CIA “by an influential Italian newspaper.” It took more than 20 column inches before Paese Sera (routinely labeled “crypto-Communist” by the State Department) was described as “leftist in its political leanings.” The Associated Press picked up the States-Item scoop for distribution on its national wire, and the story was reprinted, in varying lengths, in hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

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Having laid the groundwork, Garrison now unleashed a barrage of accusations, one more sensational and jaw-dropping than the next. The CIA had commanded Lee Harvey Oswald; the CIA had shielded the real assassins; the CIA had deceived the Warren Commission and hid evidence with the FBI’s connivance—no, the CIA had deceived the FBI too! As with Senator Joe McCarthy, the legitimacy conferred by public office gave Garrison a license for audacious mendacity. Except now the zeitgeist wasn’t that Communists were under every bed—the CIA was. One Bourbon Street store that catered to the tourist trade tweaked Garrison by publishing a mock newspaper headlined: DA STOPS CIA IN USA TAKEOVER. Elsewhere in the United States, though, where DAs were taken more seriously, the cumulative impact of Garrison’s charges was dramatic. This was the moment in time when Garrison ushered in a paradigm shift over the assassination.

As the DA’s “bizarre and unsubstantiated” campaign to implicate the CIA reached a fever pitch in early June, an internal agency memo observed that Garrison had “attacked [the] CIA more vehemently, viciously and mendaciously than has any other American official or private citizen whose comments have come to our attention. In fact, he [has] outstripped the foreign Communist press, which is now quoting him delightedly.” Garrison’s lean good looks camouflaged a cunning demagogue, who challenged not only the veracity of the Warren Report but the federal government’s very legitimacy, asserting that “what happened… in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’état… instigated and planned… by fanatical anticommunists in the United States intelligence community.”

The toxic brew of a domestic demagogue mixed with dezinformatsiya was a KGB dream come true: an elected U.S. official was affirming what Moscow had been saying for years about America’s corrupt political system and its military-industrial complex. In the space of a few months, Garrison legitimated the fable that the CIA was complicit in President Kennedy’s assassination and that American democracy itself was an illusion.

Clay Shaw’s trial finally commenced in January 1969. Despite two years of allegations and a promise of testimony that would “rock the nation,” Garrison’s case was remarkably unchanged from the loopy account presented at Shaw’s preliminary hearing. The prosecution failed to produce a scintilla of CIA involvement, and jurors eventually rendered a unanimous verdict of “not guilty” after deliberating 54 minutes.

Afterward, Garrison insisted that the actual legal results did not make his investigation any less valid. The centrality of the Paese Sera revelation to the DA’s theory about CIA involvement became a sacred, inner secret known only to Garrison and closest associates. In this scenario, Garrison was the martyr, victimized (ironically) by the vast but hidden power of “the company” and its “disinformation machinery.” Whether Moscow ever recognized the impact of Paese Sera’s falsehood on the New Orleans district attorney contemporaneously is unknown. What is certain is that the KGB did not rest on its laurels. For the balance of the cold war, efforts to expose the ostensible role of the “American special services” in the Kennedy assassination remained a staple of Moscow’s active measures—to the point where the KGB “could fairly claim that far more Americans believed some version of [Moscow’s] conspiracy theory… than accepted the main findings of the Warren Commission,” as Andrew and Mitrokhin wrote.

​In 1988, Garrison published a memoir and made explicit the connection between his grand conspiracy and Paese Sera. No one noticed, the Shaw prosecution having long been dismissed as a legal farce. But then Garrison’s publisher thrust a copy of the memoir into the hands of Oliver Stone during an international film festival in Havana. That encounter led to Paese Sera’s disinformation becoming the centerpiece of a Hollywood blockbuster. At the 88-minute mark of Stone’s JFK, Garrison (portrayed by Kevin Costner) confronts Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) with a newspaper article in Italian supposedly exposing Shaw’s work as a CIA operative. This clash never occurred in real life, of course, but Stone was intent on conveying the truth about the wellspring for Garrison’s ultimate conspiracy theory. Mr. Shaw, the script reads, this is an Italian newspaper article saying you were a member of the Board of Centro Mondo [sic] Commerciale in Italy, that this company was a creature of the CIA…

Garrison’s real legacy was not his investigation, but the public memory of his lurid allegations, recycled and amplified by Oliver Stone. More than 25 years after its premiere, JFK is the way most Americans now learn about one of the most traumatic events in their recent history. And according to one historian who admires Stone, JFK has probably “had a greater impact on public opinion than any other work of art in American history.” Indeed, the movie remains a great source of pride for Stone, if not his masterpiece. Allegedly, the film exposed a fascist-led coup that “hit the central nerve core of the establishment,” and has “held up very well over time,” the director contended recently at the Lucca Film Festival in April, 2017.

​Even allowing for hyperbole, that is why a fantasy concocted by an Italian newspaper that trafficked in disinformation remains Moscow’s single most successful influence operation.