Wednesday, 05 April 2017 22:00

Focus on the Media: Edward J. Epstein

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Jim DiEugenio reviews the career of Edward J. Epstein, who has recently come under attack for his concoctions concerning Edward Snowden – all too familiar to students of the JFK assassination in the way they echo his equally questionable construction of Oswald as Soviet agent.

epstein leaderEdward Epstein began his career with a graduate thesis that he then sold as a book. It was called Inquest. He then wrote a book called Counterplot. The first was about the inner workings of the Warren Commission. The second was about the Jim Garrison investigation. These two books are discussed at length in the ProbeMagazine article we have excerpted.

The important thing to remember about the books is that in the first one, Epstein takes the stance of an outsider trying to understand how a governmental body worked and came to some rather unusual conclusions. In the second book, which was originally a long magazine article, the outsider stance was abandoned. Epstein was no longer a graduate student. He became an insider, a working member of the club. And The New Yorker became a longtime haven for him.

His career largely centered on two areas: the intelligence community, and the JFK case. He wrote three books on the latter. He wrote four books on the former. In addition to his books, he has published many articles in magazines like The Atlantic and The New Republic. Incredibly, he has managed to convince some people, like Ron Rosenbaum, that he actually knows something about the world of national security and intelligence. After all, he once tried to argue that James Angleton was not really duped by Kim Philby, but that Angleton was playing Philby. For these kinds of errands, he was well compensated by business entities like Reader’s Digest, which excerpted his useless book about Oswald entitled Legend.

His latest book about Edward Snowden is equally pitiful. (Please click here for a good review) As the reader can see, Epstein is up to his old tricks. What is hard to believe is that anyone still believes him or pays for his work. In reading these two pieces one will see that the last thing Epstein is is an investigative journalist. Spending hours on the phone with the late James Angleton does not constitute investigation. Most people would call it visiting a victim of early senility. But that is what Epstein did for his books Legend and Deception. Finally, in 1991 and 1992, Tom Mangold in Cold Warrior and David Wise in Mole Hunt exposed Angleton for what he was: a truly imbalanced and actually a dangerous man. A man whose paranoia wrecked several lives and paralyzed the Agency. A man who should never had been the CIA’s counterintelligence chief in the first place.

Epstein didn’t learn from his previous error. And maybe it really wasn’t an error. But if more people had understood who he was, then he would not be allowed to keep on his giant misinformation campaign. In its latest incarnation, Edward Snowden is really a Soviet spy. Just like Oswald. Oh, my aching back.

The following is a letter written by Jim DiEugenio to the editors of The New Yorker. It was a reply to a nearly 8,500 word essay by Edward J. Epstein entitled “Shots in the Dark.” Epstein’s article was published in the November 30, 1992 issue. DiEugenio wrote this letter on December 10, 1992. The editors refused to print it. It was published in the January/February issue of Gary Rowell’s The Investigator. It appears here in a slightly edited and expanded form.

Jim Garrison died on October 21, 1992. On November 30th, The New Yorker carried a nearly 8,500 word article about the New Orleans DA and his investigation into the death of President Kennedy. Allowing for editing, lead time, press run and distribution schedule, Edward Epstein’s piece must have been submitted at least 8 to 10 days in advance. Considering its length, the question inevitably arises: was the article being prepared before Garrison died? The fact of his long and serious illness had been popularly known in wide circles. If this is so, why did The New Yorker rush the hit piece onto its pages so quickly and rather tastelessly?

Epstein states that his motive was to counteract the impact of Oliver Stone’s acclaimed and popular 1991 film JFK. The film starred Kevin Costner as Garrison in a recreation of the only conspiracy inquiry and trial into the murder of President Kennedy. Epstein calls the film a fiction event, even though it is based on two non-fiction books, Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins, and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire. Epstein, a former Warren Commission critic, has seemed to have had an astringent reaction to the film. He debated Stone, among others, in New York in a symposium arranged by The Nation magazine about the merits of the film. In the new compilation of his books on the subject, he added an Epilogue attacking the picture. He is now preparing another attack on the film and Stone to appear in the Atlantic Monthly, apparently timed for the video release of the longer version of JFK in January. It should be added that Epstein complained to Stone at that New York symposium that a scene depicted in his film was not depicted in Garrison’s book. If Garrison had written about everything in his files, his book would have been several volumes long. Which shows how familiar Epstein was with this raw data. (This author was shown these files by Lyon Garrison and can vouch for their volume.)

To dispense with the specious argument over the historical accuracy of Stone’s film. Any historical film will, of necessity, rearrange events, settings, circumstances, and also often collapse characters to convey a dramatic whole. Stone’s film does this, but much less than other popular films dealing with historic subjects: e.g., Mississippi Burning, The Untouchables, Bugsy. Often, Stone prefaces speculative scenes by having Costner say, “Let’s speculate”, or shooting a sequence in sepia. But to anyone familiar with the actual facts, when all is said and done, Stone’s picture actually ranks with films like Lawrence of Arabia in its relative allegiance to the adduced record. As we shall see, it is Epstein’s unfamiliarity with that record that seems to be the basis for his specious article.

It is strange that Epstein should be so flummoxed by this film which during its climax, tears to pieces the Warren Report, just as Garrison’s assistant DA’s did in New Orleans in February of 1969 at the trial of Clay Shaw. What makes it even more ironic is that Epstein’s article contains more “fiction” or distortion in relative terms than JFK. This begins with his portrayal of Garrison as a flamboyant, egomaniacal publicity hound who pursued the Kennedy case for his private purposes. This does not correspond to anyone who observed Garrison in his last years or watched his last two interviews when he was still healthy. The former DA was a reserved, intellectual, literary man who carried the painful scars of his two-year battle against the Washington-New York power center in his prosecution of Clay Shaw. He ended up with a tarnished reputation, a pile of bills, $5,000 in the bank—he financed some of the expenses himself—and many leftover death threats. The Kennedy case was the reason he was voted out of office. In fact, it ruined a promising political career where many said he could have been the governor of the state. Garrison later stated that if he had it all to do over, he probably would not have done it because of the personal and emotional toll.

Epstein writes that Garrison, “artfully managed to stretch out the interval between the charge and the trial … while he engaged in a wide range of diversionary actions.” Precisely the opposite is true and documented. It takes author Paris Flammonde almost 13 pages to chronicle the delay tactics of Shaw’s lawyers, who were consorting with both media allies and friends in Washington in order to torpedo Garrison. Epstein actually scores Garrison for bringing charges against the likes of “media “ people like Walter Sheridan, even though affidavits reveal that Sheridan threatened and bribed important witness in the case. I guess this is OK with Epstein. After all, it’s only the murder of the president.

The photos Epstein describes Garrison showing on The Tonight Show were furnished by researcher Richard Sprague. Epstein sometimes wears glasses. Perhaps this is the reason he feels the object being picked up in Dealey Plaza is a pebble. Most people I have talked to think it is a large caliber bullet. Epstein also has not kept up with research in the field, since he derides Garrison for saying the man retrieving the object was a federal agent. It turns out he was just that, an FBI agent to be exact. And if Epstein really thinks that both J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson were dedicated to uncovering the facts in this case, he has not read the Church Committee report or interviewed any former FBI agents, like, for example, William Turner. This may be the single most ludicrous declaration in the entire article, which is saying something.

Epstein relies on the House Select Committee X-rays and photos as his sine qua non that only three shots were fired, and all came from the rear. What he does not say is that the HSCA altered the Warren Commission findings on the autopsy. They moved up the entry wound in Kennedy’s skull from the bottom of the heard to the top, and they moved down the back wound. Further, the pathologists never dissected the track of either wound in Kennedy’s body. Therefore, the directionality and the trajectory of the wounds is not known. At any murder trial, these materials would be mercilessly attacked. And it is questionable if they would have been admitted into court, since some of the exhibits do not correspond to what the witnesses at the autopsy saw.

Epstein implies that Jim Garrison failed to reveal any “hidden associates” of Oswald’s in New Orleans. This is simply balderdash. As depicted in the Warren Report, Oswald was supposed to be a Marxist oriented, pro-Castro sympathizer. Yet, as Garrison showed, here was a communist who had no communist friends. On the contrary, he associated almost exclusively with anti-communist extremists, intelligence operatives, and/or anti-Castro Cuban exiles in both New Orleans and Dallas: George DeMohresnchildt, Guy Banister, David Ferrie, Clay Shaw, Richard Case Nagell, Orest Pena. Which is an odd group for a communist to be hanging out with. You will not see most of their names in the Warren Report. But you will see them in Garrison’s files. In fact, if not for him, you likely would not have heard of them at all.

Epstein tries to trivialize Garrison’s complaints about the extreme secrecy involved in the JFK case. He writes that this was essentially grandstanding and it was not really important to the facts of the case. Garrison disagreed and stated that it undermined public confidence in their government. The Warren Commission had the equivalent of one day of public hearings. (And that was because witness Mark Lane insisted on his hearing being open to fellow citizens.) The House Select Committee on Assassinations had about three weeks of open hearings. The combined lifespan of both investigative bodies was a bit over three years. The former locked up over 365 cubic feet of materials. The second inquiry left almost 800 boxes of files. Today, the federal government has over 2 million pages of material classified on this case. Even though the murder is three decades old and the official story is that Oswald alone killed Kennedy. Is Epstein correct in saying that most of it is unimportant? How can he possibly deduce such a conclusion before the files are declassified? We know from previous declassifications that such was not the case at all. For instance, the declassification of the FBI report on the JFK case revealed that Director J. Edgar Hoover did not agree with the Single Bullet Theory. He believed that a separate shot hit Governor John Connally. To use another example: the government is today holding a 300-page report about Oswald’s alleged activities in Mexico City. The problem, as the authors of that report have stated, is that the CIA could not produce a photo of Oswald being there, and the voice on the audiotapes the CIA made of Oswald is not his. You will not find any of that information in the Warren Report. Which never questions any of his activities in Mexico.

Epstein writes that many documents that were originally classified have since been released. Yes, and many have been released only in response to public revulsion with the classification process. Many others have been released through the efforts of private citizens who have had to sue the government to get them. Further, many of these released documents have not been released in full. That is, they contain what is termed “redactions”, that is, much of the wording has been blacked out. Plus, the fact that the information was released later dilutes the impact and effect the information has on the case and the public. In fact, this contributes to the whole “too-late-to-solve-it” syndrome that afflicts the Kennedy case. One has to wonder: was this the intent from the start? If so, it succeeded.

Epstein is familiar with these problems, since they impact on the mystery surrounding the man he wrote about extensively in his last book on the JFK case, Legend. This was George DeMohrenschildt, sometimes termed “The Baron” due to his upper class White Russian standing. Epstein was reportedly the last person to interview DeMohrenschildt in Florida before he died of a shotgun blast. Although the official verdict in the case was that The Baron took his own life, others who have investigated his death still have questions about it. Mr. Epstein, whose early attack on Garrison in The New Yorker was circulated by the CIA to worldwide station chiefs, was in Florida at the time to interview DeMohrenschildt for Legend. Epstein received a large half million dollar advance for the book, the highest ever in the JFK field. The book’s backers also furnished him with a research staff. Epstein offered DeMohrenschildt large sums of money for interview sessions. Epstein himself was quoted as saying he was involved in a “very big project, which involves a lot money.”

Previously, Epstein had been involved in a campaign to clear the FBI of charges that it had used clandestine and conspiratorial methods to destroy the Black Panthers. In regards to my previous point, later declassified documents revealed that the FBI had done just that. Epstein’s book Legend had an odd—some would say perverse—spin to it. The thesis was that the KGB had recruited Oswald while he was in Russia and he was acting as their agent when he killed Kennedy. Epstein tried to fog this framework, but the book’s last section—dealing with Oswald’s return to America—is titled “The Mission”. And the last chapter is called “Day of the Assassin”. In an appendix entitled “The Status of the Evidence”, Epstein backs every dubious claim of the Warren Commission. He deals with complex issues, like the dubious capability of Oswald’s rifle, in a less than cursory manner: in this case, all of two sentences. Epstein’s interview subjects, like Jim Botelho, a service buddy of Oswald, insist that he distorted their responses on his way to his offbeat conclusion, namely that the Russians, through the KGB, killed Kennedy.

DeMohrenschildt was important to this scheme. For the simple reason that he and his family came from the Soviet Union. So, in the upside down world of Legend, one could argue that somehow The Baron was acting as Oswald’s handler in the USA, as some kind of deep cover KGB agent.

But Epstein’s most questionable decision was the liberal use of CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton as a major source. This is the same Angleton whose Cold War paranoia paralyzed the CIA to the point that Director Bill Colby backed a press leak campaign to force him to step down. The same Angleton who, once retired, started a defense fund for agents caught in “black bag” operations, or robberies. The same Angleton who actively encouraged destabilizing governments, not in Guatemala or Iran, but in allied countries like Australia and England.

Understandably, many have read Legend as Angleton’s outlet for the defense of his—and the CIA’s—conduct in relation to both Oswald and the assassination. More cynical observers see it as a detour away from both Oswald’s and DeMohrenschildt’s secret status as American intelligence agents.

Epstein’s activities with The Baron toward the end are notable. As stated, an inquest ruled that DeMohrenschildt took his own life. But Mark Lane talked to the state attorney who interviewed Epstein about the day of DeMohrenschildt’s passing. Epstein told David Bloodworth that he had paid his subject three thousand dollars and let him go after a rather short session. Lane’s report, published in Gallery of November 1977, went on to say that Epstein told Bloodworth that even though he spent all this money, he kept no notes and had no tape recordings. Bloodworth told Lane that he did not believe that statement, not after Epstein spent that much money. Bloodworth then added that Epstein showed The Baron a document that indicated he might be taken back to Parkland Hospital in Dallas for some electroshock treatments. (DeMohrenschildt had been suffering from depression.) Bloodworth then looked at Lane and said, “You know, DeMohrenschildt was deathly afraid of those treatments … DeMohrenschildt was terrified of being sent back there. One hour later he was dead.”

This is the man who now writes in reflection of Jim Garrison and his investigation of Kennedy’s murder. Is it too much to suggest that Epstein is jumping into a “spin control” mode? People like Howard Hunt and J. Edgar Hoover also did this in relation to the life and death of John Kennedy. But they had the sense to wait a while so their efforts would not be seen as transparently self-serving. Epstein exercised no such self-control. Which makes his work not just inaccurate but offensive. And The New Yorker acted as his accomplice in this defamatory exercise.

Part 2: "The Abstract Reality of Edward Epstein"

Part 3: "Edward Epstein: Warren Commission Critic?" (Probe vol 7 no 1, 1999)

Last modified on Saturday, 08 April 2017 00:20
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and Reclaiming Parkland (2013/2016), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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