Thursday, 15 February 1996 18:58

James Phelan

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Because of his writings on the Kennedy assassination in the Post, New York Times, and his book Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels, many have harbored suspicions about Phelan's independence as a writer. What makes him even more suspicious is the company he has kept throughout the years, writes Jim DiEugenio.


From the January-February, 1996 issue (Vol. 3 No. 2) of Probe


James Phelan was a nationally known and distributed reporter for over 20 years, from about the mid-50's to the late 70's. He semi-retired in the early 80's and today is fully retired and living in Temecula, California. At the peak years of his career, Phelan wrote for True, Time, Fortune, The Reporter, Saturday Evening Post, and New York Times Magazine. Although Phelan liked to refer to himself as a free-lancer, he was a staff writer for the Saturday Evening Post for about seven years in the 1960's. In the seventies, he was writing almost exclusively for New York Times Magazine.

As anyone with knowledge of the CIA and the media will know, those two publications, as well as the Luce press Phelan contributed to, have been exposed as having ties to the intelligence community. For example, they are prominently mentioned in Carl Bernstein's famous Rolling Stone article entitled "The CIA and the Media." It should also be noted that Saturday Evening Post has had ties to the FBI. For instance, correspondent Harold Martin was used by the Bureau as a friendly conduit for favorable stories to be passed to.

Because of his writings on the Kennedy assassination in the Post, New York Times, and his book Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels, many have harbored suspicions about Phelan's independence as a writer. What makes him even more suspicious is the company he has kept throughout the years. For instance, his editor at Random House was the infamous Bob Loomis. According to Jim Marrs, Loomis is formerly CIA, and he edited the recent Norman Mailer and Gerald Posner books depicting Oswald as a lone gunman (Phelan was a source for Posner). Tom Wicker, longtime Warren Commission defender, wrote the introduction for Phelan's 1982 book. While reporting on Garrison over a period of years, Phelan indiscriminately chummed around with people like Hugh Aynesworth, Walter Sheridan, Rick Townley, and David Chandler. Yet if one questions his bona fides, Phelan vehemently denies that he is tied to the FBI, CIA or any government agency. He often intimates possible lawsuits in the face of these suggestions.

With the release of new documents under the JFK Act, Phelan will now have a hard time using these tactics. So far, two full documents and a partial one have been released revealing that Phelan was informing to the FBI and turning over documents to them as a result of his interviews with Garrison in early 1967. The most interesting contact sheet is the one uncovered by Anna Marie Kuhns-Walko and included in CTKA's collection of her work. In this April 3, 1967 memo by R. E. Wick to Cartha DeLoach, Wick writes that he agreed to see Phelan reluctantly: "Although we have stayed away from [Phelan's name crossed out] it was felt we should hear what he had to say and Leinbaugh in my office talked to him." Phelan seems to have tried to pump Garrison for details about his New Orleans investigation and been disappointed when Garrison would not stay on that topic but would return to the faults of the Warren Report.

Phelan has also written much on Howard Hughes. In fact, his first piece for the Post was about Hughes. In 1962, Phelan wrote a story detailing a "loan" from Hughes to Nixon's brother Donald. This story hurt Nixon in his losing race against Pat Brown for governor. But Phelan's most famous work on Hughes was his 1976 "instant book" on the eccentric, invisible billionaire, Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years. To say the least, it is a curious work. It came out within months of Hughes reputed death. Phelan states that two lower level members of Hughes entourage, spilled out the story of the reclusive loner's last years to Phelan in an apartment he rented for them near Long Beach, Phelan's home at the time. Phelan's editor was again, Loomis and it was a top secret project of Random House. Only Loomis and one other person there knew about it. All dealings between New York and California were done either in person or by hand delivery, no mail or phone contact.

The result is a book out of Dickens. It is a picaresque observation of an eccentric slowly slipping into dementia with touches of humor slipped in occasionally. Phelan seems to have bought everything the two assistants told him and relied on it en toto. The book has no footnotes or bibliography. Not even an index. Phelan begins by decrying the "cult of conspiracy" that had grown up around Hughes and, ironically, chides Norman Mailer who in a recent essay had noted Hughes' close ties to the CIA. This was a point that many had commented on at the time. Peter Scott had written that it is difficult to delineate where Hughes' companies ended and the CIA began. Robert Maheu, a friend and source for Phelan, had gone from the Company to Hughes. But, incredibly, in the entire book, after the Foreword, the CIA is mentioned in only two passages. The first is when Maheu's role as Hughes CEO is introduced and then again when the Glomar Explorer episode is sketched in. In an interview he did in Penthouse in 1977 Phelan was asked about Woodward and Bernstein and the possibility that Robert Bennett-Mullen Company executive, Hughes employee, CIA asset throughout the Watergate affair-was "Deep Throat." Phelan discounted this. He said that Bennett "inherited E. Howard Hunt" and Mullen served as a "cover for two CIA agents working abroad." He said he had interviewed Bennett "and found him to be very forthcoming."

As the CIA documents presented in this issue reveal, Phelan didn't do his homework in regard to any of these subjects. In that same interview, Phelan praises the work of Woodward and Bernstein, who were being deliberately led off the trail of the CIA by Agency asset Bennett. In Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels, Phelan chalks up Watergate solely to Nixon's obsessive and quirky personality. This was well after the publication of Fred Thompson's book (see page 29) which details the role played by the Mullen Company and Bennett in the Watergate affair.

As with his 1967 caricaturing of Garrison, those interested in what really happened at Watergate and what really transpired between the CIA and Hughes had to settle for personality sketches, vague generalities, and Phelan's own cleverly disguised biases. On the two great traumatic shocks to the system-Watergate and the JFK conspiracy-Phelan has been anything but what Random House billed him as: an investigative reporter.

Last modified on Saturday, 05 November 2016 13:43
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 The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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