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Saturday, 27 March 2021 17:51

Tom Bethell: A Study in Duplicity

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Jim DiEugenio takes the occasion of Tom Bethell’s recent passing to review his literary career and especially his intriguing early connections to the JFK assassination research community and work on the Jim Garrison investigation.


Tom Bethell passed away last month at the age of 84. He capped his career as a longtime conservative critic of science. This included his disagreements with HIV being the cause of AIDS, manmade global warming, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In 2005, he wrote a book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which aired all these points. As Rational Wiki notes, the theme of that book,

is Bethell’s conspiratorial perspective in which the scientific establishment is constantly sidelining “politically incorrect” dissent in order for scientists to prop up liberal ideology and make off with mountains of grant money.

Bethell published books through houses like Regnery and The Discovery Institute. Quite properly, he ended his career as being a senior editor at American Spectator and, for 25 years, was a media fellow for the Hoover Institute at Stanford.

The way Bethell spent the last 45 years of his life makes his earlier work on the John Kennedy assassination seem a bit odd. I am not saying that conservatives cannot have an interest in the JFK case. That is disproven by the works of John Newman and Craig Roberts. But those two men are not at all the type of conservative that Bethell became. Tom Bethell ended up making his living off of the massive rightwing establishment that came to fruition in the seventies and eighties. In other words, unlike Newman and Roberts, he lived off and prospered from that conservative gravy train—as so many other authors like him did. To that particular kingdom, one does not gain entry by exposing all the problems with the Warren Commission Report. A prime example of this would be Bill O’Reilly and his conversion by the Fox impresario, the late Roger Ailes. (Click here for background)

In understanding Bethell, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Bethell was born in London. He was educated at Downside School and then Trinity College at Oxford. He reportedly spent time in England as a school teacher. (New Orleans Times Picayune, July 2, 1967) The story of how he ended up going from England to New Orleans was that he developed an interest in jazz. If this was so, then it’s strange that he did not publish a book on the subject until 1977, over ten years after he arrived in America.

But somehow, he also developed an interest in the John Kennedy assassination. In putting together a rough itinerary for Bethell, it seems he first arrived in the USA in Virginia. He then moved to New Orleans. But then, in a notable twist, he went to Texas. Gayle Nix Jackson and Andrea Skolnik have uncovered an article by the late Penn Jones written in The Continuing Inquiry in October of 1976 that details how this happened.

Penn had purchased a letter written by Jack Ruby which had been smuggled out of the Dallas County Jail. Jones purchased the letter for $950 from document collector/examiner Charles Hamilton in New York. Black Star, a photographic publishing company, heard about the sale. They sent Matt Herron, a free-lance photographer living in New Orleans, to visit Penn in Midlothian, Texas. Herron introduced Penn to a former Englishman who had moved to the Crescent City to study jazz, but was also interested in the JFK case. This, of course, was Bethell. According to Penn, Bethell ended up staying with him for a long time, actually months. It appears the stay was from the end of 1966 to the beginning of 1967. Why he needed to stay that long was never explained by either Jones or Bethell. But it’s worth noting that it was really Jones and his friend Mary Ferrell who were the locus of the early Texas research community. As we shall see, Ferrell will later figure into the unusual journey of Mr. Jazz and JFK.

After this strange interlude, Bethell returned to New Orleans and went to work for DA Jim Garrison on his assassination inquiry. It is not easy to figure out how this happened. But in one rendition of the story, it occurred through the intervention of Sylvia Meagher. This had to have happened before she turned on Garrison and she likely heard of Bethell through Jones, who she shared a correspondence with. (Click here for info on that split)

Bethell went to work as a researcher and then also became Garrison’s archivist. The one positive achievement in two years that I can detect from Bethell is a trip he took to the National Archives in June of 1967. Because of his work there, Bethell reported that it was apparent “that the CIA knew a great deal about Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination.” (Op. Cit, New Orleans Times Picayune) For that newspaper report, Bethell also said that many Commission Documents originating from the CIA about Oswald were still classified and there was evidence that some CIA documents concerning the alleged assassin never got to the Commission at all.

With that in mind, it’s important to read an interesting piece by Jackson. (Click here for details) She includes some segments from Bethell’s diary, which state that he and reporter Dick Billings did not think there was a conspiracy on the part of the government, the Commission, or the FBI to cover up the truth in the JFK case. But yet, how does one reconcile this with the CIA concealment of those documents about Oswald? And make no mistake about it, based on the work of Jefferson Morley, and the newly declassified work of Betsy Wolf—via Malcolm Blunt—the CIA had a lot to hide about their relationship with Oswald. It was not, in any way, a benign type of avoidance. It extended back to before Oswald’s defection. Yet Bethell was oh so willing to take that benign alternative path.

Jackson continues with Bethell extracts. The Englishman also agrees with Billings on the issue of Life magazine—where Billings worked—not really suppressing the Zapruder film. After all, people could see it at the National Archives. This is utterly ridiculous. The impact of the film on the public was demonstrated in 1975, when it was shown on ABC television. It created a nationwide sensation and this caused the creation of a new JFK investigation by congress. The idea that suppression was really not the magazine’s intent is undermined by the fact that, after the firestorm was created, Life gave the film back to the Zapruder family.

There are two concluding aspects that should be noted about Jackson’s article. First, Billings and Bethell were both cognizant of the aborted New York Times reinvestigation of the Kennedy case. Bethell says that in November of 1966 during one of Penn Jones’ memorials for Kennedy in Dallas, he met up with New York Times reporter Martin Waldron. At that time, Waldron had a 4–5 page questionnaire of problems they were looking into as part of the renewed inquiry. Most of these questions were about New Orleans, specifically about David Ferrie. And as Bethell concludes: this was independent of Garrison, and possibly even pre-Garrison. This information dovetails with a recently declassified CIA document from January of 1967. That document states that in December of 1966, Times reporter Peter Khiss had told an informant that he was working on a full-scale expose of the Warren Report. It would find that the Report’s conclusions “were not as reliable as first believed.” (CIA Memorandum of January 23, 1967)

But yet, in spite of this, Bethell writes that he agrees with Billings: somehow Clay Shaw is completely innocent. Recall, at this time, Bethell is the archivist for Garrison’s files. Jim Garrison had several witnesses who informed him that Clay Shaw was Clay/Clem Bertrand. (Joan Mellen, A Farewell to Justice, pp. 121–27; Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, pp. 85–87). He also had several witnesses that placed Shaw with Oswald and David Ferrie in the Clinton/Jackson area in the summer of 1963. (Garrison, pp. 105–17; Mellen pp. 211–22) The first group of witnesses indicated that Shaw had called Dean Andrews and asked him to fly to Dallas and defend Oswald. The second placed Shaw and Ferrie in a highly compromised place and position with the alleged assassin. So the idea that somehow Shaw was Mr. Clean does not jibe with this information in Garrison’s files, which Bethell had to know about.

Which leads us to a rather interesting hypothetical question. As most people who follow the Kennedy case understand, one of the big problems that Jim Garrison had was files either disappearing or copies ending up in the hands of his opponents. By the last, I mean journalists like Hugh Aynesworth or Shaw’s attorneys. In John Barbour’s fine documentary, The Garrison Tapes, Garrison says that Bill Boxley, a CIA infiltrator, actually took files from the office. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, pp. 278–85) To give another example, Aynesworth ended up with Sheriff John Manchester’s affidavit, in which he stated that Clay Shaw showed him his driver’s license in Jackson. (Mellen, p. 235). Would it not be possible that Bethell could have been the source for these leaked documents? He was in the perfect position to do so.

There are several reasons I postulate this. One is that Bethell was an inveterate liar about his stance on Garrison and the blow up that got him fired and charged. In his book The Electric Windmill, he muses back on his days working with the DA and says that in retrospect Garrison’s was a dubious case. (Bethell, pp. 60–71). That book was written and published in 1988, before his diaries became public and published in newspapers in New Orleans. As the reader can see by the Jackson piece, the “in retrospect” qualification does not really apply. Further, many years ago, when I interviewed the late Vince Salandria, he also told me the contrary. He would have arguments with Bethell in 1967 about not just the efficacy of Garrison’s case but also the findings of the Warren Commission. (February 23, 1992 interview with Salandria)

On the eve of the Clay Shaw trial, Bethell turned over the prosecution’s entire witness list with a summary of what each witness would testify to. (Mellen, p. 293) One must delineate a key point here. Back at the time of the Shaw trial, in Louisiana, the doctrine of pre-trial discovery was not operative. In other words, the prosecution was allowed to keep its witness list and summaries from the defense. Bethell was breaking a rule of law at that time.

Bethell lied about this issue. In 1991, he wrote an article timed for the release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK. (National Review, December 16, 1991) In that piece, he said that he voluntarily told Garrison about his duplicity. This was false. What really happened was this: In January of 1969, on the eve of the trial, Garrison understood that there was something going on with Shaw’s defense and their knowledge of his case. His first assistant, Lou Ivon, conducted an internal investigation. Ivon confronted Bethell with the case against him and the Englishman broke down and started weeping. (Interview with Ivon, February 19, 1992) What I find so fascinating about this is that, evidently, Bethell wanted to stay on Garrison’s staff during the trial. Perhaps to more clearly inform Shaw’s lawyers on a daily basis during that proceeding?

Bethell so feared what would happen to him, that he actually fled New Orleans for awhile. Back in the late nineties, I ran into the estranged son of the late Mary Ferrell. He told me that when Bethell split the Crescent City, he took refuge in Texas at Mary’s home. As Jerry Shinley discovered, Bethell was charged by Garrison and he had to hire a lawyer. Garrison was recused and a special prosecutor took the case. The problem was that Shaw’s lawyers refused to take the stand, and the judge allowed this on grounds of attorney/client confidentiality. (See Jerry P. Shinley Archive, post of 10/22/03)

After the judge dismissed the case and the higher court refused to hear it, Bethell migrated to Washington DC. He briefly worked for publications like Harper’s and the Washington Monthly, before finding his home in the conservative constellation at American Spectator and then the Hoover Institute. From about the mid-seventies onward, he spent the rest of his life ridiculing both liberals and critics of the Warren Commission. For instance, he once wrote that liberals were somehow anti-American. Why? Because they relished America’s defeat in Vietnam. This is just hate-spinning. The reason so many people did not understand the Vietnam War was they could not figure out why we were there and what we were fighting for. (Click here for details) No one I knew was rejoicing over that last image of the American helicopter lifting off the embassy with VIetnamese hanging on to it. That picture was both sad and pathetic. It symbolized the waste of so much blood and treasure for both Vietnam and the USA. But that was something Bethell did not want to address. And although it was true, neither did he want to talk about this fact: Garrison had said many years prior that President Kennedy was not going to commit combat troops into Vietnam. And there were none there on the day he was killed.

Not only was Bethell Sean Hannity before Hannity, he was also Vince Bugliosi before Reclaiming History. By 1975, after Watergate and during the inquiries of the Church Committee, he sensed there might be a new JFK investigation on the way. In reminiscing about his days as Garrison’s archivist, he said the real reason he betrayed Garrison was that the DA was going to put the infamous Charles Spiesel on the stand, the witness who said he fingerprinted his own daughter when she returned from college. (DiEugenio, pp. 296–97) Tom implied that Garrison understood who Spiesel really was, but he needed him.

Which is another Bethell whopper. Not only did Garrison not know about Spiesel’s liabilities, neither did the man who decided to call him to the stand: Assistant DA Jim Alcock. When this reviewer interviewed Alcock, he said that it was he who talked to the witness in New York and, at that time, he seemed OK to him. (Interview with Alcock, November 23, 1991)

The man who was going to be the key witness for the prosecution was Clyde Johnson, not Spiesel. And what happened to Johnson was a frightful tale that Bethell does not want to write about. Garrison understood his importance and so he hid him out at a college campus outside the city. Somehow, this was discovered and Johnson was beaten to a pulp and hospitalized to the point he could not testify at Shaw’s trial. (DiEugenio, p. 294)

But the deception described above was not enough. In the same Washington Monthly article, Tom said that there was really no mystery about the Kennedy assassination. And he wrote this incredible sentence:

In the case of the assassination of President Kennedy, there is practically no evidence whatsoever of a conspiracy and by far the most plausible hypothesis is that a single unaided assassin—Lee Harvey Oswald—shot the President.

But in his new incarnation, even that was not enough for Bethell. He actually tried to say that a recent article in Harper’s, portraying the Bobby Kennedy case as a probable conspiracy, was “remarkably foolish.” He can do so, since he doesn’t bother to explain how Sirhan Sirhan could have killed the senator from the front, when all the shots entering RFK’s body came from behind.

This was the real Tom Bethell. I leave it up to the reader to decide if Bethell ever really gave a damn about how or why President Kennedy was assassinated. Or if he was the secret supplier of Garrison’s files to people like Boxley and Aynesworth.

Last modified on Sunday, 28 March 2021 02:12
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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