Saturday, 15 February 1997 22:06

Nelson, Hall and Graff: The Review Board's Public Comments

While still backing the ARRB's mission, Jim DiEugenio criticizes some board members for publicly implying they have read all the declassified documents and that it doesn't matter, Oswald still did it – a judgment that does not fit the facts, or their own experience.

From the January-February, 1997 issue (Vol. 4 No. 2) of Probe

Although Probe has attempted to keep its readers informed of the actions of the Review Board, it has been awhile – Vols. 1 & 2 to be exact – since we chronicled some of the comments made for public consumption by the Board members. In 1995 and 1996, enough has seeped into the record for us to issue another report on this important aspect of the Board's public function.

At the recent Review Board hearing held in Los Angeles, there was an interesting colloquy between Eric Hamburg and Board member Anna Kasten Nelson. Before commenting on this interesting aside, let us review how both people came to be involved in this hearing. As no less than Kermit Hall has stated, the ARRB is a direct result of Oliver Stone's 1992 film JFK. At the time of the film, Hamburg was working as a Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill. One of the last things he did was to work on the completion of the 1992 JFK Act, which George Bush originally agreed to and then had second thoughts about. Bush sandbagged the process by not appointing a Review Board. When Clinton took over, the Board apparently was not a top priority with him. He waited until September of 1993 to appoint a Board which was not sworn in until April of 1994. The law stated that Clinton's choices had to be considered from lists recommended by the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Bar Association. It is important to note that although Clinton was supposed to consider appointments form these lists, he was not bound by them completely. For instance, Henry Graff (about whom we will comment shortly) was not on any of the lists. Stone submitted a list to the Chief Executive that was totally ignored in the selection process. Nelson was chosen from a list compiled by the ABA, as was Chairman John Tunheim. Since the creation of the Review Board, Hamburg has left Washington to become, first an attorney for Stone and then the co-producer of Nixon and editor of the book that accompanied the film. Nelson is an occasional contributor to the periodical Chronicle of Higher Education. In the uproar that ensued over the release of Stone's film, Nelson wrote an article for that publication entitled "Open the Nixon Papers". Much of the piece is fine and well-intentioned. She basically chronicles the disputes over the collection of Nixon's papers that have not been made available to the public and pleads the case for full disclosure.

But in her opening two paragraphs, Ms. Nelson seemed to join in the reflexive, and as we shall see, uncalled for mugging of Stone and his film. Let us consider some of her comments. She first states that "Stone's version" of Nixon is a "paranoid, foul-mouthed alcoholic". By labeling this portrait as "Stone's version", she implies that Stone took liberties with the record to create this portrayal. This is not so. To call Nixon "paranoid" is fully justified in almost any sense of that word. Nixon called himself a "basket case" over leaks in the White House. This is, of course, what led to the creation of the so-called "plumbers". In recently declassified tapes, the Los Angeles Times (12/8/96) has shown that Nixon pushed for tax audits of wealthy Jewish contributors to his Democratic rivals in preparation for the 1972 election. Another reveals his participation in the planned but not executed plot to firebomb the Brookings Institute in order to get files on the authors of the Pentagon Papers. As for Nixon's drinking, this was revealed in Ehrlichman's Witness to Power back in 1982. What Stone implies is that the drinking was intensified under the pressure of the Watergate scandal. This is backed up completely by the release of the tape of Nixon's call to Bob Haldeman after his April 30, 1973 speech in which Nixon announced both his and Ehrlichman's resignations. The first line of the story in the L.A. Times (11/30/96) analyzing this tape reads: "The president seemed to be sloshed". Later the story states, "It was plain from his slurred syllables that he'd been drinking."

In the same paragraph, Nelson writes that "Stone wears the mantle of the historian in this movie". This is not so. The first frame of the film reads as follows, "This film is a dramatic interpretation of events and characters based on public sources and an incomplete historical record. Some scenes and events are presented as composites or have been hypothesized or condensed." At the end of the film, Stone's voice-over makes the same complaint that Nelson does in the body of her piece, namely that the historical record is incomplete since very few of the Watergate tapes have been declassified. We should add here, that the debate over this film, as with JFK, helped in that process.

Nelson also repeats a charge that many in the media unleashed at the time, when she talks about "Mr. Stone's obsession with the idea that a government conspiracy linked Nixon to the Kennedy assassination." Let us examine this charge as it relates to the completed film that Nelson saw. The viewer will note that at about 47 minutes into the film, Nixon is in Dallas the day before the assassination. This is a matter of historical record. At the gathering that follows, with Nixon's political plans being discussed, there is a hint that the wealthy people there know what will happen the next day. There is no hint that Nixon knows. About two hours and twenty minutes into the film, there is a quick scene in which Haldeman and Ehrlichman discuss this "Bay of Pigs" thing that Nixon has brought up. Haldeman offers to explain it by saying that it is an encoded reference to the fact that "We went after Castro and in some crazy way it got turned back on Kennedy." Note that this is Haldeman speaking and not Nixon. Haldeman's words in the film are completely backed up by his passage in The Ends of Power (pp.37-40) where he discusses this idea in depth. About 18 minutes after this, Nixon is listening to a tape in which the CIA's Castro assassination plots are being discussed. On tape, he says "Those guys went after Castro 7-10 times." Then, in replaying the tape, he hears the words "Whoever killed Kennedy came from this thing..." This is the only clear reference to what Nelson is inferring. But the whole point of this scene is to show that Nixon, about to resign under threat of sure impeachment, is mentally deteriorating, almost delusional. This is indicated by his seeing the ghost of his mother twice in the room, and his shouting, "Go away!" Then he talks back to the tape and says, "I never said this stuff." Stone also inserts subliminal shots, of his brother dying for example, that are run in reverse to indicate Nixon's instability at this moment. To say that Nixon was not a divided man at this time, that his basic insecurity – which even Haldeman notes in his book – was not magnified under pressure is, I think, illogical. But for those who need proof, on another recently released tape from May 1, 1973 (Newsday 11/19/96) Nixon is heard to be seriously contemplating resigning but is talked back into staying by Alexander Haig. This is one year before he actually quit. Again, Stone was on solid ground with both the portrayal of Nixon and Haig.

To be fair to Nelson, in the last 20 years of his life Nixon relentlessly attempted to rehabilitate his public image. After initially resisting, the media, and a large part of the public acquiesced in that campaign. This included a series of gassy and fatuous books like The Real War, The Real Peace, and Leaders, which no matter how unenlightening, sold well with the public. By the time of his death in 1994, it had succeeded to such an extent that even Bill Clinton, who worked for McGovern in 1972, spoke rather glowingly at his funeral. But in our view, there was enough in Nixon's career before 1960 to mark him as a complete opportunist, a firm believer in polarization, and a man without enough principle to rein in his large dark side. So the 20 years of rehab didn't take with us.

The year before Nelson's remarks appeared, Kermit Hall spoke for the record in Ohio State Alumni Magazine, of March 1995. Apparently, Hall's view of the assassination had modified very little since his March 1994 remarks to Randy Krehbiel in the Tulsa World. Hall does give Stone credit for the JFK Act by saying that the law might as well have been called the Oliver Stone Law. He also adds that the Board's mission is to make the record as full as possible, thereby giving it credibility. But he also adds comments like "Americans have a penchant for conspiracy." He goes after the Kennedys by saying they were "playing fast and loose" with foreign governments, and that "They were engaged in doing things out of hubris." This, of course, paves the way for him to postulate that because of the CIA's efforts to get rid of Castro, Oswald may have seen himself as helping Fidel by killing JFK. (Interestingly, this is along the lines of what Haldeman outlines in his book in the aforementioned passage.) He furthers this argument by adding that if the government had been more open about Operation MONGOOSE, people would have had a better understanding of the assassination long ago.

Hall goes on to give a false presentation of what the polls have said about the public's belief in the lone gunman theory. He implies that it was Stone's film that turned the tide in favor of a conspiracy. The tide had turned long before Stone's film. But he adds, "I think we're at the end of the age of secrets." He says that the Freedom of Information Act and the ARRB will allow greater disclosure and therefore better government. He also states that the lone gunman theory is "satisfactory".

In the current edition of Penthouse (January 1997), Nelson, William Joyce, and Henry Graff all get on the record. In a long article by John Wallach these three plus numerous unnamed sources inside the ARRB give comments for the record about the progress of the ARRB. Much of the gist, or spin of the piece can be summed up in a quote by Nelson:

The sense you get in reading all of these documents is that the CIA and FBI were primarily concerned with covering up other kinds of operations. Hoover helped damage the credibility of the Warren Commission to protect these operations and their [the FBI's] general modus vivendi when the CIA and FBI operated together. It was part of the Cold War culture.

Wallach himself says early on:

The major reason for the cover-up was to protect the FBI's own clandestine connections to potential suspects in the Kennedy assassination who were involved in plots to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Again, these comments remind the reader of Bob Haldeman. They also remind us of the articles written by Walter Pincus and George Lardner in the Washington Post, and Newsweek, at the time of the 30th anniversary in 1993 that basically tried to say that Oswald's links to Cuba and Russia may have set off a holocaust in the context of the Cold War climate. This theme is underscored by a penultimate comment by Graff:

I have found nothing to suggest there was anything but a single gunman. What put him up to it and whether this was just one of those random acts of history, I don't think we'll ever know.

Wallach didn't ask Nelson or Graff why, if the FBI tried to cover up something, does the FBI autopsy report show that the bullet that hit Kennedy in the back – not the neck – didn't penetrate? This fact so puzzled FBI agent James Sibert that at the time of the autopsy, he called FBI HQ to ask if these bullets were "fragmenting" type bullets (Harold Weisberg, Never Again p. 485) Why did the Warren Commission, which relied on those reports, change that finding in order to create the single-bullet theory? One may also ask, as Lisa Pease shows elsewhere (p. 27), if Oswald was a KGB or Cuban agent, why did he have a CIA file in James Angleton's mole-hunting unit at the time of his defection to Russia? Why was the file classified "restricted" and why are there indications that the date it was opened was misleading? (See John Newman Oswald and the CIA pp. 48-51, 57-59). These hard questions go to the heart of the patent assumptions made in this article.

We still back the ARRB. We also understand from our sources there that Kermit Hall is one of the most vociferous voices for full disclosure on the Board. We should also note that Anna Kasten Nelson wrote a good article for Chronicle of Higher Education in March of 1995, asking for further openness on the part of the CIA and more participation in that process by people other than intelligence community alumni. But as Eric Hamburg appropriately noted to Judge Tunheim, there are strictures that one should follow when one is sitting in judgment of a proceeding case so as not to indicate one's bias. But there is also something else the members should consider. If, after disclosing all these documents and in their official garb, they make these pronouncements to the public, the underlying message is that they have read all these secret documents and it doesn't matter. Oswald still did it. As we have noted above, that judgment does not fit the facts, or their own experience. As one familiar with the process knows, thousands of pages of documents have been declassified without Board review, i.e. voluntarily. We doubt very much that the Board has read all of these pages. Finally, Probe knows that at least some of the ARRB staff, as opposed to the Board itself, do not share their views. The ones who have voiced opinions, always off the record, are unanimous in thinking that the official versions are fiction.

We hope the Board, like its much less lucratively paid staff, will exercise more professional discretion in the future. That can only help their standing in the research community's mind after the Board's mission is completed. It is that community which will be writing in judgment about the Board's performance – and public utterances – long after the Board is gone.

~ Jim DiEugenio

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