The Other McCain

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The CIA, JFK and Clay Shaw: Paranoia and the Conspiratorial Worldview

Posted on | November 29, 2013 | 84 Comments

Lee Harvey Oswald, arrested after an August 1963 pro-Castro protest

Why did Jim Garrison indict Clay Shaw for conspiracy? It was as ridiculous as it was simple: In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald consulted a New Orleans attorney, Dean Andrews, to see if he could do something about his undesirable discharge from the Marine Reserves.

“Andrews . . .claimed that Oswald was referred to him by a young blond homosexual named Clay Bertrand.
“Although the FBI was never able to find a trace of this person, Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney, erroneously identified him as Clay Shaw, who was neither young nor blond, and indicted him on conspiracy charges. Shaw was subsequently found not guilty.”

Edward Jay Epstein, Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald (1978)

That’s it, period. From this simple misidentification, Jim Garrison spun an implausible conspiracy theory that became the crux of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK. Who was “Clay Bertrand”? We do not know. The FBI couldn’t find him and we don’t even know that such a person actually existed. It may be that Dean Andrews was confused. What we do know is that in 1967, Jim Garrison indicted Clay Shaw, a businessman who had served as a major in the U.S. Army and founded the New Orleans International Trade Mart, charging him with conspiracy in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Beyond the fact that Clay Shaw was not the (possibly non-existent) “Clay Bertrand,” there was no reason on earth to suspect him of wanting to assassinate JFK, nor was there any evidence that he had anything to do with Lee Harvey Oswald. The American Spectator‘s Tom Bethell spent months working as a researcher for Garrison’s investigation:

Over the next year Shaw’s trial was repeatedly postponed. Garrison’s assistants were in no hurry to try the case because they didn’t have a case. . . .
Garrison was reckless, utterly irresponsible, willing to charge a man with the crime of the century regardless of the truth. Above all, he loved to shock people. Occasionally he claimed that Oswald was innocent. Small problem: Shaw’s guilt depended on Oswald’s guilt. When this was pointed out, Garrison waved the objection away. “You can argue it differently in court,” he said. One day he filed charges against Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA. No one in the office would sign the papers, so Garrison had to do it himself. . . .
As for Clay Shaw? I agree with the jury that he was totally innocent. There was no credible evidence that he knew either Oswald or [David] Ferrie, let alone planned to shoot JFK. Shaw was homosexual and everyone knew that, but it never came out in the newspapers. Garrison’s people didn’t mention it, but the deal was that Shaw couldn’t produce character witnesses at his own trial.

In other words, Shaw’s homosexuality made him uniquely vulnerable to Garrison’s “reckless” prosecution, because if his defense had introduced character witnesses, those witnesses would have been subjected to cross-examination in which they might have been asked, under oath, about Shaw’s homosexuality — a scandalous fact that Shaw did not wish to make a matter of public record.

Such was the calculation of the “reckless” Jim Garrison, but perhaps you missed this crucial sentence about Garrison’s investigation:

“One day he filed charges against Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA.”

That’s really the crux of the whole thing: The CIA loomed large in the minds of Jim Garrison and others who wanted to believe that somehow the Agency, as the result of a policy disagreement with the Kennedy administration, had decided to have the President of the United States assassinated. And because Clay Shaw apparently had some contacts with the CIA, making him “Clay Bertrand” and connecting Shaw to Lee Harvey Oswald would thereby serve Garrison’s purpose of blaming JFK’s assassination on the CIA.

All of this comes to mind because today I watched C-SPAN coverage of a conference of JFK conspiracy theorists held in October at Duquesne University. One of the “experts” was Temple University Professor Joan Mellen. Her presentation was entitled, “Clay Shaw Unmasked: The Garrison Case Corroborated.” You can read that (don’t miss Page 2) and if you think that Professor Mellen has “unmasked” Clay Shaw or “corroborated” Jim Garrison’s case, you should seek professional psychiatric help immediately.

It is a loopy, disorganized mess.

To the extent that Mellen makes any point, it’s this: At his trial, Clay Shaw denied under oath that he worked for the CIA, but CIA records seem to indicate otherwise, and therefore . . .

Therefore, what?

Damned if I can figure it out. Joan Mellen has evidently never heard of Occam’s Razor, nor of any other principle of logic, and exactly how she thinks she has proven anything is a mystery. Let us stipulate that during the Cold War, the CIA utilized a lot of “assets” who weren’t at liberty to disclose their relationship with the Agency, and that if Clay Shaw was such an asset (as records do seem to indicate) he sure as hell wasn’t going to say so in public — not even when testifying under oath — because that’s just not how the CIA rolls.

It is, however, an implausible leap from (a) Clay Shaw did some work for the CIA to (b) Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate the President of the United States, when there is no credible evidence that Shaw ever even met Oswald.

But that’s how it goes, see? If you attribute sinister magical powers to the CIA — if the Agency exists in your mind as a sort of omnipotent bogeyman — anything is possible. And if anything is possible, then all that is necessary is to allege that something happened (e.g., a secret meeting between Clay Shaw and Lee Harvey Oswald) and, unless someone can prove it didn’t happen, then you have the basis of a conspiracy theory. Also, since the CIA is allegedly all-powerful, they can make evidence disappear, so if you don’t have any proof of your theory, you can just blame the CIA for that, too.

Laugh if you want to, but there are a surprising number of people who think that way. There is a non-profit organization, the Mary Ferrell Foundation, devoted entirely to promoting the kind of “critical thinking” (their term) behind this kind of paranoid nonsense.




84 Responses to “The CIA, JFK and Clay Shaw: Paranoia and the Conspiratorial Worldview”

  1. TDLAmagi
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    RT @Popehat: On the insanity of Jim Garrison, who taught Mike Nifong how to be a prosecutor:

  2. Steve Skubinna
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    Except that the CIA was in the tank for JFK, to the extent of feeding him classified info to use in the debates with Nixon. JFK was one of the club.

    Anyway, LHO would be the last guy anyone, from the CIA to the Mob, would hire for a hit. Were all the pros at their annual convention in Vega that week? And there’s no getting around the fact that LHO shot JFK.

  3. Steve Skubinna
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    Less than one hundred yards. A no deflection shot. Two hits out of three.

  4. McGehee
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    Oh come on now! There couldn’t possibly have been two male homosexuals in New Orleans in the early ’60s with the first name “Clay.” That just buggers beggars belief!

  5. robcrawford2
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    “I do find it odd that there is so little existing footage…”

    1963 didn’t have a camera in everyone’s pockets like today.

    And you know WHY it’s muddled? Because of the conspiracy loons, partnered with a conscious effort on the part of the Soviets.

  6. robcrawford2
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:52 am

    Second Bugliosi’s book.

    “In fact, I don’t think anyone with money and influence (political or corporate) ever tells the truth…”

    That’s a sign you’re a leftist, not a conservative.

    Which explains your devotion to the “anyone but a Communist killed Kennedy” lie. Peddled by the Soviets.

  7. richard mcenroe
    November 30th, 2013 @ 11:11 am

    Whether or not the conspiracy is true is irrelevant to this debate. That’s not even important to the people putting the theory forward. What you learn after talking to enough Democrats, Libertarians, Truthers, what have you, is not whether or not anyone buys their BS but that THEY know they are in possession of the Secret Knowledge no one else has.

    Most of them don’t have much else in their lives.

  8. Stogie Chomper
    November 30th, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    It’s not muddled. Either you are informed as to the facts, or you have half-formed impressions based on rumor, speculation and innuendo. It seems to me that you want to believe in a conspiracy and therefore avoid serious literature that might disabuse you of preconceived notions.

  9. DaveO
    November 30th, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    Yes, which is why I responded to Matthew W’s response with another work of fiction. Brings up the point that the CIA’s reputation is such that it is easily recognizable as the bogeyman in many works of fiction that deal with assassination, spying, and macabre conspiracies.

  10. DaveO
    November 30th, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    I don’t disagree about LHO being the gunman. I am making the point that the CIA’s well-earned reputation, actions under Bush-43 and up to today, and popular disinformation will make it impossible to prove the innocence of the agency in this conspiracy theory.

  11. DaveO
    November 30th, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    I won’t disagree about ‘secret knowledge’ but I would about the point of it all.The current vogue of associating the CIA with JFK’s assassination lays the groundwork for tranferrence. In the grand scheme of things, several well-timed leaks about Benghazi will destroy Hillary’s last run for the Presidency.
    By reminding the people of the unsavoriness of the CIA, whatever is learned of Benghazi will be dismissed as another CIA operation to take out a president.

  12. NeoWayland
    November 30th, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

    No, but some of the people with home movie cameras were fanatics about it. Just like some were fanatics about hi-fi equipment, or others were fanatics about model trains.

    You’re assuming that the FedGovs were (and are) telling the truth.

    Again, this doesn’t prove conspiracy. But the facts aren’t quite cut and dried either.

  13. NeoWayland
    November 30th, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    Oddly enough, people have used the same argument to justify intervention to prevent global warming.

    Or for that matter, to ban certain religions.

    I’ve seen the arguments in enough other contexts to distrust anyone who claims rationality prevents any opposing view. Even more so when they dismiss any other possibility unheard because they have the Ultimate Truth That Must Not Be Questioned.

  14. NeoWayland
    November 30th, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    Are you really saying that conservative politicos don’t lie?

  15. Bob Belvedere
    November 30th, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

    Fine work, Stogie.

  16. Bob Belvedere
    November 30th, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    Notice that they’re all Ideologues.

  17. Quartermaster
    November 30th, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    I see what you are doing there.

  18. Quartermaster
    November 30th, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    I’ve never read Bugliosi’s book, but I have Posners. When I closed Posner’s book I had as many questions coming out as going in. Some were answered, others not. Frankly, I don’t think we will have the entire truth on the matter this side of eternity.

  19. Quartermaster
    November 30th, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    Then I’m a leftist because I’ve noticed that most of the Pubbies that claim to be conservatives can’t be trusted as far as I can spit.

    You need t be careful of slinging generalities like that.

  20. richard mcenroe
    November 30th, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

    Now me, I am dogmatically anti-ideologous…wait a minute…

  21. Hal_RTFLC
    November 30th, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    RT @Popehat: On the insanity of Jim Garrison, who taught Mike Nifong how to be a prosecutor:

  22. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    On the contrary, they would have sent a low-rent nobody, just one who made killing people his trade (and was likely at least an associate of the mob if not a made guy).

    Jack Ruby’s stock and trade was seedy in spite of his aspirations to something better. He likely had off-the-books income. It is reasonable to assume that he had had some dealings with underworld figures influential in the unions to which his performers belonged.

    Give him credit (and give his brothers credit) for having earned a living for decades from self-employment. He was adaptable and resourceful and vigorous and had owned one business after another. He made his way with little education and an upbringing that might be called screwball Dickensian.

    There was nothing in it for him in killing Lee Harvey Oswald (who was headed to the gallows). He paid for it by spending his last years in prison.

  23. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    To the extent that Mellen makes any point, it’s this: At his trial, Clay
    Shaw denied under oath that he worked for the CIA, but CIA records seem
    to indicate otherwise, and therefore . .

    IIRC, Shaw was an associate of something called the “Domestic Contacts Service”. He agreed to be debriefed by the Agency subsequent to his many travels abroad. He certainly was not on salary at the agency and may have received no compensation.

  24. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

    It would be ‘impossible to prove’ the innocence of the General Electric Corp. as well. (And idle to consider their ‘involvement’ absent any serious evidence).

  25. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

    When I look at the Zapruder film, it looks to me like the shot came from the front.

    Tell that to Mr. and Mrs. Connolly, who were splattered with brains.

    To paraphrase David Belin on this issue (and The Historian as Detective on the posited shot from the front:

    1. Here is a gunman that nobody ever sees (even though the area is teeming with people)

    2. He is shooting downward, misses not only the President, he misses all the occupants, and he misses the limousine.

    3. He fires one shot and then disappears.

    4. The evidence for him is a puff of smoke (which is to be distinguished from the output of nearby police motorcycles how?).

  26. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    No, you have the truth. You just insist on a level of metaphysical certainty you would never insist on in ordinary life.

  27. NeoWayland
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    I really don’t want to get into an intimate examination of whatever bits of evidence that still exist.

    My point is that reflexively denying any possibility except the government approved line is exactly like the folks pushing anthropomorphic climate change and claiming that the The Science Is Settled so there is no point in talking about it.

  28. Quartermaster
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

    Whatever you want to believe.

  29. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    No one has reflexively denied anything. You all have for fifty years failed to gin up anything outside the realm of imagination.

    The most temperate advocates of conspiracies have been Josiah Thompson and Cyril Wecht. They have not gone on flights of fancy but have complained that forensic evidence indicates that Oswald could not have fired the shots in the time allotted and that Gov. Connolly and Pres. Kennedy must have received their wounds from different gunmen.

    Problem: the Warren Commission’s thesis has been re-confirmed time and again with new technology as it has become available. Dr. Thompson claimed for a long time that the Warren Commission had a bullet turning at odd angles after exiting the President and entering Gov. Connally. The problem was he was using an inaccurate schematic drawing which failed to note that the Governor was in a jump seat on a level several inches below the President and seated about six inches to the President’s left. The shots line up satisfactorily.

    There is little doubt Oswald is guilty. The bullet came from his gun, fired from his workplace, from which he went missing and then wasted a Dallas police officer in front of a mess of eyewitnesses. Wasn’t it funny how he shlepped a package of ‘curtain rods’ to work that day?

    Beyond Wecht and Thompson, you get a mess of speculation, the most amusing of which was Oliver Stone’s thesis that the military-industrial complex took down the President by subcontracting the job to a bunch of French Quarter queens.

    Lee Harvey Oswald had intelligence not conjoined to character or discipline. The result was delusions of grandeur. He also had a fancied beef with the Governor of Texas, whom he blamed for his dishonorable discharge from the Marines.

    As for Jack Ruby, he was an impetuous and intermittently sentimental man.

  30. Art Deco
    December 2nd, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    It does not matter what I ‘want to believe’. There is only one thesis which is supported by evidence.

  31. NeoWayland
    December 3rd, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    I’m still under 50, so it’s not me you’re accusing.

    I’m not arguing for conspiracy, I’m arguing against taking the government case at face value.

    I could list point by point the things that bother me about the WCR or any of the things that are publicly “known.” But that’s not my point.

    Why must criticism be silenced?

  32. Art Deco
    December 3rd, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    No one has silenced anyone.

    What is your alternative to the Warren Commission report?
    The number of books on the assassination has ballooned into the four figures. What they lack is serious evidence. You’ve had five decades to uncover it and you have not. Here’s why: it doesn’t exist.

  33. NeoWayland
    December 4th, 2013 @ 1:05 am

    I want to make this point clear. I’m not yet fifty. I am not arguing for any conspiracy theory. Don’t lump me in with the “nuts” because you honestly don’t know what I think.

    I could give you a list of “39 Things That Will Totally Blow Your Mind About the Kennedy Assassination” but you aren’t willing to look at anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived result.

    Exactly like the people who keep saying that human caused climate change is endangering the planet.

    Blind obedience to any dogma is dangerous, but especially when you accept what government tells you without question.

    Government is not your friend. Even when the “right” people are in charge.

  34. Leo Derosia
    December 4th, 2013 @ 4:42 am

    Lbj, cia, bush sr, allen dulles, hl hunt etc had jfk killed.