Sunday, May 31, 2015

Disinformation Definition

Deliberately misleading information announced publicly or leaked by a government or especially by an intelligence agency in order to influence public opinion or the government in another nation. 
is a type of untrue communication that is purposefully spread and represented as truth to elicit some response that serves the perpetrator's purpose.
Disinformation is sometimes confused with misinformation but the two are distinguished by their intention. The purpose of disinformation is to deceive. Although misinformation is also false, it is  presented as truth only because the communicator does not have the facts straight.

false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth

is intentionally false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately. It is an act of deception and false statements to convince someone of untruth. Disinformation should not be confused with misinformation, information that is unintentionally false.

Unlike traditional propaganda techniques designed to engage emotional support, disinformation is designed to manipulate the audience at the rational level by either discrediting conflicting information or supporting false conclusions.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Secret Hold on Senate FOIA Bill

Exempted Status, and Much More April 23, 2015


by Lauren Harper

Unknown Senators are placing a secret hold on the Senate’s FOIA bill, S 337. The bill was introduced by Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx) and cosponsored by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) and Charles Grasssley (R-Ia), the ranking member and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is virtually identical to the bill that passed the Senate via unanimous consent last session.

The bill (now at risk due to the secret hold) would strengthen transparency by: increasing the independence of the FOIA Ombuds Office, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS); improve access to digital records; codify a presumption of openness; require agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days of the bills passage; and make clear that “unusual” FOIA requests (that are fewer than 50,000 pages) get the standard FOIA extension of 10 days.

In the past, transparency advocates have had to call every single Senate office to find out which Senator was holding up the bill, and why. Hopefully the hold will be lifted before requiring advocates to resort to such measures to improve the public’s access to information.

There is a limited-time-only chance to *suggest* which CIA operational files should be removed from their exempted status, a result of one of the most damaging B3 FOIA Exemption statutes ever passed.
According to a recent notice published in the Federal Register, “The CIA is in the process of conducting the 2015 decennial review of its operational files to determine whether any of the previously designated files, or portions thereof, can be removed from any of the specified categories of exempted files.”

The CIA Information Act of 1984 requires that the decennial review “include consideration of the historical value or other public interest in the subject matter of the particular category of files or portions thereof and the potential for declassifying a significant part of the information contained therein.”

BK: Thanks to Joe Backes at Justice for JFK for calling attention to this.

When Gandi was assassinated

When Gandi was assassinated at point blank range
I was about to trash and burn this book but read its title - Wherever You Go You Are There - and opened it at random and this is what I read:

When Gandi was assassinated at point blank range, he put his palms together in this way towards his attacker, uttered his mantra and died.

It allowed him to choose the attitude he would take in that very moment he was being robbed of his life. He didn't die angry or even surprised. But he had trained himself to march to the drumbeat of his own growing vision of what constituted wise action.

The Hand Mantra

All hand positions are mantras in that they are associated with subtle or not-so-subtle energies. Take the fist.

When we get angry our hands tend to close into fists. It waters the seeds of anger and violence within you every time and they respond by sprouting and growing stronger.

The next time you find yourself making fists out of anger try to bring mindfulness to the inner attitude embodied in the fist - feel the tension, the hatred, the anger, the aggression and fear it contains.

Then, in the midst of your anger, as an experiment, try opening your fists and placing your palms together over your heart in the prayer position. Notice what happens to the anger and hurt as you hold this position for only a few moments.

I find it virtually possible to sustain my anger when I do this.

It's not that the anger may not be justified, it's just that all sorts of other feelings come into play, which frames the anger and tempers it - feelings like sympathy and compassion for the other person and perhaps a greater understanding of the dance we are both in.

The dance of one thing leading to another, of the consequences set into motion - the end result can lead to ignorance compounding ignorance, aggression compounding aggression, with no wisdom anywhere or -

- Jon Kabat-Zinn  p. 114 - Wherever You Go There You Are - Mindfullness Meditayions 1994.

Tom Blanton Testifies on State of Open Government

Statement of Thomas Blanton
Director, National Security Archive, George Washington University

Before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary Hearing on “Ensuring an Informed Citizenry: Examining the Administration’s Efforts to Improve Open Government”

Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 226, Washington D.C. Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the Committee: thank you very much for your invitation to testify today about open government and the Freedom of Information Act. My name is Tom Blanton and I am the director of the independent non-governmental National Security Archive, based at the George Washington University.

At the Archive, we are veterans of more than 50,000 Freedom of Information requests that have changed the way history is written and even how policy is decided. Our White House e-mail lawsuits against every President from Reagan to Obama saved hundreds of millions of messages, and set a standard for digital preservation that the rest of the government has never yet achieved, as we know from the State Department. The Archive has won prizes and recognition ranging from the James Madison Award that Senator Cornyn deservedly received this year from the American Library Association – joining Senator Leahy in excellent company – to the Emmy Award for news and documentary research, to the George Polk Award for “piercing self-serving veils of government secrecy.”

This year we completed our 14th government-wide audit of agency FOIA performance, with more recommendations like the ones this Committee included in the landmark Cornyn-Leahy amendments in 2007 and again last year with the excellent FOIA reform bill this Committee passed unanimously through the Senate. My statement today addresses each of these areas of open government performance, and the lack thereof.

But first, I want to say that it is an honor to be here today on this panel with the general counsel of the Associated Press. Not only was the AP one of the founders of the now-ten-year-old Sunshine Week, the AP consistently ranks among the most systematic and effective users of the Freedom of Information Act. I am especially grateful to the AP for taking on the number-crunching task of making sense of agency annual reports on FOIA, and providing a common-sense analysis that parts ways significantly from the official spin. The White House proudly repeats Justice Department talking points claiming a 91% release rate under FOIA. But the AP headline reads, “US sets new record for denying, censoring government files.” Who is right? The AP is.

The Justice Department number includes only final processed requests. This statistic leaves out nine of the 11 reasons that the government turns down requests so they never reach final processing. Those reasons include claiming “no records,” “fee-related reasons,” and referrals to another agency. Counting those real-world agency responses, the actual release rate across the government comes in at between 50 and 60%.

In the National Security Archive’s experience, most agency claims of “no records” are actually an agency error, deliberate or inadvertent. I say deliberate because the FBI, for example, for years kept a single index to search when a FOIA request came in, even though that index listed only a fraction of the FBI’s records. But the FBI could say with a straight face, we conducted a full search of our central index, and found no records, and the requesters would go away. Only when we called them on their abysmally high rate (65%!) of no-records responses (most agencies were averaging closer to 10%), did the FBI change their process.

I say inadvertent because FOIA officers may not know where the documents are, and most often the requester doesn’t either. This is why dialogue between the agency and the requester is vital, why a negotiating process where the agency explains its records and the requester in return narrows her request, makes the most sense. This is why the Office of Government Information Services is so important, to mediate that dialogue, to bring institutional memory to bear, and to report independently to Congress about what is going on. This is why the original Freedom of Information Act back in 1966 started with the requirement that agencies publish their rules, their manuals, their organization descriptions, their policies, and their released records for inspection and copying. This kind of pro-active disclosure is essential, and our most recent audit showed “most agencies are falling short on mandate for online records.”

I’ll come back to that point, but let me first give you some of the big picture, since you are examining this administration’s overall performance on open government. The tenth anniversary of Sunshine Week this spring prompted some tough questions: are we doing better than when we started that Week 10 years ago, or worse, or holding our own? As with so many multiple-choice questions, the answer is probably “all of the above,” but I would also argue, mostly better – partly cloudy. My daddy of course once shoveled four inches of partly cloudy off the front steps, so we have a ways to go.

I would say for starters that many of the battles are very different today. For instance, our E-FOIA Audit of 2007, looking at the ten years of implementation after Congress passed the E-FOIA in 1996, found that only one of five federal agencies obeyed the law, posting online the required guidance, indexes, filing instructions, and contact information. Our agency-by-agency audit found that the FOIA phone listed on the Web site for one Air Force component rang in the maternity ward on a base hospital!

Now I would say almost all agencies have checked those boxes of the online basic information and the public liaison, not least because this Committee took the initiative with the 2007 FOIA amendments to put into the law the requirements for designated Chief FOIA Officers and FOIA public contacts, as well as reporting requirements, the ombuds office, and other progressive provisions.

The biggest shortcoming today, besides the endemic delays in response and the growing backlogs that the AP has so starkly reported, is that so few federal agencies (67 out of over 165 covered by our latest FOIA Audit) do the routine online posting of released FOIA documents that E-FOIA intended. We released these results for Sunshine Week this year, and I recommend for your browsing the wonderful color-coded chart we published rating the agencies from green to yellow to red, with direct links to each of the online reading rooms, or the site where they should be but aren’t. This was a terrific investigative project by the Archive’s FOIA project director Nate Jones and associate director Lauren Harper. The headline from their work is, nearly 20 years after Congress passed the E-FOIA, only 40% of agencies obey the intent of the law, which was to use the new technologies to put FOIA documents online, and reduce the processing burden on the agencies and on the public.

The fact of endemic delays and growing backlogs makes proactive disclosure even more important. As I’ve argued before, the zero-sum setting of FOIA processing in a real world of limited government budgets means that any new request we file actually slows down the next request anybody else files. Not to mention our own older requests slowing down our new ones, especially if they apply to multiple records systems. The only way out of this resource trap is to ensure that agencies post online whatever they are releasing, with few exceptions for personal privacy requests and the like. When taxpayers are spending money to process FOIA requests, the results should become public, and since agencies rarely count how often a record may be requested, requirements like “must be requested three times or more” just do not make sense.

There should be a presumption of online posting for released records, with narrow exceptions. I have found in many of the classes I teach that if sources are not online, for this younger generation, they simply do not exist. Many examples of agency leadership – posting online the Challenger space shuttle disaster records or the Deep Water Horizon investigation documents, for example – have proven that doing so both reduces the FOIA burden and dramatically informs the public.

Our audit this year found 17 out of 165 agencies that are real E-Stars, which disproves all the agency complaints how it’s just not possible to put their released records online. You can see the detailed listing of agencies in the charts, and there’s no difference in terms of funding or resources or FTEs or any other excuse between the E-Stars and the E-Delinquents – the difference is leadership. And oversight. And outside pressure. And internal will.

The complaint we hear the most against online posting is about the disabilities laws, that making records “508-compliant” is too burdensome and costs too much for agencies actually to populate those mandated online reading rooms. In fact, all government records created nowadays are already 508-compliant, and widely-available tools like Adobe Acrobat automatically handle the task for older records with a few clicks. The E-Stars dealt with the problem easily. Complaining about 508-compliance is an excuse, not a real barrier.

Since the State Department comes in for so much deserved grief on FOIA and records management, I need to point out that here, State’s performance on online posting is one of the very best. As an E-Star, State’s online reading room is robust, easily searchable, and uploaded quarterly with released documents – which allows requesters a useful window of time with a deadline to publish their scoops before everybody gets to see the product. State accomplished this excellent online performance using current dollars, no new appropriations. State’s FOIA personnel deserve our congratulations for this achievement. When Secretary Clinton’s e-mails finally get through the department’s review (which should not take long, since none are classified), State’s online reading room will provide a real public service for reading those e-mails.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Dan Hardway on Shenon

© 2015 Dan Hardway

Phil Shenon and I agree on at least a few things. In any resolution of the mysteries surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Mexico City will undoubtedly be important.

The investigation into what happened there in 1963 was, for some reason, seriously curtailed by the U.S. government. The government has, since then, fought tooth and nail to keep the full story about what happened there secret.

While I have never met Mr. Shenon, I have spoken with him several times by telephone. I first heard from him when he called me around 2011. He introduced himself as a reporter for Newsweek Magazine. He said he was working well in advance on an article for that magazine for the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder. He wondered whether I would be willing to talk about the HSCA’s investigation in Mexico City. I agreed to speak with him.

Over the course of that first conversation, and several follow-up calls from him over the next couple of years, it became apparent to me that Mr. Shenon was only interested in our work investigating what had happened in Mexico City in 1963 insofar as it might provide some kind of basis for linking Oswald to Castro or the Cubans. I tried to discuss the details of the HSCA investigation into what happened in Mexico City in its anomalous issues, but he was uninterested in those details. While there is an acknowledgment in his book, A Cruel and Shocking Act, stating that Ed Lopez and I were “generous with their time and interviews for this book,” precious little, if any, of what we shared with him made it into the book or any of his subsequent writing on the subject of Mexico City. Not only does Mr. Shenon ignore the post-HSCA materials we tried to bring to his attention, he also ignores the primary thrust of our report written for the HSCA.

I would not take issue with Phil Shenon if I thought what he is claiming is, merely, that the possibility of Cuban assistance to Oswald should be investigated. While I think the evidence of that is very weak at best, I will not deny that any avenue of investigation that remains open should be pursued. What I take issue with Mr. Shenon about is his single-minded concentration on that one issue and the resultant misrepresentation of facts and questions related to, and arising from, Lee Oswald’s activities in Mexico City. It appears to me that Shenon may be carrying water for the proponents of the original conspiracy theory – that Castro did it – rather than offering any objective review of the complete evidentiary base of that underlies the Mexico City visit. Shenon deliberately ignores the indicators and evidence that suggest Oswald’s trip to Mexico was either designed in advance, or spun in the aftermath, to give the appearance of Cuban and Soviet collusion in the Kennedy assassination.

Shenon’s thesis, as most recently explicated in his article in Politico, “What Was Lee Harvey Oswald Doing in Mexico?”, is built on suspicions expressed by some government officials after the assassination and Charles Thomas’s reporting of the Duran twist party – a report based on a story first told by Elena Garro de Paz. Many had initial suspicions after the assassination: Lyndon Johnson alleged a communist conspiracy within twenty minutes of JFK’s death; Bobby Kennedy’s first question to CIA Director John McCone that day was, “Did some of your guys do this?” (The Warren Commission, in Executive Session, was very concerned about Oswald’s intelligence connections, but Allen Dulles told them it was something that couldn’t really be proven, as a good intelligence officer would lie under oath to the Commission.)

When Shenon and I talked, I tried to get him to consider evidence and facts that have come to light about Mexico City and the CIA’s handling of various investigations since, including the one I worked on in 1978, in his evaluation of the twist party story that lies at the root of his speculations. My efforts had no effect. Any possible explanation other than Cuban complicity has been ignored by Mr. Shenon who seems hell-bent on promoting the idea that Castro was behind the assassination, refusing to address any other possibility.

I tried, in vain as it turns out, to get Mr. Shenon to consider that what we had learned about Oswald’s activities, and the government’s reaction to those activities, could support a different explanation which also pointed to an additional avenue of investigation that needed to be publicized and followed. In my view, Oswald’s activities are more consistent with his being involved in an intelligence operation being run by U.S. intelligence than with him trying to make contact with Cubans to garner support for an assassination attempt on the sitting leader of this country.

To fully appreciate why I say that, a little background from Washington in 1978, is necessary. In 1978 the CIA resisted the HSCA’s inquiry into Mexico City more than any other area of inquiry. The chief counsel, G. Robert Blakey, told the Committee on August 15, 1978, “[T]he deeper we have gotten into the Agency’s performance in Mexico City, the more difficult they have gotten in dealing with us, the more they have insisted on relevance, the more they have gone back in effect on their agreement to give us access to unsanitized files. For a while we had general and free access to unsanitized files. That is increasingly not true in the Mexico City area….” And we have since learned that they used George Joannides to shut down the investigation into Oswald and Mexico City.

George Joannides

In doing so, they lied to us about who he was. He ran propaganda operations in Miami in 1963-64 and was the case officer for DRE, the anti-Castro group that scored the anti-Fair Play for Cuba Committee coup using Oswald in New Orleans in August of 1963. As G. Robert Blakey has since acknowledged, “The CIA not only lied, it actively subverted the investigation.” I think the CIA expected we would take the superficial approach of considering the “Castro did it” theory, but when we went beyond the initial appearances and began pushing our investigation into the propaganda sources, seeking interviews with the actual penetration and surveillance agents, seeking to find others in Mexico City who may have seen Oswald, then the Agency resistance to our investigation turned to a stonewall. Shouldn’t it be enough to raise serious questions that when a Congressional Committee investigating specific disinformation operations ran by the CIA, the CIA brings one of those involved in the operation being investigated and uses him in an undercover capacity to forestall and subvert the investigation? But that’s not all.

Consider the scenario of U.S. intelligence involvement in Oswald’s activities in Mexico City that we were not able to fully investigate in 1978. Let’s start with some background on David Phillips. David Phillips was one of, if not the, most experienced, ingenious, respected, and qualified disinformation officers in the CIA. In 1963 he was stationed in Mexico City, but, in early October, he was temporarily assigned to duty at Headquarters because he was being promoted from running anti-Castro propaganda operations to overseeing all anti-Castro operations in the Western Hemisphere. He was an experienced hand. In the late 1950’s he had been under non-diplomatic cover in Havana, where he worked with the anti-Batista revolutionary group, the Directorio Revolucionario (“DR”) which would form the core of the early resistance to Castro. During the Bay of Pigs, Phillips was stationed at CIA Headquarters where he had responsibility for the propaganda and psychological warfare aspects of the anti-Castro operations.

In running those operations he not only oversaw the operations he ran personally from Headquarters, he was also the supervisor of the propaganda operations flowing out of the JMWAVE station in Miami by William Kent (aka Doug Gupton, William Trouchard). When the students who made up DR fled Cuba, they were reorganized under Kent’s tutelage into the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (“DRE”) based in Miami.

David Atlee Phillips

Phillips was transferred to Mexico City later in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs. Kent was promoted to Headquarters, and George Joannides took over Kent’s position in Miami, including supervision of DRE. While still stationed in Headquarters in the early 60’s, David Phillips had worked with Cord Meyer to develop the first disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting and disrupting a group of Castro sympathizers who had organized themselves into the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC).

In the summer of 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald formed a chapter of the FPCC in New Orleans. In August of 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald, still in New Orleans, had an encounter with DRE which led to a lot of publicity linking Oswald to communists, labeling him as pro-Castro, and discrediting the FPCC. In July and August of that year there is strong evidence that Oswald was used to identify and contact pro-Castro students at Tulane University. In early September, Oswald was seen with David Phillips in Dallas.

On September 16, 1963, the CIA informed the FBI that it was considering action to counter the activities of the FPCC in foreign countries. To my knowledge, the operational files on this new anti-FPCC operation have never been released by the CIA. In New Orleans, on September 17, 1963, Oswald applied for, and received, a Mexican travel visa immediately after William Gaudet, a known CIA agent, had applied for one. On September 27 Oswald arrived in Mexico City. This activity did not occur suddenly or in a vacuum. Oswald had started establishing his pro-Castro bona fides earlier that summer in New Orleans, including establishing an FPCC chapter there.

There are too many similarities between Oswald’s activities in New Orleans and Mexico City to simply dismiss, without investigation or discussion, the possibility that he was being used in an intelligence operation, either wittingly or unwittingly, in both cities. In addition to his contacts with the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic facilities in Mexico City, which could have been part of an intelligence dangle, an attempt to discredit the FPCC, or both, there is now also evidence of Oswald’s contacts with students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and his presence at social events with Cuban Consulate employees. David Phillips frequently lied about Oswald and Mexico City, but in a footnote in a little known book he self-published, Secret Wars Diary, he wrote: “I was an observer of Cuban and Soviet reaction when Lee Harvey Oswald contacted their embassies.” [Emphasis added.] One purpose served by an intelligence dangle is to enable the dangling agency to observe the reaction and, from that observation, identify roles of employees, procedures and processes of the enemy.

There can be little doubt that Oswald’s activities, especially the more flagrant, blatant and egregious ones such as those alleged by Shenon to have occurred at the Cuban Consulate, could only have scandalized the Cuban diplomats who heard the threats and bluster – all to the discrediting of the FPCC, just as the publicity about the New Orleans encounter between Oswald and the DRE formed one of the propaganda nails in that organization’s coffin. It is much more likely, in my opinion, that the seasoned Cuban diplomats would be offended than it is that they would support someone exhibiting Oswald’s alleged behavior to attempt an assassination. It is much more likely that the Cuban diplomats would have, as the evidence shows they did, consider Oswald as a U.S. intelligence provocation. The Cubans knew of the surveillance on their facilities.

Why would they use someone to do such a job who showed up under surveillance and announced his plans? On the other hand, someone as provocative as Oswald should have generated a cascade of response that, when observed by the watchers, would have revealed an abundance of information. It could also serve to discredit the FPCC with the Cubans. The CIA prevented us, in 1978, from interviewing then surviving penetration and surveillance agents who would have known more about such an operation.

In 1978, we knew not only about the allegations of the twist party, but also about the stories of Oswald’s contact with students. The CIA prevented us from interviewing Oscar Contreras, a student Oswald contacted. But Anthony Summers, and others, have interviewed him since. Contreras acknowledges that Oswald, in late September, 1963, approached him and three other students who were members of a pro-Castro student organization. He asked them for help getting a visa to Cuba from the Consulate. Contreras did have contacts at the Consulate and spoke to the Consul and an intelligence officer. Both warned him to have nothing to do with Oswald as they suspected he was trying to infiltrate pro-Castro groups. Contreras still wonders how Oswald identified him and his friends as the students, out of the thousands attending the University, as the ones with contacts in the Consulate. Shenon, some way or another, sees this incident as supporting possible Cuban involvement in the assassination. No mention is made to the similarity to what Oswald was doing with Tulane students in New Orleans.

While in New Orleans, Ruth Paine had asked fellow Quaker, Ruth Kloebfer, to check on the Oswalds while they were in New Orleans. Mrs. Kloebfer’s husband was a professor at Tulane University. There is information in the extensive records in this case that Oswald passed out FPCC leaflets near Tulane University and the homes of some of the professors there who were members of a local leftist group. The individuals who helped pass out pamphlets on the last occasion when Oswald passed out his FPCC literature in downtown New Orleans, were introduced by Oswald as students from Tulane. There are, keeping things in parallel, indications in the documentation about the case that Oswald, while in Mexico City, made contact with Quakers studying at the Autonomous University. There are indications that one Quaker student at the University at that time was an active agent of the CIA, although that person has never been identified and it has not been determined that he had any contact with Oswald in Mexico City. The reason that it has not been determined is that it has not been investigated.

It has to be pointed out that June Cobb, a known CIA agent, was very involved in Agency actions aimed at the FPCC in the early 1960’s. She appears again as the first person to report Elena Garro de Paz’s story about the Duran-Oswald twist party.

Sylvia Duran

At the time she made that report to the Mexico City CIA station, Cobb, a CIA asset, was renting a room from Elena Garro de Paz, Sylvia Duran’s cousin. And Shenon bases most of what he writes on a supposition that, based on this twist-party story, Duran was at the center of the Cuban recruitment of Oswald. But the fact is that it is still very much in question whether Duran had been recruited as an asset by the CIA.
David Phillips, as well as other CIA employees, in 1978, were of the opinion that she may have been targeted for recruitment by the CIA. The CIA, then and since, has gone out of its way to keep details about Duran buried, claiming, among other things, to have destroyed her Mexico City P file.

But the point is, the activities in Mexico City in September and October, 1963, are a capsule version of Oswald’s activities in New Orleans in June, July and August of 1963. In the context of the other information we’ve learned about the CIA’s FPCC black propaganda operation, the people involved in those operations and the role of at least one of those people, George Joannides, in subverting the HSCA investigation, how can anyone not seriously consider whether Oswald’s Mexico City activities were part of a CIA anti-FPCC operation?

The very first conspiracy theory, that Castro and the communists killed JFK – the one expressed by President Johnson 20 minutes after the assassination, and first seeing print in the DRE’s CIA funded newspaper, Trinchera, on November 23, 1963 – still has followers and proponents, the latest being Phil Shenon. None of the proponents, it seems, have ever really considered whether they may be the victims – or a part – of a very good, deliberate disinformation operation – possibly the best Phillips and Joannides ever ran.
Dan Hardway, J.D. Attorney in private practice; former investigator, House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Paul Hoch on Winnowing the Wheat and the Chaff

Paul Hoch on Assassination Research

Winnowing the Wheat and the Chaff

Unlike high-profile conspiracy authors such as Mark Lane, Robert Groden, and David Lifton, Paul Hoch is essentially unknown to the American public. But among the small fraternity of assassination researchers, he is a highly respected figure.

In 1993 he was invited to the Second Annual Midwest Symposium on Assassination Politics in Chicago to share his thoughts on JFK assassination research. The following are his comments.

Good morning; thank you for coming. I’m pleased that I was invited to be on this panel; for one thing, I am not very active as a researcher now. I try to help other researchers, and I’ve already had the pleasure of seeing some of you in person for the first time. I help mainly by being an informed skeptic. I understand that raising questions about other people’s work is relatively easy, but I know from experience how difficult it is to understand the available record and to get into the hidden record.

I am at a disadvantage talking this early in the symposium, but I intend to be frank about where I stand after nearly thirty years, off and on, of research. Primarily, I want to make a point to non-buffs and to new buffs in the audience: There is a lot of diversity and uncertainty among the critics.

If anyone wants to set up, as a test, the denunciation of Clay Shaw or of the Single Bullet Theory or of Burt Griffin, I won’t pass it. And I know there are many other buffs who share some of my doubts about what seems to be the new orthodoxy.

Doug Carlson suggested that this panel include a review of the public record, in the context of the science of independent research. Thinking of the state of the case in the public mind, my first reaction was, what’s research got to do with it? 

The success of Oliver Stone’s film and the subsequent movement to “free the files,” was built on facts and the work of many researchers, but it seems to really be about issues that go far beyond the events of November 22 — the nature of the press, of the government, of our society.

In this context, my key point about documentary research is that it may not be able to solve the case, but it certainly can make wrong solutions go away. There are plenty of allegations floating around which would not stand up to scrutiny based on the existing public record. One complication, of course, is that I’m not sure which of the allegations would go away. But I am confident that many would.

What results can we expect? Burt Griffin made a good point in his House Committee testimony in 1978: “consider the possible reality that under the American system of civil liberties and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that it is virtually impossible to prosecute or uncover a well-conceived and well-executed conspiracy.” (5 HSCA 480) So the ambitions of documentary research — which is just one of the tools of such an inquiry — probably should be quite modest.

I think that the most promising areas for research — in the existing files as well as the new ones — are the facts of the shooting (particularly the medical evidence), Oswald (especially what the agencies knew about him), and the political context (particularly Cuba).

First, keep an eye out for the innocent explanation; then test it. Remember, sources make mistakes, FBI agents make mistakes, even researchers make mistakes. And some sources lie.

I hope we will make some progress this weekend in planning to deal with new material. Of course I would like to have everything on indexed CD ROM’s. But we learned in 1978, from the work of Carl Oglesby and his AIB colleagues on the FBI files, that selection of interesting documents is a key step. Mark Zaid has put together some ideas along these lines. We’re in the position of paleontologists coming across an enormous find which might consist of real bones. There is a lot of junk in the files.

Tips for analyzing documents: First, keep an eye out for the innocent explanation; then test it. Remember, sources make mistakes, FBI agents make mistakes, even researchers make mistakes. And some sources lie.
Things that are deleted may not be important. Not everything put in an assassination file is relevant to the assassination. For example: Mark Lane said that Priscilla Johnson was a suspect in the assassination, no doubt referring to a certain document where, if the case caption is undeleted, it is clear that she was a suspect in a case of potential KGB recruitment. Years ago, it became clear than many people, such as Igor Vaganov, were involved in shady activities in Dallas that probably had nothing to do with the assassination.
In short, most of the apparent evidence will turn out not to be true, even if it is not obviously false. That is certainly the typical experience of those of us who have worked as scientists.

Anyone who spends time in the FBI files develops his own filters for detecting probable junk. For example, letters from citizens which are typed in all capitals — single spaced, with no margins — or handwritten with about ten words per page. I suspect that a useful measure of the plausibility of an allegation could be derived from the percentage of well-known names. If a source claims to have met with David Ferrie, Allen Dulles, and Fidel Castro in Jack Ruby’s nightclub, I’ll go on to the next document. Any post-Garrison story with Clay Shaw in it starts with a heavy burden of skepticism to overcome. I now put Roscoe White in the same category.

Suggestions on assessing the credibility of physical evidence: Most important, remember that only one thing happened.

It is no longer enough to just come up with leads and say they are interesting or should be investigated. I used to do that a lot myself. We need to filter out charges that don’t hold up, as much as we can.

The technical work of the House Committee had quite an impact on me. The key fact is that specific items of Dealey Plaza conspiracy evidence have tended to get weaker over the years. This has been a surprise, naturally underappreciated — especially by newer buffs and non-technical buffs.

I suspect that a useful measure of the plausibility of an allegation could be derived from the percentage of well-known names. If a source claims to have met with David Ferrie, Allen Dulles, and Fidel Castro in Jack Ruby’s nightclub, I’ll go on to the next document.
The big arguable exception is the medical and autopsy evidence, and I could never fully accept the official version of the shots until the anomalies in this area are more adequately dealt with.

We could argue at length about the imperfections in the House Committee’s work, and in the work of the National Academy of Sciences panel which rebutted the acoustics. As some of you know, I’ve done my share, particularly on the acoustics.

But the fact remains that the House Committee took a stab at the tests the critics wanted — not completely, and not perfectly, but we expected that any one of the tests would demolish the WC reconstruction — neutron activation analysis, trajectory analysis. And they didn’t.

Many people seem to agree with John Judge, who has said that we know where the shots came from, they came from the Pentagon. I don’t think we know nearly enough about Dealey Plaza to make a jump like that.
The single bullet theory is not a joke. Despite its well-known flaws, the Warren Commission/House Committee reconstruction may be in better shape than any other single detailed reconstruction. At least, it has to be taken seriously.

To me, a key lesson from the state of the physical evidence is that much of the other conspiracy evidence would be weakened if subject to comparable scrutiny.

Wallace Milam has said that we have identified twelve of the three gunmen. We need to think what this means about our collective methodology. Are we the men who know too much?

On interviewing witnesses: I don’t have any experience worth mentioning, so I’ll make just one point: Watch out for principals who have become buffs, and are basing conclusions on information outside their areas of direct knowledge or expertise. If John Rosselli, for example, knew there was a shot from the knoll, it might not have been from inside knowledge, but because some of his friends, like many others, heard Mark Lane’s stump speech. It seemed very significant that Dr. George Burkley said he thought there was a conspiracy, but the most I could find out was that he thought Oswald had more money than could be accounted for. One of the Dallas doctors, as I recall, thinks the head snap and simple physics constitute irrefutable proof of a shot from the front. They don’t.

Suggestions on assessing the credibility of verbal testimony: I’ll offer a corollary to Griffin’s statement: If you recognize that conspiracies do happen but don’t have a good methodology, you will end up believing in a big conspiracy behind any major political crime.

Watch out for principals who have become buffs, and are basing conclusions on information outside their areas of direct knowledge or expertise. If John Rosselli, for example, knew there was a shot from the knoll, it might not have been from inside knowledge, but because some of his friends, like many others, heard Mark Lane’s stump speech.

Do I know what constitutes a good methodology? Not really. A couple of obvious points: Go to primary sources whenever possible. Many books are unreliable on details. For an example, again I’ll pick on Mark Lane since he’s not here: Lane accurately quotes a memo by Melvin Eisenberg as saying that Warren said that LBJ “convinced him that this was an occasion on which actual conditions had to override general principles.” But it is obvious from the memo that the general principle being set aside is not Warren’s “belief system and his sense of justice,” as Lane says, but the principle that a sitting Supreme Court justice should not take an outside job like this. When people misinterpret documents that are readily available, how can you trust them on sources that are not easily checkable?

What about pitfalls? Watch out for allegations which look too good to throw out, for example because they seem to make the connection between Kennedy’s enemies and the assassination — that is, to provide the closure everyone hopes to find. For example, some people latched on to the FBI document mentioning George Bush of the CIA without considering if the George Bush would be referred to in that fashion, and whether the contact described was that important or sinister anyhow.

David Lifton pointed out to me that it has gotten hard to pin researchers down about sloppy analysis, now that their fallback position can be that what they are looking for is a metaphor or a myth.

Sometimes it seems that the stories which catch on in the public mind are those with particular value as metaphor, or those which are pushed vigorously by some buffs. Don’t assume that the best leads are the ones which have been waved around most prominently.

An example of a story which never caught on: I discovered that the lawyer who sent a telegram to Oswald in jail, offering to represent him, came from a civil-libertarian law firm here in Chicago which had defended Sam Giancana against alleged FBI harassment. I learned this quite by accident; the lawyer mentioned it to me. When I circulated this story, I played this connection down. But someone else could easily have picked it up and made a big deal of it, and then it would be one of those things that everyone knows is important.

Be careful not to give evidence a value proportional to the difficulty you had in finding it. Not everything being withheld is relevant. Realize how hard it is to discard as unimportant something you’ve spent many hours to get, but that’s what good journalists and scientists have to do all the time.

Partial confirmation can be misleading. For example, Henry Hurt confirmed — with some difficulty — that a fire described by Robert Easterling had occurred, which may have made Hurt too inclined to believe Easterling’s fantastic stories about the assassination.

Of course, one problem with concentrating on these pitfalls is that you might miss good allegations that look bad. For example, when I got the Sibert-O’Neill report from the Archives in 1966 and circulated it, Lifton was perhaps the only person not to discard the strange reference to “surgery of the head area.” I don’t know what it all means but I think he was right not to pass over it as obviously an FBI reporting error.
Watch out for allegations which look too good to throw out, for example because they seem to make the connection between Kennedy’s enemies and the assassination — that is, to provide the closure everyone hopes to find.

You may recall the story in John Davis’ book about the mayor of Darien, Georgia, who said he saw Oswald getting money in what turned out to be a mob-linked restaurant. I sent that document to John to show him that another allegation we were discussing was not that persuasive to me, because such stories were so common. But this one turned out to get better, not worse, as you looked into it.

One funny story: I remember Robert Ranftel doing a late-night radio talk show and telling several conspiracy-minded callers that their favorite stories had been discredited, or didn’t make sense anyhow. Then one caller started talking about his aunt having photographed Oswald in Russia, and got the same treatment; I was rolling my eyes and hoping that Robert would remember that, yes, some tourist did photograph Oswald.

Are we critics or researchers or skeptics or what? Being critical used to mean questioning the Warren Report.

At first, document research was easy — check out their footnotes, ask for the Sibert-O’Neill report. It’s harder now to ask tough questions about the beliefs of the anti-Warren Report majority and about the work of those who are building on the momentum of 29 years of research.

The critical community may be at a crossroads. Will the revived public interest in the case turn our research effort into something that belongs on shows like “Hard Copy,” along with UFO abductions?

I expect interesting discussions this weekend on unity among the buffs. Avoiding divisiveness on tactical grounds makes more sense for a minority movement than for people taking a view which is endorsed by an overwhelming percentage of the public.

We are not guaranteed progress towards the truth by adhering to the standards of science, or journalism, or law — certainly not law.

But those standards have justifications and are certainly more applicable than the standards of political activism or filmmaking in getting at what actually happened.

Do we want to reach people who are not already “pro-conspiracy” (particularly reporters, academics, people in government)?

I personally do.


My gut feeling is to make it clear that they don’t have to pick between two sides: a flat no-conspiracy viewpoint and a unified community of conspiratorialists (the most vocal of whom appear to be preaching to the choir).

I would emphasize that the no-conspiracy side is not where you find most of the people who are seriously asking valid questions. If there is a basis for unity, it is a skeptical methodology, not any particular conclusions or interpretations of the evidence.

Castro with Sniper Rifle