Helping defeat Hillary Clinton is not the most successful influence operation Moscow has ever mounted against the United States. The most momentous, yes. But any covert activity that is exposed so rapidly and incites a backlash cannot be deemed an unalloyed accomplishment.
Moscow’s single most effective influence operation remains the one induced 50 years ago this month, when the now-defunct New Orleans States-Itempublished a front-page story on April 25, 1967, entitled “Mounting Evidence Links CIA to ‘Plot’ Probe.” It was an operation that culminated in an unimaginable achievement—inclusion in a Hollywood blockbuster by Oliver Stone that contends the CIA was instrumental in JFK's assassination.
That probe, as every conscious American knew, was district attorney Jim Garrison’s re-investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination amid a pronounced erosion of public confidence in the Warren Report. On March 1, 1967, Garrison had ostentatiously announced the arrest of Clay Shaw, a respected businessman, and charged him with complicity in JFK’s death. It was an outlandish and baseless accusation, yet Shaw would prove far from the only victim. The miscarriage of justice that unfolded over the next two years would have vast, if largely unappreciated, consequences for America’s political culture.
It would take a separate article (or even book) to explain why Garrison ordered Clay Shaw’s arrest in the first place (and some very good ones have been written, including Patricia Lambert’s False Witness). Suffice it to say that at the time of the arrest and until later in March, Garrison’s theory of the case was that JFK’s assassination was actually a “homosexual thrill-killing.” The president had been murdered in broad daylight because he was everything the conspirators were not: “a successful, handsome, popular, wealthy, virile man.” Under this scenario, Shaw, who was gay but closeted, also went by the name of Clay Bertrand, a mysterious person linked to the assassination. “Bertrand” had supposedly tried to arrange a defense counsel for Lee Harvey Oswald during the weekend following his capture on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The Warren Commission and FBI thoroughly investigated the “Bertrand” allegation in 1964, and had concluded (correctly) that it was a fabrication concocted by a publicity-seeking New Orleans attorney named Dean Andrews. “Bertrand” was not even a real person.
Nonetheless, Shaw’s surprise arrest in 1967 naturally precipitated a media firestorm the likes of which had not been seen since the assassination itself. As reporters from near and far flocked to New Orleans—the universal reaction being that Garrison “must have something”—headlines appeared around the globe, including in Paese Sera, a small-circulation newspaper published in Rome. The story that ran in its pages on March 4, however, was unlike any other. Clay Shaw, Paese Sera alleged, had been involved in “pseudo-commercial” activities in Italy while serving on the board of the defunct Centro Mondiale Commerciale. Ostensibly devoted to making Rome a commerce hub, the CMC had actually been “a creature of the CIA… set up as a cover for the transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds [sic] for illegal political-espionage activities.”
One axiom of successful disinformation is that context creates the illusion of what might be true. Here the plausibility of Paese Sera’s falsehood was strengthened immeasurably by a separate media firestorm that had been ignited Feb. 14. On that day, Ramparts magazine had published full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, proclaiming that its March issue would reveal how the CIA “infiltrated and subverted” the National Student Association. Since then, media outlets had been racing to outdo the upstart Ramparts by exposing covert CIA subsidies to other organizations in the United States as well as abroad, including anti-communists in Italy. Paese Sera’s “scoop,” moreover, was built around a few undeniable facts: The CMC had existed from 1958 to 1962; Shaw had been a board member; and now he was charged with conspiracy.
In three weeks Garrison had the Italian newspaper clipping in hand. Overnight the DA dispensed with his “thrill-killing” theory and persuaded himself that because he had inadvertently nabbed an important “company man,” the CIA was implicated in the assassination. “Garrison now is hot on the CIA angle,” wrote Richard Billings in his diary on April 3; Billings was a Life magazine editor given privileged access to the investigation in return for what was expected to be a blockbuster cover story. Or as Garrison himself recalled years later, “I didn’t know exactly how Shaw was involved. But with Shaw I grabbed a toehold on the conspiracy. I wasn’t about to let go because of the technicalities.”
Garrison didn’t know that Paese Sera belonged to a select group of allegedly non-communist periodicals used to propagate disinformation, rather than have these stories originate in Communist Party organs. Paese Sera’s long-suspected role in Moscow’s active measures was confirmed beyond any doubt in 1999, when historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrohkin published The Sword and the Shield, a history of the KGB that is a treasure trove of disclosures about Soviet clandestine and subversive activities during the cold war. ...