On the trail of the assassin(s)

The County Waterford-based Anthony Summers’s influential book “Not in Your Lifetime” initially grew out of interviews he did in the late 1970s for a BBC documentary on JFK’s assassination.

By Peter McDermott

Anthony Summers was not happy with the title of his 1980 book about the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. “Conspiracy” was put on the cover “only after my publisher’s insistence, and over my strenuous objections,” he recalled in a lecture a few years ago.

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For one thing, the former BBC reporter wrote it against the backdrop of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the second official investigation, which said there was “probably” a conspiracy — a dramatically different conclusion from that of the Warren Commission in 1964, but still short of a definite declaration.

Summers has always adhered to what is known about the president’s murder and tried to keep his speculations to the minimum. And like police and FBI investigators had done from the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963 onwards, he has sought to determine what seems credible in terms of testimony, and what feels imagined or concocted.

Ultimately, anybody who knows anything about the case can only be “agnostic” about it, he said in an interview this month from his long-time home in rural County Waterford. Yes, Lee Harvey Oswald may well have acted alone. But the evidence can also point in the opposite direction— that the 24-year-old was influenced by or was an instrument, a “patsy,” for others.

To those who shrug their shoulders and say “something should have turned up by now” — a death-bed confession, for example — he and others like him counter there’s never been a shortage of such stories and leads. The problem, again, is seeing if any of them makes sense.

In that regard, Summers and former Notre Dame Professor of Law Robert Blakey, who was chief counsel and staff director of the HSCA, revealed quite a story a few years ago, one they both feel is compelling and which the author said “ticks all the boxes.” Summers discusses Herminio Díaz, who was killed in 1966, in the most recent edition of “Not in Your Lifetime,” his renamed book about the assassination in Dealey Plaza (the title was Chief Justice Earl Warren’s reply to a reporter’s question about the release of the most sensitive national-security documents relating to the case).

In one sense, Summers’s journalistic involvement with President Kennedy’s murder goes back to the evening of Nov. 22, 1963 when the shocking news came through from Texas to the Oxford bar where he was working. A languages student who was not yet 21, he had done assignments during vacation time for Granada Television, and now a producer from its flagship “World in Action” program called him to see if he could fly with its team to Dallas. Not long afterwards, he got another call saying they’d found someone with more experience.

His next brush with the case was when he witnessed, from the wings of a BBC TV studio, the conspiracy theorist Mark Lane debate his 1966 book “Rush to Judgment” with a lawyer for the Warren Commission. He was not at all impressed with Lane's performance that evening.

Some of the early work challenging the official version, he feels, was marred by “exaggeration and irresponsible conspiracy mongering.

“They hit on things that were really questionable about the official case and inflated them beyond all proportion and led people off on daft trails,” said Summers, who has written 10 best-selling books, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Absence of evidence

One such pursuer of the case was, famously, the New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who took it up in late 1966. A decade later, when Summers was making a BBC documentary about the HSCA’s report, Garrison made contact with him. “My initial and lasting impression of him as a reporter was he was certainly deluded and probably a bit of a nutcase, and yet his thesis and the things he developed led to the Oliver Stone film [‘JFK’ in 1991], which led in turn to a whole generation of young people being converted to his wilder notions of conspiracy.

“Their major thesis was the military-industrial complex was in some way involved with the Kennedy assassination to further the war in Vietnam. There’s absolutely no evidence for that,” he said. Summers, who has raised a family in Ireland with his wife and fellow author Robbyn Swan, added that stressing the Vietnam angle “does history no favors.”

New Orleans was also a focus for the official HSCA report and for Summers’s film and book. “All sorts of interesting things happened to Oswald there, which absolutely deserved investigation,” the author said. But instead of a “government” plot, they looked at organized crime — particularly Mafia bosses Santos Trafficanto and Carlos Marcello — and the apparently pro-Castro Oswald’s interactions with anti-Castro militants.

Summers was amazed when doing his documentary for BBC’s “Panorama” in the late 1970s that many of his interview subjects had never been spoken to before. “All of the media of that time, not least the New York Times, had completely failed to really quarry into the story. They simply had not done it,” he said. “They concentrated on the great tapestry of the assassination and the Kennedy era.”

This can be partly explained, he argued, by Americans’ implicit trust in the FBI and the CIA. By the late 1970s, however, people were much more open to the idea that both institutions had made serious mistakes in their handling of the assassination investigation.

The CIA’s astonishing behavior during the HSCA episode in the late 1970s only worsened the distrust in the longer term. It had brought back from retirement agent George Joannides to act as liaison officer with the committee. In 2001, it emerged that the CIA had not bothered to inform the committee that Joannides had been its agent in charge of running anti-Castro operations in New Orleans in 1963. An upset former chief counsel Blakey called Joannides’s appointment in retrospect a “willful obstruction of justice” and declared that he would never again trust the CIA.

This is one of the issues, Summers argued, that should cause those who accept the Warren Commission’s findings to give pause. Another is Oswald’s strange interlude in Mexico City in 1963 and the CIA’s historic sensitivity about it. And then there is Oswald killer Jack Ruby, whose decades-long organized-crime ties were concealed from the Warren Commission but highlighted by the HSCA report.

Additionally, Summers would point out to those who've made their peace with the official version the “all manner of troubling inconsistencies” in the case. He would argue how aspects of the forensics are still debated by “serious scientists.” That, though, is not his area. Talking to people is. “A lot of witnesses spoke cogently about Oswald working for anti-Castro people,” he said. “Well, what’s that about?”

Apparent sincerity

Cuba is never far from the picture. Blakey asked Summers in 2007 to meet with and film a Miami-based Cuban immigrant named Reinaldo Martinez Gomez. The then 81-year-old Martinez had contacted Blakey, saying that he wanted “to get something off his chest” before he died.

When in a Havana prison in 1966 — on a minor charge involving illegal currency offenses — he treated in the infirmary prominent anti-Castro extremist Tony Cuesta, who had been horribly wounded in a skirmish with government forces. Cuesta told him that a mutual friend Herminio Díaz, indeed Martinez’s closest friend during their student days, had died in the gun battle. He added that the dead man had confessed to him that he had participated in the assassination of the U.S. president.

Cuesta, a founder of the paramilitary Alpha 66 who lost his eyesight and a hand in that incident, “wasn’t known for telling fibs,” Summers said.

Summers has detailed some of Díaz’s career: “He had worked in one of Trafficante’s casinos [in Havana before 1959], and is listed in CIA files. It is a matter of record that he had had in the past shot dead a former Cuban chief of police, had tried to kill the president of Costa Rica and had plotted to kill the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He was a crack marksman, a known assassin – [and] he was in the United States in 1963.”

Both interviewers were impressed with the “apparent sincerity” of the elderly Martinez and how he stuck to the detail of the story under close questioning over two days.

The former Notre Dame Professor Blakey described it as a “breakthrough of historical importance.”

Summers said simply when interviewed: “It was a plausible notion that [Díaz] could have been an assassin on Nov. 22, and [Martinez] was worth listening to and worth reporting.”