- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

Three subjects are a truth-be-hanged, free-fire zone for writers willing to discard credibility in favor of sensationalism: The Kennedys (including the JFK murder), the Mafia and late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. No item is considered too spurious to overlook, the more salacious the better, and ill-sourcing is the norm rather than the exception.

In what could be termed a trifecta incorporating all three of the fore-mentioned subjects, Burton H. Hersh does a serious disservice to history (and the truth) in Bobby and J. Edgar (Carroll & Graf, $28.95, 612 pages). He has produced what I can only call a nose-holder of a book, one so laden with outlandish assertions that only a sense of duty kept me turning the pages.

On the surface, Mr. Hersh’s idea a was a splendid one, for the rivalry between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Hoover is a continuing Washington legend. Ample credible material is around to tell the story accurately. Mr. Hersh, sadly, chose the opposite route.

His criteria seems to be, “If something is in a book, it must be true, and therefore I can ‘report’ the wildest of statements as fact.” Well, nonfiction writing demands a bit more than the regurgitation of gossip, and Mr. Hersh has been around the business long enough to know better. The footnotes cite a number of “writers” whom I would not believe if they asserted that we now lived in the 21st century.

Repeating nut stuff serves only to keep nonsense in circulation, for many moon-howlers are prepared to believe the worst about the Kennedys, the Mob and Hoover. So I cite only several examples (of dozens) that raised my eyebrows.

Consider the claim that Hoover was a secret cross-dresser who wore fancy gowns to homosexual orgies. A British writer made this assertion in a Hoover “biography” some years back, relying on divorce-suit allegations of an embittered woman who was a convicted perjurer.

The statement about Hoover was outrageously false — and so labeled even by critics who hated him. When references to the lie kept popping up in the New York Times, the paper yielded to a protest by the Society of Former FBI Agents and stated, in an editors’ note, that it would permit no further citing of the yarn.

Then there is the allegation that Robert Kennedy, as a young federal prosecutor, accompanied narcotics agents on raids so that he could coerce sex from women who happened to be at arrest scenes. He also snorted any cocaine that happened to be about. Mr. Hersh’s “source” is a former narcotics agent who supposedly told this story to another writer years ago. He offers no evidence that he tried to confirm the story. That the politically savvy RFK would put his career at risk through such conduct, in front of strangers, boggles the mind.

Or consider the JFK murder, which Mr. Hersh asserts had heavy Mafia involvement, with the help of U.S. intelligence agencies. Here Mr. Hersh packs a considerable amount of nonsense into a single sentence: “[Jack] Ruby is alleged to have provided the bogus Secret Service identification badges (which originated with the CIA),” which Mob underlings could flash to “shoo away the curious” from the site from which the fatal shots were fired. (Not by Lee Oswald, to be sure.)

Hersh also coughs up a remarkable claim (taken from an RFK “biographer”) that “Gerald Ford publicly admitted [emphasis added] that in 1975, while President of the United States, he had suppressed certain FBI and CIA surveillance reports that indicated that JFK has been caught in a crossfire in Dallas, and that John Rosselli and Carlos Marcello [Mob figures] … orchestrated the assassination plot.” Curiously, no serious Kennedy researcher has come across this Ford statement — or, at any rate, given it enough credence to repeat it.

Enough. Don’t waste your time on this one.

n n n

Fortunately, considerably more serious research was done by Dan Kurzman for his A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII (Da Capo Press, $26, 284 pages, illus.). Mr. Kurzman pursues an interesting question: What should an intelligence officer do when he receives an order to do something he recognizes as fundamentally crazy, with the potential to cause lasting harm to his country?

I recounted one such dilemma in these pages a few months ago involving Larry Devlin, who was CIA station chief in the Congo in 1960. Mr. Devlin received orders — apparently emanating from the White House — directing him to aid in murdering a prominent leftist politician. Mr. Devlin dealt with the order by ignoring it, leaving CIA’s hands clean when Congolese rivals later killed the man.

But consider the plight of German SS Gen. Karl Wolff, who in 1943 received a direct order from Adolf Hitler to seize the Vatican and kidnap Pope Pius XII. As Hitler told Wolff, “I do not want him to fall into the hands of the Allies and to be under their political pressure and influence.”

Wolff was stunned, he related in an interview with Mr. Kurzman long after the war. Notes Mr. Kurzman squirreled away years ago were preserved while he pursued the full story. In his long career he won numerous awards as a foreign correspondent, and he has since written 16 nonfiction books.

Wolff proceeded to Italy and began planning the operation. About 2,000 men would seal off the Vatican, occupy the radio station, and seize the pope and whatever cardinals happened to be around. Police trucks would then whisk them off to either Germany or neutral Liechtenstein. Crews would loot Vatican treasures.

But Wolff knew that such a move would outrage Italians, who were already on the verge of abandoning Germany and suing for peace. It would also give the Allies an enormous propaganda weapon. As Wolff told Mr. Kurzman, he enlisted the cooperation of Rudolf Rahn, the German ambassador to Italy, who agreed that the kidnap plot was insane.

Rahn took the risk of letting the pope know what was afoot and persuaded him to desist from attacks on the Nazi regime in hopes that Hitler might abandon the plot. Silence would also mean the pope would not incite Nazi retaliations against Catholics. So Wolff managed to stall until the war staggered to an end.

A sub-theme of Mr. Kurzman’s book deals with the question of whether the pope — and the church itself — did all it could have done to halt the Holocaust by speaking out against the atrocities, a subject that still evokes passion, and one that I shall not attempt to address in a brief review.

Mr. Kurzman also notes that Wolff quite possibly had a hidden agenda in refusing to obey Hitler’s orders: As a ranking SS officer, he had done things that violated the standards by which decent people live. Ignoring the order to kidnap the pope was one reason he escaped the Nuremberg gallows. Another was his deal with Allen Dulles, the Office of Strategic Services chief in Switzerland, for surrender of all German troops in Italy just as the war ended. (His luck ran out years after peace, when he was convicted of war crimes in a German court and sentenced to 15 years, of which he served five.)

My conclusion? Any person smart enough to be a good intelligence officer can find ways to avoid schemes that are not nearly so appealing to persons on the ground as they are to those in far-away offices.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.

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