22. “I Accuse You of Assassination”

Title Quote: David Phillips

The year 1980 bore the bitter fruit of Veciana’s Maurice Bishop allegations in the form of three major works attempting to tie David Phillips to the JFK assassination and other illegal acts. These were Conspiracy by Anthony Summers, Death in Washington by Donald Freed and Fred Landis, and a nearly book length article by Fonzi in the Washingtonian titled “Who Killed JFK?” Consequently, a legal and personal war erupted between Phillips and his critics that lasted until his death. Phillips would eventually win two out of three court actions against his antagonists. Warren Commission critic Harold Weisberg was one of the few on the conspiracy side who thought Phillips was not involved in the assassination. “Hunt, Sturgis, Phillips and others have no connection at all,” he told a colleague. “They are part of the vast assassination mythology.”1

Summers’ book, published in May of 1980, “invites, indeed cajoles the reader to believe that I was CIA’s case officer for Lee Harvey Oswald,” as Phillips put it in a letter soliciting legal aid. In addition to the well-known Maurice Bishop allegations, Summers’ book added some original wrinkles. As early as his initial interview with Fonzi, Veciana referenced an intermediary who facilitated his contacts with the mysterious Bishop. In the initial telling of the story, Veciana said that “whenever [Bishop] had to contact him, he did so through someone else.” Fonzi sensibly pressed Veciana for more information on this intermediary but Veciana put him off saying only that the individual was “a lady … in Miami” whose name he would “not authorize.”2

Because the alleged intermediary could potentially verify Veciana’s story, he was again pressured to identify this individual during his 1978 HSCA testimony. When directed by HSCA counsel to name the individual, Veciana launched into a bitter, long-winded diatribe that was undoubtedly designed to divert attention from the subject at hand. Veciana said he was “in complete disagreement with the United States Government” and “any agency representing the government” and maintained that he had “suffered under this [the US] nation.” Veciana added that “President Kennedy said that he was going to … give back the brigade [2506] flag to [the exiles] in a free Cuba. He was lying.” Veciana went on to say that he could prove Cuba “fabricated” the evidence in his drug conviction case assisted by an unnamed “United States Government agency,” a claim that he never backed up.3

Having vented his spleen, Veciana finally moved to the intermediary insisting that he did not believe that revealing the identity of this person, “would be of any use to the investigation process.” Veciana further maintained that he would “lose all authority” in the anti-Castro community if he started naming names. Committee member Richardson Preyer expressed empathy for Veciana’s argument but nevertheless again asked him to acquiesce with the assurance that the name “will not be known outside this room.” Veciana again refused to answer, this time citing the Jack Anderson leaks which he asserted came from the HSCA. After being assured again that the information would be confidentially held, Veciana responded “I am going to make a last effort to have the question withdrawn.”4 Unbelievably, the matter was dropped, probably out of fear that Veciana would refuse to answer additional questions if the government inquisitors pressed the issue.

Nevertheless, the mysterious intermediary remained of keen interest to researchers and when Summers interviewed Veciana in 1978, he says he “goaded” him into finally providing the name. This intermediary was outed in 1993 by newly released HSCA documents, having been previously referred to as “Fabiola” by both Fonzi and Summers to “protect her identity.” She was Delores Cao of Puerto Rico.5

This is the same Delores Cao whose name Veciana had signed when composing the fake letter to Fidel Castro that was designed to “confirm” the Bishop allegations. Although some elements of the Cao story may have been true, she never independently confirmed the Bishop tale even though Summers informed his readers that her “statements corroborated Veciana’s claim that his clandestine contact used the name Bishop.”6

The story goes that Cao acted as Veciana’s secretary during the years he worked at Julio Lobo’s bank and handled his incoming calls. Summers told his readers that during interviews with Cao, he “ran through a large number of names” with her. All these monikers were fake except the name “Bishop” which Cao “promptly” remembered.7 Notably, although she believed a “Bishop” had phoned her, Cao said that Veciana never mentioned a CIA contact.8 Instead, Cao told a completely different story. She said that the name “Bishop” was “linked in her mind” with that of an American woman named Prewett to the extent that she had trouble differentiating between the two. In fact, Cao thought that both Bishop and Prewett were “connected with an American news publication based on the east coast.” Prewett, Summers told his readers ominously, “turned out to be Virginia Prewett.”9

Prewett, who wrote a syndicated column for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), has been a longtime villain to CIA critics and theorists, who imply that she was nothing more than an attack dog for the agency and right-wing groups. However, her record of journalist achievement would indicate otherwise.

As a roving reporter, foreign correspondent and author, Prewett became recognized as a leading authority on Latin American affairs. Her book, The Americas and Tomorrow, served as a textbook for American colleges. She received the Maria Moors Cabot Award from the Columbia School of Journalism, the first woman to win the honor, and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work appeared in publications such as Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. From 1970 to 1988, she published The Hemisphere Hotline, an intelligence report on the Americas.10 In the fifties, Prewett’s employer NANA was purchased by Ernest Cuneo, who had previously worked for OSS chief William Donovan as a liaison to the Roosevelt administration and the British.11 This fact likely accounts in part for NANA’s reputation as a news outlet sympathetic to the CIA’s anti-communist view.

The energetic Summers interviewed Prewett who was doubtless unaware of his intention to tie her to the Maurice Bishop story. Summers says that Prewett admitted to having contacts with Alpha 66, but this is not surprising since she interviewed Veciana for a newspaper article she wrote in 1963. Summers goes on to say that Prewett first admitted to being familiar with Veciana but later maintained that she had never met him. However, in Prewett’s story on Veciana, an editor’s note says that she “recorded” the piece which was credited to Veciana and Cecilio Vasquez. Therefore, Prewett probably interviewed the Alpha 66 men by phone.12

Summers writes that when the name “Bishop” was first mentioned “in the context of the CIA and Cuba,” Prewett responded “Well, you had to move around people like that.” But what undoubtedly happened is that Bishop was represented as a person known to exist rather than as Veciana’s purported CIA handler. When directly asked if she knew “Bishop,” Prewett denied it. She also denied knowing Phillips which was undoubtedly not true.13 But this white lie was likely told to protect her relationship with Phillips after she realized where the interrogation by Summers was heading.

As it turns out, Cao’s statements to Summers are rendered worthless by the fact that she was contacted by Veciana before Summers’ visit. This reality was made public by none other than Fonzi himself. According to Fonzi, shortly before the HSCA wrapped up its work, he called Veciana to discuss the idea of Cao making a statement before the HSCA to verify his allegations. Veciana was amenable to the idea and then contacted Cao who said that she would cooperate provided her identity would not be revealed and she would not have to go to Washington. Ultimately, Fonzi was unable to convince the HSCA to allow him to go to Puerto Rico and the idea was scrapped.14 Later, Summers spoke with Cao who confirmed that Veciana had called her.15 Obviously, Veciana likely told Cao exactly what the questions would be about and how to answer. And this would not be the first time that Veciana had coached a witness. That honor goes to Veciana’s attempted coercion of Jose Ramon Lopez before his testimony in Veciana’s narcotics trial.

When Conspiracy was initially released in Great Britain, a companion article with excerpts from the book repeating the Bishop allegations was published in the London Observer. Phillips successfully sued that publication and received a “substantial” sum along with a public retraction of the accusations. Before that legal judgement, Phillips had the opportunity to confront Summers on the Today show in a segment hosted by Tom Brokaw in 1980. “Welcome to America,” Phillips greeted the Irish-born Summers. “I accuse you of assassination,” Phillips said to open the debate. “The dictionary tells us there are two definitions of that. One is killing people and the other is viciously denigrating a person, as in to assassinate a man’s character,” Phillips maintained.

Phillips went on to point out that Summers’ book “cajoles” the reader to believe that “I was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination.” “I think you owe me the answer to three questions” Phillips insisted. “One. You say you interviewed all the relevant witnesses. Mr. Summers, why didn’t you interview me?” Phillips’ second query was if Fonzi had collaborated with him on his book. Finally, Phillips said, “I ask you to explain what you don’t say in this book. What was Mr. Veciana doing during 1974 and 1975?”

Summers answered the first question by saying that he had “merely indicated” that there might be a connection between Bishop and Oswald. But in the retraction by Summers and his publisher after they lost the Observer suit, he was forced to concede that his assertions, “could unfortunately be read as suggesting that Mr. Phillips was himself involved in a conspiracy relating to the assassination of President Kennedy and the suppression of evidence about it.” Regarding the second question as to why Summers did not give Phillips a chance to defend himself, he claimed that it was because his name had not “surfaced publicly.” But Summers had been communicating with both Fonzi and Veciana since 1978 and knew full well of the alleged Phillips-Bishop connection that Fonzi had been pursuing since 1976.16

In reply to Phillips’ final question, Summers had to admit that Veciana was “serving time in a federal prison,” but he maintained he omitted that information from his book because the HSCA had not included it in their report. Phillips countered that it was in the report, to which Summers unconvincingly replied that it was in the appendix only and not the “primary” report. Phillips went on to point out that Veciana’s contention that the CIA may have been responsible for his drug conviction was a “motivation” for him to speak to Fonzi. Summers countered that the “congressional” report stated that Veciana lied when he said that Phillips was not Bishop to “protect the officer from exposure.” Of course, Fonzi wrote the HSCA Volume X appendix report and this opinion was held within the HSCA only by him and a few like-minded investigators.

Toward the end of the debate, Phillips, as he often did in his public speeches, used an entertaining analogy to advantage. “I find myself in the position of having to prove a negative” he told Summers. “I’m a writer too. I’ve written three books. Now, let’s say that I have a theory and the theory is that Willard Scott’s [a portly weatherman at the Today show] job here, it’s really just a cover. Willard Scott is Santa Claus. So, if I write a dishonest book, I can convince a lot of people that Willard Scott gets thin and goes down chimneys.” A little later, Phillips quipped, “Mr. Summers, you have not accused me of taking dimes from parking meters.” To end the debate, Phillips alluded to the legal case he was no doubt already contemplating, “Goodbye Mr. Summers. We’ll be seeing each other again.”

As a postscript to the Phillips-Summers rivalry, Summers finally did phone Phillips to question him “directly.” Summers told Phillips that the Today show debate was an “unfortunate way for us to meet for the first time” and admitted to “some nervousness.” The question Summers most wanted to ask Phillips, of course, was about Bishop. “… Any intimation that I am Maurice Bishop or connected in any way,” Phillips insisted, “is an outrageous accusation and I deny it completely … And I think that’s about all I have to say.”17

Another dubious allegation that remains popular with theorists was promoted by both Summers and Fonzi. In the early eighties, (several years after Veciana’s Maurice Bishop story had become public knowledge) author and journalist Jim Hougan conducted an interview with Frank Terpil for a PBS documentary. Terpil was a former CIA contract employee turned arms dealer. Hougan says that Terpil told him that he had met Phillips, who was in the company of journalist Hal Hendrix, in Miami in the sixties while dating Hendrix’s daughter Kathy.18 Terpil went on to claim that Phillips did not use his real name but instead used the alias “Bishop.” Terpil maintained that he had found out “Bishop” was Phillips by running his name through a “security index” at CIA headquarters. Though Hougan admits that Terpil is “capable of lying” he adds “I believe him about this.”

Hougan attempted to get confirmation for the story by contacting Kathy Hendrix. “She wasn’t very helpful,” he recalled. “She was quite guarded on the phone and said that she couldn’t recall if she’d dated Terpil. It was possible that she’d met him, but … she just couldn’t recall,” Hougan wrote.

There are several problems with Terpil’s allegations and the first arises from his own unsavory character. According to Joseph Goulden and Alexander Raffio, whose book The Death Merchant chronicled Terpil’s criminal career, Terpil “worked in the torture chambers” of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and sold weapons to “anyone with the asking price.”19 But it was not just Terpil’s penchant for illegal activities that made his accusations suspect. He also had an “ample supply” of “bullshit” according to Raffio.20 “Terpil told his lies so often and in such intimate detail and in so convincing a manner that in time he perhaps came to believe them himself,” Goulden and Raffio wrote.21

If one is to believe Terpil, he did something that the CIA could not accomplish in two separate agency computer checks requested by the HSCA—discovered that Phillips was using the alias Maurice Bishop. Moreover, it is doubtful that Terpil, who reportedly was a low-level communications technician during his CIA tenure, would even be able to run such a name check on Phillips.22 Terpil, who split his time between smuggling activities and his CIA duties, was fired in 1971 for being absent without permission during the outbreak of the India-Pakistan war.23

Finally, Terpil had a reason to make up the allegation as some theorists clearly knew but chose to ignore. During the PBS interview, Terpil returned again and again to the subject of Phillips and the AFIO. Finally, Hougan asked Terpil why he was “going on and on about Phillips,” suspecting that he had “some kind of grudge” against him. It turns out that Terpil believed the common myth that Phillips’ retirement from the CIA was “phony” and that he continued to work for the agency in secret. Was Terpil’s disdain for Phillips personal or political Hougan wondered? “Political,” Terpil replied. Whatever the reason, Terpil undoubtedly disliked Phillips and therefore had a motive to make up the fishy tale he related to Hougan.

On June 25, 1980, a press conference was held in Washington at the Methodist Church on Maryland Avenue. Present, among others, were Donald Freed, an American author and left-wing activist, Fred Landis, a Political Science teacher at Cal State Los Angeles and William F. Pepper, an attorney and advocate for the innocence of James Earl Ray. An invited media audience was told that Phillips headed a conspiracy to cover up facts concerning the assassination of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and a colleague Ronni Moffitt in September of 1976. Additionally, Phillips, other ex-intelligence officers and the AFIO institutionally were accused of several crimes. The allegations were made orally and in printed material distributed at the press conference. Letelier, who had served in the administration of Marxist President Salvador Allende, had spent time in the concentration camp of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who overthrew Allende in a coup.

In October 1980, Freed and Landis published the book Death in Washington which repeated and elaborated on the allegations against Phillips, other former intelligence officers, and the AFIO. Freed and Landis accused Phillips of the following crimes in the period after he retired from the CIA:

  • Obstruction of justice.
  • Accessory after the fact to murder.
  • Accessory before the fact to murder.
  • Conspiracy to defame.
  • Acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

Furthermore, the book contained a photograph of Phillips, captioned "The Other Lee Harvey Oswald." Phillips, who called the book “grotesque,” filed suit on October 23, 1981 against Freed, Landis, Pepper and publishers Lawrence Hill and his wife Gertrude.24 In 1986, Phillips won an undisclosed monetary settlement and a retraction from the authors and the publisher.25 As early as 1978, it was revealed that a man named Michael Townley, an agent of Chile’s National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), masterminded a murderous conspiracy against Letelier involving three high-level Chilean intelligence officials and five anti-Castro Cubans.26 Nevertheless, these facts have not stopped theorists, including Fonzi, from suggesting that Phillips was still somehow involved in the crime.

The Letelier matter was one area that Fonzi did not address until the publication of his 1993 book. Fonzi began his smear campaign by trying to link Phillips to anti-Castro terrorists who attended a December 1974 meeting with DINA in Santiago. Allegedly at the meeting was Fonzi favorite Luis Posada who he says was an “operative” of Phillips and worked “closely” with him in Chile.27 Fonzi offers no source for this assertion (his book lacks citations completely), but it is clear he is referring to Phillips’ congressional testimony. However, in that testimony, while Phillips admitted to “working” with Posada, he thought that he was a “Cuban in Mexico City” who ran the “Cuban refugee center” as opposed to a secret agent in Chile. Only later, after being prompted by the interviewer did Phillips say that it was “quite possible” that he worked with Posada in Chile but never characterized the relationship as that of an asset and handler and certainly did not describe it as close.

Next, Fonzi literally borrowed a page from the thoroughly discredited book of Freed and Landis. While he admits that Phillips was retired by the time of the Letelier attack, he maintains that Phillips’ position with the AFIO gave him a better opportunity to do the agency’s dirty work. Fonzi’s sole evidence for this bold assertion is his speculation that Phillips maintained a relationship with former JMWAVE chief Ted Shackley who was then Associate Deputy Director of Operations for the agency. Fonzi evidently assumed that Shackley had nothing better to do than provide Phillips with updates on current CIA projects. Fonzi next turned to media stories by alleged CIA assets immediately following the Letelier assassination.28 One of these was a piece by Phillips’ friend Jeremiah O’Leary of the Washington Star who wrote, “Probers are not ruling out the theory that Letelier might just as well have been killed by leftist extremists to create a martyr as by rightist conspirators.”

While there is no question that O’Leary was willing to give play to right-of-center ideas, there is every indication that he was a fair-minded correspondent interested in the truth. Fonzi himself writes about a group of “dedicated” people who went against the tide to pursue the Letelier case. One of those individuals was none other than Jeremiah O’Leary. The “break” in the Letelier case, as author Peter Kornbluh termed it, came when O’Leary published a passport photo of “Juan Williams” on the front page of his paper. Williams was an alias that Michael Townley used when trying to obtain a US visa in Paraguay. After publication of the photos, which O’Leary had obtained from the FBI, Townley was quickly identified and ultimately extradited to the US to face justice.29

Also privy to Fonzi’s scrutiny was perennial conspiracy villain Virginia Prewett who he said penned a “diatribe” against the Washington media for originally assuming that the Chilean generals and DINA bore responsibility in the Letelier case.30 But Prewett's belief that Santiago was not involved was not an isolated one. In the days before the 2001 9/11 attacks, such an act of terrorism by foreign agents on American soil was unprecedented. Indeed, the Defense Intelligence Agency, known for its “accurate” assessments of such situations according to Peter Kornbluh, said it was “difficult to pin the blame on Santiago” since it believed that there was an eighty percent chance that the reach of DINA did not extend into the United States.

Fonzi next tried to tie Phillips directly to the mastermind of the attack Michael Townley by claiming that Phillips knew Townley’s father. But the fact that Phillips may have known J. Vernon Townley, who as an executive for Ford Motor Company possessed a high profile in Chile, proves nothing. Fonzi then tantalized his readers with news of the first piece of “real” evidence of Phillips’ continuation of intelligence activities following his retirement. This “evidence” came from Saul Landau, a senior fellow at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and a friend of Letelier. According to Landau, Phillips had obtained documents from a briefcase owned by Letelier that was found at the scene of the bombing by a Washington homicide detective who was friendly with the former CIA man. After obtaining copies of the documents, Phillips allegedly busied himself distributing them to his media assets. Some of the documents showed a relationship between Letelier and Salvador Allende’s daughter Beatriz who was living in Cuba which Fonzi said Phillips’ assets “distorted” for their own purposes.31

But Landau was not finished with Phillips. The IPS man believed that Phillips’ involvement went beyond simple misinformation. Landau maintained that the CIA had advance knowledge of the Letelier bombing and did nothing to stop it. Landau also assumed that the mothballed Phillips would somehow be in possession of the same guilty knowledge. Fonzi then tried to put the icing on the cake by relating a conversation between Phillips and CIA whistleblower John Marks in which Phillips promised to help provide any information he might come across that would help to solve the case. Fonzi sarcastically implied that Phillips was lying to Marks.32

Ultimately, the evidence tying Phillips to the Letelier case is provably non-existent. In 1980, Landau wrote a book with John Dinges called Assassination on Embassy Row about the Letelier case which was well received. One would imagine that such a detailed book on the Letelier murder would include the “evidence” that would support Landau’s eariler contentions regarding Phillips’ complicity in the dissemination of documents and his foreknowledge of the crime. But anyone can go to Google Books and search the most recent eBook version of Landau and Dinges’ work. The name “Phillips” is nowhere to be found and the same can be said for the “evidence” of Phillips’ involvement in the Letelier matter.


Notes

1. Letter from Harold Weisberg to Len Matthews, September 11, 1996. Courtesy of the Weisberg Collection, Hood College.
2. Fonzi-Veciana Interview I.
3. HSCA Executive Session Testimony of Antonio Veciana, April 26, 1978, 9-10. RIF 180-10118-10145.
4. HSCA Executive Session Testimony of Antonio Veciana, April 26, 1978, 14-19. RIF 180-10118-10145.
5. Newman, Into the Storm, 84.
6. Summers, Not in Your Lifetime, 440.
7. Summers, Not in Your Lifetime, 440-441.
8. Dorril, “Afterword: the search for ‘Maurice Bishop’.”
9. Summers, Not in Your Lifetime, 441.
10. “Virginia P. Mizelle Services Set.” The Tennessean, April 12, 1988, 10; “Miss Prewett to Address Grads.” The Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro, TN), May 24, 1968, 1; https://spartacus-educational.com/JFKprewitt.htm.
11. Waller, Wild Bill Donovan, 281.
12. Veciana and Vazquez, “Just Give Us Arms.” NANA, April 7, 1963.
13. Dorril, “Afterword: the search for ‘Maurice Bishop’.”
14. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 317.
15. Newman, Into the Storm, 84.
16. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 317.
17. Transcript of telephone conversation between Anthony Summers and David Phillips, 1981.
18. There have been a few versions of the story. The information here comes from a post that Hougan made on a JFK email group unless otherwise indicated and is used with his permission.
19. Goulden with Raffio, The Death Merchant, 96.
20. Goulden with Raffio, The Death Merchant, 95.
21. Goulden with Raffio, The Death Merchant, 97.
22. Goulden with Raffio, The Death Merchant, 97.
23. Goulden with Raffio, The Death Merchant, 99.
24. “Ex-Agent Files 120-Million Libel Suit Against Publisher.” Publisher’s Weekly, November 13, 1981.
25. https://www.jfk-online.com/dapweekly.html. Another Freed allegation that is still repeated (most recently by Bill Simpich) is that Phillips created a “quartered man” legend that was based on a torso found at the National Soccer Stadium in Chile. Phillips “skillfully” turned this into a meme about leftist plans to “decapitate the Chilean military.” But Simpich admits that Freed was forced to retract the allegation after Phillips’ successful lawsuit. But this didn’t stop Freed from authoring a play called “The Quartered Man” which essentially resurrected the assertion (Simpich, State Secret, Conclusion).
26. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 405. In 2015, it was revealed that Letelier’s killing was ordered by Pinochet himself (Jonathan Franklin. “Pinochet Directly Ordered Killing on US Soil of Chilean Diplomat Papers Reveal.” The Guardian, October 8, 2015).
27. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 344.
28. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 345-347.
29. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 405.
30. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 347.
31. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 348-349. Although Landau and Fonzi’s proof of Phillips’ complicity in the Letelier matter was imaginary, the briefcase documents were real and caused an unresolved controversy. Letters showed that Beatriz Allende was subsidizing Letelier’s anti-Pinochet activities to the tune of $1000 a month including a $5000 lump payment. The problem was that Allende was living in Cuba and married to an intelligence officer. These facts sparked charges from journalists such as Robert Novak and Rowland Evans that Letelier was really a communist agent on the payroll of the Castro government. Letelier supporters like Landau insisted that the funds came from the Chilean Socialist Party while the critics maintained that Castro would have had to be aware of the transfer of funds between Allende and Letelier. Critics also charged that Congressman Michael Harrington of Massachusetts was receiving money from the Letelier fund (Evans Witt. “Letelier: An Exile or a Red Agent?” The Associated Press, July 20, 1977).
32. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, 349-352.

0 comments:

Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger.