Monday, 17 September 2012


My obituary of Gaeton Fonzi, investigative reporter, researcher, and author of one of the very best books on the JFK assassination, is in today's Independent. I've reprinted it below because, sadly, there were two crucial typos in the piece as printed: the second counsel to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was G. Robert Blakey, not Blakely as appears in the first reference, and 1979 was 15 years after the Warren Report', not 25. I feel incredibly embarrassed, and tried to get them corrected on the web page, but the 25 years remains.

Back where the stupid errors are corrected but the big ones stay, oddly enough, the New York Times obit of Fonzi, which insisted on repeatedly calling him an 'Ahab', used Blakey for its main quotes. This is odd because Blakey is the figure most heavily criticised in Fonzi's The Last Assassination, which is part research on the JFK assassination and part analysis of how and why the HSCA failed to do its job.

Fonzi's book might be thought of as the start of the 'second wave' of volumes about the assassinations--building on the research done by any number of writers, which showed clearly the flaws in the Warren Report, and the case for a conspiracy, but were usually vague about identifying who was behind it and how it actually worked.

But if you read Fonzi's book, John Newman's Oswald And The CIA, James Douglass' JFK And The Unspeakable (you can link to my essay on that book, which I wrote for Lobster magazine, here), and the LaFontaines' Oswald Talked, you get a very clear picture of the involvement of at least elements of various intelligence agencies, and the way in which the need to cover that involvement up would drive the institutions involve to collude after the fact to protect the actual plotters, even if they were not acting 'officially'.

Like many of the assassination researchers, Fonzi came to his belief in a conspiracy through disillusionment with the official story. Unlike many of them, he was a true professional, a dogged journalist who got his information the old fashioned way, with face to face digging. That his work with HSCA got largely buried was a tragedy, which his book, too easily dismissed by the mainstream who would reflexively gush over the Gerald Posners of that world, could not set right. But his work after its publication was indefatigable, and deserved straightforward praise.

On 29 March 1979, nearly 15 years after the Warren Report was released, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) issued its own report, concluding President John Kennedy was 'probably' assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as part of a conspiracy. The committee's chief counsel, Robert Blakey, immediately announced, contrary to the report's own equivocations, 'the mob did it'. By accepting much of the flawed evidence of the Warren Report, and failing to reach any conclusions of its own, the HSCA report perpetuated the controversy that would not be addressed officially again until the public outcry arising from the Oliver Stone movie JFK.

Gaeton Fonzi, who has died aged, was a reporter hired as an investigator for HSCA, working primarily on connections between Cuban exile groups, and through them, American intelligence agencies, and the assassination. In 1993, in the wake of Stone's film and Gerald Posner's revisionist defence of the Warren Report, he published The Last Investigation, which combined trenchant analysis of the assassination itself with a revealing inside portrait of the machinations and politics behind the HSCA, which led to the failings of its report. It remains one of the very best works on the assassination, notable particularly for its restraint in making no assumptions and drawing no conclusions not backed by evidence. Its quality reflects Fonzi's undoubted skill as a journalist.

Fonzi's path to conspiracy theories grew from his background as an investigative reporter in Philadelphia, where he was born on 10 October 1935. He grew up in West New York, New Jersey, but returned to Philadelphia to study journalism and edit the daily paper at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his future wife Marie. After graduating he worked on the Delaware County Daily and served in the army, before joining Philadelphia Magazine in 1959 as a reporter and later editor. His most important work was a series, written with Greg Walter, exposing Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Harry Karafin, who extorted money from businessmen by threatening to write negative stories, claiming to be the 'hatchet man' of the Inquirer's powerful owner, Walter Annenberg. Annenberg's own use of the paper's power to advance Republican party candidates was later detailed in Fonzi's 1970 biography, Annenberg, but by the time it was published, Annenberg had already sold the Inquirer and been appointed by Richard Nixon as US Ambassador to Great Britain.

Fonzi originally accepted the conclusions of the Warren Report. But when Warren committee counsel Arlen Specter returned to Philadelphia to run for district attorney, he was a natural subject for interview. Fonzi came across an article by another Philadelphia lawyer, Vincent Salandria, who was among the first critics of the Warren Report, and in particular the 'single-bullet' or 'magic bullet' theory advanced by Specter. Fonzi studied the case, and then, shocked by Specter's inability to defend his findings convincingly, became a sceptic. In another piece for Philadelphia Magazine he called the Warren Report 'a deliberate lie.'

In 1972 he moved to Miami, where he edited Miami and Gold Coast magazines. In the wake of scandals surrounding the intelligence community, in 1975 the US Senate created what came to be known as the Church Committee, and Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker asked Fonzi to join as an investigator. It was a natural move two years later to HSCA, where he was hired by the committee's original counsel, yet another Philadelphia lawyer, Richard Sprague. As The Last Investigation details, Sprague's refusal to defer to the intelligence community, the CIA in particular, brought him into conflict with his committee heads, and he eventually resigned, to be replaced by Blakey.

The contacts between Oswald, purportedly a Castro supporter, and the violently anti-Castro Cuban exile community headquartered in Miami became a natural point of Fonzi's investigations. His crucial discovery was the testimony of Antonio Veciana, leader of the exile group Alpha 66. Veciana's CIA contact was a man he knew as 'Maurice Bishop', and in 1963, Veciana arrived in Dallas for a meeting with Bishop, to find him conferring with a man he later identified as Oswald. Fonzi was able to show Bishop was in reality David Atlee Phillips, who had also been the CIA's station chief in Mexico City when Oswald was purportedly filmed and recorded at the Soviet consulate there. Veciana would later survive an assassination attempt on him just at the time the HSCA report was released.

Fonzi's digging into the connections between Cuban exiles and their CIA handlers, as well as mob figures sometimes employed by the CIA, established beyond doubt a prima facie case for conspiracy, and with increasing likelihood, the reality that Oswald was indeed what he said he was, 'a patsy'. Frustrated by Blakey's failure to pursue these avenues, Fonzi wrote another scathing article for Philadelphia magazine in 1980, which formed the basis of his book, and became a leading figure in the assassination research community. He continued to write, for outlets as varied as the New York Times and Penthouse magazine, and served as a lecturer at a number of universities. His work was honoured by more than dozen awards, including the William Allen White, for investigative journalism, and the Mary Ferrell-JFK Lancer Pioneer award. He died 30 August 2012 at home in Satellite Beach, Florida, of complications from Parkinson's disease. He is survived by Marie and four children. At the end of The Last Investigation, he quotes Slyvia Odio, a key witness ignored and discredited by two government investigations. 'We lost,' she told him. 'We all lost'.

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