JFK, Donald Trump, Deep State
The Cold War Deep State was unified. Now power is fragmenting. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), JFK Library and US Government.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and particularly its aftermath, was the first in a series of high-profile events that triggered an increased level of distrust of government among Americans. The ripples from that day have now turned into a wave, author David Talbot argues.

Author and journalist David Talbot has spent years examining and writing about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its connection to broader US politics. In his conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman, he makes the case that the cynicism from decades of lies about JFK, Martin Luther King, Watergate, and many more seminal events in recent US history is to blame in part for the divisions and the distrust of government we are witnessing today.

In addition to the government, Talbot holds the mainstream media accountable for its refusal to see what’s under its nose. The net result is, according to Talbot, a mixed bag. On the one hand, he claims, the “deep state” is coming apart. The destruction that is washing over so many institutions, both public and private, has impacted the security state as well. The bad news is that while cracks allow light to shine in, it leaves no one in charge.

And both nature and authoritarianism abhor a vacuum.

Talbot talks specifically about what he’s going to be looking for in the thousands of pages of JFK documents, if and when they are all released, and where he thinks the threads may take us. He even thinks that, in a time when the president shooting someone on Fifth Avenue might only be a two-day story, when all the facts are out, people will care about who killed Kennedy and its broader implications for politics today.

David Talbot is the author of The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government. HarperCollins Publishers, 2015; The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (Free Press, 2012); Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (Free Press 2008); Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America (Pulp History) (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Today marks the release from the National Archives of the final tranche of documents related to the JFK assassination 54 years ago next month. Hundreds of thousands of pages will make their way into the public’s hands. This event marks not only the effort to answer questions about the assassination itself but equally about America then and now.
When fake news out of the White House is a daily occurrence, when “alternative facts” is a real thing, do we still even care about getting to the truth? And if we can get closer to it, as my guest, esteemed author and journalist David Talbott, has repeatedly tried to do, what will it tell us about America’s security apparatus and deep state then, and what relationship might it have to the same components of the military-security complex today?
David Talbot is an author, journalist, and media executive. He’s the founder and former CEO of Salon. He is the author most recently of The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. He’s been an editor for Mother Jones, the San Francisco Examiner, and written for Time, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone, among others. It is my pleasure to welcome David Talbot to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
David, thanks so much for joining us.
David Talbot: Good to be here. Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about with respect to the release of these documents and whatever they show and whatever comes out over the next few days and weeks and months is the context and how the public, how America will look at this today as opposed to the way it might have looked at it 10 years ago or even 8 years ago. Talk a little about that.
David Talbot: Well, in many ways the government’s failure and refusal to come clean about the Kennedy assassination, among other major traumas to this country, has resulted in this great cynicism, public cynicism about authority in this country and has led to the rise of Donald Trump and the whole notion that you can’t believe establishment media outlets and official voices, authoritative voices. So the New York Times and the Washington Post and the cable news networks love to trash Trump and his fake news, campaign, and the Russians and all that, but they really have failed to look at their own culpability in all this and why there has been such an erosion of public confidence over the last few decades in official sources of information.
Jeff Schechtman: And in that sense, can we look back to the cover-up surrounding the assassination, and Vietnam to a certain extent as well, as kind of the original sin that led us to where we are today?
David Talbot: Well, of course. The assassinations of not just President Kennedy but also Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, of Bobby Kennedy that never were really fully investigated to the public’s satisfaction. All the lies and the deception that went into the Vietnam War, and we’re seeing, of course, that brought back to life to Ken Burns’ recent series on PBS. Watergate, I don’t think we were ever told the full story there. 9/11, same thing. The widows of the victims of 9/11 have been pursuing, as you know, a lawsuit for many years now that finally may get to the courts because of their suspicions that the Saudi government was in some way connected to the hijackers, and our government agencies that are charged with protecting us mysteriously were absent that day.
So, look, there’s many, many, I think, dark areas of American power, and the American people instinctively know this. They instinctively have come to feel that they’re being lied to. Unfortunately now we have one of the biggest liars in chief in the White House, who’s exploiting this skepticism to his own advantage. But as I say, I think the liberal media and the government is largely responsible for this really unfortunate state of affairs today and the cynicism that we see.
But there’s good reason now to celebrate the release of these papers that many people have been fighting, these government documents related to the Kennedy presidency, have been fighting literally for decades to get released. And it’s just, I think, one more strange twist in our current situation in this country where Trump is playing, it seems, something of a heroic role, not bending to the CIA, and agreeing to go along with the law that required the final release of these documents today.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you think caused Trump and/or others around him to go along with this?
David Talbot: Well, look, Trump, it’s no secret it is, I think, has been in collision in many ways with the power centers in this country, with his own Republican Party, with the CIA, with the FBI, with these agencies that have been investigating him for collusion with Russia and so on. He feels he’s at war with his own government to some extent, and I think the deep state that I studied, Jeff, and I wrote about in my book The Devil’s Chessboard, which was largely the post-war period, the Cold War period, that deep state was a much more unified entity than we see today. I think power in this country now is fragmenting because of all the pressures and all the tensions that have been building up in our society, and I don’t think you can talk about a one deep state at this point, the hidden power in America. I think it’s very fragmented. Things are coming apart in this country every day.
And so in a sense that’s good because as Leonard Cohen once sang, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So there is, I think, now stuff seeping out because Washington is at war with itself. There’s leaks, there’s people going public you never thought would, there’s open warfare between agencies, between the White House and much of the rest of the government. Steve Bannon is out there trying to remake the Republican Party and destroy the Republican establishment. So you have a kind of chaotic free-for-all in the world of power now that’s fascinating to watch, a little terrifying in some ways because you don’t know what we’re going to end up with. Could it be even worse? But in the meantime you have these kind of flukes that are happening like the release of the Kennedy papers, and Donald Trump gets credit for that.
Partly because I think it’s whoever Trump listened to last, and I think he’s been listening to Roger Stone, who’s been a longtime advisor, and Roger Stone happens to believe that there was a conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, and he’s written a book about this putting the blame on President Johnson. I think he’s not altogether correct in his analysis, but at least he’s there I guess, it seems like, inside the Trump circle pushing and convincing Trump to do the right thing, which he did today.
Jeff Schechtman: As all of this kind of creative destruction is going on within the body politic, the kind that we’re seeing in so many other aspects of our society, what impact is it having as you see it on journalism, and what’s the plus and minus of that destruction as it relates to journalism today?
David Talbot: Well, you know, I have to say, as I look at mainstream journalism — at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the cable news operations — I do so with great dismay. They have their obsessions, their fixations, Russia of course being one of them, blaming Russia for everything that’s gone awry in our political system, which I think is absurd. And it also sort of plays to some of the worst impulses in our national security state. If you turn on your Rachel Maddow, you turn on MSNBC or CNN every night, you see this parade of spooks and spies, of military figures, of people who work for military think tanks, ex-national security officials in the Obama and Clinton administrations. I mean, it’s all national security all the time, and that’s … We’re getting that perspective on Trump.
Well, that’s partly valid, but those of us who were hoping for some kind of coup or some kind of strongman response to Trump to correct him, that hope is in vain, and we clearly saw this last week when General Kelly got up in front of the nation at the press conference and was terrifying. He lied to the American people. He celebrated a kind of a military elite, saying that unless you were a part of this 1% military elite you don’t get to criticize official policy, basically, and was kind of… gave a pretty frightening authoritarian performance. And as I blogged in my Facebook page, that … And you see that press conference last week of General Kelly, this square-jawed guy who the New York Times and all the liberal media were celebrating just weeks before as some kind of check and balance on Trump, and now suddenly you see what the face of American authoritarianism is like.
So be careful what you wish for. We are in this chaotic situation. Trump and the white nationalists, the Steve Bannon faction or whatever you call that, a very now emboldened military, U.S. military doing whatever it wants. Trump is basically surrounded by a junta at this point, the three generals, Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis. And we’re now finding that U.S. troops are popping up and dying in places that most Americans never knew even existed, like Niger in Africa. Where are we going to be next?
So I think in many ways American power has been completely let off the leash. We’re all over the planet at this point fighting, getting involved in battles and wars, and the deep state, sort of the grown-ups you would think would be sort of correcting Trump, I don’t think that’s happening. I think the deep state itself is very fragmented. And some good things are happening as a result. As I say, this fragmentation maybe we’re getting more leaks and more information about how power really works and about our own history, like the Kennedy assassination, which American people have been kept in the dark about for over a half a century, but by and large I find the developments lately in Washington pretty alarming.
Jeff Schechtman: And how does that relate in your view to developments that we see around the world, some that are similar in kind? And again, the same kind of fragmentation?
David Talbot: Well, I think the rest of the world is standing gobsmacked, jaw agape looking what’s happening in this country. And of course it’s starting to have an impact, I think, on our allies in Europe, and I think the vote recently in Austria for this young right-wing nationalist, anti-immigrant guy, is in some ways spillover from the U.S.
Certainly Bannon has that global perspective. He thinks that what the revolution that he’s trying to bring about in this country has a global kind of definition, and I think that was partly what they were trying to do with Russia, link up with sort of nationalist impulses there and declare war on Muslim … Basically religious crusade against Islam all around the world, which I also think is a frightening prospect. I mean, how do you declare war on the religion of over a billion people?
So, you know, I think the ideology that we’re seeing now in ascendance not just in this country but in Europe, perhaps in Russia as well, is frightening. And it’s an us-versus-them kind of militant ideology, and I think the generals who are around Trump seem to subscribe to it unfortunately, or at least to some extent, so I’m not sure who really the grown-ups are now in Washington. You have establishment Republicans like Sen. Flake and others bailing out of the Republican Party, and they’re getting great accolades for doing that in a principled way, but then who’s left? Why aren’t they standing and fighting? I don’t get that. So, kind of crazy and kind of alarming.
Jeff Schechtman: It also begs the question of who’s in charge, because along with this crack-up is the sense that nobody is really in charge.
David Talbot: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, as I say, the media has played a positive role in some ways, exposing some of the things that Trump has been doing every day under the surface: destroying our regulatory apparatus; destroying environmental protections; destroying our healthcare system and now with the tax system … I mean the tax proposals, pushing what will lead to even a further gaping gap between the rich and the poor in this country. We’re quickly being turned into a third-world nation, and he’s doing it all under the guise of populism. The guy’s a master showman, you have to give him that. Under the guise of populism he’s screwing the working people of this country, he’s screwing the poor, and he still has a very strong base among the disenfranchised white working class.
So that’s very unfortunate, and the Democrats have kind of contributed to that by not putting forth strong populist candidates of their own but rather corporate centrist Democrats who aren’t connecting with the voters for obvious reasons. They feel sold out by those people, and they were sold out by the Clinton and Obama administrations in many ways.
So what we really need to do at this point is instead of just sitting and watching horrified as Steve Bannon revitalizes and radicalizes his party is to rejuvenate the Democratic Party. We have to, instead of just responding to Trump’s daily tweets — which he wants us to do, of course, and get all caught up in that meshugas — we have to really do the hard lifting and the hard work of reorganizing the Democratic Party along lines that connect it once again with the strong vision of economic and social justice to a majority of American people. And we need to do that with candidates who are brave and visionary, and I really think unless we do that this country is just going deeper and deeper into the hole it’s in now.
Jeff Schechtman: And that’s really the other part of this. The Democratic Party doesn’t seem to be on a path to do that, and arguably may not even be capable of doing that. And given that, what is the end point of all this? Where does it lead us? What do things look like five years from now? People talk about, “Oh, we’ll get back to normal.” Well that normal seems to be gone forever.
David Talbot: It certainly does. I would never have predicted how extreme and dire a predicament this country is now in. Most of us, I think, were sort of lulled to sleep by the Obama years thinking that the country’s sort of on the right path even though Obama seemed kind of powerless to do many of the things he wanted to do. And so it’s only going to get worse in the sense that you have a President who’s a crude … yet popular in many parts of this country. I know the poll numbers they keep citing show how low the numbers are. But on the other hand, he does have a solid, solid base. I’m not sure what the Democratic Party base is nationally at this point. It’s a lot of different groups out there. They’re all very angry and fearful, but they really haven’t coalesced, I think, yet into a movement that can take back this country.
And to do that you need, as I say, number one, a vision of what we stand for that’s in opposition, not just in opposition to Trump but what we stand for in a positive way that can take the country forward. And I think one of those things, Jeff, it’s not just talking about economic justice and the social issues that the Democratic Party is known for and deserves credit for, but we need to have a vision now about America’s place in the world where we’re not permanently at war, where we’re not this kind of flailing imperial power that just can’t stop getting involved in one country after the next. That’s what my books really go deeply into: this security state, the security apparatus built around this growing militarized economy, and this militarized bureaucracy in Washington that has really taken over our democracy.
And this began with World War II, and it just ballooned after that. President Eisenhower warned young President Kennedy coming into office and the rest of the nation about the military-industrial complex. I think that military-industrial complex, as I document in my book, took out President Kennedy once he opposed them and tried to limit their power. And ever since then no President has been courageous or brave enough to take on this growing power in our country of militarism and imperialism. It really has, I think, subverted and destroyed our democracy to the point where we can’t even think of a national leader. Not even Bernie Sanders in his campaign, which was so thrilling in many ways, but not even he made America’s ballooning defense budget, military budget, and militarism and all these overseas engagements, he didn’t make that a primary part of his campaign. I think the last person to do that was probably Bobby Kennedy when he challenged the Vietnam War and the rise of militarism in this country when he ran for President in 1968, and he too was assassinated.
So this is a very powerful force. I call it sort of the … It’s the power of death and greed, really, that has taken hold of this country. Martin Luther King warned us about it when he said any country that year after year spends more money on killing people and its military budget than on educating its people and other social needs is in danger of spiritual death. And I think in many ways that’s what we’re experiencing now, a country that’s run by a crude lunatic who seems to have no humane values surrounded by square-jawed generals who want to keep us permanently at war. That is a country in spiritual death.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that there’s anything that’s going to come out in these JFK papers that will be kind of wake-up call to some of this?
David Talbot: Yes, I do. And you … you have all these New York Times stories coming out saying, “Well, experts say there’ll be nothing in this.” The experts they keep citing are people like Max Holland, who’s a historian whose scholarship has been given awards and been celebrated by the CIA. These are … Or Gerald Posner who wrote a bestseller called Case Closed saying, “Lee Harvey Oswald did it. Case closed. Go home, folks.” These are the experts the New York Times keep citing when they write about the release of the JFK documents.
Now, will there be bombshells in this? No. Because look, these documents have been kept in CIA vaults and other agencies, FBI and so on, for decades, so they have been pored over. They’ve been cleansed to great extent probably. But I do know for a fact that there are some documents that are not bombshells but certainly are pieces of the puzzle that we need to look at.
And I’ll give you an example. So one of the prime suspects in the Kennedy assassination for many years was the head of the assassination department for the CIA, a guy named William Harvey, a Kennedy hater who fell afoul of the Kennedys, and he was a chief suspect of the House Select Committee on Assassinations when they did their work on the case back in the 1970s. And by the way, Jeff, that was the last official government word on the Kennedy assassination, from that congressional committee, not the Warren Report back in 1964. And what the House Assassinations Committee found was that JFK died as a result of a conspiracy. That was their official determination. And one of the key guys they looked at was this guy William Harvey.
So Harvey as a result of sort of being pushed out by Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis when he did something incredibly provocative, which was to send raiding teams into Cuba at the height of this nuclear crisis, he was about to be fired from the CIA and the CIA protected him by sending him to Rome, where he became the Rome station chief in 1963, in summer of ’63. Well, I learned from doing my own research for The Devil’s Chessboard that his deputy there, a very good, conscientious CIA official named Mark Wyatt, saw Harvey on a plane to Dallas not long before the assassination, and he was surprised that he would be flying from Rome to Dallas of all places. And he said, “Why you going there?” And he said, “Just to look around.” Very evasive.
I believe that Harvey played — as do other people, not just his own deputy, Mark Wyatt, but a number of investigators for Congress and others — that he did play a key role in the assassination, perhaps recruiting the actual snipers who shot and killed the President. And so I, through an attorney who actually worked for the House Assassinations Committee, a man named Dan Hardway, filed a lawsuit through Freedom of Information Act demanding the travel records, which the CIA has, of Bill Harvey. Did he indeed go back from Rome to the U.S. at any point shortly before the assassination? I found indeed that he did make a request, official request within the CIA, to fly to the U.S. from Rome.
Now, there’s more records that they’ve withheld. They’ve refused to reveal, to divulge, the rest of these travel records related to Bill Harvey, the top assassination official for the CIA at that time. Why aren’t they releasing his travel records? If there’s nothing there that is incriminating, or if there is something incriminating, the American people have the right to know where Bill Harvey was in the weeks and months before Dallas, November 22nd, 1963. So there are documents within the CIA vaults that should be coming out, and if they’re not in this document release today — I’m going to have people looking over it who are very knowledgeable to see if there’s anything more — then we need to keep pushing the CIA and other agencies to reveal these documents.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you think all of this, assuming all of this comes out, how do you think this will play in the public consciousness? Will it make any difference?
David Talbot: I think it will. I mean, people say that’s another sort of thing meant to suppress public fervor about this is that, “Oh, it’s over 50 years old. It’s ancient history.” I just don’t think that’s true. I know certainly for my generation, and I’m 66 now, we certainly have a visceral connection to that time. We can remember what it felt on November 22nd when you were in school and you were told the President was killed, and coming home and watching television as Lee Harvey Oswald is shot in the gut by this guy who looks like a gangster, Jack Ruby—and was a gangster it turns out—on national television. We have a kind of a visceral memory of this. But even people who are younger, like my own sons who are in their 20s or other young people I talk to, they know how important JFK was on some level to this country and how he represented a new path and someone who was trying to lead the country toward a more peaceful world, and a world that was … honored diversity and other countries and their own aspirations for freedom.
And so there’s a gut sense that, “Hm, this guy was kind of a leader ahead of his time, and he was killed, and he was probably killed for a reason.” And so even young people want to know what the full story is there. Because I think it connects to their own sense that something has gone terribly wrong in our country today, and where did we go off the rails? At what point? And certainly I think we have to see November 22nd, 1963, as one of the key times that this country went off the rails.
Jeff Schechtman: And how do you see mainstream journalism covering the story of the release of this information?
David Talbot: It’s appalling. the New York Times has done, I guess, two or three stories now about the release, and each one is just as appalling as the next. They only go to historians or so-called experts who have a … who are wedded to the idea, the Warren Report conclusion, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. They treat any other kind of skepticism about this as a fringe kind of idea. This is absurd.
As I posted in Facebook today, among the other major public figures who believe there was a high-level domestic political conspiracy to kill JFK, were the President’s own brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who was Attorney General at the time, by the way; the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy; Richard Nixon; the President of France, Charles de Gaulle; the man who created 60 Minutes, the preeminent investigative broadcasting operation, Don Hewitt, someone I interviewed, by the way, for my earlier book Brothers about the Kennedys; President Truman, who suspected the CIA probably was involved; President Eisenhower was suspicious; the Senator Gary Hart and Richard Schweiker from the Church Committee, which investigated CIA abuses in the 1970s; Theodore Sorenson, JFK’s speechwriter who created some of these beautiful speeches we know today; many other Robert Kennedy aides and John F. Kennedy aides who I personally interviewed. They all believed there was a conspiracy, and they all were whispering this among themselves but were too afraid to go public with it.
And so it’s only now through the work of historians like myself that we’re knowing that the media and the political establishments in this country all basically had a sense of what happened in Dallas and yet were too frightened, too concerned about their own careers or their own lives, to do anything about it. And the media has played a truly, I think, reprehensible role in all this, and basically I say it’s like a nanny who says, “Look, your fears are misguided. There’s no monsters under the bed. American people, go back to sleep.” Again and again that’s their role, when many people in the media like Don Hewitt, as I said the creator of the 60 Minutes program, knew basically what really happened there. He told me in an interview that he knew the CIA and the mafia were involved. And I asked him why 60 Minutes never pursued it, and he said, “Well, we could never nail down the story.” But I knew the real reason, and he did, too, that it would have ended his career if he did something like that.
So that’s still to this day, 54 years later, the fear that these people in the media have, that they’ll be painted as a conspiracy freak. And by the way, that whole term, that whole strategy of smearing people as conspiracy nuts was developed by the CIA itself. There’s a memo that was leaked, a memo from 1967 in which one of the high-level CIA officials advises officials throughout the CIA network that here’s the way to rebut the people who say the Warren Report is wrong, and he says one of the key ways of doing this is to smear these people as conspiracy nuts. So this has been used for years to silence people in the media, to make them fear for their careers, and it’s been very effective.
But my feeling is that 54 years later if you didn’t have the courage to really dig into this monumental crime yourself and get at the bottom of it and all you do is keep parroting the line that the Warren Report got it right, then you shouldn’t be a journalist.
Jeff Schechtman: David Talbot. I thank you so much for spending time with us today on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
David Talbot: It was my pleasure, Jeff. Thank you very much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from David Talbot (David Talbot / Twitter) and National Archives (Bossi / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0).


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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