Friday, 27 September 2013 12:33

"Shoot Him Down": NBC, the CIA and Jim Garrison

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Author William Davy writes about how NBC and the CIA worked in tandem to discredit JFK assassination investigator Jim Garrison.

Jim Garrison

With the arrival of the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, it was hardly surprising that one of the major television networks attempted to make the case for Lee Oswald's sole guilt. Despite four decades of solid research indicating a conspiracy, the American viewing public was once again treated to a one-sided, unfair and unbalanced presentation. In light of this, it might be instructive to look at how one of the other networks tackled the case for conspiracy some 37 years ago. The mystery of the assassination is still a popular subject among people of all ages. A college student might not know how to ask a girl out, but you can bet they have strong opinions on the JFK assassination based solely on the network specials that run every so often.

On June 19th, 1967 NBC aired an hour long "analysis" of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's investigation titled, The JFK Conspiracy: The Case of Jim Garrison. While unnecessary to rehash Garrison's case here, in summary Garrison's investigation focused on three individuals: A former Eastern Airlines pilot and probable CIA asset, David Ferrie; ex-FBI man and private detective Guy Banister; and Managing Director of the International Trade Mart, Clay Shaw. Garrison believed all three were connected to American intelligence and had, at a minimum, conspired to set up Oswald as a potential patsy in the JFK assassination. Barely three months into his investigation, Garrison's main suspect, the forty-nine year old David Ferrie, died apparently of natural causes. Banister had also passed away in 1964 as a result of a heart attack. On March 1st, 1967 Garrison arrested the surviving member of this trio, the CIA connected Clay Shaw. By mid-March both the Grand Jury and a three-judge panel had ordered Shaw to trial.

Garrison's case was big news and predictably the news media swung into attack mode. None was more vicious or had more resources at their disposal than NBC. For the job as lead investigative reporter, NBC assigned Walter Sheridan. Shortly after Shaw's arrest Sheridan arrived in New Orleans and began questioning witnesses — perhaps bribing and intimidating would be a better choice of words. Sheridan questioned a former electronics expert and CIA asset Gordon Novel and immediately put him on a $500 a day retainer. (Novel had briefly consulted with Garrison's team). Sheridan then urged Novel to skip town to avoid being indicted and paid him an additional $750 while Novel was in Columbus Ohio. Attorney Dean Andrews, who received the call from a "Clay Bertrand" to represent Oswald, was promised a recording studio if he cooperated with Sheridan. Andrews was overheard bragging, "I can get the equipment here. All I have to do is make a phone call, I'll have open credit, I can pay off on any terms. Look, Bobby Sarnoff promised me those facilities. He'd better pay off, baby." Bobby Sarnoff was, of course, Robert Sarnoff, NBC president and later chairman of the board of its parent company RCA.

Garrison's main witness at the time was Perry Russo, a young insurance agent who had claimed he overheard a conspiratorial conversation between Shaw, Ferrie and Oswald at Ferrie's home. Sheridan "interviewed" Russo and seriously distorted his statements during the broadcast. As the New Orleans States-Item reported, "Russo said Sheridan, WDSU-TV reporter Richard Townley and Saturday Evening Post writer James Phelan repeatedly visited his home in attempts to persuade him to cooperate with NBC and the defense." Russo said he met with the trio with the full knowledge of the district attorney's office and reported everything that happened to Asst. DA Andrew Sciambra. Russo said, "Sheridan offered to set me up in California, protect my job and guarantee that Garrison would never get me extradited back to Louisiana" if he cooperated. He accused Townley of threatening him with public humiliation unless he changed his story and cooperated with the NBC program. The 25-year-old witness said members of the trio told him both, "NBC and the Central Intelligence Agency are out to wreck Garrison's investigation." Of course, Russo's accusations were met with denials, but as we shall see Russo's claims seem to have been accurate.

Another of Garrison's witnesses was Vernon Bundy, a heroin addict and prisoner who had testified at the preliminary hearing that he had seen Shaw and Oswald together at the Lake Pontchartrain seawall. Once Bundy had been exposed in the preliminary hearing, he was now fair game for Walter Sheridan and NBC. In their attempt to discredit Bundy, NBC aired interviews with two fellow convicts, Miguel Torres and John Cancler. Cancler, a convicted burglar and pimp, appeared first and said Bundy had told him he was going to lie to the DA's office to get out of prison. Torres, whose own record of heroin abuse, burglary, pimping, assault, and suspected murder out rivaled Cancler's, was currently serving a nine-year sentence for robbery. He said that Bundy told him he was going to make up a story about Shaw to get the DA to "cut him loose" from prison. After the airing of the NBC special, Garrison invited Messrs. Torres and Cancler to repeat their stories in front of the Grand Jury. Both pleaded the Fifth Amendment and were subsequently convicted of contempt. Another problem with Torres' story is his accusation that Bundy needed the DA to "cut him loose" from prison. In a recently released memorandum from the New Orleans DA's files, former aide William Gurvich wrote of his investigation of Bundy. Gurvich states, "Shortly after my interview with Bundy, I contacted local narcotics officers for background information on him. I also made an extensive inquiry into his criminal history." Of his heroin use Gurvich writes, "[Bundy] uses four or five capsules of heroin daily... This amount is considered sufficient for addiction, but is not an excessive amount as the more heavily addicted use as much as 20-30 capsules daily." Gurvich goes on to write "Bundy claimed he was in Parish Prison at the time because he went there voluntarily when he felt himself reverting back to the use of narcotics and feared the consequences of his addiction. Official records corroborate this." Bundy was on probation for breaking into a cigarette machine, but was not serving time. So much for Bundy needing to be "cut loose." Since NBC offered to relocate Perry Russo to California and provide him with a job if he changed his original testimony one can only imagine what incentives Sheridan offered Cancler and Torres.

Garrison's one time "aide", the aforementioned William Gurvich also assisted Sheridan having left the DA's office several weeks earlier. As Garrison noted shortly after the broadcast Gurvich didn't so much resign as "drift away about six weeks ago" and that since that time he had been in contact with Walter Sheridan. Gurvich also admittedly made off with the DA's master file. The CIA was so smitten with Gurvich that they wanted to make sure he was in touch with Shaw's lawyers. In their enthusiasm to give Shaw's lawyers all the help they could the CIA recommended:

Shaw's attorneys ought to talk to William H. GURVICH. This is an excellent suggestion. It is assumed they have done so, or plan to, but we should try to assure that they do.

One other witness Sheridan used makes for an interesting case study of Sheridan's abuse of power. Fred Leemans, the owner of a Turkish bath house in New Orleans, originally stated that Shaw had frequented his establishment using the name of Clay Bertrand. By the time Sheridan and company got to him, he went on the NBC special claiming he had been offered a $2500 bribe by one of Garrison's men in exchange for his incriminating testimony. After the NBC special had aired, Leemans came forward with the truth. In a sworn statement Leemans admitted that part of the reason he participated in the show was threatening phone calls "relative to the information that I had given Mr. Garrison." Leemans also recalled a visit from a man with a badge who stated that he was a government agent. The man supposedly told Leemans that the government was checking bar owners in the Slidell area for possible income tax violations. The man also warned him "it was not smart" to be involved in the Clay Shaw case "because a lot of people that had been involved got hurt." An anonymous caller told Leemans to change his statement and claim he had been bribed. The caller also suggested that Leemans contact Irvin Dymond, one of Shaw's attorneys. After contacting Dymond, Leemans was introduced to Walter Sheridan. Leemans claimed Dymond offered an attorney and bond in the event he was charged with giving false information to the DA's office. Leemans said his appearance on the show was taped in the office of Aaron Kohn, managing director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, in the presence of Sheridan and Dymond.

The newly released CIA files present an interesting biography of "reporter" Sheridan. In 1955 Sheridan was security approved as an investigator for the CIA. A month later this was cancelled because Sheridan accepted a position at the ultra-secret National Security Agency. In 1956 he was security approved once again by the CIA so that he could attend their "Basic Orientation Course". After leaving the NSA, Sheridan went to work for Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department in the "Get Hoffa" squad, where his tactics in nailing Hoffa earned him a rebuke from none other than Chief Justice Earl Warren and paved the way for Hoffa's eventual release. With this background in the intelligence communities Sheridan was now apparently qualified to work for NBC as a reporter, despite having no previous journalism experience. However, documents reveal that Sheridan did not sever contact with the CIA. In early May of 1967 the Counter Intelligence office of the CIA issued a memorandum for the Deputy Director of Plans which stated:

Richard Lansdale, Associate General Counsel, has advised us that NBC plans to do a derogatory TV special on Garrison and his probe of the Kennedy assassination; that NBC regards Garrison as a menace to the country and means to destroy him. The program is to be presented within the next few weeks. Mr. Lansdale learned this information from Mr. Walter Sheridan of NBC.]

As noted previously, during Sheridan's tenure in New Orleans he enlisted the aid of Richard Townley from NBC's affiliate, WDSU-TV. Townley's loose tongue offered further proof that the NBC White Paper was no more than a deliberate attempt to sabotage the investigation and to ruin Jim Garrison. A recently released FBI memo reads:

A local FBI agent reported that Richard Townley, WDSU-TV, New Orleans, remarked to a special agent of the New Orleans office last evening that he had received instructions from NBC, New York, to prepare a one hour TV special on Jim Garrison with the instruction "shoot him down."

After the program aired, Garrison petitioned the FCC who agreed that the program was biased and granted Garrison a 30-minute rebuttal to air on July 15 at 7:30 P.M. --- hardly equal time. Nevertheless, the NBC program aided greatly in the discreditation of the DA's office and potentially contaminated the Shaw jury pool.

In addition to the aforementioned Richard Townley, the local New Orleans news media seemed to have more than its fair share of newscasters willing to flack for the intelligence agencies. Ed Planer, also of WDSU, offered to share information he had relative to the Garrison probe with the FBI. Also reporting to the FBI was Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Palmisano. In a May 12th memo from the New Orleans office to Director Hoover, Palmisano stated that he had received information that NBC was planning a White Paper concerning Garrison and that this news special would destroy the credibility of Garrison's investigation.

As these repeated and obviously orchestrated attacks on the DA's office continued, Garrison decided to fight back. On July 7 Walter Sheridan was charged with four counts of public bribery and Richard Townley was charged with attempted bribery and intimidation of witnesses. Sheridan's New Orleans attorneys of record were Milton Brener, a former Assistant D.A. under Garrison, now vociferously anti-Garrison, and Edward Baldwin of Baldwin and Quaid. In May of 1967, Baldwin's partner James Quaid wrote a letter to Richard Helms, then Director of the CIA, requesting that the Agency place his name "on their referral list of qualified attorneys in this area." However, Sheridan's Washington representation is much more illuminating.

Herbert Miller was a former head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice who had worked closely with Walter Sheridan. In the aftermath of the assassination Miller was the Department of Justice's point man in Dallas coordinating the Justice, FBI and Texas investigations. After leaving the DOJ, Miller entered private practice in the Washington firm of Miller, McCarthy, Evans, and Cassidy --- the Evans in this case being former FBI Assistant Director Courtney Evans. In 1967 Miller went to work for the CIA representing the Agency's interests in the Hans Tofte case. (Tofte was a long-time CIA covert operative who worked in the Domestic Operations Division with his protégé, Tracy Barnes. In 1966 he was fired by the Agency for apparently hoarding classified material in his apartment.) While he was representing the CIA in the Tofte flap, Miller found time to interject himself into the Garrison investigation. On May 1, 1967, Miller began offering intelligence on the Garrison investigation to the CIA.

Later that week Miller called CIA Associate General Counsel Richard Lansdale to inform him of the expected arrival in Washington of Alvin Beauboeuf. Beauboeuf was one of assassination suspect David Ferrie's close friends, having accompanied him on his mad dash to Texas on the day of the assassination. Miller's source on Beauboeuf was Walter Sheridan. As Lansdale notes in his memo, "[the NBC special] is expected to 'bury' Garrison because everyone is convinced that Garrison is a wild and dangerous man." Miller went on to assure the CIA that "Beauboeuf would be glad to talk with us or help in any way we want." Garrison would note that after Beauboeuf's Washington trip "a change came over Beauboeuf; he refused to cooperate with us further and he made charges against my investigators."

To recap, we have evidence that NBC reporter Sheridan was providing intelligence on the Garrison investigation to a CIA lawyer, a situation that indicates certain sinister possibilities. In fact, recently declassified records show that Sheridan wasn't satisfied with solely presenting his own warped view of Garrison. A May 11th CIA memo reveals that Sheridan wanted to meet with the CIA "under any terms we propose" and that Sheridan desired to make the CIA's view of Garrison "a part of the background in the following NBC show."

While Sheridan's litigation was pending, Miller began doing double duty as a conduit between Shaw's lawyers and the CIA. In May of 1968 Miller wrote to the CIA's Lansdale:

Dear Dick:

Enclosed are the documents I received from Clay Shaw's attorney, Ed Wegmann.

Best Regards,

Herbert J. Miller, Jr.

The following month Miller provided the Agency with at least two more such packages.

Miller was certainly a very busy man during this time frame. While Miller was acting as a CIA courier for Shaw's lawyers and representing Walter Sheridan, he was also performing similar duties for Gordon Novel. While Novel was fighting extradition from Ohio, Miller came to his aid and was successful in getting an Ohio court to quash Garrison's subpoena. Miller also provided the CIA with the transcripts from Novel's civil suit against Garrison and Playboy. After Novel successfully avoided Garrison's extradition he sent a clipping to former CIA Director Allen Dulles. In his own handwritten marginalia to Dulles, Novel took great pride in Miller's victory, noting what a great job "Miller the Killer" did for him. It is interesting to note that the supposedly itinerant Novel now had four lawyers representing him: Miller, Stephen Plotkin, Jerry Weiner, and Elmer Gertz. Gertz, who had also represented Jack Ruby, was one of Novel's lawyers in his civil suit. When answering a list of interrogatories posed to him by Playboy's lawyers Novel stated that payment of legal fees to Weiner and Plotkin were "clandestinely remunerated by a party or parties unknown to me." It was later revealed to a Garrison investigator by a former member of the CIA that Plotkin was receiving his fees from the CIA via a cutout, Stephen Lemman. As for Miller, just a few short years after the Shaw trial ended, he represented President Richard Nixon as his post-resignation attorney.

What brings the Sheridan affair full circle is a friend of Sheridan's, one Carmine S. Bellino. Bellino was a former FBI agent and Kennedy insider who worked with Robert Kennedy on the McClellan Committee in the fifties and was brought on to Sheridan's "Get Hoffa" squad in the sixties. In 1954 Bellino actually shared his office with CIA/Mafia go-between, Robert Maheu. But what is troubling about the Bellino/Sheridan relationship is that Bellino once worked with none other than Guy Banister, performing background checks for the Remington Rand Corporation. In the seventies Bellino became an investigator on the Watergate Committee and did his best to steer the committee away from investigating any CIA involvement in the crime.

In a 1967 memo the CIA outlined several mass media approaches to counter Garrison's charges. One of their recommendations was to make sure that CIA Director Helms assure that various media outlets "receive a coherent picture of Garrison's 'facts' and motives. In anticipation of a trial, it would be prudent to have carefully selected channels of communication lined up in advance." Certainly the evidence above indicates that NBC was one such "channel."

Last modified on Sunday, 02 October 2016 20:22
William Davy

Bill Davy has been writing and researching the JFK case, with an emphasis on the Jim Garrison inquiry, since the early 1990s.  He became a contributor to Probe Magazine and then did a monograph on Clay Shaw.  That long essay turned into his fine book, Let Justice Be Done: New Light on the Jim Garrison Investigation.  Thereafter he continued to write essays and reviews for CTKA, and has also spoken at various conferences on the JFK case.

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