THE UNWILLING by John Hart (to be published in June, 2020)

To begin I would like to thank the representative from St. Martin’s Press for contacting me and asking me to review John Hart’s latest novel, THE UNWILLING before publication.  I found the novel to be an exceptional read with an intricate storyline, interesting characters, and a series of themes that directly and indirectly touch a range of human emotions.  The book should measure up to Hart’s previous thrillers which have won numerous awards, particularly two consecutive Edgar Awards.

The evocative novel begins with the release of Jason French from prison after serving two and a half years that followed three tours of duty in Vietnam.  Jason has been linked to drugs, guns, and rumor has it he killed 29 people in the war and possibly two more while at Lanesworth State Prison.  Jason is a broken man who comes from a somewhat dysfunctional family with an older brother Robert, the family favorite killed at Ke Sanh, and a younger brother, Gibson or “Gibby” who idolizes his brothers but has been kept in a protective bubble by his parents, particularly by his mother who is still grieving the loss of her first son and shuns Jason.  William French, the father is a detective for the Charlotte Police Department and is doing his best to maintain some sort of normality and in the end save his family.  He loves his sons equally but was distraught over his inability to communicate with his middle son who he feels he no longer knows.  He and his wife try to keep Gibby away from his brother, creating further resentment driving them closer together.

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(Author, John Hart)

The powerful novel explores the depths of human depravity.  These depths are a function of many things, but foremost in Hart’s mind is the Vietnam War and how it affected Jason French and turned him into something his reflection in the mirror could never condone.  Further, the novel reflects a father who has lost one son and perhaps another because of the war and as the story progresses, he fears he is about to lose his youngest.

Hart’s plot in part pits two men who cannot overcome their demons.  One, called X is a wealthy psychopath scheduled to be executed in a few months.  X uses his wealth as a vehicle to dominate a corrupt prison on the inside and through his tentacle’s certain lives on the outside.  Second, Jason French, a man shattered by war and a family destroyed by the same war who does not recognize how deep his emotional issues are and how to obtain help.  While imprisoned Jason was manipulated by X and did something to him that wants revenge against him and his family.  He will arrange a murder that implicates Jason resulting in his return to prison and the control that X fosters.  Gibby believes his brother has been abandoned and tries to locate the killer and in doing so becomes caught in X’s web that caused the death of another woman that is linked to Gibby.

Hart has a very tight conversational writing style that allows him to tell the story mostly through Gibby as narrator.  He has the ability to drill down into the core of each character presenting their flaws and upside.  He knows exactly when to shift the focus from one character to another as the thriller evolves and allows his plot to play out maintaining a sharp focus on keeping the reader glued to the written page.  If I were to compare Hart’s work with another author, Pat Conroy comes to mind, but without the inherent southern prose as well as the intensity of Greg Iles.  Further, he has been compared to John Grisham and Scott Turow but for me he has taken the genre of crime fiction to a new level.  In the end the best way to describe John Hart’s writing is that he is a master storyteller.

PURGATORY RIDGE by William Kent Krueger

Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday’s storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

William Kent Krueger has written another exceptional thriller in his third Cork O’Conner novel, PURGATORY RIDGE with the main character seemingly having righted his marriage and filled the voids that emerged in previous mysteries.  As he has done in his other works, he has combined the beauty of nature in northern Minnesota, reservation life and economics, and of course a work of fiction that produces angst and fear.  Krueger is a master of novels that run on a number of tracks.  In the present iteration of Cork O’Conner, the conflict between lumber interests and environmentalists dominates.  Further, the death of a young man who drowned along with many others in a shipping accident on Lake Superior explains a great deal of what transpires.  The question that immediately comes to mind is how the plight of white pine trees  known as Our Grandfathers by local Native-Americans, the tragedy of the “Alfred M. Teasdale,” and an explosion at the Lindstrom Lumber Company all fit together.

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The puzzle that Krueger offers reflects the animosity between logging interests represented by Lindstrom Lumber and the actions of environmental groups in the courts, demonstrations, and at times violence.  In this instance the loggers are opposed by the “Army of the Earth,” and on another level the conflict involves the interest of those who make their living from the logging industry against those of the Anishinaabe Indians on the Iron Lake Reservation.

Krueger returns a number of important characters from previous novels one of which is Nancy Jo O’Conner, who is the lawyer  for the Anishinaabe Ojibwe in their fight against the loggers to save the white pine trees.  It appears that Aurora, the home of the O’Conner’s is on the eve of war and after the explosion at Lindstrom Lumber that killed Charlie Warren, the traditional chief of the Iron Ojibwe Indians, the death count has begun.  The conflict between “red” and “white” leaps off the pages and it is a continuation of the troubles that came to a head two years earlier over fishing rights that cost Cork O’Conner his job as sheriff.  Other returning characters include, Henry Merloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man who seems “all wise” and has known Cork his entire life.  Wally Shanno, the Tamarack County Sheriff,  Helmut Hanover, the editor of the Aurora Sentinel, whose nickname is “hell,”  and the O’Conner children and Aunt Rose.

New characters that take prominent roles include John Le Pere who was the only survivor aboard the “Alfred M. Teasdale” and witnessed the drowning of his brother Billy.  Wesley Bridger, a former Navy Seal who partners with Le Pere in trying to show negligence by the Fitzgerald Shipping Company and recover damages while explaining why the ship sank.  Joan Hamilton, an environmentalist known as “Joan of Arc of the Redwoods,” and her son Brent who belongs to the “Army of the Earth” who refer to themselves as Eco-Warriors.  Lastly, Grace Fitzgerald, author and poet who is married to Magnus Karl Lindstrom III the owner of Lindstrom Lumber whose father had been the owner of Fitzgerald shipping.

Le Pere’s grief is palatable and has shadowed his life for over fifteen years leading him to behavior that is the result of forces he cannot control when all he is seeking is justice.  The  O’Conner family will be dragged into the nastier aspect of the existing conflict resulting in the  family moving closer together.  Underlying family issues is whether Cork should run for reelection as Sheriff which Nancy Jo fears will rip apart the progress that has been made in restoring their relationship.  Krueger’s plot will come full circle before its conclusion that encompasses a number of flawed characters, but the prolonged tension of the story remains until the very end, an ending the reader will not be able to anticipate.  Krueger’s writing will not win any awards for fine prose, but it does maintain the reader’s interest throughout and does not disappoint as the Cork O’Conner series remains a hit.  The next installment is entitled, BLOOD HOLLOW.

 

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger

Welcome sign on south end of town, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

In BOUNDARY WATERS William Kent Krueger continues the saga of Cork O’Conner who still remains apart from his family with hopes of resurrecting his marriage.  The hurt that was present at the end of IRON LAKE has dimmed but it remains just below the surface.  Cork still lives in the back of a Quonset Hut, that doubles as a hamburger stand in season.  The second installment of the series opens with a woman hiding in the wilderness of northern Minnesota that is known as the Boundary Waters region where she hopes that her close friend Wendell Two Knives, a Anishinaabe Native-American will locate her and bring the supplies that are necessary as winter is not far behind.

The immediate question is what the woman called Shiloh is running from, who is chasing her, and for what reason.  The novel digs into the past and Shiloh’s birth is in question as is the death of her country music star mother Marais Grand.  What secrets are buried in the past as the murder took place fifteen years earlier and it seems to involve the role of the FBI, the California State Police and Attorney-General, and organized crime.  Grand had a checkered past with me and we spend a good part of the novel trying to determine who her father is.

“Fall Colors” – Northern lights over Boulder Lake near Duluth, Minnesota 
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The core of the novel is the search and rescue mission launched by Cork from Aurora to locate her and save her life.  In doing so a number of questionable characters emerge.  Supposedly the FBI has returned under the auspices of Booker T. Harris and two other agents.  The question is are they really acting for the Bureau or do they have a different agenda.  The California Attorney-General has a significant interest in finding Shiloh as does organized crime boss Vincent Benedetti.  As Krueger develops his story his keen sense of the dramatic and mystery dominate.  The wilds of northern Minnesota and its pitfalls are on full display as is Native-American myth and lore in the persons of Stormy Two Knives, and  his amazing son Louis.  Other important characters include Willie Raye better known as “Arkansas Wille, the head of Ozark Music and Charon/Milwaukee, a killer for hire who also possesses a modicum of a conscience.

The divide between law enforcement and the treatment of Native-Americans is clear by the interaction of the Two-Knives family and the supposed FBI agents.  Another common theme is the issue of Native-American casino ownership and the money it generates.  It is clear the new revenues for the Iron Lake Reservation have improved the quality of life for its people, but a dilemma is present as more and more strangers keep pushing near the reservation with gambling, vacation, and investment plans.

Krueger has a way of inducing the reader’s interest by the tight dialogue between characters that emits new information.  It appears as if the author is stringing the reader along but in doing so he keeps the reader totally immersed in the story, a story that keeps changing as the search for Shiloh continues.

Characters that appeared in IRON LAKE are present in this thriller.  Nancy Jo, Cork’s wife now feels tremendous guilt about her marriage.  Her sister Rose is present and keeps the family that includes five-year-old Steven, twelve-year-old Annie, and the teenage Jenny who is beginning to feel her oats.  Tamarack County Sheriff Wally Shanno, who replaced Cork in law enforcement a few years earlier is an important figure as is Anishinaabe medicine man Henry Merloux.

A number of murders occur as the story unfolds, some seem related to Shiloh’s disappearance, but others seem unrelated.  Questions abound as to what country music might have to do with the murders in addition to the death of Shiloh’s mother fifteen years earlier.  Krueger is a master of tying all of these loose ends together as he has followed his first Cork O’Conner thriller with another that is equally well done.  If you enjoy taut mysteries with a human touch Krueger’s latest work should be satisfying.  For me it is on to the third iteration, PURGATORY RIDGE.

Welcome sign, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

IRON LAKE by Willam Kent Krueger

One of the many snowmobile trails in Voyageur National Park in northern Minnesota // Photo via Voyagaire Lodge

(Northern Minnesota in Winter)

A few days ago, I was perusing the isles of one of my favorite bookstores and came across the works of William Kent Krueger.  I read a number of book jackets which piqued my interest in his main character Corcoran (“Cork”) O’Conner, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, MN.  Krueger has written seventeen novels involving “Cork” and I decided it would be best to start at the beginning with his first installment, IRON LAKE.  In thinking about Krueger’s work the names of James Lee Burke, Henning Mankell, and Craig Johnson all come to mind.

We are introduced to Cork’s family at the outset.  Three children, Jenny, a precocious fourteen-year-old, Steven, five years old, eleven-year-old Annie, and his wife Nancy Jo.  Cork is concerned about his children as he and Nancy Jo, a powerful lawyer in Aurora, MN have separated, and he is trying to keep the family together.  The core of the plot begins to unfold immediately as the local paper boy Paul LeBeau finds the body of Judge Robert Parrant in his home when delivering the daily paper after hearing an explosion.   Cork is contacted by Paul’s mother Darla as Paul has gone missing.  The problem is that Cork is no longer sheriff, but many townspeople turn to him when they have problems.

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(Author, William Kent Krueger)

In a town like Aurora, population 3752 this type of incident is rare and exceptionally disturbing.  For Cork, who is part Irish, and Anishinaabe Indian who was once a cop on the dangerous southside of Chicago horrible crimes are nothing new. The death of the judge and the missing boy will lead Cork on a path of discovery that will hit very close to home.  Darla believes her son has been kidnapped by her husband, Joe Johns who has experienced many bad breaks in the past and has turned to alcohol.

Krueger develops the backgrounds of his characters very slowly.  Once completed, the insights into each character, allows the reader to understand why people act as they do.  In the case of Cork, it goes back to the death of his father at the age of fourteen when Sam Winter Moon takes him under his wing.  Fast forwarding to the period when he was sheriff, we find ourselves in the midst of conflict between the Anishinaabe Indians and local resort owners on Iron Lake which falls in part on the Indian reservation.  During a demonstration dealing with control of the lake Cork is confronted by a demonstrator who he is forced to shoot leading to a recall election that costs Cork his job.  The recall was pushed by Judge Parrant.    Later Cork is haunted by the fact that he may have over reacted, but he is cleared of any wrongdoing.  Other background that Krueger provides deals with  the development of a casino on the reservation and other financial opportunities for the white community as well as Native-Americans.  Krueger does an exceptional job seamlessly integrating the past, which include Native-American myths, and questionable financial activities.

Krueger develops a fascinating group of characters that dominate the story.  Tom Griffin, a priest who is known for his ancient motorcycle and snowmobile has the nickname of “St. Kawasaki.”  Wanda Manydeeds is a tough woman who runs a shelter on the Iron Lake reservation and in the past was part of the American Indian Movement and is the sister of Joe Johns.  Sam Winter Moon, Cork’s father’s closest friend and is steeped in Native-American myth and culture.  Molly Nurmi, Cork’s friend and waitress at Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler.  Helmuth Hanover lost a leg in Vietnam and is a pugnacious newspaper editor at the Aurora Sentinel.  Sandy Parrant, the judge’s son, a developer, politician, and a man not to trust.  Henry Meloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man.  Wally Schanno, the new sheriff.  Harlan Lytton, an unstable man who lived in the woods with his dog Jack the Ripper.  There are other important characters particularly as they relate to the Minnesota Civilian Brigade, a militia that has its own agenda.

As the plot plays out Cork is confronted by a number of personal issues, and his life begins to deteriorate, but a number of murders recenters his outlook and he wonders why they all seem to lead back to him.  The murders appear disparate but the key to the novel is how Krueger ties them all together including old Native-American myths.

The book is an enjoyable read that captures the readers attention from the outset.  Krueger has the ability to draw emotional responses from the reader as they become immersed in each character.  For me it is obvious the respect that Krueger holds for Native-Americans and the landscape of Northern Minnesota which provides a wonderful setting for the novel.  Lastly, I was unable to put it down, and cannot wait to begin the second iteration of Cork O’Conner, BOUNDARY WATERS.

Winter scene on a rural northern Minnesota farm Stock Photo - 4288501

(Rural Northern Minnesota)

ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA by Sam Dagher

(Hafez al-Assad and son Bashar al-Assad)

In the last few years a number of important books dealing with the Syrian tragedy have appeared.  They all reflect the gruesome nature of how Bashar al-Assad and his family have clung to power as they have slowly destroyed their country by killing over 500,000 people and creating millions of refugees.  Many of these books are journalistic accounts of Assad’s murderous policies or personal memoirs as their authors scream on the written page for the world to listen and act.  Sam Dagher, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal new contribution to this ever-growing list  is his ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA which focuses on the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged by Assad’s bloody quest to retain the country that his father seemingly bequeathed to him.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring Syria has emerged from hopes of democracy and some type of governmental reform that was the calling card for the Middle East as the west which could not make up its mind as to what should be done to stop the ongoing slaughter.  President Barrack Obama’s feckless approach fearing American involvement in another Middle Eastern country as he tried to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan or President Donald Trump’s callous and amoral abandonment of the Kurds last month leaving Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia with a further foothold in the region reflects the bankruptcy of US policy in the area and raises the question of what might have been done differently.

A scene from Hama after the 1982 massacre.

Dagher the last western journalist to be kicked out of Syria in 2014 relies on interviews with Assad’s former army commander, Manaf Tlass, now a defector, numerous other witnesses and participants in the events described, and his own extensive first-hand experience reporting from Damascus to take the reader behind the scenes to explore a ruthless family that is responsible for the destruction of Syria and the resulting chaos that still haunts the region. Dagher puts forth a number of important themes that dominate the narrative.

First,  Bashar al-Assad inner struggle to live up to his father to justify his own reign which led him to replicate the violence that had been used in the past.  Second, the role of the Tlass family particularly Manaf’s evolution from childhood friend of Bashar, a key cog in implementing his violent strategy, and finally breaking with him and achieving asylum in France.  Third, how the Assad family, including Bashar’s brother Maher, cousins like the Makhloufs, a number of which led different segments of the Mukhabarat ruled the country.  Fourth, Bashar’s inability to manipulate the west as successfully as his father.  Fifth, how the Assad family helped arm Hezbollah and its militias and allowing their patrons, Iran to protect him.  Sixth, the evolution of Bashar from a young western oriented individual who many Syrians and foreign governments saw as the hope for reform in Syria to one who quickly learned that to preserve power he had to crush the aspirations for general political reform and all challenges to the system.  For Bashar continued to repeat the comment; “you can only rule these people with the shoe” which became a nasty reality for the Syrian people.

The al-Assad Family and the Syrian Government

Dagher provides exceptional coverage of the Arab Spring and its impact on Syria.  He follows the developments of the protests and opposition and the Assad regime’s response.  There is special focus on cities of Hama that feared a replication of the slaughter and destruction that resulted in the death of 10-20,000 Syrians at the hands of Hafez al-Assad in 1982; Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, and Damascus itself.  As the violence spread in 2011 and 2012 different factions within the Assad government, the army, even inside the Mukhabarat began to appear.  This fracturing was also evident on the part of the opposition as they tried to figure out a plan to deal with the regime’s violence.  As the foreign media and You Tube began to show the truth of what was occurring Bashar resorted to describing events as “fake news,” all part of a western conspiracy to overthrow him.  “Like his father before him, it was absolutely vital for Bashar to shift the narrative from one about a brutal clan and regime killing protesters and political activists to that of a state battling armed insurgents and gangs linked to a foreign conspiracy.”

Dagher is correct that once the west with its UN mandate overthrew Muhammar Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar close minded approach to the opposition became even more recalcitrant to the point that he would destroy his country instead of stepping down.  The Russians felt the US had lied about its approach to Gaddafi, and Putin vowed he would not let that happen to the Assad’s.  For the Bashar his vision was clear, and he would do anything to remain in power as he seemed to purposely lose territory to ISIS as a means of scaring the world even if it meant sacrificing a few thousand of his own militiamen and conscripts.  Bashar was willing to pull out from peripheral areas deemed unimportant and allow ISIS to seize them and carry out their version of atrocities.  This would fit Putin’s realpolitik, also as now Assad and the Russian President could argue that they were saving the world from Islamic terrorism.

Russian president is also set to meet leaders of Iran, Turkey to discuss a postconflict settlement in Syria

The Assad regime’s duplicity whether under Hafez or Bashar is evident throughout the narrative.  Dagher stresses how neither could be trusted but the west needed Syria as a means of controlling terrorism, its Middle East peace plans, events in Lebanon, and Israel.  Washington at times was naïve in dealing with the Assad family and when it was obvious that something needed to be done they could not act, i.e.; Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons which he did not enforce, refusal to provide weapons to certain opposition groups etc.  Bashar craved rewards for engaging the West at the same time he fully embraced Iran, Hezbollah, and “the so-called axis of resistance against the West.”  The corruption of the Assad regime is on full display as they practiced the tactics of a typical mob family.  Dagher focuses on a number of interesting characters like Rami Makhlouf, another cousin who developed business partnerships with the regime and by 2010 his companies controlled almost 65% of the Syrian economy; Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah; Hafez Makhlouf, who was deeply involved as head of the Mukhabarat when Hama was destroyed; Atief Najib, head of the Mukhabarat during the Arab Spring who implemented Bashar’s violent approach to demonstrators among many others.

Dagher performs an important service explaining what really transpired in Syria during the Arab Spring.  He concentrates on a number of important personages  including Bashar, Maher, his younger brother, Manaf, a host of cousins and protestors like Khlaed al-Khani, an artist who survived the Hama debacle in 1982 as a little boy in which his father was killed, Darwish Mazen, a human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and repeatedly tortured by the regime before he was released and went into exile in Germany, and Sarah Masalmeh, who survived the destruction of Daraa to join the opposition eventually fleeing the country with her brother to create an easy to understand narrative that the general reader can absorb.  As the protests and violence spread Dagher has an uncanny knack of zeroing in on Bashar’s thinking, the impact of foreign interference in events, and the devastation that the Syrian people as a whole had to deal with.

The author delves out a great deal of criticism for the Obama administration, much of which is on point.  When Bashar’s regime used barrel bombs on civilians, delivered chlorine bombs on opposition cities targeting civilians, among the atrocities delivered by air either by Syrian or Russian forces in 2014, Obama refused to consider a no-fly-zone.  Obama did authorize non-lethal aid to rebels and hundreds of millions of dollars to assist refugees but in the end when confronted whether to deal with the Assad regime and its massacres or the Islamic State, Washington chose ISIS.  However, once Donald Trump was elected any pressure on the Assad regime ended.  Trump’s bromance with Putin and his own authoritarian tendencies shut the door on any assistance to the Syrian opposition that was being decimated.  Trump as Dagher points out probably secretly admired Assad as he had the type of power in his country that Trump craved.

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(A mother and father weep over the body of their child, who was killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Syria, on August 21, 2013)

In the end the winner of the Syrian civil war was Russia as Putin was now the arbiter of the Middle East, a renewed great power, and used the war as a means of testing over 200 new weapons.  Turkey also is a victor as President Erdogan made his peace with Bashar and Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds a few months ago allowed the Turkish military to root out the Kurds and set up the buffer zone Ankara had always wanted.  Iran and its puppet Hezbollah remain a bulwark in maintaining the Assad regime’s rule and provides Teheran with cudgel to hammer its enemies and threaten its arch foe Saudi Arabia.  Lastly, of course is the Assad regime.  No matter how many crimes against humanity they engaged in, they remain in power as France and Germany have given up trying to remove him from power, and the United States is seen as unreliable as Trump continues to kowtow to Putin in all areas.

Dagher’s monograph is part memoir and part a history of the Assad family that explains how we have gotten to where we are in Syria.  His easy prose and analysis is important because he has created the most comprehensive history of what has transpired which is an important service for those who seek to understand American policy in addition to why Bashar al-Assad and his cronies still remain in power and continue to inflict countless deaths on the Syrian people.

Giant images of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad at the Damascus hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

(Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad)

THE JEFFERSON KEY by Steve Berry

(Pictures USA Monticello Pond Mansion Cities Houses Design Building

(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia)

I began reading Steve Berry novels over a decade ago beginning with THE TEMPLAR LEGACY.  Mr. Berry’s command of history and his innovative approach to storytelling were readily apparent and having read seven more of his works I have never been disappointed.  Berry’s central character Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, lawyer, former member of an elite Justice Department group, pilot, and naval officer, leads his readers through interesting plot lines within the context of fascinating historical palates.  Malone retired to open a bookshop in Copenhagen, Denmark hoping to achieve some sort of peace, but trouble always seems to knock on his bookshop’s door.  Berry has developed a series of characters that have joined Malone that have provided further insights into his life and character.  Stephanie Nell, his former boss at the Magellan Billet, a special investigative unit within the Justice Department, Cassiopeia Vitt, a Renaissance woman with bite, and Edward Davis former Assistant head of the National Security Council and currently Chief of Staff to President Danny Daniels. all add to his novels as do numerous other characters.  The seventh installment of the Malone series is THE JEFFERSON KEY which finds our protagonist confronted with the attempted assassination of the President of the United States; the Commonwealth, a secret society of pirates who date back to the American Revolution; a secret cipher originally belonging to Thomas Jefferson;  unraveling a mystery fostered by Andrew Jackson, and the need to locate a document forged by the Founding Fathers.

(author, Steve Berry)

As in all of his books Berry has concocted a very complex plot with multiple characters who play important role.  The key in this Cotton Malone adventure is the Commonwealth, a secret organization whose power rests upon a letter of marque that authorized preying on the nations enemies as privateers that began against the British and Spanish during the American Revolution.  The letter was in the form of an agreement that was to last in perpetuity as given by George Washington.  All was well for the four families that made up the Commonwealth until Andrew Jackson stole the proof of the letter from Congressional journals that had used a cipher developed by Thomas Jefferson to unlock evidence that the Commonwealth acted legally and could never be prosecuted.  Interestingly, other presidents tried to stand up to these privateers, men like Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, all were assassinated.  From this historical background Berry formulates his narrative, a story that consists of shifting alliances among the characters, and constant switching from scene to scene.

It seems that the Commonwealth, which is dominated by Quentin Hale whose great, great grandfather received the original letter from Washington in 1793 is being prosecuted by the Justice Department for numerous offenses that include hiding over a billion dollars in offshore accounts, and running into trouble with the CIA because of its financial machinations in Dubai.    Berry has created an amazing array of characters each with their own agenda ranging from Andrea Carbonell, the head of the National Intelligence Agency who covets Stephanie Nell’s position as head of the Magellan Billet.  Jonathan Wyatt, a former agent who lost his job because of Malone seeks revenge and seems in cahoots with Carbonell.  Clifford Knox, Hale’s right-hand man who has no issue in killing for the Commonwealth.  All seek the cipher created by Jefferson which would unlock information that each could use to achieve their goals, but the people who wanted to prosecute the Commonwealth wanted to keep the cipher hidden.

Bath,North Carolina Map

Malone and Vitt have been dispatched to save Nell who has disappeared and thwart efforts to use the cipher to end federal prosecution, in addition to deal with family issues involving the First Family.  Berry has employed the Constitution, secret codes that would make Dan Brown envious, a firm grip on history, murder, assassination, pirates and a host of other tools to lay out his story line which in the end has created a thriller that should capture the imagination of the reader.

*************************************************************************************

A Letter from Author Steve Berry

Cotton Malone is known for his overseas exploits. A former-Justice Department operative, who can’t stay out of trouble, he’s found adventures in all parts of Europe (The Templar LegacyThe Paris Vendetta), Central Asia (The Venetian Betrayal), Antarctica (The Charlemagne Pursuit), the Middle East (The Alexandria Link), and China (The Emperor’s Tomb). But he’s never had an American adventure. Until now.

The Jefferson Key was great fun to research. My wife Elizabeth and I traveled to New York City; Washington, D.C.; Bath, North Carolina; Monticello; and Richmond, Virginia. Monticello was particularly interesting since the terrific novelist, Katherine Neville–author of The Eight and The Fire–played host. Katherine serves on the estate’s board of directors and she led us on a behind-the-scenes tour that helped formulate a number of scenes that would later appear in the book. We spent a wonderful day there, wandering the halls and staircases, snapping pictures, checking out every nook and cranny. In Richmond, we stayed at The Jefferson, a grand hotel that also makes an appearance in the story.

Bath, North Carolina was similarly intriguing. Three hundred years ago, Bath was a hotbed for Atlantic pirates, a bustling port and a ship building center. Its location, on a quiet inlet of the Pamlico River, not far from open ocean, made it ideal for both. And though it’s now a sleepy village of about 300 residents, delving into its colonial and pre-colonial past was exciting. After all, pirates are fascinating–but they don’t match the Hollywood stereotype. The real thing is even better, and The Jefferson Key deals with the real thing.

The research for this novel spanned 18 months, which is normal for my books. Along the way, we uncovered a secret cipher originally possessed by Thomas Jefferson; concocted a mystery for Andrew Jackson; and created a centuries-old document envisioned by the Founding Fathers themselves. It was fun exploring American history, especially the Constitution, which forms a huge part of this plot. With every book there’s a challenge to describe the story in as few words as possible. For this one, we came up with this: Four United States presidents have been assassinated–in 1865, 1881, 1901, and 1963–each murder seemingly unrelated. But what if those presidents were all killed for the same reason–a clause in the United States Constitution, contained within Article 1, Section 8–that would shock Americans.

Got you interested?
I hope so.
Enjoy the Jefferson Key.

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(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home)

THE ACCOMPLICE by Joseph Kanon

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

For the remaining survivors of the Holocaust the term “statute of limitations” is meaningless, they still want justice.  No one knows how many of Hitler’s murderers remain alive or where they might be, but for the few their culpability in the Nazi death machine should merit capture, trial, and punishment no matter their age or medical condition.  As in the recent novel ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Batson, the obsession on the part of a few to bring these criminals to justice dominates the story line as does Joseph Kanon’s latest novel, THE ACCOMPLICE.  Kanon, a prolific novelist whose books include THE GOOD GERMAN, LOS ALAMOS, ALIBI, and his most recent novel LEAVING BERLIN has once again written a thriller based on what appears to be actual events exhibiting a superb command of history and the characters that have driven it.

Kanon’s current effort begins in 1962 in a Hamburg restaurant where a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter named Max Weill is having dinner with his nephew Aaron.  Max’s brother who happens to be Aaron’s father and his son Daniel and wife Ruth perished in the Nazi death camps and Max wants justice as he cannot forget the atrocities he witnessed as a prisoner in Auschwitz.  Max tries to convince his nephew who is an American CIA agent to track down Dr. Otto Schramm, a camp doctor wo assisted Joseph Mengele with his deadly experiments that led to the death of Max’s family.  Aaron is reluctant but after Max has a heart attack he agrees to try and find this doctor.  The problem is that at the end of the war there was a “ratline” for Nazis to escape Europe and travel to South America, in Schramm’s case Argentina under the dictatorship of Juan Peron.

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Kanon has set the stage for a fascinating story as following the capture of Adolph Eichmann and his trial in Israel in 1961 interest in capturing these “desk murderers” is at its height.  It seems while Max was having a heart attack in the restaurant, he spotted Dr. Otto Schramm walking in the street, the same Schramm who conducted sterilization experiments and made selections for the gas chambers.  The same Schramm that sent Max’s son and wife to their deaths.  The same Schramm that Max, a physician was forced to work with in Auschwitz.  Kanon will eventually center his story in Buenos Aires as Aaron’s life is about to change due to many conflicting and complicating factors.

Many historical currents emerge in Kanon’s story.  The role of Mossad in capturing Eichmann is in the background throughout reflected in the character of Nathan who is part of the Israeli embassy in Argentina.  The role played by the ratline after the war is reflected in Monsignor Luis Rosas.  What life was like in Buenos Aires for former Nazis and the Peron regime and the successor government took care of them.  Flashbacks to the concentration camps and their victims constantly appear.  Importantly, Kanon delves into the role the United States played in coopting former Nazis into the service of the CIA as a tool against the Soviet Union during the burgeoning Cold War.  Not a very ethical move on the part of Washington policymakers but the fear of the communist menace allowed the United States to make a number of “problematic” decisions.

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(author, Joseph Kanon)

Other characters that Kanon effectively develops include Fritz Gruber, who was Max’s partner in hunting Nazis.  Goldfarb, a sewing machine factory owner in Buenos Aires who assisted Aaron and the Mossad.  Dr. Markus Bildner, a Nazi who had been in charge of Schramms sterilization experiments under Mengele and assisted Schramm in his desire to leave Argentina.  Jamie Campbell a CIA operative in Buenos Aires assists Aaron at first in his quest for justice.  But once higherups in Washington have other ideas for Schramm it becomes a battle to keep the Nazi doctor away from the CIA as well as the Israelis who want to kill him.  Aaron goal is to send him to Germany for trial  which becomes very difficult once governments become involved.  The most important character is Hannah Crane who turns out to be Schramm’s daughter.  The give and take between her and Aaron is fascinating as they do the love dance, or perhaps she is just a means to getting her father.  Their relationship has a touch of realism as Aaron begins to fall for her, but the memory of his promise to Max clouds his judgement.

The story moves along at a fast pace, but Aaron and his cohorts find themselves in a dangerous web and Kanon carries this process to the end of the novel.  One might think they know what the ending of the plot will result in – but they will be quite surprised.  Kanon has once again delivered an interesting story, tinged with historical accuracy, and the result is that the reader may not be able to put it down.

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

UNDER OCCUPATION by Alan Furst

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(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

For devotees of the writings of Alan Furst, the superb purveyor of historical fiction dealing with pre-World War II and World War II historical fiction, a new novel, UNDER OCCUPATION, his first book since 2016 has just been published.  After fourteen previous successes that include THE POLISH OFFICER, THE SPIES OF WARSAW, SPIES OF THE BALKANS, and THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, Furst has constructed a story that provides the reader what it was like to live under German occupation in France during 1942 and 1943.  As the war began to turn against “the Boche” after Stalingrad and the allied landing in North Africa the French people began to have a glimmer of hope, not realizing they had another two years of suffering under German oppression.  The concept that Furst develops is based on fact as Polish prisoners in Nazi Germany smuggled detailed intelligence to the Paris and the resistance throughout the war, in addition to cooperating with British intelligence.

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Furst’s story line rests with Paul Ricard, a writer of detective and spy fiction who finds himself walking to a Parisian café when shots ring out as a man runs by and knocks him to the ground.  The man is mortally wounded but before he dies Ricard tries to assist him.  The stranger sticks a piece of paper in his pocket which turns out to be an engineering schematic with the hand printed German word “Zunder” and the French word, “detonateur.”  Ricard has just turned in his latest novel, MIDNIGHT IN TRIESTE to his publisher and Furst makes the important point that these types of novels are essential for the French people to try diverting their attention away from their plight.

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Ricard will be coopted into trying to find the source of the schematic and why it was important so it can be conveyed to British intelligence.  IN getting to know Ricard the reader will follow the evolution of a detective spy novelist into a resistance fighter working with MI6.  Furst creates a number of important characters to carry his plot.  Adrian, Ricard’s handler.  Colonel J.P. de Roux, a former member of French intelligence introduces Ricard to Leila, a member of the Polish Resistance whose family has assisted others oppressed by war since the beginning of the 20th century ranging from the Czarist Ohkrana to Ottoman Turks during World War I.  Other characters follow, all who play an important role in trying to deliver the finished product to the British.  Ricard and Kaisa, another immigrant Pole travel to Kiel and learn from Polish workers who were seized after the 1939 invasion of their country to work on German submarines as machinists and welders that the schematic was for a U- Boat torpedo detonator that could blow a ten-foot hole into any merchant ship it encountered.  Once the device is delivered to British assets, Ricard and company are now tasked to steal a completed torpedo and some how turn it over to the British.

Furst’s plot unfolds very carefully as he has the knack of integrating previous historical events into his story.  He provides an accurate picture for what life was like under Nazi occupation.  For those who supported Vichy and Marshall Petain, life was tolerable, however if you had a skill that the Germans needed you were rounded up and sent to slave camps in Germany to facilitate German war production.  Furst comes up with an interesting term, “desk murderer” as he describes the work of Wehrmacht SS Major Erhard Geisler whose bureaucratic function was to prepare lists of possible industrial workers, Jews, Gypsies etc. that would seal their fate – work for the Reich or die in an extermination camp.  Even Ricard found himself on a list as a writer – someone who could prepare propaganda for Goebbels disinformation machine. Picard’s career in the resistance expands to include creating a safe house to  keep agents safe and eliminating anyone French or not who did not conform to resistance needs.

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Janet Hulstrad, a book reviewer asked Furst in a 2016 interview upon the publication of his previous novel, HERO OF FRANCE, why he had chosen the period 1933 to 1943 for his novels.  His response; it was an “intense….amazingly dynamic period of time. People were very passionate, they may have been passionate about politics, but they were also passionate about each other, partly because it was as if the world is coming to an end, so we’d better do whatever we’re going to do before that happens… *  Furst’s description fits the pattern of most of his novels including UNDER OCCUPATION, which draws the reader into the lives of his characters who face many life threatening decisions.  These characters are well developed, and their interactions are presented in a thoughtful manner as Ricard, an espionage novelist now finds himself in the midst of his own real-life spy thriller.

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(Author, Alan Furst)

Furst is a master of the plot, but he also possesses a superb literary style that allows the darkness of the overall atmosphere he describes to be somewhat poetic allowing hope for the human condition to shine through.  For the French under occupation each day presented a dilemma, how much should we cooperate and/or how much or how could we fight back.  It is clear that Furst loves Paris and the French people with his descriptions of French food and culture as things to be admired despite the novels setting.  Furst latest effort highlights a heroic effort by those who resisted the Germans, efforts that in total went a long way to finally defeating the Germans in 1945.

*Interview with Alan Furst, author of the Newly Released “A Hero of France” By Janet Hulstrand – May 31, 2016, Bonjour Paris.

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(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES by Paul Richter

Image result for photo of robert ford and ryan crocker(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Steven)

The past two weeks the American people witnessed the professionalism and commitment to American national security on the part of diplomatic personnel before the House Intelligence Committee.  Career diplomats like acting Ambassador to the Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, Fiona Hill, a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who was fired as ambassador to the Ukraine by President Trump, along with a number of others displayed their honesty and integrity as they were confronted by conspiracy theories and lies developed to defend administration attempts to coerce and bribe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage him to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.  The preciseness of their presentations left no doubt as to their credibility and points to the importance of having experienced professionals advising and carrying out American foreign policy.

In our current political climate it is very difficult to conduct foreign policy in a more traditional manner when you have a president who makes decisions from his “gut,” or spur of the moment as he did when he recently allowed Turkey to expand into Syria and crush the Kurds.  It is interesting to compare how “normal” foreign policy should be conducted and how important these diplomats are.  The publication of Paul Richter’s new book, THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES  is important because it supports the kind of work that was performed by the witnesses before the House Impeachment Inquiry and reflects the antithesis of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

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(American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford)

Richter has chosen to explore the careers of four American ambassadors who since 9/11 contributed to what insiders’ term “expeditionary diplomats” who have served in battle zones in the Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya.  Because of the nature of these conflicts these career professionals have been involved with traditional diplomacy in addition to helping generals and spy chiefs decide how to wage war, as well as try to end them.  When Washington found itself with a country on the edge with no real plan it was these diplomats who helped improvise and make policy decisions.

Ryan Crocker emerges as America’s most knowledgeable source on Iraq throughout his career having served there when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1980 and in 1998, yet he was left out of planning sessions dealing with the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  Richter reviews Bush administration ignorance and agendas that are all too familiar, but Crocker’s warnings about an invasion all came to fruition; sectarian warfare, violence and looting, and the emergence of Iran as the region’s dominant player.  Crocker left Iraq in August 2003 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for almost three years.  He would return to Iraq and worked well with General David Petraeus replacing Robert Ford as ambassador as they oversaw the somewhat successful surge between 2007 and 2009.    Ford another exceptional diplomat, whose experiences reinforce the arrogance and outright stupidity of Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and numerous others in the Bush administration.  The reduced role of Colin Powell and the State Department is plain to see, and Crocker and Ford did their best to overcome America’s mistakes.

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(American Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker)

Richter successfully highlights the importance of the diplomats as they tried to keep a lid on the violence in Iraq and nudge the government toward democracy.  Their contact within the Iraqi government, outside militias, and other groups is evident, and their role was extremely important  when compared to personnel in Washington who at times seemed to have no clue.  Crocker’s success rested on the respect that the Iraqis including President Maliki had for him.  He thought nothing of traveling to meet all elements in the Iraqi ethnic puzzle as a means of trying to keep the fractured country together. According to Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert, Crocker “had provided the strategic direction and guidance the military so craved from civilian leaders, and so rarely received.”  It is not surprising that once Crocker left Iraq in February 2009 the situation deteriorated according to Richter because of the changes in approach implemented by his replacement, Christopher Hill, and the overall policy pursued by the Obama administration.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

By 2011, Crocker shifted his focus to Afghanistan and returned to government service after being chosen by President Obama to try and work out agreements for a strategic partnership. Obama’s goal was to reduce US troop levels from 150,000 to 15,000 and turn the fighting over to Afghan troops as much as possible.  Crocker’s relationship with Karzai was tested as the Afghanistan president reaffirmed old grudges against Washington as he tried to maneuver among militias, the Taliban and his administration’s corruption.  Once again Crocker did give it his best under extremely trying conditions.

Perhaps America’s most important ally in the war on terror was Pakistan, a country that could never be relied upon with its own agenda visa vie the Taliban, al-Qaeda, India, and numerous militias.  Richter is correct when he describes the Pakistani-American relationship as a bad marriage with both partners cheating but had no choice but to stay together.  Anne Patterson entered this quagmire in 2007 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for three years.  Her main goal was preventative.  She needed to help keep the country’s politics from becoming so chaotic or dangerous that the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, would feel the need to install new leaders to restore order.  During her term as ambassador she successfully played the role of political counselor, military advisor, banker, and sometimes psychotherapist.  Richter takes the reader through all the crisis attendant to the United States-Pakistani relationship dealing with the duplicitous Parvez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and her husband’s attempts to succeed her as President, the Mumbai attacks and numerous others.  She did her best to keep the lid on and for the most part did an admirable job.  For the latest work that deals with the topic in full see Steven Coll’s THE DIRECTORATE: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN.

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(American Ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt Anne Patterson)

Patterson would be sent to Egypt with the onset of the Arab Spring.  Once the country politically imploded and Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, she moved from the conflagration in Islamabad and found herself amidst another crisis situation.  Egypt was the cornerstone of US security strategy for the Middle East by maintaining peace with Israel, fighting counterterrorism, and keeping sea lanes open for the transport of oil.  The fall of Mubarak caught the Obama administration by surprise.  After the revolution, Washington continued to be blindsided by developments in Egypt.  Patterson would arrive when the Egyptian military and civilians were furious at the Obama administration whom they felt had abandoned their country.  She was plain speaking and knowledgeable and with a reputation in the State Department that one colleague described as “bad ass” and she was eventually able to earn respect from Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.  Further she had to diffuse the Egyptian belief that the US was involved in a conspiracy to push democratic reform.  Further she was confronted with the harassment and intimidation by Egyptian authorities against American backed reform NGOs and Embassy staff which she worked to deflate so she could try and influence Egyptian government actions even as Washington seemed to dither.

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(Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi)

Following the Moslem Brotherhood victory with the election of Mohamed Morsi as President, Patterson met with the new Egyptian leader and tried to pin him down as to his views on Israel, human rights, etc.  She did her best to work with Morsi and even gave him a certain leeway, all for naught as Morsi had an overstated view of his own importance.  His major error was to appoint the ruthless General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Defense Minister.  As Morsi became more authoritarian, she tried to curb his lack of political skill and quest for more and more power to no vail.  With the Arab Emirates and Saudis working with the Egyptian military Morsi was arrested and a coup brought Sisi to power.  The entire episode was not the Obama administrations finest hour.  Granted they had little leeway with Morsi, but they did not do enough to try and steer him toward a more democratic approach.  The problem as Patterson pointed out was not that Morsi was an Islamist extremist, “but that he simply didn’t know what he was doing.”  Patterson was vilified by reform groups, foreign leaders and certain members of Congress as having assisted in bringing Morsi to power, criticism that is unwarranted but reflected that Patterson was damned no matter what course she chose.

Image result for photo of obama with anne patterson(Egyptian demonstrations against American Ambassador Anne Patterson)

Perhaps the most unsolvable problem facing American diplomats discussed in Richter’s narrative is Syria.  Robert Ford was placed in the breach as the Arab Spring left its mark on the country and civil war ensued due to the forty-year repressive and murderous reign of the Assad family.  Obama came to the presidency naively hoping to engage the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Ford was the first American ambassador to Damascus since 2006.  Ford had a working relationship with the Syrian opposition, and he advised them to focus on reform not regime change.  In his heart of hearts, Ford realized that Assad would never give up power.  Ford’s secondary role was to educate Washington concerning events in Syria, but the Obama administration policy was faulty as it called for Assad to resign, publicized a “red line” as a response to the use of chemical weapons, and opening the door for Russia.  Ford did his best, risking his life repeatedly confronting Assad and developing relationships with the opposition, but by December 2011 he would return to Washington where he worked to try and merge the different opposition groups.  This task was impossible because at the same time jihadist opposition began to infiltrate into eastern Syria enabling them to seize control of the uprising from more moderate Syrians. Ford argued to no avail that Obama administration needed to arm more moderate elements or Jihadists in eastern Syria would join those in western Iraq.  Obama refused to supply weapons for more moderate elements and with Iranian and Russian aid the moderates had nowhere to turn to but Islamists for help.  For Ford, the lack of weapons aid made a radical take over a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When Obama did little about Assad chemical attacks it further fueled opposition by moderates and members of Congress.  Richter describes Ford as a pinata as he was bashed by everyone for the lack of US aid including Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.   Finally, in total frustration he left the Foreign Service in 2014.

 

The diplomat most familiar to the American people was J. Christopher Stevens who was killed in a jihadist raid in Benghazi in 2012 fostering a partisan uproar in Washington as Republicans used his death as a political vehicle against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  According to Richter the details of how Stevens died and who is responsible remains open to conjecture, but one thing is certain, there is plenty of blame to go around.  When Stevens accepted the assignment, he knew what he was getting into, but his career long love of the Libyan people clouded his vision.  Stevens had to start from scratch to carve out his own rules for working with the Libyan opposition who he met with frequently earning their trust even though they did not always follow his advice.  The problem was the inability of the opposition to control the varied militias who had access to weaponry left over from the Qaddafi regime.  At the time, according to Jake Sullivan, a Clinton foreign policy advisor; “post-conflict stabilization in Libya, while clearly a worthy undertaking at the right level of investment, cannot be counted on as one of our highest priorities.”  Stevens concern that the administration wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on in Benghazi in the eastern region around it would result in his death.  In discussing Stevens, as with Crocker, Ford, and Patterson, Richter provides a nice balance of historical detail, Washington policy and his own insights and analysis which are dead on.

If one wants to gain an understanding of the problems the United States faced in the Middle East and Afghanistan after 9/11 in a succinct and compact approach, then Richter’s monograph should be consulted.  At a time when American decision makers made what proved to be disastrous decisions that we are still confronting today, it is refreshing to explore the careers and work of four individuals who devoted their lives to unravel and try and rectify these mistakes, and one who gave his life believing in the importance of his work and having the ability to the tell truth to power.

The late U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, left, shakes hands with a Libyan man in Tripoli, Libya, in a photo posted on the U.S. Embassy Tripoli Facebook page on Aug. 27. | AP Photo
(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and a Libyan citizen)

 

INSIDE THE ARCHIVE OF AN LSD RESEARCHER WITH TIES TO THE CIA’S MKULTRA MIND CONTROL PROJECT by Tom O’Neill, Dan Piepenbring INTERCEPT, Nobvember 24, 2019

I found this article this morning.  It follows my review of yesterday, POISONER IN CHIEF by Stephen Kinzer

ON THE NIGHT of July 4, 1954, San Antonio, Texas, was shaken by the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl. The man accused of these crimes was Jimmy Shaver, an airman at the nearby Lackland Air Force Base with no criminal record. Shaver claimed to have lost his memory of the incident.

The victim, 3-year-old Chere Jo Horton, had disappeared around midnight outside the Air Force Base, where her parents had left her in the parking lot outside a bar; she played with her brother while they had a drink inside. When they noticed her missing, they formed a search party.

Within an hour, the group came upon a car parked next to a gravel pit; Chere’s underwear was hanging from one of the car’s doors. Shaver wandered out of the darkness. He was shirtless, covered in blood and scratches. Making no attempt to escape, he let the search party walk him to the edge of the highway. Bystanders described him as “dazed” and in a “trance-like” state.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. He didn’t seem drunk, but he couldn’t say where he was, how’d he gotten there, or whose blood was all over him. Meanwhile, the search party found Horton’s body in the gravel pit. Her neck was broken, her legs had been torn open, and she’d been raped.

Deputies arrested Shaver. At 29, he was recently remarried with two children and no history of violence. He’d been at the same bar Horton had been abducted from, but he’d left with a friend, who told police that neither of them was drunk, though Shaver had seemed high on something. Before deputies could take Shaver to the county jail, a constable from another precinct arrived with orders from military police to assume custody of him.

Around four that morning, an air force marshal questioned Shaver and two doctors examined him, agreeing he wasn’t drunk. One later testified that he “probably was not normal … he was very composed outside, which I did not expect him to be under these circumstances.” He was released to the county jail and booked for rape and murder.

Investigators interrogated Shaver through the morning. When his wife came to visit, he didn’t recognize her. He gave his first statement at 10:30 a.m., adamant that another man was responsible: He could summon an image of a stranger with blond hair and tattoos. After the air force marshal returned to the jailhouse, however, Shaver signed a second statement taking full responsibility. Though he still didn’t remember anything, he reasoned, he must have done it.

Two months later, in September, Shaver’s memories still hadn’t returned. The commander of the base hospital, Col. Robert S. Bray, ordered a psychiatric evaluation, to be performed by Dr. Louis Jolyon West, the head of psychiatric services at the air base. It fell to West to decide if Shaver had been legally sane at the time of the murder.

Shaver spent the next two weeks under West’s supervision. They returned to the scene of the crime, trying to jog his memory. Later, West hypnotized Shaver and gave him an injection of sodium pentothal, or “truth serum,” to see if he could clear his amnesia.

While Shaver was under, according to testimony, he recalled the events of that night. He confessed to killing Horton. She’d brought out repressed memories of his cousin, “Beth Rainboat,” who’d sexually abused him as a child. Shaver had started drinking at home that night when he “had visions of God, who whispered into his ear to seek out and kill the evil girl Beth.”

While Shaver was under hypnosis, he confessed to killing the young girl. At trial, he maintained his innocence.

At the trial, West made only a minimal effort to exonerate Shaver. The airman was found guilty. Though an appeals court later ruled that he’d had an unfair trial, he was convicted again in the retrial. In 1958, on his 33rd birthday, he was executed by the electric chair. He maintained his innocence the whole time.

The trial, which hinged on Shaver’s testimony, might have ended differently had the jury known about West’s past. According to newly surfaced papers from West’s archives, the psychiatrist had some of the clearest, most nefarious ties of any scientist to the CIA’s Project MKUltra. West’s files — especially his correspondence with the CIA’s longtime poisons expert, Sidney Gottlieb — shed new light on one of the most infamous projects in the agency’s history. Likely comprising more than 149 subprojects and at least 185 researchers working at institutions across America and Canada, MKUltra was, as the New York Times put it, “a secret twenty-five year, twenty-five million dollar effort by the CIA to learn how to control the human mind.” Its experiments violated international laws, not to mention the agency’s charter, which forbids domestic activity.

At the trial, West maintained that Shaver had suffered a bout of temporary insanity on the night of Chere Jo Horton’s killing, but he argued that Shaver was “quite sane now.” In the courtroom, Shaver didn’t look that way. One newspaper account said he “sat through the strenuous sessions like a man in a trance,” saying nothing, never rising to stretch or smoke, though he was a known chain-smoker.

Large portions of West’s truth serum interview with Shaver were read into the court record. The doctor had used leading questions to walk the entranced Shaver through the crime. “Tell me about when you took your clothes off, Jimmy,” he’d said. The transcript of the interview, which survived among West’s papers, also showed West trying to prove that Shaver had repressed memories: “Jimmy, do you remember when something like this happened before?” Or: “After you took her clothes off, what did you do?”

“I never did take her clothes off,” Shaver said.

The interview was divided into thirds, and the middle third hadn’t been recorded. When the transcript picked up, it said: “Shaver is crying. He has been confronted with all the facts repeatedly.”

West asked, “Now you remember it all, don’t you, Jimmy?”

“Yes, sir,” Shaver replied.

Though lawyers scrutinized Shaver’s medical history, little mention was made of the base hospital where West’s archived letters indicate he had conducted his MKUltra experiments. Shaver had suffered from migraines so debilitating that he’d dunk his head in a bucket of ice water when he felt one coming on. His condition was severe enough that the Air Force had recommended him for a two-year experimental program. The doctor who’d attempted to recruit him was not named in court records or transcripts.

On the stand, West said he’d never gotten around to seeing whether Shaver had been treated in the experimental program. Lackland officials told me there was no record of him in their master index of patients. But, curiously, according to the base’s archivist, all the records for patients in 1954 had been maintained, with one exception: the file for last names beginning with “Sa” through “St” had vanished.

Dr. Louis Jolyon West in San Francisco, Calif., in 1976.

 

Photo: Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images

West’s professional fascination with LSD was practically as old as the drug itself. For several decades, he was one of an elite cadre of scientists using it in top-secret research. Lysergic acid diethylamide was synthesized in 1938 by chemists at Switzerland’s Sandoz Industries, but it was not introduced as a pharmaceutical until 1947. In the fifties, when the CIA began to experiment on humans with it, it was a new substance. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who’d discovered its hallucinogenic qualities in 1943, described it as a “sacred drug” that gestured toward “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”

In the ’50s, even before hippies embraced the drug, “Very few people took LSD without having somebody being a ‘trip leader,’” Charles Fischer, a drug researcher, told me. The suggestibility from LSD was akin to that associated with hypnosis; West had studied the two in tandem. “You can tell somebody to hurt somebody, but you call it something else,” Fischer explained. “Hammer the nail into the wood, and the wood, perhaps, is a human being.”

West seems to have used chemicals liberally in his medical practice, and his tactics left an indelible mark on the psychiatrists who worked with him. One of them, Gilbert Rose, was so baffled by the Shaver case that he went on to write a play about it.

“In my 50 years in the profession, that was the most dramatic moment ever — when he clapped his hands to his face and remembered killing the girl,” Rose said in 2002 of Shaver and the truth serum interview. But Rose was shocked when I told him that West had hypnotized Shaver in addition to giving him sodium pentothal. Hypnotism, he said, was not part of the protocol for the interview.

He’d also never known how West had found out about the case right away.

“We were involved from the first day,” Rose recalled. “Jolly phoned me the morning of the murder. He initiated it.”

West claimed he was in the courtroom the day Shaver was sentenced to death. Around this time, he became vehemently opposed to capital punishment. Did he know his experiments might’ve led to the execution of an innocent man and the death of a child? If his correspondence with CIA head of MKUltra Gottlieb — predating the crime by just a year — had been presented at trial, would the outcome have been the same?

ALMOST AS SOON as they had access to it, government scientists saw LSD as a potential Cold War miracle drug. Full-fledged U.S. research into LSD began soon after the end of World War II, when American intelligence learned that the USSR was developing a program to influence human behavior through drugs and hypnosis. The United States believed that Soviets could extract information from people without their knowledge, program them to make false confessions, and perhaps persuade them to kill on command.

In 1949, the CIA, then in its infancy, launched Project Bluebird, a mind-control program that tested drugs on American citizens — most in federal penitentiaries or on military bases — who didn’t even know about, let alone consent to, the battery of procedures they underwent.

Their abuse found further justification in 1952, when, in Korea, captured American pilots admitted on national radio that they’d sprayed the Korean countryside with illegal biological weapons. It was a confession so beyond the pale that the CIA blamed communists: The POWs must have been “brainwashed.” The word, a literal translation of the Chinese “xi nao,” didn’t appear in English before 1950. It articulated a set of fears that had coalesced in postwar America: that a new class of chemicals could rewire and automate the human mind.

“You can tell somebody to hurt somebody, but you call it something else,” Fischer explained. “Hammer the nail into the wood, and the wood, perhaps, is a human being.”

When the American POWs returned, the Army brought in a team of scientists to “deprogram” them. Among those scientists was West. Born in Brooklyn in 1924, he had enlisted in the Air Force during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of colonel. His friends called him “Jolly,” for his middle name, impressive girth, and oversized personality. When he got out, he researched methods of controlling human behavior at Cornell University. He would later claim to have studied 83 prisoners of war, 56 of whom had been forced to make false confessions. He and his colleagues were credited with reintegrating the POWs into Western society and, maybe more important, getting them to renounce their claims about having used biological weapons.

West’s success with the POWs gained him entrance into the upper echelons of the intelligence community. Gottlieb, the poisons expert who headed the chemical division of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, along with Richard Helms, the CIA’s chief of operations for the Directorate of Plans had convinced the agency’s then-director, Allen Dulles, that mind control ops were the future. Initially, the agency wanted only to prevent further potential brainwashing by the Soviets. But the defensive program became an offensive one. Operation Bluebird morphed into Operation Artichoke, a search for an all-purpose truth serum.

In a speech at Princeton University, Dulles warned that communist spies could turn the American mind into “a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius.” Just days after those remarks, on April 13, 1953, he officially set Project MKUltra in motion.

Little is known about the program. After Watergate, Helms (who by that time was CIA director) ordered Gottlieb to destroy all MKUltra papers; in January 1973, the Technical Services staff shredded countless documents describing the use of hallucinogens.

In the mid-1970s, after the Times revealed the existence of MKUltra on its front page, the government launched three separate investigations, all of which were hobbled by the CIA’s destruction of its files:Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States (1975); Senator Frank Church’s Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975-6); and Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Inouye’s joint Senate Select Committee hearings on Project MKUltra, the CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification (1977). When records were available, they were redacted; when witnesses were summoned to testify before Congress, they were forgetful.

We do know the project’s broadest goal was “to influence human behavior.” Under its umbrella were at least 149 subprojects, many involving research on unwitting participants. Gottlieb, whose aptitude and amorality earned him the nickname the “Black Sorcerer,” developed gadgetry straight out of schlocky sci-fi: high-potency stink bombs, swizzle sticks laced with drugs, exploding seashells, poisoned toothpaste. Having persuaded an Indianapolis pharmaceutical company to replicate the Swiss formula for LSD, the CIA had a limitless domestic supply of its favorite new drug. The agency hoped to produce couriers who could embed hidden messages in their brains, to implant false memories and remove true ones in people without their awareness, to convert groups to opposing ideologies, and more. The loftiest objective was the creation of hypno-programmed assassins.

The most sensitive work was conducted far from Langley — farmed out to scientists at colleges, hospitals, prisons, and military bases all over the United States and Canada. The CIA gave these scientists aliases, funneled money to them, and instructed them on how to conceal their research from prying eyes, including those of their unknowing subjects.

Their work encompassed everything from electronic brain stimulation to sensory deprivation to “induced pain” and “psychosis.” They sought ways to cause heart attacks, severe twitching, and intense cluster headaches. If drugs didn’t do the trick, they’d try to master ESP, ultrasonic vibrations, and radiation poisoning. One project tried to harness the power of magnetic fields.

MKUltra was so highly classified that when John McCone succeeded Dulles as CIA director late in 1961, he was not informed of its existence until 1963. Fewer than half a dozen agency brass were aware of it at any period during its 20-year history.

WEST HEADED THE psychiatry department at UCLA and the school’s renowned neuroscience center until his retirement in 1988. One day, among a batch of research papers on hypnosis in West’s archives there, I found letters between West and his CIA handler, “Sherman Grifford” — the cover name, according to John Marks’s “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate,” for Sidney Gottlieb. West, who had once written to a magazine editor that he had “never worked for the CIA,” had in fact worked closely with the agency’s “Black Sorcerer” himself.

The letters picked up midstream, with no prologue or preliminaries. The first was dated June 11, 1953, a mere two months after MKUltra started, when West was chief of the psychiatric service at the air base at Lackland.

Who would the guinea pigs be? West listed four groups: basic airmen, volunteers, patients, and “others, possibly including prisoners in the local stockade.”

Addressing Gottlieb as “S.G.,” West outlined the experiments he proposed to perform using a combination of psychotropic drugs and hypnosis. He began with a plan to discover “the degree to which information can be extracted from presumably unwilling subjects (through hypnosis alone or in combination with certain drugs), possibly with subsequent amnesia for the interrogation and/or alteration of the subject’s recollection of the information he formerly knew.” Another item proposed honing “techniques for implanting false information into particular subjects … or for inducing in them specific mental disorders.” He hoped to create “couriers” who would carry “a long and complex message” embedded secretly in their minds, and to study “the induction of trance-states by drugs.” His list lined up perfectly with the goals of MKUltra.

“Needless to say,” West added, the experiments “must eventually be put to test in practical trials in the field.” To this end, he asked Gottlieb for “some sort of carte blanche.”

Who would the guinea pigs be? He listed four groups: basic airmen, volunteers, patients, and “others, possibly including prisoners in the local stockade.” Only the volunteers would be paid. The others could be unwilling, and, though it wasn’t spelled out, unwitting. It would be easier to preserve his secrecy if he were “inducing specific mental disorders” in people who already exhibited them. “Certain patients requiring hypnosis in therapy, or suffering from dissociative disorders (trances, fugues, amnesias, etc.) might lend themselves to our experiments.” Official investigations into MKUltra yielded little information about its subjects, but West’s letter suggests that the program cast a wide net.

Gottlieb’s reply came on letterhead from “Chemrophyl Associates,” a front company he used to correspond with MKUltra subcontractors. “My Good Friend,” he wrote, “I had been wondering whether your apparent rapid and comprehensive grasp of our problems could possibly be real. … you have indeed developed an admirably accurate picture of exactly what we are after. For this I am deeply grateful.”

Gottlieb saluted his new recruit: “We have gained quite an asset in the relationship we are developing with you.”

West returned the camaraderie: “It makes me very happy to realize that you consider me ‘an asset,’” he replied. “Surely there is no more vital undertaking conceivable in these times.”

IN 1954, around the same time as Chere Jo Horton’s murder, West began to split his time between Lackland and the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, where he would lead the psychiatry department.

West had told his prospective employer that his Lackland duties were “purely clinical” and that he’d “been doing no research, classified or otherwise” — and he asked the board of directors at Oklahoma for permission to accept money from the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, which he called “a non-profit private research foundation.” In fact, as the CIA later acknowledged, Geschickter was another of Gottlieb’s fictions, a shell organization enabling him.

In 1956, West reported back to the CIA that the experiments he’d begun in 1953 had at last come to fruition. In a 1956 paper titled “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility,” he claimed to have achieved the impossible: He knew how to replace “true memories” with “false ones” in human beings without their knowledge. Without detailing specific incidents, he put it in layman’s terms: “It has been found to be feasible to take the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual and, through hypnotic suggestion, bring about the subsequent conscious recall to the effect that this event never actually took place, but that a different (fictional) event actually did occur.” He’d done it, he claimed, by administering “new drugs” effective in “speeding the induction of the hypnotic state and in deepening the trance that can be produced in given subjects.”

At the National Security Archives in D.C., I found the version of “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility” that the CIA turned over to Senators Kennedy and Inouye in 1977. West’s name and affiliation were redacted, as expected. But the CIA’s version was also shorter, and watered down in comparison. West’s document was 14 pages. This one was five, including a cover page. Most glaringly, there was no mention of West’s triumphant accomplishment, the replacement of “the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual” with a “fictional event.”

One passage, not in West’s original, claims the CIA never used LSD in studies at all: “The effects of [LSD and other drugs] upon the production, maintenance, and manifestations of disassociated states has never been studied.”

West, of course, had studied those effects for years. But when it came to elaborating on his findings about implanting memories and controlling thoughts, even in the paper found in West’s own files, he offered few details. He seems to have been in a rudimentary phase of his research. Acid, he wrote, made people more difficult to hypnotize; it was better to pair hypnosis with long bouts of isolation and sleep deprivation. Using hypnotic suggestion, he claimed, “a person can be told that it is now a year later and during the course of this year many changes have taken place…so that it is now acceptable for him to discuss matters that he previously felt he should not discuss…An individual who insists he desires to do one thing will reveal that secretly he wishes just the opposite.”

Had the CIA doctored West’s original document to mislead the Senate committee? And if so, why would the agency have gone to so much trouble to hide experimental findings that weren’t ultimately all that revealing? Agency officials claimed the program had been a colossal failure, leading to mocking headlines like the “The Gang That Couldn’t Spray Straight.” Perhaps the agency wanted the world to assume that MKUltra was a bust, and to forget the whole thing.

THE CIA SEEMS to have pared MKUltra back in the mid-’60s, according to congressional testimony and surviving financial records, but Jolly West’s government-funded research continued apace. Late in the fall of 1966, West arrived in San Francisco to study hippies and LSD. Tall, broad, and crew cut, with an all-American look in keeping with his military past, he cobbled together a new wardrobe and started skipping haircuts. He secured a government grant and took a yearlong sabbatical from the University of Oklahoma, nominally to pursue a fellowship at Stanford, although that school had no record of his participation in a program there.

When he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, West was the only scientist in the world who’d predicted the emergence of potentially violent “LSD cults” such as Charles Manson’s Family. In a 1967 psychiatry textbook, West had contributed a chapter called “Hallucinogens,” warning students of a “remarkable substance” percolating through college campuses and into cities. LSD was known to leave users “unusually susceptible and emotionally labile.” It appealed to alienated kids who would crave “shared forbidden activity in a group setting to provide a sense of belonging.”

Acid, he wrote, made people more difficult to hypnotize; it was better to pair hypnosis with long bouts of isolation and sleep deprivation.

Another of his papers, 1965’s “Dangers of Hypnosis,” foresaw the rise of dangerous groups led by “crackpots” who hypnotized their followers into violent criminality. He cited two cases: a double murder in Copenhagen committed by a hypno-programmed man, and a “military offense” induced experimentally at an undisclosed U.S. Army base. (It’s not at all clear that the latter referred to Shaver’s killing of Chere Jo Horton.)

He’d also supervised a study in Oklahoma City, in which he’d hired informants to infiltrate teenage gangs and engender “a fundamental change” in “basic moral, religious or political matters.” The title of the project was “Mass Conversion,” and it had been funded by Gottlieb.

In the Haight, West arranged for the use of a crumbling Victorian house on Frederick Street, where he set up what he described as a “laboratory disguised as a hippie crash pad.” The “pad” opened in June 1967, at the dawn of the summer of love. He installed six graduate students in the “pad,” telling them to “dress like hippies” and “lure” itinerant kids into the apartment. Passersby were welcome to do as they pleased and stay as long as they liked, as long as they didn’t mind grad students taking notes on their behavior.

According to records in West’s files, his “crash pad” was funded by the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry, Inc., which had bankrolled a number of his other projects, too, across decades and institutions. Dr. Gordon Deckert, West’s successor as chair at the University of Oklahoma, told me that he found papers in West’s desk that revealed that the Foundations Fund was a front for the CIA.

This wouldn’t have been the agency’s first “disguised laboratory” in San Francisco. A few years earlier, the evocatively titled Operation Midnight Climax had seen CIA operatives open at least three Bay Area safe houses disguised as upscale bordellos, kitted out with one-way mirrors and kinky photographs. A spy named George Hunter White and his colleagues hired prostitutes to entice prospective johns to the homes, where the men were served cocktails laced with acid. The goal was to see if LSD, paired with sex, could be used to coax sensitive information from the men. White later wrote to his CIA handler, “I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun.”

At the Haight-Ashbury pad, though, West’s motives were vague. No one seemed to have a firm grasp of the project’s purpose — not even those involved in it. The grad students hired to staff West’s “crash pad” lab were assigned to keep diaries of their work. In unguarded moments, nearly all of these students admitted that something didn’t add up. They weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing, or why West was there. And often he wasn’t there.

One of the diaries in West’s files belonged to a Stanford psychology grad student who lived at the pad that summer. The experience was aimless to the point of worthlessness, she wrote. When “crashers” showed up, “no one made much of a point of finding out about [them].” More often, hippies failed to show up at all, since many of them apparently looked on the pad with suspicion. “What the hell is Jolly doing, it is like a zoo,” the student fumed. “Is he studying us or them?”

When West made one of his rare appearances, he was dressed like a “silly hippie”; sometimes he brought friends to the house. Their general attitude, she wrote, “was that this was a good opportunity to have fun. … They spent a good deal of the time stoned.” She added, “I feel like no one is being honest and straight and the whole thing is a gigantic put on. … What is he trying to prove? He is interested in drugs, that is clear. What else?”

IN DECEMBER 1974, MKUltra finally came to light in a terrific flash of headlines and intrigue. Seymour Hersh reported it on the front page of the Times: “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces.” The three government investigations that followed — the Rockefeller Commission, Church Committee, and the Kennedy-Inouye Select Committee hearings — looked into illegal domestic activities of various federal intelligence agencies, including wiretapping, mail opening, and unwitting drug testing of U.S. citizens.

The Church Committee’s final report unveiled a 1957 internal evaluation of MKUltra by the CIA’s inspector general. “Precautions must be taken,” the document warned, “to conceal these activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions.” A 1963 review from the inspector general put it even more gravely: “A final phase of the testing of MKUltra products places the rights and interests of U.S. citizens in jeopardy.”

The Church Committee found that MKUltra had caused the deaths of at least two American citizens. One was a psychiatric patient who’d been injected with a synthetic mescaline derivative. The other was Frank Olson, a military-contracted scientist who’d been unwittingly dosed with LSD at a small agency gathering in the backwoods of Maryland presided over by Gottlieb himself. Olson fell into an irreparable depression afterward, which led him to hurl himself out the window of a New York City hotel where agents had brought him for “treatment.” (Continued investigation by Olson’s son, Eric — dramatized by Errol Morris in the series “Wormwood” — strongly suggests that the CIA arranged for the agents to fake his suicide, throwing him out of the window because they feared he would blow the whistle on MKUltra and the military’s use of biological weapons in the Korean War.)

The news of Olson’s death shocked a nation already reeling from Watergate, and now less inclined than ever to trust its institutions. The government tried to quell the controversy by passing new regulations on human experimentation. Gottlieb’s destruction of the MKUltra files was investigated by the Justice Department in 1976, but, according to the Times, “quietly dropped.” Gottlieb had testified before the Senate in 1977 only under the condition that he received criminal immunity.

The Senate demanded the formation of a federal program to locate the victims of MKUltra experiments, and to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrators. That program never coalesced. Surviving records named 80 institutions, including 44 universities and colleges, and 185 researchers, among them Louis Jolyon West. The Times identified West as one of less than a dozen suspected scientists who’d secretly participated in MKUltra under academic cover.

Yet not one researcher was ever federally investigated, nor were any victims ever notified. Despite the outrage of congressional leaders and more than three years of headlines about the brutalities of the program, no one — not the “Black Sorcerer” Sidney Gottlieb, nor senior CIA official Richard Helms, nor Jolly West — suffered any legal consequences.

This article is an adapted excerpt from “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.”