Monday, October 31, 2011

Brad Meltzer's Humbug

“‘Decoded’ is likable, but goofy. There are interesting facts and factoids here, but they are largely smothered under layers of pseudo-drama and faux research.”
PopMatters Staff

I've been watching Brad Meltzer's Decoded on the History Channel since it first aired in December of 2010. An entertaining show with best selling author Brad Meltzer sending out a team of experts to explore and solve mysteries. The show has a lively "you were there" style as the viewer follows the three experts from location to location taking witness testimony and solving puzzles. Conspiracy is going to be a constant theme especially in dealing with such diverse subject matter involving Free Masons, wealthy men cavorting at Bohemian Grove, and John Wilkes Booth possibly escaping death by using a stand-in. But there is always a hint that a conspiracy, no matter how reasonable or plausible, will be shot down. In other words, let no conspiracy take root and none does in any of the shows I've watched so far.

While presented as a serious investigative show there are moments where the research and methodology appears questionable. Some experiments done to test theories are hardly scientifically based and the testing conditions are skewed. Thing aren't helped much when the team of experts question witnesses, and then react to a comment with mock shock as they roll their eyes and give each other appalled looks.

I assume eventually, they will get to the JFK assassination or some odd angle on it. I would bet–if I were a betting man–that whatever the theory is, it won't hold water. It will be debunked.

The Experts
Brad Meltzer's three roving investigators are author/historian Buddy Levy, attorney/former prosecutor Scott Rolle, and mechanical engineer Christine Mckinley. There seems to be little to complain about here in regards to the abilities and career paths of the experts with the exception of McKinley, who apparently does little work as an engineer and has a career more oriented towards being a singer/songwriter. A Google search pulls up her web site where she promotes here CD and concert appearances (besides Decoded air dates). Besides that, does one really need an engineer to uncover if Booth survived the tobacco barn fire?

It is a bit amusing that on The History Channel's web site there is currently a picture of Levy, Rolle, and McKinley together (see above) and they are all the same height. The picture below is an earlier one that is no longer on the site. One can see that Rolle is the shortest member of the team with Levy being the tallest and McKinley in the middle. One could say this is a pictorial metaphor for the fakery this show can produce.

Target Patton
This episode caught my attention as it is a good example of how
anti-conspiratorial Decoded can get it as they pretend to conduct an objective investigation. The Patton episode aired on October 25 involves the conspiracy theory that General George S. Patton, instead of dying as a result of injuries sustained in an auto accident after the close of the war, was instead assassinated by a auto crash combined with a sniper. This idea has been floating around a long time and started soon after the legendary General's death. Like anything involving conspiracy, the Decoded team will in the end, drive a stake through it.

Numerous experts were interviewed for the show and the lead-off was author Robert K. Wilcox who wrote Target: Patton. This is probably the premier work on the subject. I decided to get this book as I had the feeling there is more to it than the TV show made note of. I was right. I found the book to be well researched and footnoted. Wilcox claims that a former OSS (Office of Strategic Services) officer, Douglas Bazata of whom he met and interviewed, admitted to being involved with the death of Patton and granted him open access to his numerous diaries and letters, to back up an incredible story of intrigue and high treason. (Decoded makes no mention of this level of documentation or that Bazata passed a polygraph examination in regards to his claims.)

Like JFK, General Patton had cultivated a large group of enemies and also like JFK, he was the odd man out with the other power brokers. The allies had decided to carve up Europe and let the Russians have their half. Patton was the only post-war leader who opposed this and wanted to wage war to send them back to their original borders. He was not one for politics, nor was he a man that cared about the Big Picture as the allied governments and top military leaders such as Eisenhower and Marshall had thrown together.  He also was appalled at the treatment of the defeated German soldiers and the surviving German citizens.

Douglas Bazata’s Background
Joining the Marines in the 1930's, Douglas Bazata worked his way up to eventually be sent out on secret assassination missions. These missions started before the WWII and according to Bazata, extended well after it. His missions didn't only include taking out enemies but also friendlies as well. Anybody that was suspected of being a spy or just some guy who talked to much. A nasty business that left him haunted with moral questions for the rest of his days.

Bazata claimed to have direct contact with the OSS director William Donovan where he says he was given the kill order directly from Donavan. Of course, this allegation will most likely never be proven but author Robert K. Wilcox found a declassified file, an order from Donovan, calling for a meeting with agents that Bazata did attend (pg. 92). Since he was being designated as an independent operator, he was given the freedom to set up a kill, or "weeding" as he called it, as he saw fit.

Once again, Decoded makes no mention of these details and offers little background on Bazata–a curious development because if his story is true, he is one of the major players to a plot.  So there is no context in the story by ignoring a major player in it.  They marginalize his role. Perhaps there was too much here to deal with, too much to dig through. Bazata has a great deal to his story that rings true and many events he notes are accurate.

The Set Up And The Fall
According to Douglas Bazata, his plan was to set up a seemingly impossible set of events, arranging an automobile crash coupled with a rifle shot to Patton as his car drove by. The rifle was to be a special-made air rifle that was capable of firing anything–which included rocks or metal fragments of odd shapes and sizes. Being air powered it was silent and left no standard ballistics evidence behind. On the other hand, it was a one-shot deal and at a moving target, the most difficult thing to accomplish with a firearm.

Bazata also laid claim to another act, probably the most difficult and improbable, of tampering with the car's passenger window to it would remain partially open a few inches to have a clean shot Patton. The admission could almost discredit his story except that a lot of it backed up by a polygraph exam of which he passed. It's unusual that Decoded passed on mentioning this claim in its debunking as it is something that could have stuck.

Ultimately, it all went down as plan except for Patton dying in the accident. Days later Patton would die from a lung embolism, something he had experienced earlier in his life. It should be noted that Patton suffered, besides a fractured vertebra which left him partially paralyzed, a severe Y-shaped cut to his face from the bridge of the nose to his forehead, which was never fully explained. Bazata claimed his shot hit Patton in the face but considered it a botched job–since it he didn't get a kill. It should also be noted that the other passengers, driver Horace Woodring and General Gay, seated by Patton in the rear seat, were not injured.

The Decoded Shooting Experiment
One of the most absurd parts of Decoded happened when Scott Rolle was tasked with seeing if a sniper with an air rifle could take a shot at a moving car, striking the occupant. The trouble with the test is there nothing scientific about it nor does it replicate anything about the alleged event. Rolle's experience with firearms and ballistics testing is unknown. I take it, not much in either. In the test, he does not use an original version, nor a copy, of a military air rifle from that period–a modern rifle is used instead; there is no accounting for weather, windage, range, temperature or recreating the alleged shooter's environment; no examination of shooting angles or positioning; and lastly, no accurate accounting for the speed of Patton's car in the moving part of the shooting test. (The target is hand-pulled on a small cart.)

Not only all of this, but Bazata claims to have used a small square piece of metal for a projectile (pg. 62 ). For the test, Rolle uses what appears to be a rubber object. To be fair, they had to use a rubber projectile since the weapon used for the test couldn't fire anything made of different materials or odd shapes as described by Bazata. They painted themselves in a corner even before the test takes place.

All of this together makes the Decoded ballistics test a joke. If there is an assassin firing at Patton, the experiment simulates nothing that could have been occurring in the actual event from the environmental conditions to the weapon used. This is an example of TV investigative fraud. Nothing about the test is accurate. Even Bazata told Wilcox he was aiming for Patton’s head but the Decoded team insisted he was shooting at the neck. Based on what? Nothing.

In this case, they got the result they wanted, which was to disprove an air powered rifle could be an effective weapon for assassination. And then settle it all by concluding the assassination attempt using an air rifle is now debunked.

What cheek!

In The End (thankfully...)
The Decoded team will wrap up the General Patton assassination affair as a neat and tidy event of a car accident coupled with a lethal lung embolism. Nothing suspicious here, just move along please! The Kennedy assassination is a model of similar events. The Warren Commission swoops in to give the public a similarly clean and uncluttered account of a presidential assassination that was anything but well-ordered. (And ironically, Patton’s car was rushed off to the junkyard as quickly as JFK’s limo was shipped off to Detroit for a rapid make-over. Also, Wilcox discovered that the Cadillac in the Patton museum is not the original vehicle. Decoded makes no mention of this or looks into the mystery.)

The many missing records, conflicting testimony of those involved, Patton's odd head injury, and a host of strange events and disappearing witnesses are never investigated in the show. I know there are time limitations in a one hour (40 minutes without ads) format network program such as this, but the focus is so hell-bent on shrugging off a conspiracy that many important facts are paid no attention to.

As mentioned earlier, the testimony and documentation of Douglas Bazata, a significant player in the book, Target: Patton, is largely ignored and made into a marginalized figure. Even worse, they totally ignored army Intelligence officer Stephen Skubik’s investigation of Patton’s death where Skubik found evidence from reliable Soviet sources of a plot to assassinate Patton. He also believed that Bazata was involved. If Patton were murdered by a plot, Decoded takes the wrong path in determining the truth, if they were even in the hunt for it to begin with. I don’t think they were.

As always I find it amazing that a man can have such a large host of enemies as George S. Patton did, both foreign (Russian, NKVD) and domestic (you-know-who) and can just happen to die in an automobile accident–his enemies are left to celebrate their luck! By denying a possible assassination plot in the death of General Patton it shows how difficult it is for organizations like TV networks to deal with such an event. After all, we are the exceptional People with our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. We don't do "I, Claudius." Or do we?

Brad Meltzer's Decoded is an entertaining show for what it is. Just don’t take its investigations as seriously as the producers want you to. It's entertainment masquerading as investigation.

I can’t wait for the JFK show! What a hoot that will be.

UPDATE: DECODED - Did they read my book?” Robert K. Wilcox’s rebuttal to Decoded’s phony investigation regarding Patton’s death. Read his enlightening and full rebuttal HERE.

Wilcox, Robert K., Target: Patton - The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton.

Robert K. Wilcox

Scott Rolle

Christine McKinley

Buddy Levy