Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book Review: The Man That Knew Too Much by Dick Russell

Published 20 years ago this year, Dick Russell's account of intelligence agent Richard Case Nagell is one of the more interesting angles on the JFK assassination.  In a nutshell, Richard Nagell, a former Korean war vet turned military intelligence agent, then CIA agent, then double agent, claims he is tasked by the KGB, who gets wind of an assassination plot on President Kennedy assigns Nagell the job to assassinate the assassin, Lee Oswald before he carries out the crime.  Having second thoughts, Nagell precedes to get himself arrested by shooting off a hand gun in a bank.  This places him in Federal custody.  He's convicted of attempted bank robbery and is sentenced to ten years.  He spends his time in jail writing letters to such luminaries as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover warning of the assassination, which occurs after his pleading goes unheeded (continues his letter writing to authorities after the assassination as well). After some legal maneuvering, he is released after serving four years of his ten year sentence.  Afterwards he goes off to lead a life that is best described as that of a ne'er-do-well–a life filled with little joy or reward.
The Setup
One of the problems with the scenario is that it assumes that Oswald is the lone shooter.  What if there are other gunmen in Dealey Plaza?  How could taking out Oswald prevent the assassination from taking place in that event?  It could cause a change of plans or else a search for a new patsy or things could just play out like they did.  Interestingly, Dick Russell never addresses the issue.  
So what follows in The Man Who Knew Too Much is a long and meandering story with a cast of dozens of characters both great and small, numerous trips down the rabbit trail and plenty of drinks in sleazy bars to flesh all of this out.  Added weight is given by Dick Russell's personal interviews with most of the players involved and Nagell especially, who he talked with over a 17 year period until his death in 1995.  It's quite apparently early that there is an unstable nature to Nagell's character.  He would suffer much in his life.  Not only the wounds from battles in the Korean war, but other strange instances such as being shot in the chest post military; numerous suicide attempts and brain trauma from one of his two plane crashes which apparently affected him mentally.  
One problem with this undertaking is that the really interesting parts of Nagell's life are built on Nagell's accounts.  For example, Nagell claims he knew and socialized with  Lee Oswald when he was stationed in Japan in the late 1950's.  More importantly, in what amounts to quite a revelation, Nagell says that Oswald entered the Soviet embassy in Tokyo and met with a Col. Nikolai G. Eroshkin, a suspected member of the GRU.  But is this true?  Ultimately, Russell never really finds out for sure.  Nagell doesn't help out his case much by saying he was hanging with Oswald in November in 1957, when Oswald was largely out of action after having shot himself in the arm with a .22 pistol.  
So what the author is handed with is proving what he can of Nagell's stories by researching the periphery of this shadowy world of military and civilian spy-craft.  Russell interviews people that Nagell claims to have associated with.  Mainly it's just a bunch of guys with cool stories that can't really be nailed down.  Many don't remember Nagell.  And what Russell can uncover does verify some of Nagell's claims but certainly not all, especially the more controversial episodes of his life and the lives those those he allegedly interacted with.  For example, Russell could find out that Col. Eroshkin was stationed in Tokyo at the time Nagell said he was.  But he couldn't verify that a meeting took place between the Russian officer and Oswald.  Maybe it did.  
It doesn't help matters much that on at least once occasion Nagell committed himself to a mental hospital when he thought he got too close to a Cuban assassination plot on JFK in late 1962.  At least that is Nagell's story.  Who knows?  He might have had a breakdown that was real.  After all, he did suffer several concussions, one of which left a permanent depression on the side of head in what Dr. Edwin Weinstein, called "organic" brain damage.  The doctor further stated that the damage gave Nagell an inability to distinguish from right and wrong, besides other maladies.    
The Bank Deal
Basically, Nagell  is a CIA operative when he's approached by the KGB to work for them.  After getting permission from his CIA handlers he goes double agent to work uncover for the KGB (the CIA never admits to working with Nagell in anyway.  His work with Military Intelligence is documented).  Supposedly, the KGB gets wind of an assassination plot involving anti Castro Cubans with Lee Oswald as the gunman.  Nagell tries to convince Oswald he's playing with fire and will get burned.  He gets nowhere.  Next comes the order from the KGB to kill Oswald since he can't be reasoned with.  Nagell considers this and balks.  Thus starts the trail to the Texas bank.
The shooting up of the bank in El Paso is a strange affair.  If he didn't want to kill Oswald, is there no other recourse other than doing this?  His stated reasons become a collection of contradictions.  Richard Turner published an article in the January 1968 issue of Ramparts magazine where he surmised that it was an attempt by Nagell to form an alibi and bail out on killing Oswald. However, Nagell scoffed at that telling Dick Russell that he wasn't shooting off the gun to have an alibi, but instead, he was planning on leaving the country anyway.  Well, it makes no sense to commit a felony if leaving the country was his desire.  Just book your flight and leave!  After his arrest he will tell the FBI that he was upset and frustrated with a California court for not granting his request to allow him to see his two children.  So he thinks he can fire off a gun in a bank to get access to his kids?  When sent to Springfield for a psych evaluation, he told Dr. Joseph Alderete that it was a plea for help–he did it to get psychiatric treatment since he claimed that the VA Hospital he approached had turned him down.  So many reasons and few make any sense although the last one seems the most probable.  He did get to see a shrink, finally.
And on top of all of this, the assassination plot that Nagell is supposed to have learned of from his KGB sources is supposed to go off in September of 1963 and in the locale of Washington, DC.  Where is Dallas?  It is not in play.  More strangeness from Richard Nagell’s damaged mind and as usual, no existing correlation.
Ultimately it's hard to make sense of major parts of Richard Case Nagell's story.  Dick Russell admits as much in his final chapter.  The whole thing is totally on the fringe.  No doubt, this man is a kooky character.  Most JFK researchers take a look at Nagell and head in the other direction.  Not a bad move.  
He's sort of like a Judyth Vary Baker–a fringe character with a offbeat story that most researchers don't include in the overall analysis of what happened.  It's a tangent too far.  While there is a ring of truth to their accounts they basically tell us what we already suspected–namely, there was a conspiracy and Oswald was somebody different that what we were told.  In Baker's story he is a hero trying to overthrow a plot and ends up being branded the patsy and murdered. In Nagell's account Oswald is a Cold War agent following orders even if that means murdering a President.  As in Baker’s account, it’s a complex chess game where the assassin is pumped and dumped.  Odd how they both seem to get around to knowing all the major figures in their respected dramas and arrive on the scene of many major events that transpire in the chronology.  While both Nagell and Baker tie up some loose threads in the overall narrative, much comes down to their individual stories, with some details that are difficult, if not impossible, to discern.  And both tell different versions of their tales filled with updates over the intervening years which they can't seem to impart in the first telling.  (This seems to advance from the arrival of new facts that appear to contradict an early account.)
I'm going to leave Richard Case Nagell in the shadows of Cold War history.  Most do.  He's a more comfortable fit in military tactical battles fought in secret places.  Other than that he becomes an unkind diversion with much to say and little to verify.  He dies a lonely, broken man.  And yes, like many of these men who know too much, his claimed cache of documents, audio tapes, photos, and whatever, that could blow the whole thing wide open, vanish upon his demise like they always do–if they ever existed at all.

Since 20 years have passed I won’t criticize Dick Russell for making some mistakes. The basic narrative of the book is accurate despite recent file disclosures and the work of agencies such as the ARRB to release government documents concerning the Kennedy assassination.
Whatever his source was, two men Russell listed as OSS agents in WWII apparently were not.  One was Louis M. Bloomfield (p.217) and the other is Lev Dobriansky (p.254).  You can download the declassified OSS agent PDF list HERE and see that these two men are not listed.  This is not to defer from the fact that Dick Russell is a meticulous researcher and has an excellent grasp of the various fundamentals of the case.