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Caufield, Milteer, Somerset, Jim D., etc.


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I recently read Jim DiEugenio's review of the Caufield/Walker book, and I want to clear some matters up, as Jim referenced the work Larry and I did re Milteer and Somersett. Larry exchanged emails with Jim and then included me in the conversation. I think Jim misunderstood some of what I told him, and it is important that the matter get cleared up.

Jim seems to be arguing one of two things re: Milteer/Somersett (or both.) On the one hand, he points out that Somersett was eventually uncovered as an informant by those in the far-right, that Milteer may have used Somersett as a conduit for misinformation. At other times, Jim seems to imply that Somersett was unreliable because, Somersett made things up (on this, I admit, I may be misreading Jim.) Whether Somersett was relaying false information or making up his own stories, it would have serious implications for the Milteer story on JFK. And the Milteer story is fundamental to the Caufield account of the JFK assassination.

I have skimmed parts of the Caufield book, and I ultimately agree with Jim about the main thesis. But I do not agree with him about the Milteer story. At the core of my concern is a disagreement over *when* Somersett's duplicity became apparent on a *widespread* basis to those on the far right. There is no doubt that the FBI considered Somersett to be at least a semi-reliable source until 1964, and that the Miami police felt the same way about the informant at least through 1968. On the other hand, as we noted to Jim, J.B. Stoner wrote a letter to fellow radicals in 1962, raising questions about Somersett's loyalty. But these kind of charges are not uncommon in the paranoid world of the far right. The question is: when did others in the far right begin to agree with Stoner? I believe the evidence favors a cut-off point at around 1964-- before that, Somersett still had some credibility with those on the far right; after that, Somersett was used by those on the far right as an unwitting dupe to spread disinformation to government agencies. At no point was Somersett making up wild stories; rather, it is likely he was reporting wild stories that were conveyed to him.

John McAdams actually takes a similar tact to Jim in dismissing Somersett. McAdams points out, for instance, that the FBI raised questions about Somersett's reliability and discontinued using him as a source as of 1961. But the discontinuation was not a result of the informant's credibility problems-- the Bureau stopped working with Somersett because he almost exposed another informant. But the FBI did say, in 1963, that Somersett furnished information about the Birmingham bombing (of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963) that "bordered on the fantastic." Here, there is a hint of truth.

Somersett did report information he received from right-wingers related to the Birmingham bombing. But it was neither imagined nor fantastic. Somersett, on behalf of the Miami police, secretly taped a radical right winger, Sidney Barnes, and Barnes told Somersett that several dangerous right-wing radicals met in Birmingham the day before the bombing. After the bombing, they attempted but failed to shoot Martin Luther King, Jr. Besides the tapes themselves (confirming that Barnes did, in fact, relay information on the Birmingham bombing to Somersett), the Miami police took this seriously enough that they actually supplied Somersett with a rifle to provide to Barnes in hopes that they could trace it to future crimes. The FBI investigated the accused men (they were unable to verify anyone's purported alibis for the church bombings) and traced the plot against MLK through 1964. They considered the men Barnes identified (including Barnes himself) as some of the first suspects in the MLK assassination in 1968. Congress, who had additional sources on the 63 Birmingham plot against King, reported it as fact in the HSCA report.

But the records make it clear that the FBI "blew" Somersett's cover when they interviewed Barnes about the Birmingham bombing in early 1964. They confronted Barnes with information that only could have come from someone like Somersett. At one point, Barnes even was recorded as voicing a strong suspicion that someone betrayed him. Ofcourse, Barnes may have have come to the "Somersett is an informant" party later than Milteer and others. Jim suggests this by bringing up other information relayed by Somersett in 1963. On more than one occasion, in fact, Somersett told law enforcement about a right-wing plan to engage in mass assassinations of prominent (mostly Jewish) public figures. Jim seems to think that the sheer number of targets under consideration in Somersett's reports illustrate that Somersett was either gullible or lying (it is hard to tell which Jim favors.) Either way, this would suggest that we should dismiss Somersett as a reliable source at least as of 1963, including before the taped Milteer conversation. But we have to be careful of presentism when evaluating the ambition of the radical right-wing in the 1960s. What seems like bold and crazy assassination plotting to us now was, in fact, par for the course for anti-government, anti-communist (often religious) zealots of the time. Another FBI informant reported very similar plotting (against multiple figures) in 1963. Sam Bowers, the head of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, imagined the same type of widespread assassination when he spoke to his fellow racists on the eve of the Mississippi Burning Murders. And the late researcher Bill Turner described seeing detailed note-cards on thousands of potential assassination targets in the headquarters for the right-wing Minutemen in 1966. Law enforcement actually broke up plots to, for instance, put cyanide in the air ducts of the United Nations, and time after time, right wingers were arrested with arsenals worthy of a small army.

In short, almost nothing Somersett reported in 1963 was out of the ordinary--- and much of it was actually consistent with what we know was going on. That these plots never materialized on a grand scale has much to do with both their grandeur (there surely was an element of bragaddocio) and the fact that the FBI was excellent at infiltrating these groups and disrupting the radical right. As to the JFK assassination specifically, one such informant did, independently of Milteer, report that Stoner's National States Rights Party was plotting to kill JFK. It is only in 1964 when Somersett starts to relay information, such as assassination plots against LBJ, that are exposed as being false, outlandish or misleading.

But if Milteer was relaying honest information to Somersett, does that mean we should buy into Caufield's theory? I communicated with Caufield during our research for the Awful Grace of God, and I have much respect for his depth of research. But then, and now, I do not accept the idea that the ultra-right wing killed JFK. I have little doubt that they wanted to, and have no problem believing that they were in the planning stages. But any good JFK assassination theory has to explain at least a few key events within the same narrative: Oswald's New Orleans shenanigans, the Odio situation, the Mexico City affair, and Oswald's presence in the Texas School Book Depository during the motorcade. A right wing cabal might explain New Orleans, but so do other theories. I do not think the right-wing theory adequately explains the Odio affair and it does almost nothing to explain the odd events in Mexico City. As to Oswald, he had voluminous private writings and none of them suggest he was a right winger. They may not suggest a communist either-- but they do not look anything like the material I have studied for my books on the radical right. The fact that someone occasionally drops the N-bomb after growing up in the south does nothing to convince me that Oswald embraced the far-right agenda. Plenty of even semi-moderate southerners probably used the epithet at one point or another.

Whether Oswald was totally framed, part of a conspiracy, etc., the conspirators had to be in a position to manipulate or influence his behavior up until and including November 22 . Milteer, as my colleague Larry Hancock noted in his book Someone Would Have Talked, may have enjoyed relationship with those on the periphery of a Dallas plot-- men from groups who were in a better position to influence Oswald in this way (and who also figure into the oddities of New Orleans, Mexico, etc..) Or maybe Milteer was simply boasting to Somersett. Either way, I ultimately agree with Jim on the radical right's connection (or lack thereof) to the Dallas plot, even if his treatment of Somersett lacks nuance.

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