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Tom Gabbay: The Berlin Conspiracy


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This section is usually made up of historians answering questions about their books. However, I thought it might be interesting to explore the ways a novelist used historical sources to write a fictional account of the assassination.

This is what Publishers Weekly said about Tom Gabbay's novel, The Berlin Conspiracy:

Wallowing in a post–Bay of Pigs funk, ex-CIA agent Jack Teller is called out of retirement in 1963 and sent to Berlin to meet an East German agent with a message for Jack's ears only in the debut of screenwriter and former TV producer Gabbay. Jack is floored by both his contact's identity and his information about a plot to kill President Kennedy during an upcoming visit to West Berlin. His dormant idealism roused, Jack delves into the conspiracy while dodging the threats of corrupt CIA higherups and falling in with colorful residents of Berlin's Cold War demimonde. Mixing cynical world-weariness with dead-pan humor and a refreshing lack of Bond-style omnicompetence (random mishaps include a nasty dog bite and a disastrous attempt to shoot off a pair of handcuffs), Jack's story is part John le Carré and part Elmore Leonard. Gabbay constructs the thriller as a dress rehearsal and what-if scenario for the actual Dallas assassination. With rogue intelligence operatives, gangsters, Texas tycoons and a mob of snipers, coverup hit men, fall guys, fall guyimpersonators, and miscellaneous functionaries all jostling each other, the plot's many moving parts make the climax a virtual parody of ponderous JFK conspiracy theories. But until this odd turn, Gabbay offers a stylish thriller with an appealing hero.

1. Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a history book about the assassination?

2. You obviously had to do a lot of research to write a novel about real events. Could you tell us the names of the books that you found most helpful about the life and death of JFK?

3. How much of the plot is pure speculation? Or is everything in the novel have some sort of evidence behind it?

4. Your idea that there could have been a plot to kill JFK in Berlin is an interesting one. Lamar Waldron’s new book Ultimate Sacrifice suggests that there were probably plans for 3 plots to kill JFK in 1963. However, organizing the cover-up was always an important factor, for example, this was one of the main reasons the actual assassination took place in Dallas. Would it not be difficult to cover-up the assassination if it took place in Berlin?

5. I see that you have a history in television. Did you ever consider making a television documentary series on the assassination? (It would probably need to be in 26 parts to do it justice). I have always been surprised this has not happened considering the fascination that most people have with JFK (this is especially true in Europe).

6. Did you know that one of the prime suspects, David Atlee Phillips, wrote a novel about the assassination of JFK? Phillips died of cancer on 7th July, 1988. He left behind an unpublished manuscript. The novel is about a CIA officer who lived in Mexico City. In the novel the character states: "I was one of those officers who handled Lee Harvey Oswald... We gave him the mission of killing Fidel Castro in Cuba... I don't know why he killed Kennedy. But I do know he used precisely the plan we had devised against Castro. Thus the CIA did not anticipate the president's assassination, but it was responsible for it. I share that guilt." This is interesting as in Gene Wheaton’s recently filmed interview, he claims that Carl Jenkins, the CIA officer who was in charge of the 1963 assassination plot against Castro, redirected them to kill JFK.

"The Berlin Conspiracy" Tom Gabby

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1. Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a history book about the assassination?

There are probably a couple of ways to answer that question. First, my background is in drama. I was a program executive at NBC for several years and before I embarked on writing my first book I made a living producing and writing for television. So writing fiction was a more natural progression for me.

Second, I’m not remotely qualified to write a non-fiction account of the assassination. There are many historians and interested parties who know a great deal more than I do about the events surrounding Kennedy’s murder. Writing the book was very much a learning process for me. I read many good non-fiction books (which I’ll talk about in your next question) and, though some theories seemed less plausible than others, I found pretty much everything I read very well thought out and researched.

Finally, I think a novel provides an opportunity to absorb all the facts and circumstantial evidence that are out there and then to present my own “plausible reality”. In the end, I think that’s what we all do. No one can reasonably claim to one-hundred percent certain about what happened in Dallas that afternoon, so we gather what factual evidence we can and put together our own “plausible reality.”

2. You obviously had to do a lot of research to write a novel about real events. Could you tell us the names of the books that you found most helpful about the life and death of JFK?

I look up on my shelf and see many great books that I dove into, one after the other. A list, in only a rough order of how useful I found them, would look like this:

CROSSFIRE by Jim Marrs

THE KENNEDY CONSPIRACY by Anthony Summers

DEADLY SECRETS by Warren Hinckle & William Turner

WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS by David C. Martin

PLAUSIBLE DENIAL by Mark Lane

COMPULSIVE SPY by Tad Szluc

COUP D’ETAT IN AMERICA by Alan J. Weberman and Michael Canfield

THE BAY OF PIGS AND THE CIA by Juan Carlos Rodriguez

BAY OF PIGS DECLASSIFIED: CIA Report edited by Peter Kornbluh

KENNEDY’S WARS by Lawrence Freedman

AN UNFINISHED LIFE by Robert Dallek

THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT by Seymour Hersh

I also read extensively on the internet, including some lone-gunmen theorists’ sites to help me spot any holes in the thoeory I was building. In addition, I read quite a bit on Berlin and the East German STASI, which wasn’t directly related to the asassination, but helped me with the book.

3. How much of the plot is pure speculation? Or is everything in the novel have some sort of evidence behind it?

Aside from the premise -- that “Plan A” was to get Kennedy in Berlin -- I tried very hard to make everything else fit into that “plausible reality” I had contructed with the evidence (as I saw it). It was part of the fun, in fact. I took some evidence directly from the Dallas assassination, such as the plamphlet that linked Oswald to 544 Camp Street, and transplanted it to Berlin. In fact, I used many of the ploys that had been used in Dallas and New Orleans to set Oswald up as the fall guy -- handing out pro-Communist literature, Oswald doubles, and faked photographs all appear in “THE BERLIN CONSPIRACY”.

I used the forensic evidence and the evidence of a cover up to inform the plan that would have been put into place, had there been a Berlin attempt. My idea was that Berlin had been chosen as the ideal place to assassinate the president and (I don;t think I’m giving anything away here) when it failed, they got him five months later in Dallas.

4. Your idea that there could have been a plot to kill JFK in Berlin is an interesting one. Lamar Waldron’s new book Ultimate Sacrifice suggests that there were probably plans for 3 plots to kill JFK in 1963. However, organizing the cover-up was always an important factor, for example, this was one of the main reasons the actual assassination took place in Dallas. Would it not be difficult to cover-up the assassination if it took place in Berlin?

Interesting point. I certainly see why you say that. It would have been easier to control events, such as the motorcade’s route, Jack Ruby’s access, etc, in Dallas. But you could look at it another way:

Assume (as I do) that whoever was behind the conspiracy had set Oswald up to be a Communist sympathizer. This seems one of the areas that most people should be able to agree. It follows that they wanted to blame “the Commies” (probably Castro) for the murder, with the idea that it would put into motion a series of events -- invasion of Cuba, Soviet tanks taking West Berlin, war in Europe and, finally, all out war. JFK was weak on Communism and was losing the Cold War, they believed, so they would get rid of him and start a Hot War, which America would win. The plan didn’t work, not the way they thought it would anyway. because there was one big problem with this plan.

Who would believe that Dallas was a hotbed of Communism?!

In fact, no one did, and a war was averted. But what if JFK had been assassinated by a Communist in Berlin. Does anyone doubt that it would have sparked World War III?

It’s worth looking at how World War I began. Forgive a brief excerpt from “THE BERLIN CONSPIRACY”, but it gives a sense of how history might have repeated itself if Kennedy had been killed in Berlin. The narrator is Jack Teller, a dissillusioned Company operative who stumbles on a plan to assassinate the president when he gives his famous “Eich Bin Ein Berliner” speech:

"Where's Kovinski now?" I asked Sam.

"How in God's name could the whereabouts of that piss-ant be the most important thing on your mind right now?"

"You're pretty good at history, aren't you, Sam?" He shrugged, but I knew he was. "You know the name Gavrilo Princip?"

"The guy who shot the Archduke Ferdinand," he answered without hesitation. "What's he got to do with the price of eggs in China?"

"He was the piss-ant that got the First World War under way."

Sam pulled on his earlobe and made a face "Do you really believe all this crap, Jack? You think there are guys in the Agency who'd go that far?"

"Ever hear of the Black Hand?"

"Should I have?"

"No, the whole point is that you shouldn't have. The Black Hand was a secret society made up of Serbian army and intelligence officers. They planned and executed the assassination of Ferdinand because he was on a peace mission and they thought peace was another word for surrender. They wanted war and victory, so they arranged for the piss-ant named Gavrilo Princip to pull the trigger on the Duke. It's just possible that if he never got the chance to take the shot that day, The Great War wouldn't have happened. So that's why I'm interested in where Kovinski is."

"I don't know where he is," Sam shook his head. "But there are plenty of piss-ants around. If you stop this one, there'll be another one in his place next week."

"So we have to get the Black Hand," I said. Sam gave me a long look and sighed.

"Christ, Jack."

"What?"

"You're under arrest for treason."

5. I see that you have a history in television. Did you ever consider making a television documentary series on the assassination? (It would probably need to be in 26 parts to do it justice). I have always been surprised this has not happened considering the fascination that most people have with JFK (this is especially true in Europe).

I think it would be a great thing to do and I’d watch, particularly if it approached the subject with an open mind and managed to be aforum for various theories, much like this internet forum is. I’m not sure what level of interest there would be by the broadcasters, though, unless there was some sort of new evidence or promotable element in the program.

6. Did you know that one of the prime suspects, David Atlee Phillips, wrote a novel about the assassination of JFK? Phillips died of cancer on 7th July, 1988. He left behind an unpublished manuscript. The novel is about a CIA officer who lived in Mexico City. In the novel the character states: "I was one of those officers who handled Lee Harvey Oswald... We gave him the mission of killing Fidel Castro in Cuba... I don't know why he killed Kennedy. But I do know he used precisely the plan we had devised against Castro. Thus the CIA did not anticipate the president's assassination, but it was responsible for it. I share that guilt." This is interesting as in Gene Wheaton’s recently filmed interview, he claims that Carl Jenkins, the CIA officer who was in charge of the 1963 assassination plot against Castro, redirected them to kill JFK.

This is very interesting. I do remember something about Atlee’s unpublished novel, but I hadn’t seen the quote. It fits right into my “plausible reality” that Oswald believed he was being “put together” to kill Castro, not Kennedy. I believe he was handing out pro-Castro literature and doing noisy pro-Castro TV appearances in order to get credibility with the Cubansso they’d give him a Visa and he could get close to Castro. Perhaps Atlee didn’t know about the Kennedy plan, but I think the evidence suggests that some of his colleagues did know. The Gene Wheaton statement’s statement would support this. Did he give any indication as to whether Oswald was in on the changed target?

Tom Gabbay

http://www.tomgabbay.com

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5. I see that you have a history in television. Did you ever consider making a television documentary series on the assassination? (It would probably need to be in 26 parts to do it justice). I have always been surprised this has not happened considering the fascination that most people have with JFK (this is especially true in Europe).

I think it would be a great thing to do and I’d watch, particularly if it approached the subject with an open mind and managed to be a forum for various theories, much like this internet forum is. I’m not sure what level of interest there would be by the broadcasters, though, unless there was some sort of new evidence or promotable element in the program.

There has been a lot of new evidence released/discovered over the last few years. See for example, Larry Hancock’s Someone Would Have Talked (2003). Wait for the revised edition that will come out in April/May. I would also take a look at Gerald McKnight’s Breach of Trust (2005) and Lamar Waldron’s Ultimate Sacrifice (2005). Larry, Gerald and Lamar are all members and are willing to discuss their research on the Forum.

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Bill Kelly has posted an article on the Forum about the possibility of obtaining a grand jury in order to investigate the assassination of JFK.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=5634

I have started a thread where I have asked researchers to put forward evidence that would justify the case being reopened.

As a result of your own research, what evidence is currently available that suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only one responsible for killing JFK?

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=5659

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  • 2 weeks later...

Review in the Rocky Mountain News

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/book...4349812,00.html

The Berlin Conspiracy

By Tom Gabbay (William Morrow, $24.95)

Grade: A

If you're wondering what to do with that gift card from a bookstore you just received, I suggest newcomer Tom Gabbay's first book. It's the perfect antidote to the mid-winter blahs, combining the secret Cold War world of John Le Carre with the fast-paced paranoia and violence of Robert Ludlum - a spy novel of the first rank.

Set in 1963, the story covers five days in Berlin in the summer of that year. Jack Teller, disillusioned by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, has retired from the CIA. Now he lives on the beach in Florida where he is writing a bad novel and fishing even worse. Teller had left Germany as a young boy in 1927. Now he's being called back by the Agency because someone behind the Iron Curtain is asking for Jack Teller in person. Apparently, they have important information they will only give to him.

Reluctantly, he flies to Berlin. Things don't go well at first as the local spooks insist on shadowing Teller as he attempts a meeting with the mystery man. Eventually, though, Teller manages to elude his handlers and make contact with an East German colonel in Intelligence.

The information he gives to Teller is too much to believe. It seems there's a plot to kill President Kennedy during his visit to Berlin in only a few days. Teller is also told that the plot is coming from the CIA, which is planning to blame the Communists for the assassination.

Teller dutifully tells his former boss what he has learned and is told to forget such crazy tales. But Teller knows what the CIA thinks of Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs, and he realizes what might sound absurd to normal people is precisely the kind of thing others might think up.

Now Teller is on his own in a foreign city, trying to track down killers that are after him too. His only ally appears to be the enemy.

Using Kennedy conspiracy theories may not be a new plot device, but Gabbay tells such an engaging and fast-paced tale it doesn't matter. Add a new and adept name to the must-read list of thriller writers.

Peter Mergendahl

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