Reviewed by Michael Drohan
August 2, 2023
The Last Honest Man: The CIA, The FBI, The Mafia, and the Kennedys, One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy by James Risen. (Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, 2023.)
The last honest man in the title of this book is Frank Church, now principally renowned for his heading the Senatorial Committee investigating the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Mafia and since known as the Church Committee. This book is several things, among them being a biography of Church, a kind of history of the proceedings of the Church Committee, an exposure for the first time of the schemes to assassinate the leaders of other countries disliked by the US government, an account of the FBI’s sordid history of spying on American citizens especially those opposed to war, those advocating racial justice and investigating extra-marital affairs of Presidents and other prominent leaders. Above all, the book is an exposure of the bogeyman “communist” whipped up to destroy those whom the government and Presidents disliked or who spoke against the imperial policies of the US. It could be said that Risen’s account of Church’s life achieved most of these objectives.
Frank Church was from Idaho and became the Senator for that State in 1956 defeating Herman Welker, “McCarthy’s hatchet man” as Risen describes him (p. 49). Church was only 32 at the time and his victory set the tone for his Senatorial political career. In the Senate, Church became more radical especially at the time when the Vietnam war was moving towards a US defeat of unprecedented proportions. “He wanted to investigate the sources of power that he believed were behind the rise of the permanent national security state that led to endless war in South-East Asia but economic and financial as well. So Church began a landmark investigation into the rising global power of America’s corporate giants, and the trail he began to follow would ultimately lead him to the CIA” (p. 119). In other words, Church was realizing that at its base it was the US capitalist imperial ambitions of the US that was at work and the CIA was its go too man.
In 1975, Senator Frank Church became the chairman of what was officially known as the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Thereafter it became known as the Church Committee. One of the genius elements of the Committee, compared to today, was that it was bipartisan in its composition, including as members people such as Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Sen. John Tower of Texas. The latter two, needless to say, obstructed much of its proceedings, but despite that the Committee was successful in exposing the exploits of the Government’s spy agency, the CIA, around the world, revealing it to be little more than a criminal enterprise.
The Church Committee on May 9, 1975, met and agreed to launch an investigation of the CIA’s assassination plots. Reading this part of Risen’s book on the assassination plots is eerily like reading a horror novel as it recounts stories of poison pills, bomb explosions and shootings. He recounts in some detail the numerous attempts to kill President Fidel Castro of Cuba employing the principal mafia bosses in the US at the time, Johnny Roselli in Los Angeles, Sam Giancana in Chicago and Santo Trafficante in Florida. Risen, however, does not go into the reasons for the unrelenting ferocity of the US Government vis a vis Castro and Cuba, for which the CIA and the Mafia were the foot soldiers. Behind this intense hatred and determination to destroy Castro and Cuba was the message that US assets and economic interests in Cuba shall not be used for the needs of the population of Cuba.
Perhaps the most excruciating part of Risen’s book is his account of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1961. Much as in the case of Cuba, Lumumba, when elected Prime Minister, sought the help of the US in overcoming the poverty and misery left behind by the Belgian colonizers. Only when that failed did Lumumba appeal to the then Soviet Union for help. Once that happened he had to go.
Enter the CIA. The fact that it was not one of the CIA’s schemes that succeeded eventually in his brutal murder and dismemberment does not diminish CIA’s role in the crime. He was replaced by a brutal tyrant and dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was more to the liking of the US. Mobutu’s dictatorship lasted 30 years and the devastation unleashed is with us to this day.
Another sordid assassination plot that Risen goes into is the case of Chile, a decade after that of Lumumba in the Congo in 1970. Although continents apart and a decade in time, the underlying economic interests were the same, minerals and mining. In the case of the Congo, the copper, gold and diamond mines in Katanga province and in Chile similarly copper and phosphates. Church investigated the secret collaboration of ITT with the CIA to overthrow the socialist President Salvador Allende elected in 1970. This was Nixon and Kissinger’s coup and came as the US was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Risen recounts in fair detail the elements of the successful plot resulting once more in the taking of power by a brutal autocrat and anti-communist enthusiast, General Augusto Pinochet.
Besides the three assassination plots mentioned above, the Church Committee also explored multiple other CIA plots around the world. Among them are the 1954 coup in Guatemala against President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman on behalf of United Fruit; the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in Persia/Iran also in 1954 for the control of its petroleum industry; the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 under the Kennedy presidency and numerous other schemes and plots under four Presidents, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Because of space, no doubt, Risen does not go into detail on the latter four coups.
While the CIA was causing mayhem and pursuing criminal assassination plots around the world, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was carrying on criminal schemes of all kinds on the domestic front. The Church Committee’s investigation of the latter was headlined by revelations of the FBI’s long campaign to spy on and discredit Rev. Martin Luther King. The head of the FBI, Edgar Hoover, who had been at its helm from 1922 until his death in 1972, was nothing short of being a notorious gangster who gained enormous power over Congress, the Presidency and the Judiciary through the dirt he had gained on every public figure. The Church Committee brought to light for the first time the full scope of the FBI’s abuses but very probably that was possible only because Hoover had passed away in 1972 and was thus unable to undermine the investigation as he had done to all others. Hoover was a dark figure imbued with intense racist convictions, white supremacist beliefs and a skilled user of the invocation of the communist bogeyman in destroying his enemies.
Perhaps the most notorious of Hoover’s crimes was the murder of Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party on December 4, 1969. Risen devotes considerable space to this particular exploit of the FBI in conjunction with the Chicago police of breaking into the home and murdering an innocent man in his sleep. The murder of Fred Hampton exposed the criminality and ruthlessness of the FBI as perhaps no other in its long sordid history.
A third leg of the nefarious criminal underworld that the Church Committee investigated was the National Security Agency (NSA). It was set up in 1952 and specialized in intercepting calls of US citizens to international locations, in other words spying on all international calls. The phone companies RCA Global, ITT World Communications and Western Union International participated in the program. It was a murky underworld that the Committee tried to penetrate. It spied particularly on anti-war activists and citizens that belonged to or had contacts with socialist organizations. Risen reports on the principal findings of the Church Committee on this leg of the underground state.
In one of the senator’s final interviews, Risen recounts in the book, Church warned against the threat of American imperialism “now embodied in the hawkish policies of Ronald Reagan” (p. 397). In an interview with David Broder of the Washington Post, Church states “It is the idea that the communist threat is everywhere that has made our government its captive and its victim”.
This book is not an easy read as there are so many organizations and personalities that one has to keep track of in this history. If, however, one is interested in understanding the hidden forces that rule in the US it is a recommended guide.
-Michael Drohan has a B.S in Physics, Chemistry and Math from University College Dublin and a Ph.D in Political Economy from Bradford University, UK. Taught Physics at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya and Economics at Penn State University, Duquesne and Edinboro U. of Pa. Specialization is the political economy of underdevelopment using a Marxist analysis. He is also a political activist involved in anti-war movements and nuclear abolition from an anti-imperialist perspective.