Gus Russo

Gus Russo

Gus Russo was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1950. As a student Russo was opposed to the Vietnam War and worked for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 presidential campaign. He also began taking an interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and eventually produced a screenplay that was later turned down by Oliver Stone.

In 1991 Russo was recruited as a researcher on a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. According to Russo: "With a huge research budget, we divided into four teams. All of us were given great latitude. I was allowed to follow up on every lead (conspiratorial and otherwise) I had always wanted to test. We went everywhere Oswald went, from Minsk, Russia to Atsugi, Japan. I crisscrossed the U.S. for eighteen months." Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? was finally shown on television in 1993.

Dan Rather chose Russo to represent the critics of the Warren Report in his 1993 television special, Who Shot JFK? Russo was also employed as an investigative reporter for ABC News and worked with Peter Jennings on the television production of Dangerous World, The Kennedy Years.

In 1998 Russo published Live By The Sword: The Secret War against Castro and the Death of JFK. In the book Russo argues that Lee Harvey Oswald was probably a lone gunman and that the secret war against Fidel Castro "precipitated both President Kennedy's assassination and its cover-up." Russo suggests that Oswald was the lone gunman and that Lyndon B. Johnson, the Central Intelligence Agency and Robert Kennedy took part in the cover-up in order to prevent a nuclear war against Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The book was well received by the anti-conspiracy media and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The leading supporter of the lone-gunman theory, Gerald Posner, wrote: "Russo's Live by the Sword unequivocally places the guilt on Lee Harvey Oswald. He convincingly demonstrates that the cover up that followed the assassination was prompted in part by the fear of top government officials, including Bobby Kennedy, that Castro, or the climate fostered by his regime, might have played a role in the murder and that the United States' own plots to kill Castro would be exposed."

James P. Hosty was also impressed with the book and wrote: "The reason most people have not accepted the conclusions of the Warren Report is its failure to ascribe a motive to Oswald. Live By the Sword finally discloses the most likely motivation for Oswald as well as the reason that motive had to be kept secret."

Other books by Russo include The Outfit (2002), the story of the "secretive organised crime cartel that began its reign in prohibition-era Chicago before becoming the puppet master of Hollywood, Las Vegas and Washington". Russo also co-wrote Gangsters and Goodfellas (2004) with Henry Hill. Russo's latest book is Supermob (2005)

Primary Sources

(1) Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (1998)

On November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was a 13-year-old freshman attending Mount St. Joseph's High School, a Catholic school in Baltimore, Maryland. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the first whispered rumor-in the hallway on my way to a sixth period biology class. I recollect just as distinctly what I heard: "Some Cuban guy working for Castro shot the President!" It wasn't long before I heard a new explanation for the president's murder: "It was a Russian agent working for Khrushchev!' None of us knew which was the more shocking or potentially dangerous rumor.

In the blur of that first horrible day came yet another news report, this one stating that the President had been shot by a former Marine hiding in a book warehouse and using a German Mauser-type rifle. Hours later, the Dallas police took such a man into custody five miles away, in a Dallas movie theater. Two days later, by the end of that paralyzingly sad weekend, the story of JFK's assassination had turned 180 degrees: Now, according to most of the reports, the President had been shot in the back of the head by a Castro sympathizer using an Italian rifle.

I couldn't help but be intrigued.

After the suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down on the way from one Dallas jail to another, President Lyndon Johnson put together an august body, headed by Supreme Court Chief justice Earl Warren, to find out definitively (or so it was thought) who had killed the president and why. Ten months later, without any equivocation, it concluded that Oswald, an American and a former Marine, had acted alone with no clear motive, and certainly without evidence of any involvement by Cuba, the Soviet Union, or any other foreign nation.

My own initial skepticism over the 1964 Warren Commission findings was fueled by the naivete (perhaps it was the arrogance) of a seasoned teenager who had read all the James Bond novels. I knew about spies, and fake defectors, and sharpshooters, and patsies. The government couldn't fool me! My suspicions were heightened by the obvious government secrecy over the investigation, especially the sealing of the Warren Commission records for 75 years. Thus, I, like many of my age group, became an amateur investigator pursuing the ultimate truth-what exactly happened on November 22, 1963.

In 1966, with the publication of Mark Lane's book Rush to Judgment; I became convinced that the government itself was covering up the true nature and cause of the JFK assassination. Others, encouraged by the popularity of Lane's book, accused the federal government of conspiring to murder JFK. Years later, I would come to realize Lane's tome for what it was: a lawyer's masterful brief for his "client," the deceased Lee Oswald. Reading it as a teenager, I had no inkling of the ease with which a competent attorney could find discrepancies in any murder investigation, let alone one In which 25,000 interviews were conducted. In truth, Lane went far beyond the pale, taking evidence and testimony so far out of context that their original import (if any) was unrecognizable. His treatment of Jack Ruby's testimony was a virtual masterpiece of lawyerly obfuscation. But it took a while for me to come to this realization.

(2) Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (1998)

With the bootleg release of the Zapruder film in 1975, conspiracy fever reached its high mark. The home movie seemed to show JFK reacting to a shot from the front, while Oswald's "sniper's nest" (as termed by the Warren Commission) had been behind the presidential motorcade. Like many others, I was convinced that the Zapruder film proved Kennedy was shot from the front. I also was persuaded that Oswald wasn't a talented enough shooter to pull off the shooting alone. On both counts, I was wrong.

This entire period-from 1963 through 197S--was marked by a continual barrage of ideologically-driven books on the Kennedy assassination. Ideologues are dangerous enough, but the books and authors of this time inspired a clique of followers, all with a pathological hatred of the US. government. These "conspiracy would make any leap of logic necessary in order to say that Lee Oswald had been an unwitting pawn of the evil government conspirators. And anyone believing otherwise was branded as a CIA agent (more than one prominent critic has labeled me as such), or a gullible lackey. The atmosphere of intellectual anarchy frightened off almost every serious historian. If they looked at the Kennedy murder, they concluded, they too would be branded as "kooks."

When the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) began gearing up in 1978, I spoke often with its staff members, directing them to areas I believed important. It was their meticulous photographic, forensic, and ballistic work that convinced me that Oswald alone shot President Kennedy. From that point on, only one question remained for me to answer: Was Oswald a hired gun?

Over the next dozen years, I suggested to numerous broadcast entities that they should reinvestigate the Kennedy assassination in a long-form TV documentary. PBS showed some interest, and a research grant I was given produced some interesting interviews. But none of the media wanted to pursue the matter further.

Temporarily abandoning the idea of a documentary I resuscitated an old fictional screenplay I had written as a roman A clef on the Kennedy killing. However, in the Hollywood of 1990, the number of directors interested in making political statements could be counted on one finger His name was Oliver Stone.

The brilliantly talented Stone seemingly showed interest in my screenplay By sheer coincidence, and unbeknownst to me, the powerful filmmaker had recently decided to write and direct a film on JFK's murder. I was invited to meet with Stone in Dallas. To my shock, Stone informed me, apparently without consulting anyone who had studied the case for decades, that he would base his film on the most flawed and controversial character ever connected with it, the District Attorney of New Orleans, Jim Garrison. Stone said he rejected my screenplay, among other reasons, because it was a work of fiction. In the drink-filled haze of the Stoneleigh Hotel bar I tried to tell him that Garrison's story was fictional, too. At the same time, Stone also plunked down $80,000 for the rights to an obviously concocted story peddled by some local "entrepreneurs." Their tale purported to prove that a Dallas cop, moonlighting as an intentional assassin, really had shot Kennedy.

(3) Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (1998)

David Ferrie has long been portrayed on paper and in film as an American grotesque: a raving hater of President Kennedy, who threatened to kill the President. He was said to be angry at JFK for failing to help the Cuban exiles restore liberty to their land. It seems certain he made a celebrated statement after the Bay of Pigs fiasco on which much of the portrait has been based. That incident occurred in July 1961, when Ferrie was addressing the New Orleans chapter of the Order of World Wars. Ferrie became so critical of Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion that he was asked to discontinue his remarks. But that was almost certainly taken out of context and misinterpreted.

A devout Catholic (who was, for a time, a seminarian), Ferrie voted for Kennedy in 1960 and was "elated" when he defeated Richard Nixon for the presidency that year. "Things are going to turn for the better now that a Catholic has been elected," a good friend would remember Ferrie saying. Another friend elaborated, "After all, he was an Irish Catholic too. He was an enthusiastic supporter (of Kennedy). Dave was a spokesman for the Kennedys . To him, the idea of a Catholic president was mind-boggling, He thought Kennedy was fabulous."

(4) Gerald Posner, review of Gus Russo's Live by the Sword (1998)

Gus Russo has turned twenty years of meticulous research into a thought-provoking book on the assassination of JFK. Filled with new pieces of evidence and new-found witnesses, Russo's Live by the Sword unequivocally places the guilt on Lee Harvey Oswald. He convincingly demonstrates that the cover up that followed the assassination was prompted in part by the fear of top government officials, including Bobby Kennedy, that Castro, or the climate fostered by his regime, might have played a role in the murder and that the United States' own plots to kill Castro would be exposed. This cover up mounts to a damning indictment of the investigation conducted by both the CIA and the FBI. Live by the Sword throws a bright spotlight on the politics that swirled around the murder of John Kennedy.

(5) Scott Malone, review of Gus Russo's Live by the Sword (1998)

A tour de force. Electrifying. Live by the Sword definitively resolves the debate that's raged since the Senate and House Committee reports of the 1970s. There can be no further question - Robert Kennedy personally and singularly pushed so hard to kill Fidel Castro that it literally blew up in his brother's face. Gus Russo's unique perspective explains virtually every significant discrepancy in the JFK case that has arisen over the past 35 years. Live by the Sword finally lifts the veil of secrecy off this cockeyed, cockamamie case. It turns all the "conventional" wisdom on its head.

(6) Steve Allen, review of Gus Russo's Live by the Sword (1998)

Because of the publication of this book, which brings together the research and the studious co-relation of thousands of bits of evidence, it's no longer necessary, it seems to me, to do additional scholarship on the Kennedy assassination. Truly remarkable truly impressive. I'm greatly impressed.

(7) Bill O'Reilly, Fox News (1998)

Russo makes... a very convincing case that JFK made his decisions in an emotional way, a la Clinton. For me, the most interesting thing in (Live By the Sword) is that Oswald wasn't a conspiratorialist, but was obsessed with the poor way Kennedy was treating Cuba... Live by the Sword is a very, very good book if you want to learn about Lee Harvey Oswald... Russo makes a very compelling case that he could have pulled the assassination off by himself.

(8) New York Times (23rd May, 1999)

Compelling, exhaustively researched and even-handed. What is most impressive about 'Live by the Sword' is that Russo is able to explain (though not condone) the actions of many of those in Government, including Lyndon B. Johnson, the C.I.A. and Robert Kennedy, all of whom fought hard to keep what Russo calls 'the secret war against Castro' from the public - thereby averting possible American retaliation and, perhaps, another catastrophic world war.

(9) James DiEugenio, Who is Gus Russo (1999)

In late 1991, when Oliver Stone released JFK, Mark Lane decided to write his third book about the Kennedy assassination. Anyone who has read Plausible Denial, knows the significance of Marita Lorenz to that book. When the book became a bestseller, the media was eager to attack it. So in Newsweek, a man was quoted deriding Lorenz in quite strong terms as telling wild and bizarre stories and being generally unreliable. The source was, at that time, a little known Kennedy researcher. He was so obscure that Lane replied to the reporter, "So who is Gus Russo? Has he ever written a book? Has he ever written an article?" At that time, to my knowledge, he had done neither. But now Russo has written a book. It is so dreadful in every aspect that Lane’s question carries more weight now than then. In retrospect, it seems quite prescient.

I can speak about this rather bracing phenomenon from firsthand experience. To my everlasting embarrassment, Gus Russo is listed in the acknowledgments to my book, Destiny Betrayed. In my defense, I can only argue that my association with Russo at that time was from a distance. We had communicated over the phone a few times because I had heard he was interested in the New Orleans scene and had done some work on Permindex, the murky right wing front group that Clay Shaw had worked for in Italy in the late fifties and early sixties. Later, after my book came out in the summer of 1992, he called me and asked me for some supporting documents that I had used in writing it. My first impressions of Russo were that he was amiable, interested, and that, since he lived in Baltimore, he was quite familiar with what was available for viewing at the National Archives and at the Assassination Archives and Research Center in Washington D. C.

I encountered Russo in person a couple of times at the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993. I attended the ‘92 ASK Conference in Dallas where I exchanged some materials with him and at which he did an ad hoc talk with John Newman. I did not actually attend that dual presentation but I heard that Russo’s part centered on some aspects of military intelligence dealing with the assassination. Specifically it concerned Air Force Colonel Delk Simpson, an acquaintance of both LBJ military aide Howard Burris and CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, about whom some significant questions had been raised. And since he was coupled with Newman, I assumed that Russo was investigating the possibility of some form of foreknowledge of the assassination in some high military circles. My other encounter with Russo in this time period was even more direct. Toward the end of 1992, I had reason to visit Washington to see a research associate and examine a new CIA database of documents that was probably the best index of assassination-related materials available at the time. We decided to call up Russo and we arranged to spend a Saturday night at his home.

When we got there, Russo was his usual amiable self and his surroundings revealed that he was indeed immersed in the Kennedy assassination. There were photos of a man who was a dead ringer for Oswald in combat fatigues in Florida, where Oswald was never supposed to have been. Russo had obtained letters showing that George de Mohrenschildt had been in contact with George Bush at a much earlier date than anyone had ever suspected. Russo had a library of books on the Kennedy assassination that was abundant and expansive. He had secured a letter written by Jim Garrison to Jonathan Blackmer of the House Select Committee on Assassinations that examined the significance of two seemingly obscure suspects in his investigation, Fred Lee Crisman and Thomas Beckham. Russo had a letter from Beckham to a major magazine that was extraordinarily interesting. It discussed the young man’s relationship with Jack Martin, the CIA, the Bay of Pigs, a man who fit the description of Guy Banister, and a personal acquaintance of his, "this double agent, Lee Harvey Oswald." (Significantly, none of the above material appears in Russo’s book.)

(10) Michael T. Griffith, Errors and Ommissions in Live by the Sword (2001)

In his book Live By the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK (1998), Gus Russo argues that only one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot President Kennedy, but that Oswald did it at the urging of Fidel Castro's agents and that Cuban intelligence may have paid Oswald in advance to carry out the deed. Russo provides a great deal of valuable, interesting information. But he also makes numerous invalid claims and often fails to discuss relevant evidence that contradicts his conclusions. What follows is a presentation of some of the errors and omissions in Russo's book.

(1) Russo says that at least once in all the series in the various "Oswald" rifle tests, at least one rifleman was able to score two hits (p. 477). This is incorrect. In the CBS rifle test, NOT ONE of the eleven expert shooters scored two hits on the first attempt, and seven of them failed to do so on ANY attempt. This is especially revealing because the CBS test was the most realistic to date. The test used a moving target sled and a 60-foot tower. The test fairly closely simulated the conditions under which Oswald would have had to fire. And, as mentioned, not one of the expert riflemen in the test scored two hits on his first attempt, and seven of them failed to do so on any attempt, even though, unlike Oswald, the CBS shooters fired nine practice rounds prior to the test and were not required to fire through a half-open window in a cramped area.

(2) Russo says the marksmen in the Warren Commission's (WC) rifle tests "came close" to duplicating the WC's version of Oswald's feat, i.e., two hits out of three shots in 5.6 seconds (p. 476). One wonders how Russo is defining "close" here. The three Master-rated riflemen who took part in the tests missed the head and neck area of the target boards 20 out of 21 times! And this, even though the target boards were stationary, even though the riflemen were firing from only a 30-foot elevation, and even though two of the riflemen took longer than 6 seconds to fire. None of the WC's rifle tests involved moving targets or firing from the same elevation from which Oswald supposedly fired.

(3) Russo says "the most impressive" Oswald rifle simulation was the one performed in 1994 by Todd Wayne Vaughan (p. 476). But Vaughan didn't use a moving target and not once did he get off three shots in less than 6 seconds. Furthermore, on the day of the test, Vaughan fired fourteen shots prior to starting the test, a luxury Oswald would not have had. Nor did Vaughan fire from an elevation, as Oswald would have had to do. Russo says Vaughan "never received any formal firearms training, had never been in the military, had never worked a bolt-action weapon, and had never even fired a high-powered rifle before." First of all, the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle is not a "high-powered rifle"--it's at best a medium-velocity weapon. Russo fails to mention that Vaughan is an experienced hunter, with some 15 years of experience in aiming at and hitting moving targets. So it's no surprise that Vaughan was able to hit stationary targets from a level position--yet, as mentioned, he never once fired all his shots in less than 6 seconds.

It should be pointed out that the only way one can assume a lone gunman would have had more than 6 seconds to fire is to assume he fired before the limousine passed beneath the intervening oak tree and that he completely missed the entire limousine with this first and closest shot. This would mean the gunman would have had to miss the huge limousine, which was about 20 feet long and over 6 feet wide, from less than 140 feet away and from 60 feet up. Even the Warren Commission labeled the first-shot-miss scenario an "improbability."

(4) Russo says he consulted with "numerous marksmen and current Marine trainers" and that all of them said Oswald's alleged shooting feat would have been "simple" (p. 465). That's odd, because I interviewed a former Army sniper and a competition rifleman, and both said Oswald's alleged shooting performance would have been very difficult. In addition, the most renowned sniper of the 20th Century, Carlos Hathcock, likewise said Oswald's supposed shooting feat would have been very difficult, and Hathcock added he didn't believe that only one man shot Kennedy. The Army sniper with whom I spoke said his instructors invited the students in his sniping class to try to duplicate Oswald's supposed shooting feat, and that not one of them could do it. Former Marine sniper Craig Roberts is another sniping expert who says Oswald's alleged shooting feat would have been very difficult and that no one man could have done the shooting. If Oswald's alleged shooting feat would have been so easy, why hasn't anyone ever scored two hits in three shots against a moving target from a 60-foot elevation using a Carcano rifle in 6-8 seconds on the first attempt? It should be remembered that Oswald would have had only one attempt, that he had no chance to fire "practice rounds" that day, and that he was widely regarded as a rather poor shot by those who saw him shoot.

(5) Russo says that "an FBI sharpshooter, using Oswald's rifle, fired three rapid-fire rounds and immediately took paraffin tests. Both his hands and cheek tested negative" (p. 463). Russo is taking the Warren Commission's word on this point. But when Harold Weisberg received what appeared to be records on these tests as a result of a FOIA suit, he discovered a different story: "ERDA [the Energy and Research and Development Administration] . . . decided to give me copies of its records. . . . These records included the results of a number of test firings with that rifle [the alleged murder weapon] and the paraffin test made on those who fired it. The test firing left heavy deposits on all the shooters faces, quite the opposite of what the paraffin test of Oswald's face disclosed. (Never Again, p. 337)."

As Weisberg mentions, the paraffin test of Oswald's cheeks was negative, suggesting he had not fired a rifle recently. However, I should add that paraffin tests aren't always reliable and that police departments stopped using them a long time ago.

(11) Gus Russo, Who is Jim DiEugenio? (1999)

Since the 1993 airing of the PBS Frontline episode, Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?, an astounding amount of half-truths and misinformation has made the rounds concerning yours truly. Until now, I had no desire to respond to these "critics," since the old maxim "consider the source" more than clarified this flow of lunacy to anyone who had evolved beyond the homo erectus stage. However, one recent diatribe is so alarming it must be dealt with post haste. I refer of course to an article that appeared in the January-February 1999 issue of an anti-government rag with a richly-deserved microscopic circulation. That piece of claptrap is entitled Probe, and purports to be the mouthpiece of a group who call themselves the Committee to Investigate the Kennedy Assassination (CTKA). (Many believe the title Probe is actually a thinly-veiled reference to a device that is employed by a cult with a fondness for proctological exams. I myself would never believe such a thing. But who knows?)

The guru of the "Probers" is an unrepentant Jim Garrison apologist who goes by the name Jim DiEugenio, and in this recent issue he authored an article ("Who is Gus Russo?") that is more error-ridden than the 1965 New York Mets. What makes it dangerous, however, is the possibility that someone is using Jim's name in an elaborate smear campaign - a foreign intelligence apparatus perhaps (?). The proof is rooted not only in the unique history of Jim DiEugenio, but in a tell-tale oversight in the article, missed by the smear perpetrators. Even the best make mistakes.

I first met the man "who represented himself as Jim DiEugenio in 1992. He seemed to be earnest, if overly brooding and paranoid. However, he gave the mistaken impression that he was a hard-working investigator who was writing a book on the Garrison saga. Although I had strong disagreements with DiEugenio over the Garrison scenario, we nonetheless had some overlapping interests and thus traded some information. I looked forward, however, to Jim's book, feeling that once he conducted first-hand interviews in New Orleans, he would come to the same beliefs as most New Orleaneans about the lunacy of the Jolly Green Giant.

Thus I was startled when his book, Destiny Betrayed, arrived. Two things stood out about this masterwork; he bought the Garrison demagoguery hook, line, and sinker; and this hard-working investigator's notes cite a total of eight original interviews - five with other researchers, two with Garrison aides, and one with the widow of a cop whose evidence against Clay Shaw was so tainted, the presiding judge disallowed it as unworthy of even Garrison's circus.

Nowhere in Destiny Betrayed is there seen an attempt to contact the countless dozens who fall prey to Jim's (Garrison or DiEugenio's) ad hominum vitriol. Everyone is accused of something, but virtually no one was contacted for their side of the story. Of course this is a common tactic usually perpetrated by those who fear that they might be confronted with a fact that destroys the melodramatic underpinnings of their thesis. But more than that, it is patently unfair and downright bad journalism to perpetrate such a shoddy work concerning a subject of such importance. (In my own book, Live By the Sword, I cited over 500 original interviews, in addition to over one thousand conducted on background. I wrote over four hundred letters requesting interviews to first-hand participants in the event, including all those I found at fault in my conclusion. For example, many aides to Robert Kennedy were approached.)

Not surprisingly, DiEugenio's predictable conclusion was that Garrison was correct in his anti-government harangue. My shock eventually faded, that is until I was sent the recent, cited, DiEugenio missive. The usual unchallenged incendiary was there - no surprise - however, I noticed something else that may shed some light on how such irresponsible poppycock came to be in the first place.