First Hand Knowledge: A Review

Ulric Shannon
From The Fourth Decade, November, 1993. Posted with the permission of Ulric Shannon.
Robert Morrow's latest book on the Kennedy assassination, First Hand Knowledge : How I Participated in the CIA-Mafia Murder of JFK (S.P.I. Books, 1992) was published during last year's Christmas book rush and went practically unnoticed. It is the third literary effort of a man whose expertise on the subject is the result of his "admitted" participation, on behalf of the CIA, in the assassination. I should caution that anyone who has read Morrow's two previous offerings (Betrayal, 1976, and The Senator Must Die, 1988) will not find anything new in this book. First Hand Knowledge is in fact an amalgamation of his previous work. Many passages in First Hand Knowledge are lifted word-for-word from the two previous books.

Researcher Duke Lane's article "The Cowtown Connection", which examines the arrest Morrow mentions, is available on this web site.

Most seasoned researchers are aware of Morrow's longstanding claims: that he operated under contract with the CIA in the murky world of CIA-funded anti-Castro Cubans in an effort to destabilize Castro's government, and that these same people, fuelled by President Kennedy's perceived betrayal of the exile cause, went on to hatch a plot against the President with the CIA's active participation.

First Hand Knowledge is, in many ways, spoken in two voices. The first is an historical review of the anti-Castro movement and the CIA's involvement in financing and supporting anti-Communist endeavors in Latin America, along with the requisite political context (which is often tainted by Morrow's own right-wing extremism). Morrow is fairly accurate in this kind of reporting, given that much of his information was already developed by past congressional investigations. Many times in First Hand Knowledge however, this straight reportage is used to set the table for much more dubious and self-serving claims by Morrow.

The second voice is a narrative in which Morrow tells of personal exploits in many unbelievable situations that a bad novelist would treat with derision. These James Bond-esque feats include seizing the controls of a falling plane, high-speed car chases in the streets of Washington and dogfights, over Cuba where the enemy pilot was so close "...I could see the smile on his young Cuban face." [11]

Perhaps the reason that Morrow's place in the assassination controversy has not been seriously challenged over the last seventeen years is that his scenario of the assassination falls well within mainstream theorizing--a Cuban exile plot supported by the Mafia, the CIA, and to lesser extents, by J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson. But the fact that Morrow is given to self-aggrandizement does cast doubt on the evidentiary value of his "firsthand knowledge," since it is evident, after study, that he only has his own word to back up his stated expertise on the case.

Eladio del Valle was the victim of one of those supposedly "mysterious deaths," and his murder was a key element of the plot of the movie JFK. In reality, the reasons for his killing were probably pretty mundane.

For starters, nearly all I the characters Morrow claims to have known and plotted with are dead and thus cannot disclaim any of what he says. (Morrow has the apparent habit of only adding characters to his story once they are dead and presumably cannot issue denials). And yet, for a man who supposedly knew all of the principals, he is not given to lengthy descriptions of them. As many researchers have noted, Morrow does not seem to have a good knowledge of the characters he supposedly encountered during his work for the CIA. For instance, when asked by C.B. Sharrett to describe David Ferrie, Morrow would only say that he didn't think Ferrie was a homosexual. [2] Yet he wrote in his book and told me that "everybody knew he was a homosexual." [3]

Morrow describes Ferrie as receiving a serious flesh wound in the left shoulder during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Yet researcher Bob Harris contacted the New Orleans Coroner's Office and spoke to an assistant coroner who was familiar with Ferrie's autopsy. Indeed, Ferrie had no scar of any kind on his left shoulder.

Other examples of Morrow's ignorance of his supposed acolytes revolve around Clay Shaw. For instance, Morrow claims that Shaw and Jack Ruby were very closely involved in planning of the assassination. [4] Yet no other source, credible or otherwise, has ever suggested that Shaw and Ruby even knew each other. Morrow also paints Shaw as one of the more rabid right-wingers in the New Orleans area, even though all that is known about Shaw (including recently disclosed private correspondence) indicates that he was liberal in his thinking. [5] Morrow claims to have been present in Europe while weapons were removed from Permindex warehouses in 1961. [6] Yet in Betrayal, he continually referred to the group as "Permidex", a startling error for him to make had he really been there. [7]

Many researchers have noted Morrow's frequent misspelling of the names of the very people he supposedly knew and worked with. Morrow's oft-invoked excuse is that his publisher made the errors after receiving the manuscript.

Also suspicious is Morrow's inability to offer any "new" suspects to the research community. A common characteristic of the many dubious tales in JFK assassination lore -- such as Robert Easterling's wild claims, Marita Lorenz's recent drastic modifications, and Chauncey Holt's belated "confession -- is the inability of these individuals to advance new names or propose new leads based on their claimed knowledge of events.

At interesting aspect of Morrow's story involves Kohly and a possible connection to Richard Nixon. Researcher Peter Whitmey explores this angle in detail.

One such example is Morrow's addition of French OAS infiltrator Michel Mertz (erroneously referred to by Morrow as, at various times, John Michael Mertz and Victor Michael Mertz) as a suspect in the assassination. [8] Morrow was supposedly told by his case officer, Tracy Barnes, that Mertz, alias Michel Roux, alias Jean Souetre, was indeed the dreaded contract killer, QJ/WIN. [9] Yet, as researchers who have followed this lead know very well, Souetre, Mertz and Roux were three different individuals, and reports that Mertz was Souetre's alias were born out of the early confusion that followed the French government's attempts to locate Souetre in April, 1964. [10]

It is worth noting that the Mertz/Souetre information, which was developed mostly by Dallas researcher Mary Ferrell from 1977 on, was first publicly disclosed in Penn Jones' newsletter The Continuing Inquiry in 1979, and later in Henry Hurt's book, Reasonable Doubt in 1985. One wonders why Morrow, having been told of Mertz's involvement by Barnes shortly after the assassination, would sit on the information for two decades (neglecting to include Mertz as a character in Betrayal) and wait until other researchers had developed the information about him, before back-dating his knowledge of Mertz. (Incidentally, he lists Mertz as an "asset" of Santos Trafficante an assertion for which there is no support of any kind.) [11]

Another such example is Morrow's contribution of a Jack Ruby associate, Thomas Eli Davis, as a suspect, this time as a ZR/RIFLE assassin. [12] Davis is not mentioned in Betrayal (not even under a pseudonym) yet becomes an important figure in the assassination by the time First Hand Knowledge goes to press. Perhaps this is because the Tommy Davis information first came to light during the HSCA investigation, and in Seth Kantor's book Who Was Jack Ruby?, published three years after Betrayal.

If Morrow is indeed drawing his knowledge of the case from other books as opposed to any participation in the assassination, this could explain why he never presented Mertz or Davis as suspects in Betrayal or in any discourse on the assassination before the information became publicly available.

How Morrow Deals With Ferrie

[Editor's Note: David Blackburst is the top expert on David Ferrie, an enigmatic character around whom a mass of fanciful claims has arisen. Blackburst made the following observations in a post to alt.assassination.jfk on May 19, 2004.]

Having done a lot of research on David Ferrie, I often can guage a book's general reliability by its accuracy in dealing with Ferrie. I have recently been re-reading Robert Morrow's First Hand Knowledge and I have noted a few anomalies. This is just a quick overview; I will cite chapter and verse in a later essay. Let it be noted that Morrow clearly was involved in certain anti-Castro activities in that era.

The first thing that caught my eye, even before Morrow gets to Ferrie, is his assertion that Robert Aime Maheu worked for William Guy Banister in the Chicago FBI office for a number of years. Wrong. I've seen both men's FBI personnel files: Banister was the Special Agent in Charge of Chicago only from January 4 to December 11, 1954. Maheu, who never served in the Chicago office, left the FBI in 1951. This was an error made in an early assassination book, but Morrow recounts it as though from his own personal knowledge.

Morow introduces Ferrie on April 16, 1961 in Washington for a meeting with CIA officials. But appears to have been in New Orleans on that date. He purchased fuel at Lakefront Airport. He paid his phone bill and car payment that day with money orders from a local bank. And a friend of his recalls a full day of local activity.

Morrow next has Ferrie flying a plane (on which he was not yet qualified) on a mission to Cuba (involving Eladio del Valle) during which Ferrie was wounded in the shoulder. Again, Ferrie was actually with friends in New Orleans. del Valle was in Miami, giving an interview to a news reporter. The wound was not noticed by the doctor who gave him his routine annual flight physical just a week later, never mentioned to friends, and no trace was evident at the time of his death in 1967.

Later in the book, Morrow has Ferrie involved in an arms deal in New Orleans in early August 1963, on a day when he was in Miami at a hearing.

Three big problems, and I've barely scanned the book. Maybe Morrow has the dates wrong. Maybe there was some chicanery to obfuscate Ferrie's whereabouts. I am inclined to believe that Morrow may have embellished a few events, or worse. Ferrie seems to be an easy target for some who write about this case.

David Blackburst

Another character Morrow now implicates in the assassination is the Chief of the CIA's Western Hemisphere Division, David Atlee Phillips. [13] Morrow alleges that Phillips is one of the men who were photographed while under arrest in Fort Worth on the afternoon of the assassination. Yet recent research by Duke Lane has established beyond question that the man Morrow now identifies as Phillips is in fact Kenneth Glenn Wilson, and that the latter was only being picked up as a witness in the arrest of Donald Wayne House. [14]

Even on the most trivial of details, discrepancies emerge in Robert Morrow's tale. He tells, for instance, of meeting mobster Thomas Luchese during the early stages of the plans to murder Castro. [15] (This despite the fact that no one else has ever identified Luchese as being involved in the plotting.) Morrow recounts that he noticed Luchese was missing the thumb and forefinger on his right hand. Yet several books on the Mob describe Luchese as in fact missing only one finger on his hand. [16]

In Betrayal, Morrow outlined the Dealey Plaza firing sequence which he supposedly learned from his close relationship with the top brass at the CIA. But Morrow made the mistake of positioning one of the assassins on the roof of the Dallas County Criminal Courts Building. [17] The problem is, that particular building has a 15-foot high parapet along the edges of the roof, which clearly makes it an impossible location from which to shoot. [18] When C.B. Sharrett confronted Morrow with this discrepancy, he replied,

Listen, you're a buff. I don't give a damn if the car was bombed or whatever; the point is that there was a conspiracy involved and/ had to reconstruct that part in order to sell the book. [19]
Interestingly, Morrow made sure not to include a "reconstruction" of the firing sequence in First Hand Knowledge.

In Betrayal, Morrow quotes himself as describing Owen Brewster as a sitting Senator from Maine in 1961. [20] Yet Brewster had retired from the Senate in 1952. [21] In First Hand Knowledge, Morrow makes sure to correct this glaring mistake. [22]

In one especially unbelievable incident "recalled" in his book, Morrow tells of being attacked while staying at Miami's famed Fountainebleu Hotel [23] (the site of the infamous Giancana-Roselli-Maheu-Trafficante meeting relating to the plots against Castro). The attack supposedly occurred around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of April 29, 1961 (although Morrow had it happening at 5:30 a.m. in Betrayal). [24] The aggressors were two Cubans, one of whom was known as "The Captain," the other as "Callas." By daylight, four people were dead: The Captain (supposedly killed by Eladio del Valle), Morrow's companion, named Francoise Manet, as well as two laundry truck drivers killed in central Miami during Callas' getaway. [25] Even on the bloodiest of days in Miami, a quadruple murder hardly ever fails to make the news. I asked Miami researcher Gordon Winslow to check the newspapers for the week that followed the night of the four murders. Gordon told me that there was no mention of these four deaths in either of the two Miami dailies during the period of April 29 to May 4,1961.

On another occasion, Morrow tells of staying with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell at the latter's newly built home in Puerto Rico in April 1961. This layover occurred after an improbable motorbike chase-scene through the streets of the island. [26] But Powell's biography reveals he had returned to Washington in January when the new congressional session had begun. [27] There is even doubt as to whether construction of the home was finished by April. [28]

Another example is Morrow's stated knowledge of a man named John O'Hare, whom Morrow describes as a CIA mercenary. Morrow tells of interviewing him in 1983, and states that O'Hare died in Cleburne, Texas, in 1992. [29] Yet O'Hare's death certificate, which is reproduced in the appendices of First Hand Knowledge ostensibly to support Morrow's claim, indicates that O'Hare died on March 23, 1975, in Orange County, Florida. [30] When I confronted Morrow with this discrepancy, he stated:

Well, that's a different John--that--John O'Hare, is, I think, the same guy. But then, of course, they all faked their deaths. He was told to go underground and they buried a Cuban in his place. [31]
Again, this is another "fact" Morrow failed to bring out in First Hand Knowledge. Morrow also told me that O'Hare used the name Bill Bishop and was known as Oscar The Assassin. Yet, in First Hand Knowledge, Morrow had those monikers belonging to Eladio del Valle. Again, Morrow does not seem to be very familiar with his alleged accomplices.

Another discrepancy revolves around Morrow himself. The code name by which he was supposedly known at the CIA was Robert Porter. Yet, during a cloak- and-dagger incident set in Spain that he describes in his book, a CIA contact asks him if he is Robert Morrow. [32] Morrow does not address the question of how such a trivial character would know his real name. Interestingly, the CIA contact in question, he says, was a woman named Susan Cotts (Morrow confirmed to me that that is her real name), a Wellesley senior studying under a Fulbright scholarship who had "allowed herself to be recruited as a student observer in Europe." [33] Yet Bob Harris contacted Wellesley and could find no evidence that a woman by that name had ever studied there. Furthermore, he learned that no Wellesley Fulbright scholar had ever been sent to study in Spain.

House Select Committee investigator Gaeton Fonzi (whom Morrow says he "consulted with" during the HSCA's investigation) told me:

I spent a long afternoon with him, questioning him about it. You know, what it boiled down to is that there was so much in it [Betrayal] that there was absolutely no way to checkout, and what turned me off a little bit, especially about Betrayal was that he had so many documentary facts wrong. [34]
(Morrow tells in First Hand Knowledge of "testifying" before both the HSCA and the Church Committee. In fact, Morrow was only interviewed by Fonzi and was never under oath, and he never testified before the Church Committee.)

Logically, one begins to wonder why the top officials at the CIA would rest so much of their plans on one individual, Morrow. This is especially true since the two most important tasks supposedly carried out by Morrow in preparation for the assassination--namely the purchase of four Mannlicher-Carcanos and the design of communications equipment for the hit squad--could be carried out by anyone else.

For example, Mario Kohly (Morrow's accomplice in his counterfeiting operation) states, in an affidavit reproduced in the appendices to the book, that his son was "quite a radio expert." [35] One wonders why the CIA would need to implicate Morrow in the electronics angle when the younger Kohly could do the job quite well.

When First Hand Knowledge was published, the CIA responded that "There is no record that Robert D. Morrow was ever a contract agent of the CIA." Morrow replied that CIA records would not reflect his employment since he had been paid at the time by the U.S. Army. [36] This is another "fact" that Morrow failed to bring out in any of his books.

For all his many claims of crucial work for the CIA or his self-proclaimed status as an "elite CIA operative," Robert Morrow has been unable to produce so much as a stub from the CIA headquarters' parking lot, a cancelled check, or indeed any sort of documentary proof that he ever did any kind of work for the CIA, the U.S. Army, or anyone else in intelligence. Morrow has stated that his notes from that period, which could bear out his employment by the CIA, were stolen from his, office (presumably by the CIA). Yet he told me that he still had his notes from his time with the CIA, which he said he was "in the process of destroying."

The only kind of confirmation I have come across for any of Morrow's claims is the fact, cited by Dick Russell and Gus Russo, that an employee at Baltimore's Campbell Company airstrip claims to remember a strange fellow (whom Morrow says was Farrie) coming to Baltimore in a Tri-Pacer in August, 1963 and picking up weapons, ostensibly those used in the assassination. [37] Yet Ferrie's own airplane was not a TriPacer, but a Stinson 150 that had not been airworthy since April, 1962. [38]

Morrow also states that he once came across a list drawn up for George Bush listing top security threats for the CIA, which had both him and Frank Sturgis at the top. [39] For some reason, he did not keep the list (a damning document for him to publish), but told me that Jim Lesar at AARC did have a copy. Lesar told me, "I have no knowledge of such a document."

Morrow has written that two attempts had been made against his life. The two supposed attempts seem to contradict Morrow's statement that "...the mentality of the intelligence community is to protect its own," even when these operatives are ready to make embarrassing disclosures. [40]

What hobbles Morrow's credibility is his claim that he "knows all." A most common trait of fraudulent characters in the assassination is that they have self-ascribed expertise on all subjects. In Morrow's case, he claims to have not only been "in the loop" of the John Kennedy assassination, but also of the Robert Kennedy murder and Watergate. He claims to have met both John and Robert Kennedy on many occasions, claims even to have shared a girlfriend with the President, claims that his wife knew Jacqueline Kennedy, and told me that he had been knighted by the British Empire. [41]

For all these questions about his credibility, Morrow remains a figure in the assassination controversy who is frequently consulted as an authority. Despite the excellent reasons for doubting his many tall tales, Morrow was quoted at length as recently as this year, in Dick Russell's The Man Who Knew Too Much, and has apparently gained the respect of otherwise solid researchers, such as Gus Russo and John Davis. Morrow told me, on the subject of the research community, that "of course, those people don't believe me at all." I hope I've done an adequate job in assessing why this is rightly so.

Morrow's story, in the absence of any documentary support, relies exclusively on his own credibility, and since far too much doubt can be cast on the validity of his story, it is impossible to accept First Hand Knowledge and maintain decent standards of evidence.

Robert Morrow has shown his ability to construct dialogue and events in Betrayal, and given the equally dubious nature of his claims in First Hand Knowledge I suggest we treat his latest book as fiction as well.

Thanks to: Peter Whitmey, Gaeton Fonzi, Gordon Winslow, Tony Marsh, Bill Beck, Mark Zaid and Bob Harris.

1. Robert Morrow, First Hand Knowledge (New York: S.P.I. Books, 1992), p. 59 (Hereafter, this source is noted as FHK

2. Transcript of Morrow interview by Sharrett in The Continuing Inquiry (December 22, 1976).

3. Taped interview of Morrow by Shannon, September 14, 1993. Also FHK, pp. 207, 208.

4. FHK, pp. 120, 122.

5. JFK Honor Guard (January 1993) p. 10.

6. FHK, p. 138.

7. Robert Morrow, Betrayal (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1976) pp. 71,74

8. FHK, p. 174.

9. FHK, p. 174.

10. Henry Hurt, Reasonable Doubt (New York: Henry Holt, 1985) pp. 414-419.

11. FHK, p. 188.

12. FHK , p. 164.

13. FHK, p. 242.

14. M. Duke Lane, "The Cowtown Connection," The Third Decade, (July, 1993) p. 36.

15. FHK, p. 13.

16. Stephen Fox, Blood and Power (New York: Wm. Morrow, 1989) p. 96.

17. Betrayal, p. 202.

18. Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1976) p. 173.

19. The Continuing Inquiry, December 22, 1976.

20. Betrayal, p. 65.

21. Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kenney and His Times (New York: Ballantine, 1978) p. 524n.

22. FHK, P. 62.

23. FHK, p. 108.

24. Betrayal, p. 51.

25. FHK, pp. 111, 115.

26. FHK, pp. 95-102.

27. Charles Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991) p. 336.

28. Taped interview of Fonzi by Shannon, July 28, 1993.

29. FHK, pp. 240, 241.

30. FHK, p. 342.

31. Interview with Morrow.

32. FHK, p. 135.

33. Ibid.

34. Reuters wire story; The Vancouver Province, November 22, 1992.

35. FHK, p. 337.

36. Associated Press story.

37. Dick Russell, The Man Who Knew Too Much (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1992).

38. Warren Commission CD 75, p. 294.

39. FHK, p. 296.

40. East Side Weekend, (Cincinnati, OH) April 25, 1991.

41. Interview with Morrow.

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