I remember learning about Frank Olson in a high school psychology class, in our unit on drugs. What I learned is that during the ’50s the CIA experimented with LSD in their offices until one of their own got so high he fell out a window, embarrassing the agency. Not yet having experimented with LSD myself, that sounded like a believable turn of events. I did not learn about Frank Olson’s son Eric, and his life-defining quest to discover the truth about his father’s death. I did not learn about what actually happened to Frank, which is the subject of the new Errol Morris Netflix series Wormwood. What I learned that day in high school was a CIA cover story.
Spoiler alert: Frank Olson did not fall out of a hotel window in New York City, at least not on accident. The CIA did drug him—along with some of his coworkers—on a company retreat, but the LSD element seems to have functioned mostly as a red herring, a way to admit something without admitting the truth. Frank did not die while on drugs; the week following the acid retreat, Olson informed a superior he planned to leave his job at Camp Detrick and enter a new line of work. Within days he was dead, murdered by the CIA.
Wormwood is a six-episode miniseries, and because Morris spends the first few wiggling out from behind various CIA lies, the viewer isn’t prepared to understand and contextualize what (upon reflection) obviously happened, even when we’re told more or less straight out. Olson was a microbiologist who worked in weapons systems. He was killed in November 1953, in the waning days of open hostilities on the Korean peninsula, almost two years after the North Koreans first accused the United States of engaging in biological warfare. For decades there were rumors and claims: meningitis, cholera, smallpox, plague, hemorrhagic fever. Some of them diseases that had never been previously encountered in the area. The United States denied everything. But the United States also denied killing Frank Olson.
The most affecting moment in Wormwood occurs not during any of the historical reenactments—Peter Sarsgaard’s performance as Frank is only a notch or two above the kind of thing you might see on the History Channel—but at the end, when journalist Seymour Hersh is explaining to Morris that he can’t say on the record exactly what he now knows to be true about the case without burning his high-level source, but he still wants to offer Eric some closure. “Eric knows the ending,” he says, “I think he’s right. He’s totally convinced he knows the ending, am I right? Is he ambivalent in any way?” “No,” Morris confirms. Hersh gives a small shrug, “It’s a terrible story.” In the slight movement of his shoulders he says it all: Yes, the CIA murdered Eric’s father, as he has spent his whole adult life trying to prove, as he has known all along.
The CIA manages to contain a highly contradictory set of meanings: In stock conspiracy theory, the agency is second only to aliens in terms of “who did it,” as well as the Occam’s Razor best suspect for any notable murder that occurred anywhere in the world during the second half of the 20th century. I don’t think Americans have trouble simultaneously believing that stories of the CIA assassinating people are mostly “crazy,” and that they absolutely happened. What emerges from the contradiction is naïveté coated in a candy shell of cynicism, in the form of a trivia game called “Did you know the CIA _____?” Did you know the CIA killed Mossadegh? Did you know they killed Lumumba? Did you know the CIA killed Marilyn Monroe and Salvador Allende? Did you know they made a fake porn movie with a Sukarno lookalike, and they had to take out Noriega because he still had his CIA paystubs in a box in his closet? There’s a whole variant just about Fidel Castro. Some of these stories are urban legends, most are fundamentally true, and yet as individual tidbits they lack a total context. If cold war is the name for the third world war that didn’t happen, what’s the name for what did?
In a recent segment, Fox News host Laura Ingraham invited former CIA director James Woolsey to talk about Russian intervention in the American election. After chatting about China and Russia’s comparative cyber capabilities, Ingraham goes off script: “Have we ever tried to meddle in other countries’ elections?” Woolsey answers quickly: “Oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system, in order to avoid communists taking over. For example, in Europe, in ’47, ’48,’49 . . . the Greeks and the Italians . . . we, the CIA . . . ” Ingraham cuts him off, “We don’t do that now though?” She is ready to deny it to herself and the audience, but here Woolsey makes a horrible, inane sound with his mouth. The closest analog I can think of is the sound you make when you’re playing with a toddler and you pretend to eat a piece of plastic watermelon, something like: “Myum myum myum myum.” He and Ingraham both burst into laughter. “Only for a very good cause. In the interests of democracy,” he chuckles. In the late ‘40s, rigged Greek elections triggered a civil war in which over 150,000 people died. It is worth noting that Woolsey is a lifelong Democrat, while Ingraham gave a Nazi salute from the podium at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Why does Woolsey answer “Oh, probably,” when he knows, first- or second-hand, that the answer is yes, and follows up with particular examples? The non-denial hand-wave goes further than yes. It says: Come on, you know we’d do anything. And Ingraham, already submerged in that patriotic blend of knowing and declining to know, transitions smoothly from “We don’t do that now though?” to laughing out loud. The glare of the studio lights off her titanium-white teeth is bright enough to illuminate seventy years of world history.
For as long as the CIA has existed, the US government has used outlandish accusations against the agency as evidence that this country’s enemies are delusional liars. At the same time, the agency has undeniably engaged in activities that are indistinguishable from the wildest conspiracy theories. Did the CIA drop bubonic plague on North Korea? Of course not. But if we did, then of course we did. It’s a convenient jump: Between these two necessities is the range of behaviors for which people and institutions can be held responsible. It’s hard to pull off this act with a straight face, but as Woolsey demonstrates in the Fox News clip, there’s no law saying you can’t do it with a big grin.
In 1982, former ambassador to Bulgaria and to-this-day Brookings Institute fellow Raymond Garthoff delivered a report to the National Council for Soviet and East European Research titled “Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan.” A dove by cold war standards, Garthoff urged empathy when dealing with the commies. To illustrate his point, he selects a notably far-out eastern claim, one that American intelligence had ridiculed openly: that the longtime communist-turned-Afghan-tyrant Hafizullah Amin was in fact a CIA asset. Point by point, Garthoff goes through why they might credibly think it, including Amin’s two stints in the United States, the real damage he was doing to Soviet security, and a certain American penchant for shit like that. For his honesty Garthoff is worth quoting at length:
First of all, in Soviet eyes, the American policy toward China has moved during the decade of the 1970s from “triangular diplomacy” to active alignment on an anti-Soviet platform. We now offer military assistance to China, and have established intelligence collection facilities in that country directed at the Soviet Union. We coordinate hostile activities, for example in Afghanistan. “Objectively,” at least, we have encouraged China to invade Vietnam and to arm the Cambodian forces of Pol Pot.
In the Middle East, we arranged the “defection” of Sadat’s Egypt—and of the Sudan, Somalia, and to some degree Iraq. We effectively squeezed the Soviet Union out of a role in the Near Eastern peace process, despite repeated assurances that we would not do so. We “used” the Iranian hostage crisis to mobilize a major new military presence in Southwest Asia, which we subsequently maintained. In Africa, American allies and proxies repeatedly intervene blatantly with military force—Portugal before 1974; France in numerous cases; France, Belgium, Morocco and Egypt in Zaire; with Zaire, South Africa and others in Angola in 1975–76, albeit unsuccessfully; et cetera. In covert operations we assisted in the overthrow of the elected Marxist Allende in Chile, and with European assistance of the Marxist-supported Gonçalves in Portugal. We were silent while Indonesia suppressed the revolt of former Portuguese Timor. We used a number of Southeast Asian mountain peoples as “proxies” in that region. In South Vietnam, we used South Korean and Thai “proxy” troops, and Australian, Philippine and other support contingents, along with the American armed forces. We encouraged anti-Soviet activity in Poland and Afghanistan, in the latter case with covert military assistance to the rebels and with Pakistani assistance and Egyptian supply of arms paid for by Saudi Arabia. The United States has provided military assistance to El Salvador, and orchestrated covert operations against Sandinista Nicaragua, ostentatiously permitting Nicaraguan exiles to train in military and paramilitary operations in California, Texas and Florida, as well as to mount active operations from Honduras.
This, among many other things, is trolling. America has been using the scale and absurdity of its interventions as an alibi. Woolsey’s grin is familiar.1
Garthoff’s list is far from exhaustive, and though it’s admirably broad, there’s no depth. What has it meant in practical terms for the CIA to intervene or arrange or squeeze or use or encourage? The use of such euphemisms whips up a variety of understandings, a froth of possible truths. In Wormwood, Eric recounts years, decades, searching through government documents for the right verb to describe his father’s passage through the window on the way to his death, as if it would unlock something he didn’t already know. But like Hersh says, Eric knows what happened. I wonder if the reenactment offered him any of the closure that Hersh couldn’t. I wonder if it helped to watch those haunting days and hours play out on a screen where others could see them too instead of just in his head.
Unfortunately Morris and Wormwood are focused on ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, when, by the end of the story, there’s very little of it left. Eric found the CIA assassination manual, which includes a description of the preferred method: knocking someone on the head and then throwing them out of a high window in a public place. He has narrowed down the reasonable explanations—at the relevant level of specificity—to one. Unlike in a normal true-crime series, however, there’s nothing to be done: As Eric explains, you can sue the government for killing someone on accident, but not for killing them on purpose. The end result of Wormwood is that the viewer’s answer to the son flips like an Ingraham switch, from “Of course the CIA didn’t murder your dad” to “Of course the CIA murdered your dad.” I hope for his sake that the latter is easier to bear.
Did you know the CIA killed Bob Marley?
A CIA agent named Bill Oxley confessed on his deathbed that he gave the singer a pair of Converse sneakers, one of which hid in the toe a wire tainted with cancer. When Marley put on the shoes, he pricked his toe and was infected with the disease that would lead to his death.
No, that’s wrong. There was no CIA agent named Bill Oxley, and the story of Bob Marley’s lethal shoe is somewhere between an urban legend and fake news.
But did you know the CIA almost killed Bob Marley?
In 1976, facing a potentially close election, Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley maneuvered to co-opt a public concert by Marley, turning an intentionally apolitical show into a government-sponsored rally. When Marley agreed to go through with the show anyway, many feared a reprisal from the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), whose candidate Edward Seaga was implicitly endorsed by the American government. All year accusations had been flying that the CIA was, in various ways, intentionally destabilizing Jamaica in order to get Seaga in power and move the island away from Cuba (politically) and, principally, ensure cheap American access to the island’s bauxite ore. Both the JLP and Manley’s PNP controlled groups of gunmen, but (much to America’s chagrin) the social democrat Manley controlled the security forces, remained popular with the people, and was in general a capable politician (as evidenced by the concert preparations).
On December 3, 1976—two days before the concert—Marley was wounded when three gunmen shot up his house. Witnesses to the destruction describe “immense” firepower, with four automatics firing round after round—one of the men using two at the same time. The confidential State Department wire from Kingston was sent four days later: “REGGAE STAR SHOT; MOTIVE PROBABLY POLITICAL.” There was only one reasonable political motive: destabilization, in the interest of Seaga (or, as Kingston graffiti had it, “CIAga.”) The concert was meant to bring Jamaicans together, but some forces wanted to rip them apart. Where did the assassins get their guns? The people of Jamaica knew: The CIA.
In a State Department cable sent two months earlier (this one to the British), Ambassador Sumner Gerard offered a primer on the destabilization rumors in Jamaica. “A high proportion of all but the most conservative and even many friendly element of Jamaican society believe or suspect that unfriendly and hostile acts are indeed being perpetuated by outside forces,” he wrote. He went on to list (and scoff at) specific allegations, including that “Guns are smuggled into Jamaica to keep the level of violence up, and to arm the government’s opposition.” The report’s tone is sneering as it goes through the popular suspicions: “A flour poisoning episode of early this year, which resulted in numerous deaths, was an act of the CIA and its local stooges.” The implication is that the people of Jamaica—just about all of them—were imagining fantastic stories about the CIA, presumably because they were ignorant and prone to fantasy. (The idea that everyone else in the world is prone to fantasy is itself a fantasy that the west finds useful.) Of course the CIA wasn’t offloading crates of automatic weapons in Jamaica to create bloody chaos in the hopes it would somehow shake out better for the aluminum companies. Of course the CIA wasn’t poisoning flour headed for an island suffering from food shortages.
The next year, investigative reporters Ernest Volkman and John Cummings published an article in Penthouse about CIA destabilization in Jamaica titled “Murder As Usual.” Relying on “several senior American intelligence sources,” the article detailed the specifics of the campaign, including economic sabotage, the delivery of thousands of submachine guns, astroturf civil society organizations like “Silent Majority” and “Christian Women Agitators for Truth,” and three assassination attempts on Prime Minister Manley that were personally approved by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Volkman was immediately fired from his job as an international correspondent at the Long Island Newsday; as to whether he thought Kissinger had found a way to retaliate against him, Volkman said “It looks like a duck, it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck . . .”2
There was a whole lot of waddling and quacking going on in Jamaica after Manley decided to assert national control over the country’s mineral resources. “Why destabilize Jamaica?,” Ambassador Gerard rolled his eyes in the cable to the UK. “For those that levy the allegations, the answers are obvious. Jamaica has dared to be different and independent. It is now being punished by the USG/CIA/Multinationals/Capitalist/Imperialist grouping and its local henchmen. The goal is . . . at least to make the Manley Government toe the line, and ultimately to restore to office the local agents of US capitalism/imperialism in order to protect US multinational interests.” Well, yeah. Scoffing is not a refutation, and even if the USG/CIA/Multinationals/Capitalist/Imperialist grouping had a series of detailed refutations, I still wouldn’t buy them.
The lack of a smoking gun for any particular accusation shouldn’t be a stumbling block. In the famous words of Donald Rumsfeld: “Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” (Rumsfeld would know; he was serving his first tour as secretary of defense during the Jamaican destabilization campaign.) The CIA exists in part to taint evidence, especially of its own activity. Even participant testimony can be discredited, as the CIA has done repeatedly (and with success) whenever former employees have spoken out, including during the Jamaican campaign. After all, in isolation each individual claim sounds—is carefully designed to sound—crazy. The circumstantial evidence, however, is harder to dismiss. If I rest a steak on my kitchen counter, leave the room, and come back to no steak and my dog licking the tile floor, I don’t need to check my door for a bandit. The CIA’s propensity for replacing frustrating foreign leaders or arming right-wing paramilitaries—especially in the western hemisphere—is no more mysterious than the dog. Refusing to put two and two together is not a mark of sophistication or fair-mindedness.
Of course the CIA shot Bob Marley. To assert that in that way is not to make a particular falsifiable claim about who delivered money to whom, who brought how many bullets where, who pulled which trigger, or who knew what when. It’s a broader claim about the circumstances under which it happened: a dense knot of information and interests and resources and bodies that was built that way on purpose, for that tangled quality, and to obtain a set of desired outcomes. The hegemonic “Grouping”—to put the State Department’s sarcastic term to honest work—ties the knot.
Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say the CIA was “involved” with the shooting of Bob Marley or the death of Frank Olson, since we don’t know for sure exactly what happened? No, it would not. And here is perhaps where words fail us, as they failed Eric Olson when he tried to find out how his father came to be on the other side of a small hotel window. The range of meanings suggested by the words we have for proximate responsibility does not properly convey the role of American intelligence agencies in shaping the world over the second half of the 20th century. However, to insist on the language of direct responsibility is to invite the language game of the trial, which, as Eric Olson found out, is designed to be useless against the state. How then, to represent the hot cold war?
The reenactment is not an obvious answer. On American television, reenactments have been focused on crimes, and they’ve been an accessory to the prosecutorial mindset: short and shallow, they show the act of the crime isolated from its broader context, often for comedic or shock value. But in the last few years, as more capital has flowed through big-budget single-series shows and the pace of historical nostalgia picked up, we’ve seen a set of reenactments that aim higher, at wealthier viewers who want longer, more ostensibly complex stories. American Crime Story, Law & Order True Crime, Waco, and some lesser examples attempt more sophisticated reckonings with historical events by playing out a different version of the record. In the first season of L&O True Crime, the infamous Menendez brothers are recast as victims first and foremost, not just of their father’s violation and their mother’s complicity, but of society’s unwillingness to protect children from sexual abuse in the home. In Waco, the FBI and ATF are indicted for murdering dozens of Christlike Branch-Davidians who, in the show’s telling, did nothing wrong.
While Wormwood is a reenactment as well, it’s out of step with the other shows. Errol Morris pioneered the use of reenactment in his crime doc The Thin Blue Line, but in that case his goal was to generate doubt as to who really committed a murder (in a legally punishable sense). Decades of filmmakers have followed Morris’s example, and we can credit him not just with the release of that movie’s subject, the falsely convicted Randall Dale Adams, but some part in the exoneration of others freed by films he inspired. Ambiguity, however, doesn’t serve the Olsons or the audience in the case of Wormwood; Morris is a lousy prosecutor.3 I can’t help but imagine how the same story could have played out if it had been solely reenactment, rather than the mix with standard documentary interviews that Morris pioneered. Seeing the wider context would have meant acting out connections that remain, in Morris’s journalistic mode, merely implied. We would watch what happened in the labs at Camp Detrick, and how it connected to US policy in East Asia. Seeing that would have forced a reevaluation and reframing of current US relations with North Korea, a desperately needed insight—the absence of which is Wormwood’s most significant failure.
Although the glossy reenactment series are putting a new spin on the true-crime genre, none has attempted to portray a series of events of global importance. There are a number of obstacles (including convincing a content provider to show the Americans as the cold war bad guys Garthoff and Woolsey admit we were), but the form seems to me to be the best shot artists have at telling the useful truth about how today’s world came to be. If we’re lucky we might someday soon have a good example in an allegedly forthcoming HBO adaptation of Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. At nearly 700 pages, Brief History is a deeply researched literary reenactment of the attempt on Bob Marley’s life, and an indispensable account of cold war mechanics. If a million Americans saw that story reenacted in its full relevant context (which is how James, who was born in Jamaica and lives in the US, writes it), it could change the way this nation understands its history, its present, and maybe even its future.
And perhaps once that dam is broken, more American writers and filmmakers will take up what is among the most important tasks available to them: to rewrite the history of the 20th century before the ink is done drying and the stories disappear, before every copy of the December 1977 issue of Penthouse in which “Murder as Usual” appears crumbles to dust. The Woolsey/Ingraham dialectic of naivete and cynicism about the CIA is premised on Americans being unwilling to learn the gruesome, ludicrous web of specifics through which planetary Americanism has really played out. The CIA’s cold war victims are buried in every corner of the world, even in downtown New York City; American artists have a responsibility to find the bodies, empower the survivors, and tell the big story.
Yes, the Long Island Newsday had an international correspondent who broke major stories about the CIA. The Seventies were a different time. ↩
Morris’s film about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, is similarly ineffective, privileging confusion in a way that allows McNamara to recount a self-serving version of his career and American cold war conduct. ↩