Was the Watergate break-in plotted in a Nob Hill saloon? Did Bill Clinton narrowly escape an assassin's bullet outside the posh Fairmont Hotel during campaign '92? And did the CIA's San Francisco mind-control experiments, which began in North Beach, culminate in the mass suicides of Jonestown, Guyana?
San Francisco has been a magnet for plotters, spooks and spies since its earliest days. Consider John C. Fremont: Was he secretly playing the Polk administration's trump card when he paddled across the Golden Gate in 1846 and claimed San Francisco for the U.S.-backed Bear Flag putsch? Or was Fremont just a hard-drinking lone nut? Scholars still debate the point 150 years later. What is certain is that conspiracy — in all its forms — has as much to do with the history of the Bay Area as liquor and gold. Chalk it up to the city's free-wheelin' Barbary Coast adolescence: San Francisco continues to thrive at the point on the horizon where the nefarious tendrils of conspiracy converge, where they bury the bodies, shred the documents and plan their next subterranean move.
Who are they? You have to ask the investigators, the latter-day Cassandras willing to spend their lives peeling the onion, cracking the codes and reading between the lines. In their world, the distinction between paranoid delusion and speculative history is academic. Spend enough time in this netherworld, poring over declassified documents for that nugget that will explain the world's mysteries, and see if you don't wake up changed one morning. Sometimes the price of this passion is public ridicule, sometimes a broken marriage. You could even pay for your curiosity with your life.
What is a conspiracy? And why has it become such common currency in fin de-sicle America? The standard definition of conspiracy is a secret plan shared by two or more people conniving together toward a common goal. The payoff is usually morally questionable (in legal patois, a conspiracy must result in an illegal act), but the keystone to conspiracy is secrecy. Whether you're talking about the slippery 1963 Dallas coup d'Žtat or the very real Iran-contra scandal, conspiracy is a beast best bred in the dark. And as we lumber into the information age, the crepuscular disclosures of the conspiracy theorist can seem like words from the burning bush — each new take on history, real or imagined, offering those in the know something resembling insight.
Besides, conspiracy can be a gas. A few beers, a nod and a wink, and any room full of cynics can become a veritable cabalistic think tank; especially in San Francisco, where conspiracy grumbles just beneath the surface like a tectonic plate.
Here, then, is a collection of the Bay Area's 10 best conspiracies, real and surreal tales of secret deception, government cover-ups and covert cabals as sordid and murky as the gray waters of the bay.
Uncle Sam's Acid House
You may shrug when conspiracy theorists claim the U.S. government is concealing evidence of space aliens among us. You may wince when the cocktail chatter turns to the satanic plot to implant subcutaneous microchip IDs in our foreheads. But you probably listen anyway, because the government does resort to some bizarre subterfuges to accomplish its questionable goals.
Take, for example, the well-documented CIA mind-control experiments conducted by the CIA in the '50s and '60s, in which the Agency spent a wad drugging innocent (and not so innocent) civilians in San Francisco.
According to John Marks' groundbreaking 1979 book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, the CIA believed the Chinese had successfully brainwashed POWs during the Korean War, so it launched its own mind-control program in 1953: MKULTRA. The goal of MKULTRA was to open the deepest reaches of the mind to Agency manipulation, and in addition to financing numerous psychological studies in universities, the CIA established a brothel in San Francisco where “subjects” were dosed — without their knowledge or consent — with pure Sandoz LSD.
In 1955, the CIA contracted George White, a hard-drinking federal Narcotics Bureau investigator, to operate a “safe house” at 225 Chestnut Street on Telegraph Hill. White decorated the posh digs to reflect the clientele he hoped to “entertain.” Bawdy Victorian bondage pictures hung on the walls next to garish Toulouse-Lautrec prints; microphones were installed along with two-way mirrors and a fully stocked liquor cabinet, all at Agency expense.
The roguish White amassed a stable of call girls, each of whom he paid $100 a night for her services. He also promised to shield them from police; White was the renowned narcotics cop who busted Billie Holiday and her husband for opium possession in a Tenderloin hotel in 1949. The cops assumed the girls were helping rope in drug traffickers; nothing was further from the truth.
In reality — or what passed for reality at the “safe house” — the pricey prostitutes trolled the North Beach bar scene for clients; once back at the safe house, the johns were slipped an acid mickey and the fun would begin. In the interest of national security, the ensuing electric rutfest was observed by White, sitting on a portable toilet behind a two-way mirror, a pitcher of martinis at the ready.
After his retirement in 1965, White wrote a letter to MKULTRA leader Sid Gottlieb that explained his 10-year assignment in Operation Midnight Climax (as the experiment was code-named): “I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
What the CIA learned from Operation Midnight Climax is open for debate. Thanks to an all-night shredding orgy in 1973, most of the CIA documents concerning MKULTRA no longer exist. But the fact remains — a decade before the first hippies crawled out from under a rock in the Haight, the CIA was on the psychedelic scene in San Francisco, slipping whorehouse patrons acid and watching them fuck. The love may not have been free, but the drugs were great. [page]
The Gemstone File
While Marks' thorough investigations of MKULTRA earned a place in the historical canon, more “theoretical” conspiracies still strive for legitimacy, such as the findings and extrapolations of a San Franciscan named Bruce Roberts. Encapsulated in a poorly mimeographed 22-page document titled A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File, which was compiled by conspiracy maven Mae Brussell and her assistant Stephanie Caruana, this 1975 pamphlet portrays Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis as the ultimate global puppeteer.
Roberts' theory is extraordinarily reductionist, like those alleging that the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission or some other hyper-secret cabal at the acme of the sociopolitical pyramid controls everything. Reductionist conspiracies don't make much sense unless accompanied by willful suspension of disbelief, and A Skeleton Key is no exception.
A Skeleton Key claims Roberts worked for several years after WWII making faux baubles for Hollywood actresses; he began collecting evidence in the '50s for his own Unified Field Conspiracy Theory after he surmised that the Hughes Corporation, owned by Howard Hughes, stole several of his ersatz rubies to use in the corporation's new invention — lasers. (Wouldn't it have been a lot simpler to just buy the gems? Rev up your suspended disbelief, it gets stranger.)
Piqued by Hughes' affront, Roberts began a freelance investigation that would consume the rest of his life. Swapping his synthetic gemstones for information, Roberts picked the brains of a loose network of intelligence spooks and diplomatic contacts; he accompanied each gem with a one-page “history” briefly outlining a piece of the enormous underworld puzzle he was constructing.
Roberts allegedly made his contacts at a bar on lower Nob Hill called the Drift Inn at Bush and Taylor, today the site of Yong San Lounge. A Skeleton Key explains that the hootchery was a favorite hangout of the CIA and Naval Intelligence crowd. After a long day of supersecret work, the spies would descend on the joint to swap yarns and talk shop. What Roberts didn't overhear or cajole for himself, the bartender, Al Strom, provided by way of clandestine recordings he was making of the unusual barside banter. (Strom is now deceased — his son denies any knowledge of his dad taping anyone.)
Roberts wove what he heard into a crazy quilt of conspiratorial skullduggery that “explains” almost every untoward political assassination and scandal of the last 50 years. Some highlights:
A Skeleton Key outlines Onassis' rise from lowly drugrunner to the Gnomes of Zurich's wonderboy thanks to lucrative shipping deals with maritime bigwig Joseph Kennedy. (Onassis agreed to run hooch into Boston for the booze-hound brahmin.) After WWII, movie-mogul Howard Hughes challenged Onassis' power by buying up every politician in sight. Onassis had him kidnapped in 1957, A Skeleton Key asserts, and then assumed control of Hughes' considerable assets — including a recent acquisition: Vice President Richard Nixon. With Nixon in one pocket and Kennedy in the other, the winner of the 1960 presidential election was really a lusty Greek shipping tycoon.
Ah, but the best-laid plans … After his stroke in 1961, Joe Kennedy lost control of both his bladder and his newly elected son. Jack and brother Bobby (being the righteous idealists every conspiracy theorist knows they were) clamped down on Onassis. The tycoon countered by wacking JFK in Dallas with mob guns and some CIA help.
Five years later, threatened with the prospect of another Kennedy in the White House, Onassis had a hypnotized dupe named Sirhan Sirhan ice RFK in Los Angeles.
With Bobby dead, Onassis' boy Nixon skated into the White House only to blow it all at the Watergate. A Skeleton Key asserts that during the months preceding the break-in, CIA spook E. Howard Hunt and “plumber” G. Gordon Liddy were regulars at the Drift Inn, where they encountered Bruce Roberts (Liddy would later name his White House domestic espionage scheme the Gemstone Plan). It further asserts that while sitting at the bar, Hunt and Liddy hatched their Watergate plot to retrieve information the Democrats had supposedly collected on Nixon and Onassis, and that barkeep Strom taped the conversations and passed them on to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
A Skeleton Key claims that Graham then set a trap for the burglars with the help of famed San Francisco private detective Hal Lipset, and that Lipset, disguised as a mailman, retaped the door when the burglars returned a second time, ensuring their capture. Graham then fed the story, sans some important details, in the guise of Deep Throat to her own reporters, Woodward and Bernstein.
Today, Lipset laughs at the very mention of the Gemstone caper.
“I was supposed to be working for Graham. I was supposed to be working for Nixon. I did in fact work for the Watergate [Senate] Committee,” Lipset says. “Boy, I must have been pretty clever to pull all of that off.”
According to A Skeleton Key, Onassis' death in 1975 sent political shockwaves around the globe; Ford, Kissinger and Rockefeller were left “squatting like toads on the corpse of America.”
Bruce Roberts died of lung cancer in 1976, shortly after A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File surfaced. Hustler ran a heavily edited version of it in 1979, revealing that Brussell and Caruana compiled it. Brussell purportedly knew Roberts and possessed several hundred of his gemstone “histories.”
More recently, two books — Jim Keith's The Gemstone File (1992) and Gerald Carroll's Project Seek (1994) — have explored the veracity of the Skeleton Key.
Since Brussell's death in 1988 (more about that later), her files have been kept in a secret location by KAZU-FM, the Pacific Grove radio station that still broadcasts reruns of her weekly rants. Radio personality and co-host of the station's conspiracy-addled Lighthouse Report, Marilyn Coleman, confirms the presence of Bruce Roberts' Gemstone “histories” in Brussell's files. [page]
“Some of Gemstone may be credible,” Coleman says. “But most of it is junk. You should see the Torbitt document.”
Even conspiracy theorists sometimes have trouble suspending disbelief.
Off the Pigs — the FBI Versus the Black Panthers
The sparks of history seldom flash more brightly than when two conspiracies collide; they positively luminesce when both conspiracies are armed to the teeth. Twenty-five years ago, on the streets of America's inner-cities, two such cabals clashed in a pitted battle to the death.
The Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense made national headlines in 1967 when founder Huey Newton shot and killed an Oakland police officer. The Panthers were formed the previous year in a North Oakland community center by Newton and Bobby Seale, and espoused a decidedly militant attitude, openly exercising their right to bear arms. In three years, the Panthers had grown from their small Grove Street headquarters in Oakland into a national movement, with 4,000 members and 33 chapters; and white America was more than a little shaken by the sight of the leather-clad Panthers toting shotguns and quoting the Constitution in the name of a people's revolt. Willful suspension of disbelief isn't required to understand the Panther message: They openly advocated armed revolution.
Pitted against the Panthers was an equally militaristic organization with thousands of agents in hundreds of cities conspiring to infiltrate and destroy the party. This well-armed group was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by lifelong paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, and it wouldn't let a little thing like the Constitution stand in its way.
By 1970, Hoover had designated the Panthers Public Enemy Number One. Following the schemata drawn up a decade earlier, when the FBI created its infamous counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, to infiltrate and undermine the Socialist Worker's Party, the Bureau forged inflammatory letters and mailed them between Panther chapters to sow discord among its leaders; provocateurs inside the party staged brazen robberies to discredit the Panthers' political stance. A sawed-off shotgun was planted in Bobby Seale's house and then “discovered” during a raid. The FBI even tried to bribe Seale, offing him a million dollars to quit the party.
In 1969, a paid FBI mole provided a detailed diagram of a Panther home for the Chicago police to use in a midnight raid that left Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark both dead. Former-party chief of staff David Hilliard believes Hampton, who was shot execution-style while still in bed, may have been drugged prior to the raid. Two days later, following a phone call from Hoover to Gov. Ronald Reagan, police descended on the Los Angeles Panthers office and a bloody five-hour shoot-out ensued. In both the Chicago and L.A. raids, the police said they were looking for illegal guns. None were found.
Blame it on COINTELPRO and internecine party warfare: By the mid-'70s, the Panther leadership was fractured, a personal wedge driven between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Bobby Seale, after being bound and gagged in a Chicago courtroom during the Chicago Eight debacle, was sent to prison for contempt of court and spent several years in legal limbo. The struggle left 25 Panthers dead. Los Angeles Panthers-leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, convicted of murder in 1972, remains in jail to this day, despite mounting evidence that he was framed. Pratt is listed as a political prisoner by Amnesty International. In 1989, Huey Newton was gunned down outside a West Oakland crack house. The mean streets of Oakland's inner-city haven't changed much in 30 years. Chalk another one up to The Man.
A Table for Two, Please — Zebra and the Mob
In the alchemy of conspiracy, a Unified Field Theory like the Gemstone File often manages to fold disparate events into a quicksilver mŽlange of murder and machination. Take, for example, A Skeleton Key's view of Mayor Joseph Alioto's 1970 libel suit against Look magazine. Throw in a little racial strife, a couple of bizarre coincidences and next thing you know a colorful piece of San Francisco history becomes a veritable philosopher's stone of conspiracy.
In September 1969, Look magazine ran a hatchet-piece titled “The Web That Links San Francisco's Mayor Alioto and the Mafia,” by Richard Carlson and Lance Brisson. The piece drew a libel suit from Alioto because it alleged that in 1964, prior to taking the office of mayor, he made a late-night rendezvous at the Nut Tree restaurant in Vacaville, where according to Look, Alioto and “The Weasel” supposedly whipped up a sumptuous deal involving loans from Alioto's San Francisco National Bank.
Alioto sued Look for libel in 1970, claiming that the greasy spoon shenanigans never occurred and that the story had damaged his good name and promising political career (when the piece appeared, Alioto was planning a run for governor). By 1976, Alioto had scattered Look's ashes to the wind, winning a $12 million libel decision and saving his reputation as a hard-nosed lawyer and upstanding citizen.
Why would a national publication libel a litigious bulldog like Alioto? According to A Skeleton Key, Onassis worked behind the scenes to arrange the libelous article with the intent to snuff Alioto's political career. Remember, in 1968, the San Francisco politico had come close to the Democratic vice presidential nomination. The implausible reason offered by A Skeleton Key is that the mayor knew too much about the dealings at Dealey Plaza.
Alioto has a $12 million check that says he wasn't at the Nut Tree. Gerald Carroll, author of Project Seek, believes the former mayor's version of events but quotes a former busboy who says table servers often jokingly seated patrons at “the Mafia table” where “Mafia executioner Jimmy 'The Weasel' Fratianno sat.” The ex-dish jockey says he was fired for asking too many questions about the meetings.
A Skeleton Key ties the alleged Cosa Nostra buffet to the “Zebra” killings that plagued Northern California from 1970 to 1974. The Gemstone File avers that the murders, which were blamed on black radicals, were really mob hits intended to cover the execution of a private eye named “Silva.” A Skeleton Key says Silva was present at the Nut Tree the night the mob stopped in for a bite. Whatever happened at the restaurant, Silva would be the man to ask. In 1974, the Examiner published a list of 73 Zebra victims, one of whom was an Arthur E. Silva, who had been killed in 1971. Was this Silva the gumshoe mentioned in A Skeleton Key? Perhaps a look at his death certificate would provide some answers. Whoops! As author Gerald Carroll found, Arthur Silva's certificate of death disappeared from Alameda County records years ago. [page]
Jonesing for Kool-Aid —
The People's Temple
The weed-choked patch at Geary and Fillmore that was once the home of the Reverend Jim Jones' People's Temple tells no tales. But conspiracy theorist John Judge alleges that MKULTRA didn't die in 1973, when it was ostensibly axed by the Agency: It was sent underground into the shadowy world of religious cults. And that the Jonestown “suicide” (quotation marks are essential to conspiracy theory) of 913 very unfortunate people serves as a coda to the MKULTRA experiments.
Writing in Secret and Suppressed (1993), a compendium of conspiracy edited by Jim Keith, Judge alleges that the CIA's mind-wash effort found the perfect combination of drugs and psychological coercion in the darkness that breeds self-styled messiahs and their pie-eyed minions.
Jones began his evan-gelical career touring the Midwest with a tent-revival ministry. Preying on the credulous faithful, Jones worked such sideshow “miracles” as extracting demonic tumors, which were really palmed chicken livers. In 1961, he took his ministry to Brazil, where he preached to the heathens in the shadow of the CIA station there, and bragged to some, according to Judge, that the Agency was footing his bill. In 1963, Jones returned to the States with $10,000 in his pocket and set up the People's Temple in Ukiah. Judge asserts the cash may have been supplied by the CIA.
“The Messiah from Ukiah” was anything but saintly. Members who attempted to leave the Temple were rebuked and threatened. Loyalty to Jones required members to sign blank “confessions,” which were later used to blackmail errant proselytes. After some bad press related to the untimely deaths of seven ex-Temple members, Jones packed up and moved to San Francisco.
The Reverend rose to prominence as the kind-hearted Father Divine of the city's poor by the mid-'70s, serving as head of San Francisco's Housing Commission in 1976. Though liberal politics were a recent interest for this son of a Klansman, Jones rubbed bleeding hearts with such leading leftists as Angela Davis and Jane Fonda. But after a critical article appeared in New West magazine in 1977, Jones became agitated. He stepped up the dry runs of “White Night,” an orgy of suicide that was meant to someday save the flock from murder at the hands of its enemies. When Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Daly City) was approached by former members and asked to investigate the Temple, Jones again split the scene. Early in 1977, the People's Temple headed south, way south. Next stop — Jonestown.
This is where the weird gets weirder, the conspiracy gets conspiratorial and reality gets unreal. According to Judge, as soon as the Temple set foot in Guyana, the façade was dropped. Citing firsthand interviews with Guyanese present at the Temple's arrival, Judge claims all the black church members — about 80 percent of the flock — were bound and gagged, then loaded onto trucks for the drive to Jonestown. Shortly after the mass killings, the Guyana Daily Mirror reported that the compound wasn't so much a religious commune as it was a concentration camp where the congregation was shot full of psycho-active drugs, deprived of sleep, fed rancid meat and worked 18 hours a day. Disobedience was punished by rape, drugging, even sensory deprivation in a buried box.
As Judge points out, these tactics were re-markably similar to the MKULTRA experiment of the '50s. The CIA dabbled extensively in drug-concoction and sensory deprivation. Many “subjects” were kept doped-up for weeks on end in order to render their psyches more malleable.
When Rep. Ryan decided to visit Jonestown in November 1978, the final act of the People's Temple drama began to unfold. After a tense visit to the compound, Ryan made his way through the jungle to the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip with several cult members wishing to flee Jonestown. But before he could board his chartered plane to safety, a team of assassins emerged from the jungle and opened fire. The gunmen, who were described as zombielike by survivors, methodically killed Ryan and three reporters on the tarmac.
That night, Jones threw a huge Kool-Aid party, a very real “White Night.” On an audiotape of Jones' last musings, made just before the killing began, he can be heard saying, “Get Dwyer out of here.” Richard Dwyer was deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Guyana, and is the frequent focus of Jonestown conspiracy theories. Though Dwyer has refused to confirm or deny his alleged CIA employ, he is listed as a CIA employee in the 1968 East German publication Who's Who in the CIA. Jones' taped comment was clearly in error; Dwyer was wounded at the airstrip ambush, and survivors say he remained there through the night waiting for help to arrive.
In a statement to the New York Times, Guyana's top pathologist said that when the Guyanese army entered the camp, they found 400 dead, only two of whom appeared to be suicides. Over 80 percent of the dead had fresh needle punctures in their backs, others had been shot or strangled. The Times also reported that the Guyanese discovered a cache of drugs large enough to keep a good-size city spaced for a year — sodium pentathol, Demerol, Thorazine. All of these drugs were favorites of the CIA's MKULTRA experiments. [page]
American Green Berets were detailed to the Jonestown clean-up, and the body count swelled from 400 to 913. Judge intimates that U.S. forces were sent in to round up and kill the 500-plus Temple members who had escaped into the surrounding jungle. The bodies were left out in the tropical sun for a week, thwarting any attempt at a definitive pathological investigation.
“At one point,” Judge writes, “the remains of 183 people arrived [back in the U.S.] in 82 caskets.”
But the story of the suicidal Jim Jones and his gullible, Kool-Aid guzzling minions has gone down in history as the “official” explanation of the Jonestown tragedy, attesting, if you believe John Judge, to the CIA's ability to cover its ass.
The Glomar Explorer —
Use Once Then Discard
Conspiracy doesn't always skulk down dark alleys or run through the jungle. Sometimes it takes to the high seas. In the murky shallows of San Francisco Bay sits the seagoing legacy of yet another CIA cover-up.
Howard Hughes' pathological secrecy so endeared him to the Agency that in 1973, the spooks at Langley contracted his Global Marine company to build a $250 million mystery ship to be used for a single mission. Ostensibly constructed as an undersea mining vessel, the 36,000-ton Glomar Explorer's real task was to retrieve a Soviet submarine that sank three miles to the sea floor off Hawaii in 1968.
After some documents concerning the Glomar's mission were stolen from a safe at Hughes' corporate headquarters in 1974 and used in an extortion attempt, the CIA, shuffling quickly to control the damage, leaked the “official” story of the Glomar Explorer to the New York Times. The Glomar, the Agency admitted, had been used to scoop a Soviet sub off the ocean floor. (The Soviets, oddly enough, had no idea where their sub had sunk. And only American sonar was sophisticated enough to find the hapless vessel where it rested 17,000 feet beneath the surface.) The Glomar succeeded in hoisting the sub halfway to the surface but, alas, the mission had failed when the Golf-class vessel, a diesel-powered relic from the '50s, broke apart. Instead of the code room and the handful of obsolete missiles it hoped to recover, the Agency had to settle for the bloated remains of 70 Soviet seamen.
However, a Navy source maintains that the CIA leaked disinformation. The sub wasn't an antiquated relic, as the Agency said, but a state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered Yankee-class vessel with a full complement of deadly multiple-warhead missiles. The source says that the CIA planted the Golf-class story in hopes that the Soviets would think that the mission ended in the misidentification of submarine parts. He alleges that the Glomar successfully retrieved some of the Yankee-class sub's missiles and their firing mechanisms and the knowledge obtained gave the U.S. a leg-up in negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in the mid-'70s.
The Glomar Explorer sits today beside the mothballed Liberty ships in the Carquinez Strait, just another piece of flotsam. Or is it? Signs posted on the ship warn fishermen not to anchor within 500 feet due to underwater electrical cables — for some reason, the Glomar is still plugged in.
oSUBoSpy Versus Spy Versus Spy — The Murder of Henry Liu
When planning a conspiracy, make sure to throw as many variables into the equation as possible — if anyone gets close to the solution, they'll be lost in a maze of false leads. In the 11 years since the murder of San Francisco gift shop owner Henry Liu, the questions surrounding the death of this Taiwanese expatriate have only gotten more complicated.
This much is known: On an October morning in 1984, Henry Liu opened the garage door of his Daly City home and was promptly perforated by seven .357 slugs. The two gunmen, who witnesses described as being in their twenties or thirties, had ridden up to Liu on a pair of bicycles, emptied their guns and pedaled away. Four hours later, FBI agents were on the scene, rifling through Liu's house.
Liu's family maintained in the local press that his killing was a political assassination prompted by a tattletale book Liu had written recounting the peccadilloes of the Nationalist Chinese leader: The Life of President Chiang Ching-Guo.
After some diplomatic arm-twisting (and some congressional muttering concerning a pending arms sale), the Nationalists agreed to investigate Liu's murder. Three months later, the Taiwanese claimed they had cracked the case. Liu had been murdered by the United Bamboo Gang, a heroin syndicate based in Taiwan. The gang's kingpin, Chen Chi-Li, aka “Dry Duck,” confessed he had ordered Liu offed after being asked to do so by the head of Taiwanese intelligence, Admiral Wong. After his arrest, the admiral admitted he had set the ball rolling because Liu's book had insulted President Chiang. The Nationalist government even produced one of the shooters, Wu Tu-Csi, who, incongruous with witness descriptions, clocked in at a hale 64 years old.
Opting for the home-court advantage, the Nationalists resisted American pressure to extradite the conspirators and tried all the principal players in Taiwan. “Dry Duck” Chen's trial lasted four hours, after which he was sentenced to life. Admiral Wong also received a lengthy sentence. End of story, right? Not so fast, Mr. Bond.
Henry Liu wasn't just another Chinese expat made good in America. In 1985, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Taiwanese government officials had presented the U.S. Justice Department with pay stubs and written reports filed by Liu proving he had been a paid Taiwanese spy. The Nationalists also said Liu had spied for the Communist government in Beijing. That would make Liu a double agent.
The Christian Science Monitor also reported that Liu had been keeping an eye on the Chinese mob in the Bay Area for the FBI. That would explain the Bureau's presence at the crime scene only hours after Liu's murder. And make him a double agent with a part-time job. [page]
So, who killed Henry Liu? Any of his employers, had they found out about Liu's crossed allegiances, could have wanted him dead. The most likely scenario has the Nationalists, in cahoots with the Bamboo Gang, icing Liu for being a double or triple agent. Take your pick. This would explain why most of the conspirators, including the mob boss, were released from Taiwanese prison in 1989 under a general clemency for “political prisoners.”
After more than a decade, the Chinese American community is still abuzz with rumors concerning the murder of Henry Liu. Was he really killed because of his trash-talking book, which became a bestseller in the community after his assassination? Or was Henry Liu killed by any one of the secret trusts he betrayed?
The Drug Tug
The story of the Drug Tug is yet another glimmer of light dancing off the scandalous, multimirrored conspiracy called the Reagan administration. Everyone knows, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan himself, how committed the 40th president was to the clan of ex-Somoza henchmen he called “freedom fighters.” The contras would have shriveled up from jungle rot if it hadn't been for the dedicated machinations of the Reagan White House. Sure, they peddled arms to keep the contra movement alive — that's old hat. They also peddled hashish through a Bay Area connection, something you know if you are a regular reader of the tiny, semiweekly community paper the Napa Sentinel.
The Drug Tug saga begins in 1988, when a tugboat, the Intrepid Ventura, packed with 43 tons of hash and 13 tons of pot was seized by federal agents in San Francisco Bay; it was one of the largest hash busts in U.S. history. The Intrepid's skipper was convicted on multiple counts of drug smuggling and — get this — conspiracy.
Harry V. Martin, zealous editor of the Napa Sentinel, took the local angle and began his own investigation of the Drug Tug's origins. As Jonathan Vankin writes in his 1991 book, Conspiracies, Crimes and Cover-ups, Martin uncovered “a Msbius loop of links” between the boatload of hashish and the CIA, the White House and the contras. Ready? Here we go ….
The phone records of the tugboat captain, Calvin Robinson, reveal that he spoke frequently with Thomas Smith, a convicted drug trafficker. Smith, in turn, possessed a “friends and family circle” of telephone correspondents who got him in trouble with prosecutors. Smith's phone records showed that he talked on occasions with a broker for the Medell’n cartel, and also to three pilots with long careers flying for the CIA's notorious, drug-related Air America.
In Harry Martin's version, the Drug Tug picked up its dope shipment from a mothership in the Pacific. Financing of up to $15 million for the Drug Tug's shipment was laundered through Kenneth Armitage, a British national then holed up on his private Costa Rican island. This same island, which served as the midway point for drug-runners heading north, was used extensively by the CIA as a stopover for its arms shipments headed south. Armitage (now dead) was connected to John Hull, an alleged CIA operative living in Costa Rica, who, in turn, had worked closely with Manuel Noriega and Oliver North, funneling arms from Armitage's island to the contras. You getting all of this?
In 1989, the Costa Rican government reported that its own investigation of the contra-drug connection had found that Noriega and Hull were working for North and the National Security Council. And, of course, as Oliver North testified to Congress, the president knew of and approved everything he did.
The Napa Sentinel dug deeper into the Drug Tug/contra connection than any other publication. And the congressional Iran-contra hearings never touched on the web of drug trafficking that intertwined so inconspicuously with the other nefarious deeds of the Reagan rabble.
Martin concluded his series of articles with a 56-name laundry list, “Who's Who in the Drug Tug Series,” which included such dirty socks as Lucky Luciano and J. Danforth Quayle.
Satanic Nazis and Cancer — The Death of Mae Brussell
We are approaching the outer limits of conspiracy; that gray expanse ahead is no man's land, where conjecture and fact meld into a tumorous lump visible only to the most sensitive X-ray machine.
In the spring of 1988, the Grand Dame of Conspiracy, Mae Brussell, left the radiowaves after 18 years due to a clutch of death threats more graphic than usual. The phone calls she was receiving from someone claiming to be “a fascist and proud of it” had rattled the indomitable Brussell, as had a mysterious break-in at her Carmel home, in which nothing was stolen, but all her furniture had been rearranged. A jigsaw puzzle piece taped to her wall was accompanied by a handwritten note: “We were here.” That summer, she developed cancer; by autumn, Brussell, 66, was dead.
It's only fitting that the specter of conspiracy should shroud the death of Mae Brussell. For 20 years, she had been a revered ranter on the conspiracy scene — patron saint of the paranoid underground. The great-granddaughter of San Francisco clothing mogul Cyril Magnin, Brussell found her life's calling tracking the legacy of the Secret Government and the gaggle of Nazis who ran it. Sure as shootin', behind every political scandal and assassination, Brussell found the telltale footprints of a goose-stepping fascist.
Her thesis was simple: Nazism survived WWII — not the homespun, skinhead nazism of soccer and oi!, but real bona fide German Nazism. Nazi doctors, Nazi scientists and, most importantly, Nazi spies all successfully escaped the vengeance of the Allies by becoming the Allies.
Though she was often derided as a bag of nuts, some of Brussell's assertions have been substantiated by more mainstream researchers. It was Brussell who first opened the historical closet that hid the story of Nazi spymaster General Reinhard Gehlen. At the end of WWII, Gehlen made a deal with Uncle Sam and was absorbed, along with all of his contacts and data, into the American intelligence community. [page]
And that's what makes the last chapter of Brussell's life so disturbing to hardcore conspiracy theorists like Dave Emory and John Judge, not to mention the conspiracy zine Paranoia (#7). At the time she was forced off the air, Brussell had been investigating those connections between the CIA (read: the Nazis) and satanic cults in the U.S. military. Just as Judge maintains that MKULTRA wasn't stopped in the early '70s, Brussell insisted the mind-control effort didn't die at Jonestown, but metamorphosed into a diabolic satanic conspiracy.
The conspiracy press has spent much time debating the government's ability to induce cancer through the use of microwave radiation or the introduction of cancer “microbes” into a person's body. While there is no definitive proof, many conspiracy theorists and fringe physicians agree that it is possible for The Man to give you the big “C” should he choose to do so. Was Mae Brussell “cancered” because she got too close to the truth … again?
Operation Mount Rushmore — The One That Got Away
While most conspiracies orbit nebulously around a nucleus of truth, others float eternally unattached in the ether. One such plot is Operation Mount Rushmore, a conspiracy so dastardly, so heinous, it never happened. But almost ….
Think back for a moment to those heady days of the 1992 presidential campaign. As election day approached, desperate incumbent George Bush became more belligerent, hurling epithets at the young upstart Democratic challenger. It was clear that Bush — a former head of the CIA, mind you — would do anything to stay in the White House.
In his vanity-press conspiracy cavalcade, Defrauding America (1994), FAA whistle-blower Rodney Stich asserts that Poppy planned to assassinate Clinton. Codenamed Operation Mount Rushmore, it was allegedly masterminded by the CIA, the Office of Naval Intelligence and Israel's espionage agency, Mossad.
Stich's source is “Agent X,” one of the CIA hands in the plot, who claims the Israelis were willing to off Clinton because Bush's Gulf War had endeared him to the besieged republic.
“The Mossad is a very strong force in San Francisco,” Agent X told Stich. “They really wanted [Bush] to win.”
The team of assassins assembled at the Presidio in July 1992, where the coordinating Mossad operative told Agent X who the target was.
“I got sick,” Agent X said. “I said to myself, another Kennedy.”
Not that sick. Ever the good spook, Agent X says he went along with the plot: “I then asked for the technical details.”
Agent X claims that the assassins worked out of the Republican Party office on Van Ness — which, he insists, was wall-to-wall CIA. As the assassins prepared for Clinton's imminent arrival, they established safe houses and the hit team secured key positions across the street from the Nob Hill hotel slated to host Clinton. Agent X says it was the Ritz Carlton. The news-papers say Clinton stayed at the Fairmont. But what's a little inaccuracy in a conspiracy?
By August, everything was in place. All the plot needed was one Arkansan sitting duck. But, “at the last moment,” the hit was called off by higher-ups in Washington. Told that someone outside the operation knew about the plan, the hit squad was ordered to kill all factions involved (except themselves — presumably someone else would take care of that).
From there, Agent X's conspiracy wheels out of control. It would be more plausible to say that what happened next was that Agent X prayed to Satan, ingested the CIA's strategic supply of LSD and booked passage on the Glomar Explorer to Jonestown.
But he didn't. Instead, an unnamed female Mossad agent is snuffed. A CIA go-between is killed. Plans to liquidate the entire law firm of Hiller, Ehrman, White and McCauliffe (don't ask why) are shelved. Finally, the powers that be in Washington contact the team with the identity of the leak: A security guard in the law firm's Bush Street building who was dating an Israeli spy. The hapless rent-a-cop — unnamed, of course — conveniently commits suicide in front of a BART train. “Job well done,” Washington tells the team. Two days later, Agent X was reassigned to the Middle East.
Clinton's visit came off without a hitch. He never knew how close he came to buying the farm. But Bubba might not be out of the woods yet. According to Stich, a second CIA source intimated that Operation Mount Rushmore was never scrubbed, but merely “put on hold.