San Francisco author David Talbot takes on government secrecy, the CIA and the assassination of JFK in 'The Devil's Chessboard'
By Lou Fancher
David Talbot is out to rip the mask off the face of charlatans masquerading as scions of true democracy. The latest effort from the San Francisco author and Salon.com founder and former editor-in-chief is the 704-page doorstop, "The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government" (Harper, $29.99). In a fact-packed book that reads like spy fiction, the aftershocks of the Cold War -- delivered not by communists, but by the Washington, D.C., power elite -- will leave many readers chilled, disbelieving or shocked.
"Once you have your hooks in the reader, you can communicate with dense information. The book's a slave to fact, but I also wanted to let it rip," Talbot says.
Unleashing the "mountains of files" Talbot stores in file cabinets in his Nob Hill office, "Chessboard" relies on government documents, personal correspondence, journals and interviews to build its indictment of Dulles, the longest-serving director of the CIA, and others. Talbot describes Dulles as the fulcrum in a network with tentacles reaching from Nazi-shielding rescues by the CIA in the years after World War II to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In between, he links Dulles and other powermongers to attempted or successful overthrow of rulers, including Iran's Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala, French President Charles de Gaulle -- and assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro, corrupt actions relating to Bay of Pigs, the Warren Commission, the assassination of the Congo's Patrice Lumumba and more.
Talbot is the author of the best-selling "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years," about Robert F. Kennedy's attempt to discover the truth about JFK's murder. His "day job," he says, is Hot Books, a new Skyhorse Publishing imprint issuing 40,000-word books based on investigations into critical issues.
"I'm becoming a political activist, because San Francisco's being taken over by greed and the tech elite," Talbot says. "Technology's an incredibly powerful tool. It's sped up human knowledge, and it's sped up repression of human freedom. It's a double-edged sword. It's up to us to use it for good, not for enslavement."
And "using it for good" means following a moral compass that Talbot says mainstream media has largely abandoned. "When did the press become a lapdog? I believe my profession has been weak, complicit and lazy."
Talbot, whose own views and writing have been shaped by the culture of the '60s, thinks Dulles would have been thrilled with today's information technology. "Dulles would have died to have the technological ability to invade and snoop that we now have. Edward Snowden tried to wake us up to this power. Obama came in saying we'd pull out of Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and other places, and yet here we are
again, expanding. He's chained, like every president has been, to war."
But it's secrets, not war, that Talbot says are most dangerous. "If you have a secret government, you can't have true democracy." Arguing that the book's critics throw out labels, including "conspiracy theory" in an attempt to "turn off intellectual debate," he says his most explosive statement -- that the Kennedy assassination was a power elite consensus decision -- could be proven if the CIA were to release 1,100
documents it holds. "Despite a huge document dump after the JFK Records Act passed, 9/11 enforced the idea that national security prevents their releasing those documents," he says.
The workaround to not getting the unobtainable documents is "methodical, careful research and close listening," Talbot says. He also characterizes his writing style as "more of a feminine approach.
"I find confessions and insights provide compelling information," he says. "The book's not all complete darkness. It's a clash of families and dynasties. It's loaded with heroic people."
Talbot's 2012 best-seller "Season of the Witch," about San Francisco from the 1960s to the 1980s, "flowed right out because I'd lived it," he notes.
The completions of "Chessboard," on the other hand, required three years and an "executive producer," Karen Croft. Talbot says their partnership played a vital role in the book's deep research and editing. Interviews often were serendipitous, especially one conducted with Dulles' daughter, Joan Talley. "She alerted me to her mother's diaries and the communications of Dulles' mistress. That was a treasure trove for me."
The subject came up only because Talley mentioned editing the diaries, but Talbot was soon thereafter at Harvard's Schlesinger Library, poring over the original documents.
Talbot also says Hollywood -- in the form of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey -- came knocking on his door, but has since backed away.
And he has his suspicions: "The CIA has a dog in that fight," he says. "They're sensitive, because they know Hollywood changes public attitude. But I say, the best story always wins. This happens to be a true, mind-blowing story."