Hanley: In your experience, is truth more powerful than fiction? This question is specifically with regard to what you have read and reported on recently declassified documents.
Peter: Truth is a distinct power to fiction. Fiction can be powerful because it is creative, innovative, imaginative. But declassified history has the power of reality. The power of reality has no substitute because it is what we have experienced, what we are responsible for and what we need to know and understand to change the future.
HK: What is the most surprising thing you have ever discovered in your research? Any research pointers? Writers love research ideas and tips.
PK: I have had lots of opportunities to examine extraordinary historical episodes, and the documentation that records them. During the course of recent research on a book about the history of secret diplomacy with Cuba, I found a draft letter by John Kennedy to “FC,”—that is, Fidel Castro—during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the same project there was a declassified tape of Kennedy discussing setting up a secret meeting with Castro—a discussion that took place less than three weeks before the assassination in Dallas.
Writers will want to focus on various categories of documents. For example, “memcons”—memoranda of conversations—really do lend themselves to writing dialogue, and scripts. The movie 13 Days with Kevin Costner drew on verbatim dialogue from Kennedy’s Executive Committee meetings during the missile crisis for some of its scenes. I will be glad to discuss research at Love is Murder.
HK: There are lots of conspiracy theories out there about all manner of events, from whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone to whether 9/11 was an internal plot to give G. W. Bush an excuse to bomb Iraq, after which he also asserted that there were weapons of mass destruction, to UFOS. In your opinion, are there any such theories that have any real credibility?
PK: Credibility? Look, all US government covert operations are conspiracies in that they are accomplished through the cooperation of many people. Certainly the Kennedy assassination and the attacks on 911 are fraught with conspiracy theories, even when there is no credible evidence to support any of them except the one thing that connects them all—some measure of secrecy applied at the time they happened.
Secrecy breeds mistrust and suspicion, and ultimately utterly fictional accounts of history. In the case of the Kennedy assassination and 9/11, despite exhaustive investigation of the facts, there are those who will always believe the worst. Some 60 percent of Americans still believe that Oswald did not act alone. I do not believe there is any evidence to support this.
More recently another conspiracy theory that gained a lot of traction was the CIA-Contra-crack cocaine story. Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote a whole series he called the Dark Alliance, where he accused the CIA and the Reagan administration of funding the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua through the sale of cocaine, instigating the conspiratorial rumor that the CIA was responsible for bringing crack cocaine into Black communities in a sort of drug-related genocide. The Dark Alliance series is filled with errors. The Reagan administration didn't covertly introduce crack into African-American communities. But the White House was guilty of being more interested in fomenting political turmoil in Nicaragua than in stopping drugs from crossing U.S. borders and poisoning the youth and minority communities of our country. The truth is actually worse than the fiction.
I am not against conspiracy theories as part of fictional writing per se—I believe conspiracy theories make great whodunits and thrillers. There is room for both fiction and fact in great thrillers and mystery stories.
HK: What advice would you give thriller writers about how to “get it right” when depicting the world of espionage?
PK: I don’t call myself an expert on espionage. I am more interested in regime change policies and the immorality of US foreign policy, though certainly espionage plays a part in this.
HK: Do you ever worry about your personal security?
PK: In 1999, the imprisoned chief of Pinochet’s secret policy, Gen. Manual Contreras, who was responsible for murder, disappearance and international terrorism, told a reporter that I was “either a CIA agent or a KGB agent.” (I had helped generate a New York Times story that the CIA had put Contreras on their payroll in 1975.) The fact that he knew who I was quite disturbed me. I wrote out a will before my next trip to Santiago.
In addition to his work at the National Security Archive and the books cited above, Peter Kornbluh is the author of Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba and Nicaragua: the Price of Intervention. He is co-author with Malcolm Byrne of The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, and with Michael T. Klare of Low-Intensity Warfare: How the USA Fights Wars Without Declaring Them.