Did you know that Charles Manson and his followers were arrested and released multiple times not long before the Tate-LaBianca murders? What was the motive behind these killings? Why are files about Manson still secret, 50 years after the crimes?
I’ve just finished reading Tom O’Neill’s fascinating and compelling new book about Charles Manson and his followers, Chaos – Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. If you are interested in understanding US culture and politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you’re going to have to spend time with this book and consider its implications. Chaos does a splendid job documenting in compelling detail how Manson and some of his followers had “get out of jail free” cards. The book also proves Manson’s prosecutor, Vince Bugliosi, to be a self-promoting sociopath and a completely unethical lawyer.
Chaos doesn’t quite connect Manson to known US Intelligence operations such as COINTELPRO. However, the book does make a compelling showing that the Manson pattern of local law enforcement being countermanded by “higher authorities” from the federal secret police (FBI-CIA) is consistent with these covert domestic operations. Manson and his followers are treated differently from other criminals. There are significant irregularities. Did you know that, at the time Manson was putting together his little cult, he was under federal probation? Did you know his probation officer, a guy who was studying connections between drug use and violence, had only one person under his supervision?
The author spent 20 years on this book. It started as a magazine piece and morphed into a life-dominating experience in street-level journalism. Part of what makes this book so useful is that the author doesn’t take the easy way out and engage in reasonable-but-salacious theories about “what really happened.” Instead, he shares his reasoning with us, his motivations for pursuing various leads and asking specific questions. Many of these questions remain unanswered. Chaos helps us consider important issues – both about the Manson case and about current events. This book puts a remarkable degree of order to a multidimensional spiderweb of connections, and helps us make better sense of them.
Law enforcement in southern California has been making a dog’s breakfast of hugely important cases for decades. Anybody who studies the murder of Robert Kennedy soon sees that the LAPD’s handling of the case was wildly improper. Bobby Kennedy’s family has argued in public that the convicted assassin could be factually innocent of his murder. That killing was just a bit more than a year before the Tate-LaBianca crimes. The LAPD “police spying” case was litigated for years in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Again, tons of horrifying information about illegal police and prosecutorial policies and practices came out. A few years later, nobody close to southern California law enforcement or the criminal justice system in LA was surprised by the Rodney King beating.
Thinking about Patty Hearst in the 1970’s, or OJ Simpson much more recently, one doesn’t have to look far to see that the cases are irregular, that there’s quite a bit more going on than meets the eye. In all these cases, we see compelling evidence of corruption in high places across law enforcement and the news media. At the same time, we also see that some of the most important sources for tracking down important leads come from sincere “by-the-book” members of law enforcement and journalism. In the end, it comes down to each of us thinking critically and with heart, but without succumbing to the temptations of overreaching. Tom O’Neill serves as a fine role model for this approach to journalism.
The 50-year anniversary of the Manson murders finds the USA perhaps as upset and divided as it was in 1969. The historical record proves that America’s most bitter divisions in the 1960’s were made worse – consciously – by the federal ‘intelligence’ agencies and by their local agents and colleagues. Nobody doubts that these agencies are vastly more entrenched and powerful today than they were 50 years ago. So to me, the most important question implied by Chaos – Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties isn’t about Charlie Manson or the 1960’s, but about today: To what extent are America’s current violence and culture wars the deliberate work-product of US domestic covert operations?
My takeaway from all of this is a sense that modern America is far more like the former East Germany than anybody wants to admit. I say we should all demand a Truth and Reconciliation process, right here in the good old US of A. We need to open our military and intelligence files and take a good look at what happened – is happening – to our society.
Surely we can do better.
Reflections on Chaos – Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring