Gerald Posner is an American investigative journalist and author of several books, including Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK which explores the John F. Kennedy assassination, and Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.. A plagiarism scandal involving his articles and books arose in 2010.
• Steven Johnson (Steven Berlin Johnson is an American popular science author and media theorist.)
• David Pogue (David Welch Pogue is an American technology writer and TV science presenter. He is a personal tec...)
• Alexis Kennedy (Alexis Kennedy is a British writer and game designer, best known as the founder of Failbetter Games.)» All Writer Interviews
I am a journalist, author and attorney. My first book, a biography of Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele Mengele: The Complete Story, 1986 grew out of a pro bono lawsuit for some survivors of Mengele's medical experiments at Auschwitz. From there I went on to write about the international heroin trade Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies - The New Mafia; a novel about biological warfare The Bio-Assassins, 1989; about the second generation of top Nazis Hitler's Children: Sons and Daughters of Leaders of the Third Reich talk about their Fathers and Themselves, 1991; the murder of JFK Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, 1993 - Case Closed was a finalist for the Pulitzer in History and a NY Times bestseller; a Ross Perot biography, Citizen Perot: His Life and Times, 1996; the MLK murder, Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, 1998; the business story of one of America's most fabled record labels, Motown: Music, Money, Sex, Power, 2002; the story behind 9/11, Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11, 2003; an investigation of Saudi Arabia, Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection, 2005; the history of a city, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power - A Dispatch from the Beach, 2009.
Over the course of writing these books, at different times I was a regular panelist on HistoryCENTER, the History Channel’s Sunday current events program. And I have been a freelance writer for many news magazines, and a regular contributor to NBC, the History Channel, CNN, FOX News, CBS, and MSNBC.
My latest book is GOD’S BANKERS: A HISTORY OF MONEY AND POWER AT THE VATICAN. It is the result of nine years of off an on again research and reporting and it follows the church’s finances for 200 years inside one of the world’s most powerful institutions. Ask me anything you like about the Vatican and its money!
Hi everyone, thank you so much for your good questions. I have to run but will be back to answer more this weekend, so keep asking, thanks!
Aren't you worried that you're going to commit suicide by stabbing yourself in the back 17 times and then beheading yourself?
You're in a dangerous line of work.
:-) Any good investigative journalist does the same. It is all about risk tolerance. For instance, I was in Paraguayan rain forest with a a neo-Nazi colonel, spent time with heroin traffickers in the Golden Triangle, and went to Kabul after 9/11. None of that worried me, I was focused on the work. But I don't skateboard because I think I might fall and break a bone and I don't smoke because I am afraid of cancer. Risk tolerance. Go figure.
Are the Vatican financiers held accountable to any higher power if they commit fraud? By higher power, I don't mean "God" or the Pope. I guess I'm asking what happens if someone is caught committing fraud in the Vatican / for the Vatican.
Great question. I cover this in a couple of chapters in the book. There is a case in the 1980s in which Italian prosecutors issued a serious multi-count indictment agains the American Bishop who ran the Vatican Bank, as well as his top two lay directors. The Vatican refused to accept the warrants, claiming it was an infringement of their sovereignty. Italy responded by saying that was a ridiculous defense. What if a priest living in the Vatican committed murder in Italy? He could not stay free from justice by simply going back inside the Vatican? But that is precisely what happened. Those three top Vatican Bankers stayed inside Vatican City. Over a couple of years the case of whether they could be forcibly extradited went to Italy's highest court, and the court sided with Vatican. No one was extradited or spent a day in jail for their role in a giant fraud. The unfortunate short answer to your question, is that they are not accountable in the past.
Hi Gerald. What led you to transition from law to writing and reporting? Do you ever still practice law or remain active in the bar?
Thanks for being here today!
I started at Cravath, Swaine and Moore in 1978 before moving to my own firm in 1981. There I began a pro bono lawsuit against Germany and the Mengele family on behalf of a survivor of Mengele's medical experiments at Auschwitz. That suit was not successful, but I had gathered some 25,000 pages of documents about Mengele, many of which were not public. So with a British journalist, John Ware, I turned it into a biography of Mengele for McGraw-Hill. And while in Paraguay I had met some Corsicans who were fugitives from justice in the heroin trade. They regaled me with stories about how the heroin business had been taken over by Chinese Triads. That became my second book. I still am a member of the NY and DC bars but do not actively practice. Check out this article about me in Bitter Lawyer with more details about how I went from lawyer to author, http://www.bitterlawyer.com/gerald-posner-cravath-to-controversy/
What are your thoughts on Pope Francis' attempts to reform the Vatican bank and finances in general? I remember last year when he fired his entire financial watchdog board. Do you believe his efforts to reform the system will be effective?
Too early too tell, but I do think Pope Francis is sincere in his efforts to reform the bank. Part of whether he will be successful is whether he is Pope long enough for the reforms to really take hold. He is, after all, 78. And the bureaucracy of the bank is resistant to change.
Can you describe your standard investigative process? I.e. how you peel back the layers of the onion on something like IOR? What methods separate the good from the great investigative journalists?
I think the difference with successful investigative journalists is that we never, ever take 'no' for an answer. That does not mean that we can turn a 'no' into a yes, but it means we will figure out a way to get the information another way. Case in point. The Vatican said no to my request to get into the Secret Archives. How could I then determine whether the Vatican Bank, created in the middle of World War II, did business with the Nazis? I had to get information from national archives, and private company files, in Europe and the U.S. and South America. And I pored over litigation files, and banking documents that were hard to find but ultimately accessible. So, the answer is that a good investigative reporter will take a 'no' as a challenge to still get the information from an alternate route.
If you had one "holy crap!" fact to sell me on the book, what would it be?
That I uncovered a classified U.S. intelligence document that raises the likelihood that the financial wizard who founded the Vatican Bank, in the middle of World War was in fact a Nazi spy.
Enough of a hook? :-
Hi Gerald. Thanks for all of your work.
1) Many people, such as Karen Hudes (I don't find her to be credible), claim that the Vatican and Bank of England are who our tax payments go to. Is there any veracity to this claim? If not, what confusion would cause her to make that claim in the first place?
2) Can you please enlighten us all about the saga of Neal Keenan and the Dragon Family that have filed a very large lawsuit surrounding a banking controversy that I don't fully understand? It appears to involve an alliance of wealthy Chinese families who are going after wealthy Europeans.
3) What does the vatican use as it's "enforcement" arm? It used to be the swiss guard and I have a hard time thinking of a major religion that didn't have a violent component to enforcing its "rules" throughout history.
Great subjects. As for Karen Hudes, I think of that issues a bit differently. I do not conclude that our tax money goes in part to the Vatican, but rather that the Vatican (as does every other religion) gets the equivalent of a giant tax subsidy by being exempt from taxes.
I know and have read about Neal Keenan and the Dragon Family, but unfortunately I cannot enlighten Reddit users about it since I have never investigated it. All I know is what you know from the links such as the one you posted.
The Vatican is fortunate is has not had the need for an 'enforcement' arm in a long time. In its history, it had its own army, of course, until 1870. And it controlled some 15,000 square miles of Italy in its own empire, the Papal States. But after that, the only time it feared for its existence was when the Nazis took over Rome in 1943 and the Pope was worried Hitler might seize the Vatican and possibly even take him a prisoner.
Hi Mr. Posner, how do you go about writing a biography? Do you try to stay neutral or give some insight into the events you are writing about? What do you think is an appropriate time to wait to write a history book?
Please allow me to answer your good questions in reverse order. As for the time to wait, I do not think there is any set period. It depends on the subject. For instance, I wrote a book about the failure of U.S. intelligence and government to prevent 9/11 (While America Slept), and it was published in 2003. That was far to close to the event to be a history with the benefit of real perspective. But it was a current history, an investigative snapshot of a the decade leading up the 9/11 attacks. Other historians in the future will use work like mine in deciding how contemporary journalists viewed events.
As for your first question, all of us have some preconceived notions when approaching a biography or subject. The key is not to allow those early opinions to block you from following the evidence. So, for instance, on JFK, I started the research on that book leaning to thinking that the mob likely killed Kennedy (because of Ruby's murder of Oswald). But I let the evidence take me to the conclusion of Oswald alone. So I might not start neutral, but I investigate neutral, if that makes sense.
Hello, Mr. Posner. As a history buff, I'm curious-what was it like to immerse yourself in the life of someone like Josef Mengele?
It was a fascinating and dark journey. Fortunately, in my published biography, 19 of the 20 chapters are about how he got away. Only one is about Auschwitz. That doesn't mean the work was any easier, but it meant that much of my concentration was on 'how did he get away' versus ' what were his crimes at the death camp.' There is a segment from a 1986 Phil Donahue show I did, together with Mengele's only son, Rolf (an attorney). It might give you, especially as a history buff, an insight into the complex personal drama that plays out in such a story. You can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFQaDSv1IKg
What do you plan on working and covering next?
I WISH I knew that answer. Life would seem a lot less stressful right now. When you finish a book project, it is almost anti-climatic. In some ways, if you really love your subject, there is almost a sadness that goes along with the publication because you are sorry to see it end. The difficulty is finding that same passion for a new subject, and one that a publisher wants as well, and that is difficult. Some ideas are percolating, but nothing definite yet.
The phrase "God's Banker" is most closely associated with Roberto Calvi. While I realize your book takes on 200 years of finance, I was wondering how large a part, if any, he or the conspiracy around his murder, take in the book?
While it covers 200-years it does have two big arcs. One is around World War II and the other is around the 60s through 80s, Calvi, Sindona, P2, questions of foul play, dead prosecutors, all of the great scandals that almost took down the bank. The book opens with Calvi's body under Blackfriars
How can you call it a secret if you can write a whole book on it?
It isn't really that the entire book is new and secret, but that revelations in it are news. I think that is the way it is with most investigative books.
historically/anthropologically speaking, the Vatican is fascinating. Would you say that, although their true expressive power has considerably waned, how would you rate their soft power status?
Hard power, you are right, was never the same after they lost their earthly empire in 1870. Once Pope/Kings became simply Popes, the did not have the same secular power. But they still carry considerable soft power. In Western, Latin and South American democracies, the Catholic vote (although not homogenous) gives the church extra clout. And a populist Pope, like Francis, means that secular politicians - even non-believing ones - want to get some of his magic in their own favorability ratings. So they court the Vatican at times. Hence the historic invitation to Pope Francis to address both houses of Congress this fall...
I'm an unusually young Kennedy assassination buff. I did some research for Larry Sabato for his recent book on the matter, and have read several books on the subject, yours included. The more I've learned about Mark Lane, the less I respect him. Yet I know you hired him yourself to represent you in a lawsuit. Do you have a good professional relationship with him? Are my judgments unfounded?
Also, can you sit through Oliver Stone's JFK? Or does it get you frothing angry?
I certainly don't agree with Mark Lane or Oliver Stone when it comes to the JFK assassination. As for the "JFK," I've said before that Stone is a very good filmmaker but a very bad historian. Good luck on your own research into the case, I'm sure you will end up deciding for yourself what is accurate and what is not.
Most interesting thing you've ever investigated/uncovered?
The reason I say that is hard to answer in an easy way is that each book seems to reveal to me 'the most interesting' item I have discovered. For instance, during Mengele, I thought I would never have a bigger story than disclosing how he had been caught twice by American forces and then mistakenly released, or how the Israeli Mossad found him but cancelled the team to kidnap him because of other pressing priorities in the Middle East. I've been there again with information about 9/11 and how I believe the Saudis financed terror that might have led to the attack on America. And I think my big discovery now is the fact that the financial wizard who founded the Vatican Bank in the middle of World War II might have been a Nazi spy. See, it's not easy to put one at the top of the discovery list :-
Have you experienced any threats, either personal or professional as a result of investigating the vatican and it's finances? they are powerful. Some may even argue the most powerful and oldest institution in the world, logic stands to reason they are not a fond of having their dirty laundry aired out for the world to see/read. Have you been stoned-walled as a result of your research?
I got no help from officially from the Vatican. They rejected my request to get access to the Secret Archives. And my many requests for interviews were never answered by the chief press officer. On my own, I did manage to get an on the record interview with Rene Brülhart, the head of their new enforcement division, and some very brave clerics and laymen talked to me on the condition of anonymity.
Is there a ballpark valuation of the antiquities stored in the catacombs?
This is one of the great mysteries that is really impossible to put a figure to. In part, no realistic estimate can be made because the Vatican has not provided a full inventory of everything they have. But there is little doubt that just the historical documents - like Pope Leo X's excommunication decree against Martin Luther, or Michelangelo's note to the Pope warning that Vatican guards were about to walk off the job due to no pay - are hard to put a price on.
How do you choose your subject matter for your books?
My wife, Trisha Posner (http://www.trishaposner.com) works with me on all my projects. So when choosing a new subject it has to be something with which we are excited to live with for a few years. And since it is all encompassing at times, it has to be subject that is challenging. Finally, even if we are enthusiastic about a topic, we have to find a publisher who is willing to go with it. Most important we need to find a publisher who is willing to not know what the final book will look like since we do not know what we will uncover until we do the reporting. On the Vatican, Simon & Schuster allowed to to turn a proposal about World War II and the church into a 200-year history of follow the money in the Vatican. That is critical, to have that support and leeway from a publisher.
How much of the Vatican Bank's operations were autonomous versus being directed/influenced by the popes? Meaning, was the bank an institution unto itself apart from the rest of the Vatican that each pope had to come to terms once elected?
Good question. I had originally expected to find that the Popes operated at a much higher level, overseeing the general operation of the church, and that the bank was left off on the side and was run fairly autonomously by the directors there. However, I discovered through my research that was not always the case. In part, that is because Vatican City is so small. Only about 1,000 clerics at any time, living and working in the same small postage-stamp-sized parcel of land. Although the church is a giant institution, the Vatican itself is not. So if a Pope is a details person, a hands-on micromanager, then he will be involved with the bank. Pius XII, the Pope who formed the Vatican Bank, was someone involved in the details. The next Pope, Paul VI, was also fairly involved at least through the late 1960s. But Pope John Paul II, who used the bank to send money covertly to support the Polish resistance against the communist government in his native Poland, did not like financial details and did not get involved in the running of the bank. Same with Pope Benedict. As for Pope Francis, his focus is reforming the bank, and on that issue, he is involved in the details.
Thanks for the reply.
How do you decide on which subject to write about?
Has to have a few features. A subject that has not been covered to death by other journalists, author, and historians. A topic on which I might be able to uncover some new information and thereby add to what history buffs know about it. And something about which I am passionately interested. Otherwise you cannot keep up working on it every day with the enthusiasm and freshness that is required to do a comprehensive job.
I heard you on NPR a week or two ago and boy, what a fascinating subject matter! I know you mentioned that you believe Pope Francis is doing God's work (pun intended) to try and oust the corruption from the bank, so I guess my question is, if you were given the opportunity to get a completely truthful answer from him on any one question, what would you ask him?
If he would be brave enough to open the the church's and the Vatican Bank's Holocaust-era files.
Why would the Vatican have picked a populist Pope?
As I describe in my book when reporting on every election for Pope since 1963, there has been a division among the cardinals between traditionalists and progressives. This time a real progressive won. That might make the traditionalists work even harder to try and retake the Papacy after Francis's death.
Did you ever find any contradiction in the moral standards of the religion as oppose to its financial activities?
Yes, plenty of contradictions that seem at times very hypocritical. I think that Pope Francis understands that contradiction and that is why some of the money men in the Vatican are nervous with him as Pope.
Thank you for the answer. I have a couple other questions for you. Eisenhower warned about a military industrial complex. Was this an example of such? Also, what is United Fruit?
Eisenhower's warning was prescient. The military-industrial-surveillance state is what it has morphed into. As for United Fruit, Google "1954 coup in Guatemala" - an interesting history for an American company....
What kind of access to Vatican archives did you have when researching God's Bankers?
None. They rejected my request for access to the archives.
Thanks for doing this AMA!
1) What is the most outrageous conspiracy theory you've heard?
2) What is your favorite book?
3) What are some subjects that you really want to write a book on?
Edit: I just realized my username......
Great username :-) Not sure what it means, but I like it.
There are so many wild conspiracy theories, it is too hard to pick my fav. Just when I think one can't be topped it is. Sometimes my fav changes depending on the news. One that I like a lot now is a popular one in some Middle Eastern countries: that ISIS is a CIA-Mossad-Saudi intel operation and none of the terrorists are real.
As for books, I really like Inside the Third Reich, and for fiction, 1984.
Other subjects? I'm thinking about it....
My uncle says Pope John Paul the first was assassinated because he was going to dig around into the vatican's finances. Is that true?
A book has been written about that, and I address it in God's Bankers. I do not think he was murdered, but there is little doubt the Vatican bungled just about everything after his death - including no autopsy. And they had a coverup of how the body was found because they were embarrassed that a nun had found it early in the morning, which some clerics thought could lead to speculation about why a woman was at the Pope's bedroom door first thing in the morning (she brought coffee to him every morning and put it on a tray outside his door). Everyone expected him to be a reformer when it came to the Vatican Bank, but he lasted only 33 days, therefore all the conspiracies started.
You concluded wrong about JFK watch the driver at the 8 second mark. http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=eqzJQE8LYrQ
The driver killed him (killshot) but the previous shot I believe that went through him and hit the governor was Oswald. He was the scapegoat, hence his immediate murder. Case closed.
I have heard the 'driver killed him' theory before. I address it in Case Closed. I hope you will look at my book and see what I write about that before writing off the possibility that one lone 24-year-old sociopathic loser in life, Lee Harvey Oswald, did in fact kill the president on his own that day.