Assume Nothing: Encounters with Assassins, Spies, Presidents, and Would-Be Masters of the Universe
“In this page-turner of a book, Epstein recounts the highlights of his eventful investigative reporting . . .”
Inspired by the words of his Cornell University professor Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian emigre who wrote “The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind,” Edward Jay Epstein embarked on a career as an investigative writer, which he recalls in his fascinating and appropriately titled memoir Assume Nothing.
In this page-turner of a book, Epstein recounts the highlights of his eventful investigative reporting:
• his interviews with the principals and staff lawyers of the Warren Commission, which formed the basis of his first book Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, a skeptical look at the official investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy, and his later debunking of the Jim Garrison-Oliver Stone version of the murder;
• his inquiry into Soviet deception and disinformation activities, including the CIA’s Golitsyn-Nosenko controversy and the “wilderness of mirrors” described by former CIA head of counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton;
• his meeting with Kim Roosevelt about the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Iranian government and reinstalling the Shah of Iran to power in the early 1950s;
• the uncovering of journalistic malfeasance in the portrayal of the deaths of Black Panther radicals in the 1960s as police murders;
• putting the lie to the Nixon administration’s exaggerated claims in its “war on drugs”;
• uncovering political corruption in Paris and Kyiv;
• searching for the truth behind the plane crash that killed Pakistani President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1988;
• piercing the protective curtain that the Vatican attempted to use to hide the nefarious activities of its bank;
• revealing the cozy relationship between Occidental Petroleum chairman Armand Hammer and the Kremlin;
• examining the sordid nature of Jeffrey Epstein’s powerful associations and egregious sexual exploitation of girls.
Along the way, Edward Jay Epstein befriended and socialized with the rich and famous in journalism (William Shawn, Tina Brown, David Frost, Victor Navasky), education (James Q. Wilson, David Reisman, Doris Kearns Goodwin) , politics and geopolitics (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Andrew Marshall), business (James Goldsmith, Donald Trump, Steven Ross, David Tang), and entertainment (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Dick Clark, Warren Beatty).
Epstein describes his work as “a questioner of received wisdom and a solver of unsolved riddles. He describes himself as “a detective of international intrigue” who has a talent for “finding missing pieces in a mystery.” He learned from James Angleton that things are not always as they appear. He learned from the Warren Commissioners that quite often the real work of official investigative bodies is done by junior staffers. He learned from James Q. Wilson that organizations shape the decisions of their members. He learned from Andrew Marshall and Col. John Boyd about the vulnerability of intelligence agencies to foreign and domestic deception.
Epstein gives no indication of having a fixed political philosophy. He has spent a career searching for facts and truth. This is most evident in his chapters on the Kennedy assassination, Angleton’s approach to counterintelligence, and his five-day vacation with Richard Nixon in 1992 in Mexico where he grew to admire the former president for his politeness, sense of humor, intellectual seriousness, vast knowledge of the world, and personal courtesy.
Epstein’s unbiased approach to investigative journalism is often missing in today’s media coverage of domestic politics and international events by mainstream media outlets. Too many journalists and news organizations today are overtly partisan. Journalists aren’t supposed to root for one side or the other, but they often do just that.
Fortunately, the internet has fostered Epstein-style reporting on such platforms as Substack. And new internet journals like Unherd and Tablet Magazine are filling the void left by mainstream media bias. Let’s hope there are a lot more Edward Jay Epsteins out there who “assume nothing.”