In 1979, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a ‘probable conspiracy’. They did not identify the culprits but its chair Professor Robert Blakey leant towards the Mob. The outcry over Oliver Stone’s seminal movie JFK in 1991 led to legislation setting up the Assassination Records Review Board to vet all relevant documents decreeing their declassification within 25 years unless exempted by the old chestnut of national security. The deadline came and went with thousands of documents still classified.
Sixty years on, the case remains unsolved and there is a high degree of suspicion amongst the American public that the CIA, military or other agencies were involved. A large cover-up is evident from the actions of the 1964 Warren Commission (the official body designated with the first investigation), the deliberate decision of President Lyndon B. Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the wake of the assassination to shut down investigations (we know this from transcripts of recorded phone calls) and the withheld information/deceptions of the CIA and FBI including Warren Commission member Allen Dulles not disclosing the CIA-Mafia Castro assassination plots. In fact, the CIA has effectively conceded that a benign cover-up was carried out.
The manoeuvring and manipulation of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald — his likely false defection to the Soviet Union returning to the United States posing as a pro Castro activist in New Orleans whilst hanging out with Guy Bannister, David Ferrie and assorted militant anti-Castroites — is indicative of a keen intelligence interest. It is likely that Oswald was dangled as part of CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton’s false defector programme itself part of a futile, Sisyphean KGB mole-hunt inside the CIA that consumed much of the grey ghost’s energies (Angleton’s nickname). A few weeks before the assassination, Oswald supposedly made a strange trip to Mexico City visiting the Cuban and Soviet consulates. In Dallas during the months leading up to the assassination, the shepherding of Oswald by svengali figure George De Mohrenschildt, who was a CIA informant, and the Quaker Paine family both appear suspicious although the nature of compartmentalisation implies that they would have been unwitting parties.
After six decades of an ongoing cover-up with the continuing withholding of documents, it is difficult to escape the notion that the assassination must have at least been carried out by renegade or rogue elements.
There is plenty of hard evidence of a conspiracy. But what is the hard evidence of a national security state plot to assassinate JFK? The closest we come are confessions. We have Howard Hunt’s deathbed confession in Rolling Stone magazine and his autobiography but both are educated guesswork by a veteran officer immersed in the agency’s anti-Castro Operation Mongoose. Hunt described himself as a ‘benchwarmer’ whatever this meant as if he was some kind of substitute on Team JFK Assassination. And frankly his assertion that Johnson was the mastermind of the plot reeked of diversion.
From the late 1970s onwards, covert action officer later Chief of CIA Western hemisphere operations David Atlee Phillips came under suspicion of involvement as a result of the assertions of prominent Cuban exile leader Antonio Veciana. Veciana alleged that he had witnessed his handler ‘Maurice Bishop’ with Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas a few weeks before the assassination. Further investigation would lead the HSCA to suspect that ‘Maurice Bishop’ was an alias/pseudonym used by David Phillips. Decades later, Veciana would confirm in 2014 that Maurice Bishop was indeed David Phillips.
However, Veciana’s inconsistencies in evolving versions of his stories have been teased out by military historian John Newman discrediting his allegations. The current consensus amongst the assassination research community seems to be that Veciana was dealing in disinformation to divert investigations. This does not mean to say that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sophisticated disinformation necessarily contains elements of truth mixed with deceptions.
Dan Hardway was the co-author of The Lopez-Hardway report into the Mexico City episode during the HSCA investigation. Hardway had interviewed Phillips alongside Gaeton Fonzi. Phillips had started the interview every bit the impressive agency man. By the end, he was chain smoking and visibly shaken. Hardway’s impressive preparation demonstrated that disinformation stories in the aftermath of the JFK assassination blaming Castro from various Cuban exile groups could be traced back to Phillips. Hardway emerged convinced that Phillips had run the psychological-operations or psy-ops aspects of the assassination.
But when I interviewed Hardway in 2022, he was no longer so sure. He told me that Phillips was a very good actor and may have fooled him into thinking that he was anxious. Veteran academic and researcher Peter Dale Scott echoed similar sentiments writing to me in an email that Phillips may have insinuated himself into the 1970s investigations to make it look like he was complicit as a diversion from what really happened. This does seem like a dangerous ploy and I am not sure how the former number three man in the CIA works as a limited hangout i.e. an alternative version to pacify the public when the original ‘patsy’ version has worn thin.
Hunt and Phillips appear to have served as useful limited hangouts at a time when 1970s investigations were hotting up. They may have diverted attention away from the real planners.
What of Angleton’s suspicious behaviour? Angleton had notably been persistently engaged in attempts to erase and sever any link between the agency and Lee Harvey Oswald. Various episodes would find him bizarrely caught in the act of cleaning up the messy trail of the assassination. He intercepted a call between Mexico City station chief Winston Scott and a colleague in British intelligence warning him off discussing the assassination with anyone. Angleton was rumoured to run his own goons and his threats were not to be dismissed lightly. Angleton also threateningly called one of the original Warren Commission lawyers David Slawson when he had openly questioned its original findings during the turbulent period of the Seventies investigations.
He often swooped in like a raven in the wake of deaths to continue this clean-up. He was caught by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife breaking into the house of Washington high socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer in the wake of her murder to salvage her personal diary. She was the ex-wife of CIA officer Cord Meyer. Mary had visited the White House on many occasions during her affair with President Kennedy and according to her biographer Peter Janney was introducing the President to mind expanding hallucinogens such as LSD. She may have been turning him on to peace. Mary was shaken to the core by the assassination according to her friend and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Angleton was almost certainly worried about confidential information relating to her private investigation of the assassination. When ex-husband Cord Meyer was asked by his biographer at the end of his life as to who had killed Mary, he reportedly replied with embitterment, “The same sons of bitches that killed JFK”.
In the wake of retired Mexico City station chief Winston Scott’s death, Angleton swooped in again arriving at the house of his widow in Mexico to ensure that Scott’s files on Oswald were transported and sealed.
The choice of Oswald as a patsy — Oswald himself self-identified as a patsy under arrest in front of the world’s cameras — violated tradecraft. Angleton’s mole-hunting unit (Counter-Intelligence/Special Investigations Group or CI/SIG) had been surveilling Oswald ever since his defection to the Soviet Union. In other words, there was an extensive paper trail from Oswald back to Angleton’s team. This is in contravention of ZR/RIFLE chief (the agency’s assassination programme) William King Harvey’s notes on how to run an assassination plot with one of the cardinal rules being ‘nothing on paper’.
However, it is worth recalling that the climate in 1963 was very different. The CIA had not endured major leaks and fiascos — the Bay of Pigs aside. The outrage over Watergate and the Vietnam War was still years away. In other words, Angleton and his colleagues had no reason to believe that classified information would be revealed by the mass media in the next decade exposing the agency’s dirty laundry for the whole world to see. Angleton would tell reporter Seymour Hersh with reference to compartmentalisation in CIA covert ops: “A mansion has many rooms…I’m not privy to who struck John.”
Towards the end of his life, Phillips would apparently tell HSCA investigator Kevin Walsh: -
“My final take on the assassination is there was a conspiracy, likely including American intelligence officers.”
This has been interpreted as the closest thing if not to a confession exactly then at least to an admission that there may have been something to those conspiracy theories after all. In his unpublished manuscript for a spy novel closely based on real events, The AMLASH Legacy, Phillips painted a picture of Oswald as a double agent, who betrayed the agency’s plan to assassinate Castro instead turning it against Kennedy.
I was one of the two case officers who handled Lee Harvey Oswald. After working to establish his Marxist bona fides, we gave him the mission of killing Fidel Castro in Cuba. I helped him when he came to Mexico City to obtain a visa, and when he returned to Dallas to wait for it I saw him twice there. We rehearsed the plan many times: In Havana Oswald was to assassinate Castro with a sniper’s rifle from the upper floor window of a building on the route where Castro often drove in an open jeep. Whether Oswald was a double-agent or a psycho I’m not sure, and I don’t know why he killed Kennedy. But I do know he used precisely the plan we had devised against Castro. Thus the CIA did not anticipate the President’s assassination but it was responsible for it. I share that guilt.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence is David Morales’ confession. The psychopathic David Morales was Chief of Operations at the large JM/WAVE Miami station responsible for Mongoose and other Cuban operations. When drunk, his oldest friend Ruben Carbajal recalled that he had confessed about involvement in the assassination of both Kennedy brothers. According to Carbajal, in the spring of 1973, Morales talked about his involvement with the Bay of Pigs operation. He claimed,
“Kennedy had been responsible for him having to watch all
the men he recruited and trained get wiped out”. He added:
“Well, we took care of that SOB, didn’t we?”
Whilst William Harvey appears to have had foreknowledge of the JFK assassination according to apocryphal statements from his deputy Mark Wyatt. He was even spotted by one CIA colleague on a flight to Dallas during the course of 1963. On November 22nd, 1963, he got himself blind drunk and supposedly said,
‘This is the day when the goddamn president is going to get himself killed.’
When informed of the assassination, Harvey responded, ‘This was bound to happen and it’s probably good that it did.’
When he learned that his Rome station deputy was helping local officials with condolences, he got rid of the deputy, telling him “I haven’t got time for this kind of crap.” Harvey later told his former deputy that “no one will ever know who shot JFK!”
William King Harvey must be treated as a person of suspicion both on account of his undying hatred of the Kennedy brothers and his experience — running the CIA component of Mongoose Task Force W as well as assassinations programme ZR/RIFLE. Harvey was close to Mob figures such as Johnny Roselli and other underworld types. And we have Harvey’s own hand written notes on how to run an assassination with eery parallels — nothing on paper, the use of Corsicans (as opposed to Sicilians with ties to the Mafia), disinformation to blame it on the Soviets or the Czechs, the use of fake back-dated CIA 201 files for the assassin(s), compartmentalisation, no chain of connections with person to person singleton ops, no discussion in stations and an apparent reference to the check of assets through the counter-intelligence division done on an ‘eyes only’ basis through James Angleton. Notably, these were hallmarks of the JFK plot. However, Harvey’s team were also monitoring Oswald so again the existence of a paper trail violated Harvey’s own rules — Nothing on paper. Harvey was obsessive about running secure, watertight operations.
And it seems likely that there were others in the senior hierarchy of the CIA with foreknowledge, who chose to look the other way because the outcome was compatible with their agenda. This may be one of the dark secrets that the agency is harbouring driving the decades long cover up.
In the parapolitics journal Lobster, Robin Ramsay has previously made a devil’s advocate style argument. Ramsay points out that advance knowledge of the assassination included a right-wing extremist Joseph Milteer recorded predicting the exact details of the assassination a few days before by an FBI informant, a sex worker Rose Cheramie and low-level Mob associates. Ramsay argues that this leakiness precludes a covert or black op executed by professionals such as the CIA. I am not too sure about this line of argument. After all, the Bay of Pigs operation — admittedly a fiasco — was conceived at the highest levels of the US government yet was so leaky that newspaper headlines were anticipating it and Fidel Castro was reading about it before it happened.
Whilst Peter Dale Scott amongst others have argued that the assassination was not an external coup d’état but a structural product of a deep political system assembled into a coalition of anti-Kennedy interests. Ramsay counters that high level powers might achieve policy goals without resorting to assassination. Or if they needed to then they would use different methods rather than execution by notoriously unreliable rifle fire. The De Gaulle failed assassination attempts demonstrated that gunfire was an unreliable method. Untraceable poisons can be deployed, planes or helicopters can be made to crash. In effect, Ramsay reasons that the planners did not have the clout for such access — it was a clumsy bushwhack and it nearly failed. Overall, Ramsay is marvellously entertaining even when I find myself volubly disagreeing with him.
One of the smoking guns has been the revelation that there were multiple foiled plots in Chicago, Florida and Los Angeles pointing to a larger plot although such design could still be implemented by experienced covert action officers. The averted Chicago plot had all the hallmarks of the Dallas plot involving Cuban exile snipers situated in a tall building overlooking the route of the presidential motorcade and even a patsy thrown in for good measure. It should be added that this was a patsy with a chillingly similar profile to Oswald — Thomas Arthur Vallee, who was picked up by Chicago police ahead of the trip. As with Oswald, Vallee was a former Marine, who had also been stationed at a top secret U2 spy plane base in Japan. He had been enlisted by the CIA in the training of Cuban exiles at a camp on Long Island in New York and had the psychological profile of a loner.
The pattern of the murders, convenient suicides or accidental deaths of countless individuals such as Mary Pinchot Meyer, high profile journalist Dorothy Kilgallen and witness Lee Bowers reeks of a large national security plot but it could equally be indicative of a large cover up designed to protect state secrets. This list is extensive and includes the suspicious murders of Mafiosi Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana prior to government hearings and the suicide of the ever-mysterious George De Mohrenschildt prior to questioning by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA).
We have to frame the assassination as a covert operation — a product of the anti-Castro Cuban operations redirected against JFK as David Phillips implied. The choice of Oswald as patsy lent itself to the design of the plot. As Dale Scott has argued, Phase One saw the assassin of the President presented to the world as a pro-Castro Marxist — a convenient position for Cold warriors and hawks. Phase Two saw Hoover and LBJ agree that the Mexico City episode needed to be hushed up as it raised the possibility of an international communist conspiracy. Hoover became aware of Oswald’s failed attempt to obtain a visa for travel to Cuba and on to the Soviet Union arriving at the pre-determined conclusion that Oswald was a lone assassin and remarked as to how to “convince The Public That Oswald Is The Real Assassin”. He disclosed this to President Johnson. Both men decided that the potential danger of a World War III scenario meant that the investigation should be confined to proving that Oswald acted alone.
And I would add a Phase Three. Once the CIA and the FBI realised that the alleged assassin was known (and could be linked) to them then they did everything in their powers to suppress this information. As Jefferson Morley has argued, the protean chief of counter-intelligence James Jesus Angleton and a cadre of senior CIA officers had a pre-assassination interest in Oswald dating back at least to his trip to the Soviet Union. To give one example, his mail was routinely intercepted as part of the HT/LINGUAL programme run by Angleton. These same officers then covered up the trail of their extensive fore-knowledge of the Presidential assassin from official investigations.
Oswald’s connections with the agency were arguably the most important factor behind the closing down of future investigations. Someone outside or more likely within the agency knew that this information could be exploited to guarantee a cover-up. It is no surprise that CIA HQ at Langley was in pandemonium on the afternoon of the assassination when it became apparent that Oswald had an established relationship with the agency.
The cover up was put into motion within hours of the shooting because the authorities had already worked out that there had been a conspiracy. During the course of that weekend, CIA Director John McCone concluded that there had been two shooters. As for the deficiencies of the autopsy, it has even been postulated that two autopsies were carried out — an official one and a classified national security autopsy. Former CIA Director Allen Dulles was appointed on to the Warren Commission for damage limitation and James Jesus Angleton (specifically his deputy Ray Rocca) became the CIA liaison to the Warren Commission. All of whom knew where the bodies were buried. Hoover would internally reprimand a slew of FBI personnel over their mistakes in the handling of Oswald. Hoover was later furious about the entire Mexico City episode when he discovered that the CIA had been dissembling.
The likely impersonation of Oswald in Mexico City is the Rosetta Stone of the case. Whether Oswald travelled to Mexico City at the end of September, 1963 is moot. But the caller to the Cuban consulate identifying himself as Oswald would speak in broken Russian (contrary to Oswald’s fluent Russian) and possibly broken English. When his future wife Marina met Oswald in the Soviet Union, she assumed Lee’s accent was regional such were his impeccable Russian language skills. Furthermore, the CIA has never been able to provide audio-visual proof of Oswald in Mexico City despite extensive surveillance including audio tapes and multiple cameras. Quasi-legitimate operations that Oswald was involved in such as the penetration and discrediting of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) may have been piggy backed by the assassination plotters.
Lower down the pecking order, these intelligence officers must have deployed operatives such as Bernard Barker. Dallas police officer Seymour Weitzman experienced a nervous breakdown when he saw Barker’s mugshot during the Watergate arrests and identified him as the man carrying fake secret service credentials on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza on November 22nd, 1963.
The mastermind? The finger of suspicion has pointed at everyone from James Jesus Angleton and Richard Helms to Allen Dulles. Of course, one would not expect to find hard evidence tying these men directly to the plot. It is quite possible that a consensus was reached (that JFK needed to be removed) at the apex points of the power structure — the nexus of national security, Wall Street, big oil, defence contractors and military industrialists.
If the assassination plot involved senior members of the national security state in the CIA and Pentagon then they would not have signed off on such a clandestine and unprecedented operation. It was simply understood what needed to be done. The use of euphemism and the shield of plausible deniability would have been used to protect them. JFK must go. Discretion was paramount even more so than for the plots against Castro or Lumumba. The rest would be delegated to senior and mid-level experienced officers as an off-the-books operation using cut-outs such as Mafiosi, foreign assassins or Cuban exiles to keep it at arm’s length.
Richard Helms was concerned enough on being informed of the assassination that he immediately enquired whether any CIA operatives were in Dallas. Many years later, he asked at a meeting whether all possible help was being given to CIA Domestic Contacts Division operative Clay Shaw during the Jim Garrison case when Shaw was put on trial as an accomplice in the assassination. In his autobiography written shortly before his death some 40 years later, Helms inserted an intriguing nugget about going to the White House to meet the President a few days before Dallas with supposed evidence of Castro exporting the revolution to Venezuela. Was the agency’s director of covert ops giving JFK a final chance to reverse course on Cuba policy? On the way out, noticing that he did not have a signed photo of the President, he contacted one of the President’s aides to ask for one — a strange tale of a morbid acquisition. At the end of World War II, Helms had broken into Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin and obtained some of the Fuhrer’s stationery. Helms was a collector of trophies.
Allen Dulles — in spite of revisionist attempts to portray him as being on friendly terms with the President and his brother — disliked the Kennedys. Dulles was a WASP member of the establishment. Alongside his late brother Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the two brothers controlled American foreign policy during the 1950s. Allen Dulles had hoped that his influence would continue under the Kennedy presidency. But the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to his dismissal along with Deputy Director Charles Cabell and Richard Bissell. On stepping down, Cabell described JFK as a traitor. His brother Earle Cabell was the Mayor of Dallas at the time of the assassination and it was revealed as a result of the 2017 declassification that he was a CIA asset.
Similar sentiments were deeply entrenched across the national security establishment including the Joint Chiefs of Staff with Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and cigar chomping Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay openly despising the President. Years later, Dulles made his displeasure known in a rare outburst to a young journalism intern Willie Morris exclaiming, “That little Kennedy, he thought he was a god!”
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