The CIA and the Assassination of John Kennedy

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One of the strangest aspects of the investigation into John Kennedy’s murder was the reaction of federal officials.

Whenever government officials are assassinated, the normal reaction of law enforcement is to pull out all the stops in an attempt to ensure that no one who was involved in the crime escapes punishment.

Yet the more one reads about the Kennedy assassination, the more one gets the uneasy feeling that the reaction of the FBI and other federal officials was precisely the opposite. They seem to have been overeager to conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin and overpassive in investigating the possible involvement of others in the killing.

For example, there were several witnesses who were certain that a shot had been fired from the grassy knoll. Whether such a shot was fired or not, one would naturally expect law-enforcement officials to aggressively pursue that possibility, given that a senior federal official had just been shot and killed. Yet, having settled on Oswald as a lone assassin who fired from behind the president, federal investigators not only did not aggressively pursue the possibility of shot’s having been fired from the front, they often actually belittled and berated witnesses who were certain that such a shot had been fired.

That makes no sense to me. That just isn’t the way law-enforcement officials operate when a federal official is killed.

For example, consider what happens when a DEA agent is murdered. Federal agents focus not only on the likely perpetrator but also on all other “likely suspects” who might have been involved in the plot. In fact, that’s one reason that criminal elements generally avoid killing law-enforcement officials. They know that the investigatory hammer is going to fall heavily on the entire criminal community.

I recall this phenomenon in the case of federal Judge John Wood of Texas, who was assassinated in 1979. After Wood was murdered, federal officials embarked on one of the biggest, most expensive, and most aggressive criminal investigations in U.S. history. They were relentless, even going so far as to secretly record jailhouse conversations between a convicted drug kingpin named Jimmy Chagra and his lawyer-brother, Joe Chagra. The investigation ultimately led not only to the conviction of the man who fired the shot, Charles Harrelson, but also to conspiracy convictions for Joe Chagra and Jimmy’s wife, Elizabeth. Jimmy Chagra was also prosecuted for the murder but was acquitted.

Suppose that immediately after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. officials had made the following announcement: “Our fellow Americans, we have completed our investigation into this heinous act and have concluded that the only people who were involved in committing it were the deranged terrorist fanatics who hijacked the planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are closing the case.”

Even if that later proved to be true, wouldn’t you think to yourself, “Wait a minute! That’s not the way the feds operate, especially when federal officials are killed. They pull out all the stops to determine whether there were others involved.”

And in fact, as everyone knows the feds did pull out all the stops after 9/11, rounding up and jailing thousands of people, many of them innocent, establishing secret prison camps around the world, kidnapping and torturing hundreds of suspects, and invading and occupying two countries.

That’s how we expect the feds to react in such a case.

Yet, what is odd is that that was not the way federal officials reacted after the president of the United States was assassinated. Instead, having fairly quickly fixed on Oswald as a lone assassin, federal investigators seem to have then directed their efforts to establishing that thesis and failing to aggressively pursue the possibility that others might have been involved in the shooting.

Why?

Targeting the CIA

One possibility is that early on, federal officials might have begun reaching an uncomfortable suspicion, one that pointed in the direction of the CIA, a suspicion that would be fueled by information provided to the Warren Commission by Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr, who was heading up the state’s investigation into the murder, indicating that Oswald had been on the payroll of the FBI, an allegation denied by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

If federal officials did in fact consider the possibility that the federal government’s primary intelligence agency might have to be accused of murder, conspiracy, and a coup, it is not difficult to imagine their concluding, “This is not a road we want to go down,” especially at the height of the Cold War, when the prospect of an all-out war against the CIA could easily have been seen as a genuine threat to national security.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the CIA was actually involved in the Kennedy assassination, but it is to say this:

First, with one exception, there is virtually no possibility that anyone in the federal government, including the president, the FBI, the Warren Commission, and Congress, would have been willing to openly support targeting the CIA in a criminal investigation into whether it killed the president. The only exception might have been Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, but his ability to initiate such an investigation was nonexistent, not only because the assassination of a president wasn’t a federal criminal offense in 1963 but also because there is no way that President Johnson and Hoover, both of whom hated the younger Kennedy, would have ever supported such an investigation.

Second, there would have been no way that such a conspiracy could have ever been pierced in the absence of a fierce and honest criminal prosecutor, one who had the full support of the president and the FBI, along with an incorruptible and fearless presiding judge willing to enforce subpoenas served on the CIA with contempt charges.

Obviously, the appointment of a federal special prosecutor wasn’t a realistic possibility, not only because the president’s murder didn’t violate a federal law but also because, as a practical matter, Johnson would never have ever gone down that road anyway.

That would have meant that it would have been left to a Texas state prosecutor to have initiated such an investigation. But as we all know, the state of Texas quickly accepted the official federal position that Oswald was a lone-nut assassin and never initiated an investigation specifically targeting the CIA as a possible suspect in the assassination.

To quell concern within the public that Kennedy might have been the victim of a conspiracy, Johnson appointed a political commission composed of prominent, establishment politicians. However, none of them was the type of person who would have had any interest in specifically targeting the CIA as a possible assassin and doing the aggressive investigatory work that would have been needed to pierce such a conspiracy.

After all, don’t forget that the Warren Commission included two U.S. Senators, two U.S. Representatives, the Chief Justice of the United States, a former member of the World Bank, and even the former director of the CIA whom Kennedy had fired after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Not exactly the type of people who are going to tear the federal government apart in a war in which the CIA is suspected of having assassinated the president of the United States.

“Offensive on its face”

Last October the New York Times published a story that shone a spotlight into one of the CIA’s best-kept secrets involving the Kennedy case; that story can be accessed here. The story involved a CIA agent named George Joannides, whose interesting involvement in the Kennedy case did not become public until after his death in 1990. A former Washington Post reporter, Jefferson Morley, became aware of Joannides’s role from documents that the CIA had released in response to a congressional law enacted after Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, which posited that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had conspired to kill Kennedy.

I’ll return to the Joannides story later because it reveals some important things about the CIA and its relationship to the Kennedy assassination. For now, I’d like to focus on a statement made to the Times in that article by a CIA spokesman named Paul Gimigliano, who was defending the CIA’s continued efforts to keep its files on Joannides secret from the public. Responding to implications that the CIA might be hiding something nefarious about possible CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination, Gimigliano stated that any such suggestion was “offensive on its face.”

What Gimigliano was essentially saying is that it is absolutely inconceivable that the CIA would ever commit such a dastardly act as killing the president of the United States. It is a mindset that simply cannot imagine that any such thing is reasonably possible.

Ever since the Kennedy assassination, there have been vast numbers of people on both sides of the divide. One side has steadfastly maintained that Kennedy was killed by a lone-nut gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.

The other side has steadfastly maintained that Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy involving the CIA, U.S. intelligence, the Mafia, right-wing extremists, anti-Castro Cubans, Fidel Castro, the Soviets, or others.

The lone-nut proponents claim that the overwhelming weight of the evidence supports but one conclusion: that Oswald, a disgruntled communist sympathizer who had defected to the Soviet Union and who returned to the United States, where he lobbied for fair treatment for Cuba, gunned down the president. The lone-nut proponents point to the vast amount of circumstantial evidence that the conspiracy crowd has amassed over the years and pooh-pooh it for lacking a “smoking-gun” quality.

In doing so, however, the lone-nut proponents miss a critically important point: If the CIA was actually involved in the assassination of John Kennedy, there was no way that such involvement could ever have been definitely determined without a fierce, independent, fearless, and incorruptible criminal prosecutor charged with the specific authority of targeting the CIA for investigation, and fully supported by the president of the United States and the FBI, under the auspices of an incorruptible and courageous presiding judge.

A political or bureaucratic panel, such as the Warren Commission or the House Select Committee, never had a chance of piercing such a conspiracy, not only because of the mindset that characterizes people like Gimigliano, the mindset that finds such a notion “offensive on its face,” but also because of the extreme reluctance that members of such a group would have had to target a federal agency that was considered absolutely essential to the national security of the United States, especially at the height of the Cold War.

In other words, suppose a member of the Warren Commission had the same mindset as Paul Gimigliano, which I hold is a very likely possibility. He would have considered the possibility that the CIA was involved in the assassination to be ludicrous on its face and, therefore, would never have permitted the aggressive investigation that would have been needed to pierce such a conspiracy.

But there might well have been members of the Warren Commission — and indeed, many other federal officials — who had a different mindset, one in which they would not have discounted the possibility that the CIA had done such a thing but who would have believed that aggressively targeting the CIA for criminal investigation would have ripped apart the federal government to such an extent that the nation would have been made vulnerable to a surprise attack from the Soviet Union.

Don’t forget, after all, that Kennedy was killed just 13 months after the Cuban missile crisis, which involved the Soviets’ basing nuclear missiles aimed at the United States only 90 miles away from American shores.

Thus, regardless which of these two mindsets characterized the members of the Warren Commission — the one that holds that it is inconceivable that the CIA had done such a thing or the one that holds that we just couldn’t afford to go down that road — the result would have been the same: no aggressive criminal investigation that specifically targeted the CIA.

Was there sufficient evidence to warrant targeting the CIA as a specific suspect in the Kennedy case?

There can be no question about it. Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the CIA was, in fact, involved in such a plot. It is simply to say that there was more than sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation specifically targeting the CIA and that U.S. officials should have supported such an investigation.

Let’s examine that evidence.

Among the reasons the CIA should have been made a specific target of a criminal investigation in the John Kennedy assassination were: (1) the CIA was the world’s premier expert in assassination and coups; and (2) the CIA was in a partnership with one of the most crooked and murderous private organizations in history, the Mafia, a partnership whose express purpose was the assassination of a public official, Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In 1953 — 10 years before the Kennedy assassination — the CIA pulled off a coup in Iran. The operation was conducted secretly and surreptitiously and successfully. It ousted the democratically elected prime minister of Iran and replaced him with the unelected shah of Iran, a man who would be loyal to the U.S. government for the next 26 years but who also would brutalize his own people in the process.

It is no surprise, then, that the CIA celebrated this regime-change operation in Iran as a great victory for the United States. Never mind that the CIA’s coup installed a cruel dictator who would terrorize and brutalize his own citizenry until the Iranian people ousted him from power in 1979.

One year later — 1954 — the CIA pulled off a similar coup in Guatemala. Successfully employing deceptive tactics, including radio broadcasts reporting a fake military invasion of the country, the CIA induced the democratically elected president of Guatemala to abdicate in favor of an unelected military strongman who was loyal to the U.S. government. The CIA, once again, celebrated its interference with Guatemala’s internal affairs as another great victory for the United States. Of course, it could not know that its coup would precipitate a three-decade civil war in which more than a million Guatemalans would be killed.

Nine years later — 1963 — the CIA pulled off another successful coup, this time in Vietnam. That regime-change operation occurred in October, one month before Kennedy was murdered. Dissatisfied with South Vietnam’s corrupt, autocratic president Ngo Dinh Diem, Kennedy authorized the CIA to oust him from power. With the support of the CIA, the operation was successfully carried out by South Vietnamese generals, who then proceeded to assassinate Diem, albeit apparently without Kennedy’s foreknowledge or approval.

Now, let’s spring forward 10 years — 1973 — to the Chilean coup that ousted communist President Salvador Allende and replaced him with right-wing military strongman Augusto Pinochet. Granted, that coup took place a decade after the Kennedy assassination, but I think it nonetheless holds valuable lessons about how the CIA operates and its attitude toward assassination.

It is commonly claimed that the CIA had nothing to do with the Chilean coup or, at least, that no smoking-gun has ever been uncovered evidencing CIA involvement. However, that claim rings hollow for two reasons. One, it is undisputed that ever since Allende’s election, the U.S. government had been actively trying to figure out how to get rid of him. Second, and much more important, the circumstantial evidence conclusively establishes that the CIA did participate in the Chilean coup, for how else to explain the fact that the CIA played a role in the murder of an American journalist during the coup? In other words, if the CIA really wasn’t playing a role in the coup, why would it have been helping to murder an American during the coup?

The case of Charles Horman

The murder of the 31-year-old American, a man named Charles Horman, reveals quite a lot, not only about the CIA but also about how U.S. public officials respond to a CIA murder of an American citizen.

For one thing, the Horman murder shows that 10 years after the Kennedy assassination, the CIA was not above murdering Americans. Sure, the coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam produced some deaths, but they were foreigners’ deaths. In Chile, among the dead was an American — well, actually, two Americans, for another American journalist named Frank Terrugi also was killed, but it’s not clear yet whether the CIA was involved in his murder too.

But there’s no question about whether the CIA played a role in Horman’s murder. According to an entry on Horman on Wikipedia, “Horman was in the resort town of Vina del Mar, near the port of Valparaiso, which was a key base for both the Chilean coup plotters and U.S. military and intelligence personnel who were supporting them. While there, he spoke with several U.S. operatives and took notes documenting the role of the United States in overthrowing the Allende government.”

For years, the CIA denied any role in Horman’s murder, just as it denied playing any role in the Chilean coup. But at the very least, the first denial turned out to be false, intentionally false. In 1999 — more than 25 years after Horman’s death — the State Department released a document stating that the CIA had, in fact, played an “unfortunate role” in Horman’s murder.

What role exactly? We don’t know. After the release of that document, the CIA did not come forward and explain why it had lied about its participation in Horman’s murder, what its operatives had done to kill Horman, or whether CIA higher-ups had approved the assassination. Even more telling, neither Congress nor the Justice Department pursued the matter with a congressional investigation or with grand-jury subpoenas and indictments.

Think about that. Here was evidence, some 25 years after the fact, that U.S. government officials had helped to murder an American citizen. Yet not one congressional subpoena was issued to any CIA official demanding to know what the CIA’s role in the murder had been, why the CIA had lied and covered up the matter for so long, or whether there were murderers still alive and on the loose. Moreover, no federal grand jury was requested to issue subpoenas to the CIA demanding the production of a single relevant witness to the murder and its cover-up or documents regarding them.

In other words, the CIA got away with obstruction of justice and murder, the murder of an American citizen, because for some reason U.S. officials decided that it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie, at least with respect to the CIA assassination of American Charles Horman.

Now, none of this, of course, establishes that the CIA was involved in the Kennedy assassination. In fact, it’s not even circumstantial evidence that it was. But it is to say that the CIA’s successful coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam should have made the CIA a suspect in the Kennedy assassination and, consequently, a specific target of a criminal investigation. Moreover, the CIA’s post-Kennedy involvement in the murder of American Charles Horman should have caused people after 1973 to reflect upon the fact that the CIA was fully capable of assassinating an American citizen and lying about it and covering it up.

The CIA-Mafia partnership

The CIA’s expertise in regime-change operations wasn’t the only the thing that should have justified a particular and specific investigatory focus on the CIA. There was also the CIA’s partnership with the Mafia, one of the most crooked, corrupt, and murderous organizations in history.

The whole idea simply boggles the mind. Imagine: A primary agency of the U.S. government, the CIA, actually enters into a partnership with a private organization whose methods involve violence, illegality, murder, narcotics, bribery, perjury, and, well, probably just about every crime on the books.

What was the purpose of the CIA-Mafia partnership? Murder! The partnership was formed for the specific purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro, the president of a sovereign and independent country. The CIA and the Mafia, two organizations whose expertise involved murder, got together to pull off the murder of a foreign public official.

But that’s not all. What is also noteworthy here, at least with respect to the Kennedy assassination, is the fact that U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the brother of the president, was actually waging a federal war against the Mafia during the time that the CIA-Mafia partnership was operating. He was securing federal grand-jury indictments against Mafia leaders, prosecuting them, and doing everything he could to get them incarcerated. In effect, his goal was actually to destroy the Mafia, the very organization that the CIA had chosen to be its assassination partner.

Again, that’s not to say that such facts warrant a conclusion that the CIA assassinated Kennedy out of loyalty to its partner, the Mafia, which the Kennedys were trying to destroy. But it is to say that, once it was known, that relationship — and the specific purpose of the relationship — i.e., murder of a country’s president — should have been more than enough to warrant a specific and targeted investigation of the CIA, to determine whether the CIA-Mafia partnership had turned its sights away from Castro and toward Kennedy.

There’s another interesting aspect to the Mafia-CIA partnership that is worth mentioning here. One of the common things that one hears about the Kennedy assassination is that if the CIA were, in fact, involved in the assassination, someone would have leaked the information by now. That’s not necessarily true. Both the CIA and the Mafia are experts at keeping secrets, especially when it comes to murder.

After all, how much do you know about the Horman murder? Don’t forget that the CIA successfully kept its role in that murder secret for more than 25 years, and that involved just the murder of an ordinary American citizen. Do you know the identities of the CIA agents who were involved in Horman’s murder? Do you know the actual extent of their involvement?

No. And the reason you don’t know these things is that the CIA has successfully kept them secret.

But there is a much more relevant example of silence when it comes to murder, the murder of Mafia kingpin Johnny Roselli. He was the Mafia mobster who served as liaison to the CIA as part of the CIA-Mafia partnership to assassinate Fidel Castro. In 1976, Roselli testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the Kennedy assassination and was recalled for further testimony. Before he could respond, however, he was murdered. On August 9, 1976, his body was found in a 55-gallon steel drum floating in the waters off Miami. He had been strangled and shot and his legs had been sawed off. According to an entry on Roselli on Wikipedia, “Some believed that boss [Santo] Trafficante ordered Roselli’s death [because he felt] Roselli had revealed too much about the Kennedy assassination and Castro murder plots during his Senate testimony, violating the strict Mafia code of omerta (silence).”

The Roselli murder shows that the Mafia can keep secrets, especially when it comes to murder, for as of this date it is still undetermined who killed Roselli. As we know from the Horman case, the Mafia’s assassination partner, the CIA, can keep secrets too.

Moreover, one who decides to leak information about Mafia operations, especially those involving murder, know that they probably won’t be long for this world. One can wonder whether the Mafia’s partner, the CIA, wouldn’t feel the same way. After all, who can say with certainty that Roselli’s murderers were from the Mafia and not part of the Mafia-CIA partnership?

Did the CIA employ its expertise pulling off coups here in the United States in November 1963? Did the CIA-Mafia partnership to murder Fidel Castro switch its sights from Fidel Castro to John Kennedy? At the very least, that expertise and that partnership warranted making the CIA a specific target in a criminal investigation.

Let’s now examine, in the context of motive, the animosity that existed between John Kennedy and the CIA after the Bay of Pigs debacle and the Cuban missile crisis.

Even though the CIA was the premier government agency in the world whose expertise was assassination, coups, and regime change, it does not necessarily follow that it employed its talents and abilities here in the United States in November 1963. But it’s an important factor that should have been considered in determining whether to target the CIA in a special criminal investigation.

Another important factor was motive. In my opinion, the overwhelming weight of the evidence establishes that the CIA had much more motive than Oswald to kill Kennedy.

In fact, after all these years, I still don’t have a clear understanding of what Oswald’s motive in killing Kennedy was supposed to have been. If he was nothing more than a disgruntled, unhappy, confused communist sympathizer who was seeking fame for killing the president, then why did he deny committing the offense and, even more mysterious, why did he claim to have been set up? Wouldn’t you think that someone who was seeking fame would glory in his achievement? And if he were planning to deny the offense, then why would he leave such an obvious trail behind him, such as purchasing his rifle by mail order rather than over the counter with cash?

Moreover, one big problem is that Oswald’s strange background, on which the lone-nut proponents base a large part of their case with respect to motive, is entirely consistent with his being an operative for the CIA or military intelligence.

How many committed communists join the U.S. Marines? How did Oswald become fluent in the Russian language while he was in the Marines, given the enormous difficulty in learning a foreign language, especially without a tutor?

Why was a communist Marine assigned a military security clearance? Why wasn’t Oswald arrested on his return from the Soviet Union, where he tried to defect, and hauled before a federal grand jury to face the possibility of indictment for treason? After all, this was the height of the Cold War, when communism was considered a much greater threat to the United States than terrorism is considered today.

When Oswald was living in New Orleans, why did he stamp a return address on pro-Cuba pamphlets that was located in the same building as an ex-FBI agent named Guy Bannister? Was that just a coincidence? When he was jailed for disorderly conduct after an altercation with the head of an anti-Castro group, why did the FBI grant his request to send an agent to talk to him? After Oswald was killed, why did an FBI agent tear up a note that Oswald had delivered to him prior to the assassination?

The questions go on and on. Of course, if it were ultimately to turn out that Oswald was a U.S. intelligence operative, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t assassinate Kennedy. But it would certainly require the lone-nut proponents to totally reevaluate their case. Obviously, the CIA would have some explaining to do as well.

Possible CIA motives

What about the CIA’s motive for killing Kennedy? The best book that sets forth the various factors establishing a CIA motive is JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, by James W. Douglass, which I highly recommend.

Consider, first, the Bay of Pigs disaster. The CIA’s invasion of Cuba had already been planned when Kennedy took office. When he was asked to approve the plan, the CIA assured him that no air support would be needed. But that representation was false and the CIA knew it was false. CIA officials were setting Kennedy up. They felt that once the invasion was under way, he would have no choice but to send in the required air support in order to avert a disaster.

But the CIA miscalculated. Even as CIA operatives and friends were being killed and captured at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy refused to send in the air support, an action that would earn him the everlasting enmity of anti-Castro Cubans and the CIA itself.

While Kennedy took responsibility for the debacle in public, he knew what the CIA had done. He fired the CIA director, Allen Dulles (who would later serve on the Warren Commission!), and vowed to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”

We should bear in mind that while Kennedy was threatening to dismantle the CIA, his brother Robert, the U.S. attorney general, was doing his best to dismantle the CIA’s partner, the Mafia.

To make matters worse, from the standpoint of the CIA, to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy vowed that the United States would not invade Cuba, a vow that essentially meant that Castro would remain permanently in power. Kennedy’s pledge served to fuel the rage and distrust that were already boiling within the CIA (and the anti-Castro community).

Did the CIA’s anger over losing friends and associates at the Bay of Pigs and suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of archenemy Fidel Castro, combined with what could have been construed as a vow to dismantle and abolish the CIA, motivate CIA officials to take out Kennedy? Maybe; maybe not. But it was certainly a matter that needed to be investigated fully in a criminal proceeding.

Equally important, as Douglass sets forth in his book, was the epiphany about the Cold War that Kennedy seemed to have reached after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Realizing how close the world had come to nuclear war, he began raising his vision to a higher level, one that involved figuring out a way to end the Cold War. As part of that process, he indicated to close associates his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam after the 1964 elections. He also established communications not only with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who, according to Douglass, was experiencing the same type of epiphany as Kennedy, but also with the CIA’s sworn enemy, Fidel Castro, whom the CIA was committed to assassinating.

Kennedy’s actions were not taken lightly by the CIA, the Pentagon, or the military-industrial complex. It is impossible to adequately describe how dangerous and grave those agencies viewed the international communist threat to America during the 1960s. Communism was considered a thousand times more dangerous than the terrorist threat against America today. The Pentagon and the CIA both felt that unless the United States took an aggressive stand against communism, including an aggressive military stand, a communist takeover of the United States was all but certain. In fact, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, many members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were calling on Kennedy to attack Cuba, which they knew would mean war with the Soviet Union. They had calculated that a nuclear war would cost the Soviet Union many more millions of citizens than it would America.

So here you had a young, inexperienced president who had supposedly double-crossed his own intelligence agency at the Bay of Pigs, threatened to destroy that intelligence agency at the height of the Cold War, permanently surrendered Cuba to the communists, and effectively pledged to surrender Vietnam to the communists, and was now reaching out to communist leaders in an attempt to reach a peaceful accord with them.

What better evidence of a threat to national security than that, at least from the perspective of the CIA? If the CIA honestly believed that the American people had made a mistake in electing Kennedy to office, a mistake that was threatening to place America under communist rule, would that agency, charged with guarding the national security of the country, do what was necessary to save America, no matter how distasteful the task was?

Perhaps; perhaps not. But it was certainly a matter that deserved the close scrutiny of a criminal investigation. After all, other nations’ intelligence agencies had killed their rulers to protect their national security. Consider, as just one example, South Vietnam, where military officials in that country assassinated their president in a coup, a coup that was fully supported by the CIA.

Finally, there was Kennedy’s philandering with Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe; Mafia girlfriend Judith Exner; Mary Meyer, wife of CIA official Cord Meyer; and others. The sexual escapades could have easily been considered more evidence that the American people had made a grave error in their 1960 election, one that jeopardized the security of the nation.

George Joannides

In the 1990s, pursuant to the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, the CIA released documents that raised some serious questions about the CIA. The documents revealed that one of its agents, named George Joannides, who was dead by that time, had played at least two interesting roles.

First, prior to the assassination Joannides had served as the CIA’s liaison to a fiercely anti-Castro group named the Directorio Revolucionaro Estudiantil (DRE) and, in fact, had funneled large sums of CIA money into that organization. The DRE was the group I mentioned previously with which Oswald had had an altercation while he was handing out pro-Castro literature.

On the surface, Joannides’s relationship to the DRE doesn’t seem to be any big deal. For some reason, however, the CIA chose to keep it secret — secret from everyone, including the Warren Commission.

Why did the CIA do that? We don’t know. The CIA refuses to say. Here’s a good article to read on the CIA’s stonewalling in the matter, entitled “CIA Is Still Cagey About Oswald Mystery,” published last October in the New York Times:

Second, in the 1970s, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigated the possibility of a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination, the CIA called Joannides out of retirement to serve as the liaison between the House Committee and the CIA. His job ostensibly was to facilitate CIA cooperation with the investigation.

There was a big problem, however: Again, the CIA did not disclose the connection between Joannides and the DRE prior to the assassination, which meant, at the very least, that Joannides had a serious conflict of interest serving as a liaison to the House committee.

Did the CIA call Joannides out of retirement to serve as a legitimate liaison or to serve as a loyal blocking force for the CIA? Again, we don’t know. The CIA isn’t talking.

What we do know is that the CIA’s conduct verges on obstruction of justice with respect to the House’s official investigation. G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel of the committee, stated, “[Joannides's] conduct was criminal. He obstructed our investigation.” Federal Judge John R. Tunheim, who chaired the 1990s Assassination Review Board, stated, “I think we were probably misled by the agency. This material should be released.” Even Gerald Posner, author of the famed anti-conspiracy book Case Closed, stated, “The agency is stonewalling. It’s a perfect example of why the public has so little trust in the CIA’s willingness to be truthful.”

The person who discovered the Joannides matter within the CIA’s documents was a journalist named Jefferson Morley, who used to be a reporter for the Washington Post. For more than 10 years, Morley has fought a relentless battle in the courts seeking the release of the CIA’s files on Joannides. The CIA has battled the lawsuit every step of the way, and continues to do so. Morley’s articles on the subject make for fascinating reading, and I highly recommend them. They are listed and linked at the bottom of the article I wrote last year entitled “Appoint a Special Prosecutor in the JFK-Joannides Matter.”

Did the CIA assassinate John F. Kennedy? No one can say with any certainty, one way or the other. What we do know is that there was no intelligence agency in the world that was more capable of pulling off such a feat than the CIA. We also know that if there was ever an agency with a motive for murdering a ruler, it was, again, the CIA.

Safe from prosecution

It bears repeating, though, that motive, ability, and opportunity do not automatically mean that the CIA did, in fact, kill Kennedy. It’s only to say that the CIA should have been made a target of an aggressive criminal investigation. As I stated in the first part of this article, if the CIA did, in fact, participate in Kennedy’s assassination, there was no possibility that a political or bureaucratic panel or commission would have been able to break through the stone wall that the CIA would have constructed to keep its role in the assassination secret. Only a fierce criminal prosecutor, backed by a fearless and incorruptible judge, could have broken through such a wall.

If the CIA did conspire to kill Kennedy, it would have known that the possibility of such an investigation was virtually nonexistent. For one thing, the CIA would have known that it would not have to fear a criminal investigation at the federal level. Why? Because assassinating a president wasn’t a federal crime at the time Kennedy was shot, a fact that the CIA would have been well aware of. That means that the CIA would not have had to fear taking on the FBI, the Justice Department, or an aggressive special federal prosecutor.

The CIA would have also known that it could easily stonewall a political or bureaucratic commission, such as the Warren Commission or the House Select Committee, which generally lack the will and tenacity that characterize a criminal prosecution. The CIA’s successful stonewalling regarding the Joannides matter fully demonstrates that. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson’s appointment of former CIA Director Allen Dulles, whom Kennedy had fired after the Bay of Pigs disaster, to the Warren Commission effectively blocked the possibility of any serious investigation into the CIA’s possible role in the assassination.

Thus, the only thing that the CIA would have had to be concerned about was a criminal prosecution by the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, where the murder took place. But what was the likelihood that a local district attorney would take on the CIA in such a proceeding? Not very high, especially if the president of the United States, a Texan, was calling for all investigations to cease except the one that was to be conducted by the Warren Commission.

In fact, as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who initiated his own criminal investigation into the Kennedy assassination, discovered, a state-level prosecution had virtually no chance of succeeding without the full cooperation of the president of the United States and the Justice Department. Not only did U.S. officials do their best to obstruct his investigation, they also sent a powerful message to all future district attorneys in Dallas County, which had continuing jurisdiction over the murder, by retaliating against Garrison with a bogus federal criminal indictment for bribery, a charge on which he was ultimately acquitted.

If the CIA conspired to kill Kennedy, it would have known that the chances that Johnson would authorize the Justice Department and the FBI to cooperate with a state criminal investigation targeting the CIA were nil. After all, don’t forget that we’re talking about the Cold War, when U.S. officials genuinely believed that the United States was in grave danger of a communist takeover. And they were even more convinced then that the CIA was absolutely essential to national security than they are today under the war on terrorism.

Therefore, the CIA would have known that the last thing the new president would do was involve himself and his administration in an enormously vicious war between state and federal officials, a war in which state officials would be targeting an agency that most federal officials, including those in Congress, considered absolutely vital to national security.

Persistent doubts

But that’s precisely what Johnson should have done. He should have made it clear from the outset that he expected the Dallas district attorney to pursue all leads, including targeting a very likely suspect in Kennedy’s murder, the CIA. That would have included an order to the Secret Service to cease and desist its efforts to whisk Kennedy’s body out of the state, given that an autopsy was required under Texas state law and was essential to a criminal investigation.

Did the CIA do it or not? Those who say yes will undoubtedly continue to add to their stockpile of circumstantial evidence indicating CIA complicity in the murder. Those who say no will continue to proclaim that there is no “smoking gun” firmly establishing a CIA conspiracy to kill the president.

An aggressive criminal investigation making the CIA a target of interest wouldn’t necessarily have been definitive one way or the other, but at least the American people would have gotten a sense that justice had been served with such an investigation. Given the failure to pursue such an investigation, a cloud of doubt will always hang over whether the CIA played a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Reprinted from The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Jacob Hornberger [send him mail] is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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