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.
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 Revolucionarío 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”: www. fff.org/comment/com0908e.asp.
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.
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.