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The Darkest Day
Fifty years later, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories still swirl around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
From the Print Edition:
Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013
On the morning of November 22, 1963, a CIA operative named Nestor Sanchez arrived in Paris carrying a Paper Mate pen that contained a hidden hypodermic needle—a Cold War weapon specifically created by the agency’s Technical Services Division to kill Fidel Castro. At a meeting in an undisclosed location later that day, Sanchez provided the converted pen to a Cuban military officer—codenamed “AMLASH”—who was the CIA’s highest level asset in Cuba. The two discussed how to fill it with a deadly poison called “Blackleaf 40.” But AMLASH considered trying to prick Castro with a rigged pen to be a suicide mission; instead he requested a high-powered, long-range, sniper rifle. As the two left their meeting, they received word that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. “It is very likely,” a top secret CIA history on plots to kill Castro later emphasized, “that at the very moment President Kennedy was shot a CIA officer was meeting with a Cuban agent in Paris and giving him an assassination device to use against Castro.”
On that same day and at that very same moment, some 5,000 miles away in Cuba Fidel Castro was meeting with an emissary sent by President Kennedy to offer a possible rapprochement between Washington and Havana. The Cuban leader and the president’s “messenger of peace”—a French journalist named Jean Daniel—had just finished a lunch of freshly caught fish. They were discussing the potential restoration of normalcy in U.S.-Cuban relations when Castro received a phone call reporting that Kennedy had been shot. “This is terrible,” Castro told Daniel, realizing that his mission of peace had been aborted by an assassin’s bullet. And then Castro predicted: “They are going to say we did it.”
Fifty years after the death of the president in Dallas, the confluence of these dramatic, but coincidental, events on November 22, 1963, continues to provide fodder for a range of assassination conspiracy theorists who place Cuba at the center of their theories. From the right, conspiracy buffs have postulated that Fidel Castro managed to manipulate a revolutionary wannabe named Lee Harvey Oswald into killing Kennedy before Kennedy could kill Castro; from the left, numerous theories speculate that the CIA and other nefarious national security operatives assassinated the president because he had become “soft” on Communism—particularly in Cuba—and wanted to end the Cold War. After five decades of endless investigation and unproven hypotheses there remains little evidence to challenge the conclusion of the official investigative commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren: Oswald, acting alone and for his own reasons, killed JFK. Nevertheless, Cuba and Kennedy’s policies
toward the Cuban revolution remain a central part of the public fascination with the “whodunit” of the murder of the president.
“We resist the idea that a nobody could do something as big as this,” one of John F. Kennedy’s top White House aides, Theodore Sorensen, told a New York Times reporter 20 years ago. Indeed, the American public has found it hard to accept that the most notorious crime of the 20th century could have been generated by an itinerate loner like Oswald. A Gallup poll taken shortly after the assassination found that 52 percent of the public believed Oswald had been part of a larger conspiracy; another Gallup poll on the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death recorded that 75 percent of Americans believed more than one individual was responsible. “If you put the murdered president of the United States on one side of the scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance,” as author William Manchester explained the national sense of incredulity. “You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something. A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.”
Conspiracy theorists have certainly devoted themselves to that task. As if to feed the widespread wish to find a master criminal who fit the magnitude of the crime, an entire conspiracy industry has proliferated over the years. More than 2,000 books and many thousands of articles have been written. Major organizations such as the Coalition on Political Assassinations (COPA) and the Mary Ferrell Foundation have pursued the story of the assassination for decades. As the 50th anniversary of the assassination arrives, new websites such as JFKFacts.org have been created to centralize theories, documentation and the always ongoing debate over who, if not Oswald alone, killed Kennedy and why. That question has generated countless responses, many of them paranoid and preposterous. Lyndon Johnson killed the president, a group of gays killed the president, the military-industrial complex killed the president, the mafia and/or the CIA killed the president…these are just a few of the dozens of speculative theories still circulating on the 50th anniversary.
Conspiracy fantasies formed around many elements of the assassination, among them: the discrepancies between the bullet holes in the president’s body and in his suit coat, the so-called “magic bullet” that pierced Kennedy’s neck and then went through the shoulder of Texas Governor John Connally seated in front of him, the shadows on the famous photo of Oswald holding the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle used to shoot Kennedy, and the inaccuracies of the autopsy reports on the president’s injuries. One best-selling conspiracy book, Best Evidence, by David Lifton, claimed that the body in the casket that was put aboard Air Force One in Dallas to transport the dead president home was not the same one that was taken off the plane when it landed in Washington. “The conspiracy theories are divorced from reality,” Jeremy Gunn, former staff director of the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) told Cigar Aficionado, “and divorced from common sense.”
The creation of the ARRB by Congress in 1992 owes to the mass marketing of perhaps the most discredited and disreputable of all Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories: the witch hunt in New Orleans by local prosecutor Jim Garrison. Garrison originally claimed that the assassination of the president was “a homosexual thrill-killing”—and, on trumped up charges, unsuccessfully prosecuted a local businessman for the crime; he later expanded the pool of conspirators to include the CIA and FBI. His infamous investigation became the basis of the popular 1991 Oliver Stone movie, JFK, starring Kevin Costner.
Like Garrison’s investigation, the movie was utter fiction. But it galvanized public outrage over the U.S. government secrecy that continued to surround the Kennedy assassination. “Even the records created by the investigative commissions and committees were withheld from public view and sealed,” noted the Executive Summary of the ARRB report. “The suspicions created by government secrecy eroded confidence in the truthfulness of federal agencies in general and damaged their credibility.” The inexplicable lack of transparency, along with the corrosive nature of the conspiracy theories that filled the void left by the still hidden historical record, mobilized Congress in 1992 to pass the “JFK Act,” which mandated the review and opening of all documentation concerned with the death of the president.
The result was one of the most far-reaching declassification projects ever undertaken by the U.S. government. Under the supervision of a five-member board chaired by Judge John Tunheim, the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, White House and all other relevant government and law-enforcement agencies spent four years locating, reviewing and releasing an estimated 5 million pages relating specifically and broadly to all direct and indirect aspects of the assassination—none of which disproved original findings of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. On Cuba, the Kennedy assassination records included detailed CIA operational cables and reports on covert operations to kill or overthrow Castro in the early 1960s.
“The agency made a genuine and sincere effort to declassify everything that was mandated by law,” says Brian Latell, who as the then-director of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence oversaw the agency’s work with the Assassination Records Review Board. But there were “lots of fights with the board” over declassifying specific documents, he recalled. “In every case it was sources and methods.”
Comments 2 comment(s)
Guy Buscema — Calvisson, Gard, France, — November 9, 2013 4:04am ET
Guy Buscema — Calvisson, Gard, France, — November 9, 2013 4:17am ET
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