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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.”
Indeed, as the ARRB prepared to close its doors in 1998, it identified 1,100 additional CIA records as “assassination-related.” The Agency, however, refused to release them until 2017—the year the JFK Act states all remaining intelligence records must be declassified. Similarly, the CIA continues to fight a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by assassination scholar Jefferson Morley for the papers of the agency’s case officer for an anti-Castro group of exiles that had several encounters with the pro-Castro Oswald in New Orleans. By continuing to keep relevant records secret, the CIA has fanned the flames of speculation on Cuba’s role in the assassination, as well as the CIA’s role itself.
Castro’s prediction that “they are going to say we did it,” proved prescient. The very first accusation of a Cuba/Oswald conspiracy came just six days after the assassination, on November 28, when CIA Director John McCone briefed President Johnson on Oswald’s visits in late September to both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies in Mexico City. CIA intercepts of telephone calls revealed that Oswald was seeking “travel permits to Cuba and thence to the Soviet Union for himself and his wife,” McCone advised in a top secret update on the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination. But McCone also reported that a Nicaraguan intelligence operative named Gilberto Alvarado had “advised our [Mexico] station in great detail on his alleged knowledge that he actually saw Oswald given $6,500 in the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City on September 18th.” Alvarado claimed the money was to pay for killing the president of the United States.
Both the CIA and the FBI had concrete evidence, however, that Oswald had been in New Orleans on September 18—he did not travel to Mexico City until September 26th. During questioning at a safe-house in Mexico City, Alvarado failed a polygraph test and retracted his claims. He was “totally discredited,” recalls the CIA’s Brian Latell.
Nevertheless, with the growing public clamor about an international Communist conspiracy, President Johnson moved quickly to appoint a presidential commission on the assassination. “Now these wild people are charging Khrushchev killed Kennedy and Castro killed Kennedy,” he told Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who Johnson appointed to chair the investigation. “But the American people and the world have got to know who killed Kennedy and why.”
Although one informant who pointed the finger at Cuba was dismissed, the CIA also pursued information from a second informant—a leftist politician from Panama. This high-level “asset” had been personally recruited by veteran CIA operative Jacob Esterline to penetrate Castro’s inner circle. Esterline served as station chief in Caracas, and later senior manager of the Bay of Pigs operation. “They told me they would never do that,” the asset reported to Esterline after the assassination—a vague remark he and his agency colleagues interpreted as their informant’s belief in possible Cuban complicity.
According to Esterline, this comment set off an internal investigation, codenamed “Black Walnut,” into whether the Cubans had anything to do with Kennedy’s death. The sensitivity of “sources and methods,” in this case the identity of one the agency’s most important sources inside Cuba, has kept this investigation—it presumably cleared the Cubans of wrongdoing—hidden for half a century.
“Black Walnut” would not be the last of such internal inquiries; a dozen years later in the wake of the first major public revelations of CIA efforts to kill Castro using poison pills, toxic cigars, exploding sea shells and Paper Mate pens rigged with hidden syringes, the agency was forced to revisit the issue of whether its own assassination plots might have prompted Castro to retaliate.
At the time of Kennedy’s death, CIA “executive action” operations to eliminate Castro, codenamed “ZR/RIFLE,” were so secret that they were deliberately withheld from the Warren Commission. In 1975, however, an investigative Senate committee led by Senator Frank Church released a report titled “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,” which described, in shocking detail, the CIA’s clandestine assassination efforts—among them the Sanchez/AMLASH meeting in Paris on the day President Kennedy was killed. The report drew heavily on a top secret, 138-page internal CIA history, “Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro,” compiled in 1967 by the CIA’s own inspector general. The public revelations of the Church Committee report forced another CIA inspector general to assess whether Castro might have preempted the obviously failed efforts to murder him.
That second inspector general report, titled “What Could Castro have Known?” examined the “cause-and-effect relationship between the [CIA’s Castro] plans and President Kennedy’s death.” The agency’s inspector general detailed three specific plots, including the AMLASH operation, to determine whether at any point Castro would have known enough to have acted first. Since the assassination device was only passed to AMLASH on the actual day Kennedy was killed, the inspector general inferred that Castro would not have known in advance of that plot.
“One can speculate,” the report concluded, “as to whether or not Castro actually learned of the plans described above and, if so, the details that he would have learned. Assuming that he learned something—which is not all that clear—he would still have had to know enough detail to have devised that it was a U.S. Government action as the basis for launching a counterattack in the form of Lee Harvey Oswald, as has been postulated by some. The basic issue arises from speculation, and speculation cannot satisfactorily resolve it.”
In his recently published book, Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Brian Latell, now a retired CIA analyst teaching at University of Miami, argues that even if Cuba did not instruct Oswald to kill the president, Castro knew about his plans to do so in advance. This theory seems unlikely; all indications are that Oswald decided, impulsively, to seize the opportunity to shoot the president only the day before his trip to Dallas. Speculation, sheer though it may be, continues about a shadowy Cuban role in the Kennedy assassination.
Even more conspiracy writers have speculated that Cuba was not the sponsor of the violence that shook the nation on November 22, 1963, but rather its subject—to terminate the president’s effort to pursue a peaceful coexistence with Cuba, CIA officials conspired with other sinister forces to terminate the president. In books such as Peter Dale Scott’s Deep Politics II: Essays on Oswald, Mexico and Cuba, and Gaeton Fonzi’s The Last Investigation, Oswald is depicted as either a CIA patsy or a cover for additional assassins positioned on the famous “grassy knoll.” The motivation of Kennedy’s killers was to eliminate the president before he could end the Cold War—in the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
At the time of his death, Kennedy was indeed pursuing secret talks with Castro. The message of possible reconciliation that the U.S. president sent to Castro through Jean Daniel became public shortly after the assassination when the French journalist published a detailed account on his role as an “unofficial envoy” in the New Republic, and in a front-page New York Times article. His meetings with both Kennedy and Castro, Daniel wrote in the Times on December 11, 1963, had established “in effect a dialogue between President Kennedy and Premier Fidel Castro.”
In fact, the White House had been quietly pursuing talks with Cuba for months—using a series of secret intermediaries and interlocutors before Daniel. James Donovan, a New York lawyer who Robert Kennedy had picked to negotiate the release of more than 1,000 exiles captured by Cuban forces at the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, became the first intermediary. After Castro broached the possibility of expanding talks on the prisoner releases to improve overall relations to Donovan, the president instructed his top aides to “start thinking along more flexible lines” in negotiating with Castro.
In late April, a correspondent for ABC News named Lisa Howard who had traveled to Havana to do a televised special on the Cuban revolution replaced Donovan as the central interlocutor. When she returned from Cuba, Howard debriefed CIA deputy director Richard Helms on Castro’s clear interest in improved relations. In a top secret memorandum that arrived on the desk of the president, Helm’s reported that “Howard definitely wants to impress the U.S. Government with two facts: Castro is ready to discuss rapprochement and she herself is ready to discuss it with him if asked to do so by the U.S. Government.”
Predictably, the CIA adamantly opposed any dialogue with Cuba. The agency was institutionally invested in its ongoing efforts to covertly roll back the revolution. In a secret memo rushed to the White House on May 1, 1963, CIA Director John McCone requested that “no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time” and urged only the “most limited Washington discussions” on accommodation with Castro.
But in the fall of 1963, Washington and Havana did take active steps toward actual negotiations. In September Howard used a cocktail party at her E. 74th St. Manhattan townhouse as cover for the first meeting between a Cuban official, UN Ambassador Carlos Lechuga, and a U.S. official, deputy UN Ambassador William Attwood. Using Howard as a secret back channel, Castro and Kennedy then began passing messages about arranging an actual negotiation session between the two nations.
On November 5, Kennedy’s secret taping system recorded a conversation with his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, on whether to send Attwood to Havana to meet secretly with Castro. Attwood, Bundy told the president, “now has an invitation to go down and talk to Fidel about terms and conditions in which he would be interested in a change of relations with the U.S.” The president is heard agreeing to the idea but asking if “we can get Attwood off the payroll before he goes” so as to “sanitize” him as a private citizen in case word of the secret meeting leaked.
On November 14, Howard arranged for Attwood to come to her home and talk via telephone to Castro’s top aide, René Vallejo, about obtaining the Cuban agenda for a secret meeting in Havana with the Cuban commandante. Vallejo agreed to transmit a proposed agenda to Cuba’s UN ambassador, Lechuga, to give to the Americans. When Attwood passed this information on to Bundy at the White House, he was told that when the agenda was received, “the president wanted to see me at the White House and decide what to say and whether to go [to Cuba] or what we should do next.”
“That was the 19th of November,” Attwood recalled. “Three days before the assassination.”
As this dramatic history emerged over the past 25 years, it became grist for some of the more popular conspiracy theories, not only on the how but why Kennedy was killed. Early in the opening scenes of the movie, JFK, for example, a narrator sets the stage for the assassination by stating: “more rumors emerge of JFK’s backdoor efforts outside usual State Department and CIA channels to establish dialogue with Fidel Castro through contacts at the United Nations in New York. Kennedy is seeking change on all fronts.” It was JFK’s “turn toward peace” that led to his assassination, according to James Douglass’s chronicle of these conspiratorial events, JFK and the Unspeakable, which has gained a popular following.
“JFK pursued a series of actions—right up to the week of his death—that caused members of his own military intelligence establishment to regard him as a virtual traitor who had to be eliminated,” the book argues. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost led to nuclear war, Kennedy, sought a détente with both Khrushchev and Castro, the book reports. “For turning to peace with his enemy (and ours) Kennedy was murdered by a power we cannot describe.”
“The imaginative recreation of the Kennedy assassination has been a way to explore the twin issues of confidence and conspiracy in U.S. history,” Jefferson Morley has written. The government secrecy that has accompanied the Kennedy assassination, while significantly reduced by the JFK Act, has eroded public confidence in official findings, while enhancing the validity of conspiracy theories—completely implausible and off-the-wall as some may be. The credibility of the Warren Commission findings have been severely undercut by the fact that the CIA withheld from its investigators all information on its Castro-assassination plots. Yet with the clear corrosive effect of undue secrecy on the American psyche, after 50 years there are still “sources and methods” the CIA feels compelled to hide, and records related to Cuba operations in 1963 that it claims still cannot be declassified.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, last year officials at the National Declassification Center, the government agency that pushes for prioritizing the release of still-secret historical records, approached the CIA about releasing all remaining Kennedy assassination records, as a historical contribution to the nation. But the “securocrats” at CIA claimed they did not have the time and resources to meet that deadline. The public would have to wait till 2017 before the remaining 1,100 records will be reviewed and, perhaps, finally opened.But what is now known about the CIA, Kennedy’s Cuba policies, the assassination and Oswald’s actions leaves an extraordinary and bitter irony. As historian Max Holland pointed out 20 years ago in a little read essay in Reviews in American History on “Making Sense of the Assassination,”Oswald’s violent acts were “manifestly political” and based on “a drive to be recognized as a revolutionary capable of the daring act.” A would-be communist, and one-man chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, he saw himself as a political actor who had the opportunity to save Cuba from the policies of U.S. aggression that he had likely read about in the New Orleans newspapers. The AMLASH mission and others like it may have come back to haunt the U.S., noted veteran journalist Daniel Schorr, who broke the story of the CIA’s assassination plots against Castro. “An arrow launched into the air to kill a foreign leader may well have fallen back to kill our own.”
What Oswald could not have known was that his act of assassination would actually terminate a significant secret effort by President Kennedy to explore détente in the Caribbean, and fundamentally change the framework of a hostile U.S. policy toward the Castro revolution. “This is an end to your mission of peace, this is an end to your mission of peace,” Castro said to Daniel as they listened to a radio report that President Kennedy had died in Dallas.
Fifty years later, that sad fact remains the ultimate historical irony of the Kennedy assassination.
Peter Kornbluh is an analyst at the National Security Archive, and is coauthor of a forthcoming book on the history of dialog between the U.S. and Cuba.
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