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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gaps (?) in knowledge

As you can see in the introduction to the right, I began this project nearly three years ago because it seemed to difficult to place op-ed pieces, and things have not changed very much. Two week ago, amid great fanfare, some CIA documents from 1974-5 were released claiming to detail some of the Agency's domestic abuses. It so happens that they dealt with subjects that are part of my next book, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, which Harvard University Press will publish next year. I quickly wrote the following piece and tried to place it, but without success--so here it is.

On June 26, the newspapers delivered shocking front-page news: that the CIA in 1960 recruited three mobsters, Johnny Roselli, Sam Giancana, and Santo Trafficante, to kill Fidel Castro. Yet the handling of the story is a testament to the ignorance of the American people about their government and the persistent success of the CIA in concealing the whole truth. None of what was in the papers about the assassination plots is new—all of it has been known for more than thirty years, and far more detailed sources have been available for ten. Furthermore, the full story of the assassination plots has never been publicly acknowledged. They went on at least two years longer than the newspaper reports state, because CIA agents concealed them not only from the Kennedy White House but from their own director.

The Castro plots originally had no paper trail at all and obviously were designed never to come to light. They became known outside the agency, however, because Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster who had been recruited in 1960, became concerned about his girlfriend’s possible dalliances in Las Vegas while he was working on the plot in Miami. Robert Maheu, the former FBI agent and private investigator who was handling the mobsters for the CIA, did not want Giancana to leave Miami. He hired a private eye to go to Las Vegas and wiretap the other man, and the private eye was arrested. The FBI quickly figured out that Maheu was involved, but he stalled them with lies until after the Bay of Pigs invasion had begun, because he and the agency were obviously depending on Castro’s assassination to make the invasion succeed. As soon as the news hit the papers, Maheu told the FBI the truth, incurring the wrath of his old boss, J. Edgar Hoover.

A year later, in the spring of 1962, the FBI decided that it could not prosecute Giancana or Maheu because they might reveal their role in the Castro assassination plot. When Robert Kennedy learned this, he and Hoover were both furious—not about the plot itself but about whom the CIA had hired to execute it. The CIA’s general counsel assured the attorney general the plot was over—but it wasn’t.

Instead, the agency cut Maheu, Giancana, and Maheu’s CIA case officer out of the plot and turned Johnny Roselli and Santo Trafficante (who was actually the most important mobster involved) over to a new agent—pistol-packing, hard-drinking William Harvey. Harvey and Richard Helms agreed that they would not tell the new CIA director, John McCone, that the plot was continuing, and Harvey, as he proudly explained to the Senate’s Church Committee in 1975, concealed it from everyone outside the agency even though he was the agency’s representative on Operation Mongoose, a Kennedy administration task force dedicated to Castro’s overthrow. As far as Harvey was concerned, the operation had initially been authorized by Allen Dulles, and that was all the authority he needed. The Church Committee verified that Harvey continued to send teams into Cuba in 1963, but they accepted Harvey’s and Roselli’s statements that the Castro assassination plots had stopped after the missile crisis in October 1962. That too was a lie. Roselli sent yet another team into Cuba in March 1963 with the mission of killing Fidel and it was captured on a Havana rooftop. Not only have Cuban authorities confirmed this on several occasions, but Roselli himself told that part of the story to Jack Anderson in the early 1970s.

We would not know any of this, in all probability, had not Roselli and Maheu enlisted a prominent Washington attorney, Edward Morgan, to help them with legal problems in 1966-1967. They told Morgan—who was also representing Jimmy Hoffa at the time—a garbled version of the story, and Morgan gave it to muckraking columnist Drew Pearson. Pearson published it and shared it with President Johnson, who asked Helms, then CIA director, to look into it. Helms turned to the CIA’s inspector general, J. S. Earman, a dedicated and honest man who produced a tenacious report but who missed the March 1963 assassination attempt because Harvey did not tell him about it. The IG report of 1967 became the basis for the “family jewels” memo that has just finally been published, and also for the Church Committee report of 1975.

In those days—and for all we know today as well—when the CIA is asked by the press or another part of the government about its involvement in some covert activity, the answers it puts on paper—even in internal memoranda—don’t really try to tell the whole truth. Instead, they summarize what the files say, which may not be the whole story at all. (When the assassination plots against Castro leaked on several occasions before 1967 the agency simply denied there was anything to them at all—but after the IG made his investigation and filed his report, they could not.) When the United States decides to authorize an agency to break the laws of other countries (and, sometimes, our own), it also, in effect, makes it very difficult to know what that agency has done or is doing, and impossible, in the long run, to know the whole truth. All Americans should ask themselves whether this is worth the price.

It occurred to me this morning, reading a Washington Post story about John McCain's broke and imploding run for the White House, that we now have an even more important gap in our knowledge regarding major political contributors. The campaigns for the presidential nominations, even more than the general elections, depend largely on big-money donors, but the press does not systematically tell us who they are, how much they give, how they make their decisions, or what they want. Almost eighteen months ago several leading Democrats told me that Hilary Clinton had most of the major Democratic contributors sewn up. Only time will tell whether the whole eighteen-month process which is now about 1/3 over was really something of a charade whose outcome was largely predetermined by conclaves in smoke-free rooms about which we know almost nothing. I hope the answer is no.


Anonymous said...

Well there was certainly plenty of skulduggery and conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination that was likely buried for the sake of "national unity". So much is held back owing to "national unity" or "reasons of security". Appalling.

The backers of Hillary are "The Core", which the New Left Review cites all the time.

Real History Lisa said...


I note you say Robert Kennedy was "only" angry at the use of the Mob, not the plots themselves. That's the line the CIA has put out for years, but that's just not true. Robert Kennedy did not want Castro killed, just ousted. He told Dick Goodwin he was upset that people accused him of trying to kill Castro (this accusation was made in his lifetime). RFK told Goodwin he's the one who saved his life. See my blog entry re that, including a section on the IG report's acknowledgment that the CIA did not have executive authority for the plots.

I hope your book on the Kennedy assassination is more honest than Bugliosi's. Goodness knows the case cries out for serious scholarship!

Real History Lisa said...

David, per your comment on my blog, I'll have to see the transcript of the Hoover/Kennedy conversation to which you refer. Excuse my skepticism. There was a time I believed the Kennedys had indeed ordered the killing of Castro. But the more I read, the more I realized this was the Helms/Halpern line with no substantial support.

In addition, didn't you find it odd that the Family Jewels as released had no mention of RFK's alleged role in the Castro plots? If the Kennedys had authorized the plots, there would have been no reason to keep them hidden because the CIA could have claimed executive authority. But as I showed in that excerpt of the IG report, the CIA itself admitted they HAD no executive authority for the plots. That's why the Castro plots ended up in the Jewels in the first place. Agency employees themselves believed the plots to be a violation of the law.

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