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The Assassins

I

Everything about assassination seems un-American. The word assassin comes from “hashish.” The first assassins, almost a thousand years ago, were the “hashshashin,” the “hashish-users,” a fanatical Moslem sect in Persia who considered murder of their enemies a sacred duty. Violence may be, in the words of the black militant H. Rap Brown, “as American as cherry pie,” but for most Americans political assassination was an Old World phenomenon of bomb-throwing Bolsheviks and Balkan fanatics. Even though four presidents fell to assassins’ bullets and others were targets of assassination, the staff of President Johnson’s National Commission on Violence concluded in 1969 that the general pattern was not one of conspiracy but of “freelance assassins in varying states of mental instability.”1 The wave of assassinations that cut down, in less than a decade, President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X must have made many Americans wonder whether this alien aberration was becoming a feature of American life.

In the summer of 1975, there was the nagging suspicion that for some Americans, in some shadowy recess of government, the idea of assassination had long been a way of life. Because of this, Senator Church’s committee, pushing on with the investigation of intelligence abuses from which President Ford had recoiled, found itself enveloped in tension. The CIA felt threatened by an assault on its deadliest secrets. The White House saw America’s reputation in the world endangered. Senators found themselves walking a tightrope across an abyss of dark deeds plotted under two Democratic and two Republican presidents. And, if all this were not painful enough, they would end up with the nightmarish question of whether assassination cast upon the Cuban waters might somehow have returned to Dallas.

Under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon the CIA had been involved, in varying degrees, in plots and coups against at least eight foreign leaders.2

In 1960, against Lumumba. He had threatened to bring Soviet troops into the Congo. Plans had been made, poisons shipped, access to Lumumba sought. But he was killed by others before the CIA plans could be realized.

In 1961, against the Dominican dictator Trujillo. His brutality had inspired fear of another Castro-style revolution. He was killed by Dominican dissidents, who had received American arms, though it was unclear whether these were the guns used.

In 1963, against Ngo Dinh Diem. His repressive actions had led to fear of an uprising in Vietnam. He was killed in a generals’ coup, supported by the CIA, but without evidence that the United States wanted him dead.

In 1970, against General René Schneider, the Chilean army chief of staff. He had stood in the way of a CIA-supported military coup against Allende. The CIA backed a plan to kidnap Schneider, but apparently did not foresee that he would be killed when he resisted abduction.

By the time of the coup against Allende in 1973, the CIA claimed it had “separated” itself from the military plots against him.

There was evidence that some thought had been given, at various times, to the assassinations of President François Duvalier of Haiti and President Sukarno of Indonesia, both of whom died in the early Seventies of apparently natural causes.

The chief target was Fidel Castro of Cuba—the closest to American territory and the closest to America’s trauma. Castro became the subject of much of the goings and comings of an extraordinary variety of witnesses before Senator Church’s committee, which had moved, for the purpose, into the most secure hearing room on Capitol Hill—the windowless penthouse of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Some of the activities surrounding the closed hearings are described in my journal:

June 13: Helms is back from Iran and before the Senate committee. To avoid reporters, he goes up the side stairs to the closely guarded hearing room. Senator Mansfield suggests on the Senate floor that Helms should stop shuttling back and forth from Teheran and stay here until his problems are settled.

June 18: Former presidents have become involved in a game of political football. Despite President Ford’s admonition against “Monday morning quarterbacking” about presidential responsibility for assassination plots, Rockefeller has said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that there was “White House knowledge and/or approval of all major undertakings.” Senator Goldwater has said he wouldn’t be surprised if President Kennedy knew all about plots against Castro. Senator Church: “I will have no part in pointing a finger of guilt toward any former president, none of whom are alive today.” (He has forgotten, of course, that Nixon lives.)

June 20: Sam Giancana of the Chicago Mafia was killed last night. He was to have been a witness before the Senate committee to be asked about his part in the CIA plots against Castro. His one-time lieutenant, John Rosselli, subpoenaed for next Tuesday, is already in Washington, hiding out. Rosselli’s lawyer quotes him as saying he doesn’t think Giancana’s murder was connected with his prospective Senate testimony. Vice Chairman John Tower, presiding over today’s hearing, says, “The committee, of course, notes with interest that Mr. Giancana was done away with.” Colby, after testifying, says the CIA certainly had nothing to do with Giancana’s murder.

Trying to find John Rosselli, we call all the Washington hotels. There’s a John Rosselli registered at the Watergate. The telephone in his room is answered by a man who says, “Mr. Rosselli is out playing golf,” assuring me that this Mr. Rosselli is a businessman from Florida who knows nothing about the CIA or crime. Maybe!

June 24: This is the morning Rosselli is supposed to testify. At 7:45 AM I try the Watergate again. Same voice, but this time he answers to his name. Says he’s waiting to hear from his lawyers about when he goes before the Senate committee. I offer to supply the information because it’s on the committee calendar. He says, “Let my lawyers do it. I pay them enough.” Adamant about no interview, no picture.

The committee cooperates by slipping Rosselli, with Capitol Police escort, up the back stairs, and later out through an unannounced exit. By having several camera crews and with walkie-talkie communications, we manage to catch him getting into his car, so there are pictures for the evening news. Later, Senator Church indicates that Rosselli has told a vivid but incomplete story about trying to kill Castro. Missing are the names of gangland associates, which he refuses to give, and the identities of those who set the whole thing in motion, which he does not know.

June 26: In a briefing outside the hearing room, Senator Church says there will be a report but no open hearings on assassination plots because the committee doesn’t want to “hold this sordid story before the world.” Vice Chairman Tower adds puckishly, “I might say further that the matter of assassinations might be viewed in a broader context of other options that might have been available within the proscriptions of certain policy guidelines.” When I say I’m not sure I understand him, Tower says, “Well, perhaps that’s good.”

July 18: Senator Church, at one of his regular posthearing briefings, says, “The agency [the CIA] may have been behaving like a rogue elephant on a rampage.” Church, now obviously nurturing presidential dreams, would find life more comfortable if he could exonerate the Kennedys and pin all the assassination plots on Helms and his cloak-and-dagger band.

July 20: On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Senator Richard Schweiker, a Republican on the Intelligence committee, disputes Church on the “rogue elephant” theory. “I think it’s only fair to say there was no direct evidence that exonerates presidents from assassination attempts…. It’s hard for me to conceive that someone higher up didn’t know.”

July 22: Lawrence Houston, retired CIA general counsel, while on Capitol Hill for testimony, agrees to be interviewed on film. He says that in 1962 he briefed Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro and that Kennedy’s only reaction was that “if we were going to get involved with the Mafia again, please come to him first because our involvement with the Mafia might impede his drive against the Mafia in general crime-busting.” Houston implies Kennedy didn’t object to the assassination plans as such.

July 30: Senator George McGovern, back from Cuba, holds a news conference to release a Castro book recounting twenty-four plots against him, all allegedly CIA-inspired, the last of them in 1971 when Castro visited Chile. Confessions of would-be killers are quoted, mostly Cubans. The weapons pictured range from dynamite to a gun hidden in a television camera. McGovern notes that many of these plots were hatched after President Kennedy’s pledge, in return for Bay of Pigs prisoners, to avoid future violence against Cuba. McGovern says that either the CIA acted on its own or President Kennedy broke his promise.

Soon afterward, in another room of the Senate Office Building, Robert Maheu, who has just completed testifying, holds a news conference. The former Howard Hughes lieutenant, one-time FBI agent, has told the Senate committee of his role in the anti-Castro plots. Before the press his elaborate gestures and long-windedness remind me of W.C. Fields playing a con man. Maheu’s story boils down to this:

On the CIA payroll since 1954, he was asked, in 1960, as part of the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion, to contact Rosselli to help remove Castro. He holed up in the Miami Beach Fontainebleau Hotel with Rosselli and Giancana, and there they planned how to poison Castro in Havana. It all sounds so silly that one wonders what kind of nitwits ran the clandestine operations. For his services, Maheu says he got $500 a month, but claims that his real motive was patriotism.

An interesting sidelight: Maheu says that in 1966, when Howard Hughes employed him in Las Vegas, his employer ordered him to set up a big covert operation for the CIA. Hughes “wanted this kind of protection from the government in case he ever became involved in any serious problem with any agency of the government.” Maheu does not explain whether Hughes wanted the government vulnerable to blackmail or just in his debt.

September 22: The investigation of the plots to assassinate Castro has developed strange and tenuous links to the assassination of President Kennedy. The Church committee has evidence that the FBI destroyed a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald threatening to blow up the FBI office in Dallas if the bureau didn’t leave his wife alone.

Also, the National Archives has declassified an FBI report on the Soviet defector Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Nosenko of the KGB. He had handled the Oswald case in Moscow and defected to the United States in Geneva ten weeks after the Kennedy assassination. Nosenko told the FBI that the KGB considered Oswald mentally abnormal, possibly an American agent, and never tried to recruit him. When Oswald turned up in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963, trying to get a visa to return to Russia, the KGB vetoed it. Nosenko also said that after the Kennedy assassination, Khrushchev ordered a crash KGB investigation to learn if Oswald had returned to the United States in 1962 with any Soviet instructions, and was relieved to get a negative answer.3 John McCone, who testified before the Warren Commission as CIA director in 1964, never mentioned Nosenko. McCone happens to be in Washington today and tells me in an interview that the CIA didn’t trust Nosenko at first because his coincidental defection looked so suspicious, but now the agency accepts the story as true. Nosenko was held incommunicado for three years at the CIA’s Camp Peary, Virginia. The Rockefeller report, without giving his name, cited his case as a gross example of mistreatment of a defector.

  1. 1

    See Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, “Violence in America—Vol. I, Historical and Comparative Perspectives. A Staff Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence” (US Government Printing Office, June 1969).

  2. 2

    The eight plots are described in the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders—An Interim Report,” November 20, 1975 (Assassinations Report, hereafter AR), pp. 260-264, 13-70, 191-215, 217-223, 225-254, 4n.

  3. 3

    See Staff Report to the Warren Commission, by William T. Coleman, Jr., and W. David Slawson (hereafter CSR), pp. 44-45, and appendix “Statement by Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko.”

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