James H. Johnston is a lawyer, writer, and historian in Washington, DC. He is the author of Murder, Inc: The CIA under John F. Kennedy (August 2019). His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, White House History, the Legal Times of Washington, American Lawyer, and the Maryland Historical Society Magazine.
The Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Dog that Didn’t Bark” is a good metaphor for introducing readers to Murder, Inc., The CIA under John F. Kennedy. In the story, the great detective is called to solve a crime that has stumped police. All they have is a missing racehorse and its dead trainer. Holmes draws attention “to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” A puzzled policeman retorts: “The dog did nothing.” Ah, Holmes responds, that was the curious incident. The watchdog should have barked when someone took the horse out of the stable. Since it didn’t, it must have known the thief. Holmes continues. The trainer bet against the horse in an upcoming race and intended to lame it, but the horse kicked and killed him when he tried. Mystery solved because of what didn’t happen.
The fifty-six-year-old mystery surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination may be thought of in the same way if one substitutes the CIA and other intelligence agencies for the dog. They didn’t bark. They didn’t know the culprit though; rather they didn’t want to know. Just three days before his death, the assassinated president apparently authorized the CIA to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and President Lyndon Johnson allowed this to be covered up. The cover up has lasted all this time despite attempts by a presidential commission, a vice presidential commission, and committees of the Senate and House of Representatives to get at the truth. It raises the question, still relevant today, of how democracy can co-exist with a culture of what seems like out-of-control secrecy by our secret agencies.
Of course, conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination abound. A common theme for years was that the government knew Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t the assassin and hid this in “secret files.” But when these files were opened to the public in 1998, nothing of the sort was found.
Murder, Inc. takes a different approach. It looks into the secret files to learn what didn’t happen. It details Kennedy’s and Johnson’s radically different Cuban policies, the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro, and how the investigation of Kennedy’s murder was steered away from foreign involvement.
I first became interested in the subject when I was a lawyer for the Senate intelligence committee in 1976. The committee looked into CIA plots to assassinate Castro and their relationship to Kennedy’s assassination. I remember my surprise when a witness from an intelligence agency explained that foreign intelligence agencies don’t have trained assassins like the fictional James Bond. Instead, they manipulate malcontents and misfits like Oswald for what more stable men would consider suicide missions. Borrowing from Sherlock Holmes, I found it curious that Richard Helms, deputy director of the CIA in 1963, testified that the thought Castro might have retaliated never occurred to him. His denial was ludicrous: the CIA was meeting in Paris with a Cuban agent and promising him sniper rifles to assassinate Castro at the exact moment Kennedy was gunned down by a sniper in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
A penchant for avoiding the subject of retaliation pervaded the federal government’s investigation of Kennedy’s assassination. A few examples make the point. The CIA, in the words of its own historian, ran a “passive, reactive, and selective investigation.” It never let its Cuban experts, who were plotting the assassination of Castro, talk to the Warren Commission lest the public learn this unsavory fact. At the FBI, twenty-four hours after the assassination, orders went out to agents in the field not to develop new leads. A U.S. ambassador hinted to the Soviet Union’s ambassador that the U.S. government would avoid an aggressive investigation. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had already advised the White House to be careful about finding foreign involvement, and so had Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department. When Warren Commission lawyers visited the CIA station in Mexico City in April 1964 to look into Oswald’s trip there two months before the assassination, they were assured by CIA men there that the CIA had absolutely no evidence of a conspiracy. In fact, a few weeks before the Warren Commission visit, Mexican authorities told the CIA they had evidence others were involved.
An explanation for this cover up may be found in a CIA-created doctrine called “plausible denial.” If the CIA is caught with its hand in the cookie jar, engaging in something it doesn’t want the public to know about, it concocts a plausible cover story to deny the truth. In the event the unpleasant deed is something the president ordered, such as an assassination, the CIA may be forced to fall on its sword and accept responsibility, but it will deny the president knew.
How else to explain another curious incident? On November 19, 1963, after months of delay, the CIA finally made the decision to provide its Cuban agent the assassination weapons he wanted. However, it kept this secret from the Warren Commission. Twelve years later, it confessed the assassination plot to a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and to the Senate intelligence committee. But, it told neither of these investigations nor a 1978 investigation by a House committee an equally damning fact: Deputy Director Helms met alone first with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and then with President John Kennedy on that same November 19. Helms saved this incriminating detail for a memoir published posthumously in 2004 when he could no longer be asked if Kennedy authorized Castro’s assassination at the meeting.
The CIA-created doctrine of plausible denial has been used to deceive four major investigations by the executive branch and Congress. When Richard Helms was called to account by a vice presidential commission and a Senate committee twelve years after Kennedy’s death, he obviously did not tell the whole truth. Did President Gerald Ford authorize this? Helms likewise deceived the House assassination committee in 1978. Did President Jimmy Carter personally authorize the deception?
This is only one example of a culture of government secrecy that was born in times of hot war long ago, extended into the Cold War, and continues today. If our elected representatives can be deceived on repeated occasions on an issue of such public importance as the possibility that a foreign government used assassination to pick the president, who can call the intelligence agencies to account?