Sorry for the recent absence, but I’m returning for a couple of new posts to consider the question of political assassination as actually carried out by the CIA early in the Cold War – in an effort to further explore where the actual Dallas attack on JFK most likely might originated. To do that I think its helpful to profile a few key personalities in light of what we actually know about individuals who are most often discussed in conversations about CIA orchestrated murders – and most specifically who they turned to in order to make such things happen.
Richard Bissell, perhaps the senior officer involved with the most actual assassinations, can be seen to have turned to both his country station chiefs and to the CIA’s Staff D to carry out murders. The weapon of choice in such actions appears to have been poison, although that virtually never worked and successful killings tended to be carried out more directly, with rifles and pistols employed by surrogates already working with CIA field officers.
The murder of Patrice Lumumba is a prime example, with Bissell (tasked by Eisenhower and Alan Dulles with eliminating Lumumba) turning to Sydney Gottlieb in the technical division for poison and then wrestling with a variety of Staff D officers (who pushed back against being involved) only to turn to foreign assets already employed by a European station/Luxemburg to try (and fail) to administer the poison carried to the Congo by Gottlieb.
In parallel, Bissell had charged the Congo station chief with the project and that individual turned to his own established network of contacts to find individuals who were willing to take money and CIA support – and who ultimately kidnapped and orchestrated Lumumba’s death. The who operation was chaotic, dysfunctional and only succeeded because of the local connections of station chief Develin.
The first effort to assassinate Fidel Castro turned out to be very similar, Bissell struggling to find some asset to carry out the task, turning to the CIA’s Office of Security for referrals to people with connections inside Cuba who could/would carry it out and ending up with John Roselli, former casino owners with contacts in Havana – the effort ending in yet another series of dysfunctional and ineffective efforts to carry out a poison attack. Its pretty clear that at that point the CIA had no cadre of experienced or expert “go to guys” for assassination.
Which is why when Richard Helms reactivated the Castro assassination effort, and handed the task off to William Harvey, Harvey essentially did a reset with Roselli and the poison effort. As of 1962 Harvey himself had no “go to guys”. In fact, for his Staff D assignment (which involved break ins, burglaries and strong-arm work) he also had turned to the Office of Security and to European field stations to recruit the “right” type of people for such illegal actions.
Interestingly though, Harvey also reached out to someone he thought might have expertise and connections in that area – James Angleton. And Angleton was eager and apparently connected to the right people to at least make certain introductions for Harvey, including to British intelligence agency personnel. While Angleton cannot be tried to any particular assassination project, he certainly did have contacts with which he could discuss such things.
Beyond that Angleton, formerly the head of Staff D himself – and with all the dirty work and criminal connections that implied – operated on a global level, including the penetration of the Chinese embassy in Havana by a very special technical collections team led by David Christ).
Angleton was arguably the most independent operator at senior levels of the CIA. His history (including his WWII OSS work in Europe) reveals a passion for making connections and paying for information, becoming a master of collecting rumor, gossip and so-called intelligence – much of it proved in time to be woefully inaccurate or false. It was only decades later that Angleton’s legendary reputation for intelligence collection effectively imploded.
When William Colby took over the Agency and directed an inquiry into its counter intelligence work it was discovered that Angleton had investigated and declared some 22 Soviet defectors to be double agents – when in fact they had been legitimate. I review Angleton’s obsessions and failures in Chapter 14 of NEXUS, but, in short, it can be said that Angleton had extensive connections with both criminal networks and foreign intelligence services (particularly Europe and with Israel) and that he made a career of talking, gossiping, and shopping ideas and information.
What can also be said is that Angleton built a huge network of contacts, domestically and globally. He was designated as the CIA liaison to the FBI and in conjunction with Staff D work did repeatedly ask them for help or assistance with wire taps and burglaries – including for recommendations for access to underworld assets including mob lawyers. However, the FBI appears to have thought less of him as a resource, simply designated Angleton as “confidential informant T-100”
There is also little doubt that Angleton largely operated outside the CIA normal organization and its standard oversight protocols, with his own contacts, his own separate file system, even his own codes. His paranoia and his suspicions were overwhelming – as an example he viewed the following individuals as being actual Soviet agents:
Harald Wilson (British Prime Minister), Olof Palme (Swedish Prime Minister), Willey Brandt (West German Prime Minister), Averill Harriman (Gov. of New York), Lester Pearson (Canadian Prime Minister) and Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State and National Security Advisor).
If anyone thinks all this is exaggerated, I suggest a Tom Mangold’s excellent book on Angleton, Cold Warrior, James Angleton.
Yet perhaps the most interesting thing is that despite Angleton’s extensive contacts and his tendency to talk about even the most sensitive and sensational subjects, there is little evidence that he actually did much more than “stir the pot”. His networks were extensive, his results – certainly in counter intelligence and even in assisting Harvey in an effort to assassinate Castro – were fruitless, negligible and hugely damaging to American intelligence (particularly in regard to American verification of Israel’s nuclear capability and war plans).
In my next post I’ll dig a bit more deeply into CIA personnel who did have “go to guys”, people who did carry out assassinations – in isolation from headquarters and with imminent “deniability”.