This is the third post addressing a perennial question in regard to conspiracy in the murder of President Kennedy. It was actually the first question asked by his brother on the afternoon of the assassination – asked to the Director of the CIA. Robert Kennedy directly asked the Director whether or not the CIA had been involved in the assassination. Tipping Point explores the context which led RFK to immediately suspect the CIA and its anti-Castro surrogates in the covert efforts to oust Fidel Castro.
However, Director McCone was not part of the long time OSS cadre which had launched the CIA into the Cold War nor did he have any extensive operational experience. McCone had come out of the private sector and himself had very little experience in intelligence, he had largely been dealing with strategic national security issues such as the Soviet missile crisis and the American involvement in SE Asia. While he had opposed the coup against Diem, he was in support of JFK’s plan to accelerate covert military action against North Vietnam. Some solid context in regard to his relationship with JFK is contained in the following paper:
Looking downwards inside the Agency in 1963, in regard to political assassination things had changed from the era of the Dulles brothers. Richard Bissell was gone and no longer represented the nexus for assassination suggested by the in house gossip that described he and Tracy Barnes as being in charge of the CIA’s “health alteration committee”.
Richard Helms followed Bissell as the key player responsible for regime change activities, including efforts where assassination remained an option. However Helms was more of a political (read career oriented) animal (having protected himself by avoiding the the disastrous Cuba Project) and an expert at even internal deniablity. When he turned over political assassination to William Harvey in Staff D, he did so in such a matter that even Harvey could only guess at where the orders were originating. One thing that can be said about Helms is simply that nobody, including Congress, could expect the whole truth from him.
In one sense its hard to see Helms committing himself to anything other than his career, of being an efficient administrator and a generic defender of the Agency. He was so effective and so sincere at doing those things that he developed a real reputation for honesty. As noted in the proceeding that reputation should have been considered as quite “situational” but it did stick though most of his career. This article gives some interesting insight into Helms and why he was trusted as a source when he most likely should not have been https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/the-rise-and-fall-of-richard-helms-191224/
As to political assassination specifically, by 1962 Helms had assigned that task to William Harvey – but Harvey had run afoul of RFK during the Mongoose project (both men were “hands on” and Harvey had no respect at all for RFK based on his lack of experience and personal engagement with anti-Castro Cuban activists). Still, Castro remained a declared target and even though Harvey was reassigned in 1963 its difficult to tell exactly when and if Harvey’s program against Castro actually shut down (it may have been even more difficult for those involved). Certainly Harvey stayed in the Staff D intelligence loop through the summer of 1963. However in terms of assassination, that appears to have moved over a topic being discussed under the new head of the anti-Castro effort, Desmond Fitzgerald.
So for a “tops down” CIA plot against JFK, the most well placed people to contemplate such a thing, and with access to the assets to make it happen (in particular in a form which would use anti-Castro assets and attempt to blame the attack on Fidel Castro), would seem to be Helms, Fitzgerald or Harvey. Note: While some will still champion Dulles, who retained some high level influence with old line CIA cadre, he would have to have personally co-opted someone within the CIA’s operations directorate, with direct access to assets either via Staff D or in Miami. Either that or taken entirely separate measures outside the Agency.
So back to “tops down” inside the Agency. In considering Richard Helms it is hard to picture him as a virulent enemy of President Kennedy – or even willing to later smear his reputation when pressured to do so under the Nixon Administration:
He certainly did not agree with JFK on all points and during 1963 was unilaterally opposed to any number of administration discussions of negotiations with Castro or a a change in the basic regime change strategy. This is clear in an ongoing series of documents and extends into the fall when JFK informed the CIA of his back channel contacts with Castro.
Helms openly opposed it, came up with a variety of delaying tactics (such as “war gaming” contacts before any dialog began) and began efforts to monitor and possibly obstruct the Cuban side of the effort – targeting Castro’s contact personnel via CIA assets at the UN, via Miami Station and even thorough AMOT intelligence collection in Mexico City. He was definitely in the “opposition” camp, but very openly and very bureaucratically.
Next down, and someone with a much more direct control over assets, would be Fitzgerald. However all signs are that he had signed on to the administration regime change track and was busying himself with all the new projects ranging from AMTRUNK and AMLASH to autonomous action via AMWORLD and even direct action using JMWAVE for the new Commando Mambises missions. If anything he was excited by the fact that as of October he had managed to get JFK to approve an entire series of new sabotage missions against Cuba.
Finally, there remains William Harvey, no longer in the direct chain of command (although exactly who would know he was not is an open question) and with experience under Mongoose which involved not only John Roselli but direct contacts with the full range of JMWAVE operations personnel and with a good many of their Cuban assets – including personnel involved in both poison and sniper attacks on Castro. Given his personally acknowledged and highly emotional attitudes towards both RFK and JFK, he would seem one credible starting point inside the agency, even if no longer in the direct chain of command. Beyond that there is every reason to believe he was capable of autonomous action and attracted similar personalities to himself…a classic man of action.
Of course the question remains as to whether Harvey would even have been necessary, certainly he was in no position to manage or direct the operational aspects of an attack in Dallas, or of the framing of Lee Oswald.
But that is a different question entirely.