Is Tucker Carlson Right about the CIA, Nixon, and JFK?
The Fox News host tells a mostly true story in service of insurrectionary politics
On Thursday night Tucker Carlson returned to the theme of JFK’s assassination in a diatribe entitled “Biden and the Deep State,” in which he argued (wrongly, I believe) that the president is out to “destroy America,” and that President Richard Nixon was “removed for questioning the deep state” (which is factually incorrect).
But Carlson’s argument is also grounded in fact. He declaimed:
On June 23, 1972, Nixon met with the then-CIA director, Richard Helms, at the White House. During the conversation -- which thankfully was tape recorded -- Nixon suggested he knew, quote, "who shot John," meaning President John F. Kennedy. Nixon further implied that the CIA was directly involved in Kennedy's assassination, which we now know it was. Helms' telling response? Total silence.
Media Matters For America, the tireless Fox News watchdog, highlighted Carlson’s comments with the unstated implication that they are false or misleading.
I feel obligated to fact check Carlson’s story because it is drawn—unattributed —from my book Scorpions’ Dance, published by St. Martin’s Press in June 2022. The book tells the story the Machiavellian relationship of Nixon and Helms, two masters of power who shared hard-line anti-communist politics while deeply mistrusting each other. In Chapter 16, entitled “The Who Shot John Angle,” I documented and explained Nixon and Helms’ previously overlooked conversation about JFK’s assassination.
Is Carlson right? Did this conversation take place? Did Nixon know who killed JFK? Was Nixon removed for questioning the “deep state?”
The answer is complicated, maybe too complicated for the flame wars of cable TV and social media.
Carlson tells a true story about Nixon and Helms—and about CIA and JFK’s assassination— in service of a destructive narrative about insurrectionary politics and a false conclusion.
In the Oval Office
Carlson’s dating of the conversation is erroneous. It did not occur on June 23, 1972. In fact, Nixon and Helms talked about JFK’s assassination eight months earlier in a tense Oval Office meeting on October 8, 1971.
The president had called his spy chief on the proverbial carpet. From the start of his presidency, Nixon repeatedly sent aide John Ehrlichman to CIA headquarters asking Helms to turn over the records on the Agency’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The canny CIA director always deflected the request.
Nixon’s persistence puzzled Ehrlichman and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. By 1969 the Bay of Pigs and Cuba had long since faded as an issue in American politics, replaced by the Vietnam war. Why was Nixon so interested, they wondered? In his 1978 memoir, The Ends of Power, Haldeman suggested that Nixon used the phrase “the whole Bay of Pigs thing” as a coded reference to JFK’s assassination.
In Scorpion’s Dance (and an excerpt in Politico) I cited a long overlooked White House tape of the October 1971 conversation, which confirmed Haldeman’s hunch. I described the exchange (on p. 159) like this:
“What I want, what I want, Dick,” Nixon rasped, “regarding any understanding, regarding any information, I do not want any information, that comes in from you on these delicate and sensitive subjects, to go to anybody outside . . .”
Helms said nothing.
“This is my information, me and you,” Nixon said. “Ehrlichman will be my ears.”
Helms, the butler of espionage, spoke for the first time. He limited himself to one word.
“I need it for a defensive reason,” Nixon explained. “For a negotiation.”
“I quite understand,” Helms said.
“The ‘Who shot John?’ angle,” Nixon began, before launching into a stream of consciousness monologue about the secrets he sought and the pressures he faced. This was Nixon’s id running rampant in the annals of history.
“Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Nixon to blame?” he ranted. “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It may become, not by me, but it may become a very, very vigorous issue. If it does . . .”
Nixon raved but with reason. In the context of a demand for secret records about the Bay of Pigs, Nixon’s interest in the “ ‘Who shot John angle?” can only refer to one thing: JFK’s assassination…..”
Nixon went on to make this remarkable statement to the CIA director.
“I need to know what is necessary to protect, frankly, the intelligence gathering and the Dirty Tricks Department, and I will protect it,” he said, adding “Hey, listen, I have done more than my share of lying to protect you, and I believe it’s totally right to do it.”
Carlson says “Nixon suggested he knew, quote, ‘who shot John,’" which is debatable. Based on the context, I think it’s more likely that Nixon did not know who killed Kennedy, which is why he was pressing Helms for more information. But Carlson may be right. His claim is certainly not factually incorrect.
The same goes for Carlson’s assertion that “Nixon further implied that the CIA was directly involved.” Nixon’s vow to protect “the Dirty Trick Department” is vague. But, along with his allusion to “delicate and sensitive subjects,” it is certainly open to the fair inference that Nixon was expressing a willingness to lie about “who shot John” if the CIA was involved. On this point, Carlson is right.
When Carlson says that Helms’ response to Nixon’s outburst was silence, the tape shows that he is correct. Helms did not respond to the president’s point.
‘The Whole Bay of Pigs Thing’
Although Carlson was wrong about the dating of the Helm-Nixon exchange, he is right that the subject did come up on June 23, 1972.
That was a fraught time for Nixon. The White House burglars had just been arrested at the Watergate office complex. The anxious president wanted Helms to call off the FBI investigation. He instructed Haldeman to meet with the CIA director and tell him that failure to help on the burglars might “blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing.”
Contrary to Carlson’s account, Nixon was not present when Haldeman delivered the threat.
The CIA director had not forgotten the Oval Office meeting eight months before. Helms erupted in anger, understandably furious about Nixon’s not-so-subtle blackmail.
“This doesn’t have a damned thing to do with the Bay of Pigs,” the normally poised spymaster shouted.
Carlson implies Nixon was “removed” from the presidency because he challenged the CIA on the JFK story, which is not plausible. While Helms did not trust Nixon, he wholeheartedly supported his policies of escalation in Vietnam and spying on the antiwar movement. Indeed, Helms lied to the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee about an assassination operation in Chile that Nixon personally ordered. As result, Helms had to plead guilty to obstructing Congress, making him the only CIA director convicted of a crime.
Carlson is right that Watergate marked a remarkable reversal of power. Nixon won in a landslide in 1972 and was succeeded by an unelected president in 1974. But Nixon certainly did not believe that Helms or the CIA or the “deep state” had deposed him. When President Reagan bestowed a medal on Helms in 1983, Nixon sent a friendly note to the retired spook.
“You suffered a great injustice simply because you were carrying out the assignment which I felt was vitally important to the national security,” Nixon wrote. “The attempt to castrate the C.I.A. in the mid-seventies was a national tragedy.”
Does that sound like the victim of a “deep state” coup? No, it does not.
Carlson recalls this history in service of the Republican allegations that the Obama and Biden administrations "weaponized” the CIA and FBI against the conservatives in the Trump era. In response, Carlson is seeking to weaponize the JFK story to advance his agenda of demonizing a Democratic administration and paving the way for Republicans to regain the White House in 2024.
I don’t share that agenda, to put it mildly. I told the story of the Helms-Nixon exchange in Scorpions’ Dance because it marks an important moment in the annals of the CIA: when the President of the United States implied the clandestine service was hiding knowledge of who killed his predecessor. It shows how JFK’s assassination resonated behind closed doors in Washington a decade after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, despite the official story of a cut-and-dried homicide committed by a lunatic.
With the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, it is clear Nixon had reason to press Helms. The CIA, we now know, is still hiding records related to the Bay of Pigs, and to the question of Who shot John? (At least 44 of them, in fact.)
Whatever Carlson’s flawed interpretation, the Helms-Nixon exchange about JFK’s assassination is newsworthy. It is relevant to contemporary controversies about the White House handling of classified documents, about the still-secret JFK files, and about the role of a secret intelligence agency in a democracy. It illuminates the secret workings of the U.S. government in the Nixon era, a time (like today) of deep political polarization.
Carlson is mistaken about some of the details, and his purposes are malign. But the facts are the facts.
I was able to listen to the Helms-Nixon conversation of October 8, 1971, at nixontapes.org, a site created by historian Luke Nichter. Unfortunately, the site is now under construction, and the audio file is not available.
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