The Origins of RFK's Suspicions About His Brother's Murder
Three days before Dallas, a CIA chief brought a submachine gun into the Oval Office
[Excerpted from Scorpions Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate (St. Martin’s Press, 2022)
For deputy CIA director Richard Helms, the news from Cuba in November 1963 was no better than it was from Vietnam. On November 6, the deputy director reported to the 303 Committee, the inter-agency Group that reviewed covert operations. A recent sabotage mission on the island had proved a total failure, Helms said. Cuban security anticipated the raid and routed the attackers. Castro was growing stronger, U.S. policy more ineffectual.
At the next week’s meeting, on November 13, Helms was pleased to hear the discussion come around to Castro’s support for revolutionaries throughout the hemisphere. The sense of the meeting was that something had to be done to generate support for a more aggressive policy. “The CIA, in connection with Department of Defense, should concentrate on attempting to catch Castro red-handed delivering arms to communist groups in Latin American countries,” said the minutes of the meeting.
That was a request Helms could fulfill in short order. The CIA had been monitoring Havana’s support for revolutionaries in Venezuela, he claimed in his posthumous memoir, A Look Over My Shoulder.
“An agent informed us that Castro operatives were about to land some three tons of small arms, ammunition, and mortars on the Venezuelan coast,” Helms wrote with co-author Bill Hood. The Agency, it seems, had caught the Cubans “red-handed.”
Or did they? Six months earlier, the Agency had developed a deception operation to fake a communist arms shipment. The plan, according to a May 1963 memo, involved “the laying down of an arms cache containing Soviet, Czech, and ChiCom [Chinese Communist] arms in selected Latin America areas, ostensibly proving the arms were smuggled from Cuba.” When the 303 Committee resolved to find an arms cache, Helms provided one within the week.
In his 2009 book, The Road to Dallas, historian David Kaiser suggested “the cache may have been a plant, the execution of a long-discussed plan,” a disinformation operation against the president himself to create pressure for a tougher Cuba policy.
The Cuba issue was deeply felt by the CIA men. Helms, while often reluctant to express policy views, did not hesitate on Cuba. He was an adamant. Kennedy needed to act. Now.
“Castro’s scheme was a clear violation of the policy agreement that followed the missile crisis,” Helms wrote, “and came almost exactly a year after the press conference in which President Kennedy had pledged peace in the Caribbean, if all offensive weapons were removed from Cuba, and (emphasis in original) if Cuba ceased attempting to export its aggressive communist objectives.”
Helms felt so strongly about the issue that he went to Bob Kennedy’s office at the Justice Department on November 19, 1963 to make his case. He brought with him one of the guns the Agency had supposedly seized. The attorney general, a hawk on Cuba, said they should tell the president right away. They proceeded to the White House and met with the president. In the Oval Office Helms produced the gun.
Helms thought the scene worth recording in all its chilly detail.
“When the meeting ended, the President arose from his rocking chair and stood beside the coffee table looking toward the Rose Garden,” Helms recalled. “I leaned over and took the submachine gun from the coffee table and slipped it back into the canvas airline travel bag in which we carried it—unchallenged—from the parking lot to the President’s office. As the President turned to shake hands, I said, ‘I’m sure glad the Secret Service didn’t catch us bringing this gun in here.’ ”
Helms was a subtle man making a pitiless point. The struggle for power in Cuba was a life and death struggle, which was fought with guns, and Kennedy’s security was porous. Reminding Kennedy that the Secret Service could not detect all threats to him can be construed as a warning of sorts. It was time for Kennedy to stop dithering and take decisive action against Castro. It was a matter of life and death. Did Kennedy appreciate the stakes? Apparently not, in Helms’ view. “The President’s expression brightened,” he recalled. “He grinned, shook his head slightly, and said, ‘Yes, it gives me a feeling of confidence.’”
Three days later, Helms was having a sandwich lunch with director John McCone in his seventh-floor suite at CIA headquarters when an aide burst into the room. “The president’s been shot!” he cried. McCone turned on a television and watched the news bulletins from Dallas. Then, Helms recalled, the director “clapped his hat on his head and left to meet Bob Kennedy at his home at Hickory Hill, not far from the agency Headquarters.”
In his memoir, Helms chose not to mention Bob Kennedy’s first question to McCone when he arrived. Helms knew the story because his friend Arthur Schlesinger recounted it in his biography of RFK. Stunned by the news of his brother’s assassination, Kennedy voiced his gut suspicion. “I asked McCone . . . if they”—referring to the CIA— “had killed my brother,” Kennedy said, “and I asked him in a way that he couldn’t lie to me, and they hadn’t.”
But Bob Kennedy was not convinced—not that day and not ever—by the denials of the CIA men. For the rest of his life, he harbored the private belief his brother had been killed by some combination of anti-Castro Cubans, renegade CIA officers, and Mafia bosses.
Helms rushed to his office and sent a “book message,” a cable communication to every CIA office in the world, calling for “any bit of information conceivably pointing to a plot involving any foreign power.”
Within ninety minutes, a suspect in Dallas had been arrested. By four o’clock Eastern time, radio stations reported a man named Lee Harvey Oswald was being held in a Dallas jail on suspicion of killing a police officer. Within minutes a search of the Agency’s Central File Registry turned up a personality file, also known as a 201 file, for Oswald, which the CIA said contained only a handful of documents indicating that Oswald was a twenty-four-year-old ex-marine who had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959 and returned in June 1962. The Agency, it seemed, had received no information about him since then. That was the first story the CIA told about Oswald’s 201 file. It was far from the whole story.
Only ten weeks later would investigators learn the full Oswald file was controlled by James Angleton’s Counterintelligence Staff, and it held more than 40 documents detailing Oswald’s travel, politics, personal life, and foreign contacts over the previous four years. Angleton had even intercepted and read Oswald’s mail. Helms didn’t mention that in his memoir.
The next day, November 23, dawned wet, gray, and miserable in the nation’s capital. “A shroud of rain fell over Washington yesterday,” wrote reporter George Lardner in the Washington Post. “It took up where tears had stopped.”
At his home on Fessenden Street in northwest Washington, Helms did what a gentleman would do under the circumstances. He penned a condolence note to Bob Kennedy.
Dear Mr. Attorney General,
There is nothing for me to say that has not been said better by others.
When you sent me to see the president on Tuesday afternoon, he never looked better, seemed more confident or appeared more in control of the crushing forces around him. Friday struck me personally.
Sadly and respectfully, Dick Helms
Bob Kennedy never trusted Dick Helms again. He never thought his brother was killed by a Castro supporter. He publicly endorsed the Warren Commissions with tepid language, while privately dispatching friends Walter Sheridan and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to investigate his suspicions of the CIA and Mafia. Mere politesse could not erase RFK’s abiding suspicion that CIA personnel connived in the Dallas ambush.
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