18

The Big Event

Early in October 1963, Dulles sent Arthur Schlesinger a signed copy of his new book, The Craft of Intelligence, to give to President Kennedy. Schlesinger found the inscription that Dulles had scrawled in the book “a little tepid.” By now, the White House historian clearly saw through what he later described as Dulles’s “faux bonhomie.” But still committed to maintaining civil relations with the CIA crowd, for his own good and that of the president, Schlesinger typed up an “agreeable” thank-you letter for Kennedy to send Dulles, ending with the vaguely cheery words, “I hope you will stop by and see me before too long.” Looking over the letter before he signed it, JFK told Schlesinger, “That’s a good Rooseveltian line.” It had not occurred to Schlesinger before, but he immediately realized Kennedy was right. The letter he had written to Dulles, for the president’s signature, did indeed recall FDR, a master of the polite brush-off.

Dulles’s book was published by his friend, Cass Canfield, the legendary publisher of Harper & Row. Dulles spiced the book with a few colorful espionage tales, but it was essentially an argument for the kind of aggressive intelligence establishment that he had built. He drew a dire picture of the espionage battlefield in the Cold War, where Soviet agents employed the darkest tools available to achieve victory, while their Western adversaries—hampered by operating in open, democratic societies—were forced to play by more civilized rules. The Soviet spy “has been fully indoctrinated” in the Communist principle “that the ends alone count and any means which achieve them are justified,” wrote Dulles. Meanwhile, he observed—taking another swing at the Kennedy philosophy of peaceful coexistence—U.S. leaders shy from Soviet-style ruthlessness, “because of our desire to be ‘loved.’”

There was a strange, looking-glass quality to The Craft of Intelligence. Many of the extreme measures he accused the Soviet espionage network of employing were, in fact, standard operating procedure at the CIA, including “secret assassination” as a political weapon. According to Dulles, the KGB (the Soviet spy agency) had built an “executive action” section to murder enemies of the state. But this is precisely what Dulles himself had done within the CIA.

Dulles also denounced another flagrant example of Soviet “cold-blooded pragmatism”: the “massive recruitment” of Nazi war criminals “for intelligence work.” Coming from the man who salvaged Reinhard Gehlen and untold numbers of other Hitler henchmen—and, in fact, helped build the West German intelligence system out of the poisoned remains of the Third Reich—the utter gall of this statement surely provoked howls of derision inside the Kremlin.

Dulles was such a master of the “craft of intelligence” that he sometimes appeared to believe his own lies. In 1965, he sat for a remarkable interview with John Chancellor of NBC News for a TV special that was titled The Science of Spying but was actually more concerned with the morality of the CIA. Chancellor spoke with Dulles in his Georgetown study, where the retired spymaster usually dished out the artful hooey that was sopped up by the journalists who periodically sought him out. But Chancellor brought a more skeptical edge to his conversation with Dulles than other reporters, and the Old Man was compelled to justify himself more than usual. Did the CIA operate on a higher moral level than the KGB, Chancellor asked him? Certainly, Dulles replied. The Soviet spy agency was “one of the most sinister organizations ever organized. . . . As far as I know, we don’t engage in assassinations or kidnappings or things of that kind. As far as I know, we never have.”

So, Chancellor continued, did Dulles himself adhere to “moral standards” when he was director of the CIA? Dulles paused briefly, and a calculating look came over his face. Then he leaned confidently into the camera. “Yes, I did—and why? Because I don’t think—given the caliber of the men and women I had working for me—I didn’t want to ask them to do a thing that I wouldn’t do.” As if reading Chancellor’s mind, Dulles felt compelled to further defend his personal sense of morality. “All I can say,” he went on, “is . . . that . . . ah . . . I was a parson’s son, and I was brought up as a Presbyterian. Maybe as a Calvinist—maybe that made me a fatalist, I don’t know. But I hope I had a reasonable moral standard.”

On occasion, Dulles did give journalists glimpses of the darker truth about the CIA, only to quickly pull the wool over their eyes. When Washington columnist Andrew Tully interviewed Dulles for his 1962 book, which promised the “inside story” on the CIA, he asked the espionage legend what his organization would do if a foreign agent threatened the security of the United States. “We’d kill him,” Dulles replied matter-of-factly. But then his face resumed its genial expression, and he assured Tully that his question was hypothetical and that he “could not possibly conceive” of such an unpleasant scenario actually occurring.

When Cass Canfield asked Dulles to write a book drawing on his long career as a spook, Dulles was initially noncommittal, telling the publisher, “First of all, I shall have to persuade myself that I have the aptitude and the skills to do effective writing, as I am not much of a believer in ‘ghosts.’” It was another less than truthful statement, for Dulles always relied on others, including CIA employees and media assets, to write his books, magazine articles, and speeches. Despite Dulles’s retirement status, The Craft of Intelligence was an agency enterprise, drawing on the writing skills of Howard Hunt, Howard Roman, and friendly Fortune magazine reporter Charles Murphy, as well as the research and editing skills of top CIA analyst Sherman Kent and Dulles’s former right-hand man Frank Wisner, whose career came to an end in 1962 because of deepening mental problems. Dulles also drew on his extensive academic contacts for help, including W. Glenn Campbell at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who provided ready access to his extensive files on the Communist threat. Kent also suggested that Dulles “use your potent association with Princeton to good effect” and “con” Joseph Strayer, the longtime chair of Princeton’s history department, into drafting the section of Dulles’s book dealing with the medieval roots of espionage.

Dulles was so deeply connected in the media world that the critical response to The Craft of Intelligence was all but assured when it was published in the fall of 1963. The Washington Post heralded what amounted to little more than a predictable Cold War screed as “one of the most fascinating books of our time.” The New York Times’s critic found a clever way to celebrate a book that revealed very little of Dulles’s actual spy craft, praising his “brilliantly selective candor.” The Times review provided other blurb-worthy quotes for the book, declaring, “There is material enough here on breathlessly high-level sleuthery to keep Helen MacInnes and Ian Fleming busy writing all kinds of thrillers”—an absurdly exaggerated comment, considering the book’s calculatedly tame contents.

Dulles had enjoyed a warm relationship with New York Times executives and editors for many years. When Dulles was named CIA director, Times general manager Julius Ochs Adler—“Julie,” as Dulles affectionately called him—warmly congratulated his friend “Allie.” The Times executive told Dulles that his appointment was “the best news I have read in a long time.”

If Dulles needed any assurance that he continued to be a power player after he left the CIA, the publication of The Craft of Intelligence delivered it. Hailed by the leading publications, the book became an immediate bestseller and won him speaking invitations before influential audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as well as in California. Dulles was also invited to appear in Texas, where, between October 25 and 29, he met with old friends in Houston and Dallas and spoke before the Dallas Council on World Affairs.

Dulles often used speaking engagements and vacations as covers for serious business, and his detour through Texas bears the markings of such a stratagem. His stopover in Texas stood out as an anomaly in a book tour otherwise dominated by appearances on the two coasts. The spymaster’s date book during his Texas trip typically left out as much as it revealed, with big gaps in his schedule throughout his stay there. But Dulles was wired into the Texas oil industry—for which his law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, had provided legal counsel for many years—as well as into the local political hierarchy, including Dallas mayor Earle Cabell, the younger brother of his former CIA deputy, Charles, a fellow victim of JFK’s post–Bay of Pigs housecleaning. With Kennedy’s trip to Texas just weeks away, the president was a hot topic in these local circles.

Dulles’s strongly critical views of the Kennedy presidency were ardently shared by the men in his Texas milieu, where JFK was widely viewed as a dangerously weak leader. E. M. (Ted) Dealey, the reactionary publisher of The Dallas Morning News, thought so little of Kennedy that he once berated him at a White House luncheon, in front of a group of visiting Texas publishers. “We can annihilate Russia and should make that clear to the Soviet government,” Dealey lectured Kennedy. “The general opinion of the grassroots thinking in this country is that you and your administration are weak sisters. We need a man on a horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding [your daughter] Caroline’s tricycle.”

The cool-tempered Kennedy did not let his anger flash in public gatherings. But he fixed Dealey—the man whose family name was on the plaza where he would die—with a hard look. “The difference between you and me, Mr. Dealey,” replied Kennedy in his chilliest Boston staccato, “is that I was elected president of this country and you were not. I have the responsibility for the lives of 180 million Americans, which you have not. . . . Wars are easier to talk about than they are to fight. I’m just as tough as you are—and I didn’t get elected president by arriving at soft judgments.”

The Texas oil crowd was also furious at Kennedy for moving to close their tax loopholes, particularly the oil depletion allowance, which threatened to cost the oilmen millions—perhaps billions—of dollars a year. This kind of government mischief would have been unthinkable during the Eisenhower-Dulles years. As vice president, Lyndon Johnson—Texas’s native son—was supposed to make sure that the man in the White House didn’t mess with their wealth. But by the fall of 1963, the once-powerful LBJ—former Senate majority leader and master of the backroom deal—was a fading figure in Washington, unable to take care of the oil tycoons who had paved his way to power. “He had promised to protect them,” said petroleum industry lawyer Ed Clark, “and he couldn’t deliver. He couldn’t deliver!”

JFK had put Johnson on his 1960 ticket to win votes in the South. But, as the 1964 campaign approached, LBJ had lost so much clout below the Mason-Dixon Line—largely because of his subservient role in Kennedy’s liberal, pro–civil rights presidency—that he couldn’t even be counted on to deliver his home state. With the South looming like a lost cause for Kennedy, it was becoming more and more important to lock up states in the North and the West that he had lost to Nixon in 1960. Johnson began to seem like less of an attractive running mate than someone like Governor Pat Brown of California. On November 13, 1963, when Kennedy convened his first important strategy meeting for the ’64 race at the White House, neither Johnson nor any of his staff were invited. The increasingly panicked vice president took it as one more sign that the Kennedys were maneuvering to dump him from the upcoming Democratic ticket.

If the Kennedys were indeed looking to get rid of Johnson, they were given the perfect opportunity by a growing Washington scandal that fall involving Bobby Baker, the Senate majority secretary who had long served as LBJ’s influence peddler, shakedown artist, errand boy, and pimp. In September, lurid stories about Baker’s wide network of corruption began appearing in the press—including the campaign slush fund and Capitol Hill “party houses,” stocked with buxom young call girls who catered to every sexual whim, with which Baker bought the loyalty of Washington politicians. The titillating exposés soon led to Johnson, whom every capital insider knew was Baker’s puppeteer. Baker, who was referred to as Johnson’s “protégé” and “little Lyndon” in the press, resigned from his Senate office as the scandal intensified, hoping to protect the man he slavishly admired as “The Leader.” But the heat under Johnson only grew, and the vice president was convinced that it was his longtime tormentor, Bobby Kennedy, who was stoking the flames by quietly feeding damaging information to the press.

Lyndon Johnson had entered the 1960 Democratic presidential sweepstakes with cocky self-assurance. He had run the U.S. Senate like it was his personal fiefdom from the moment he took over as majority leader in 1955. He was his party’s mover and shaker, the biggest wolf in the 1960 Democratic pack, and he felt confident that the nomination was his for the taking. Even as the Kennedy campaign—under Bobby’s wily management—outmaneuvered him at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that July, LBJ vowed not to give in and accept the vice presidential position. “Hand on heart,” Johnson told his friends in Los Angeles, the omnipresent Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, “I wouldn’t be on [JFK’s] team if he got down on his knees.”

Months later, on the VIP bus to Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball, Clare found herself seated next to Johnson, and she teased him about taking the number two spot. “Come clean, Lyndon,” she smiled wickedly. What did it feel like for the swaggering Texan to be in the rear position? The big man leaned close and whispered, “Clare, I looked it up. One out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only one chance I got.” It was another example of LBJ’s coarse humor. But it also revealed something darker in the man. He undoubtedly waskeenly aware of the presidential mortality rate.

By 1963, however, it was Johnson who was the ghost, a once commanding figure whose future grew dimmer by the day—and he knew it. In March, Susan Mary Alsop, Joe’s convenient wife, told Schlesinger that LBJ had unburdened himself to her husband, while the columnist was dining “a trois with Lyndon and Ladybird.” According to Alsop’s wife, “Lyndon had been very dark and bitter about his frustrations and his prospects.” After recounting the confessional dinner in his journal, Schlesinger added his own observation about Johnson: “He really has faded astonishingly into the background and wanders unhappily around, a spectral and premature elder statesman.” Johnson began to even physically fade as the months went by, losing so much weight that his suits hung loosely off his shoulders and his eyes seemed to sink inside their sockets.

In January 1963, after listening to Bobby Kennedy deliver an inspiring speech at the National Archives celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, civil rights lawyer Joe Rauh passed Schlesinger a note. “Poor Lyndon,” it said. When Schlesinger asked him what he meant, Rauh, a stalwart of the Democratic Party’s left wing, said, “Lyndon must know he is through. Bobby is going to be the next president.”

The Kennedys had turned the swaggering Johnson into a useless figure. LBJ used one of his memorable barnyard metaphors to describe his plight. “Being vice president is like being a cut dog,” he told his old mentor, former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. He knew that he was the odd man out in the glamorous, Ivy League–groomed world of the New Frontier. “They’re trying to make a hick out of me,” he complained to The New York Times’s Scotty Reston. And, as usual, he focused his resentment on Bobby Kennedy, whom he blamed—not without reason—for isolating and diminishing him. “Bobby symbolized everything Johnson hated,” observed Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, who later worked in the Johnson White House. “He became the symbol of all the things Johnson wasn’t . . . with these characteristics of wealth and power and ease and Eastern elegance; with Johnson always looking at himself as the guy they thought was illiterate, rude, crude. They laughed at him behind his back. I think he felt all that.”

It was a mortifying position for Lyndon Johnson—a pathologically ambitious man, with an ego that was as mountainous as it was fragile—to find himself in. And yet, it was only to get worse for the vice president as Kennedy prepared to visit Johnson’s home state in November. On November 14, the day after the White House strategy session on the 1964 campaign, the president privately confirmed that Johnson would not be on the ticket, while conversing with his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. JFK told her that he was planning major government reforms during his second term, and to accomplish this ambitious agenda he needed a vice president “who believes as I do.” Kennedy told Lincoln that he was leaning toward Terry Sanford, the young, moderate governor of swing state North Carolina. “But it will not be Lyndon,” he said.

Dick Nixon, who had weathered his own “dump Nixon” movement as Eisenhower’s 1956 reelection campaign drew near, was keenly attuned to Johnson’s growing humiliation. Nixon was the first major national figure to voice Johnson’s agonizing fear—and with typical cunning, he chose to do it in LBJ’s backyard. Nixon showed up in Dallas on November 21, 1963, the day before JFK’s presidential party was due to arrive in the city. Nixon was there on business—to attend a meeting of the Pepsi-Cola Company, a client of his New York law firm—but he was happy to roil the political waters by sharing his prognostications with the local press. Lyndon Johnson had become a “political liability,” Nixon told Texas reporters, and if the upcoming presidential race looked close, he predicted that Kennedy would not hesitate to drop him.

Nixon’s prediction, which was prominently displayed in The Dallas Morning News on November 22, was another blow to LBJ’s ego. But he had even bigger concerns. Later that morning, a Life investigative team was scheduled to convene in the magazine’s New York offices, to begin work on a deeper probe of Johnson’s involvement in the Bobby Baker corruption scandal. William Lambert, the investigative unit’s leader, was certain they were sitting on an explosive story that could bring down the vice president. “This guy looks like a bandit to me,” he told his boss, Life managing editor George Hunt. LBJ, he told Hunt, had used public office to amass a fortune, shaking down political favor-seekers for cash and consumer goods, even putting the squeeze on an insurance executive for an expensive Magnavox stereo console that Lady Bird coveted. As Bobby Baker later commented, Johnson was “always on the lookout for the odd nickel or dime.” In fact, that insurance executive—Don Reynolds—was scheduled to testify about Johnson’s tawdry influence-peddling practices at another meeting on November 22, in a closed session of the Senate Rules Committee. The two meetings—one in New York, one in Washington—would have likely determined the political fate of Lyndon Baines Johnson, had they not been overshadowed by events in Dallas that day.

Lyndon Johnson’s days might have been numbered as vice president, but he was not entirely abandoned in Washington. If LBJ was rapidly losing favor within the Kennedy administration, he had managed to retain the support of many key figures in the national security arena. Johnson had long been the dominant political figure in a state with a booming defense and aerospace industry, and he had long cultivated ties to generals and espionage officials.

At the very beginning of Kennedy’s presidency, Johnson made a strange power grab, trying to get JFK to grant him extraordinary supervisory powers over the country’s entire national security apparatus, including the Defense Department, CIA, State Department, and the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. Kennedy did not even bother responding to Johnson’s maneuver, simply ignoring the executive order and accompanying letter that LBJ sent over to the Oval Office for his signature. But Johnson’s “executive order” power play was never forgotten in the White House. Even a friend of LBJ—longtime Democratic presidential adviser Jim Rowe—was “flabbergasted” after Johnson showed him the proposed order, calling it, “frankly, the most presumptuous document any Vice President had ever sent to his President.” Despite the White House rebuff, LBJ continued to enjoy a special bond with national security hard-liners during Kennedy’s reign, often embracing their aggressive positions on Cuba and other hot spots, as well as leaking inside information about White House policy developments to his contacts at the Pentagon and CIA.

Dulles was among those who maintained warm relations with the vice president, even as both men’s stars fell within the Kennedy court. In retirement, the spymaster continued to invite Johnson to Washington functions. And, in the summer of 1963, Johnson hosted Dulles at his ranch in the Texas Hill Country, sixty miles west of Austin. Dulles’s visit to the LBJ Ranch did not appear in his calendar, but it was briefly noted in a syndicated news photo, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 15, that showed the vice president astride a horse, while a beaming Lady Bird and Dulles looked on. Considering how estranged both men were from Kennedy—and how notoriously conniving they were—the picture could only have produced a sense of puzzlement in the White House.

Those resolute voices in American public life that continue to deny the existence of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy argue that “someone would have talked.” This line of reasoning is often used by journalists who have made no effort themselves to closely inspect the growing body of evidence and have not undertaken any of their own investigative reporting. The argument betrays a touchingly naïve media bias—a belief that the American press establishment itself, that great slumbering watchdog, could be counted on to solve such a monumental crime, one that sprung from the very system of governance of which corporate media is an essential part. The official version of the Kennedy assassination—despite its myriad improbabilities, which have only grown more inconceivable with time—remains firmly embedded in the media consciousness, as unquestioned as the law of gravity.

In fact, many people have talked during the past half of a century—including some directly connected to the plot against Kennedy. But the media simply refused to listen. One of the most intriguing examples of someone talking occurred in 2003, when an old and ailing Howard Hunt began unburdening himself to his eldest son, Saint John.

“Saint,” as his father called him, was a loyal and loving son, who had suffered through the upheavals of the spy’s life, along with the rest of his family. Late one night in June 1972, at the family’s Witches Island home in suburban Maryland, Hunt had frantically woken up his eighteen-year-old son. “I need you to do exactly as I say, and not ask any questions!” said Hunt, who was in a sweaty and disheveled state that his son had never before witnessed. He ordered Saint John to fetch window cleaner, rags, and rubber gloves from the kitchen and to help him rub away fingerprints from a pile of espionage equipment, including cameras, microphones, and walkie-talkies. Later, Saint helped his father stuff the equipment into two suitcases, which they loaded into the trunk of his father’s Pontiac Firebird. Hunt and his son drove through the darkness to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, where the spook got out and tossed the suitcases into the murky water. On the way back home, Hunt told Saint that he had been doing some special work for the White House, and things had gone south.

It was the beginning of the Watergate drama, in which Howard Hunt played a starring role as the leader of the “White House plumbers,” the five burglars who were arrested while breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. All five of the men had a long history with Hunt, dating back to the earliest days of the underground war against Castro, and at least two—Frank Sturgis and Virgilio Gonzalez—were rumored to have played roles in the Kennedy assassination.

As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Hunt drew Saint and the rest of his family deeper into his disintegrating life. Saint’s beloved mother, Dorothy—an exotic beauty with her own espionage background—would die in a plane crash in the midst of the Watergate crisis, while serving as a mysterious courier for her husband. When her United Airlines flight from Washington’s Dulles Airport crashed while landing at Chicago’s Midway Airport in December 1972, Dorothy Hunt was carrying over $2 million in cash and money orders, some of which was later traced to President Nixon’s reelection campaign.

As Nixon frantically tried to cover his tracks in the widening scandal, sketchy money began flowing back and forth. The president was desperate to keep Hunt quiet and during one White House meeting, Nixon—caught on his secret taping system—figured it would cost “a million in cash. We could get our hands on that kind of money.” Hunt felt that Nixon owed him and his team. “I had five men whose families needed to be supported,” Hunt later said. “And I had a big house, stalls for six horses, kids in private school—I had needs for contributions that were greater than the average person’s. . . . There’s a long tradition that when a warrior is captured, the commanding officer takes care of his family.”

Nixon knew that Howard Hunt had played key roles in some of America’s darkest mysteries. On June 23, 1972—while discussing the Watergate break-in with H. R. Haldeman, his devoted political deputy and White House chief of staff—Nixon was taped saying, “Hunt . . . will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab, there’s a hell of a lot of things. . . . This involves these Cubans, Hunt and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”

Nixon wanted Haldeman to lean on Dick Helms, who was then CIA director, by warning him that if the spy agency did not help shut down the growing Watergate scandal, “[t]he President’s belief is that this is going to open up that whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . and it’s going to make the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and is likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . and we think it would be very unfortunate for the CIA and for the country at this time.”

Nixon’s ploy did not work. When Haldeman sat Helms down in his office and delivered the president’s thinly veiled threat about “the Bay of Pigs thing,” the normally icy-cool Helms exploded. “The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do with this!” he shouted. Nixon only succeeded in further antagonizing a very powerful Washington institution, one capable of far more deviousness than even he was.

What did Nixon mean by “the whole Bay of Pigs thing”? According to Haldeman, it was Nixon’s way of referring to the unspeakable—the Kennedy assassination. Other historians have speculated that it was shorthand for the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro. In any case, “the Bay of Pigs thing” was an apt code name—it conjured all the swampy intrigue that began leaching through the Kennedy administration after Allen Dulles and his agency suffered their humiliation in Cuba, everything the CIA wanted to keep deeply hidden. And Howard Hunt was knee-deep in much of this muck.

Hunt’s adventures in the spy trade eventually tore apart his family and sent him to federal prison for nearly three years. By 2003, the retired spy was living in a modest ranch house in north Miami with his second wife, Laura, who was twenty-seven years younger. She had fallen for him while watching him give a prison interview on Watergate. “I liked all those men—that must seem strange to you,” Laura Hunt told a Miami Herald reporter. “Not for what he’d done—I don’t admire that—but I admired him for serving the government, and I admired his intellect.”

At eighty-four, Hunt seemed to be fading out, suffering from a variety of maladies, including hardening of the arteries, which had resulted in the amputation of his left leg and confined him to a wheelchair. He had a new family, including the two children he had with Laura. But Saint John Hunt felt it was time for his father to finally come clean for the sake of his first family. Following years of estrangement, Saint began to spend time with his father, watching his favorite Fox News shows with him at his Miami house and, when the old man felt up to it, dredging up the past. Laura did not want Saint John to reopen this history, but he felt strongly that his father owed him this honesty.

After his family fell apart, Saint John had gone on the road as a rock musician and drug peddler, a trip that eventually deposited him in the coastal redwoods of northern California. But by the time he reunited with his father, Saint was a sober, middle-aged, law-abiding citizen who was eager to make sense of his earlier life. He was particularly interested in talking with his father about the Kennedy assassination—which he knew his father had long been linked to in conspiracy literature.

Saint’s father had always insisted that he had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death, that he was at home in Washington the day of the assassination, not in Dallas, as many JFK researchers alleged. Hunt claimed that he was shopping for ingredients at a Chinese grocery store in Washington, to cook dinner that night with his wife, when the news bulletin about Kennedy came over the car radio. But Saint, who was in the fifth grade at the time, had no memory of his father being home that day when he was let out early from school, or later that evening. And he found his father’s cover story about cooking the Chinese meal, which Hunt told under oath at a trial related to the Kennedy assassination, absurd. “I can tell you that’s the biggest load of crap in the world,” Saint John told Rolling Stone in 2007. “My dad in the kitchen? Chopping vegetables with his wife? I’m so sorry, but that would never happen. Ever.”

His mother told Saint John, around the time of the assassination, that his father had indeed been in Dallas. The mystery of his father’s whereabouts that day would prey on Saint for years. He was determined to engage his father on the subject before it was too late.

By 2003, Howard Hunt was ready to finally talk. He feared that his life was coming to an end, and he was deeply regretful that he had so little to leave his family after all they had endured. For a time, he flirted with the idea of telling all to actor Kevin Costner, who had starred in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Costner dangled a big financial reward in front of Hunt if he revealed everything he knew about Dallas, but when the money never appeared, Hunt finally dismissed the actor as a “numbskull.” Saint John nonetheless urged his father to continue down the path of full disclosure while he was still of sound mind. He made his plea in a long letter to his father, telling him that it was time to finally reveal what he knew—he “owed it,” wrote Saint, “to himself, the Nation, and his family to leave a legacy of truth instead of doubt.”

Soon afterward, Hunt phoned his son in California and summoned him to Miami. On December 7, 2003, Saint John Hunt flew to Florida—where so much of his father’s secret life had unfolded—to hear his final testament.

When he arrived at his father’s house, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Biscayne Bay neighborhood, Saint found Hunt in bed, looking frail and washed out. But the old man perked up when he saw his son. He asked Saint to wheel him into the TV room, where they shared some soup for lunch and watched an agitated round of Fox News at the high volume required by the hard-of-hearing Hunt. Finally, Saint broached the subject that he had come to discuss. “Papa, can we talk about my letter?”

Hunt suggested that Saint wheel him back to his bedroom, in case his wife returned. “We don’t want her getting upset by this,” Hunt told his son. “She believes what I told her: that I don’t know anything about JFK’s murder.”

“I think Laura’s very naïve about the darker side of politics,” said Saint John.

“Well, that’s one of the reasons I love her so much,” his father replied.

Then, after making Saint John promise he would never reveal what he was about to tell him without his permission, Hunt launched into a remarkable story of the plot to kill John F. Kennedy. It was—even at this late date in Hunt’s life—still a carefully parsed tale. He clearly was not telling everything he knew—and he seemed to be downplaying his own role in the crime as well as the complicity of former CIA superiors to whom he remained loyal. He also couched much of his narrative in an oddly speculative manner, as if he were not fully certain of the exact configuration of the plot. Nonetheless, what Hunt did tell Saint John that day was stunning enough. Over the following months, the spy elaborated on his story as his health occasionally improved. At one point, Saint brought in an expert on the Kennedy assassination and Watergate—Eric Hamburg, a Los Angeles writer-producer and a former aide to Senator John Kerry—to help videotape interviews with his father.

Laura Hunt ultimately cut short her husband’s extraordinary journey of truth telling with his son. But before Hunt died in 2007, he left behind video interviews, audiotapes, and notes in his own hand—as well as a somewhat revealing memoir called American Spy. Hunt’s confessional trove amounts to a tortured effort to reveal what he knew, while still guarding his family’s sensitivities, old professional loyalties, and whatever was left of his good name. After his father died, Saint John would make a valiant effort to get Hunt’s confessions—which should have been headline news—into the hands of the major media gatekeepers. A 60 Minutes producer spent days poring over Saint John’s rich material, but he was finally forced to apologize that the story had been spiked from above. In the end, only Rolling Stone—along with a scattering of alternative media outlets—covered the story of Howard Hunt’s astonishing final statements about the crime of the century. Saint John’s own memoir of his father’s escapades and his family’s ordeal, Bond of Secrecy, was released by a small Oregon publisher and received little promotion or attention.

This was the story that Howard Hunt left behind. Sometime in 1963, Hunt said, he was invited to a meeting at one of the CIA safe houses in Miami by Frank Sturgis, a soldier of fortune who had worked under Hunt in the anti-Castro underground—a man with whom Hunt would be forever linked when they were later arrested for the Watergate break-in. Also in attendance at the Miami meeting was David Morales, another CIA veteran of the anti-Castro campaign who was well known to Hunt. Morales—a big, intimidating man who had grown up in a poor Mexican American family in Phoenix—did not fit the polished CIA profile. But the agency found a use for “El Indio”—as Morales, with his strong indigenous features, was known by his colleagues.

“Dave Morales did dirty work for the agency,” according to Wayne Smith, a diplomat who worked alongside Morales in the U.S. embassy in Havana before Castro took power. “If he were in the mob, he’d be called a hit man.”

Thomas Clines, a colleague of Morales’s in the CIA’s Miami station, was more complimentary in his description, but it amounted to the same thing: “We all admired the hell out of the guy. He drank like crazy, but he was bright as hell. He could fool people into thinking he was stupid by acting stupid, but he knew about cultural things all over the world. People were afraid of him. He was big and aggressive, and he had this mystique. Stories about him permeated the agency. If the agency needed someone action-oriented, he was at the top of the list. If the U.S. government as a matter of policy needed someone or something neutralized, Dave would do it, including things that were repugnant to a lot of people.”

Ruben Carbajal, Morales’s lifelong friend from their boyhood days on the streets of Phoenix, was even more blunt about “Didi”—the man who was like a brother to him: “When some asshole needed to be killed, Didi was the man to do it. . . . That was his job.”

According to Morales’s daughter, he was the CIA’s “peon.” Her father was utterly devoted to the agency. “He did whatever he was told. They gave him a lifestyle that he would never have had under any circumstances. . . . He did everything for the Company. His family wasn’t his life—the Company was his life.”

At the secret Miami meeting, Morales told Hunt that he had been recruited for an “off-the-board” operation by Bill Harvey, with whom El Indio had worked closely on the ZR/Rifle project to kill Castro. The aim of this “off-the-board” operation, it soon became clear, was to assassinate President Kennedy. Morales and Sturgis referred to the president’s planned demise as “the big event.”

In his account of the meeting, Hunt presented Harvey and Morales as the key operational figures in the plot; Harvey did not attend the meeting but seemed to loom over it. Hunt suggested that Harvey was in charge of hiring the sharpshooters to kill Kennedy and transporting the weapons to Dallas. According to Hunt, the gunmen were likely recruited from the Corsican underworld. As Harvey once indicated, when it came to highly delicate assignments, working with Corsican gangsters was preferable because they were harder to trace back to the CIA than Italian or American Mafia hit men.

Hunt found Harvey and Morales to be disturbing characters. The two men “could have been manufactured from the same cloth,” Hunt wrote in his memoir. “Both were hard-drinking, tough guys, possibly completely amoral. Morales was rumored to be a cold-blooded killer, the go-to guy in black ops situations where the government needed to have someone neutralized. I tried to cut short any contact with him, as he wore thin very quickly.”

To Morales, Kennedy was “that no good son of a bitch motherfucker” who was responsible for the deaths of the men he had trained for the Bay of Pigs mission. “We took care of that son of a bitch, didn’t we?” Morales told his attorney, Robert Walton, in 1973, after an evening of drinking loosened the CIA hit man’s tongue. It was one more confession that the media ignored, even after it was reported by one of their own, Gaeton Fonzi, a Philadelphia investigative journalist who, after going to work for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, unearthed some of the most important information related to the Kennedy case.

Hunt might have been wary of men like Harvey and Morales, but he shared their venomous attitudes toward President Kennedy. Toward the end of the Miami meeting, Sturgis made the group’s pitch to Hunt: “You’re somebody we all look up to. . . . We know how you feel about the man [Kennedy]. Are you with us?”

Hunt told the group his main reservation about joining them. It was a tactical concern, not a moral one. “Look,” he told Sturgis, “if Bill Harvey has anything to do with this, you can count me out. The man is an alcoholic and a psycho.” Sturgis laughed. “You’re right—but that SOB has the balls to do it.”

As Hunt related his story to his son, he remained fuzzy about his own involvement in the plot. In the end, he said, he played only a peripheral “benchwarmer” role in the killing of Kennedy. It was Bill Harvey who was the quarterback, according to Hunt. Despite Harvey’s reputation for hard drinking, the agency’s assassination chief had the experience and connections to pull off something like “the big event.” While assembling his Castro assassination team, Harvey had reached out to a variety of underworld professionals, including (with Helms’s permission) the infamous European assassin code-named QJ-WIN, whom the CIA had recruited to kill Patrice Lumumba. And Harvey was well positioned as Rome station chief to once again plumb the European underworld for a Dallas killing team.

In fact, among the strange and murderous characters who converged on Dallas in November 1963 was a notorious French OAS commando named Jean Souetre, who was connected to the plots against President de Gaulle. Souetre was arrested in Dallas after the Kennedy assassination and expelled to Mexico. Souetre’s expulsion brought an urgent inquiry from French intelligence officials to the CIA about the dangerous outlaw’s likely whereabouts, since de Gaulle was about to travel to Mexico for a state visit.

Hunt’s speculations about the Kennedy conspiracy were in line with the suspicions of the House Assassinations Committee. When the congressional inquiry got under way in 1976, the panel’s most energetic investigators zeroed in on the CIA’s anti-Castro operation as the nest from which the JFK plot had sprung—and Bill Harvey soon emerged as a prime suspect.

“We tried to get Harvey’s travel vouchers and security file from the CIA, but we were never able to,” recalled Dan Hardway. Hardway was the bright Cornell Law School student to whom the congressional committee gave the weighty task of investigating the CIA’s possible links to the assassination. “One CIA official told me, ‘So you’re from Congress—what the hell is that to us? You’ll be packed up and gone in a couple years, and we’ll still be here.’

“But we did come across documents that suggested Harvey was traveling a lot in the weeks leading up to the assassination, while he was supposed to be running the Rome station. . . . Near the end of our investigation, I typed up a memo, making my case against Harvey as a leading figure in the crime. I typed it up in the committee’s secure room, on the yellow security paper with a purple border marked ‘Top Secret.’ That memo has since disappeared.”

While the Miami conspirators made it clear that Bill Harvey was playing a central role in “the big event,” they assured Hunt that the chain of command went much higher than Harvey. Vice President Johnson himself had signed off on the plot, Morales insisted. Hunt found this plausible. As he observed in his memoir, “Lyndon Johnson was an opportunist who would not hesitate to get rid of any obstacles in his way.”

Hunt was mindful of Washington’s strict “caste system,” but he was convinced that “Harvey’s rank and position was such that a vice president could talk to him.”

This is where Hunt began to obfuscate. There is no evidence that Lyndon Johnson and Bill Harvey were ever in close contact, and, in fact, the two men’s “rank and position” were disparate enough to make such communication unlikely. It is simply not credible that a man in Johnson’s position would have discussed something as extraordinarily sensitive as the removal of the president with a man who occupied Harvey’s place in the national security hierarchy.

The man Johnson did know best in the intelligence world was Allen Dulles. Unlike Harvey, Dulles had the stature and the clout to assure a man like LBJ that the plot had the high-level support it needed to be successful.

Howard Hunt was fully aware of the seating arrangements at the Washington power table. He knew, in fact, that Dulles outranked Johnson in this rarefied circle. Hunt undoubtedly realized that the vice president might be a passive accessory, or even an active accomplice, in what would be the crime of the century. But Johnson was certainly not the mastermind. And yet, loyal to the end, even on his deathbed Hunt could not bring himself to name Dulles—that “remarkable man,” as Hunt once gushed, whom it had been his “honor” to serve.

In his memoir, Hunt engaged in a kind of sleight of hand, hypothesizing about the likely identities of the conspirators, as if he didn’t know for certain. But in his communications with Saint John, Hunt was more emphatic about the plotters. In addition to Harvey and Morales, the names David Atlee Phillips and Cord Meyer figured prominently in Hunt’s “speculations.”

Phillips was the CIA counterintelligence specialist who had worked closely with Hunt on the Guatemala coup and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Like Harvey and Morales, Phillips did not belong to the Ivy League elite. The Texas-born, roughly handsome, chain-smoking Phillips had been a nose gunner during World War II, not an OSS gentleman spy. After the war, he rambled around Latin America, trying his hand at acting and publishing before being recruited into the CIA. His covert work won the admiration of Helms, who made him chief of the agency’s Cuba operations after Harvey was whisked off to Rome to escape Bobby Kennedy’s wrath. In that position, Phillips was free to roam within the “yeasty” world of anti-Castro and anti-Kennedy ferment, as Senator Gary Hart later described it.

Meyer belonged to the agency’s Georgetown set. At Yale, he had dreamed of a writing career and—after returning from the war in the South Pacific, partly blinded by a Japanese grenade—he devoted himself for a time to the cause of world peace. But after he was initiated into the spy fraternity—where he fell under the spell of Jim Angleton—he became chief of the CIA’s culture war, secretly dispersing cash to the literary types whose ranks he once imagined joining. After his beautiful, artistic wife, Mary, left him, Meyer became an increasingly embittered Cold Warrior—and his disposition grew only gloomier when she became a mistress of JFK.

Hunt carefully refrained from naming Dulles in his confessions, but nearly every CIA official whom he implicated led directly to the Old Man. Dulles had recruited them or promoted them or given them the agency’s most delicate assignments. Meyer was particularly beholden to Dulles, who had saved his career in 1953, when Joe McCarthy tried to purge the agency of those agents who had once been youthful idealists. In the fall of 1963, during the weeks leading up to the Kennedy assassination, Meyer was a guest at Dulles’s home on more than one occasion—along with another important member of Angleton’s shop, Jim Hunt (no relation to Howard), and Angleton himself.

Howard Hunt might have been wary about joining a JFK plot managed by Bill Harvey. But if he knew that Allen Dulles was at the top of the chain of command, that would have instilled in him all the confidence he needed. Despite his coyness about his own role, some felt that Hunt had been much more than a “benchwarmer.” At one point, the CIA itself seemed poised to make Hunt the fall guy in the crime. In the 1970s, as congressional investigators inched uncomfortably close to some of the CIA’s most disturbing secrets, Hunt’s own colleagues seriously considered throwing him to the wolves.

In August 1978, as the House Select Committee on Assassinations entered the final stage of its probe, a former CIA official named Victor Marchetti published an eye-opening article in The Spotlight, a magazine put out by the right-wing Liberty Lobby whose pages often reflected the noxious views of the group’s eccentric founder, Willis Carto. Marchetti wrote that CIA officials had decided that if the assassinations committee crept too close to the truth, the agency was prepared to scapegoat Hunt and some of his sidekicks, such as Sturgis. “[Hunt’s] luck has run out, and the CIA has decided to sacrifice him to protect its clandestine services,” Marchetti wrote. “The agency is furious with Hunt for having dragged it publicly into the Nixon mess and for having blackmailed it after he was arrested. Besides, Hunt is vulnerable—an easy target as they say in the spy business. His reputation and integrity have been destroyed. . . . In the public hearings, the CIA will ‘admit’ that Hunt was involved in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. The CIA may go so far as to ‘admit’ that there were three gunmen shooting at Kennedy.”

Marchetti described this CIA plan as a classic “limited hangout” strategy—spy jargon for releasing some of the hidden facts, in order to distract the public from bigger, more explosive information. While The Spotlight was a sketchy publication, Marchetti himself had credibility. A former Soviet military specialist for the CIA, he had risen to become a special assistant to Helms before resigning in 1969 over disagreements with agency policy. In 1973, Marchetti wrote a critique of the agency, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, which the agency forced his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, to heavily censor. But Marchetti remained a CIA loyalist at heart, and he retained strong ties to the agency.

In the ensuing uproar over the Spotlight article, Hunt sued for defamation of character, insisting that he had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination, but he ultimately lost his court case. The Liberty Lobby’s attorney, famed JFK researcher Mark Lane, succeeded in convincing the jury that Hunt might indeed have been in Dallas, as his own son came to believe.

During the trial, Lane uncovered the surprising identities of Marchetti’s sources: Jim Angleton and William Corson, a former Marine officer who had served with Dulles’s son in Korea and later worked for the spymaster. Marchetti was clearly a conduit for the deep rumblings from within Langley. His article was a fascinating window into the CIA’s organizational psychology during a period of the agency’s greatest distress.

Marchetti himself was troubled by the unanswered questions swirling around the Kennedy assassination. “This is a thing in my mind that is not 100 percent certain—there is that two to three percent that remains open,” he said. And much of Marchetti’s suspicion focused on Hunt. “He might have been down there [in Dallas] for some other reason, but . . . who knows?” Some of the evidence about Hunt that came out during the Liberty Lobby trial, added Marchetti, “was just very, very strange.”

As the CIA prepared its “limited hangout” strategy on the Kennedy assassination, Hunt was not the only officer considered “expendable” by the agency. Bill Harvey, too, felt that he was being hung out to dry when he was subpoenaed by the Church Committee to testify about the CIA’s assassination plots against foreign leaders. Word circulated in Washington that Harvey had gone “rogue.” Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, it was whispered, he had gone off the rails during his exploits in the espionage wilderness—his thinking had become unsound. Harvey was very familiar with the CIA’s character assassination machinery, and he now found himself a target of it: he had never been one of the Fifth Avenue cowboys, and now they were turning on him. Long after he was gone, Harvey’s family still resented the CIA high command for how they had treated him. They “threw him under the bus,” in the words of his daughter, Sally.

Harvey’s widow, CG, was bitterly aware of the CIA class system. “Bill always had very good opportunities for travel and learning,” she said, still defending her late husband against the agency prejudices. “And for these people to turn up their noses and say that Bill was from nothing, just because he graduated in law school at Indiana University, always made me feel that they were jealous and that they really couldn’t carry his briefcase when it came to intelligence. . . . Bill gave his life to his country.”

All the stories that came spilling out of the agency about Harvey’s wild ways—his love of guns, his fondness for birdbath-size martinis, his eruptions of black fury at the Kennedys—they were all meant to show that he was the type who could blow his top and do anything. But Harvey’s consistently glowing CIA fitness reports tell a different story. There was nothing rogue about Bill Harvey in these pages—he was portrayed as a dedicated and highly valued professional. Even after Harvey had enraged Bobby Kennedy with his Cuban antics, he continued to win enthusiastic reviews from his superiors. “It is difficult to prepare a fitness report on this outstanding officer, largely because forms do not lend themselves to measuring his many unique characteristics,” began Harvey’s October 1962 report, which cited his “professional knowledge . . . toughness of mind and firmness of attitude.” Harvey, the report concluded, “is one of the few distinctly outstanding officers” in the CIA’s action arm.

Likewise, after the violently inclined Harvey alarmed F. Mark Wyatt, his Rome deputy, so severely that Wyatt asked to be transferred home, Harvey’s performance continued to be rated “outstanding” by agency officials. Harvey’s March 1965 report commended “his determination to accomplish his basic objectives regardless of the obstacles which he encounters.” The Rome station “must be guided with a strong hand,” the report continued, “which Mr. Harvey is well able to supply.” Dick Helms had sent Wyatt to Rome to help keep an eye on Harvey. But when Wyatt was recalled to Langley and told Helms about the extreme methods that Harvey was employing in Rome, the CIA did nothing to discipline Harvey. Instead, it was Wyatt who found his career stalled.

Harvey always vehemently denied that he was a reckless maverick. Testifying before the Church Committee, he insisted that he had never done anything that was “unauthorized, freewheeling or in any way outside the framework of my responsibilities and duties as an officer of the agency.” The truly alarming thing is that Harvey was probably telling the truth. But the men who had authorized his extreme actions were quite willing for him to take the blame. Like Hunt, he was “an easy target” for the spymasters.

Bill Harvey and Howard Hunt both prided themselves on being part of the CIA’s upper tier. But that’s not how these men were viewed at the top of the agency. Hunt liked to brag that he had family connections to Wild Bill Donovan himself, who had admitted him into the OSS, the original roundtable of American intelligence. But it turned out that Hunt’s father was a lobbyist in upstate New York to whom Donovan owed a favor, not a fellow Wall Street lawyer. Everyone knew Hunt was a writer, but they also knew he was no Ian Fleming.

Hunt didn’t figure out how these men really saw him until it was much too late. “I thought—mistakenly—that I was dealing with honorable men,” he said near the end of his life.

To the Georgetown set, there would always be something low-rent about men like Hunt—as well as Harvey and Morales. The CIA was a cold hierarchy. Men like this would never be invited for lunch with Dulles at the Alibi Club or to play tennis with Dick Helms at the Chevy Chase Club. These men were indispensable—until they became expendable.

Hunt, Harvey, and Morales were among the expendable men sent to Dallas in November 1963. But the most expendable of all was a young ex-marine with a perplexing past named Lee Harvey Oswald.

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