Who Killed Kennedy?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 18 September 2018

To even pose the question is, for most of us, to be already well-advanced down the road of madness that leads to saying the U.S. federal government murdered President John F. Kennedy. Dr. David Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas (2008) rejects such vast conspiracy theories, as it does the notion of Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone killer. Kaiser instead argues for a more limited conspiracy, led by the mob bosses of mid-20th century America, and originating in the grey-zone where that world met the Cuban exile community and the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to bring down Fidel Castro.

THE NETWORK

Most of the book consists of a detailed history of U.S. policy toward Cuba after Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, and the intersection with U.S. organised crime. It is a very useful—and, unlike the later part of the book, uncontroversial—historical rendering with a dizzying cast of characters. I’ve confined the detail in the body of this post to the minimum needed to grasp the narrative; those interested can dig through the footnotes or better yet the book itself for more.

Kaiser brings into focus several key figures. Primary among them is Santo Trafficante Jr., the mob boss of northern Florida who had owned several casinos in Havana before Castro took over. Trafficante, along with Johnny Roselli, the representative of the Chicago mob in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the leader of the Chicago mob Sam Giancana, and it seems Carlos Marcello of New Orleans were recruited by the CIA in September 1960 to eliminate Castro, a month after President Dwight Eisenhower gave the order to get rid of the Cuban dictator.[1] The CIA-Mafia assassination efforts against Castro continued after Kennedy was sworn into office in January 1961, with the President’s knowledge.[2]

Other key players in this network were John Martino and Loran Hall, both in the employ of Trafficante and who had worked together on anti-Castro schemes. Martino served as Trafficante’s link to the anti-Castro Cubans in the Miami area. For Kaiser, Hall provides crucial evidence linking Oswald to this criminal network and for probably Kaiser’s most controversial claim: that Oswald’s apparent Communism was a ruse intended to discredit the Communist cause.[3] (Oswald had only recently returned from the Soviet Union, and the KGB was well-aware of how that looked, so it launched a vast disinformation operation, including underwriting the first wave of conspiracy theorists, pinning Kennedy’s killing on militant anti-Communists and the CIA.[4]) Kaiser also delineates ties between Oswald and Marcello.

After Castro’s takeover of Cuba, Trafficante was imprisoned: he shared a cell with Hall and was, says Kaiser, visited by Jack Ruby, the killer of Oswald on 24 November 1963, two days after Kennedy was murdered. Ruby had grown up with, and remained in contact with, Giancana’s syndicate—indeed Ruby’s vast volume of calls to some of Giancana’s men in the months before the assassination is one of the pieces of evidence Kaiser points to tying Giancana to the conspiracy—and Ruby’s strip club was in Dallas, a subsidiary territory of the New Orleans-based Marcello.

In the background is Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters Union boss in Detroit.

It was this network, argues Kaiser, that led the plot to kill Kennedy,[5] for reasons described below.

Marcello is known to have bragged about assassinating Kennedy at least twice.[6] Martino seems to have had advanced knowledge of the plot to kill Kennedy and confessed his role to three different people in the years afterward.[7]

Almost all of these men met violent ends within a short space of time in the mid-1970s, when the Congressional committees—notably the Senate “Church Committee” and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA)—began uncovering the CIA’s covert intrigue against Castro, something the original Warren Commission, published in September 1964, had been wholly oblivious to.[8] Kaiser’s findings closely follow HSCA’s.

The evidence directly implicating anti-Castro Cubans is faint, by Kaiser’s reckoning. The two most visible names are Sandalio Herminio Diaz, who was killed in Cuba in an anti-Castro raid in March 1966, and Eladio del Valle, an elected official in the Batista regime and subsequent associate of Trafficante’s, found savagely murdered in Miami in February 1967. Tony Cuesta, arrested as part of the raid into Cuba with Diaz and imprisoned for ten years, identified Diaz and Del Valle as part of the conspiracy against Kennedy, placing them in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Some have theorised that they were meant to kill Oswald after the deed and/or that one or both of them were additional shooters in the Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was assassinated.

The presence of a second shooter from “the grassy knoll” is obviously one of the most contested aspects of the Kennedy case. Kaiser finds the evidence of a second shooter plausible, and says there are hints from some of the recordings of a third. But the evidence is inconclusive and will likely remain so. Kaiser also notes that it is largely irrelevant: only shots fired by Oswald struck the President.[9]

MOTIVE

Put simply, Kaiser’s argument is that the network that killed Kennedy effectively consists of two wings: organised crime and anti-Castro Cubans, who were part of a “much broader nationwide network of right-wing activists, anti-Communists operating privately or within congressional committees, conservative businessmen like William Pawley and H. L. Hunt, and a few paramilitaries like the Minutemen.” Kaiser stresses his view that the whole network was not consciously involved in the plot against Kennedy.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy had initiated an “unprecedented, all-out out effort to put the American mob out of business”, Kaiser writes, and this provoked their ire. Notably, Robert Kennedy undertook “intensive surveillance and harassment” of Giancana in Chicago and Trafficante in Tampa and Miami, plus “a three-year effort to deport Carlos Marcello” and an unceasing war with Jimmy Hoffa, trying to put him behind bars on any offence available. Hoffa used the Teamsters pension fund to provide loans to Giancana, Marcello, and Trafficante. Hoffa also shared a lawyer, Frank Ragano, with Trafficante.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration’s unwillingness to properly commit to the Bay of Pigs landing, Kennedy’s failure to invade Cuba during the missile crisis in October 1962, the more selective support for anti-Castroites, particularly favouring the Left-wingers whom Castro had purged after the revolution against Batista, and the greater secrecy around the anti-Castro operations convinced many conservative Cubans that the administration was not serious about overthrowing Communism in Cuba, or if it was it meant to replace Castro with somebody very similar. Castro’s continued rule, when combined with the rest of Kennedy’s record—the disastrous first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, the irresolute response to the Soviets building the Berlin Wall, and the non-interventionist stance when a Communist insurrection broke out in Laos—alienated many more conservatives and incited the darkest fantasies in more extreme anti-Communist circles.

In Kaiser’s telling, the aims of those who planned to kill President Kennedy were: (1) to alleviate the governmental pressure against the mob; and (2) to provoke an invasion of Cuba that toppled Fidel Castro.

Kaiser places the decision to kill Kennedy in May 1963, when Hoffa, through Ragano (the lawyer he shared with Trafficante), gave a green light to Trafficante and Marcello “to execute the contract on President Kennedy”. Ragano later testified to delivering this message and claimed Trafficante had admitted his involvement in murdering Kennedy.[10]

The mob usually considered incorruptible government officials off-limits, according to Kaiser, but Kennedy was not considered in that category. John Kennedy had accepted Judith Campbell Exner, simultaneously the mistress of Giancana, as a favour through Frank Sinatra (a close associate of Giancana’s), and she was hardly the only one. Robert Kennedy had used methods outside the old rules in his crusade against the mob. That the Kennedy administration had enlisted these very gangsters in the anti-Castro schemes “inevitably weakened any inhibition about killing a head of government”, argues Kaiser.[11]

Kaiser contends that the reason the plotters did not go after Robert Kennedy was that they understood that killing him, and leaving in place an enraged brother-President, would not end well for them. But killing John Kennedy would bring to office Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who hated Robert Kennedy and would thus certainly remove him. Simply having an Attorney General that was not Robert Kennedy would lessen the pressure on the mob.

The problem for the second part of this scheme was that LJB was known as a “dove” on the Cuba question: he had opposed the operations to kill Castro. The plotters therefore intended to disappear and liquidate Oswald, Kaiser writes, spreading the story that he has taken a plane out of the country to Cuba, inciting American public opinion to a point that LBJ could not resist the pressure to crush Castro.[12]

The organised criminals effectively got what they wanted, Kaiser concludes, though the anti-Castroites evidently did not.[13] Oswald fell into the hands of the law, necessitating the Ruby hit. LBJ, with his disinclination to aggressively seek Castro’s ouster, was sworn in.[14]

CONCLUSION

Many hundreds of books have been written arguing for a conspiracy in the Kennedy killing, obviously. The novelty with The Road to Dallas is that it is published by Harvard University Press and is, if Kaiser says it for himself, “the first one written by a professional historian who has researched the available archives.”

It has to be said that, in isolation, and to a reader unfamiliar with the case, Kaiser’s thesis comes off as plausible, not least because—without the long trail of irresponsible and sensationalist nonsense—the idea that a conspiracy, i.e. a network, was behind the Kennedy assassination, would seem not only plausible but probable. The true “lone wolf” is very rare, after all.

There are severe and convincing critics of the book. Doubtless there will be defenders, too. A contest that has lasted this long isn’t going to end any time soon.

 

 

 

 

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Notes

[1] Eisenhower’s decision to assassinate Castro came near-simultaneous with similar decisions about the Soviet-aligned ruler of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and the savage dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. Lumumba was killed in January and Trujillo in May 1961; the exact role of the CIA is contested in both cases.

In the case Cuba, Kaiser explains, CIA Director Allen Dulles gave the order to his Deputy Director for Plans Richard M. Bissell Jr. to recruit mob figures who lost out because of the Castro revolution, and who had moved their network’s base of operations to Florida and Louisiana, to take part in the counterrevolution. Bussell turned to Sheffield Edwards, the director of the Office of Security, and Edwards in turn went to Robert Maheu, an ex-FBI agent and private investigator who had been on a small retainer from the CIA since 1954 and whose case officer was James P. O’Connell.

Maheu, acting as a cut-out for the CIA, went first to Roselli, through Roselli to Giancana, and through Giancana to Trafficante, though Trafficante’s role—key to the scheme, as the man with such wide-ranging connections in Cuba and among Cubans—was hidden from O’Connell and might well have been hidden even from Maheu. Giancana had said firearms were out of the question since nobody could be expected to survive such an assault, so the first CIA-Mafia plots in late 1960 revolved around trying to get poisons into Castro’s food or drink.

Roselli also appears to have brought Marcello into the scheme in January 1961: there was a meeting in Miami and Marcello, whose links to Cuba went back a decade running guns and drugs to the island, seems to have tried to hire an assassin using the CIA money provided to Roselli.

This initial assassination plot run by Edwards was also connected, as Kaiser elaborates, through the sole channel of Bissell, to the then-impending Bay of Pigs invasion, being overseen in Guatemala by a CIA task force chief, Jacob Esterline. The assassination plot failed when Juan Orta, effectively Castro’s private secretary and the man scheduled to deliver the poison, was reassigned on 26 January 1961. All attempts to find another delivery mechanism failed, as did the Bay of Pigs operation, defeated in three days between 17 and 20 April 1961.

Notably, “This elaborate scheme was not … the only CIA assassination plot against Castro before the Bay of Pigs or the only attempt by the mob to bring Castro down”, Kaiser writes. “Indications of at least half a dozen others have surfaced”, some using U.S. diplomatic facilities and others supported from Guantanamo Bay. “What is not clear is whether any or all of these infiltrations were completely separate plots or whether Roselli was involved in arranging them. … The CIA was aware of at least one other plot at the time.”

[2] Kaiser is clear that President Kennedy was aware of the CIA’s assassination plots against Castro, but is rather coy about exactly how much he knew. A rather more exact indication is given in Brian Latell’s Castro’s Secrets (2012): Robert Kennedy was so intimately involved in the schemes against Castro that he was assigned a codename, “GPFOCUS”, in order that he could be referred to in Agency memoranda and cables. Bobby Kennedy communicated with Mafia leaders through an intermediary, Charlie Ford (a.k.a. Rocky Fiscalini), and was frequently at events for anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida. “Bobby’s outsize role [in the assassination plots] was no secret in Miami, Havana, or Langley”, writes Latell, and everyone understood he was “the president’s alter ego, his most trusted confidant and advisor”. Every Kennedy administration official agrees that Bobby was no freelancer: he operated only at the behest of, and in full coordination with, his brother.

In some ways, President Kennedy had relied less on the Mafia than Eisenhower in the war with Castro, but this was by degrees. The Kennedy administration dropped Sam Giancana from its anti-Castro operations in April 1962, though this was mostly because of an episode in late 1960 where Giancana had tried to carry out an illegal wiretap on a girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire, he suspected was being unfaithful. That Giancana had bragged in the same period bragged to Phyllis and her sister, Christine McGuire, about his efforts to poison Castro, and this got back to the FBI through an informant, greatly annoying the CIA. The CIA continued to work through Roselli, and he continued to involve Santo Trafficante, though how much and who knew about Trafficante on all sides remains unclear. As part of the terms under which the Cuban missile crisis was ended, President Kennedy ordered a halt to “all sabotage operations” on 30 October 1962, and Operation MONGOOSE was formally disbanded. The CIA did not cease working with the mob and Cuban exiles on anti-Castro plots after this, but there was significantly less official support, and those two factions felt—and resented—this decrease. What the mob and anti-Castro Cubans did not know, which might have lessened their anger, was that efforts against Castro continued at the highest levels, with the CIA believing it had an agent at the top of the Castro regime, Rolando Cubela. Robert Kennedy took an intimate interest in the Cubela operation; it was planned to result in a coup around the time JFK was killed.

[3] Kaiser relies heavily on the so-called “Odio incident”—indeed he opens the book with it. It is, says Kaiser, the episode that “definitively ties Oswald to anti-Castro Cubans” and by extension this larger network of Mafiosos and Right-wing extremists.

The incident refers to a visit made by three men to Silvia Odio, daughter of a prominent political prisoner in Cuba, in Dallas “in late September or early October, 1963”, as Odio told the FBI. There were two Cubans and a white-skinned American, whom Odio insists was Oswald. One of Odio’s visitors was Loran Hall, who, Odio says, remarked in a follow-up call that “Leon”—the American Odio is convinced was Oswald—was competent enough and crazy enough to kill Castro if they could get him into Cuba, adding that for that matter “Leon” might be willing to take a shot at the President, as Cubans should because of his betrayal of their cause.

When questioned about this visit by the FBI, Hall said that he, Lawrence Howard, and William Seymour had visited Odio, then retracted the story altogether. Kaiser makes the case that Hall, Howard, and Oswald were the visitors to Odio that night, which the Warren Commission placed on 25 September 1963. There is non-definitive evidence that Oswald was in Houston, at the home of Horace Twiford, a member of the Texas Socialist Labour Party, on the 25th. Kaiser suggests that the actual date of this incident was 3 October, the evening Oswald returns to Dallas from Mexico City. By that time, it is known that Kennedy is going to be in Dallas.

Odio was a member of the Cuban Revolutionary Junta (JURE), led by Manuel Ray Rivero, one of the more Leftist anti-Castroites favoured by the Kennedy administration. Hall believed JURE was a Communist group and had said so to gatherings of the John Birch Society in California; a widespread conspiracy theory among anti-Castro activists was that President Kennedy planned to replace Castro with another Communist so he could claim to have dealt with the Cuba problem, while still abetting Soviet Communism. (This was common from the Birchers, whose leader, Robert Welch, had said President Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”.) As well as trying to solicit support for anti-Castro efforts, Kaiser suggests Hall was trying to gather information.

By placing Oswald in Hall’s company at Odio’s home, Kaiser builds a case for seeing Oswald’s trip to Mexico City, where he arrives on 27 September 1963, visiting both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, trying to obtain a visa to Cuba, as yet another effort by the mob to kill Castro. (Oswald’s contact with Valery Kostikov at the Soviet Embassy has long attracted attention because Kostikov was not only a KGB officer but a member of Department Thirteen, responsible for “direct action”, namely sabotage and assassinations. As it happens, there is considerable doubt Kostikov was in Department Thirteen.)

Oswald told the diplomats (and covert spies) in both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies that he wanted to defect to Castro’s paradise. Kaiser documents that the Embassy officials seem to have acted as if something was not right. Their reasons are understandable. As well as being wary of all walk-ins, Oswald had arrived with various paraphernalia to prove his support for the cause, while the Mexican government’s stern anti-Communism meant comrades rarely had anything on them that indicated Communist affiliations. Additionally, American Communist wanting to get to Cuba could join or at least contact the CPUSA, which could easily arrange a visa.

Kaiser argues that Oswald had been drawn into the Mafia-led network by August 1962, when he subscribed from Dallas to The Worker, the CPUSA bi-weekly, and The Militant of the Socialist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist outfit. That Oswald subscribed to these two rival organs simultaneously is “suspicious”, says Kaiser, though John McAdams’ critique of Kaiser makes an equally plausible case that the “naïve and idiosyncratic nature of Oswald’s ideological commitments is further evidence of their sincerity”: someone trained as an agent provocateur is unlikely to have “acted as if he were oblivious to the hatred between Stalinists and Trotskyites”.

In a similar vein, Kaiser says Oswald’s activism with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) was a provocation. The Committee was a Communist front, funded by Castro. Oswald set up freelance, one-man chapter using the FPCC name in New Orleans. Oswald’s FPCC agitation, about which he wrote constant letters to the head of the Tampa chapter of FPCC Vincent Lee (V.T. Lee), attracted local and national attention in August 1963. Oswald was arrested on 9 August after a confrontation with Carlos Bringuier, an anti-Castro Cuban with the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE), and later debated the matter of the Cuban revolution on the Bill Stuckey Radio Show. Oswald argued Castro’s case and made a statement of his own Marxism when the national television networks arrived. This, argues Kaiser, associated FPCC with Communism and was the point. The fact that Oswald went out for a drink with Stuckey after the show and seemed relieved, after such a devastating propagandistic defeat, adds to the evidence that Oswald was engaged in a deception operation, Kaiser contends.

Brian Latell in Castro’s Secrets (2012) makes the exact reverse case: that Oswald was a true-believing Communist and supporter of Fidel Castro, who had tried to infiltrate Bringuier’s group in New Orleans—as indeed Oswald had, presenting himself at Bringuier’s store as a militant anti-Castroite on 5 August 1963 and returning the next day, before beginning his public FPCC activism in the middle of the month.

Kaiser himself offers evidence in this direction. When Oswald appeared on the Stuckey show on 17 August, he insisted FPCC advocated for independence, not Communism, in Cuba; denied Castro was a Communist; criticised Soviet imperialism, specifically the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956; and even distanced himself from Castro “the man”: “We do not support the individual. We support the idea of an independent revolution in the Western Hemisphere, free from American intervention.” When Oswald returned to the Stuckey show on 21 August to debate with Bringuier and Edward Butler, a McCarthy-supporting anti-Communist quite possibly consciously engaged in a COINTELPRO operation against FPCC, he walked into an ambush. Stuckey had been passed—probably by someone in Congress or the intelligence community—information on Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union, among other things. Oswald said his time behind the Iron Curtain meant he had “excellent qualifications to repudiate the charges that Cuba and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee is Communist controlled”.

Latell agrees that Oswald’s behaviour in Mexico was bizarre, and that Cuban spies would undoubtedly have suspected a CIA provocation, especially when Oswald shouted about his intention to kill Kennedy, an echo of a remark Fidel Castro had made on 7 September 1963 to The Associated Press (“United States leaders should know that if they are aiding plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe”.) But in some ways this adds to the mystery, says Latell: this would have made the Cubans more keen to find out who Oswald was, which would have led to the KGB files and such matters were of interest to Castro personally, casting doubt on his later claims to have no idea who Oswald was. Jack Childs’ report of meeting Castro in 1964, and being regaled by the dictator with the story of Oswald’s visit to the Mexico Embassy, was deemed credible by the FBI.

One incident that severely undermines Kaiser’s thesis that Oswald is a provocateur—and which he deals with in a singularly unconvincing fashion—is Oswald’s attempt, in April 1963, to kill General Edwin Walker, who was sacked by President Kennedy for trying to indoctrinate troops under his command with John Birch Society materials. If Oswald is a Communist, there is no mystery here. But Kaiser, says, “Why Oswald decided to go after Walker is not entirely clear”, and hints at a possible set-up so the anti-Communists could gain sympathy.

[4] Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959, declaring his loyalty to the Communist system. He came back to America in June 1962, with his Russian wife Marina Prusakova and their child. It does seem—from some of the remarks he made to various people in 1962 and 1963 about the dismal state of some aspects of the Soviet Empire—that Oswald experience some genuine disillusionment. This has little bearing on whether his public enthusiasm for the Castro regime was genuine.

As Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew explain in The Sword and the Shield (pp. 225-30), Oswald was suspected of being a CIA agent when he landed in the Soviet Union and of being a KGB agent when he returned to the United States. The KGB, however, quickly concluded he was “an unstable nuisance”, and the FBI came to much the same conclusion.

After Oswald killed Kennedy, the Mitrokhin Archive shows that the KGB initiated an active measures campaign, blaming a Right-wing conspiracy around Texan oil millionaire H.L. Hunt for Kennedy’s murder, a story the KGB seems to have believed and convinced Nikita Khrushchev of. The KGB also financed the first wave of conspiracy theorists, notably Joachim Joesten and Mark Lane, elaborating on the theme of a plot by racist business tycoons, and adding to it the involvement of the CIA.

The KGB then picked up the notion of U.S. intelligence being involved and included it in its active measures, circulating a skilfully forged letter from Oswald to E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer who ended up embroiled in Watergate. The letter purported to be dated two weeks before the assassination, “asking for information … before any steps are taken”. Thus, Oliver Stone was channelling—as so often—Soviet active measures in a very concentrated form with his 1991 film JFK.

That a probable majority of Americans believed some version of the Hunt-CIA conspiracy theory by the late 1970s was something for which the KGB gave itself credit. In fact, other events probably had more impact.

The decision of the CIA to withhold information on its anti-Castro plots from the Warren Commission and the revelations of these plots, among other things, by the Church Committee, promoted the idea of a “rogue” intelligence apparatus, and the KGB capitalised. The reality was that while Congress didn’t know about many of these operations, particularly the assassinations of foreign leaders, the President did because he had ordered them.

The FBI also ended up looking shady because of J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to prevent evidence of his bureaucracy’s incompetence becoming public. Oswald had not been added to the list of disloyal citizens, even after sending a threatening letter to the FBI and meeting Soviet spies in Mexico. The FBI had failed, too, to identify Oswald as the man who shot at General Walker.

[5] Eisenhower was unwilling to simply revive the Platt Amendment and invade Cuba directly to topple Castro. Instead, writes Kaiser, the Eisenhower administration “expanded and solidified networks of Cuban exiles, mobsters, and right-wing Americans. Prodded by businessmen like William Pawley and Robert Kleberg, the administration and the CIA launched a multi-front war on Castro, including the training of an exile invasion force, attempts to enlarge the Cuban underground, a propaganda war, and several assassination attempts.”

The U.S. worked mainly through leaders around Carlos Prio Socarras, who had been overthrown by Batista in 1952, and the more Left-wing anti-Castroites like Manuel Artime, Manuel Ray, and Pedro Diaz Lanz, who had been purged by Fidel soon after the revolution. But “Batistianos”, strictly shunned by official Washington, men “like Rolando Masferrer, Jose Rubio Padilla, and Orlando Piedra were operating either independently or with the help of Americans like Pawley, Washington mob-connected lobbyist Irving Davidson, and many more”, Kaiser explains.

By 1963, the network the CIA had a hand in creating—Roselli, Giancana, Trafficante, and Marcello, with others in their orbit like Russel Bufalino (the Pennsylvania mob boss closely tied to Hoffa) and Norman Rothmann (a former casino owner in Havana, subsequently running a hotel in Miami, working alongside Trafficante and assisting Marcello with the drugs trade)—had “developed the capability of acting on its own, in its own interests, and for its own reasons”, Kaiser argues.

[6] In February 1989, Kaiser writes, while in Texarkana prison, in Texas, Marcello “was admitted to the prison medical facility for dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and disorientation. During the next three days he suffered from the delusion that he was back home in New Orleans, and he began speaking to his attendants as though they were trusted associates. He discussed a meeting he had just held with ‘Provenzano’ in New York, he suggested that his men visit a night club, and he spoke of an imminent celebration. And on three occasions during a two-day period Marcello remarked, ‘That Kennedy, that smiling motherfucker, we’ll fix him in Dallas … we are going to get that Kennedy in Dallas.’ On March 7 the FBI officially reopened the case and began monitoring Marcello’s mail and phone calls in the new facility to which he was transferred in Minneapolis.”

Marcello was eventually interviewed by the FBI about the Kennedy assassination. The summary reads: “Marcello was advised that in December, 1985, a conversation was overheard in which Marcello stated that he (Marcello) had had John Kennedy killed, that he was not sorry about it, and his only regret was that he (Marcello) did not kill Kennedy himself.” Marcello, of course, denied it, and was released soon after, dying a free man in 1993.

[UPDATE] Kaiser correctly surmised that for Marcello to be asked a question that specific, there had to be an informant. The informant’s name was Jack Ronald Van Laningham. Speaking on 4 March 1986, Van Laningham reported that on 15 December 1985, in the courtyard at Texarkana, he was talking to Marcello, who gave vent to “his intense dislike of former President John Kennedy, as he often did. Unlike other such tirades against Kennedy, however, on this occasion Carlos Marcello said, referring to President Kennedy, ‘Yeah, I had the son of a bitch killed. I’m glad I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it myself’.” The FBI noted that Van Laningham had “provided reliable information in the past”.

Another FBI informant used against Marcello, Joseph Hauser, heard the mob boss say: “Oswald? I used to know his [expletive] family. His uncle [Charles ‘Dutz’ Murret], he work for me. The kid work for me to. He worked for Sam outta his place downtown … The feds came … askin’ about him, but my people didn’t tell ‘em nothin’. Like we never heard of the guy.” Murret did work as a bookmaker for Marcello, but Murret also strongly disapproved of his nephew, especially after he heard him on the radio in New Orleans defending Castro. Hauser was also used against Marcello’s brother, Joseph. During the 1980 campaign, with Edward Kennedy competing against President Carter, Hauser asked about the way the Kennedys had pressured the Marcello enterprise back in the 1960s, and Joseph Marcello said: “Don’t worry, we took care of them, didn’t we?” [UPDATE ENDS]

[7] Martino’s visited Dallas on 27 October 1963 for reasons never explained. “Sometime in the next few weeks,” says Kaiser, “Martino was watching the television news with his family when the newscaster referred to President Kennedy’s trip to Texas. ‘If he goes to Dallas,’ Martino remarked, ‘they are going to kill him’. After the assassination, Martino led an effort to exploit Kennedy’s death by linking Oswald to Fidel Castro in an attempt to provoke an invasion of Cuba.” Martino, inter alia, got in contact with FBI agent James O’Connor and told him Oswald was a Castro agent.

Martino confessed to his wife and son, Edward, who had been kept off school on the day of the assassination and asked to inform his father if there was any news. Edward said later, when news of the assassination came in, “my father went white as a sheet. But it wasn’t like ‘Gee whiz.’ It was more like confirmation.” Martino confessed to John Cummings of Newsday in 1975. “He told me he’d been part of the assassination of Kennedy,” Cummings said. “He wasn’t in Dallas pulling the trigger, but he was involved. He implied that his role was delivering money, facilitating things. He asked me not to write it while he was alive.” And Martino told a similar story to, Fred Claasen, his business partner, also in 1975. Claasen told HSCA: “The anti-Castro people put Oswald together. Oswald didn’t know who he was working for … Oswald was to meet his contact at the Texas Theatre … and [they were going to] get him out of the country, then eliminate him. Oswald made a mistake. There was no way we could get to him. They had Ruby kill him.”

[8] Even before the mid-1970s spree of “suspicious” deaths, there was the February 1967 suicide of David Ferrie, a close associate of Marcello’s, involved in the anti-Castro plots. Ferrie, who originally tried to join the Catholic priesthood, had been dismissed from a Cuban counter-revolutionary organisation because of his homosexuality and lost his job at the Civil Air Patrol after being charged with sex crimes against young boys. When Jim Garrison, the New Orleans attorney portrayed by Kevin Costner in JFK (1991), re-opened the Kennedy investigation in late 1966, Ferrie was one of the names Garrison stumbled over, placing him at the centre of a CIA-led conspiracy around Clay Shaw. Garrison grotesque publicity stunt concluded by bringing criminal charges against Shaw in 1969, a travesty of a legal case. Worse: Garrison wilfully ignored any line of inquiry that led to Marcello, whose payroll he was on.

Giancana was shot dead in his kitchen on 19 June 1975, just before he was to testify to the Church Committee. Hoffa disappeared on 30 July 1975. Martino died, seemingly of a heart attack, on 3 August 1975, having never come to the attention of the Church Committee. Roselli testified to Congress in April 1976 and connected Trafficante to the assassination plots against Castro. Roselli went missing on 27 July 1976 and his body was found in an oil drum on 9 August. Oswald’s old friend George de Mohrenschildt, a “White Russian” CIA asset once involved in a plot to overthrow “Papa Doc” Duvalier to avoid Haiti falling to a Communist revolution, killed himself with a shotgun on 29 March 1977, shortly after getting a call to appear at HSCA. The fallen Cuban president, Carlos Prío Socarrás, who had numerous links with Trafficante and was a financier of many mob plots against Castro, died of a gunshot wound to the head on 5 April 1977, allegedly a suicide, a week before he was to appear before HSCA.

In April 1977, writes Kaiser, “a National Enquirer reporter named A. J. Weberman telephoned Loran Hall in California and recorded the conversation. Hall was hostile, profane, and apparently drunk, and his wife could be heard in the background urging him to terminate the conversation at once. ‘[Gerry Patrick] Hemming is a CIA punk, OK?’ said Hall, when asked about his old companion. ‘I’ve known the SOB for fourteen years. He turned his own goddamn crews in so he wouldn’t have to go to Cuba. He’s fingered me on my own goddamn deals and caused me to get arrested.’ Then, however, Hall spontaneously dropped something more revealing. ‘Hey, man. Right as it stands right now, there’s only two of us left alive. That’s me and Santo Trafficante. And as far as I’m concerned, we’re both going to stay alive, because I ain’t going to say shit’.”

As it happens, Trafficante and Hall would die of natural causes, in 1987 and 1995, respectively, as would Marcello, in 1993.

[9] Kaiser’s full view is:

Ruby’s role in eliminating Oswald, the Odio incident, and statements by John Martino and his son Edward, along with the testimony of Dr. [Homer] Wood and his son Sterling [who saw Oswald practicing at a shooting range] and that of the car salesman Albert K. Bogard [who met Oswald in November 1963 and found Oswald expecting to soon receive a large sum of money], are probably the most powerful direct pieces of evidence that the assassination of President Kennedy came about through a conspiracy. Some of them tie the assassination to the much broader web of circumstantial evidence involving organized crime, anti-Castro Cubans, and, more tangentially, extreme conservatives and right-wing organizations who were in close touch with Martino and Hall. …

During the second half of 1978, as it wound up its work, the HSCA enlisted the help of experts in evaluating tape recordings made at Dallas police headquarters on November 22, 1963. After analyzing the original recordings and then re-recording shots from two locations in Dallas, three experts … concluded that the open microphone of a motorcycle policeman had recorded corded at least four shots during the assassination itself, and that there was a 95% probability that one of the shots had been fired from the grassy knoll to the right front of the motorcade. …

Then [in 1982], a panel of the National Research Council (NRC), assisted by a tip from an independent researcher, concluded [the reverse].

In 2001 another independent researcher, Donald Thomas, published a paper … [which] concluded that the key impulses [on the recording] had in fact occurred at the time of the assassination and that they did represent three shots from the TSBD [Texas School Book Depository] and one from the grassy knoll. He also hypothesized that the impulses showed a fifth shot or “rogue” shot of unknown origin, one that the original HSCA panel had dismissed.

Regardless, Kaiser adds:

My argument—that Oswald shot and killed President Kennedy at the behest of organized crime, and specifically of Santo Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, John Martino, and possibly Sam Giancana—does not depend on proof of a second shooter on the grassy knoll, or anywhere else. But a review of the acoustic evidence, in my opinion, does show that the findings of the HSCA experts simply cannot be reconciled with the findings of the NRC panel, and that only some new insight or technical evidence can put the controversy to rest.

[10] When Ragano first made his claims about passing along Hoffa’s message, in January 1992, he placed it a little earlier:

Ragano … told the New York Post the former Teamsters boss asked him to carry a message … in January or February 1963 … Jimmy [Hoffa] told me to tell Marcello and Trafficante they had to kill the president, Ragano told the Post. Hoffa said to me, This has to be done’.” The newspaper quoted Ragano saying he was chosen by Hoffa because he also represented Trafficante—insuring he would have attorney-client privilege with two of the three people allegedly involved. …

The 1979 final report of the Select House Committee on Assassinations concluded that Marcello, Trafficante and Hoffa had the motive, means and opportunity to kill the president. But the panel was unable to establish direct evidence of their complicity. …

After getting the word from Hoffa, Ragano said he met with the two mob bosses at a New Orleans hotel and delivered the message. “I told them, You wont believe what Hoffa wants me to tell you. Jimmy wants you to kill the president’. They didn’t laugh, Ragano said. They were dead serious. … Their looks scared me. It made me think they already had such a thought in their mind”.

Ragano said he and Trafficante had dinner the night of the Kennedy slaying, and the mob boss offered a ghoulish toast: The SOB is dead. Our problems are over. I hope Jimmy is happy now. … Were out of trouble now.

Two weeks later, Ragano said, he met with Marcello in New Orleans. The mob boss looked like the cat who ate the canary, Ragano said. He had a smug look on his face. He said, ‘Jimmy owes me and he owes me big’.

And in his 1994 book, Mob Lawyer, Ragano places the meeting later, on 23 July 1963, in Washington, D.C., where Hoffa said: “The time has come for your friend [Trafficante] and Carlos to get rid of him, kill that son-of-a-bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done. Be sure to tell them what I said. No more fucking around. We’re running out of time-something has to be done.” Ragano says he did not take the thing seriously but thought he had to pass it on, and did so when he met Trafficante and Marcello in New Orleans the next morning. Several days after the assassination, Ragano claims Hoffa said, “I told you they could do it. I’ll never forget what Carlos and Santos did for me.” Hoffa added: “This means Bobby is out as Attorney General”. Several weeks after that, according to Ragano, Marcello told him: “When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me, and he owes me big.” Ragano surmised that large transfers of the Teamsters pension fund that had been stalled made their way to Trafficante and Marcello.

In the early 1990s, “Ragano told John H. Davis, a Marcello biographer, that Marcello was ‘the central planner’ of the assassination, and that Trafficante and Hoffa supplied ‘the shooters’.”

Most of what Ragano says was judged by G. Robert Blakey, the Justice Department lawyer who led the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), to tally with the evidence HSCA discovered. HSCA had concluded that Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”; it ruled out “the national syndicate of organized crime, as a group” [italics added], while adding that “the available evidence does not preclude the possibility that individual members may have been involved”. That said, Ragano’s claims of a deathbed confession by Trafficante in March 1987 (“Carlos [Marcello] messed up. We shouldn’t have killed John. We should have killed Bobby.”) are almost certainly fabricated.

[UPDATE] During the HSCA hearings, Jose Aleman Jr., an FBI informant, said that he had heard Trafficante say in 1962 that President Kennedy was “not going to make it to the election. He is going to be hit. Mark my words, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him.” Aleman later recanted—saying Trafficante meant “hit” electorally in the 1964 Presidential Election. HSCA suspected Aleman had been intimidated into changing his story. Trafficante went on to say that Kennedy was corrupt and did not keep to a bargain.

In 1975, an FBI wiretap picked up Trafficante saying, in conversation with Marcello, “Now only two people are alive who know who killed Kennedy.” [UPDATE ENDS]

[11] There is certainly evidence that the mob felt Kennedy had broken a deal with them. The Mafia, Giancana in particular, gave themselves credit—wrongly, as Kaiser explains at length—for John Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 Presidential Election. The Mafia had then assisted in the schemes against Castro, only to be dropped. (Giancana was severed from the CIA’s anti-Castro program in April 1962 at the orders of Ricahard Helms, mostly because Giancana had tried to set up an illegal wiretap on his girlfriend Phyllis McGuire in late 1960 to ensure she was not having an affair while he was in Miami working with Maheu. Maheu was also cut, though it seems Roselli and Trafficante were not.) The mob felt on both the electoral and Castro fronts it had rendered services to Kennedy, and this was “repaid” by Robert Kennedy’s attempt to destroy their criminal empires. Not making good on debts—something Trafficante said explicitly about Kennedy in his conversations with Aleman—is a “crime” for which the Mafia’s penalty is notorious. The Judith Exner episode increased their sense that Kennedy was playing in the mob’s world and by their rules.

[12] Though Kaiser concedes that the evidence tying Roselli and Giancana—who were linked to each other, and Roselli to Trafficante—to the assassination plot against Kennedy is weaker than others, one very suggestive piece of evidence, says Kaiser, is Giancana’s role in the disinformation operation after the assassination to tie Oswald to Castro. Martino leads a lot of it, but Richard Cain, Giancana’s informant in the Sherriff’s office, went to the Chicago CIA Domestic Contacts Office on 29 November 1963, to tell them that the Fair Play for Cuba committee had discussed assassinating the President in February 1963. Cain had already given this story to a local journalist.

[UPDATE] According to his brother, Sam Giancana once remarked: “We took care of Kennedy. … The hit in Dallas was just like any other operation we’d worked on in the past.” There are doubts about the credibility of this story. [UPDATE ENDS]

[13] One fault in the book is the lack of attention given to how extremely Castro’s General Intelligence Directorate (DGI or G-2) had infiltrated the anti-Castroite forces. By the nature of the matter, evidence is going to be difficult to come, but the widespread DGI’s infiltration of the anti-Castro networks in the U.S. was and is, so to speak, a known unknown. It could have been stressed more in Kaiser’s book, not least because it can potentially affect his conclusion.

From Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the Cuban intelligence official who defected in 1987, it is known that every single one of the CIA’s four-dozen recruits over forty years in the Cuban system were double agents under DGI’s control. One apparent exception is Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, though there are doubts even about him. DGI’s infiltration of the Cuban exile population in America is vast in scale. Most anti-Castro outfits are compromised, and DGI pushes these groups to politically discredit themselves by acting hysterically, in rhetoric and occasionally in action. (DGI doesn’t do too badly at infiltrating the U.S. government, either.)

Kaiser alludes to this situation in passing a couple of times. For example, he introduces Rolando Cubela, a senior official in Castro’s regime and a purported CIA spy codenamed AM/LASH, who was believed to have been involved in the 1960-1 poisoning plots against the Maximum Leader. In July 1962, the CIA re-established contact with Cubela; there was discussion about defecting, but Cubela rejected it since “he would [then] become just another Miami exile”. Instead, Cubela said he had about half-a-dozen confederates that could be relied on to kill the Soviet ambassador and several senior regime officials, including Castro, triggering the collapse of the regime. But, said Cubela, the Cubans in Florida, New Orleans, and elsewhere must not be informed: “the exiles were hopelessly selfish and deeply penetrated by Castro’s agents”.

Cubela was quite right about the exiles, and he had every reason to know what Cuban intelligence was capable of. As documented in Brian Latell’s Castro’s Secrets (2012), Cubela, the CIA’s golden agent, was a dangle; under DGI’s control the whole time, passing every detail he could about the CIA’s anti-Castro efforts to Havana and feeding persistent disinformation about anti-Castro conspirators under his direction to Washington. On the eve of Kennedy’s assassination, the CIA believed Cubela was about to bring off a coup d’état. On 29 October 1963, CIA officer Desmond FitzGerald met with Cubela in Paris, presenting himself as Robert Kennedy’s personal representative. Cubela had asked to meet the Attorney General personally to get assurances that the U.S. would support his coup effort; that was judged too much of a risk. President Kennedy’s speech in Miami days before he arrived in Dallas was meant as encouragement to Cubela and his conspirators. Of course, no such plot was ever in the works. The only assurance from the Paris meeting was that Castro fully understood how much danger he was in, and that the efforts to kill him came directly from the top of the U.S. government.

Kaiser also spends some time on the case of Eduardo Perez Gonzales, better known as “Captain Eddie Bayo”, a revolutionary who worked alongside Castro and then fled the country and ostensibly joined the effort to bring down the dictator. In September 1962, Kaiser writes, Bayo claimed to have swum from Guantanamo into Cuba and detected a mass uprising in the offing; it needed U.S. support and Bayo tried to get a senior U.S. official to journey to Guantanamo to meet with the uprising’s leaders. Bayo was lying: he had not been back into Cuba and there was no uprising. Bayo seemed to be trying to lure the U.S. into an embarrassing fiasco that could be exploited by the Castro regime. Later that year, Bayo spread word that two Red Army officers in Cuba wanted to defect, and the “Bayo-Pawley raid” or Operation TILT was organised with deniable CIA help to pick them up. A small team—Bayo, businessman William Pawley, Rip Robertson, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and John Martino, plus journalist Richard Billings and photographer Terry Spencer of Life Magazine—landed in Cuba on 8 June 1963. There were no Soviet officers. The team left; Bayo remained behind. There were rumours Bayo had been executed by Castro, but no evidence was ever adduced, not even a report in the Cuban press, which would be expected as part of Castro’s propaganda.

Kaiser raises the possibility that Bayo was a DGI agent; it seems very likely. Unmentioned by Kaiser is that similar claims have been made about Eladio del Valle and those around him, albeit unsubstantiated. In Latell’s book, another episode he records is during the early poisoning plots, when CIA operative Bill Harvey relied on a senior Cuban official, Ramiro Valdés, putting pills designed by the CIA and smuggled onto the island by the Mafia into Castro’s milkshake. The plot unravelled when Valdés became aware that Castro’s secret police were fully aware of the plot and had been tracking it from the inside, likely from the start. Harvey reached a similar conclusion. DGI “knew more about the [Valdés] conspiracy than CIA itself did”, concludes Latell.

Activists like Carlos Bringuier have claimed that Castro was behind the assassination. A version of this, some kind of Cuban hand in the assassination, was believed by figures as violently opposed as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. LBJ, when he was dismantling the “damn Murder Incorporated” that his predecessors had created in the Caribbean, remarked, “Kennedy was trying to kill Castro, but Castro got to him first”. Bobby Kennedy went to his death believing the same thing, with the added guilt that he had been the most aggressive advocate of the anti-Castro policy.

A softer claim is made by Fabian Escalante, a senior Cuban counter-intelligence official: he has written that his agency thoroughly infiltrated the anti-Castro community in the U.S. in the early 1960s and one of his spies learned of the plot to kill Kennedy before it occurred. Aspillaga tells a similar story to Latell.

In his book, Latell concludes:

 [Aspillaga] was at work in Jaimanitas[, a village in Havana,] early on the morning of President Kennedy’s death. As usual, his intercept equipment was directed toward detecting CIA agents and infiltration teams. He had never had any other assignment, and until that morning did not deviate from the standing priority. Around 9:00 or 9:30 A.M. Eastern Time, he received a coded message by radio to walk to the second small structure where he also worked, a hundred yards or so away and use the secure phone there to call his headquarters.

Headquarters ordered him to cease all his tracking of the CIA. Tiny told me, “The jefatura wanted me to stop all my CIA work, all of it” and to redirect the antennas “from Langley and Miami toward Texas.” Listen to ham radio and other transmissions, he was ordered, and “if anything important occurs,” inform us immediately. About four hours later the shots rang out in Dallas. His conclusion in that first telling—and every other time we discussed it—was the same: “They knew Kennedy would be killed … Fidel knew.”

Tiny was always cautious, refusing to accuse Castro of actual involvement in the assassination. He never wavered from the critical distinction between Fidel simply knowing in advance and somehow being involved in what transpired. …

Vincent Bugliosi correctly points out that “the overwhelming majority of Americans, as well as most conspiracy theorists, have discarded the theory that Cuba was behind the assassination.” … The few authors who suspect a Cuban hand have not made convincing arguments for a conspiracy and have offered no hard evidence. Thus, for nearly everyone with an interest in the assassination, the case has been closed.

It is therefore with trepidation but with confidence in Aspillaga’s good faith and memory that I am proposing a more nuanced but hardly less heinous possibility that has never been broached before. I believe that Castro and a small number of Cuban intelligence officers were complicit in Kennedy’s death but that their involvement fell short of an organized assassination plot.

[14] Latell notes that Castro continued to run Cubela against the U.S. for two-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, mostly so he could keep abreast of the intentions of Lyndon Johnson. In these interactions, it was Cubela trying to incite the CIA to bite onto some conspiracy against Castro. When they didn’t, or did lethargically, Castro was sure he was safe. The Cubela program was shut down in June 1965 and in August 1965 the CIA’s intermediary to Cubela, Carlos Tepedino, testified under polygraph that Cubela was Castro’s man and “everyone knew” about his contact with the CIA. Tepedino’s embarrassing (to the CIA) confession was buried and Castro put on an elaborate display of finding Cubela guilty of treason in March 1966, dispatching him to a comfortable prison cell with regular access to his family.

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