Are U.S. Presidents Afraid of the CIA?
by Ray McGovern
We have spoken often on the pages of this website
of the weight that modern American presidents live under
as a result of the ever-present fear of assassination
by the CIA.
Michael Parenti calls the CIA a "government within
a government" –
"A conspiracy against America's legitimate
David Talbot of the New York Times says that
the intrigues the CIA is continually hatching in Washington
has turned our capital city into a city of treachery and
"double-dealing" similar to the treachery and
double-dealing that characterized life in the Rome of
Christ's time; he writes:
"The ancient imperial capital [of Rome] ...
was full of dark intrigue, treachery and gruesomely
memorable characters. But it had nothing on Washington,
our Rome on the Potomac ..."
According to Talbot, the Rome of today is as likely
to "suffer" the assassination of its presidents
as the Rome of yesterday was likely to "suffer"
the assassination of its Caesars; and it's America's intelligence
agencies that play the part of Rome's Praetorian Guard
in this gruesome spectacle.
Caligula being assassinated in Rome by the Praetorian
Talbot says that Kennedy - who was a student of the
history of ancient Rome - was well aware of this fact,
and it gnawed at Kennedy's nerves while he was president,
as well it should have. Talbot writes:
"JFK ... clearly sensed the mutinous mood in
right-wing corners of Washington. In conversations
with friends, Kennedy raised the specter of an assassination
or coup with disturbing frequency during his
brief presidency." [Please see our article,
Will Live or Die May Be Determined by What He Does in
the Middle East and Central Asia."]
"Top generals, spymasters, far-right congressmen,
defense industry lobbyists and anti-communist zealots
all began muttering about the young man in the Oval
Office [i.e., Kennedy], who, in their minds, was weak
and inexperienced ..."
It was precisely out of this milieu of Right-Wing
zealots - all of them centered around the CIA - that those
who planned JFK's assassination emanated.
Now they are gathering themselves around Obama just
as they did Kennedy so many years ago, ready to pounce
on him in the same way they did Kennedy if he strays too
far off the course of empire that the nation’s financial
elites have set for the country.
In the past I have alluded to Panetta and the
Seven Dwarfs. The reference is to CIA Director Leon Panetta and seven of
his dwarf predecessors - the ones who sent President Barack Obama a letter
on Sept. 18 asking him to "reverse Attorney General Holder's August 24
decision to re-open the criminal investigation of CIA interrogations."
Panetta reportedly was also dead set against reopening
the investigation-as he was against release of the Justice Department's "torture
memoranda" of 2002, as he has been against releasing pretty much anything
at all-the President's pledges of a new era of openness, notwithstanding.
Panetta is even older than I, and I am aware that hearing is among the first
faculties to fail. Perhaps he heard "error" when the President said
As for the benighted seven, they are more to be
pitied than scorned. No longer able to avail themselves of the services of
clever Agency lawyers and wordsmiths, they put their names to a letter that
reeked of self-interest - not to mention the inappropriateness of asking a
President to interfere with an investigation already ordered by the Attorney
Three of the seven - George Tenet, Porter Goss,
and Michael Hayden - were themselves involved, in one way or another, in planning,
conducting, or covering up all manner of illegal actions, including torture,
assassination, and illegal eavesdropping. In this light, the most transparent
part of the letter may be the sentence in which they worry:
"There is no reason to expect that the re-opened criminal
investigation will remain narrowly focused."
When asked about the letter on the Sunday TV talk
shows on Sept. 20, Obama was careful always to respond first by expressing
obligatory "respect" for the CIA and its directors. With Bob Schieffer
on Face the Nation, though, Obama did allow himself a condescending
quip. He commented,
"I appreciate the former CIA directors wanting to look
out for an institution that they helped to build."
That quip was, sadly, the exception to the rule.
While Obama keeps repeating the mantra that "nobody is above the law,"
there is no real sign that he intends to face down Panetta and the Seven Dwarfs
- no sign that anyone has breathed new life into federal prosecutor John Durham,
to whom Holder gave the mandate for further "preliminary investigation."
What is generally forgotten is that it was former Attorney General Michael
Mukasey who picked Durham two years ago to investigate CIA's destruction of
91 tapes of the interrogation of "high-value detainees."
Durham had scarcely been heard from when Holder
added to Durham's job the task of conducting a preliminary investigation
regarding the CIA torture specialists. These are the ones whose zeal led them
to go beyond the already highly permissive Department of Justice guidelines
for "harsh interrogation."
Durham, clearly, is proceeding with all deliberate
speed (emphasis on "deliberate"). Someone has even suggested - I
trust, in jest - that he has been diverted to the search for the money and
other assets that Bernie Maddow stashed away.
In any case, do not hold your breath for findings
from Durham anytime soon. Holder appears in no hurry. And President Obama
keeps giving off signals that he is afraid of getting crosswise with the CIA-that's
Not Just Paranoia
In that fear, President Obama stands in the
tradition of a dozen American presidents. Harry Truman and John Kennedy
were the only ones to take on the CIA directly. Worst of all, evidence continues
to build that the CIA was responsible, at least in part, for the assassination
of President Kennedy. Evidence new to me came in response to things I included
in my article of Dec. 22, "Break the CIA in Two."
What follows can be considered a sequel that is
based on the kind of documentary evidence after which intelligence analysts
Unfortunately for the CIA operatives who were
involved in the past activities outlined below, the temptation to ask Panetta
to put a SECRET stamp on the documentary evidence will not work. Nothing
short of torching the Truman Library might conceivably help. But even that
would be a largely feckless "covert action," copy machines having
long since done their thing.
In my article of Dec. 22, I referred to Harry
Truman's op-ed of exactly 46 years before, titled "Limit CIA Role to
Intelligence," in which the former President expressed dismay at what
the Central Intelligence Agency had become just 16 years after he and Congress
The Washington Post published the op-ed
on December 22, 1963 in its early edition, but immediately excised it from
later editions. Other media ignored it. The long hand of
Truman wrote that he was "disturbed by the
way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment" to keep the President
promptly and fully informed and had become "an operational and at times
policy-making arm of the government."
The Truman Papers
Documents in the Truman Library show that nine
days after Kennedy was assassinated, Truman sketched out in handwritten notes
what he wanted to say in the op-ed. He noted, among other things, that the
CIA had worked as he intended only "when I had control."
In Truman's view, misuse of the CIA began in February
1953, when his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, named Allen Dulles CIA Director.
Dulles' forte was overthrowing governments (in current parlance, "regime
change"), and he was quite good at it. With coups in Iran (1953) and
Guatemala (1954) under his belt, Dulles was riding high in the late Fifties
and moved Cuba to the top of his to-do list.
Accustomed to the carte blanche given him
by Eisenhower, Dulles was offended when young President Kennedy came on the
scene and had the temerity to ask questions about the Bay of Pigs adventure,
which had been set in motion under Eisenhower. When Kennedy made it clear
he would NOT approve the use of U.S. combat forces, Dulles reacted
with disdain and set out to mousetrap the new President.
Coffee-stained notes handwritten by Allen Dulles
were discovered after his death and reported by historian Lucien S. Vandenbroucke.
They show how Dulles drew Kennedy into a plan that was virtually certain to
require the use of U.S. combat forces. In his notes Dulles explains that,
"when the chips were down," the new President would be forced by
"the realities of the situation" to give whatever military support
was necessary "rather than permit the enterprise to fail."
Additional detail came from a March 2001 conference
on the Bay of Pigs, which included CIA operatives, retired military commanders,
scholars, and journalists. Daniel Schorr told National Public Radio that he
had gained one new perception as a result of the "many hours of talk
and heaps of declassified secret documents:"
"It was that the CIA overlords of the invasion,
Director Allen Dulles and Deputy Richard Bissell had their own plan on how
to bring the United States into the conflict...What they expected was that
the invaders would establish a beachhead...and appeal for aid from the United
Bay of Pigs fiasco
"The assumption was that President Kennedy,
who had emphatically banned direct American involvement, would be forced by
public opinion to come to the aid of the returning patriots. American forces,
probably Marines, would come in to expand the beachhead.
"In fact, President Kennedy was the target
of a CIA covert operation that collapsed when the invasion collapsed,"
The "enterprise" which Dulles said could
not fail was, of course, the overthrow of Fidel Castro. After mounting several
failed operations to assassinate him, this time Dulles meant to get his man,
with little or no attention to what the Russians might do in reaction. Kennedy
stuck to his guns, so to speak; fired Dulles and his co-conspirators a few
months after the abortive invasion in April 1961; and told a friend that he
wanted to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into
The outrage was mutual, and when Kennedy himself
was assassinated on November 22, 1963, it must have occurred to Truman that
the disgraced Dulles and his outraged associates might not be above conspiring
to get rid of a President they felt was soft on Communism - and, incidentally,
In his op-ed of December 22, 1963 Truman warned:
"The most important thing...was to guard against the
chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead
the President into unwise decisions."
It is a safe bet that Truman had the Bay of Pigs
fiasco uppermost in mind.
Truman called outright for CIA's operational duties
[to] be terminated or properly used elsewhere." (This is as good a recommendation
now as it was then, in my view.)
On December 27, retired Admiral Sidney Souers,
whom Truman had appointed to lead his first central intelligence group, sent
a "Dear Boss" letter applauding Truman's outspokenness and blaming
Dulles for making the CIA "a different animal than I tried to set up
for you." Souers specifically lambasted the attempt "to conduct
a 'war' invading Cuba with a handful of men and without air cover."
Souers also lamented the fact that the agency's
"principal effort" had evolved into causing "revolutions in
smaller countries around the globe," and added:
"With so much emphasis on operations, it would not surprise
me to find that the matter of collecting and processing intelligence
has suffered some."
Clearly, CIA's operational tail was wagging the
substantive dog - a serious problem that persists to this day. For example,
CIA analysts are super-busy supporting operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan;
no one seems to have told them that they need to hazard a guess as to where
this is all leading and whether it makes any sense.
Petraeus, who many believe will be Obama's opponent in
the 2012 presidential election.
That is traditionally done in a National Intelligence
Estimate. Can you believe there at this late date there is still no such Estimate?
Instead, the President has chosen to rely on the advice of Gen. David Petraeus,
who many believe will be Obama's opponent in the 2012 presidential election.
Fox Guarding Henhouse?
In any case, the well-connected Dulles got himself
appointed to the Warren Commission and took the lead in shaping the investigation
of JFK's assassination. Documents in the Truman Library show that he then
mounted a targeted domestic covert action of his own to neutralize any future
airing of Truman's and Souers' warnings about covert action.
So important was this to Dulles that he invented
a pretext to get himself invited to visit Truman in Independence, Missouri.
On the afternoon of April 17, 1964 he spent a half-hour trying to get the
former President to retract what he had said in his op-ed. No dice, said Truman.
No problem, thought Dulles. Four days later, in
a formal memo for his old buddy Lawrence Houston, CIA General Counsel from
1947 to 1973, Dulles fabricated a private retraction, claiming that Truman
told him the Washington Post article was "all wrong," and
that Truman "seemed quite astounded at it."
No doubt Dulles thought it might be handy to have
such a memo in CIA files, just in case.
A fabricated retraction?
It certainly seems so, because Truman did not change his tune. Far
from it. In a June 10, 1964 letter to the managing editor of Look
Magazine, for example, Truman restated his critique of covert action,
emphasizing that he never intended the CIA to get involved in "strange
Dulles and Dallas
Dulles could hardly have expected to get Truman
to recant publicly. So why was it so important for
Dulles to place in CIA files a fabricated retraction. My guess is that in
early 1964 he was feeling a good bit of heat from those suggesting the CIA
might have been involved somehow in the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, one
or two not-yet-intimidated columnists were daring to ask how the truth could
ever come out with Allen Dulles on the Warren Commission. Prescient.
JFK: killed by the CIA
Dulles feared, rightly, that Truman's limited-edition
op-ed might yet get some ink, and perhaps even airtime, and raise serious
questions about covert action. Dulles would have wanted to be in position
to flash the Truman "retraction," with the hope that this would
nip any serious questioning in the bud. The media had already shown how co-opted
- er, I mean "cooperative" - it could be.
As the de facto head of the Warren Commission,
Dulles was perfectly positioned to exculpate himself and any of his associates,
were any commissioners or investigators - or journalists - tempted to question
whether the killing in Dallas might have been a CIA covert action.
Did Allen Dulles and other "cloak-and-dagger"
CIA operatives have a hand in killing President Kennedy and then covering
it up? The most up-to-date - and, in my view, the best - dissection of the
assassination appeared last year in James Douglass' book, JFK and the
Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. After updating and arraying
the abundant evidence, and conducting still more interviews, Douglass concludes
the answer is Yes.
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