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The Key To The Warren Report
Seen in its proper historical context—amid the height of the Cold War—the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination looks much more impressive and its shortcomings much more understandable
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
What genuinely sent RFK reeling may have been what the historian Robert Jay Lifton calls “survivor guilt,” a feeling that he should have died instead of the President. In the end, the raw probability, after all conspiracies were ruled out, was that the administration’s obsession with Castro had inadvertently motivated a politicized sociopath. Oswald had seen embodied in President Kennedy all American opposition to Castro, but it was Robert Kennedy, more than his brother, who had played the driving role in the anti-Castro subversion. RFK’s involvement had begun just two days after the inauguration, when at the new President’s behest the new Attorney General had been included in the first of seven CIA briefings on the plans to invade Cuba. Attorneys General had never before participated in such deliberations, but that was only the beginning.
After the Bay of Pigs debacle, in April 1961, the President ordered RFK to help Gen. Maxwell Taylor poke around the Agency and find out what had gone wrong. Operating with his usual zeal, Robert Kennedy immersed himself in Agency affairs over the next two months, and the more he understood of the CIA’s capabilities, the more ardent a champion he became. Precisely because the Bay of Pigs was such a catastrophe, the Kennedys grew more determined than ever to see Castro deposed.
While Castro erected a sign near the invasion site that read WELCOME TO THE SITE OF THE FIRST DEFEAT OF IMPERIALISM IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE , the Kennedy administration resumed plotting against him in earnest. By November 1961 another covert plan, code-named Mongoose, was moving into high gear. This time the operation aimed to destabilize Castro’s regime rather than overthrow it. In concert with overtly hostile diplomatic and economic policies, every possible covert tactic would be brought to bear, including sabotage, psychological warfare, and proposed assassination plots; and the President installed his brother as czar over the entire, governmentwide operation. As Sen. Harris Wofford (then a White House aide) wrote in his 1980 memoir, Of Kennedys & Kings , “The Attorney General was the driving force behind the clandestine effort to overthrow Castro. From inside accounts of the pressure he was putting on the CIA to ‘get Castro,’ he seemed like a wild man who was out-CIAing the CIA.”
For the first nine months of 1962, Mongoose was the administration’s top covert priority, and Castro next to an obsession for Robert Kennedy. RFK’s single-minded micro-management extended to almost daily telephone conversations with Richard Helms, deputy director of the CIA, during which calls the volatile Attorney General applied “white heat” pressure. As Helms told Newsweek in 1993, “We had a whip on our backs. If I take off my shirt, I’ll show you the scars.” It was abundantly clear that Castro was to be gotten rid of.
In 1962 the Attorney General even decided the Mafia could be useful in Mongoose operations. He ordered the CIA to assign a case officer to meet with Mafia figures. “It was Bobby and his secretary (Angie Novello) who called the officer on what used to be called at the Agency a secure line, [to] give him a name, an address, and where he would meet with the Mafia people,” recalls Samuel Halpern, a retired CIA official involved in Mongoose. The ensuing conversations contradicted almost every rule for clandestine operations the CIA had, and to add insult to injury, nothing useful ever developed from them. “We thought it was stupid, silly, ineffective, and wasteful,” says Halpern. “But we were under orders, and we did it.”
The CIA pursued Mongoose with determined vigor until the Cuban missile crisis put the United States and the Soviet Union at the brink of nuclear war. After that some advisers got Kennedy to take tentative steps toward trying to wean Castro from the Soviets, because the Cuban leader was smarting over the Russian “betrayal.” But the dominant U.S. policy remained intensely hostile. “Our interest lies in avoiding the kind of commitment that unduly ties our hands in dealing with the Castro regime while it lasts,” wrote Secretary of State Dean Rusk in a 1962 document only recently declassified. Ultimately, a more modest program of covert subversion was reintroduced by mid-1963. As before, it included the tactic of “neutralizing” Castro.
Was holding back some of the truth one of the great misjudgments in American history?
Despite the manifest relevance of these activities to the Warren inquiry, Robert Kennedy studiously avoided sharing any information about them with the commission—even when Earl Warren specifically asked him to. As David Belin, a counsel to the Warren Commission, recounts in Final Disclosure , Warren informed RFK of the commission’s progress, in a letter dated June 11, 1964, and asked him if he was aware of any “additional information relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which has not been sent to the Commission.” Warren emphasized in particular the importance of any information suggesting a “domestic or foreign conspiracy.”
Kennedy wrote in response that “all information … in the possession of the Department of Justice” had been sent to the commission. He added that he had “no suggestions to make at this time regarding any additional investigation which should be undertaken by the Commission prior to the publication of its report.”