By David M. Barrett & Max Holland
No matter how controversial the use of drones to kill al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders in Afghanistan or Pakistan may be, historians in the future won’t have to struggle over ambiguous, fragmentary evidence about who ordered them. Everyone understands it was President Barack Obama.
It wasn’t always so clear-cut.
In stark contrast, a half-century later there is still a lingering controversy over whether the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro (and some other Third World leaders) were ever authorized by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. By the CIA’s own admission, we do know the Agency was involved in attempts to kill/overthrow Castro as the leader of Cuba. But the doctrine of plausible deniability meant there was no paper trail—an express order—traceable from the CIA back to the Oval Office. Consequently, various defenders of these presidents have often claimed (the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. comes to mind) that it was unthinkable that President Kennedy would ever have given an order to “eliminate” Castro. More objective observers, noting the cold-blooded qualities required of and sometimes displayed by presidents, consider it entirely likely that in some cryptic, unrecorded way, Eisenhower and Kennedy did tell their heads of the Central Intelligence Agency to do so.
Curiously, since it was the CIA that attempted to kill Castro in the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, the question of whether its directors authorized those attempts might seem more easily answered. Indeed, evidence is reasonably clear that Allen W. Dulles, who served Eisenhower as director of central intelligence (DCI) for eight years and then Kennedy for nine months, sanctioned such operations.
The record regarding John A. McCone, whom Kennedy appointed as DCI in the autumn of 1961, has been unclear and even bizarre. Specifically, is it possible that the CIA carried out assassination plots without his approval or even in the face of his disapproval? It seems an absurd proposition if not a very disturbing one. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, in which Washington failed, in almost the most humiliating way possible, to overthrow Castro, some critics blamed the president for not authorizing sufficient air support for the Cuban exiles organized by the CIA to carry out the operation. Kennedy then chose McCone to succeed Dulles precisely because McCone had a widespread, well-deserved reputation as an aggressive, capable administrator and a ferocious Cold Warrior. He was also a Republican who might well have been Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense had the GOP won the 1960 election. As Kennedy once privately observed to his brother Robert, the selection of McCone was “useful.”
Nonetheless, when evidence of the CIA assassination plots surfaced publicly a decade and a half later, the retired McCone insisted he had not known of any such plans. McCone advocated many aggressive actions against the Cuban leader’s regime, but claimed to have feared excommunication from the Catholic Church if he even discussed, much less approved, assassination plots. Yes, he recalled, a few colleagues in the Kennedy administration had occasionally made passing remarks about getting rid of Castro, but he had always squelched those suggestions.
A Senate select committee headed by Frank Church (D-Idaho) in the mid-1970s investigated, among other things, assassination plots from the Eisenhower-Kennedy era. Several CIA and other Kennedy administration officials had vague memories of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara raising the idea at a 10 August 1962 meeting, and McCone was supposed to have fiercely objected to the topic being discussed. Yet the official, detailed notes from that meeting do not show the topic being raised, and McNamara and other key officials who were there claimed to recall no such conversation.
Former DCI Richard M. Helms, who served as the deputy director of Plans (covert operations) under McCone, chose not to illuminate Church committee members about the particulars of that August 10 discussion. But on the general question of whether McCone knew of assassination plots carried out by the CIA while he was DCI, Helms stated that McCone “was involved in this up to his scuppers . . . I don’t understand how it was he didn’t hear about some of these things that he claims he didn’t.”
Now, however, new and dispositive evidence is available derived from a meeting held eleven days later. We recently found notes from a cryptic telephone call McCone made to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on 21 August 1962, notes that have sat unnoticed for years in a box at the National Archives. They support the claim that while McCone opposed any open discussion of assassination proposals, he was witting and did not oppose the efforts as a matter of principle.