Nixon, the CIA and the ‘Who Shot John? Angle’

Nixon encouraged chief of personnel H.R. Haldeman on how to get the CIA director to kill the FBI’s probe.

“Say, ‘Look, the issue is that this will open up the total, the complete Bay of Pigs issue, and the President just feels that, ah, without having heading into the facts … do not, really don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is kind of a comedy of glitches, strange, without having finding into it, the President thinks that it is likely to open the total Bay of Pigs issue up again.’”

The June 23 tape was incontrovertible evidence that Nixon had obstructed justice. The past vestige of aid for Nixon on Capitol Hill evaporated. Two weeks afterwards, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned.

But the “smoking gun tape” was not only the denouement of the Watergate affair. It was — and is — an unsettling glimpse into the dim coronary heart of the Watergate scandal, and the workings of American electricity in the mid-20th century. The commander in chief voiced ominous threats that reeked of unspoken crimes to his intelligence chief, whose agency experienced employed 4 of the 7 burglars. For the subsequent 50 yrs, Nixon’s entourage, JFK conspiracy theorists, journalists and historians pondered the June 23 tape as a Rosetta Stone of Nixon’s psyche. What “hanky panky” was Nixon referring to? What did he signify by “the total Bay of Pigs point?” What story was heading to “blow” if the CIA didn’t cooperate?

A extensive-ignored White Residence tape supplies the answers. The “hanky panky” referred to CIA assassination functions in the early 1960s. The “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was the Agency’s reaction to its most humiliating defeat. And the story that might blow was the relationship between these situations and the murder of JFK.

Richard Nixon and Richard Helms initially satisfied at a Capitol Hill briefing in 1956. Nixon, a former Navy lieutenant, was the young, bold and anxious vice president. Helms, also a former Navy lieutenant, was a gentlemanly spy, rising in ranks of the CIA with bland efficiency. (“His smile did not normally consist of his eyes,” noticed Henry Kissinger.) Helms’ discreet design and style won over President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed him as Director of Central Intelligence in 1966. When Nixon was elected president in 1968, LBJ encouraged he preserve Helms on.

Nixon, the insecure workaholic from Southern California, and Helms, a scion of the Philadelphia Primary Line, in fact managed to get together. Though Helms portrayed their partnership as stormy, he flattered Nixon’s wounded satisfaction and supported his hardline insurance policies on Vietnam and domestic surveillance.

On June 16, 1972, just hrs just before the Watergate burglars had been caught, Nixon and Helms had a helpful phone conversation about his conference with the president of Mexico. “He’s on our facet all suitable,” Nixon stated. “Oh, that is good, Mr. President,” Helms replied.

Fourteen hrs later, 5 burglars were being arrested at the Watergate, and the tenuous bond involving Nixon and Helms started to fray. Nixon, frantic to cover the burglars’ ties to the White Dwelling, assumed his intelligence main would enable. In his memoir, The Ends of Power, Haldeman wrote that when he relayed Nixon’s information about the Bay of Pigs, Helms exploded, shouting, “This has almost nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs!” Haldeman claimed again to Nixon that the gambit experienced worked and Helms experienced pledged to assistance with the FBI. And in truth he experienced. Helms despatched term to performing FBI director, L. Patrick Grey, to “taper off” the investigation. But when Grey pushed again a number of weeks later, Helms acquiesced, and the investigation ongoing. The director abandoned his protection of the president.

Helms opened his individual memoir, A Look More than My Shoulder, with an account of the June 23 discussion. He denied boosting his voice and insisted Nixon’s concept about the Bay of Pigs was “incoherent,” which didn’t describe his uncharacteristic reduction of poise. Helms afterwards told a CIA historian that the phrase experienced the “devious, hard-nosed smell” of a risk, which was a lot more plausible.

Haldeman prompt that Nixon employed the phrase, “the entire Bay of Pigs matter,” as a coded reference to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. It was, he wrote, “the president’s way of reminding Helms, not so gently, of the address-up of the CIA assassination tries on the hero of the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro, a CIA procedure that could have induced the Kennedy tragedy and which Helms desperately wanted to hide.”

Haldeman’s interpretation of the “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was disputed by Tv set speak display host Chris Matthews. He dismissed the tale, indicating Haldeman’s ghostwriter, Joseph Dimona, created up the JFK relationship and put it in the book without the need of Haldeman’s information. Dimona, nevertheless, denied Matthews’ claim. He advised documentary film producer Eric Hamburg that the e-book was “all Haldeman’s.”

Dimona and Haldeman are deceased, but Tom Lipscomb, the editor-in-chief of Moments Textbooks, which published The Ends of Ability, is not. “Bob Haldeman was a perfectionist and a command freak,” Lipscomb mentioned in an interview. “The thought that he didn’t feel what he wrote about the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s assassination is absurd. Totally he considered it. We talked about it all the time.”

Haldeman’s acquire on “the entire Bay of Pigs thing” lived on in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic “Nixon.” The film depicted an ominous trade about the Bay of Pigs in which Helms (performed by the chilly Sam Waterston) condescends to Nixon (played by Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins). In articulating his dream of détente with China and Russia, Nixon says, “Cuba would be a smaller rate to pay back.” Helms replies, “So President Kennedy assumed.” Spliced with film footage of JFK’s assassination, the exchange implied enemies of Kennedy’s Cuba policy have been powering his assassination.

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Helms, his espionage abilities undiminished with age, obtained a duplicate of Stone’s script prior to the film debuted and threatened litigation. Stone excised the trade from the movie’s theatrical launch — for factors of length, Stone said in an interview — but integrated it in the director’s minimize. Helms did not sue. (He died in 2002.)

Without having corroboration, Haldeman’s speculation about Nixon’s this means has left most Nixon biographers puzzled about “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” But an edgy discussion among Nixon and Helms 8 months right before the Watergate arrests confirms that Nixon did certainly have JFK’s assassination on his mind when he pressed Helms about the tricks of the Bay of Pigs.

Rewind the White House tape to the tumble of 1971.

With the Vietnam War sputtering and the 1972 election looming, Nixon expected a tricky reelection marketing campaign that would pit him from Sen. Ted Kennedy, the more youthful brother of the slain president. Nixon’s prepare was to frontally assault the Kennedy legacy. From his very first days in place of work, Nixon experienced requested adviser John Ehrlichman to acquire the CIA’s documents on two uncomfortable occasions in JFK’s presidency: the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. Just about every 6 months or so, Ehrlichman visited CIA headquarters in Langley and invariably returned vacant-handed.

Irritated, Nixon summoned Helms to the Oval Business on October 8, 1971, for some blunt talk. The tape of their trade (collected and annotated on nixontapes.org) captures a ruthless president pressuring a proud intelligence chief. When the tape has been in the public history for many years, a person essential passage has been largely missed by historians.

“Let me occur to this delicate issue that you have been conversing to John about,” Nixon started off. “John’s been chatting to me about it, and I know he talked to you about it. Perhaps I can possibly put it in a distinctive viewpoint than John. You probably puzzled what the hell this was all about.”

It was about CIA operations.

“Now to get to the dirty tricks aspect of it,” Nixon went on. “I know what transpired in Iran [a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953]. I also know what occurred in Guatemala [a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954], and I absolutely approve each. I also know what transpired with the setting up of the Bay of Pigs under Eisenhower and completely permitted of it.”

Nixon wanted to converse about what he saw as JFK’s failure, specifically his refusal to authorize air assist for the CIA-backed rebels when Castro’s forces pinned them down on the shorelines of the Bay of Pigs.

“The difficulty was not the CIA,” Nixon reported. “The trouble was that your system was not carried out. It was a goddamn very good strategy. If it experienced been backed up at the correct time. If he’d just flown a few of planes over that damn put …”

Nixon was certain about his curiosity.

“My interest there is not the internal circumstance, the struggle in the CIA,” Nixon confided. After the failed invasion, the Agency’s management break up over no matter whether failure was thanks to an unwell-conceived procedure or a weak-willed president. Nixon didn’t care about the blame recreation. “My curiosity there is only to know the specifics.”

The facts of the Bay of Pigs, having said that, have been not in dispute. The CIA-properly trained invasion drive missing, and senior officers like Hunt have been for good embittered. Nixon had a little something else, a thing quite sensitive in thoughts.

“What I want, what I want, Dick,” he rasped, “regarding any being familiar with, concerning any details, I do not want any info that comes in from you on these fragile and delicate topics to go to anyone outside …”

Nixon was eventually prepared to suggestion his hand.

“The ‘Who shot John?’ angle,” he explained quietly, 17 minutes into the dialogue. Nixon did not dwell on the phrase. He did not need to have to. In the context of his prolonged-standing need for the CIA’s documents, the invocation of “the ‘Who shot John?’ angle” can only refer to one thing: Kennedy’s assassination. The ambush in Dallas was the very first matter on Nixon’s thoughts as he pressed the director for the agency’s Bay of Pigs information. The president intuited a link involving the unsuccessful invasion in 1961 and JFK’s assassination two many years afterwards.

Nixon had no want to expose what Helms identified as the agency’s “dirty linen.” Alternatively, he required to use the Bay of Pigs difficulty versus presumed rival Ted Kennedy when defending the CIA from the latest allegations that the CIA’s plots in opposition to Castro experienced led to JFK’s death. Nixon understood the Company was vulnerable to JFK’s assassination, which he presumed gave him leverage over Helms.

Nixon confident Helms that his issue was not the agency’s steps relevant to Kennedy’s assassination but the criticism he faced as president.

“Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Nixon to blame?” the president went on. “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It might grow to be — not by me — but it may perhaps turn into a extremely, really vigorous challenge. If it does …”

Nixon could not have been referring to the Bay of Pigs or Cuba, which ended up equally lifeless troubles by then. The JFK assassination tale, by contrast, had erupted vigorously earlier that yr. In January 1971, a entrance-page New York Periods tale documented that Dallas police main Jesse Curry released a book indicating JFK had been killed by a conspiracy. The similar working day, Jack Anderson, the syndicated investigative reporter, wrote a startling column in The Washington Publish that began, “Locked in the darkest recesses of the Central Intelligence Agency is the story of 6 assassination tries from Cuba’s Fidel Castro.”

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The tale, picked up by the Television networks, was disturbingly exact to Helms. There was certainly a prime-top secret CIA Inspector General’s report that itemized the six plots Helms was jogging a single of them on the working day JFK was killed. Anderson’s resource was a very well-related Washington attorney representing Johnny Rosselli, the Mafia boss whom the CIA had enlisted to poison the Cuban chief in 1960. Anderson intimated that Castro experienced intercepted the CIA’s assassins and orchestrated Kennedy’s assassination as retaliation.

By leaking his story, Rosselli correctly applied the Submit to blackmail the CIA — and it worked. The company shielded Rosselli from deportation proceedings, according to a memo declassified in 1997. The CIA-blessed mobster by no means shared his understanding of the Castro plots with federal prosecutors. The arrangement prevented disclosure of the CIA’s assassination policy, which most likely saved Helms’ task.

Now Nixon required to know extra about “the Who shot John? angle.”

“I will need to know what is needed to defend, frankly, the intelligence accumulating and the Filthy Tips Division, and I will secure it,” the president avowed. “Hey, hear, I have done a lot more than my share of lying to secure you, and I think it’s absolutely ideal to do it.”

Helms stayed silent.

“If I really don’t know,” Nixon requested plaintively, “then what do you have?”

The president was beholden to his spymaster. This was a severe reality of the Watergate affair, not described by the Washington Post, not uncovered by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The CIA and Helms barely figure in All the President’s Males, or the iconic movie that followed.

The Oval Office environment dynamic was also instead unique than the showdown depicted by Oliver Stone. Helms did not threaten Nixon with a veiled reference to Kennedy’s assassination. In historical fact, the pissed off president unsuccessfully begged the imperious spy chief for additional data about who killed his predecessor.

“I really don’t feel that you can say, well … the director of the CIA … is the only 1 who is to know what happened in selected circumstances,” Nixon said. “The president is to know, and that the president’s successor is not to know?”

The agency’s JFK secrets were being harmless with him, Nixon emphasised. “I am not likely to embarrass the CIA for the reason that it served. … I believe in Dirty Tricks.”

Helms eventually spoke. He appeased Nixon by offering a folder of CIA cables on the assassination of Diem, substance that Nixon could use to impugn JFK’s legacy in the 1972 election. “Sir, I’m functioning entirely for you,” he certain the president. “Anything I have got is yours.”

The partisan president arrived absent happy. The canny director experienced specified up almost nothing on the Bay of Pigs, the Castro plots or Kennedy’s assassination.

8 months later on, when the Watergate burglars have been arrested, Nixon expected Helms’ assist. He had in truth guarded Helms. Nixon had rejected Haldeman’s suggestion to re-open up the investigation of JFK’s dying, which could have uncovered the reality that the CIA experienced lied to assassination investigators on various critical factors. Nixon had requested his Justice Division to block publication of a damning memoir created by a disillusioned CIA officer who had served in Helms’ business. Nixon knew burglar-in-chief Howard Hunt had served in a senior situation in the Bay of Pigs operation and held JFK individually liable for the defeat. And he understood 1st-hand that Helms was loathe to surrender everything about the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs. So Nixon sent Haldeman to provide his blunt message: If Helms assisted limit the FBI investigation, the president would defend “the Filthy Tips Department” from inquiries about Dallas.

Helms understood accurately what Haldeman intended. He experienced not overlooked his very last Oval Workplace assembly with the president. Nixon was using the menace of JFK revelations to coerce him into a include-up. But Helms could not be blackmailed. The director shielded himself and his agency by refusing to block the FBI’s investigation, reducing the Agency’s aid for the burglars and expressing absolutely nothing about JFK. Nixon resented his independence, and the after powerful partnership amongst them quickly unraveled.

Five months later on, in November 1972, the president demanded Helms’ resignation in a tense conference at Camp David. Helms extracted an ambassadorial appointment, and the two adult men parted warily. When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Helms was relieved. In November 1977, Helms was convicted of lying to Congress about an assassination operation in Chile, earning him the only CIA director ever convicted of a criminal offense. The House Find Committee on Assassinations reopened the JFK investigation in 1978. A calendar year later on, it concluded that Kennedy experienced been killed by conspirators who could not be identified.

Nixon and Helms, noticed Sen. Howard Baker, “had so much on each other, neither of them could breathe.”

And now we know why.

From Scorpion’s Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate, by Jefferson Morley. Copyright © 2022 by the creator and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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