On the Trail of a President’s Killers
NEW TIMES 1977, No. 1, pages 27–30
The U. S. Congress has set up a new body with the rather
intriguing designation House Select Committee on Assassinations. But if you
think it proposes to go into the recently revealed sensational CIA conspiracies,
you are mistaken. Those scandalous revelations have been quietly pigeonholed.
What the new committee plans to do I learned first-hand from Democratic
Congressman Thomas Downing, the sponsor of the resolution setting it up and its
head, whom I interviewed at his home.
“For several years now I have been firmly convinced that President John Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy,” he said. “This prompted me to put before Congress a resolution calling for a new investigation of his assassination.”
Besides investigating the circumstances of President Kennedy’s death, the committee is to go into the mysterious background of the death of Martin Luther King. The reopening of the inquiry into the murder of Dr. King has been demanded by Black leaders.
“I must admit,” the Congressman said, “that at first I myself, like most Americans, believed the Warren commission’s conclusion that Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald acting as a lone killer without accomplices. But later I had an opportunity to examine and carefully study sequences of a film made by a chance witness of the murder. The picture was taken by a tourist by the name of Zapruder who has since died. That terrible film clearly shows how Kennedy, sitting in the open car, was first thrown sharply forward by the bullet that hit him in the back and then almost at once, thrown backwards by the second bullet in his head. It is a horrible sight. But at the same time it is incontrovertible evidence that besides Oswald, who fired at the President from behind, there was at least one more sniper and a second ambush opposite the spot from which the first shot was fired.”
Downing laid out in front of me blow-ups of sequences from Zapruder’s film.
“There is weighty evidence,” he continued, “that Kennedy’s killers fired three bullets at him. It is practically impossible to fire three shots from one rifle in such rapid succession. This is the opinion of authoritative firearms experts. It is also my own opinion based on personal experience.”
Downing indeed is experienced in handling firearms. Apart from being a well-known legislator who has been in Congress for eighteen years, he is a graduate of a military school, a World War II veteran, a major in the U.S. Army reserve, and has six combat decorations. In general, he is a courageous man, for it takes courage to be the first on Capitol Hill to risk issuing an open challenge to those all-powerful quarters who have resisted public pressure for a thorough investigation of the Dallas tragedy for more than ten years now.
“My initiative at last found support mainly thanks to the change in the political climate in this country,” Downing said. “After the collapse of the Vietnam gamble, the Watergate scandal, and the disclosures of violations of the law by government services, a great many Americans lost their previous blind faith in the authorities. They no longer believe everything they are told. Even before, the unsubstantiated conclusions of the Warren commission evoked serious doubts. And now further evidence has come to light of the existence of a conspiracy.”
The recent Congressional investigation of the secret criminal operations of the CIA and FBI yielded further evidence. There is documentary proof that shortly before the assassination, Oswald met with FBI agents and handed them three confidential letters. The CIA was in possession of taped statements by Oswald. He had secret connections with CIA hirelings who were plotting to assassinate Cuban leaders. The gangster Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald, was revealed to have been an FBI informer and at the same time a stooge for two American mafia bosses, both of whom were killed some months before. Their killers have not been found, as a matter of fact, nobody really looked for them. The tangle of crimes which the Warren commission failed to unravel has continued to become more and more involved, and to untangle it will obviously be no easy matter.
Yet, as recent opinion polls have shown, the overwhelming majority of Americans want this done. On the eve of the November election, Congressmen had to take into account the mood of the voters, and as a result more than half the members of the House of Representatives voted to set up the Downing Committee. He, on his part, insisted that FBI and CIA personnel be barred from having a hand in the investigation, as he is certain that it is they who deliberately deceived and misled the Warren commission.
The new Committee is selecting its own private investigators and lawyers with untarnished reputations. And inasmuch as many of those who could help bring out the truth have died in accidents or in suspicious circumstances since the Dallas tragedy, the Committee has set up its own security team to protect volunteer aides against possible assaults.
Downing thinks that the investigation will take at least two years. For it is estimated that it will be necessary to go into 380 unresolved questions in the case of President Kennedy’s assassination. To obtain at least a cursory idea of some of the key questions involved, I had to go to Chicago and New Orleans besides Washington.
How It’s Done in Chicago
In the western suburbs of Chicago there is a green area known as Oak Park, consisting of one-storey cottages with neatly-kept lawns, occupied by people with decent incomes and a taste for suburban quiet and fresh air. The attractive little houses are all alike, the only exception being a big gloomy two-storey mansion known in the neighbourhood as the “citadel.” Its brick walls are as thick as those of a fortress, and the front door is covered with two sheets of bullet-proof steel. Closely curtained windows. A burglar alarm system. Courtyard surrounded by a tall solid fence. As I climbed on to the front porch, my eyes fell on a door mat with the words “Go away” in black letters.
The inhospitable householder who acquired that mat has been dead for more than a year now. His name was Sam Giancana. He was 66. He had never worked a single day in all his life. When as a young man he was called up for military service and asked to put down his occupation in a questionnaire, he was frank for the first and last time in his life and wrote: “I steal.” But even that was a half-truth. By the time he came of age, Giancana had three murders on his record, but not a single conviction. For he was a member of mafia king Al Capone’s gang, which was beyond the reach of Chicago justice.
Twenty years ago Giancana inherited Al Capone’s crime syndicate, took his place at the head of an underground army of Chicago racketeers and made millions by trafficking in drugs and running gambling dens and brothels. Eventually he decided to retire and to hand over the business to younger successors, thereby satisfying their thirst for power and money. Yet even after retirement, he lived in his “citadel” in constant fear of retribution. But not retribution at the hands of the mafia.
The point is that in December 1973 his personal bodyguard Richard Cain let it slip in a bar in the hearing of outsiders that he and his chief had had something to do with an international conspiracy and a political murder on an assignment from the CIA. Exactly 24 hours later two masked men walked into the same bar, ordered everyone at gunpoint to line up face against the wall, singled out Cain, shoved a gun barrel in his mouth and silenced him for good.
A year and a half later, at the height of the U.S. Senate investigation of CIA conspiracies to assassinate foreign political leaders, the occupant of the “citadel” was summoned to Washington to give evidence concerning his connections with Intelligence. In deadly terror, Giancana begged the Chicago police to provide him with round-the-clock protection. In the summer of 1975 a police patrol car was on duty day and night outside his door. On June 19 they did not see or hear anything out of the ordinary although that very evening Giancana was killed in his own home exactly in the same way as his too talkative bodyguard had been killed—by gunshot in the mouth. Then the rest of the magazine was emptied into the back of his head. The police outside Giancana’s windows evidently went deaf during the firing and blind when the killers made their getaway.
“I would advise you to steer clear of this mysterious business,” Jim Williams, the editor of the progressive Labour Today told me in Chicago. “It’s not safe to dig into the doings of the mafia, and here Intelligence too is involved.”
By the time I arrived in Chicago, Giancana’s corpse had already been sent off to the morgue. A detail of detectives was going through the “citadel” with a fine comb. I was told that a diary had been found in the dead man’s safe containing the names of important police officials, notes on transactions involving big sums of money, addresses of secret rendezvous and aliases of his former accomplices. Tapes of business conversations had also been found. Later it became known that he had written a confession which he threatened to make public if he were to be harassed for his old sins.
“Giancana had something to say,” police Lieutenant Daniel Corkle commented after the search.
That was all the police would say. They obviously were under orders from above to keep their mouths shut. All the evidence found during the search was taken away from them. The lid was put on the matter.
“Hours before he was shot to death, Mr. Giancana had been contacted by some of our staff,” Senator John Tower, a member of the committee investigating CIA operations, said in Washington.
In Chicago a police expert on the underworld, investigator Charles Siragusa, had this to say: “About the CIA approaching the mob, and Giancana in particular, it makes sense. I’ve heard rumours for years in Washington from various law enforcement agencies about the CIA considering an assassination squad. Maybe they were afraid Giancana would talk.”
And yet a year later Giancana made himself heard through his close associate in the top crust of the underworld, John Rosselli. In exchange for assurances from the Senate of immunity from prosecution, Rosselli said that in the early sixties he and Giancana had received an assignment from the CIA to assassinate the Cuban revolutionary leaders Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara for a consideration of $150,000. And that is not all: two weeks ago the new Congressional committee investigating the death of John Kennedy began digging into the complicity of Giancana and Rosselli in the assassination of the President.
Few visitors to Washington, be they foreigners or from some other part of America, fail to visit the Arlington National Cemetery. Many outstanding statesmen and military leaders are buried here. But the biggest attraction to visitors is the flat granite gravestone at the foot of a green slope. On the granite slab fresh flowers are to be seen the year round, and through an oval opening an eternal flame flickers. On the stone the name: John Kennedy.
A few paces a way is a modest grave with a white stone cross and a plaque with the name of the President’s brother: Robert Kennedy. Here too there are a great many flowers. Here too people stand long in silent meditation. Some brush away an involuntary tear.
In the years since the lives of the two Kennedy brothers were cut short, their names and life stories have become surrounded with legends and countless verbal and printed reminiscences in which the truth has become intertwined with fiction and embellished with myths. All this is understandable: striking, talented personalities are as often as not remembered for their virtues, and forgiven their sins. True enough, John and Robert Kennedy were endowed with rare qualities of which not all occupants of high places have been the possessors. But for all that, for some time now Americans have been engaged in a painful but nevertheless justified reappraisal of the historical legacy of the Kennedys in the light of the latest disclosures of behind-the-scenes governmental actions in the early sixties.
Memoirs dealing with the Kennedy epoch as a rule no longer fail honestly to mention that the late President himself did not deny his responsibility for the dangerous mistake of invading Cuba in the spring of 1961. Another thing on his conscience was the fanning of the bloody civil war in Laos. He was responsible for the dispatch to South Vietnam of the first three contingents of American troops. And he personally, as former U.S. Ambassador to Chile Edward Korry now says, issued orders as far back as 1962 for the launching of subversive activity through the agency of the CIA to prevent the democratic coalition headed by Salvador Allende from coming to power in Santiago. The Caribbean crisis, which placed the world on the brink of a serious conflict, is also associated with the name of John Kennedy.
At a recent Senate Intelligence committee hearing, Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defence, said:
“We were hysterical about Castro at the time of the Bay of Pigs and thereafter, and there was pressure from President Kennedy and the Attorney-General [Robert Kennedy] to do something about Castro. We did contemplate overthrow.”
This admission by McNamara is to be found in the Senate report on CIA assassination plots involving foreign leaders. A talk John Kennedy had with Senator George Smathers in the White House before the CIA hirelings’ landing in Cuba is also to be found in that report. Senator Smathers recalls:
“President Kennedy asked me what reaction I thought there would be throughout South America were Fidel Castro to be assassinated. We had further conversation of assassination of Fidel Castro. The President was certain it could be accomplished—I remember that—it would be no problem.”
In November 1961, we learn from the same Senate report, the President invited to the White House the journalist Tad Szulc, with whom he was on friendly terms, upon the latter’s return from Cuba. Again Kennedy talked about assassinating the head of the Cuban government. Present during the conversation was Richard Goodwin, a State Department expert on Latin American affairs. Szulc describes it as follows:
“The President asked: ‘What would you think if I ordered Castro to be assassinated?’ I replied that an assassination would not necessarily cause a change in the Cuban system. John Kennedy said he raised the question because he was under terrific pressure from advisers, I think he said Intelligence people, to okay a Castro murder.”
The Senate report shows that by the time Kennedy entered the presidency, the plan to assassinate Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara had already been worked out in detail by the CIA. The advocates of the murder were told that their boss “didn’t want to have an agency person or a government person get caught. Because of this CIA agents contacted Giancana and Rosselli in the autumn of 1960 and promised them $150,000 for killing the Cuban leaders. When the gangsters agreed, the CIA provided them with lethal poison.
Summoned before the Senate Intelligence committee last summer, John Rosselli made no secret of the fact that he and Giancana had willingly undertaken the CIA assignment since the victory of the revolution in Cuba had meant for both the loss of the gaming houses and illicit drug traffic centres they had owned there. Overthrow of the people’s government held out the prospect of once again going into business in Havana. Besides, fraternizing with the CIA was for the gang bosses a guarantee that they could carry on their criminal operation in the United States with impunity. Moreover, Giancana and Rosselli saw in this a rare opportunity to establish direct contact with the White House, and gangland moll Judith Exner, an attractive young adventuress with a criminal past, was put on the job. As the Senate report on the CIA reveals, she had, with the knowledge of FBI director Hoover, “frequent contact with the President from the end of 1960 through mid-1962.” The gang bosses made the arrangement in league with the CIA and the FBI so as to be able to blackmail the President into doing their bidding if the need arose.
At the beginning of 1962 CIA officer Bill Harvey, then in charge of the “execution action,” planned against the Cuban leaders, was received in secret by the President in the White House. Harvey reported to him that the thug sent to Cuba by Giancana and Rosselli had been unable to work out the poisoning of the victims chosen by the CIA, and that the second phase of the operation—the dispatch to Havana of gunmen—had been uncovered and foiled by the Cubans. Harvey asked for further instructions, but had to leave without having received any.
In May 1962 a high CIA official, Lawrence Houston, informed Robert Kennedy personally of the continued smuggling into Cuba of killers recruited by the CIA. According to Houston, the President’s brother “didn’t say anything.” In the spring of 1963 the CIA was instructed by the President to drop all plans to assassinate the Havana leaders. Instead, John Kennedy, at last sobered up by the bitter experience of his international blunders, ordered the ground to be sounded out for diplomatic talks and a peaceable settlement with Cuba.
“Kennedy was serious about that negotiation,” Goodwin has now said. “He said that to me. President Kennedy’s whole attitude changed after 1962.”
Common sense gained the upper hand in the White House not only as regards Cuba. The President issued orders for the arrest of the mafia bosses, who had got out of hand. In foreign affairs he began to tend toward a change in Washington’s Indo-China policy and spoke in favour of the recall of U.S. combat forces from there. This caused the Pentagon to sound the alarm. The military and the reactionary ruling elite raised an outcry against the rapprochement with Moscow Kennedy had embarked upon. The entire United States military-industrial complex—the generals, the hawkish politicians, the monopolies with billion-dollar war orders from the army, navy, and the air force—came down on the President. Panic broke in CIA headquarters is Washington when it was learned that the President had said to Clark Clifford, his adviser on Intelligence affairs:” “I made some bad decisions on the Bay of Pigs. I made these bad decisions because I had bad information. My information was bad, because our Intelligence was poor. Something is gravely wrong inside the CIA, and I intend to find out what it is. I want to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”
But it was already too late to do that. The President had made too many enemies and by the autumn of 1963 they had joined forces. The CIA and its partners no longer took their orders from the President, as may be seen from the Senate report on Intelligence: “On November 22, 1963—the very day that Kennedy was shot in Dallas—a CIA official offered a poison pen to an agent for use against Castro while at the same time an emissary from President Kennedy was meeting with Castro to explore the possibility of improved relations.”
On the eve of the assassination in Dallas an anonymous counter-intelligence agent brought together in a basement room in the Carousel night club the conspirators who soon were to play the role of kamikaze puppets. Among the doomed men were Giancana, Rosselli and Lee Harvey Oswald. All three are now dead, Rosselli being the last to go. But one participant in the Dallas conspiracy has by some miracle survived. With his confession, made six weeks ago, I shall continue my story about the deadly boomerang that cut down the President of the United States.
(To be continued)
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