Engineer John McCone replaced veteran spymaster Allen Dulles as director of the CIA in November of 1961, after President John F. Kennedy forced Dulles to resign following the CIA’s botched Bay of Pigs operation. McCone had one mission to restore order to the tarnished CIA. President JFK hoped that his outsider outlook and his management skills would set things in order and prevent another scandal. After JFK’s assassination in November of 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson kept McCone as director and the CIA director became a key witness during the Warren Commission, a panel Johnson created to investigate the President’s assassination and chaired by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. McCone publicly pledged full cooperation. McCone testified that the CIA had no evidence to suggest that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of any conspiracy and that he acted alone as assassin. In its final report, the commission concluded that McCone was correct, Oswald, a former disillusioned Marine, was a delusional lone wolf.
But, did McCone in fact lie at the commission hearings? The CIA is currently raising this question over half a century after JFK was assassinated.
In a once classified report written in 2013 by the CIA’s top historian and quietly declassified late last year, the CIA fully acknowledged that McCone and other senior CIA officials were “complicit” in hiding “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission. CIA historian David Robarge stated that McCone, who died in 1991, was at the heart of a “benign cover-up” intended to keep the commission focused on what the Agency called the “best truth”, which was that “Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing John Kennedy”. The most important information that McCone withheld was the existence for years of CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, some of which put CIA agents in bed with the Mafia. After Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, Jack Ruby, a nightclub operator from Dallas, TX with ties to the mafia, assassinated Oswald before he could be put on trial. Without this information, the commission never even thought to ask questions about Cuban accomplices or if JFK’s death was in retaliation for the Castro plots. The report didn’t raise any questions about the findings of the Warren Commission, including that Oswald was the gunman, but it represents the closest official CIA acknowledgement that there were improprieties in the agency’s dealings with the commission and its cooperation in the investigation.
As Politico put it “The coverup by McCone and others may have been “benign,” in the report’s words, but it was a cover-up nonetheless, denying information to the commission that might have prompted a more aggressive investigation of Oswald’s potential Cuba ties.”
The report was initially stamped “SECRET/NOFORN” meaning it couldn’t be shared with anyone outside of the CIA, Robarge’s report was published in the classified magazine Studies in Intelligence in September of 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. The report draws on the still classified 2005 biography of McCone written by Robarge. The report was declassified last fall and can be found on The George Washington University’s National Security Archive website.
In a statement, the CIA said that it declassified the report “to highlight misconceptions about the CIA’s connection to JFK’s assassination,” including the still-popular conspiracy theory that the spy agency ordered the assassination. Robarge’s report states that McCone, quickly convinced that Oswald acted alone said that there was no foreign conspiracy involving anyone including Cuba or the Soviet Union, directed his underlings to provide only “passive, reactive and selective” assistance to the Warren Commission. The report offers no conclusions as to why McCone wanted to steer the commission to a particular finding or why he went to such great lengths to cover-up CIA activity that happened under his predecessor. The report suggests however that the White House was on board.
McCone “shared the administration’s interest in avoiding disclosures about covert actions that would circumstantially implicate [the] CIA in conspiracy theories and possibly lead to calls for a tough US response against the perpetrators of the assassination. If the commission did not know to ask about covert operations about Cuba, he was not going to give them any suggestions about where to look.”
In an interview, David Slawson, who was the Warren Commission’s chief staff investigator in searching for evidence of a foreign conspiracy, said he was not surprised that McCone lied to the commission.
“I always assumed McCone must have known, because I always believed that loyalty and discipline in the CIA made any large-scale operation without the consent of the director impossible,” says Slawson, now 84 and a retired University of Southern California law professor.
He said it was disappointing that it took so long for the CIA to admit that McCone and others misled the investigation.
“The world loses interest, because the assassination becomes just a matter of history…”
The report details additional information that was not revealed to the commission, including evidence that the CIA might have been in communication with Oswald before the assassination and that the spy agency was monitoring Oswald’s mail after he attempted to move to the Soviet Union in 1959. The CIA mail-opening program, was later determined to be illegal. It operated under the code name HTLINGUAL.
“If [McCone] did know about HTLINGUAL reporting on Oswald, he was not being forthright with the commission—presumably to protect an operation that was highly compartmented and, if disclosed, sure to arouse much controversy.”
In the 1970s, when Congressional investigations exposed the CIA Castro plots, the Warren Commission expressed outrage at the deception during the 1964 investigation. They stated that had they known about the plots, the commission would have been much more aggressive. Weeks before the assassination, Oswald traveled to Mexico City where he met with people linked to the Cuban and Soviet governments, a trip that the CIA and FBI acknowledges they never investigated. After the public disclosures about the Castro plots in the late 70s, McCone claimed he couldn’t share the information with the Warren Commission because he didn’t know about the plots. He said that his agents “withheld the information from me.” But the 2013 report, proves that McCone was “neither frank nor accurate” in his testimony and that he was informed about CIA/Mafia plots about 9 months before his testimony.
Robarge also suggested in his report that the CIA was responsible for the criticism against the Warren Commission, including its failure to identify a motive. For decades, opinion polls have shown that most Americans reject the commission’s findings and believe Oswald did not act alone.
“The decision of McCone and Agency leaders in 1964 not to disclose information about CIA’s anti-Castro schemes might have done more to undermine the credibility of the commission than anything else that happened while it was conducting its investigation,” the report read, “In that sense—and in that sense alone—McCone may be regarded as a ‘co-conspirator’ in the JFK assassination ‘cover-up.’”
Four of the seven Warren Commission members were also members of Congress. Additionally, one was in on the CIA’s less than honest testimony: Allen Dulles, McCone’s predecessor, had hatched several plots to kill Castro. He was on the commission, knew of the plots, and didn’t disclose them either.
McCone could “rest assured that his predecessor would keep a dutiful watch over Agency equities and work to keep the commission from pursuing provocative lines of investigation…”
Dulles was appointed to the commission on the recommendation of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The report also draws attention to the contact between McCone and Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs scandal, the A.G. was asked by his brother, the President, to direct the administration’s secret war against Castro. Friends and family of the Kennedys said that Robert Kennedy always suspected that Castro was behind JFK’s death.
“McCone had frequent contact with Robert Kennedy during the painful days after the assassination. Their communication appears to have been verbal, informal and, evidently in McCone’s estimation, highly personal; no memoranda or transcripts exist…”
“Because Robert Kennedy had overseen the Agency’s anti-Castro covert actions—including some of the assassination plans—his dealings with McCone about his brother’s murder had a special gravity. Did Castro kill the president because the president had tried to kill Castro? Had the administration’s obsession with Cuba inadvertently inspired a politicized sociopath to murder John Kennedy?”
The declassification of the report might seem like the CIA has finally become open about the JFK assassination, but there are at least 15 places in the report where information has been redacted.