Who IS that Masked Man?

November 24, 2017–Donald J. Trump continues to inspire caricature even as we struggle to describe and understand him. Stuffed with turkey and pie as I am–and I understand Mr. Trump yesterday did not manage more than to hand out sandwiches–I don’t believe I could come up with a fresh description today. But I found this recently, and it works very well: “He was nervous, high-strung, and mercurial. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, he would threaten and posture, playing the warlord who would lead his nation into battle; later he would take it all back. Military and civilian officials who worked with him learned never to rely on the decisions he announced off the cuff; there had been too many false alarms.

“The accounts . . . show an undisciplined and inconsistent figure, on the childish side, emotionally taut, often on the verge of breakdown, broadly ignorant but with no hesitation about making unqualified announcements about any number of matters about which he knew nothing. Egotistical and inclined to megalomania, he often spoke and even acted as if he were an absolute ruler.” Sound like Donald Trump? Yes. But–that was the late, great historian David Fromkin, writing about Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I. Yet Wilhelm had been a breach birth, physically crippled by the loss of one arm, with observers speculating he had suffered brain damage from loss of oxygen during that precarious birthing. There has to be a different explanation for Donald Trump.

For more on the troubles U.S. intelligence agencies face in the Age of Trump read Ghosts of Langley, my book on how the CIA broke free of accountability.

Is John F. Kennedy a CIA Ghost?

November 21, 2017–On the eve of the fifty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy this question is worth asking. I have a book out right now called The Ghosts of Langley,  in which I use the metaphor of a ghost to signify a character whose example, for good or ill, stands out so prominently that successors take their cues from her or him, trying to emulate or to avoid the same sorts of behaviors. Langley in the title, of course, is the geographical location of Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, and my metaphoric ghosts are from the CIA, highlighting an agency in its 70th year. But there’s no reason why the ghost couldn’t reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a matter of fact there is also no reason why President Kennedy cannot also be a CIA ghost. His claim to be a spirit flows from his zealous pursuit of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In The Strategy of Peace, his political testament book working up to the 1960 presidential campaign, Mr. Kennedy lamented that the United States had for so long supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and speculated that Castro might have acted differently had he been received more enthusiastically in Washington. In actuality just a few months after Kennedy’s declaration President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to overthrow Mr. Castro, one accepted by Kennedy when he entered office, and which led to the Bay of Pigs disaster. But rather than giving up the ghost, JFK redoubled U.S. efforts to depose Mr. Castro.

This piece of history has President Kennedy acting through the CIA in a top secret project called MONGOOSE. It is usually passed over by history with a few sentences about CIA assassination plotting, or the episode where one MONGOOSE infiltration team almost triggered war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Cuba program went way beyond that–and Jack Kennedy stood at the center of it. Journalist Tad Szulc and Senator George Smathers both had conversations with Kennedy where the president mentioned assassination. Szulc went off and actually discussed a plan with some Cuban exiles. Kennedy showed his concern over the CIA program by creating the “Special Group (Augmented),” a unit of the interagency panel that approved covert operations whose function was specifically to monitor MONGOOSE. This device the president used to put his brother Robert, then the attorney general, in position to oversee CIA action. Kennedy was never satisfied with the pace or progress of MONGOOSE. Prodded for something more aggressive, the CIA crafted a “Phase II” plan in 1962. That was still not enough. Later in 1962 came Phase II Plus. The Cuban Missile Crisis forced JFK to rethink his approach, and afterwards Kennedy dismantled the CIA unit, Task Force W, responsible for the covert operation. But that meant nothing. President Kennedy actually elevated Cuba covert planning to a higher level of the National Security Council, an NSC Standing Group, where Cuba discussions focused during 1963. That summer the NSC Standing Group approved a whole new Cuba plan. In the meantime Langley had created a fresh unit, the Special Affairs Staff, to carry out the anti-Castro operations. Its deputy chief was the same individual who had been deputy to the chief of Task Force W.

Just ten days before his murder in Dallas, President Kennedy personally met with his CIA Cuba team, heard a full briefing on the anti-Castro program, and approved the next set of targets for exile raids. Looking at the anti-Castro operations journalist George Crile once called them “The Kennedy Vendetta,” and he was right.

In the years since Jack Kennedy’s death there have been a plethora of theories, conspiracy theories, speculations, and plain explanations for why JFK was assassinated. They show why, at a certain level, Kennedy is a Ghost of Langley. One theory is that Castro reached out and retaliated for the CIA’s murder plots against him. That is largely speculation–the CIA had a dedicated counterintelligence operation it ran against the Cuban DGI and G-2, and had both Miami and Mexico City wired for sound. The FBI had an even more intense program. They recorded reactions to Kennedy’s death but no preparations for an attempt against him. Another theory is that the CIA murdered the president. That seems unlikely. Yet another is that it was the Cuban exiles, furious at their betrayal at the hands of Kennedy and the CIA. The exiles were not aware of the inner workings of JFK’s intense vendetta against Castro. Then there is the Mafia, said to be  enraged their Havana clubs and hotels had been nationalized without a U.S. response. Lee Harvey Oswald, the putative assassin, was also acutely aware of Kennedy’s Cuba policy.

I shall leave it to Kennedy assassination historians to unravel the skeins of all these threads. There are two important points to carry away: First, all these threads revolve around CIA operations from one side or the other–Kennedy as a Ghost of Langley. Second, all the CIA assassination plotting that the Rockefeller Commission and Church Committee uncovered and investigated in the middle 1970s–all of it ended with Kennedy. Presidents after John F. Kennedy never involved themselves, or the CIA, in assassination planning. Even Ronald Reagan, who called Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega a “dictator in sunglasses,” and ordered the CIA out to mine Nicaraguan harbors, never entertained any plan to murder the Sandinista commandante. Subsequent presidents took a lesson from the Kennedy experience. Ghosts of Langley.

CIA Gunslinger: Bob Eatinger Learned His Tricks Early

November 7, 2017–Mentioned here in passing ten days ago, CIA lawyer Robert J. Eatinger, Jr. has been at the heart of agency business for a very long time. It looks as if Eatinger learned his tricks very early. The counselor, for those who are unaware, figured as a major figure within the CIA Counterterrorist Center in the 2005 destruction of the notorious videotapes documenting the torture of captives held by the agency. As the CIA’s acting general counsel from 2009 on he rode herd on the CIA’s response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s (SSCI) investigation of the agency’s detainee interrogation program, with which he had been intimately familiar at the time as a Counterterrorist Center lawyer. In fact the SSCI chairwoman has said on the floor of the Senate that Mr. Eatinger’s name appears in her committee’s investigative report more than 1,600 times. You can read much more about him in my book The Ghosts of Langley.

Late in 2013, with the CIA actively dragging its feet on declassifying the SSCI report, Counsellor Eatinger spoke at an American Bar Association panel meeting on national security law. “Because you can do it,” Eatinger declared, doesn’t mean you should . . . That’s what we spend our time defining to the director.” Sounds quite responsible. But less than two months later, as detailed in The Ghosts of Langley Mr. Eatinger was telling the director that the CIA would be obstructing justice if it did not recommend the Justice Department investigate the Senate Intelligence Committee on criminal charges of espionage–this after Eatinger’s CIA monitors of the Senate investigation had been caught hacking into SSCI computers.

In 2009 Robert Eatinger, along with the CIA’s then-acting general counsel and another agency lawyer, figured in another legal disaster, a suit in which a former Drug Enforcement Agency operative accused the CIA of eavesdropping. Federal judge Royce C. Lambeth found that the agency lawyers, Eatinger among them, had withheld evidence about the CIA officer involved. The plaintiff walked away with a $3 million settlement.

Now, the release of formerly secret records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reveals a new side to Bob Eatinger. The lawyer had gone to work at the CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) in September 1991. Not long afterwards the Oliver Stone movie JFK garnered so much attention for its controversial charges of conspiracies against the president that Congress passed–and President George H. W. Bush signed–a law empowering a blue ribbon Assassination Records Review Board to examine and make its own decisions on the declassification and release of documents relating in any way to Kennedy’s murder.

Then-CIA director Robert Gates approved a policy of full responsiveness to the Records Board investigators. The inquiry turned into the widest review of CIA covert operations until the SSCI torture inquiry. The CIA made Robert Eatinger its point man on all matters related to the Kennedy Records Board. The attorney’s first excursion into the rarified world of the assassination records came when he issued OGC policy guidance for agency employees considering appeals to the Records Board to preserve the secrecy of documents. The December 14, 1992 instruction found that the law had been tightly constructed and required Langley’s cooperation. Spooks had to apply a balancing test even before developing arguments why a document could be kept secret. There were pretty tightly circumscribed grounds for the appeal to secrecy.

After that promising beginning the secrecy mavens at Langley walked it all back. The CIA successively interposed more and more objections. –To searching certain categories of records, to revealing the names of agents or even agency officers, to admitting that the CIA has “stations” in foreign countries, to releasing basic data on agency organization, to admitting there had been telephone taps and photographic monitoring of the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico City, to giving up histories of the Mexico City station and the one in Miami, to documents in the files on Lee Harvey Oswald and Yuri Nosenko, more. Bob Eatinger absorbed the coloration of the CIA footdraggers. In April 1993 the lead attorney recommended options for excluding records of CIA brass wrangling with Kennedy assassination matters that the agency had been ordered to give up in a lawsuit. In May 1993 Eatinger recommended that Langley withhold from the Records Board anything about specific Americans surveilled by the notorious Project MHCHAOS, which had aimed directly at Americans. In November 1993, when the Kennedy Board discovered that a Cuban exile leader, prosecuted in the late 60s, had actually been arrested by a man on the CIA payroll, the General Counsel’s office wanted advance word if the assassination investigators got near that fact. In January 1994 Eatinger advised CIA personnel to stonewall on MHCHAOS data for Americans abroad, extending his previous advice. In November 1995 Robert Eatinger would be reassigned as a line counselor for the agency operations directorate. By then, it looks like, he knew all the tricks.