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.