Inside the Plot to Kill JFK: The Secret Story of the CIA and What Really Happened in Dallas
The following is an excerpt from the new book The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot (Harper, 2015):
Those resolute voices in American public life that continue to deny the existence of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy argue that “someone would have talked.” This line of reasoning is often used by journalists who have made no effort themselves to closely inspect the growing body of evidence and have not undertaken any of their own investigative reporting. The argument betrays a touchingly naÃ¯ve media bias—a belief that the American press establishment itself, that great slumbering watchdog, could be counted on to solve such a monumental crime, one that sprung from the very system of governance of which corporate media is an essential part. The official version of the Kennedy assassination—despite its myriad improbabilities, which have only grown more inconceivable with time—remains firmly embedded in the media consciousness, as unquestioned as the law of gravity.
In fact, many people have talked during the past half of a century—including some directly connected to the plot against Kennedy. But the media simply refused to listen. One of the most intriguing examples of someone talking occurred in 2003, when an old and ailing Howard Hunt began unburdening himself to his eldest son, Saint John.
“Saint,” as his father called him, was a loyal and loving son, who had suffered through the upheavals of the spy’s life, along with the rest of his family. Late one night in June 1972, at the family’s Witches Island home in suburban Maryland, Hunt had frantically woken up his eighteen-year-old son. “I need you to do exactly as I say, and not ask any questions!” said Hunt, who was in a sweaty and disheveled state that his son had never before witnessed. He ordered Saint John to fetch window cleaner, rags, and rubber gloves from the kitchen and to help him rub away fingerprints from a pile of espionage equipment, including cameras, microphones, and walkie-talkies. Later, Saint helped his father stuff the equipment into two suitcases, which they loaded into the trunk of his father’s Pontiac Firebird. Hunt and his son drove through the darkness to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, where the spook got out and tossed the suitcases into the murky water. On the way back home, Hunt told Saint that he had been doing some special work for the White House, and things had gone south.
It was the beginning of the Watergate drama, in which Howard Hunt played a starring role as the leader of the “White House plumbers,” the five burglars who were arrested while breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. All five of the men had a long history with Hunt, dating back to the earliest days of the underground war against Castro, and at least two—Frank Sturgis and Virgilio Gonzalez—were rumored to have played roles in the Kennedy assassination.
As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Hunt drew Saint and the rest of his family deeper into his disintegrating life. Saint’s beloved mother, Dorothy—an exotic beauty with her own espionage background—would die in a plane crash in the midst of the Watergate crisis, while serving as a mysterious courier for her husband. When her United Airlines flight from Washington’s Dulles Airport crashed while landing at Chicago’s Midway Airport in December 1972, Dorothy Hunt was carrying over $2 million in cash and money orders, some of which was later traced to President Nixon’s reelection campaign.
As Nixon frantically tried to cover his tracks in the widening scandal, sketchy money began flowing back and forth. The president was desperate to keep Hunt quiet and during one White House meeting, Nixon— caught on his secret taping system—figured it would cost “a million in cash. We could get our hands on that kind of money.” Hunt felt that Nixon owed him and his team. “I had five men whose families needed to be supported,” Hunt later said. “And I had a big house, stalls for six horses, kids in private school—I had needs for contributions that were greater than the average person’s. . . . There’s a long tradition that when a warrior is captured, the commanding officer takes care of his family.”
Nixon knew that Howard Hunt had played key roles in some of America’s darkest mysteries. On June 23, 1972—while discussing the Watergate break-in with H. R. Haldeman, his devoted political deputy and White House chief of staff—Nixon was taped saying, “Hunt . . . will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab, there’s a hell of a lot of things. . . . This involves these Cubans, Hunt and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”
Nixon wanted Haldeman to lean on Dick Helms, who was then CIA director, by warning him that if the spy agency did not help shut down the growing Watergate scandal, “[t]he President’s belief is that this is going to open up that whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . and it’s going to make the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and is likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . and we think it would be very unfortunate for the CIA and for the country at this time.”
Nixon’s ploy did not work. When Haldeman sat Helms down in his office and delivered the president’s thinly veiled threat about “the Bay of Pigs thing,” the normally icy-cool Helms exploded. “The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do with this!” he shouted. Nixon only succeeded in further antagonizing a very powerful Washington institution, one capable of far more deviousness than even he was.
What did Nixon mean by “the whole Bay of Pigs thing”? According to Haldeman, it was Nixon’s way of referring to the unspeakable—the Kennedy assassination. Other historians have speculated that it was shorthand for the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro. In any case, “the Bay of Pigs thing” was an apt code name—it conjured all the swampy intrigue that began leaching through the Kennedy administration after Allen Dulles and his agency suffered their humiliation in Cuba, everything the CIA wanted to keep deeply hidden. And Howard Hunt was knee-deep in much of this muck.
Hunt’s adventures in the spy trade eventually tore apart his family and sent him to federal prison for nearly three years. By 2003, the retired spy was living in a modest ranch house in north Miami with his second wife, Laura, who was twenty-seven years younger. She had fallen for him while watching him give a prison interview on Watergate. “I liked all those men—that must seem strange to you,” Laura Hunt told a Miami Herald reporter. “Not for what he’d done—I don’t admire that—but I admired him for serving the government, and I admired his intellect.”
At eighty-four, Hunt seemed to be fading out, suffering from a variety of maladies, including hardening of the arteries, which had resulted in the amputation of his left leg and confined him to a wheelchair. He had a new family, including the two children he had with Laura. But Saint John Hunt felt it was time for his father to finally come clean for the sake of his first family. Following years of estrangement, Saint began to spend time with his father, watching his favorite Fox News shows with him at his Miami house and, when the old man felt up to it, dredging up the past. Laura did not want Saint John to reopen this history, but he felt strongly that his father owed him this honesty.
After his family fell apart, Saint John had gone on the road as a rock musician and drug peddler, a trip that eventually deposited him in the coastal redwoods of northern California. But by the time he reunited with his father, Saint was a sober, middle-aged, law-abiding citizen who was eager to make sense of his earlier life. He was particularly interested in talking with his father about the Kennedy assassination—which he knew his father had long been linked to in conspiracy literature.
Saint’s father had always insisted that he had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death, that he was at home in Washington the day of the assassination, not in Dallas, as many JFK researchers alleged. Hunt claimed that he was shopping for ingredients at a Chinese grocery store in Washington, to cook dinner that night with his wife, when the news bulletin about Kennedy came over the car radio. But Saint, who was in the fifth grade at the time, had no memory of his father being home that day when he was let out early from school, or later that evening. And he found his father’s cover story about cooking the Chinese meal, which Hunt told under oath at a trial related to the Kennedy assassination, absurd. “I can tell you that’s the biggest load of crap in the world,” Saint John told Rolling Stone in 2007. “My dad in the kitchen? Chopping vegetables with his wife? I’m so sorry, but that would never happen. Ever.”
His mother told Saint John, around the time of the assassination, that his father had indeed been in Dallas. The mystery of his father’s whereabouts that day would prey on Saint for years. He was determined to engage his father on the subject before it was too late.
By 2003, Howard Hunt was ready to finally talk. He feared that his life was coming to an end, and he was deeply regretful that he had so little to leave his family after all they had endured. For a time, he flirted with the idea of telling all to actor Kevin Costner, who had starred in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Costner dangled a big financial reward in front of Hunt if he revealed everything he knew about Dallas, but when the money never appeared, Hunt finally dismissed the actor as a “numbskull.” Saint John nonetheless urged his father to continue down the path of full disclosure while he was still of sound mind. He made his plea in a long letter to his father, telling him that it was time to finally reveal what he knew—he “owed it,” wrote Saint, “to himself, the Nation, and his family to leave a legacy of truth instead of doubt.”
Soon afterward, Hunt phoned his son in California and summoned him to Miami. On December 7, 2003, Saint John Hunt flew to Florida—where so much of his father’s secret life had unfolded—to hear his final testament.
When he arrived at his father’s house, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Biscayne Bay neighborhood, Saint found Hunt in bed, looking frail and washed out. But the old man perked up when he saw his son. He asked Saint to wheel him into the TV room, where they shared some soup for lunch and watched an agitated round of Fox News at the high volume required by the hard-of-hearing Hunt. Finally, Saint broached the subject that he had come to discuss. “Papa, can we talk about my letter?”
Hunt suggested that Saint wheel him back to his bedroom, in case his wife returned. “We don’t want her getting upset by this,” Hunt told his son. “She believes what I told her: that I don’t know anything about JFK’s murder.”
“I think Laura’s very naÃ¯ve about the darker side of politics,” said Saint John.
“Well, that’s one of the reasons I love her so much,” his father replied.
Then, after making Saint John promise he would never reveal what he was about to tell him without his permission, Hunt launched into a remarkable story of the plot to kill John F. Kennedy. It was—even at this late date in Hunt’s life—still a carefully parsed tale. He clearly was not telling everything he knew—and he seemed to be downplaying his own role in the crime as well as the complicity of former CIA superiors to whom he remained loyal. He also couched much of his narrative in an oddly speculative manner, as if he were not fully certain of the exact configuration of the plot. Nonetheless, what Hunt did tell Saint John that day was stunning enough. Over the following months, the spy elaborated on his story as his health occasionally improved. At one point, Saint brought in an expert on the Kennedy assassination and Watergate—Eric Hamburg, a Los Angeles writer-producer and a former aide to Senator John Kerry—to help videotape interviews with his father.
Laura Hunt ultimately cut short her husband’s extraordinary journey of truth telling with his son. But before Hunt died in 2007, he left behind video interviews, audiotapes, and notes in his own hand—as well as a somewhat revealing memoir called American Spy. Hunt’s confessional trove amounts to a tortured effort to reveal what he knew, while still guarding his family’s sensitivities, old professional loyalties, and whatever was left of his good name. After his father died, Saint John would make a valiant effort to get Hunt’s confessions—which should have been headline news—into the hands of the major media gatekeepers. A 60 Minutes producer spent days poring over Saint John’s rich material, but he was finally forced to apologize that the story had been spiked from above. In the end, only Rolling Stone—along with a scattering of alternative media outlets—covered the story of Howard Hunt’s astonishing final statements about the crime of the century. Saint John’s own memoir of his father’s escapades and his family’s ordeal, Bond of Secrecy, was released by a small Oregon publisher and received little promotion or attention.
This was the story that Howard Hunt left behind. Sometime in 1963, Hunt said, he was invited to a meeting at one of the CIA safe houses in Miami by Frank Sturgis, a soldier of fortune who had worked under Hunt in the anti-Castro underground—a man with whom Hunt would be forever linked when they were later arrested for the Watergate break-in. Also in attendance at the Miami meeting was David Morales, another CIA veteran of the anti-Castro campaign who was well known to Hunt. Morales—a big, intimidating man who had grown up in a poor Mexican American family in Phoenix—did not fit the polished CIA profile. But the agency found a use for “El Indio”—as Morales, with his strong indigenous features, was known by his colleagues.
“Dave Morales did dirty work for the agency,” according to Wayne Smith, a diplomat who worked alongside Morales in the U.S. embassy in Havana before Castro took power. “If he were in the mob, he’d be called a hit man.”
Thomas Clines, a colleague of Morales’s in the CIA’s Miami station, was more complimentary in his description, but it amounted to the same thing: “We all admired the hell out of the guy. He drank like crazy, but he was bright as hell. He could fool people into thinking he was stupid by acting stupid, but he knew about cultural things all over the world. People were afraid of him. He was big and aggressive, and he had this mystique. Stories about him permeated the agency. If the agency needed someone action-oriented, he was at the top of the list. If the U.S. government as a matter of policy needed someone or something neutralized, Dave would do it, including things that were repugnant to a lot of people.”
Ruben Carbajal, Morales’s lifelong friend from their boyhood days on the streets of Phoenix, was even more blunt about “Didi”—the man who was like a brother to him: “When some asshole needed to be killed, Didi was the man to do it. . . . That was his job.”
According to Morales’s daughter, he was the CIA’s “peon.” Her father was utterly devoted to the agency. “He did whatever he was told. They gave him a lifestyle that he would never have had under any circumstances. . . . He did everything for the Company. His family wasn’t his life—the Company was his life.”
At the secret Miami meeting, Morales told Hunt that he had been recruited for an “off-the-board” operation by Bill Harvey, with whom El Indio had worked closely on the ZR/Rifle project to kill Castro. The aim of this “off-the-board” operation, it soon became clear, was to assassinate President Kennedy. Morales and Sturgis referred to the president’s planned demise as “the big event.”
In his account of the meeting, Hunt presented Harvey and Morales as the key operational figures in the plot; Harvey did not attend the meeting but seemed to loom over it. Hunt suggested that Harvey was in charge of hiring the sharpshooters to kill Kennedy and transporting the weapons to Dallas. According to Hunt, the gunmen were likely recruited from the Corsican underworld. As Harvey once indicated, when it came to highly delicate assignments, working with Corsican gangsters was preferable because they were harder to trace back to the CIA than Italian or American Mafia hit men.
Hunt found Harvey and Morales to be disturbing characters. The two men “could have been manufactured from the same cloth,” Hunt wrote in his memoir. “Both were hard-drinking, tough guys, possibly completely amoral. Morales was rumored to be a cold-blooded killer, the go-to guy in black ops situations where the government needed to have someone neutralized. I tried to cut short any contact with him, as he wore thin very quickly.”
To Morales, Kennedy was “that no good son of a bitch motherfucker” who was responsible for the deaths of the men he had trained for the Bay of Pigs mission. “We took care of that son of a bitch, didn’t we?” Morales told his attorney, Robert Walton, in 1973, after an evening of drinking loosened the CIA hit man’s tongue. It was one more confession that the media ignored, even after it was reported by one of their own, Gaeton Fonzi, a Philadelphia investigative journalist who, after going to work for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, unearthed some of the most important information related to the Kennedy case.