CIA kept RFK apprised of Castro assassination plotting

The CIA on its gangster friends.

In June 1964, Bobby Kennedy was grieving, guilt ridden and getting ready to leave his job as attorney general when he received a faintly ominous memo from the CIA. Written by Deputy Director Richard Helms, a man he did not trust, the four-page missive concerned a subject he did not care to think about: assassination.

Seven months before, the 39-year-old RFK had lost his brother and his political power in a burst of gunfire in Dallas. Under President Lyndon Johnson, Helms, a canny 51-year-old spymaster, had kept his job despite the fact that the CIA had been following accused assassin Lee Oswald for four years.

Helms’s memo, entitled “Plans of Cuban Exiles to Assassinate Selected Cuban Government Leaders,” reminded RFK that he had dabbled in the killing business before his brother’s murder and could not escape it even as he prepared to leave the government.

The Helms memo, first posted on the JFK Library website, sheds light on an enduring question of the Kennedy presidency: What did JFK and RFK know about the CIA’s plans to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1963?

There is no single piece of paper that proves they did. RFK biographer David Talbot and some Kennedy admirers contend the CIA was acting on its own and out of control. Defenders of the agency, as well as RFK critic Joan Mellen, say that the Kennedys’ outspoken desire to get rid of Castro was a clear signal that any means would be acceptable, including assassination. According to a 1974 memo, first made public in 1998, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Vice President Gerald Ford that Helms had told him that “Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro.”

The June 10 memo doesn’t resolve the question about what RFK knew before November 22, 1963, but it shows that the CIA did keep RFK apprised of one not very promising plan to kill Castro after JFK was dead.

Shadowed by assassination

The memo illuminates the tragic dilemma that RFK faced after his brother’s murder. As a hardliner on Cuba, Bobby Kennedy had conscripted Helms and the CIA in his behind-the-scene efforts to overthrow Castro. But when his brother was murdered, allegedly by a Castro supporter, Bobby suspected a right-wing double cross, and never gave any credence to the “Castro Did It” theory.

As RFK’s son, Robert Kennedy Jr., stated publicly in Dallas earlier this year, his father never believed the official story of a lone gunman. In his 2008 bestseller “Brothers,”  David Talbot documented how Bobby told his closest confidantes that he suspected that anti-Castro exiles and organized crime figures, possibly in league with rogue CIA officers, were responsible for his JFK’s death.

Yet what could he do? RFK underlined key passages of the June 10, 1964, memo with a blue pen, each of which underscored his powerlessness.

RFK noted Helms’s observation that the would-be assassins in contact with the CIA “were motivated in part by the belief that by disclosing the information they would obtain immunity against legal action” and that “the Mafia was involved.”

Helms’s bureaucratically correct message, ostensibly warning RFK about a potential problem, also signaled that the CIA was no longer under his sway. Two years before, in May 1962, an angry RFK had ordered the agency to stop using Mafia figures in its efforts to kill Castro. Now Helms was letting him know that the CIA no longer felt obliged to comply with his wishes, while reminding him that, as attorney general, he might be vulnerable to blackmail by the CIA’s gangster allies .

“They have offered to assassinate Castro for $150,000,” Bobby noted in the memo.  That was the exact price tag for the CIA-Mafia assassination plot that had angered Bobby in May 1962.

Richard Helms, the gentlemanly planner of assassinations.

RFK also underscored a passage reporting “an unidentified group which would be willing to assassinate selected Cuban officials for cash.” That was an idea that he and his brother had entertained and rejected. The CIA was still pursuing it.

RFK did not bother to underline Helms’s unctuous and unconvincing claim that “Agency officers made clear… that the United States government would not, under any circumstances, condone the planned actions.”

RFK knew better than anyone that Helms had condoned multiple assassination plots by organized crime figures and others against Castro. In the words of his biographer Thomas Powers, Helms was “the gentlemanly planner of assassinations.

It is no coincidence that RFK was reading classical scholar Edith Hamilton’s translation of the Greek tragedy Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus, around the time he received this memo. He memorized one line that captured the punishing truth he had to live with each day about his brother’s death. It was a line he would recite on April 4, 1968, when commenting on the assassination of Martin Luther King.

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God,”

On November 22, 1963, RFK learned that dabbling in political assassination was a dangerous business for amateurs. On June 10, 1964, a professional reminded him of this hard truth.

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Here’s the rest of the memo:

 

10 comments

  1. John Kirsch says:

    Somewhere I read that, after 11/22, RFK said he realized that “my world was not the real world,” or words to that effect. I forget what the context was but those words would seem to fit the context you have described here.

  2. JSA says:

    Talbot seems to implicate “rogue CIA agents” as being behind JFK’s assassination. But from what I have read so far, and I’ve even read Powers’ book about Helms: “The Man Who Kept the Secrets” (it is a bit of a whitewash btw), I am convinced that top level people at CIA, plus the Joint Chiefs, FBI director Hoover, and LBJ, were all in on the planning and cover up of the assassination. It wasn’t just “rogues” and it certainly wasn’t just mafia, although I think they were employed in the operation. Robert Kennedy was set up by Helms with respect to the assassination plots against Castro after JFK’s assassination, to keep him compromised and quiet. It’s similar to the set up that JFK was almost brought into over the Bay of Pigs, by his initially signing onto that operation. JFK made an abrupt turn around once CIA told him he needed to involve the US Navy to save the first tier of invaders, who were clearly out gunned by Castro’s forces in the air and on land. President Kennedy said he had been set up, and saw through the CIA’s attempt to frame him. Robert Kennedy probably saw through Helms’ attempt too, but was effectively out of power by 1964, unable to counter CIA.
    Coupled with sexual blackmail that Hoover and LBJ had on the Attorney General, this CIA assassination plot record trump card of Helms put RFK into a weak position. He had no choice but to leave the cabinet and try to build a new Kennedy power base on his own. CIA wasn’t going to let him become president however, and I think they planned the hit on him in Los Angeles, in 1968. Joannides was probably involved in some way, and because of this, CIA won’t release any documents related to him until hell freezes over—or until the American people raise such a huge uproar that they have to come clean and fess up to their domestic assassinations crimes.

    • JSA says:

      I would like to add one more thing: When Richard Nixon brought up the “Bay of Pigs thing” in the Watergate tapes, I think he was using that as a term for CIA blackmail (or RMN’s attempt to blackmail CIA if they tried to mess with him) with regard to his being able to hold onto his presidency as the revelations of corruption began to mount on Capitol Hill. “The Bay of Pigs thing” is what happened to RFK too, with respect to his being involved in anti-Castro assassination plots from 1961-62.

  3. Nathaniel Heidenheimer says:

    “Helms’s bureaucratically correct message, ostensibly warning RFK about a potential problem, also signaled that the CIA was no longer under his sway” Was it ever under his sway?

    Put another way, who amongst us thinks the CIA would have stopped Cuban operations at the Kennedy’s command after the Bay of Pigs. Indeed, during the Bay of Pigs they were never under any Kennedy’s sway whatsoever: As Daniel Schorr reported from the conference of Cuban, Russian and US historians on NPR in 2001, the CIA’s actions during the Bay of Pigs represented “a CIA operation against President Kennedy” . Knowing this and knowing the ongoing Kennedy tumultuousness with CIA, what other opportunity did they have to monitor CIA operations against Cuba other than Mongoose? That question needs to be answered before pointing to charts showing that the CIA was “under” presidential control.

  4. Hans Trayne says:

    Fascinating documents that can be interpreted a number of different ways. It can be taken as a heads up on Intel not involving Operation 40 or ZR/RIFLE operatives that Helms wants RFK to know about taking place on US soil & involving Mafia figures just in case RFK wants to look into it. It’s going to cost him granting some immunity to learn more. It also seems to leave the door open for RFK to finance the group if he wants revenge on Castro. It can also appear as a taunt to RFK along the lines of, ‘Hey, Bobby, the animals that murdered your brother are looking to pull in some more coin on knocking off your old buddy, Fidel if you are interested’ (something along those lines.
    I noticed Bobby underlined some of the names of the alleged anti-Castro kill team, perhaps he knew those names?

    While waiting for experts to give their spin on what this spy vs. spy paper trail means novices like myself can’t help wonder just how many anti-Castro kill teams were floating around & if any of them ever got close enough to Castro to ambush him in some manner that was not publicized.

    It’s been insinuated that JFK was funding anti-Castro killers by running funds to Sam Giancana via Judith Campbell but I haven’t seen any proof of it. If that were the case, I imagine this memo insulted the hell out of RFK in a number of ways.

    Thank you for the info, Jeff.

  5. Paul says:

    If I recall, the book “Legacy of Secrecy” makes much of this angle, both in terms of the implicit blackmail by Helms on RFK that stopped him from investigating his brother’s murder, and also with regard to the connection between the murders of JFK, RFK and MLK.

    Seeing how casually these amoral people assassinated foreign leaders, why would anyone think they would have any qualms about murdering US leaders? A lot of doubts about conspiracy have behind them doubts that American ” gangsters” would kill American leaders. But that assumes they have consciences in the first place. Clearly they saw the world as a chess game and the individual pieces were immaterial.

  6. George Simmons says:

    It seems difficult to know what the truth really is.

    All reserachers seem to have conflicting views on who knew what and when, what peoples motivations were, and what people really meant when they did and said certain things.

    It seems that JFK’s relationship with the Military and Intelligence departments had completely broken down to a point where it was a unhealthy situation for the country.

    Even in times of national crisis they all seemed to be manouvering and plotting against each other.

    I feel that the Military and Intelligence sections felt that they were responsible for the security of the country, and whoever was in the white house was irrelevant to them.

    Interesting and surprising to hear senior figures say recently that the recent events in Egypt were the result of the military “restoring democracy”. I wonder if the perpetrators of the JFK assassination, in their twisted logic, felt they were doing the same.

  7. Robert Charles-Dunne says:

    I’m sorry, but I see no notation or signature indicating that Robert Kennedy ever saw or read the memo reproduced here, addressed as it was to the DCI.

    Nor do I see any evidence, let alone proof, for the brazen assertion that either of the Kennedys knew anything about continuing CIA attempts to assassinate Castro.

    To suggest otherwise is to traffick in CIA fictions contrived to absolve Langley for what it pursued despite Presidential orders, not because of them. One wonders which is more pathetic; those who propagate such self-evidently baseless nonsense, or those who believe it.

    Kissinger said that Ford said that Helms said that Kennedy was the guilty party. My goodness, with a chain of evidence that sturdy, repeated in each case by men of proven integrity, how can anyone remain unconvinced?

    I’m a bit stunned to see so astute a writer exhibit such rank gullibility.

    • Gpfloor says:

      Robert,

      It’s poor form to require any evidence that the Kennedy’s knew about certain things just as it is to require any more than a “misreading” of an oral history by a prominent “historian” to believe the Alford fairy tale.

      It is only alternatives to the wcr that require any supporting evidence . And nothing short of 9 signed confessions witnessed by the pope, 10 smoking guns and talking parrot in a pear tree will suffice here.

  8. And LBJ was running Murder, Inc. down in Texas and he was not gentlemanly about it. See Billie Sol Estes for that. And this:

    Robert Caro describes the LBJ-RFK relationship post 1960 Democratic convention, where RFK had moved heaven and earth attempting to keep LBJ off the 1960 Democratic ticket. Caro:

    John Connally, who during long days of conversation with this author was willing to answer almost any question put to him, no matter how delicate the topic, wouldn’t answer when asked what Johnson said about Robert Kennedy. When the author pressed him, he finally said flatly: “I am not going to tell you what he said about him.” During the months after the convention, when Johnson was closeted alone back in Texas with an old ally he would sometimes be asked about Robert Kennedy. He would reply with a gesture. Raising his big right hand, he would draw the side of it across the neck in a slowing, slitting movement. Sometimes that gesture would be his only reply; sometimes, as during a meeting with Ed Clark in Austin, he would say, as his hand moved across his neck, “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.” [Robert Caro, "The Passage of Power," p. 140]

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