CIA tradecraft & JFK’s assassination: A veteran officer analyzes the death of a president

Former CIA station chief Rolf-Mowatt-Larssen addressed a conference of JFK researchers in Dallas in November 2019. (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

(This article, titled “Under CIA Eyes,” first appeared in Counterpunch, Vol. 25 published in January 2020.).

“I was struck by the intimacy and the smallness of the whole surroundings,” said retired CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen after his first visit to Dealey Plaza in November 2019.

Dealey Plaza, a grassy Art Deco entry point to downtown Dallas, is where President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963. Hundreds of thousands of people still come from around the world to see the spot where the popular liberal president was ambushed. Many of them have the same reaction to the crime scene: the intimacy, the smallness.

Mowatt-Larssen was not just any tourist.

The street where JFK died.

A 22-year veteran of America’s clandestine service, he is an experienced secret intelligence professional and a senior fellow in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  With the binocular vision of an operations officer, Mowatt-Larssen assessed the landscape where JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963 for its action potential, both defensive and offensive.

 “Everything was  so easy to control, so easy to manipulate,” he told a  crowd of 150 JFK researchers at a nearby hotel two days later. He described Dealey Plaza as “a setting that was so conducive to everything that happened that day And I wondered if that was accident.”

I wondered about Mowatt-Larssen’s wonder. This CIA veteran’s curiosity about the causes of JFK’s assassination, his willingness to talk about it publicly, and his analysis of how and why the liberal president was assassinated is compelling. What he brings to the historical record of JFK’s murder, is not new facts, but an original frame of analysis.  

Mowatt-Larssen does not look at the story of how JFK died as do most Washington pundits: as an anti-conspiracy theorist. He doesn’t view JFK’s assassination through the lens of investigative reporting (my preferred mode), academic history, cultural criticism, or touristic adventure. He sees Dealey Plaza through the eyes of a covert operator.

I found that intriguing, so I introduced myself to him in the crowded hall outside the room where he spoke. The conference, sponsored by the Committee Against Political Assassinations (CAPA), attracted a graying, mostly male, crowd that debated and discussed the intricacies of a pivotal historic moment. Mowatt-Larssen was mixing amiably with these amateur sleuths when I intercepted him. He told me he liked my biography of CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton, The Ghost. Soon, we repaired to the lobby bar of the Quality Inn to trade spy stories over white wine.

Mole Hunter

A pinkish, polylingual Norwegian-American with white bangs, Mowatt-Larssen looks younger than his 65 years. He graduated from West Point in 1976 and served six years as a U.S. Army Cavalry officer before joining the CIA in 1982. He spoke of mole hunting in Mexico and  investigating Aldrich Ames, the Russian spy who betrayed some of his agents. He said I could report that he served as station chief in Moscow. “That’s been acknowledged.” To provide any more details of his resume risks getting me indicted for violating the Espionage Act. Throughout, he demonstrated a spook’s knack for spinning fascinating tales devoid of publishable details.

I came to Dallas because I had some idea of what he intended to say. Mowatt-Larssen first shared his JFK analysis at Valerie Plame’s annual Santa Fe spy conference in 2018. A friend in attendance texted me. “This guy from CIA just said the agency killed JFK,” she wrote. “Wtf?”

JFK under fire

I had the same question. In Dallas, I learned that Mowatt-Larssen embraces the theory that JFK’s assassination was the work of rogue CIA officers. He argues that certain officers in the agency’s Miami station plotted JFK’s death as revenge for his perceived betrayal of Cuban anti-communist forces during the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and the missile crisis of October 1962.

This is not a novel interpretation of November 22. The possible involvement CIA officers in JFK’s death is explored most carefullyAnthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s deeply reported book, Not in Your Lifetime. Nor does Mowatt-Larssen stake out a grand claim to historical truth.  He sometimes gives himself an out by saying things like, “If there was a conspiracy, here’s how it happened.” He repeats he is not speaking from any knowledge of CIA records on the subject. His method is probabilistic, not evidentiary.

“It’s based on tradecraft,” Mowatt-Larssen said. “How would a conspiracy look?”

While I appreciated this creative mode of thinking, more than one conference participant did not.

“I think there’s a zero percent chance he’s not a representative of the CIA cover-up,” Dan Storper, a record company owner and co-Chair of The Truth & Reconciliation Committee, a group of 80 citizens, activists and authors who have called for the re-opening of the JFK investigation. Another researcher called Mowatt-Larssen a “CIA stooge” whose talk was “the low point of the conference. I couldn’t find a brick to toss, LOL. Why he was there is beyond me.”

Such suspicions should not blind people to Mowatt-Larssen’s central insight: in the eyes of an experienced CIA officer, the crime of November 22, 1963 was most likely the culmination of a covert operation, organized by CIA personnel.

“They had to be operations officers,” he stressed at one point.

Dealey Plaza moment
Dealey Plaza, moments after the asssassination of JFK.

Mowatt-Larssen’s presentation in Dallas is the first significant development in the JFK story since October 2017. That’s when President Trump agreed to keep secret portions of 15,834 assassination-related files until at least 2021. The statistic comes from the National Archives web site and was confirmed to me by an Archives official. Probably two-thirds of those records are held the CIA and FBI) Some people say the U.S. government has nothing to hide on JFK assassination’s. But if they have nothing to hide, why are they hiding so much? 

While President Trump has acquiesced to the CIA’s demands for continuing JFK secrecy, this former station chief questions it.

“I’m a big believer in releasing the rest of the records,” said Mowatt-Larssen.

NEXT: ‘The very top people’


Part I : A veteran officer analyzes the death of a president / Part II: ‘The very top people.’ / Part III: The making of a patsy / Part IV; I’m not privy to who struck John.’

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