Nixon asked CIA about the ‘Who shot John angle’

Nixon Helms
President Nixon and CIA Director Richard Helms.

The 42nd anniversary of the Watergate burglary reminded me of  Richard Nixon’s obsession with the “whole of Bay of Pigs thing.”

H.R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff for Nixon, wrote in his memoirs that he had come to the conclusion that his boss used the phrase as a kind of coded reference to the assassination of President Kennedy.

A tape of a conversation between Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms in October 1971 lends credence to the notion. Listen to the tape, published online by Luke A. Nichter, a history professor at Texas A&M University.

Nixon, it is clear, was interested in what he called the ‘Who Shot John?’ angle.


‘The Dirty Tricks Department’

Before Helms arrives, Nixon’s aide John Erlichman tells the president Helms has been stonewalling his request for documents about the Bay of Pigs. Erlichman makes it clear that he didn’t tell Helms his real purpose. “I was kind of mysterious about it,” he explains.

But they think they have leverage on Helms. At one point Ehrlichman says, “Helms is scared to death of this guy [Howard] Hunt we got working for us because he knows where a lot of the bodies are buried,” This is spoken eight months before Hunt and six other men were arrested at the Watergate office complex for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee.

When then CIA director arrives, Nixon offers some typically awkward and forced small talk about baseball player Ted Williams and then gets down to business. He says he wants to address the “sensitive” issue of the documents he is seeking. He assures Helms that he fully supports what he calls “the dirty tricks department.”

“I know what happened in Iran and I know what happened in Guatemala and I totally approve of that. I know what happened with the planning of the Bay of Pigs,” he says.”The problem was not the CIA. My interest there is solely to know the facts.”

When Helms doesn’t say much, Nixon presses his case by reminding Helms he is the president.

“First. This is my information,” he says, “Second, I need it for a defensive reasons, for a negotiation.”

When those arguments elicit no response. Nixon tries another justification: He needs the information to protect the CIA. In making his case, Nixon talks about what might be in the records and he utters these words (at around 17:00 in the file):

“The ‘Who shot John?’ angle. Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Nixon to blame? Etc, etc. It may become, not by me, a very vigorous issue but if it does, I need to know what is necessary to protect frankly the intelligence gathering and the Dirty Tricks Department and I will protect it. I have done more than my share of lying to protect you, and I believe it’s totally right to do it.”

What does it mean?

The reference to ‘Who shot John” can only be a reference to Kennedy’s assassination. It seems clear that Nixon thought that the CIA records on the Bay of Pigs might contain information about who was behind the assassination. This indicates, at a minimum, that Nixon did not have confidence in the official theory that Kennedy was killed by one man alone. It suggests that he thought the CIA knew more about JFK’s assassination than it let on. And, it is quite clear, that If the CIA’s actions did become an issue, Nixon would protect “the Dirty Tricks Department.”

Nixon never got the documents he wanted. After the arrest of the Watergate burglars on June 17, 1972, Nixon tried to enlist Helms in a cover-up. In a meeting on June 20, Nixon said an investigation of the burglary could “open up the whole Bay of Pigs thing,” causing the usually unflappable Helms to shout, “This has nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs!”

In his posthumous memoir, Helms claimed that he did not know what Nixon was referring to. But if he remembered the conversation of October 10, 1971, he knew exactly what Nixon was talking about.








42 thoughts on “Nixon asked CIA about the ‘Who shot John angle’”

  1. One thing I feel is a fair assumption. Is that Nixon knew full well the history of activities of Hunt, Barker and several of the other old operation 40 crew. Given the very early plots involving Cuba when it was Pretty much his baby as VP. and as those people morphed into the “plumbers’ To the point Hunt was a White House consultant with his own office. Then we have Nixon at the evening party in Dallas the Night before the assassination with a few now viewed as interesting figures.
    Nixons friend, and foe relationship with CIA is a case study within it’s self. Perhaps both grew to feel the other was not as loyal as at one time seen. To what degree Nixon stinks in the event’s in Dallas is Still there for the finding. Follow the stink and it normally leads to a carcass.
    What did Deep Throat say to woodward in the garage. ” It involves the activities of the entire Intelligence community.

  2. Another thought. There are 1971 tapes that confirm Nixon already wanted Agnew to resign. Knowing Ford would ascend to the VP…and with Nixon liking to hold others “in check”…and with this tape clearly shedding doubt on Nixon’s faith in the Warren Commission…perhaps these details were something Nixon wanted to know to hold over Ford.

  3. There is a point that we all may have overlooked…the role of the media that was injected with steroids during the period between ’63 and this discussion. We now have not only a two-party political system (no offense intended to libertarians and maybe a little implied to Naderites); the media is a third party that is capable of creating perception’s domination over fact.

    We know Nixon was obsessed with the Dems and we know print media bit him in the tush…but he was the first to truly feel the threat of the span of reach of television to millions. Not only millions, but millions of voters many of whom were not intellectually inclined to read.

    Perhaps, Nixon’s obsession is also driven by a fear of pictures of Kennedy’s autopsy or the Z-film getting out when the media can hardly be held in the kind of check the CIA can.

    As Costner argued at the close of the movie JFK…all you have to do is count the wounds/shots to recognize a second shooter and you have conspiracy.

    I believe Nixon was vowing to protect the CIA from the media. I roll back dominos to the first one that fell in the chain. Election…campaign…votes…voters…the unwashed masses…their source of “information”.

    The Z-film was out there. It wasn’t even in the hands of the government. It was in the Time-Life vault. The “who shot angle” could have literally referred to the fact that the Z-film shows an angle from front-right.

    To roll dominos forward: Z-film…conspiracy…Cuba…Nixon.

    I am not saying Nixon was involved, I’m saying when dirty laundry is found it’s often near a hamper and the CIA may have been the hamper and known exactly what the dirt was…

  4. I’m persuaded now that “who shot John” is in fact a generic reference, however, it would surprise me not at all if both Nixon and Angleton used it in its double context.

    What’s more important about this conversation is that a president is forced to beg the CIA for documents in their possession. That puts the complete lie to the notion that the CIA serves at the pleasure of the president.

    1. I agree with Lisa about the CIA. Institutional bureaucracies are like lobbyists. They both embed themselves in the fabric, have great staying power, and are have the experience to know how the levers of power work. If threatened, these institutions are quite adept at striking back, especially those in charge of state secrets and spying. By contrast, elected officials come and go, especially term limited presidents. If we get Congressional term limits (something that libertarians have been crying for) the lobbying firms (many of whom are run by ex-legislators and their staffs) will OWN the Congress like never before, because they will have so much institutional superiority and experience over Congress that legislators will just bend over. I think we should lift the ridiculous term limits imposed on the presidency, put in by paranoid Republicans who didn’t like the fact that FDR could win the popular vote four times in a row.
      An excellent book about institutional genius is “Hoover: The Man and the Secrets” about J. Edgar’s staying power and abuse of that power (book is by Anthony Summers).

      1. JSA June 18, 2014 at 9:04 am

        What president since FDR would you like to have served over eight years? I can think of none and wish many had not served even a second term.

        I disagree with both you and Lisa about the CIA. If the CIA doesn’t serve the president it is the presidents fault. The president has the authority to appoint and fire the head of CIA and he should fire anyone not responding to his wishes.

        1. Bill,

          I would like to see Obama serve a third term.

          As for CIA, they are always there. The president is just temporary. Think of JFK’s appointed head of CIA, John McCone. He didn’t have institutional authority; he was just an appointee. The lower level professionals didn’t respect him. The Bay of Pigs was planned in 1960, prior to JFK’s election. JFK was supposed to sign on to a pre-planned, bureaucratic program. The fact that he thought for himself, that he decided NOT to do what the bureaucrats at CIA wanted him to do, shows independent thinking. Independent thinking is discouraged in the bureaucracy. Also in the military. You served in the military. Surely you know what I’m talking about. Again, I ask that you read about Billy Mitchell. His court martial speaks VOLUMES about the military, and about bureaucratic intransigency.

          1. For some reason I knew you were going to name Obama. Oh well, this is America after all.

            Yes, I know what you are talking about and I know how entrenched this can get. But if Helms was dragging his feet on getting reports to Nixon he should have been warned and if that didn’t work he should have been fired and Nixon should have kept firing people until the reports were on his desk.

            I am familiar with the Billy Mitchell case and I am familiar with military intolerance. I’ve seen it in action.

        2. Maybe JFK? If we could have seen what he did in a full four or eight he might have done better than Johnson or Nixon. Another four from Clinton would have been better than Bush II.
          The CIA probably only truly served former director Bush I since (think Nicaragua, cocaine for guns here).
          JFK did fire Dulles, and Bissell and Cabell.

          1. I mostly agree with you here Ronnie. But after eight years, or even less, they just get stale and even their own party starts to snip at them. We have had the same governor (Rick Perry) since Bush went to the White House. It hasn’t been pretty.

            I certainly wish JFK had been allowed to finish a second term. But the other school of thought is that a second term would or could have been disastrous for him. The hard decisions on Vietnam and Civil Rights would have to be made in a second term and Hoover’s file could have been made public at any time. No doubt he would have done better that Johnson and Nixon I think.

            I always thought Clinton was a sleaze bag and still do. He wasted a second term because his DNA was where it shouldn’t be. But he left us with money in the bank instead of this terrible debt we now have so we could probably have used more of him.

            I think that often the CIA gets the dirty end of the stick because the president sent them to do a dirty job. Not always but many times I think we need to look more closely at the president.

          2. Bill,

            You seem to defend the CIA as if they are just an innocent bureaucracy “serving at the will of each president”. So what do you make of Harry Truman’s OP/ED in the Washington Post, written in late 1963, in which he wrote that he regretted CIA ever being allowed to do “cloak and dagger” operations, instead of just gathering intelligence, as he thought it should have done when he oversaw its creation (from the OSS) in 1947?

            Here is the link to Truman’s published comment:

          3. Lisa and Bill, you have me confused. As a HS SR in 74 I did not pay as close attention to the happenings of the time as my Civics teacher suggested. Many ears later I read (and still have) “The Final Days”. I thought Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face almost certain impeachment (only the 2md President to face proceedings for such, none have actually been impeached?).
            If he would have not began covering up the break in in 72 he would have committed no crime in that respect at least. So, theoretically he would not have needed to ask Helms for the CIA to take responsibility. Thus he would have had no reason to fire him??? Like I said I’m confused, he committed a crime (obviously), fired Helms out of spite for not covering him, then face impeachment for that or the crime or both?
            Bill, as a Texan myself, you will get no argument from me about Perry. The troubling thing is his potential replacement could be worse without a miracle by Wendy Davis.
            Ms. Pease I highly respect your work at CTKA and in The Assassinations.

          4. JSA June 19, 2014 at 5:27 pm

            Yes, I’ll defend the CIA since everyone else can do nothing but bash them. I’ve studied the CIA and its leaders in some detail and they have had their moments. And yes, they have had their bad moments.

            Please note I didn’t claim they were innocent. They aren’t in an innocent business. But often the president that tasked them with the mission isn’t so innocent either. Very seldom do you hear about that.

            I’m familiar with Truman’s distaste for groups like the OSS and the CIA. He killed the OSS as soon as possible and didn’t create the CIA for another two years. Not good.

            As for the Truman article, if we take the tactical operation task from the CIA then who do we give it to? The military? My god they have been stretched thin for a decade or more.

          5. What, you don’t like Harry Truman, the president who was famous for the Truman Doctrine to contain communist expansion, and who famously pushed an initially reluctant Congress to support the Marshall Plan?

            I think you’re missing my point. I’m not against having a CIA to gather intelligence. I am opposed to having a CIA that runs covert operations. Should the USA be involved in covert operations? I would argue that they should be limited, and yes, should stay with the military. In his epic 1960 book “Secret Team,” Fletcher Prouty traces how CIA, starting with the Dulles leadership, began to infiltrate the US military, as our military shrank back down to reserve strength following WW2 and especially after the Korean War. I would argue the the CIA HAS gotten overstretched and needs reining in. It’s not healthy for a democracy, for a democratic republic, to have a too powerful secret police force. We’re not the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Our aim should be for as much transparency as possible, certainly when it pertains to NSA domestic spying, something our Framers in 1787 would roll over in their graves about, and certainly where it pertains to JFK assassination files kept secret from the taxpaying US public for over 50 years. Can we agree on that?

          6. JSA June 20, 2014 at 9:44 am

            We can agree 100% on them not releasing all the JFK assassination files.

            We can agree 100% on the NSA domestic spying but remember the CIA is legally barred from operating in the U.S.

            No, I really like Truman but I think he was wrong about our need for an intelligence organization. Probably a throw back to the old days of, “a gentleman does not read other gentleman’s mail”.

            The trouble with putting covert operations into the military is that the “plausible denial” so important to the president is made much more difficult if not impossible to maintain. Covert operations should be limited to their capacity. The BOP was much too big an operation for the CIA to be running.

          7. Ronnie Wayne June 19, 2014 at 9:36 pm

            At the ripe old age of 70 I’m confused much of the time now.

            Nixon could legally fire Helms so no legal trouble here. It was rather crappy of Nixon since Helms had served him well. Nixon did the same to the four star Air Force general that had helped him conceal our bombing of Cambodia. When they got caught Nixon fired the old boy. No honor amongst thieves I guess.

            The House Committee investigating Nixon had actually approved Articles of Impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of congress. When the tapes came out most all support of Nixon in the House and Senate collapsed. I think most agree that the full House would have voted against Nixon and when a trail was held in the Senate Nixon would have been convicted. So Tricky Dick resigned rather than be convicted in the Senate.

            I fear one must be a member of the Tea Party to be elected in Texas anymore and that is bad news for our state as well as the country. The nuts on the far left and far right don’t need to be running the country.

        3. Nixon ultikmately DID fire Helms, and guess what happened? McCord, who taught security classes at CIA, retaped the door at the Watergate after it was discovered and untapped by a guard once, thereby ensuring they would be caught. When Nixon asked Helms to say it was a CIA operation (which it was) and Helms refused, McCord wrote Osborne that if Helms was fired, “every tree in the forest would fall.” Helms was fired. McCord wrote the judge that perjury had been committed, and Nixon was ultimately impeached. In other words, firing Helms ended Nixon’s presidency. The CIA runs the country, not the president. Wake up and smell that reality, and then DO something about it.

          1. Nixon was impeached and lost his job because he committed a crime. Not because he fired Helms.

            Had Nixon not been guilty of a crime he could have fired Helms and still kept his job.

            I’ll pass comment on the CIA “running the country”.

          2. I don’t believe the CIA runs the country. They are small players in the elite criminal networks that run the US and the western world. They are now just one of 16 intelligence agencies under the Director of National Intelligence. Military Intelligence and NSA are probably more powerful today than CIA.

  5. Although it seems possible Nixon was worried about exposure regarding his own involvement in the Castro hits, his involvement becomes even more problematic when one considers the possibility these hit attempts boomeranged back on Kennedy. I mean,can you imagine the blow to Nixon’s approval rating should it have come out HIS fiddling in foreign policy got KENNEDY killed. Good-bye second term. Good-bye legacy.

    And it’s not just smoke. Consider that the middleman between the CIA and mafia was Maheu. Consider that Maheu was already serving (though not full-time) as the public face of Howard Hughes. Consider that Maheu told Hughes he was serving as the middleman/ cut-out and creating the illusion HUGHES was behind the hit attempts on Castro. Consider that Maheu told the mafia his real employer was the CIARA, and that they used this as a get out of jail free card. when he was caught wire-tapping Giancana’s girlfriend on behalf of Sam.

    And now consider that Maheu’s business partner was Robert King, a close friend of Nixon’s and the chief of security for his 1960 campaign. And now consider that Nixon was that rare Republican to get the backing of the Teamsters, and that he pardoned Jimmy Hofffa.

    1. This seems plausible but only if Nixon’s behind the scenes meddling continued into the Kennedy administration.

  6. One problem with writing off references to “Who struck John”, etc. is that it’s not exactly a common turn of phrase. 19th century British slang just doesn’t cut it. Maybe it somehow worked its way into Beltway insider parlance, but I could accept that a lot more readily if there were other examples of its use by people not so closely interested in the JFK assassination as Nixon and Angleton.

    If Nixon believed in a Castro-blowback theory of the assassination, his question of which president was to blame makes sense – who authorized the kill-Castro ops?

    I have wondered quite a bit if Castro-blowback stories circulated amongst the political elite even prior to Rosselli’s early 1967 leaks. This would provide a very logical context for Truman’s 12/22/63 editorial as well as later comments by Nixon and Johnson.

  7. Larry Hancock

    We know now that the Castro assassination project began under Ike, proposed by JC King and seconded by Dulles. It is very likely that Nixon was involved and also that he knew that Hunt was aware of the project – Hunt had indeed been told that the Castro assassination action he recommended had been taken care of…given Nixon’s paranoia he could very well have been thinking that if Hunt began to talk the Castro assassination project (via Roselli and his mob connections) could have come up. That would have been a real concern for Nixon for several reasons including his own connections to peripheral mob figures in Florida….one of whose islands had actually been used by the CIA in pre-BOP infiltrations into Cuba.

  8. Pat, this is one time I can’t agree with you, though I know you’re only offering alternative interpretations here. In context, it’s always clear what Nixon is referring to. I had the early edition of Haldeman’s book that laid out his realization that Nixon was talking about Dallas. Interestingly, later editions of the book deleted that passage–a Nixonian irony, given the subject of the book.

  9. Christophe Sauvage

    “Who shot John” or “who struck John” is an old slang term going back to 19th century Britain. It refers to fingerpointing or endless rehashing of who is responsible for a disastrous situation.

  10. Jeff, are you sure there is no other explanation, that it CAN ONLY be a reference to the JFK assassination? Why would Nixon posit himself and Kennedy himself as possible suspects? Didn’t Angelton say in 1975 that “who shot John” was a generic phrase for knowing the full truth about something? There are enough mysteries about this thing that we need not be making up new ones.

    1. I have listened to this tape and the day’s previous discussion with Ehrlichman and have come to realize that most of us have misunderstood the context of the tapes. Nixon is looking for info that will tie Kennedy to the assassination of Diem, which he strangely calls “the Kennedy assassination…of Diem” Helms has refused to hand it over to Ehrlichman, and brings it to Nixon himself. Nixon, of course, wants more and subsequently orders Hunt, through Colson, to fake up some cables that will tie Kennedy to the killing.

      When Nixon mentions “Who shot John?” He is mentioning it in the context of his old friend Lodge and others all pointing fingers in different directions as to who was to blame for Diem’s murder. Nixon and Ehrlichman know who they want to blame it on, however. In Ehrlichman’s book The Company he has the character based on Kennedy order the murder of a priest. This is a reference to Diem, an ardent catholic.

      1. “Nixon is looking for info that will tie Kennedy to the assassination of Diem, which he strangely calls “the Kennedy assassination…of Diem” Helms has refused to hand it over to Ehrlichman, and brings it to Nixon himself. Nixon, of course, wants more and subsequently orders Hunt, through Colson, to fake up some cables that will tie Kennedy to the killing.”~Pat Speer

        As I mentioned before on one of these threads, HR Haldeman speaks to these forged cables implicating JFK as well. So there are two sources for the same information.

        Nixon also makes continued references to the “Mexican thing” which Haldeman explains is Nixon code for the assassination of Kennedy (the Mexican thing being the sniper training camp in Mexico spoken to in The Nomenclature of an Assassination Cabal by William Torbitt (nom de plume).

  11. As far as “Who shot John?”, it’s a reference to an old British children’s game. It’s used interchangeable with “who struck John” and “who hit John” and, presumably “who slapped John” (which became a song by Gene Vincent). It refers to any situation in which people point fingers at each other. Curiously, Nixon was not the only person to use the phrase in a context that might suggest he was talking about the Kennedy assassination. Another one who comes to mind is James Angleton.

    1. I find Angleton’s use of it intriguing, the context he used it in. If I remember right “A mansion has many rooms, I’m not privy to who shot John”. Was this to the HSCA? I think he was questioned about his meaning. Was the mansion the CIA? Was he trying to blame Helms, Shackley, Phillips, Morales, Joannides?
      Or his idol Dulles, who’s ashes he carried at his Funeral.
      Who knows. Spies are paid to lie.

      1. I thought Angleton’s initial mansion comment was to Seymour Hersh? I don’t know if Angleton meant the CIA or American government in general, with all the different departments and functions. I don’t think he was trying to blame Dulles, Helms, those at the very top of the CIA in other words.

  12. There’s another explanation for the “Bay of Pigs Thing” that also makes sense. Nixon was incredibly worried about Teddy Kennedy. He’d already approved Hunt’s forging of official cables to make it look like JFK had ordered Diem murdered, and Nixon planned on using these against Teddy, and minimizing the death benefit afforded Teddy via his brother’s “martyrdom.”. This ammo would be pointless, however, if official memos existed proving Nixon had ordered Castro’s murder. It makes sense, then, that that was what Nixon was looking for: evidence that he (Nixon) had ordered Castro’s murder as part of the planning for the Bay of Pigs. That Nixon had done as much was admitted, ultimately, in an official CIA history.

    1. They can forge cables? Shoot!

      Back on topic, is there not a theory that the Watergate burglary was about finding any dirt the Democratic party had on Nixon?

      Nixon was very paranoid.

      I can’t see the Democratic party office having info on who killed JFK, but perhaps some incriminating* evidence against Nixon with respect to the Bay of Pigs thing?

      *Was it just that or approving the collusion with organized crime towards the same objective? I didn’t think that ordering an assassination against a Communist dictator back in the day would be regarded as unpatriotic or criminal, if it was carried out by your *own* forces/agency. Am I missing something?

      1. I’m speculating here, but I would wager a guess that perhaps the same mob/CIA/military alliance that was tapped for the Bay of Pigs planning in 1960 (to be used in 1961) was also used to assassinate President Kennedy when he didn’t play along, and in fact when he threatened these three power groups, which coalesced during the Cold War to “get things done”. Anyone doubting that the mob had CIA ties only has to look at Permindex and the Sicilian operation prior to that, in WW2, when the then OSS heads worked with Sicilian mobsters to gain information and assistance in the invasion of Italy.

        1. No doubt.

          Not sure if this is a fact, but even in the HBO series, The Sopranos, the local FBI agents asked Tony and his crew for any information about terrorist smugglers on the docks. If I’m not mistaken, I thought they also colluded for leads during WWII as to any Nazi enemy infiltration or U-boat sightings.

    2. That makes sense. If he really wanted documents related JFK assassination docs wouldn’t he just ask? Why be coy about it? He’s the president. The fact that he’s dancing around what he really wants suggests he’s trying to find out if there’s any evidence of his own wrongdoing.

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