John McCone came to the CIA as an outsider. An industrialist and an engineer by training, he replaced veteran spymaster Allen Dulles as director of central intelligence in November 1961, after John F. Kennedy had forced out Dulles following the CIA’s bungled operation to oust Fidel Castro by invading Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. McCone had one overriding mission: restore order at the besieged CIA. Kennedy hoped his management skills might prevent a future debacle, even if the Californian—mostly a stranger to the clubby, blue-blooded world of the men like Dulles who had always run the spy agency—faced a steep learning curve.
After JFK’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson kept McCone in place at the CIA, and the CIA director became an important witness before the Warren Commission, the panel Johnson created to investigate Kennedy’s murder. McCone pledged full cooperation with the commission, which was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and testified that the CIA had no evidence to suggest that Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin, was part of any conspiracy, foreign or domestic. In its final report, the commission came to agree with McCone’s depiction of Oswald, a former Marine and self-proclaimed Marxist, as a delusional lone wolf.
But did McCone come close to perjury all those decades ago? Did the onetime Washington outsider in fact hide agency secrets that might still rewrite the history of the assassination? Even the CIA is now willing to raise these questions. Half a century after JFK’s death, in a once-secret report written in 2013 by the CIA’s top in-house historian and quietly declassified last fall, the spy agency acknowledges what others were convinced of long ago: that McCone and other senior CIA officials were “complicit” in keeping “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission.
According to the report by CIA historian David Robarge, McCone, who died in 1991, was at the heart of a “benign cover-up” at the spy agency, intended to keep the commission focused on “what the Agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’—that Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing John Kennedy.” The most important information that McCone withheld from the commission in its 1964 investigation, the report found, was the existence, for years, of CIA plots to assassinate Castro, some of which put the CIA in cahoots with the Mafia. Without this information, the commission never even knew to ask the question of whether Oswald had accomplices in Cuba or elsewhere who wanted Kennedy dead in retaliation for the Castro plots.
While raising no question about the essential findings of the Warren Commission, including that Oswald was the gunman in Dallas, the 2013 report is important because it comes close to an official CIA acknowledgement—half a century after the fact—of impropriety in the agency’s dealings with the commission. The coverup by McCone and others may have been “benign,” in the report’s words, but it was a cover-up nonetheless, denying information to the commission that might have prompted a more aggressive investigation of Oswald’s potential Cuba ties.
Initially stamped “SECRET/NOFORN,” meaning it was not to be shared outside the agency or with foreign governments, Robarge’s report was originally published as an article in the CIA’s classified internal magazine, Studies in Intelligence, in September 2013, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. The article, drawn from a still-classified 2005 biography of McCone written by Robarge, was declassified quietly last fall and is now available on the website of The George Washington University’s National Security Archive. In a statement to POLITICO, the CIA said it decided to declassify the report “to highlight misconceptions about the CIA’s connection to JFK’s assassination,” including the still-popular conspiracy theory that the spy agency was somehow behind the assassination. (Articles in the CIA magazine are routinely declassified without fanfare after internal review.)
Robarge’s article says that McCone, quickly convinced after the assassination that Oswald had acted alone and that there was no foreign conspiracy involving Cuba or the Soviet Union, directed the agency to provide only “passive, reactive and selective” assistance to the Warren Commission. This portrait of McCone suggests that he was much more hands-on in the CIA’s dealings with the commission—and in the agency’s post-assassination scrutiny of Oswald’s past—than had previously been known. The report quotes another senior CIA official, who heard McCone say that he intended to “handle the whole (commission) business myself, directly.”
The report offers no conclusion about McCone’s motivations, including why he would go to lengths to cover-up CIA activities that mostly predated his time at the agency. But it suggests that the Johnson White House might have directed McCone to hide the information. McCone “shared the administration’s interest in avoiding disclosures about covert actions that would circumstantially implicate [the] CIA in conspiracy theories and possibly lead to calls for a tough US response against the perpetrators of the assassination,” the article reads. “If the commission did not know to ask about covert operations about Cuba, he was not going to give them any suggestions about where to look.”
In an interview, David Slawson, who was the Warren Commission’s chief staff investigator in searching for evidence of a foreign conspiracy, said he was not surprised to learn that McCone had personally withheld so much information from the investigation in 1964, especially about the Castro plots.
“I always assumed McCone must have known, because I always believed that loyalty and discipline in the CIA made any large-scale operation without the consent of the director impossible,” says Slawson, now 84 and a retired University of Southern California law professor. He says he regrets that it had taken so long for the spy agency to acknowledge that McCone and others had seriously misled the commission. After half a century, Slawson says, “The world loses interest, because the assassination becomes just a matter of history to more and more people.”
Read more: Politico