By Don Fulsom
In the dark, early hours of June 17, 1972, from inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building in Washington, DC, burglar James McCord radioed an alarm to his two supervisors. Monitoring the operation from their command post in the Watergate Hotel, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy heard McCord’s electronic whisper that he and the other four burglars might have been detected.
“Scratch it,” Hunt advised. But Liddy commanded to McCord: “Let’s go! Everybody’s here [meaning the four burglars from Miami] . . . Go!”
“So they went . . . filed off into history,” Hunt later recalled.
Minutes after heeding Liddy’s order, DC police nabbed McCord and the other unusually dressed burglars—who were all wearing suits and ties as well as surgical gloves. Hunt and Liddy hastily fled the scene, but were eventually tied to the crime.
These men would become the first known participants in the nation’s biggest political scandal. Two summers later, “Watergate” forced President Richard Nixon to resign in dishonor.
Aside from their attire, this was no ordinary burglary team: ex-CIA agent Hunt was Nixon’s chief White House spy; ex-CIA agent McCord and ex-FBI agent Liddy were top officials of the president’s 1972 campaign committee. The Miamians had CIA ties and—with Hunt as their supervisor—had been involved in planning the failed CIA- backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba eleven years earlier. All of the men had been involved in previous clandestine Nixon White House operations against the president’s enemies.
Hunt and Liddy had even participated in a particularly sordid aff air—the planned assassination of newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, Nixon’s archfoe in the media. The plot against Anderson only came to light in 1975 when the Washington Post reported that—“according to reliable sources”—Hunt told associates after the Watergate break-in that he was ordered to kill the columnist in December 1971 or January 1972.
President Nixon chose to be out of the country the day of the Watergate break-in. He was visiting a private island in the Bahamas owned by his old drinking buddy Robert Abplanalp, a wealthy businessman. Accompanied by Bebe Rebozo, Nixon had choppered to the tiny island from his Key Biscayne, Florida home.
Hot-tempered even under normal conditions, the chief executive went ballistic when aide Chuck Colson told him by phone that his men had been arrested at Watergate. Nixon grew so enraged he threw an ashtray against one of the walls in Abplanalp’s luxurious Caribbean retreat.
Knowing his presidency was seriously threatened, Nixon moved quickly to save himself. His major weapons were lies, cover- ups and blackmail.
First, he instructed his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, to inform reporters back in Florida that it was beneath the White House to even comment on a “third-rate burglary attempt.”
On June 22, after returning to the White House, Nixon made his first public comment on the burglary. He flatly asserted that “the White House has had no involvement whatever” in the break- in. And he declared, with a straight face, that such an event “has no place in our electoral process or in our governmental process.”
On the twenty-third, in an effort to get the CIA to stop the FBI’s initial Watergate probe, Nixon tried to blackmail CIA Director Richard Helms, apparently by using his knowledge of major CIA secrets to keep the lid on Watergate.
The president wanted to scare Helms with the prospect that, under pressure, an apprehended Hunt might start blabbing to authorities about “the Bay of Pigs.” That phrase, to Bob Haldeman— Nixon’s most trusted aide—was secret Nixon- CIA code for one of the darkest events in our history, an event with tenuous ties to the disastrous 1961 Cuban invasion.
In a post-Watergate book, Haldeman disclosed, “It seems that in all those Nixon references to the Bay of Pigs, he was actually referring to the Kennedy assassination. (Interestingly, an investigation of the Kennedy assassination was a project I suggested when I first entered the White House. Now I felt we would be in a position to get all the facts. But Nixon turned me down.)”
Watergate expert and National Public Radio correspondent Daniel Schorr independently concurs with Haldeman that Nixon’s Watergate threat to the CIA about “the Bay of Pigs” was “about some deeply hidden scandal . . . an assassination or something on that order. It was supposed to involve the CIA and President Kennedy.” Schorr also says that, to this day, “Helms vows that he has no idea what dark secret Nixon was alluding to. But, whatever it was, it led Nixon into trying to enlist the CIA in an attempted obstruction of justice that became his final undoing.” Speculating separately, JFK assassination expert Jim
Marrs— without knowing about Haldeman’s revelation—asks two perceptive questions about taped “Bay of Pigs” conversations between Nixon and his most trusted adviser: Could they have been circuitously referring to the interlocking connections between CIA agents, anti- Castro Cubans, and mobsters that likely resulted in the Kennedy assassination? Did they themselves have some sort of insider knowledge of this event?
Another possibility, of course, is that the “Bay of Pigs” referred to the CIA assassination plots against Fidel Castro, which were not public knowledge at the time. Both Vice President Nixon and President Kennedy backed those plans. And the CIA’s Howard Hunt was an early advocate of Castro’s murder and a key player in all aspects of the Bay of Pigs invasion planning. Whatever the term meant, the usually unflappable Helms came unglued when Haldeman brought it up in the wake of the Watergate burglary.
But, first, Nixon had to tutor Haldeman on just how to make the threat to Helms. During a June 23 rehearsal of Haldeman for the critical meeting with Helms later that day, the president carefully instructed his No. 1 aide on what to tell the CIA chief: “Hunt knows too damned much . . . If this gets out that this is all involved . . . it would make the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and it’s likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing . . . which we think would be very unfortunate for both the CIA and the country . . . and for American foreign policy.”
At his meeting with Helms, when Nixon’s emissary brought up the Bay of Pigs, according to Haldeman, the CIA chief gripped the arms of his chair, leaned forward and shouted: “The Bay of Pigs has nothing to do with this! I have no concern about the Bay of Pigs.” Haldeman said he was “absolutely shocked by Helms’s violent reaction” when he delivered Nixon’s message. Helms “yelled like a scalded cat,” said Nixon aide John Ehrlichman when Haldeman mentioned the Watergate trail might lead to “the Bay of Pigs.” Ehrlichman sat in on the meeting.
In his book, Haldeman added that the CIA pulled off a “fantastic cover- up” that “literally erased any connection between the Kennedy assassination and the CIA.” Haldeman never revealed his source, but evidence points to Nixon. “Virtually nothing Nixon did was done without Haldeman’s knowledge,” said John Ehrlichman. “That is not to say that Haldeman approved everything Nixon said or did; but it was essential that he know, and have a chance to object, before it happened.”
Ehrlichman went to his grave without spilling any “Bay of Pigs” secrets, but he did write a novel about a president and a CIA chief trying to blackmail each other over a previous assassination plot that involved both men.
If Haldeman knew about the CIA’s alleged involvement in the Kennedy murder, Nixon certainly did. The president would have had to tell his top aide what was truly behind his “Bay of Pigs” threat against the agency. That conclusion gains solid support from a recently released Watergate tape—from May 18, 1973—in which Nixon and Haldeman recall the “Bay of Pigs” warning Haldeman delivered to Helms the previous June.
Haldeman reminds the president that Helms said, “Oh, we have no problem with the Bay of Pigs, of anything . . . And that surprised me, because I had gotten the impression from you [author’s emphasis] that the CIA did have some concern about the Bay of Pigs.” On the tape, Nixon raises no objections to the accuracy of Haldeman’s memory.
Audiotapes ran on all Nixon’s office and telephone conversations, so the president would not want to refer to John F. Kennedy murder secrets as “Dallas” or “the whole JFK thing.” Why, logically, could the JFK assassination become known to Nixon and Helms and a few others as “the Bay of Pigs”? Perhaps because the cast of characters employed in the 1960 plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and kill Fidel Castro and the cast of characters employed in the plan to assassinate Kennedy in 1963 were the same.
When Nixon was vice president, he and then CIA agent Hunt were principal secret planners of the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs that failed so miserably when later ordered by President Kennedy. Nixon and Hunt were key leaders of an associated— and also ill- fated—plot to assassinate Castro. For that mission, potential assassins were recruited from Mob ranks, so that if any of their activities were disclosed, organized crime could be blamed.
Helms as then director of the CIA’s covert operations was a key participant in the Castro assassination plots. The plotters also enlisted the support of billionaire Howard Hughes. Like Nixon, Hughes despised the Kennedys and had strong links to both the CIA and the Mob. The mysterious and reclusive Hughes had made large, secret payoff s to Nixon and his brother Donald over most of Nixon’s political career.
Fronting for Hughes, Robert Maheu approached mobsters Johnny Roselli, Sam “Mooney” Giancana and Santos Trafficante. One report says fifteen professional killers ultimately made up the “ultra- black” Castro assassination team, consistent with a typical Mafia hit, as summarized by author David Scheim: “A mob murder is usually a methodical job, performed by a coordinated team of specialists. Up to 15 gunmen, drivers, spotters, and other backup personnel, plus several cars, are used on some jobs.”
Maheu, a former FBI agent employed by both the CIA and Hughes, had many links with Nixon. To mention just two: In 1956, Maheu ran a Howard Hughes–bankrolled spying operation to protect Nixon against Republican “Dump Nixon” forces trying to block Nixon’s renomination as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Also while Nixon was veep, Maheu worked for Nixon on a “dirty tricks” operation against Greek oil tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Maheu helped the U.S. government sabotage a deal that had given Onassis a monopoly on shipping Saudi Arabian oil. As part of his mission, Maheu was reportedly even given a license—if necessary—to kill the Greek tycoon. After a meeting with Maheu about Onassis, Vice President Nixon shook Maheu’s hand and whispered, “And just remember, if it turns out we have to kill the bastard don’t do it on American soil.”
President Kennedy’s former press secretary, Pierre Salinger, said Maheu told him the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro were authorized by Nixon:
I knew Maheu well. He told me [in 1968, when Salinger was soliciting Maheu’s boss, Howard Hughes, for a campaign contribution to Robert Kennedy’s White House bid] about his meetings with the Mafia. He said he had been in contact with the CIA, that the CIA had been in touch with Nixon, who had asked them to go forward with this project . . . It was Nixon who had him [Maheu] do a deal with the Mafia in Florida to kill Castro.”
Nixon White House counsel John Dean confirms that Maheu was “the point of contact for the CIA’s effort to have the Mafi a assassinate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.” Dean said he was told by fellow Nixon aide Jack Caufield that the Hughes empire “was embroiled in an internal war, with two billion dollars at stake, private eyes swarming, nerve- jangling power plays going on, and Mafia figures lurking in the wings.”
Longtime Mob lawyer Frank Ragano disclosed in the 1990s that the assassination plot against Castro was hatched in the summer of 1960. He reported that “Maheu’s search for mob killers began with John Roselli who brought in Sam Giancana, the Chicago boss, and Santo [Trafficante] . . . The CIA operatives told Maheu he could offer $150,000 to the assassins, and that Castro’s murder was a phase of a larger plan to invade Cuba and oust the Communist government.” Ragano also claimed he was the unwitting messenger in a July 1963 order from Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa to Trafficante and Marcello for President Kennedy’s murder.
Sam Giancana confided to his brother, Chuck, in 1966, that the CIA had offered him $150,000 to hit Castro. “I told ’em I couldn’t care less about the money. We’ll take care of Castro. One way or another. I think it’s my patriotic duty.”
Giancana said CIA Director Allen Dulles had come up with the idea, and that two top CIA officials— Richard Bissell and Sheffield Edwards—were chosen to make the arrangements. And he said the agency made contact with him through Maheu. Giancana designated Roselli as the plan’s Mafi a-CIA go-between.
Of that conversation with his brother, Chuck also mentioned a number of other conspirators in the plot on Castro’s life: “Mooney said he put Jack Ruby back in action supplying arms, aircraft , and munitions to exiles in Florida and Louisiana, while the former Castro Minister of Games, Frank Fiorini [also known as Frank Sturgis], joined Ruby in the smuggling venture along with a [Guy] Banister CIA associate, David Ferrie.”
President Kennedy was elected to office before Nixon and the other planners had time to pull off the Bay of Pigs invasion. The invasion took place on April 17, 1961 on Kennedy’s watch and was a resounding failure, one for which Kennedy publicly accepted full responsibility. Fifteen hundred Cuban exiles were quickly overwhelmed by some 20,000 Cuban troops. But, convinced the CIA had set him up, Kennedy fired CIA chief Allen Dulles—an old Nixon friend—and swore he’d dismantle the agency.
Nixon, Hunt, and many CIA and exile leaders privately pinned blame for the military catastrophe on Kennedy for not providing adequate air cover. Later, Hunt publicly accused the president of “a failure of nerves.”
Mafia bosses, already enraged by Kennedy’s anticrime crusade in this country, were upset that their lucrative gambling casinos—shut down by Castro— would not be returning to Cuba.
It is quite possible top elements of the Mob and the CIA decided to send their hired guns against Kennedy instead of Castro. Would Nixon know? After all, he and Hunt had come up with the original ideas they thought JFK later bungled. And Nixon’s tight CIA and Mob contacts undoubtedly kept him completely
up-to-date on major related developments. Fletcher Prouty, a former Air Force officer who regularly worked with the CIA on covert operations, has said Nixon “may very well have realized” that such a killing team “was involved” in the Kennedy murder.
Though Helms reportedly exploded when Haldeman brought up the “Bay of Pigs” in connection with Watergate, he later denied knowing what Haldeman was talking about. But Helms’s immediate response was to direct his deputy, Vernon Waters, to tell acting FBI Director Pat Gray the FBI investigation jeopardized covert CIA operations. Gray “dutifully carried out the order to cut back the investigation.” Helms’s action lends weight to the probability that the subject Nixon raised with him, through Haldeman, actually dealt with something other than the 1961 CIA- backed invasion of Cuba.
Indeed, the CIA’s own top- secret postmortem on the invasion—when it was finally declassified in 1998—disclosed major agency blunders and criticized the failure to inform President Kennedy that the potential for “success had been dubious.” But the report contains absolutely nothing that could be interpreted as sensitive to national security.
Several days before the invasion, the Miami correspondent for the New York Times, Tad Szulc, wrote a story about the planned landing. But, after a personal appeal from President Kennedy, senior Times editors toned it down. Two months later, Szulc told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that information about the supposedly secret invasion had been available in Miami in March to any interested reporter. Kennedy later told Times editors, “If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”
Nixon’s Watergate warning to Helms about the dangerous CIA secrets Hunt could tell—and the events leading up to it—deserve a closer look.
As far back in his presidency as September 18, 1971, Nixon contemplated an order to the CIA to turn over to him its complete files on the Bay of Pigs. This happened at a White House meeting of Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon aides Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Egil Krogh. Ehrlichman’s handwritten notes have Ehrlichman telling the group: “Bay of Pigs—order to CIA—President is to have the FULL file or else—nothing withheld. President was involved in Bay of Pigs—must have the file—theory—deeply involved—must know all.”
The president personally followed up at a meeting with Helms on October 8, 1971. Ehrlichman sat in. His notes quote Nixon as saying, “Purpose of request for documents: must be fully advised in order to know what to duck; won’t hurt Agency, nor attack predecessor.”
Helms answers, “Only one president at a time; I only work for you.”
Nixon then said, “Ehrlichman is my lawyer—deal with him on all this as you would me.”
After Ehrlichman tells Helms he’ll be making requests for more material, Helms responds: “OK, anything.”
Helms initially went along with the Watergate cover- up. Haldeman was able to tell the president he informed Helms that the Watergate investigation “tracks back to the Bay of Pigs . . . At that point, he got the picture. He said we’ll be very happy to be helpful.” Helms, however, had second thoughts and was soon refusing to cooperate with Nixon’s gambit. For that insubordination, he was eventually banished to be the ambassador to Iran.
That the CIA failed to obey Nixon’s order is also established in a newly released Watergate tape of a May 18, 1973 conversation in which Haldeman tells Nixon: “[Helms says the CIA] has nothing to hide in the Bay of Pigs. Well, now, Ehrlichman tells me in just the last few days that isn’t true. CIA was very concerned about the Bay of Pigs, and in the investigation apparently he was doing on the Bay of Pigs stuff. At some point, there is a key memo missing that the CIA or somebody has caused to disappear that impeded the effort to find out what really did happen on the Bay of Pigs.”
In The Ends of Power, Haldeman claimed the CIA cover- up of the JFK assassination included failing to tell the Warren Commission about agency assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. And he disclosed that the CIA’s counterintelligence chief James Angleton phoned the FBI’s Bill Sullivan to rehearse their answers to possible commission questions. Haldeman gave these samples:
Q. Was Oswald an agent of the CIA?
Q. Does the CIA have any evidence showing that a conspiracy existed to assassinate Kennedy?
Haldeman pointed out that Sullivan was Nixon’s “highest-ranking loyal friend” at the FBI. In the early days of the Watergate cover- up, according to Ehrlichman, Nixon “knew a great many things about Hunt that I didn’t know.” He quotes the president as saying: “His lawyer is Bittman . . . Do you think we could enlist him to be sure Hunt doesn’t blow national secrets?” As late as March 21, 1973, Nixon was still deeply concerned about keeping Hunt quiet. He told aide John Dean that Hunt’s demands for an additional $120,000 in hush money must be met. And the two men then had this exchange:
Nixon: Well, your major guy to keep under control is Hunt.
Dean: That’s right.
Nixon: I think. Because, he knows . . .
Dean: He knows so much.
Nixon: . . . about a lot of other things.
Nixon’s blackmailing efforts even extended to former president Lyndon Johnson. A 1994 book based on Haldeman’s personal diaries shows that, in January 1973, Nixon tried to coerce LBJ into using his influence with Senate Democrats to derail the Watergate investigation. Haldeman said Nixon threatened to go public with information that LBJ bugged the Nixon campaign in 1968. When Johnson heard of the threat “he got very hot and called Deke [De Loach, No. 3 man at the FBI] and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, he would release information” that would be even more damaging to Nixon.
The information that President Johnson was going to release was deleted from Haldeman’s dairy by the National Security Council during the Carter administration, which scrutinized it for sensitive national security material. It is the only such deletion in the entire book.
Newly declassifi ed tapes and documents reveal, however, that LBJ was, indeed, ready to play a huge national security card—the treason card—against Nixon’s desperate Watergate gamble. The ex-president was prepared to disclose that, in 1968, for purely political reasons, presidential candidate Nixon had undermined U.S. efforts to end the Vietnam War. President Nixon dropped the blackmail plan after LBJ’s counterthreat.
Nixon never publicly voiced any suspicions that CIA/Mafia assassins recruited to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro might have murdered President John Kennedy. In fact, Nixon never admitted that as vice president he was in charge of the early Bay of Pigs invasion plan and associated CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro. Rather, he was on record as a strong supporter of the Warren Commission’s finding that the crime of the twentieth century was the work of a lone Communist nut, Lee Harvey Oswald—and that this nut was silenced by another lone nut, Jack Ruby, acting out of patriotism.
Robert Kennedy’s first thoughts about who might be responsible were entirely different. In the immediate wake of his brother’s assassination in Dallas, the attorney general suspected CIA- Mob involvement.
Kennedy learned the identity of Howard Hughes operative—and onetime Nixon dirty trickster— Robert Maheu when he was told about the Maheu-arranged CIA-Mafia murder conspiracy against Castro. Hughes expert Michael Drosin reports that RFK was “shocked. Not about the failed attempt to kill Castro, which he and his brother almost certainly approved in advance, but about the CIA’s choice of hit men. Especially Giancana.” RFK knew that if the mob was involved in a political plot, it was likely with the CIA’s endorsement.
Jack Newfield, producer of the 1998 Discovery Channel documentary Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir, said Robert Kennedy had a firm idea about who killed his brother: “Bobby told [JFK adviser] Arthur Schlesinger he blamed ‘that guy in New Orleans’—which meant [Mob boss] Carlos Marcello. Bobby was intense about prosecuting Marcello as attorney general. He deported him in 1961, indicted him when he returned, and tried him in 1963.”
“Th e Bay of Pigs” gets frequent mention on the Nixon tapes. And the term is usually employed in ways that suggest reference to the assassination. These tapes are also studded with deletions—segments deemed by government censors as too sensitive for public scrutiny. “National Security” is usually cited. Not surprisingly, such deletions often occur during discussions involving E. Howard Hunt, the Bay of Pigs and John F. Kennedy. Isn’t it long past time when these censored sections of the tapes are declassifi ed? Meantime, more than one million JFK assassination-related CIA documents remain secret, but are supposed to be released in 2017. Let’s hope that, as a result, we finally find out who killed JFK and why. And maybe these declassified records will also throw some new light on the befuddling “Bay of Pigs” code that Richard Nixon used in his very first effort to cover up the Watergate burglary.
Excerpted from Nixon’s Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America’s Most Troubled President by Don Fulsom.
Copyright © 2012 by Don Fulsom.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
DON FULSOM is a longtime White House reporter and former United Press International Washington bureau chief who has covered presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. He is an adjunct professor at American University in Washington D.C., where he teaches “Watergate: A Constitutional Crisis,” and the author of Nixon’s Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America’s Most Troubled President.