The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government
Exactly 70 years ago today, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, creating the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Sixteen years later — just one month after the Kennedy assassination — Truman published a bombshell in The Washington Post: “I have never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations… It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of Government… so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue.”
When it comes to behind-the-scenes intrigue, no one could out-sinister Allen Dulles, director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961. Dulles’s job, simply put, was to hijack the US government — for the benefit of the wealthy.
What he did, and how he did it, has never been more relevant, given the state of the nation in 2017. That’s why we are excerpting some revelatory chapters from David Talbot’s recent Dulles biography, “The Devil’s Chessboard.”
The focus here is on Dulles’s deeply troubling behavior around the time that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Although Kennedy had fired him in 1961, Dulles basically kept, de facto, running the CIA anyway. And, even more ominously, after Kennedy was killed in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963, Dulles moved into The Farm, a secret CIA facility in Virginia, where he remained for the weekend — during which time the “suspect,” Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot to death in a Dallas police station, and a vast machinery was set in motion to create the “lone gunman” myth that has dominated our history books to the present.
By no coincidence, that same machinery worked to bury evidence that Oswald himself had deep connections into US intelligence.
Throughout all this, one thing is clear: Dulles was no rogue operative. He was serving the interests of America’s corporate and war-making elites. And he went all out.
The “former” CIA director was so determined to control the JFK death-story spin, as Talbot chronicles below, that he even tried to strong-arm former president Truman, when the plain-spoken Missourian dropped hints that an out-of-control CIA might have been involved in Kennedy’s murder.
— WhoWhatWhy Introduction by Russ Baker.
First part of a compressed Excerpt of Chapter 20, “For the Good of the Country” from The Devil’s Chessboard. Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government. HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.
For the Good of the Country
Over the final months of JFK’s presidency, a clear consensus took shape within America’s deep state: Kennedy was a national security threat. For the good of the country, he must be removed. And Dulles was the only man with the stature, connections, and decisive will to make something of this enormity happen.
He had already assembled a killing machine to operate overseas. Now he prepared to bring it home to Dallas. All that his establishment colleagues had to do was to look the other way — as they always did when Dulles took executive action.
In the case of Doug Dillon — who oversaw Kennedy’s Secret Service apparatus — it simply meant making sure that he was out of town … If he was later asked to account for himself, Dillon would have a ready explanation. The tragic events in Dallas had not occurred on his watch; he was airborne over the Pacific at the time.
There is no evidence that reigning corporate figures like David Rockefeller were part of the plot against President Kennedy or had foreknowledge of the crime. But there is ample evidence of the overwhelming hostility to Kennedy in these corporate circles — a surging antagonism that certainly emboldened Dulles and other national security enemies of the president. And if the assassination of President Kennedy was indeed an “establishment crime,” as University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Donald Gibson has suggested, there is even more reason to see the official investigation as an establishment cover-up.
Dallas DA: Oswald Seemed “Programmed”
Oswald was still alive, and that was a problem. He was supposed to be killed as he left the Texas School Book Depository. That’s what G. Robert Blakey, the former Kennedy Justice Department attorney who served as chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, later concluded about the man authorities rushed to designate the lone assassin. But Oswald escaped, and after being taken alive by Dallas police in a movie theater, he became a major conundrum for those trying to pin the crime on him.
“It was almost as if he had been rehearsed or programmed to meet the situation he found himself in.”
To begin with, Oswald did not act like most assassins. Those who decapitated heads of state generally crowed about their history-making deeds (Sic semper tyrannis!). In contrast, Oswald repeatedly denied his guilt while in custody, emphatically telling reporters as he was hustled from one room to the next in the Dallas police station, “I don’t know what this is all about … I’m just a patsy!”
And the accused assassin seemed strangely cool and collected, according to the police detectives who questioned him. “He was real calm,” recalled one detective. “He was extra calm. He wasn’t a bit excited or nervous or anything.” In fact, Dallas police chief Jesse Curry and district attorney William Alexander thought Oswald was so composed that he seemed trained to handle a stressful interrogation. “I was amazed that a person so young would have had the self-control he had,” Alexander later told Irish investigative journalist Anthony Summers. “It was almost as if he had been rehearsed or programmed to meet the situation he found himself in.”
Oswald further signaled that he was part of an intelligence operation by trying to make an intriguing phone call shortly before midnight East Coast time on Saturday, November 23. The police switchboard operator, who was being closely monitored by two unidentified officials, told Oswald there was no answer, though she actually did not put through the call. It was not until years later that independent researchers traced the phone number that Oswald tried to call to a former US Army intelligence officer in Raleigh, North Carolina.
CIA veteran Victor Marchetti, who analyzed the Raleigh call in his book, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, surmised that Oswald was likely following his training guidelines and reaching out to his intelligence handler. “[He] was probably calling his cut-out. He was calling somebody who could put him in touch with his case officer.”
The Raleigh call probably sealed Oswald’s fate, according to Marchetti. By refusing to play the role of the “patsy” and instead following his intelligence protocol, Oswald made clear that he was trouble.
What would be the CIA procedure at this point, Marchetti was asked by North Carolina historian Grover Proctor, who has closely studied this episode near the end of Oswald’s life? “I’d kill him,” Marchetti replied. “Was this his death warrant?” Proctor continued. “You betcha,” Marchetti said. “This time, [Oswald] went over the dam, whether he knew it or not…. He was over the dam. At this point it was executive action.”
Oswald was not just alive on the afternoon of November 22, 1963; he was likely innocent. This was another major problem for the organizers of the assassination. Even close legal observers of the case who continue to believe in Oswald’s guilt — such as Bob Blakey who, after serving on the House Assassinations Committee, became a law professor at Notre Dame University — acknowledge that a “credible” case could have been made for Oswald’s innocence based on the evidence. (The 1979 congressional report found that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy involving Oswald and other unknown parties.) Other legal experts, like San Francisco attorney and Kennedy researcher Bill Simpich, have gone further, arguing that the case against Oswald was riddled with such glaring inconsistencies that it would have quickly unraveled in court.
Fortunately for the conspirators, the deeply flawed case against Lee Harvey Oswald never made it to court….Oswald’s shocking murder — broadcast live into America’s homes — solved one dilemma for Dulles, as he monitored the Dallas events that weekend from the Farm, his secure CIA facility in Virginia. But it soon became apparent that Oswald’s murder created another problem — a wave of public suspicion that swept over the nation and beyond…. To many people who watched the horrifying spectacle on TV, the shooting smacked of a gangland hit aimed at silencing Oswald before he could talk.
In fact, this is precisely what Attorney General Robert Kennedy concluded after his investigators began digging into Ruby’s background. Bobby, who had made his political reputation as a Senate investigator of organized crime, pored over Ruby’s phone records from the days leading up to the Dallas violence.
“The list [of names] was almost a duplicate of the people I called before the Rackets Committee,” RFK later remarked. The attorney general’s suspicions about the death of his brother immediately fell not just on the Mafia, but on the CIA — the agency that, as Bobby knew, had been using the mob to do some of its dirtiest work….
Truman: CIA “Sinister and Mysterious”
Meanwhile, down in Independence, Missouri, another retired president, Harry Truman, was fuming about the CIA. On December 22, 1963, while the country was still reeling from the gunfire in Dallas, Truman published a highly provocative op-ed article in The Washington Post, charging that the CIA had grown alarmingly out of control since he established it.
His original purpose, wrote Truman, was to create an agency that simply coordinated the various streams of sensitive information flowing into the White House. “I have never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations,” he continued. But “for some time, I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of Government.” The CIA had grown “so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue.”
But the increasingly powerful agency did not just menace foreign governments, Truman warned — it now threatened democracy at home. “There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position [as a] free and open society,” he concluded ominously, “and I feel that we need to correct it.”
The timing of Truman’s opinion piece was striking. Appearing in the capital’s leading newspaper exactly one month after the assassination, the article caused shock waves in political circles. There was a disturbing undertone to the straight-talking midwesterner’s warning about the CIA. Was Truman implying that there was “sinister and mysterious intrigue” behind Kennedy’s death? Could that have been what he meant when he suggested that the agency represented a growing danger to our own democracy?
Dulles Lies to Discredit Truman
Allen Dulles knew the danger of words, the wrong kind of words. As CIA director, he had spent an untold fortune each year on countering the Soviet propaganda machine and controlling the world’s conversation, including the political and media dialogue in his own country. Within minutes of the Kennedy assassination, the CIA tried to steer news reporting and commentary about Dallas, planting stories that suggested — falsely — that Oswald was a Soviet agent or that Castro was behind JFK’s murder.
Still, Dulles would not accept defeat. Unable to alter reality, he simply altered the record, like any good spy.
In actuality, both Khrushchev — who broke down weeping in the Kremlin when he heard the news — and Castro were deeply distressed by Kennedy’s death. Both men had been greatly encouraged by Kennedy’s peace initiatives in the final year of his presidency, and they feared that his assassination meant that military hard-liners would take control in Washington …
But despite the CIA’s strenuous efforts, press coverage of the Kennedy assassination began spinning out of its control. Dulles knew that immediate steps must be taken to contain the conversation…. If Harry Truman — the man who created the CIA — was worried that it had become a Frankenstein, it might be only a matter of time before prominent European figures, and even some stray voices in America, began to question whether the agency was behind JFK’s murder.
It was Dulles himself who jumped in to put out the Truman fire. Soon after the Post published Truman’s diatribe, Dulles began a campaign to get the retired president to disavow his opinion piece. The spymaster began by enlisting the help of Washington power attorney Clark Clifford, the former Truman counselor who chaired President Johnson’s intelligence advisory board. The CIA “was really HST’s baby or at least his adopted child,” Dulles pointed out in a letter to Clifford. Perhaps the attorney could talk some sense into the tough old bird and get him to retract his harsh criticisms of the agency.
Dulles also appealed directly to Truman in a strongly worded letter, telling the former president that he was “deeply disturbed” by his article. In the eight-page letter that he mailed on January 7, 1964, Dulles tried to implicate Truman himself. Calling Truman the “father of our modern intelligence system,” Dulles reminded him that it was “you, through National Security Council action, [who] approved the organization in CIA of a new office to carry out covert operations.” So, Dulles continued, Truman’s ill-advised rant in the Post amounted to “a repudiation of a policy” that the former president himself “had the great courage and wisdom to initiate.”
To an extent, Dulles had a point. As the spymaster pointed out, the Truman Doctrine had indeed authorized an aggressive strategy aimed at thwarting Communist advances in Western Europe, including CIA intervention in the 1948 Italian elections. But Truman was correct in charging that, under Eisenhower, Dulles had led the CIA much deeper into skulduggery than he ever envisioned.
Unmoved by Dulles’s letter, Truman stood by his article. Realizing the threat that Truman posed, Dulles continued his crusade to discredit the Post essay well into the following year. Confident of his powers of persuasion, the spymaster made a personal trek to Independence, Missouri, in April, arranging to meet face-to-face with Truman at his presidential library. After exchanging a few minutes of small talk about the old days, Dulles mounted his assault on Truman, employing his usual mix of sweet talk and arm-twisting. But Truman — even on the brink of turning eighty — was no pushover, and Dulles’s efforts proved fruitless.
Still, Dulles would not accept defeat. Unable to alter reality, he simply altered the record, like any good spy. On April 21, 1964, upon returning to Washington, Dulles wrote a letter about his half-hour meeting with Truman to CIA general counsel Lawrence Houston. During their conversation at the Truman Library, Dulles claimed in his letter, the elderly ex-president seemed “quite astounded” by his own attack on the CIA when the spymaster showed him a copy of the Post article. As he looked it over, Truman reacted as if he were reading it for the first time, according to Dulles. “He said that [the article] was all wrong. He then said that he felt it had made a very unfortunate impression.”
The Truman portrayed in Dulles’s letter seemed to be suffering from senility and either could not remember what he had written or had been taken advantage of by an aide, who perhaps wrote the piece under the former president’s name. In fact, CIA officials later did try to blame a Truman assistant for writing the provocative opinion piece. Truman “obviously was highly disturbed at the Washington Post article,” concluded Dulles in his letter, “… and several times said he would see what he could do about it.”
The Dulles letter to Houston — which was clearly intended for the CIA files, to be retrieved whenever expedient — was an outrageous piece of disinformation. Truman, who would live for eight more years, was still of sound mind in April 1964. And he could not have been shocked by the contents of his own article, since he had been expressing the same views about the CIA — even more strongly — to friends and journalists for some time.
After the Bay of Pigs, Truman had confided in writer Merle Miller that he regretted ever establishing the CIA. “I think it was a mistake,” he said. “And if I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it…. [Eisenhower] never paid any attention to it, and it got out of hand…. It’s become a government all of its own and all secret…. That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society.” Likewise, after the Washington Post essay ran, Truman’s original CIA director, Admiral Sidney Souers — who shared his former boss’s limited concept of the agency — congratulated him for writing the piece. “I am happy as I can be that my article on the Central Intelligence Agency rang a bell with you because you know why the organization was set up,” Truman wrote back to Souers.
In a letter that Truman wrote to Look magazine managing editor William Arthur in June 1964 — two months after his meeting with Dulles — the ex-president again articulated his concerns about the direction taken by the CIA after he left the White House. “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the President,” wrote Truman. “It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.”
Dulles’s relentless effort to manipulate Truman — and failing that, the Truman record — is yet one more example of the spymaster’s “strange activities.” But Dulles’s greatest success at reconstructing reality was still to come. With the Warren Report, Dulles would literally rewrite history. The inquest into the death of John F. Kennedy was another astounding sleight of hand on Dulles’s part. The man who should have been in the witness chair wound up instead in control of the inquiry.
Related front page panorama photo credit: President Kennedy presenting the National Security Medal to Allen Dulles in 1961 (CIA / Wikimedia), Allen Dulles at desk (CIA.GOV), Mohammad Mosaddegh – former prime minister of Iran (Unknown / Wikimedia) – Jacobo Árbenz 25th President of Guatemala (Gobierno de Guatemala; Escuela Politécnica de Guatemala / Wikimedia), Fidel Castro (Library of Congress / Wikimedia), CIA floor seal (CIA.GOV)Share on Facebook Tweet about this