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Saturday, 03 April 2021 16:49

Biden, Trump, the CIA: Reflections in a Dark Mirror, Nixon vs. Helms, 1971

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With the looming October deadline for President Biden’s decision on the release of the remaining files from the JFK Records Act, Benjamin Cole reviews President Trump’s recent history with the National Security State and revisits President Nixon’s interactions with CIA director Richard Helms with implications toward the JFK assassination.


Come October, President Joe Biden will make a decision on whether to release the remaining 15,834 still-repressed files that were supposed to have been released under the JFK Records Act of 1992.

The JFK Act required that all the JFK files be made public in their entirety within 25 years, which of course, was 2017.

But back in October 2017, President Donald Trump caved to the warnings of then-CIA director Mike Pompeo, FBI director Christopher Wray, and the National Security State, and left the remaining 15,834 files either redacted or totally under wraps.

However, the mercurial Trump then also ordered the withheld files to be reviewed again within four years, perhaps seeking leverage over his adversaries in the intelligence communities.

Fast forward to present, Trump has been booted from office and the betting is that Biden will also cave before the National Security State, despite the JFK assassination having happened 58 years ago.

History is full of confounding realities. For all of his weaknesses, Trump was probably the better hope for full disclosure of the JFK records than Biden.

For Trump was often, perhaps usually, at odds with the National Security State, variously called the “invisible government” or the “shadow government,” and, of late, “The Deep State.”

In one of his seemingly ubiquitous running battles, Trump in 2019 detailed then-US Attorney General Robert Barr to investigate the nation’s investigative agencies, to ascertain whether elements of the Deep State illegally colluded to first try to prevent his ascendance to the White House, and then to undermine his presidency.

At present, the criminal investigation into what is called “Russiagate” is led John Durham, now special counsel to the Justice Department and the former US Attorney for the District of Connecticut (2018–2021).

Durham, originally tasked by Barr in May 2019 to investigate whether the invisible government had it in for Trump, has left the US Attorney’s Office with the advent of the Biden Administration, but has stayed on and is leading the criminal Russiagate investigation, as special counsel.

Like so many modern-day Washington look-sees, the Durham inquiry promises to be interminable yet inconclusive and spun thereafter by party-based PR machines and media mouthpieces.

Even a synopsis of the National Security State vs. Trump could consume a book. The famed Mueller investigation ended in a muddle, followed by a December 2019 report by the Department of Justice Inspector General that concluded that the FBI copiously lied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, aka the FISA court, to gain permission to spy the former Trump campaign staffer Carter Page during the 2016 election.[1]

To critics, Trump’s directives to Barr and Durham were the actions of a paranoid, or rank political theater. That could be. To put it mildly, Trump was and is a man of manifest flaws.

But then, what other aspiring presidential candidate had contemporaneously written about him in the op-ed section of The New York Times, by a one-time director of the CIA: “Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security.”[2]

That line was penned by Michel J. Morell, professional lifer in the CIA, a onetime deputy director, and occasional acting director until his retirement in late 2013. 

The Morell missive was run in The New York Times even before Trump became President.

Yet Trump was hardly alone among presidents in his friction with the CIA; Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon all had conflicts and reservations about the intelligence agency. Most famously, Kennedy has been quoted to the effect that he “wanted to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds,” due to the agency entangling his White House into the debacle known as the Bay of Pigs.

Did someone say “Bay of Pigs?” That expression “Bay of Pigs” brings up Richard Nixon.

Nixon’s Unsuccessful Struggle With the CIA

Set the stage in 1971, with President Nixon requesting files from then-CIA Director Richard Helms. Paper files—this was largely the pre-computer days, and totally pre-internet.

So, 50 years ago, what CIA files did Nixon want?

“The ‘Who Shot John?’ angle,” Nixon explained to Helms, who was seated for a tête-à-tête in the Oval Office.  Nixon had circuitously outlined to Helms why he wanted to see certain files held by the intelligence agency, evidently to further illuminate the background of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.[3]

All but forgotten in the voluminous White House tapes recorded by President Nixon is one of the strangest conversations ever to take place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a verbal tussle between Nixon and Helms on the morning of October 8, 1971.

In that meeting, Nixon told Helms that he, the President—the Commander in Chief, the Chief Executive—wanted to see the CIA files on the “Bay of Pigs.”

The end result: President Nixon never got to see those files.

Helms sandbagged Nixon, confirming a separation of powers not pondered by the Founding Fathers nor by any sensible understanding of democratic institutions. 

History rhymes, as they say, and Trump had wanted his AG Barr to review and then possibly make public files held by national security agencies, including the CIA.

One could ponder if Trump, like Nixon, was effectively thwarted, meaning that the intelligence agencies remain essentially immune from Oval Office directives and oversight. 

The Nixon-Helms Backdrop

On that October morning 50 years ago, the cagey CIA Director Helms was mute in response to Nixon’s “The ‘Who shot John?’ angle” gambit.

Nixon then badgered Helms with a bewildering string of questions regarding responsibility or indirect culpability for Kennedy’s death.

“Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Nixon to blame? Etc., etc.” asked Nixon. “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.”

Nixon finished with the flourish, “I have done more than my share of lying to protect you and I believe it’s totally right to do it.”[4]

Evidently, Helms was not moved by this Nixon soliloquy.

The ever-scheming Nixon would later ask Helms for CIA help in derailing the Watergate investigation, by having the agency posit to the FBI that the famous Watergate break-in had actually been a CIA operation.

Nixon advised his right-hand man and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman this way on June 23, 1973, as recorded on tape:

Nixon: When you get in these (CIA) people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this [Watergate investigation] will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing…”[5]

In other words, Nixon was implying, if the Watergate story blew open, so would the JFK assassination story.

One interpretation of the Helms-Nixon stalemate is that Nixon wanted to know if CIA files had details on the Mafia-Cuban-CIA hit squads that had targeted Cuba-leader Fidel Castro in the late 1950s and early 1960s—efforts which Nixon had helped set up as President Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President, along with CIA officer E. Howard Hunt, later known as the Nixon White House Watergate burglar-meister.

Many JFK assassination researchers have concluded the anti-Castro death squads, possibly in cooperation with elements in US intelligence agencies, then turned on Kennedy after the failed CIA-sponsored 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, in retribution for Kennedy’s decision to not provide air support for the beleaguered invaders. 

Interestingly enough, arrested at the Watergate, on the fateful night of June 17, 1972, were five Cuban-exile operatives, including Eugenio R. Martinez, who it was revealed later was still on the receiving end of disbursements from CIA paymasters.

H. R. Haldeman would later author a book and posit that the expression “Bay of Pigs” were Nixon code words for the JFK assassination. Certainly, if Nixon wanted to see the “Bay of Pigs” files to provide background information on “Who shot John,” then Haldeman’s intuition seems likely. To put it bluntly, Nixon was fishing for CIA files pertaining to the JFK assassination.[6]

That October, 1971 morning, Nixon and Helms engaged in a polite, lengthy discussion about the President’s organizational and operational needs and prerogatives, to which Helms readily assented.

But talk is cheap.

Fast forward a year-and-a-half: Helms never coughed up vital Bay of Pigs files and White House tapes from May 18, 1973, reveal Haldeman informing Nixon that there was 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.”

So, in the case of Nixon vs. Helms, the CIA foiled a Presidential order to turn over files. The director of the CIA, Helms, was not answerable to the duly-elected US President.

Of course, Nixon and Haldeman would have no way to know if many other “Bay of Pigs” files had also disappeared—national security agencies inherently have a monopoly not only on security information, but also on information about the information. 

Ehrlichman

The October 1971 Nixon-Helms conversation followed on the heels of an Oval Office chat between Nixon and John Ehrlichman, then Chief Domestic Adviser and previously White House Counsel.

Ehrlichman, like Haldeman, explained to Nixon how he had been roadblocked by the CIA in his request for files and “the internal stuff.”

Both wondered aloud how they could bring the CIA to heel and they discussed firing CIA Director Helms and replacing him with a loyalist. Then the pair discussed E. Howard Hunt, the ex-CIA officer they recently brought on-staff to the White House ostensibly to lead a “Plumbers’ Unit,” and who later organized burglaries, including the infamous Watergate break-in.

“Helms is scared to death of this guy [E. Howard] Hunt we got working for us, because he knows where a lot of the bodies are buried,” opined Ehrlichman, in suggesting that the White House could intimidate Helms into cooperation by hinting Hunt had switched from the CIA to Team Nixon.[7]

In the taped conversation, Ehrlichman and Nixon agreed that the CIA was pursuing “self-perpetuation” in keeping files secret—it would protect its image and could threaten that of others, with secret files.  “Helms is a bureaucrat first and he is protecting that bureau,” said Ehrlichman. Nixon retorted, “Well I am the President and the CIA is not, it [the CIA] is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.”

President or not, Nixon never got the files he wanted.

The final irony is that Hunt, of whom Nixon and Ehrlichman chortled was their ace-in-the-hole against the CIA, in truth probably never stopped being a friend of the agency.

Rob Roy Ratliff, the CIA’s liaison on the National Security Council, in 1974 provided an affidavit to the House Judiciary Committee, when it was weighing articles of impeachment against President Nixon.[8]

Ratliff swore that Hunt, while ensconced in the White House, had used secure agency couriers to send sealed pouches to CIA Director Helms on a regular basis.

Rather than being Nixon’s lever against the CIA, more likely Hunt was a mole for the agency, working in the White House. Like the old joke, Nixon’s paranoia did not mean no one was out to get him.

Trump

Of course, Trump’s relationship with the intelligence agencies and CIA was much different from Nixon’s, with no shared history in Cuba, Latin America or Iran, no alignment of fervently held ideologies, and no mutually buried bodies.

Unlike Nixon who reveled in foreign affairs, Trump was no scholar of international relations and instinctually regarded  offshore incursions as entanglements.

Yet Trump, like Nixon, was deeply concerned with what might be in intelligence agency files and whether the agencies answer to him, or have their own agendas, or even worse, have plans for a presidential demise.

By many accounts, the US intelligence community and the CIA and their allies in the media strongly resist anyone from outside their sphere rendering judgment on what is secret and what is not.

And indeed, the mass media in general sang the CIA tune during the Trump Presidency, fretting, as did The New Yorker magazine, that AG Barr would “unilaterally” declassify documents.[9] In other words, the presumption was that a President should only declassify documents if given approval by the National Security State.

Of course, the intelligence agencies cited the well-worn and sometimes true clichés that they need to protect “sources and methods.”

Conclusion

Still, as in the long-ago Nixon White House, the highly politicized circumstances of the Trump Presidency muddied some underlying principles.

Trump, like Nixon, was embattled and deeply unpopular in some circles and even considered a menace to the nation by some. Both Nixon and Trump hardly had the charm of a President Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, or even the affability of a Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Yet Trump, like Nixon, was institutionally justified in his struggles with the intelligence agencies. As the elected President and Commander-in-Chief, Nixon had every right to view any file in the entire federal government. And Attorney General Barr, as deputized by Trump, had every right to look at and declassify any document at will, at Presidential direction.

The real question remains: Will the intelligence agencies release all the relevant files to Special Counsel Durham or, like the CIA in the Nixon days, will they unilaterally withhold information?

More speculative, but worth knowing—did  the CIA or other intelligence agencies have plants in the Trump campaign or in the Trump White House?

And Biden?

And looking forward: Will President Biden show the resolve necessary to release all the remaining 15,834 files that were supposed to have been released under the JFK Records Act of 1992?

The record of Kennedy, and then Nixon, and then Trump, suggests that Biden will be unable to prevail against the National Security State, even if he tries.


[1] Glenn Greenwald, The Inspector General’s Report on 2016 FBI Spying Reveals a Scandal of Historic Magnitude: Not Only for the FBI but Also the U.S. Media, The Intercept, 12/2/2019.

[2] Michael J. Morell, I Ran the CIA, Now I Am Endorsing Hillary Clinton, The New York Times, 8/5/2016, see also https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/opinion/campaign-stops/i-ran-the-cia-now-im-endorsing-hillary-clinton.html

[3] Nixontapes.org. See http://nixontapeaudio.org/rmh/587-007a.mp3. See also Jefferson Morley, JFK Facts, 6/17/2014.

[4] Ibid. 3

[5]Smoking Gun”: Richard Nixon and Bob Haldeman discuss the Watergate break-in, June 23, 1972, Richard Nixon Presidential Library. See also Andrew Coan, Prosecuting the President: How Special Prosecutors Hold Presidents Accountable and Protect the Rule of Law, Oxford University Press, 165–166

[6] Don Fulsom, Nixon’s Bay of Pigs Secrets, The History Reader, St. Martin’s Press.

[7] Ibid 3

[8] Chris Collins, Nixon's Wars: Secrecy, Watergate, and the CIA, Eastern Kentucky University Encompass, 74.

[9] David Rohde, “William Barr, Trump’s Sword and Shield,” The New Yorker, 1/13/2020.

Last modified on Thursday, 08 April 2021 17:42
Benjamin Cole

Benjamin Cole has been reading about the JFKA since the event, digesting the weekly LIFE magazine subscriptions that came in the mail. A lifetime financial journalist, Cole discovered the online world of the JFKA 10 years ago, and dove back in. Cole is deeply impressed with the best elements of JFKA community, and hopes to play a small role going forward.  

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