Inside the Department of Dirty Tricks

"We're not in the Boy Scouts," Richard Helms was fond of saying when he ran the Central Intelligence Agency. He was correct, of course. Boy Scouts do not ordinarily bribe foreign politicians, invade other countries with secret armies, spread lies, conduct medical experiments, build stocks of poison, pass machine guns to people who plan to turn them on their leaders, or plot to kill men such as Lumumba or Castro or others who displeased Washington. The CIA did these things, and more, over a long span of years. On whose orders? This is a question a Pulitzer prizewinning writer addresses in an adaptation from his forthcoming book about Helms and the Agency, The Man Who Kept the Secrets.

2. The Regular Spiel

THE business of intelligence has its ugly side. The immaculate documents that go to the National Security Council do not come only from satellites and a close reading of Russian technical journals. Presidents have ways of getting their message across which go beyond State Department white papers and speeches in the UN. Secret agents must be not only recruited but controlled. When they go sour they may be betrayed to their enemies. Clients are sometimes led out onto limbs and abandoned there. Allies of convenience are sometimes addicted to nail pliers and electric needles. Friendly intelligence services, trained by the CIA in computerized file-keeping, sometimes use those computers to pull the names of people they intend to kill. Helms spent thirty years in this business and accepted it. "We're not in the Boy Scouts," he often said. "If we'd wanted to be in the Boy Scouts, we'd have joined the Boy Scouts." But the evidence, fragmentary as it is, suggests that the CIA customarily drew the line at what is commonly meant by the word "murder." However, in the late 1950s, the CIA began to get orders to kill people.

Of course talk about killing was a commonplace. In 1952, a West German general had lunch in Washington with Dulles, Helms, and other CIA officials, and suggested that a way be found to assassinate the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht. The proposal was rejected. As early as 1957, some American government officials were talking about "getting rid of" Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. His abuse of human rights was putting the United States in an awkward situation, just as his suppression of political opponents of every stripe was undermining his own government, but he had settled in so deeply that some of the Americans talking about getting rid of him had decided the only way was to get rid of him. Eventually these discussions involved the CIA; Vietnam analysts were asked to suggest a possible replacement. In late 1958, not long before he left the Agency for good, Frank Wisner, head of the DDP, discussed the "Diem problem" with another DDP official, who says neither of them was exactly keen on the idea. Diem with all his faults was an American ally and client. "Is it really our job to do that?" the DDP official asked Wisner.

The answer turned out to be no—for the time being at least—because the only man with a right to issue such an order never gave it. But there was plenty of tough talk all the same. At a State Department meeting to discuss U.S. troubles with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in late 1956 or early 1957, Allen Dulles, suddenly growing angry with a briefer's attempt to explain the situation from Nasser's point of view, turned to him and said, "If that colonel of yours pushes us too far, we will break him in half!"

Later, in the 1960s, a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Robert Murphy, asked why the CIA didn't kill Ho Chi Minh, since he was giving us so much trouble; asked loudly, positively and repeatedly: Ho is the problem, isn't he? Can't you fellows do something to get rid of him? You're supposed to be able to handle things; handle him! Murphy was an important public official and Thomas Karamessines, then head of the DDP, had a hard time with his repeated demands. A CIA officer who often accompanied Karamessines said he'd heard such tough talk before, and that he and other CIA officers responded with "a regular spiel you'd give these people": What good would it do? Ho's successor might be even worse. How were you going to kill Ho Chi Minh secretly? You might be able to fool the New York Times, Robert Murphy was told, but how were you going to deceive the Vietnamese? They'd know what had happened, they'd know who did it, and they'd probably be in a position and mood to retaliate. There is a tacit truce between nations on such matters once you start killing their people, they start killing yours. The CIA simply does not have the assets to kill secretly a well-guarded figure such as Ho Chi Minh in a security-conscious state such as North Vietnam.

Another government figure who got the regular spiel was Livingston Merchant, the undersecretary of state for political affairs at the end of Eisenhower's Administration. Because of his job, Merchant was a regular member of the Special Group to oversee covert operations, and on November 3, 1960, when planning for the Bay of Pigs was well under way, Merchant attended a Special Group meeting where he asked "whether any real planning had been done for taking direct positive action against Fidel, Raul, and Che Guevara." In the sudden absence of all three, Merchant suggested, the Cuban government would be "leaderless and probably brainless."

On this occasion the regular spiel came from General Charles Cabell, the deputy DCI, who "pointed out that action of this kind is uncertain of results and highly dangerous in conception and execution, because the instruments must be Cubans. [Cabell] felt that, particularly because of the necessity of simultaneous action, it should have to be concluded that Mr. Merchant's suggestion is beyond our capabilities." Even through the opacity of official minutes the pattern is apparent: a hardheaded, straightforward question—What about it? If we're trying to get rid of these guys, why don't we get rid of these guys?—is met with a wall of spongy demurrer: It's too tough, won't work, can't predict the consequences, might blow up in our faces, et cetera.

A witness to still another episode of the sort was Armin Meyer, a career diplomat with a long history in the Near East. In July 1958, when the government of Iraq was overthrown in a coup notable for its violence, Meyer was deputy director of the State Department's Office of Near Eastern Affairs. The following year he was promoted to director, and in that capacity was called in whenever the CIA contemplated covert operations in Iraq. The new ruler of the country was an army general named Abdul Karim Kassem, who had murdered his predecessors as well as a number of foreigners who happened to be in Baghdad at the time of his coup. On top of that he immediately restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, later lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist party while suppressing pro-Western parties, and in many other ways invited the hostility of Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. On one occasion during Armin Meyer's tenure as director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs, he attended a meeting in Allen Dulles's office at the CIA to discuss how the United States might remove Kassem. Meyer had attended many such meetings; they were a routine of government; but this one in particular stuck in his mind.

During the meeting one of those present suggested that Kassem himself was the problem, and maybe the best way to get rid of him was to get rid of him. Wait a minute Dulles said. An awful silence followed. Dulles was a man of great personal authority, and his words on this occasion had a cold and deliberate emphasis which Meyer never forgot. Dulles wanted one thing to be understood: it was not in the American character to assassinate opponents; murder was not to be discussed in his office, now or ever again; he did not ever want to hear another such suggestion by a servant of the United States government; that was not the way Americans did things.

Dulles was so clear on this point, and spoke with such evident passion and conviction, that Meyer, later, simply could not understand how Dulles ever could have been party to an assassination plot, no matter who gave the orders. Meyer knew what was in the reports of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (the Church Committee), but he simply did not believe it. Dulles had left no room for doubt: he would not be a party to assassination. The regular spiel. The more one examines the subject, the clearer the pattern becomes. Another example ought to make it unmistakable. On August 10, 1962, during the earliest stages of what would shortly become the Cuban missile crisis, a meeting was held in the office of Secretary of State Dean Rusk to discuss Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy Administration's post-Bay of Pigs plan to get rid of Castro, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a man convinced there is a rational solution to every problem, was probably astonished at the instantaneous reaction to his entirely hypothetical suggestion that perhaps they ought to consider solving the Castro problem by killing him.

Edward R. Murrow, the director of the United States Information Agency, protested that this was entirely out of order. CIA Director John McCone immediately backed him up. The secretary at the meeting, Thomas Parrott, did not so much as include the matter in the minutes. To seal the point, McCone personally phoned McNamara later in the day and protested that talk of assassination was entirely out of order in such a meeting, that he didn't want to hear any more of it, and that he, McCone, a devout Catholic who attended mass every morning, might be faced with nothing short of excommunication if word of such things ever got out.

The message to McNamara ought to have been loud and clear: assassination was too sensitive a matter to be discussed in official meetings or to be recorded in official memos and minutes. What those high officials who received the regular spiel failed to comprehend was the degree of secrecy which necessarily surrounded any matter as explosive as assassination.

In February 1960, while the government was trying to decide what to do about General Kassem, the chief of the DDP's Near East Division, James Critchfield, proposed that Kassem be "incapacitated" with a poisoned handkerchief prepared by the DDP's Technical Services Division. In April the proposal was supported by the DDP's chief of operations, Richard Helms, who endorsed Kassem's incapacitation as "highly desirable." As head of the DDP, Bissell did not act in such matters without Dulles's approval, and Bissell was convinced—he could hardly have made this point any clearer in his later testimony before the Church Committee—that Dulles would not have proceeded without an order from the only man with the authority to okay an attempt on a foreign leader's life.

In this instance the handkerchief was duly dispatched to Kassem, but whether or not it ever reached him, it certainly did not kill him. His countrymen did that on February 8, 1963, by machine-gunning him and three of his aides in his office in Baghdad.

What Livingston Merchant, Armin Meyer, Robert McNamara, and others failed to understand was that official meetings in the office of the director of the CIA, or of the secretary of state, or of the Special Group, were hardly the place to discuss something that was really secret. From the CIA's point of view, the secretary of state's office was about as secure as the floor of Congress with full press galleries. If you were going to plan an assassination in the secretary of state's office, or record the discussion in the minutes, you might as well send a press release to the New York Times. Eisenhower and Kennedy went after two enemies in particular in the years between 1959 and 1963—Lumumba in the Congo and Castro in Cuba—but when they gave the job to the CIA, they expected secrecy, and that is what they got.

Presented by

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This wildly inventive short film takes you on a whirling, spinning tour of the Big Apple

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City


Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In