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10/25/2013 01:33 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Video and Excerpt: The Kennedy Half-Century

Watch the Press Launch: Professor Sabato Unveils New Finding on JFK Assassination

Excerpted from The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury; October 15, 2013; 978-1620402801)

The FBI and the CIA are at the heart of many conspiracy theories about JFK's killing. Researchers tend to be harsh, and some assume the absolute worst about Hoover and key leaders inside the CIA -- direct involvement in JFK's assassination -- without providing ironclad proof of the most serious allegations. There is no question, however, that both agencies were trying to cover their tracks to avoid blame; insiders quickly picked this up. Shortly after November 22, John Whitten, a CIA agent who ran covert operations in Mexico and Central America, was put in charge of the CIA's internal investigation of Oswald, a job that required close contact with FBI officials. In December 1963, the agent caught a glimpse of the early FBI report on the assassination, the same one that served as the starting point for the Warren Commission. Whitten was shocked when he realized that both the FBI and CIA had been purposely withholding critical information from him. When Whitten complained to his superiors, he was "told that his services would no longer be needed" and "was sent back to his Latin American duties." Apparently, Whitten was taken off the case by James Angleton, CIA's director of counterintelligence.

But a cover-up to avoid culpability for missing signs of an impending assassination, or having worked with the assassin in some undercover capacity prior to November 22, is very different from the institutional orchestration of the murder of a U.S. president. Author Mark North has accused Hoover, in effect, of being a silent accomplice to the assassination. In his book Act of Treason, North argues that the FBI director knew about a Mafia plot to kill JFK but did nothing about it for two reasons. First, Hoover thought of Kennedy as "an indecisive, immoral liberal who, if left in place, would destroy the nation." The irony, given Hoover's unconventional private life, must be noted. And second, because "JFK had made it known that he intended, by the end of his first term in office, to retire [Hoover] and replace him with a man of his own, more liberal political philosophy." This argument is weak. While Kennedy would no doubt have preferred someone other than Hoover as FBI director, Hoover had cleverly accumulated evidence of JFK's infidelities and had made certain the Kennedys were aware of his proofs -- which provided an unusual form of job security.

In any event, North claims that the "overwhelming body of evidence" points to the New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello as the person who masterminded the assassination. By the fall of 1962, Marcello was facing a federal indictment, possible deportation, and relentless attacks from Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department. He "realized that by placing the presidency in the hands of Lyndon Johnson" he could possibly "remedy the situation." It was "common knowledge," says North, that LBJ had "no interest in pursuing the Mafia." Before the Kennedys came to power, the FBI director had sometimes turned a blind eye to mob activity. During World War II, for example, the federal government essentially subcontracted the security of New York's waterfront district to a Mafia thug, Charles "Lucky" Luciano. The deal was simple: if Luciano's henchmen kept an eye out for German and Japanese saboteurs, then Hoover's G-men would not examine their business activities too closely. In Hoover's eyes, the Communists and their "useful idiots" in the United States were a greater threat than "patriotic" Mafia bosses. FBI informers and pre-November 22 eavesdropping had yielded a couple of clues that mob godfathers had drawn a bead on JFK. The assassination researcher Lamar Waldron has asserted, "In autumn 1962, according to one of his former associates, [Carlos] Marcello met with three men on the mobster's 3,000-acre estate outside New Orleans." During this meeting, the conversation turned toward the Kennedys. Marcello detested RFK, who was working to dismantle his business operations and had even secured his deportation to Guatemala. He "referred to President Kennedy as a dog, with his brother Robert being the tail. 'The dog,' he said, 'will keep biting you if you only cut off its tail.'" In other words, Marcello believed he needed to kill JFK in order to neutralize Bobby.

Marcello is not the only Mafia chieftain to be implicated by assassination researchers. Santo Trafficante, a mob boss whose fiefdom was southern Florida, supposedly made a similar threat during a conversation with a Cuban exile, Jose Aleman. According to Aleman, Trafficante complained that the Kennedy brothers were "not honest. They took graft and they did not keep a bargain . . . Mark my word, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him." When Aleman remarked that JFK would probably win a second term, Trafficante allegedly replied, "You don't understand me. Kennedy's not going to make it to the election. He is going to be hit."

The lack of swift and decisive action once these threats became known to the FBI is disturbing. But it pales by comparison with the bureau's casual attitude toward Lee Harvey Oswald. How could Oswald have escaped identification as a real and present danger, given his unusual history as a turncoat and agitator? In the entire United States there lived only a handful of former defectors to Communist states; in Texas, exactly one, Lee Oswald. Make no mistake -- the FBI knew that Oswald was in the Lone Star State. By October 1963, the bureau also "knew him as a possibly deranged Marxist who supported the Cuban revolution, who was capable of violence, and who had been in recent contact with Soviet intelligence officers." Hoover's G-men also knew where Oswald worked, and one might think this relevant fact would have occurred to an alert bureau matching up potential assassins with presidential motorcade routes. The FBI certainly realized this after the fact. Agent James Hosty had been tracking Oswald for months and, under orders, destroyed evidence after the assassination to cover the bureau's tracks. "We failed in carrying through some of the most salient aspects of the Oswald investigation," Hoover later admitted. "It ought to be a lesson to us all, but I doubt if some even realize it now." The magnitude of the FBI's mistake should not be understated. Hoover himself termed it "gross incompetency" and it resulted in the decapitation of the elected U.S. government. However, incompetency does not equal complicity in the murder of a president. The evidence, fairly sifted, does not justify such speculation.

A complete list of sources can be found in the book. The above is an excerpt from the book The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy by Larry J. Sabato. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2013 Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy

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