Blowing Smoke From the Grave: E. Howard Hunt and the JFK Assassination

Oct 2, 2009 - by Don Fulsom - 0 Comments

June 6, 2007 updated Jan. 25, 2010

E. Howard Hunt

E. Howard Hunt

Howard St. John Hunt, the son of super-spook E. Howard Hunt is now peddling a story that his father rejected an offer to take part in plot by rogue CIA agents to kill President Kennedy. Isn't it about time a congressional committee finds out what the CIA's role was in the assassination?

by Don Fulsom

Was a key Richard Nixon cohort in past and future covert intelligence operations – then-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt – in Dallas the day President Kennedy was killed in 1963? During a 1985 libel trial brought by Hunt against Spotlight – a newsletter owned by rightwing Liberty Lobby – for publishing an article in August of 1978 written by former CIA agent Victor Marchetti entitled "CIA to Admit Hunt Involvement in Kennedy Slaying," CIA operative Marita Lorenz swore she saw Hunt in Dallas the night before the assassination; Hunt co-worker Walter Kuzmuk at the CIA said he could not recall having seen Hunt between November 18th and sometime in December of 1963; and Joseph Trento, a reporter for the Wilmington News & Journal, insisted he had once seen an internal CIA memo that said, "Someday we will have to explain Hunt's presence in Dallas on November 22, 1963." Hunt, by the way, lost the case.

Most notorious for directing Nixon's Watergate burglary, Hunt died at 88 in January, 2007, in Miami. But Hunt's son – Howard St. John (known as "St. John") Hunt of Eureka, Calif., – is now peddling a story that his dad rejected an offer to take part in plot by rogue CIA agents to kill President Kennedy.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, St. John Hunt does admit to telling previous lies about his dad's whereabouts on that fateful day. He says he was instructed by Hunt in 1974 to back up an alibi for his whereabouts. "I did a lot of lying for my father in those days," St. John confessed. E. Howard Hunt's most frequently used alibi for that day was that he was at his Potomac, Maryland home watching TV with his children.

Yet, asked in a Slate interview in 2004 about "conspiracy theories about your being in Dallas the day JFK was killed," E. Howard Hunt nervously replied "No comment."

St. John Hunt, now 52, says his dad left him with enough juicy material about the JFK assassination to fill a book – and that he hopes to do just that. The material, St. John says, was cut from his dad's recent memoir, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond, because the elder Hunt's attorney was worried he could face perjury charges if he recanted sworn testimony.

Does St. John think his planned book will reflect badly on his father? "I don't think it was terrible that he was approached (with the assassination plot) and turned them down," he told the newspaper. In his memoir, E. Howard Hunt suggested that Vice President Lyndon Johnson might have headed the plot to murder JFK.

Though Johnson disliked the Kennedys – especially Bobby – and profited most from President Kennedy's murder, few scholars believe LBJ was in on the conspiracy. Not long ago, the History Channel was forced to yank from its lineup, and apologize for, a program supporting that theory.

In the Los Angeles Times and, later, in Rolling Stone, St. John said his dad definitely alleged that LBJ led the plot. And Rolling Stone printed the names of the men Hunt identified as the main conspirators:

  • David Atlee Phillips, a Hunt friend and CIA propaganda expert who first worked with Hunt in helping to overthrow a leftist government in Guatemala in 1954. He was the chief of covert action in Mexico City in 1963. Phillips later ran President Nixon's successful CIA-led campaign to overthrow Chilean President Salvador Allende.
  • Cord Meyer, a CIA agent and disinformation specialist. Meyer's beautiful bohemian ex-wife, Mary Pinchot Meyer, had had an affair with JFK. At age 43, Mary was killed by two professionally placed bullets, fired from up close, as she jogged on a canal towpath near the Potomac River in Washington.
  • Bill Harvey, a CIA veteran with connections to the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and to Mafia godfathers Santos Trafficante and Sam Giancana.
  • Frank Sturgis, a CIA operative and Hunt pal who once boasted to another CIA operative Marita Lorenz that "We killed Kennedy." In 1972, Sturgis was arrested as one of Nixon's Hunt-supervised Watergate burglars.
  • David Morales, a CIA agent who helped train Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs. He also ran CIA-assassination programs in South America and Vietnam. In a drunken tirade in 1973, he said to his close friend Ruben Carbajal, "We took care of that son of a bitch (President Kennedy), didn't we?"
  • Antonio Veciana, a Cuban exile and the founder of the militant CIA-backed "Alpha 66." Veciana told a Senate investigator he once saw alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald talking with a CIA man he knew as "Maurice Bishop" – widely believed to have been David Atlee Phillips's CIA code name.

In Rolling Stone, St. John Hunt also said dad his told him there was a "French gunman" firing from the famed grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza. And he clearly recalled his mother telling him, on Nov. 22 1963, that his dad was on a business trip to Dallas.

Does St. John's tale ring true? Perhaps in that last crucial area – his dad's whereabouts on that dark day. For the most part, however, it could just be that E. Howard Hunt was practicing what was known during Watergate as a "modified limited hang out." John Ehrlichman, the Nixon aide who dealt with the CIA, coined that term. It has come to mean a reluctant partial release of information.

This is only slightly different than what is known at the CIA as a "limited hangout." Former CIA agent Victor Marchetti once defined that term as "spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting – sometimes even volunteering – some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts of the case."

Both hangout tactics were used by Hunt many times before. Even while facing death, it seems, his old habits were hard to kick. He appears to have released to his son heaping helpings of disinformation carefully mixed with small portions of the full and true story – a mixture that would paint him in heroic and patriotic hues for the benefit of his family and his own legacy. "E. Howard Hunt Rejected Kennedy Conspirators"! That's the way he might have written the headline. Hunt was a talented writer – the author of scores of spy novels and the ghostwriter of the memoirs of CIA boss Allen Dulles.

The real E. Howard Hunt, however, was a CIA loyalist, a gun-toting super-spook and propaganda expert who was close to Richard Nixon, and to top CIA officials, including Dulles, Richard Helms and James Jesus Angleton. Was he still protecting such men – as well as himself? That seems more reasonable. Even on his deathbed, Hunt was not likely to make a full display of what the agency calls "the family jewels." He was too much of a Company man.

It seems likelier that the old master of disinformation was now blowing a little post-mortem smoke to deflect suspicion away from the real major players behind the JFK murder.

Until his final "confession," E. Howard Hunt was destined to be remembered by history mainly as President Nixon's chief White House spy – a former senior CIA officer who served 33 months in prison for his role as a leader of the Watergate burglary. Now, however, it becomes much easier to at least believe that Hunt was in Dallas on Nov. 22 1963 – just as the jury at the libel suit concluded in that 1985 trial.

What could have been the purpose of Hunt's "business trip" to Dallas? To stop the plot? It seems more logical to believe that Hunt was among the collaborators. The following little-known links between E. Howard Hunt and the JFK assassination seem to support that line of thinking:

  • In New Orleans in the early 1960s, Hunt worked out of the same office building – perhaps even the same office – as Lee Harvey Oswald. On behalf of the CIA, Hunt had set up a dummy organization called "The Cuban Revolutionary Council" at 544 Camp Street – the same address Oswald put on pro-Castro leaflets he handed out. That very building, which was close to the local offices of both the CIA and the FBI, also housed the detective agency of former FBI agent Guy Banister, who associated with leaders of the CIA, the Mafia, Cuban exile groups, and with suspected JFK assassination plotter David Ferrie. According to a business acquaintance, Banister himself remarked "on several occasions that someone should do away with Kennedy."
  • Banister and all those with whom he rubbed elbows blamed JFK for the failure of the 1961 CIA-backed invasion of Cuba. They felt the president acted in a cowardly fashion in not providing adequate air cover for the exile invaders. Future president Richard Nixon said Kennedy's behavior was "near criminal." All parties were keenly interested in ousting, even killing, Castro.
  • Then, there's the handwritten "Dear Mr. Hunt" letter. Famous among JFK assassination researchers, it is dated "Nov. 8, 1963." It reads: "I would like information concerding (sic) my position. I am asking only for information. I am suggesting that we discuss the matter fully before any steps are taken by me or anyone else. Thank you. (signed) Lee Harvey Oswald." The letter, which bears a Mexican postmark, was sent to assassination researcher Penn Jones. According to three handwriting experts, the letter was indeed written by Oswald. Was E. HowardHunt the Hunt addressed in the letter?

It is highly likely that he was. It just so happens that Hunt was the acting CIA station chief in Mexico City at the time Oswald is supposed to have turned up there, according to Hunt's biographer. In Compulsive Spy: The Strange Career of E. Howard Hunt, Tad Szulc also reported that Hunt probably knew something about why the CIA destroyed its audio tapes and photos of a mystery man in Mexico City who purported to be Oswald, but who turned out not be him.

Researcher Joan Mellen argues persuasively in A Farewell to Justice that Oswald was a CIA employee who also worked for the New Orleans FBI office, as well as for U.S. Customs. She claims Oswald was closely connected to CIA-sponsored anti-Castro figures in New Orleans, and with JFK assassination suspects Clay Shaw and David Ferrie.

Back when Nixon was vice president, he and the CIA's Hunt secretly plotted an invasion of Cuba, and favored the murder of Castro. The CIA eventually brought the Mafia into those assassination plots.

In addition, Hunt "helped run operations for Nixon against (Greek shipping tycoon) Aristotle Onassis in the late 1950s, when Nixon was vice president under Eisenhower," according to researchers Robert Groden and Harrison Livingstone. Robert Maheu – a man connected to the CIA, the Mafia, and to Nixon – also took part in those secret anti-Onassis schemes. Maheu later disclosed that Vice President Nixon whispered to him at the time, "If it turns out we have to kill the bastard, just don't do it on American soil."

Guy Banister's secretary and Lee Harvey Oswald's brother are among those who said Oswald was a frequent visitor to Banister's office. Ex-CIA agent Victor Marchetti has linked Hunt (and Hunt's old CIA buddy and fellow future Watergater, Frank Sturgis) to David Ferrie.

Hunt's CIA-connected pal Bernard Barker – known as "Hunt's Shadow" because the two men were so close – was also spotted in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Assassination witness Seymour Weitzman identified Barker as the man on the grassy knoll who posed as a Secret Service agent and kept people out of the area. Nine years later, under Hunt's supervision, Barker and four other CIA men broke into the Watergate on behalf of President Nixon.

In Mafia Kingfish, Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Mafia expert John Davis notes that Bernard Barker "had been very much involved with the Cuban Revolutionary Council in Miami, a Cuban exiles group that was closely linked to the Cuban Revolutionary Democratic Front in New Orleans." Davis says New Orleans Mafia godfather Carlos Marcello supported the New Orleans group – with money funnelled to the group through his jack-of-all-trades David Ferrie. Davis adds there are "credible links" between Barker and Jack Ruby, the Dallas striptease club owner who killed Oswald two days after the JFK assassination.

As we have seen, Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis also had JFK assassination links. At the 1985 libel trial involving Hunt's links, CIA operative Marita Lorenz – a former Castro mistress and a friend of Sturgis – placed Sturgis, as well as Hunt and Jack Ruby, at a Dallas CIA "safe house" the night before the assassination.

Sturgis himself admitted being questioned by the FBI shortly after the JFK slaying. He recalled agents telling him, "Frank, if there's anybody capable of killing the President of the United States, you're the guy who can do it."

Believe it or not Richard Nixon was in Dallas on Nov. 22nd. Was he really there for his stated purpose – a PepsiCo convention (Nixon was Pepsi's chief lawyer at the time)? Or could his presence have been some sort of signal to his friends in the Mob and the CIA and among the Cuban exiles – the eventual chief suspects of JFK assassination conspiracy theorists? Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana proudly told relatives that – as the mastermind of the JFK assassination plot – he was also in Dallas at the time. He claimed he and Nixon had a pre-assassination meeting there to discuss the plot.

Why did Nixon later try to cover up his presence in Dallas that day? Why did he lie to the FBI about it? Why did he express fear to an aide Stephen Hess that he would be blamed for JFK's murder? Why did he tell at least four different versions of how he heard of the assassination? Did he meet with Giancana in Dallas? Or with Hunt? Did he meet there with Jack Ruby – an informer for a young California Congressman Richard Nixon in 1947? Why did Nixon hold a conference of top GOP leaders at his New York apartment about his political future the day after the assassination?

Shouldn't some congressional committee or sharp prosecutor question St. John Hunt under oath? After all, we're talking about the greatest unsolved political crime in American history. What kind of proof does he have to back up his claim? The Los Angeles Times describes as "inconclusive" the materials he produced for them. These materials apparently include a videotape of E. Howard Hunt. Why not subpoena the tape?

And shouldn't some investigative entity grill Hunt's old White House boss, Charles Colson? After all, Colson was present when President Nixon declared in May 1972 that the Warren Commission staged "the greatest hoax that has ever been perpetuated" in finding that Oswald was Kennedy's lone killer. What does Colson know about that particular Nixon comment on a White House tape released in 2002?

And what might Colson know about Nixon's 1972 attempt to gain CIA help in the Watergate cover-up by trying to blackmail CIA chief Richard Helms over the secrets that E. Howard Hunt might blab? Secrets about the CIA's links to "the Bay of Pigs?" Top Nixon aide Bob Haldeman later revealed that "the Bay of Pigs" was Nixon/CIA code for the JFK assassination. Haldeman maintained that the CIA pulled off a "fantastic cover-up" of its role in the JFK assassination.

In 1972, shortly after the Watergate burglary, on Nixon's orders, Haldeman tried to get CIA boss Helms to tell the FBI to stop investigating the break-in on grounds that it could hurt CIA operations. Helms lost his composure when Haldeman mentioned that Hunt's connection to the burglary could re-open "the whole Bay of Pigs thing." According to Haldeman, Helms, "a typically cold-as-a-cucumber, icy, super-spy type guy, came totally unglued … He leaped up in enormous excitement, concern and panic and said, 'This has nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs.'" After calming down, Helms did agree to talk to the FBI.

On Nixon's behalf, aide John Ehrichman made several futile attempts to pry agency "Bay of Pigs" files out of Helms. Ehrlichman's notes show the president wanted the CIA chief to turn over the "full file" because Nixon himself was "deeply involved."

Though he hated confrontations, Nixon had pressed Helms for the "Bay of Pigs" secrets at a meeting back on October 8, 1971. Ehrlichman sat in. His notes quote Nixon as telling Helms: "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." Yet the CIA boss never did comply with that particular presidential directive.

A statement made later by Watergate burglar and former CIA operative Frank Sturgis supports the possibility that the "Bay of Pigs" phrase, when used in Nixon's White House, was a euphemism for the JFK assassination. Sturgis said Nixon asked Helms "several times" for "the files on the Kennedy assassination but Helms refused to give it to him, refused a direct order from the president." Sturgis even claimed the Watergate break-in was a CIA operation designed to topple Nixon because the agency felt he was becoming overly interested in the JFK murder.

Backing Sturgis's assertion that the CIA failed to obey Nixon's order is a new 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 CIA or somebody has caused to disappear that impeded the effort to find out what really did happen on the Bay of Pigs."

There's yet another reason to believe Haldeman's take on the "Bay of Pigs." The CIA's own top-secret report on the invasion – when it was finally declassified in 1998 – disclosed major agency blunders and criticized the failure to inform President Kennedy "success had been dubious." But the report contains absolutely nothing that could be interpreted as sensitive to national security.

"The Bay of Pigs" gets frequent mention on those new Watergate tapes. And the term is usually employed in ways that coincide with Haldeman's decoded translation.

The new 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 declassified?

The forewoman of the jury that ruled against E. Howard Hunt in 1985 – Leslie Armstrong – told reporters afterwards that the jurors had faced a "very, very difficult" task because the attorney for the defense, Mark Lane, "wanted us to say our own government had killed our president. We listened to the evidence very carefully. We discussed it. We concluded that the CIA killed President Kennedy; and I call upon the United States government to do something about that."

More than 20 years later, the government still has not done anything about that.


Update 01/25/2009:

After this article was originally published, St. John Hunt conceded that his dad had not told him the entire truth about the JFK assassination.

In what he termed "probably the last interview I'll do," E. Howard Hunt's son said the longtime CIA spy had disclosed only "some of what he knew," and that "it's quite possible" his dad did "minimalize (sic) his role the JFK hit."

"If only I had been able to stay with him longer and we were able to keep our project a secret from the rest of the family I would have been able to get the whole story," St. John told "Waking the Midnight Sun," a Web site devoted to "magic and realism, high weirdness and everyday life."

St. John Hunt blamed his sisters, his father's second wife, and the senior Hunt's lawyer—who kept raising the prospect of lawsuits—for putting pressure on the legendary spy, which "resulted in him withdrawing his efforts to bring the truth out." The junior Hunt called his father's lawyer "a snake and quite possibly a 'handler' for the (CIA)."

Aside from possibly hiding his own role in the JFK assassination, E. Howard Hunt may have "left out" the involvement of CIA Director Richard Helms, St. John said. "My father's loyalty to Helms is well known, and of course we all know that Helms was a master at getting the dirty work done while keeping his own involvement above suspicion."

St. John Hunt also confirmed that his father set up a CIA front called The Cuban Revolutionary Council in New Orleans, and said his father might have met Lee Harvey Oswald in the office building both men reportedly used in there. "Certainly their paths crossed very closely and my father was training Cubans for the invasion in Guatemala around New Orleans."



Don Fulsom covered the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton presidencies as a reporter. He has written articles about Richard Nixon and Watergate for a number of publications, including The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Esquire and the online magazine Crime.

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