Plausible Deniability

When Kennedy assumed the presidency in January 1961, he inherited a federal agency that had spun out of control. The CIA had pursued its own objectives during the Eisenhower administration—instigating coups, inciting rebellions, trying to assassinate foreign leaders—generally without White House supervision. When the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion (which the CIA had orchestrated) proved to be a disaster as well as an enormous political liability for Kennedy, he fired the director and his deputies, threatening to “smash the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Rogue agents, fearful he would do just that, struck first, either by placing CIA sharpshooters at Dealey Plaza or by enlisting former Marine and spy wannabe Lee Harvey Oswald to do the job.


Authors Mark Lane (Plausible Denial), John Newman (Oswald and the CIA), and Anthony Summers (Conspiracy).

Strange Details

• CIA director Allen Dulles, whom Kennedy had fired in 1961, later served on the Warren Commission.

• CIA deputy director Charles Cabell, whom Kennedy had also fired, was the brother of Earle Cabell, Dallas’ mayor in 1963.

• One of Kennedy’s alleged mistresses, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was married to a CIA official and was murdered in 1964.

• Richard Nixon—who oversaw the CIA’s original plan to take back Cuba from Castro when he was Eisenhower’s vice president—was in Dallas on the day of the assassination.

Reasons to Believe

• If anybody could have planned and concealed a plot as intricate as the Kennedy assassination, power-hungry CIA agents could; they had already helped oust heads of state in Guatemala and Iran.

• The agency had little congressional oversight in 1963 and was full of furtive cells, subgroups, and enthusiastic spooks who acted with impunity and whose modus operandi was “plausible deniability.” Indeed, as Kennedy’s motorcade was making its way through Dallas, a CIA operative in Paris was—unbeknownst to most of his higher-ups—giving a poison fountain pen to Cuban turncoat Rolando Cubela, who had volunteered to hand it to Fidel Castro.

• While in the Marines in 1957 and 1958, Oswald was stationed at Atsugi Air Base in Japan, the home of the largest CIA station in the Pacific.

• During the Warren Commission’s investigation, the CIA withheld untold amounts of information, notably that the agency and the mob had jointly tried to kill Castro.

Reasons Not to Believe

• There is no evidence that Oswald was ever a CIA operative; at Atsugi he was a low-level officer who was court-martialed twice and displayed erratic behavior, once shooting himself in the arm.

• Just because the CIA would lie, cheat, steal, overthrow governments, and try to assassinate other countries’ leaders does not mean that it would kill its own.

Recent Developments

Speculation about the CIA’s involvement has always centered on one of the most intriguing assassination riddles: the identity of the three tramps, a trio of men arrested in the rail yard behind Dealey Plaza immediately after the assassination. Photos showed them being led through the downtown streets by Dallas police officers, yet there was no record of their arrest. Conspiracy theorists have long believed that they looked suspiciously like CIA bogeymen E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis (as well as Charles Harrelson, the assassin of federal judge John Wood and the father of actor Woody Harrelson). According to the three tramps theory, these CIA operatives killed Kennedy; after they were arrested, they were whisked away by unidentified federal agents who destroyed all records of the incident. But in 1992 Dallas researcher Mary La Fontaine searched through Dallas Police Department files and found overlooked arrest records from November 22, 1963. The three tramps were, in fact, three tramps: Harold Doyle, Gus Abrams, and John Forrester Gedney.

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