Excerpt from ‘The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government’

Excerpt from ‘The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government’

No one can possibly understand the precarious state of American democracy today without scrutinizing the often secret path the country was taken on by those in power from the 1950s to the present.

Among the elemental figures in forging that path was Allen Dulles.

He was the most powerful, and, it appears — the most sinister — director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Given that outfit’s history, that’s some accomplishment.

Dulles’s job, simply put, was to hijack the US government to benefit the wealthy.

Studying how this worked is a worthwhile pursuit. That’s why we decided to excerpt a few parts of David Talbot’s new Dulles biography, The Devil’s Chessboard.

In part one of our excerpts, we looked at indications that Lee Harvey Oswald was no rogue “lone nut” but in fact a man with strong connections to the American national security apparatus. We also looked at Allen Dulles’s highly suspicious behavior around the time of the assassination — a time when he was ostensibly in retirement, having been fired two years earlier by President Kennedy. And we saw how determined Dulles was in advancing the notion that Oswald had been Kennedy’s killer, and had acted alone.

In part two, we focused on the Warren Commission, the body “above suspicion” that was supposed to investigate Kennedy’s death and report its findings to the public. We see the irrepressible Allen Dulles, who should by almost any standard have been considered a possible suspect for a role in the assassination, instead appointed to the Commission. And we see how he became the leading figure in guiding the “probe,” along with a network of individuals whose loyalties were clearly to him and to the American establishment, but certainly not to the truth — or to the late President.

Below, in part three, we are treated to a detailed account of the Warren Commission’s “investigation” as the fraud that it was. Complete with leaks to influence public opinion, cooperative news organizations and journalists, cover-up artists and the odd person of conscience, this charade deserves much more attention because it shows the extent to which we are manipulated — and others forced to go along to get along. There’s one commission staffer with a conscience, but he gets a pretty clear warning to back off.

— WhoWhatWhy Introduction by Russ Baker.

Third part of a compressed Excerpt of Chapter 20, “For the Good of the Country” from The Devil’s Chessboard. Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government. HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

Weaving Two Separate Webs of Deceit

Despite the chronic tensions between the CIA and FBI, Hoover proved a useful partner of the spy agency during the JFK inquiry. The FBI chief knew that his organization had its own secrets to hide related to the assassination, including its contacts with Oswald.

Furthermore, taking its cues from the CIA, the bureau had dropped Oswald from its watch list just weeks before the assassination. An angry Hoover would later mete out punishment for errors such as this, quietly disciplining seventeen of his agents. But the FBI director was desperate to avoid public censure, and he fully supported the commission’s lone-gunman story line.

Angleton, who had a good back-channel relationship with the FBI, made sure that the two agencies stayed on the same page throughout the Warren inquest, meeting regularly with bureau contacts such as William Sullivan and Sam Papich.

Angleton and his team also provided ongoing support and advice to Dulles. On a Saturday afternoon in March 1964, Ray Rocca — Angleton’s right-hand man ever since their days together in Rome — met with Dulles at his home to mull over a particularly dicey issue with which the commission was grappling.

David Phillips — a man whose career was nurtured by Helms — had been spotted meeting with Oswald in Dallas. But when Helms was sworn in, he simply lied. There was no evidence of agency contact with Oswald, he testified.

How could the panel dispel persistent rumors that the CIA was somehow a “sponsor” of Oswald’s actions? The story had broken in the press the previous month, when Marguerite Oswald declared that her son was a secret agent for the CIA who was “set up to take the blame” for the Kennedy assassination.

Rankin had obligingly suggested that Dulles be given the job of clearing the CIA by reviewing all of the relevant agency documents that were provided to the commission. But even Dulles thought this smacked too much of an inside job. Instead, after conferring with Rocca, Dulles proposed that he simply provide a statement to the commission swearing — as Rocca put it in his report back to Dick Helms — “that as far as he could remember he had never had any knowledge of Oswald at any time prior to the date of the assassination.”

But Senator Cooper thought the allegations that Oswald was some kind of government agent were too serious to simply be dispelled by written statements. During a Warren Commission executive session in April, he proposed that the heads of the CIA and FBI be put under oath and questioned by the panel. It was a highly awkward suggestion, as Dulles pointed out.

“I might have a little problem on that — having been [CIA] director until November 1961.” There was a simple solution, however: put his successor, John McCone, on the witness stand. That was fine with Dulles, because — as he knew — McCone remained an agency outsider, despite his title, and was not privy to its deepest secrets.

When McCone appeared before the Warren Commission, he brought along Helms, his chief of clandestine operations. As McCone was well aware, Helms was the man who knew where all the bodies were buried, and he deferred to his number two man more than once during his testimony. Conveniently ignorant of the CIA’s involvement with Oswald, McCone was able to emphatically deny any agency connection to the accused assassin. “The agency never contacted him, interviewed him, talked with him, or received or solicited any reports or information from him,” McCone assured the commission.


It was trickier when Helms was asked the same questions. He knew about the extensive documentary record that Angleton’s department had amassed on Oswald. He was aware of how the agency had monitored the defector during his exploits in Dallas, New Orleans, and Mexico City.

David Phillips — a man whose career was nurtured by Helms — had been spotted meeting with Oswald in Dallas. But when Helms was sworn in, he simply lied. There was no evidence of agency contact with Oswald, he testified. Had the agency provided the commission with all the information it had on Oswald, Rankin asked him. “We have — all,” Helms replied, though he knew the files that he had handed over were thoroughly purged.

Helms was “the man who kept the secrets,” in the words of his biographer, Thomas Powers. Commission staff attorney Howard Willens politely called him “one of the most fluent and self-confident government officials I ever met.” Helms was the sort of man who could tell lies with consummate ease. It would eventually win him a felony conviction, and he wore it like a badge of courage. When one was defending the nation, Helms would lecture the senators who pestered him late in his career, one must be granted a certain latitude.


It was David Slawson, a thirty-two-year-old attorney on leave from a Denver corporate law firm, who was given the unenviable job of dealing with the CIA as part of the Warren Commission’s conspiracy research team. Rankin had told Slawson to rule out no one — “not even the CIA.”

If he did discover evidence of agency involvement, the young lawyer nervously joked, he would be found dead of a premature heart attack. But Rocca, the veteran counterintelligence agent assigned to babysit the commission, made sure nothing turned up. “I came to like and trust [Rocca],” said the young staff attorney, who found himself dazzled by his first exposure to a spy world he had only seen in movies. “He was very intelligent and tried in every way to be honest and helpful.” Slawson was equally gullible when evaluating Dulles, whom he dismissed as old and feeble — precisely the aging schoolmaster act that the spymaster liked to put over on people.

“I wish sometime you would sit down and write me a line as to why you think Lee Oswald did the dastardly deed,” Dulles wrote the novelist in March, as if discussing the plot of a whodunit. “All I can tell you is that there is not one iota of evidence that he had any personal vindictiveness against the man Kennedy.”

Years later, as the Church Committee began to reveal the darker side of the CIA, Slawson came to suspect that Rocca had not been so “honest” with him after all. In a frank interview with The New York Times in February 1975, Slawson suggested that the CIA had withheld important information from the Warren Commission, and he endorsed the growing campaign to reopen the Kennedy investigation.

Slawson was the first Warren Commission attorney to publicly question whether the panel had been misled by the CIA and FBI (he would later be joined by Rankin himself) — and the news story caused a stir in Washington.

Several days after the article ran, Slawson — who by then was teaching law at the University of Southern California — got a disturbing phone call from James Angleton. After some initial pleasantries, the spook got around to business. He wanted Slawson to know that he was friendly with the president of USC, and he wanted to make sure that Slawson was going to “remain a friend” of the CIA.

Manufacturing a Motive for Oswald

His new job on the commission gave Dulles an opportunity to connect with old friends, such as … British novelist Rebecca West. In March, Dulles wrote West, beseeching her to draw on her fertile imagination to come up with possible motives for Oswald’s crime. The commission was so baffled by the question that Warren even suggested leaving that part of the report blank.

“I wish sometime you would sit down and write me a line as to why you think Lee Oswald did the dastardly deed,” Dulles wrote the novelist in March, as if discussing the plot of a whodunit. “All I can tell you is that there is not one iota of evidence that he had any personal vindictiveness against the man Kennedy.”

Meanwhile, the following month, Mary relayed a news report about Mark Lane to Dulles, informing her old lover in high dudgeon that Lane had apparently told a conference of lawyers in Budapest “that the killers — plural — of JFK were still at large… even I am amazed that Lane has the temerity to go to Budapest and shoot off his mouth in that fashion. I regard him as insane — but nevertheless I do hope the FBI has its eye on him.”

Dulles and McCloy, in fact, were very concerned about European public opinion regarding the Kennedy assassination, and they urged the commission to closely monitor both Lane and Thomas G. Buchanan, a Paris-based American journalist who had written the first JFK conspiracy book, Who Killed Kennedy? — an advance copy of which was airmailed to Dulles from the CIA station in London, where it was published….

Earl Warren was obsessed with press coverage of the inquiry and agonized over press leaks, including a May report by Anthony Lewis in The New York Times — midway through the panel’s work — that the inquiry was set to “unequivocally reject theories that the assassination was the work of some kind of conspiracy.”

Warren was very upset by the premature news report, which suggested that the commission had rushed to judgment before hearing all the evidence. The leak was clearly intended to counter the publicity being generated by authors like Lane and Buchanan.

While the commission frantically attempted to determine the source of such leaks, the answer was sitting in their midst. The two most active leakers were Ford and Dulles. It was Ford who kept the FBI constantly informed, enabling Hoover to feed the press with bureau-friendly stories about the inquest. And Dulles used the CIA’s own network of media assets to spin Warren Commission coverage.


The New York Times was a favorite Dulles receptacle. In February, the Timeshad run another leaked story — also bylined by Lewis — that clearly led back to Dulles. Lewis reported that Robert Oswald, the accused assassin’s brother, had testified that he suspected Lee was a Soviet agent. As the commission hunted the source of the leak, a staff attorney suggested that the Times reporter might have overheard a dinner table conversation that he and Dulles had with Robert Oswald at a Washington restaurant — a highly unlikely scenario that nonetheless provided Dulles with the fig leaf of a cover story…


There was a smug coziness to the entire Warren investigation. It was a clubby affair. When Treasury Secretary Dillon finally appeared before the commission in early September — less than three weeks before its final report was delivered to the president — he was warmly greeted by Dulles as “Doug.” Dillon was treated to a kid-gloves examination by the commission, even though there were troubling questions left unanswered about the Secret Service’s behavior in Dallas, where Kennedy’s protection had mysteriously melted away.

Led by Willens, the commission staff had tried for months before Dillon’s appearance to obtain Secret Service records related to the assassination. Willens believed that “the Secret Service appeared to be neither alert nor careful in protecting the president.”

This was a delicate way of characterizing what was a criminally negligent performance by the service entrusted with the president’s safety. The buildings surrounding Dealey Plaza and its shadowy corners were not swept and secured by the Secret Service in advance of Kennedy’s motorcade.

There were no agents riding on the flanks of his limousine. And when sniper fire erupted, only one agent — Clint Hill — performed his duty by sprinting toward the president’s vehicle and leaping onto the rear. It was an outrageous display of professional incompetence, one that made Robert Kennedy immediately suspect that the presidential guard was involved in the plot against his brother.

But Dillon stonewalled Willens’s efforts to pry loose Secret Service records, and when the commission staff persisted, the Treasury secretary huddled with his old friend, Jack McCloy, and then appealed to President Johnson himself. “Dillon was a very shrewd guy,” Willens marveled late in his life. “I still can’t believe he involved President Johnson in this.”

Instead of being grilled by the commission about why he had withheld records and why his agency was missing in action in Dallas, Dillon was allowed to make a case for why his budget should be beefed up. If the Secret Service was given more money, staff, and authority, Senator Cooper helpfully asked, would it be possible to offer the president better protection in the future? “Yes, I think [we] could,” Dillon replied brightly.

If any blame was assigned in the death of the president during Dillon’s gentle interrogation, it was placed on the victim himself. Soon after the assassination, Dillon and others began circulating the false story that Kennedy preferred his Secret Service guards to ride behind him in motorcades, instead of on the side rails of his limousine, and that Kennedy had also requested the Dallas police motorcycle squadron to hang back — so the crowds in Dallas could enjoy an unobstructed view of the glamorous first couple. This clever piece of disinformation had the insidious effect of absolving the Secret Service and indicting Kennedy, implying that his vanity was his downfall…

One Response to “Excerpt from ‘The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the American Secret Government’”


I recommend this book to everyone wanting to know more about the Kennedy coup. I’d never really heard much about Allen Dulles but now I feel he was the reason we lost Kennedy. He’s directly responsible for changing the path of America down its rocky road.

Leave a Reply