End Game

It was always difficult for Angelina Cabrera, the woman who managed Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s New York office, to grab a few minutes of his time. As the freshman senator from New York during the volcanic ’60s and the inheritor of his brother’s heavy legacy, Bobby was always in demand, always on the move, always in the middle of the growing debate over the Vietnam War and the fight for social justice. Cabrera was respectful of the time that the senator needed to himself behind his closed office door. And she was keenly aware of the shadow that always seemed to loom over him. “He was sad most of the time,” she recalled years later. “He was preoccupied most of the time about something—probably his brother. I had the thought that he would not make it. I was praying for him.”

The grief that clung to Bobby did not make him a remote figure in his New York office. He had a gentler aura after his brother’s death, and he created a sense of warm camaraderie among his staff. Aides felt they could challenge him, joke with him, and he responded in kind, with his dry and lightly teasing sense of humor. “The senator dearly loved Angie Cabrera and [his New York staff],” remembered RFK aide Peter Edelman. “He loved them very dearly; he just enjoyed being around them. . . . It was kind of a one big happy family thing.”

Cabrera would accompany Bobby to political rallies in Spanish Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Kennedy’s commitment to community development and empowerment made him an increasingly popular figure. Cabrera, whose parents had emigrated from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn Heights and who had worked as an executive secretary for the governor of Puerto Rico, helped connect RFK to his Hispanic constituents. In 1967, Bobby and Ethel invited her to fly with them to the island, where he was scheduled to speak in the old Spanish colonial city of San Germán. Kennedy was stunned by the size and exuberance of the crowds that greeted him in Puerto Rico. Everywhere he went, people celebrated him as if he were their best and brightest hope. He was the second coming of his brother.

One day, that same year, while working in the New York office, Cabrera barged through Bobby’s door with a timely item of business. She caught him as he was finishing what seemed like an intense phone call. “As I walked in, he thought I might have heard,” Cabrera later recounted. “Actually I didn’t hear what he said and I had no idea who he was talking to. But he thought that I did, and he trusted me. After he hung up the phone, he turned to me and said, ‘There’s something more to this. I’ve got to pursue who really killed my brother.’”

In the hours and days immediately following his brother’s assassination, Bobby had frenetically chased every lead he could think of, quickly concluding that JFK was the victim of a plot that had spun out of the CIA’s anti-Castro operation. But after this initial burst of clarity, Bobby soon sank into a fog of despair, unable to develop a clear plan of action. His depression came, of course, from the devastating loss of his beloved brother—the northern star on whom he had fixed his life’s course. But Bobby was also filled with despair because there was no clear way to respond to his brother’s murder. His mortal enemy Lyndon Johnson was in charge of the government and his own power as attorney general was dwindling so quickly that J. Edgar Hoover—another bitter opponent—no longer bothered responding to his phone calls. Meanwhile, Kennedy antagonists such as Hoover and Dulles were in control of the official murder investigation. If RFK tried to circumvent the system and take his suspicions directly to the American people, he risked sparking an explosive civil crisis.

The astute writer and political activist M. S. Arnoni, in fact, drew such a chilling scenario in a December 1963 article he published in The Minority of One, a publication to which Kennedy’s Senate office subscribed: “To move against such formidable conspirators might start a disastrous chain of events. It could lead to American troops shooting at other American troops. It could lead to a direct take-over by a military clique. To avert such catastrophes, it might well be considered prudent to pretend utter ignorance, in the hope that the conspirators might be removed from power discreetly, at a later date, one by one.”

And so, for the most part, Bobby Kennedy maintained a pained silence on the subject of his brother’s assassination. In private, he dismissed the Warren Report as a public relations exercise. But he knew that if he attacked the report in public, it would set off a political uproar that he was in no position to exploit. When the report was released in late September 1964, Bobby was on the Senate campaign trail in New York. He tried to avoid commenting at length on the report by canceling his campaign appearances that morning. He was obliged to issue a brief statement, giving the inquiry his perfunctory blessing, but adding, “I have not read the report, nor do I intend to.” It was an impossible balancing act that Bobby would strain to make work for the rest of his life.

The CIA used Kennedy’s silence to bolster the Warren Report. “Note that Robert Kennedy . . . would be the last man to overlook or conceal any conspiracy,” the CIA instructed friendly journalists in its 1967 memo on how to rebut critics of the report.

But by 1967, emboldened by the growing campaign to reopen the JFK case and Jim Garrison’s investigation, Bobby began to refocus on Dallas. Before, he had deflected friends’ efforts to discuss their suspicions about the case, but now he tentatively began probing the agonizing wound. After seeing Garrison’s face on a magazine cover at an airport newsstand, the senator turned to his press aide, Frank Mankiewicz, and asked him to begin reading all of the assassination literature he could find—“so if it gets to a point where I can do something about this, you can tell me what I need to know.” Meanwhile, Kennedy sent his trusted friend and longtime investigator, former FBI agent Walter Sheridan, to New Orleans to size up Garrison’s operation. The buttoned-down ex-G-man took an immediate disliking to the flamboyant DA and reported back to Bobby that Garrison was a fraud. Sheridan’s take on Garrison—which was reflected in the harsh NBC News special that Sheridan helped produce in June—foiled Garrison’s efforts to build an investigative alliance with RFK.

The Garrison camp implored Kennedy to speak out about the conspiracy, arguing that such a public stand might even protect his own life by putting the conspirators on notice. But RFK preferred to play such deeply crucial matters close to the chest. He would reopen the case on his own terms, Kennedy confided to his closest aides—suggesting that day would come only if he won the executive powers of the White House.

“One of the things you learned when you were around Kennedy, you learned what it was to be serious,” said RFK’s Senate aide, Adam Walinsky. “Serious people, when faced with something like that—you don’t speculate out loud about it. . . . He had an acute understanding of how difficult that kind of investigation is, even if you had all the power of the presidency.”

On March 16, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. He was motivated, he said, by his desire to “end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities” and to “close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country.” Kennedy left unstated another reason for his White House run—to finally close the case that still tormented his family and the nation.

RFK launched his presidential campaign in the same chandeliered room in the Old Senate Office Building where his brother had declared his bid for the White House eight years earlier. But a more somber mood hung over Bobby’s announcement. Not only was the country—and RFK’s own party—more torn by war and racial divisions than in 1960, but there was an acute sense that his own life might be at stake. After Richard Nixon and several aides sat watching Kennedy announce his presidential run on a hotel room television, the TV was turned off, and Nixon sat silently looking at the blank screen for a long time. Finally he shook his head and said, “Something bad is going to come of this.” He pointed at the dark screen. “God knows where this is going to lead.” A few days after RFK’s announcement, Jackie Kennedy—who had begged him not to run—fell into a bleak conversation with Schlesinger at a New York party. “Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby?” she said. “The same thing that happened to Jack.”

Robert Kennedy—the father of ten children, with an eleventh on the way—was terribly aware of the risk he was taking. But, notwithstanding the youthful euphoria around Senator Eugene McCarthy’s “children’s crusade” for president, there was no political figure in America besides Bobby who had the ability to win the White House and heal the country. Kennedy spent many days—and long, anguished nights—wrestling with his decision. At one point, he sought the advice of Walter Lippmann, one of the last of his breed of Washington wise men. “Well, if you believe that Johnson’s reelection would be a catastrophe for the country—and I entirely agree with you on this,” said the sage, “then, if this comes about, the question you must live with is whether you did everything you could do to avert this catastrophe.”

Kennedy’s mere entry into the race was enough to panic LBJ into abandoning his reelection bid. But there still was Johnson’s surrogate—Vice President Hubert Humphrey—to contend with, as well as the specter of Nixon, rising from the ashes. Entering the campaign late, Kennedy threw himself into the primary race with raw determination, knowing that he was fighting an uphill battle against the Democratic Party establishment as well as competing with McCarthy for the antiwar vote. Bobby waded, virtually unprotected, into frenzied crowds on every stop of his campaign; his presidential race was perhaps the bravest, and most reckless, in American history. “Living every day is like Russian roulette,” he told political reporter Jack Newfield. RFK was so moved by something Ralph Waldo Emerson had written that he copied it down and carried it with him: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

Bobby’s courage gave strength to those around him, to those ambitious, idealistic men who had served his brother and were now following RFK on his perilous path. His heroism inspired their own. Men like Schlesinger, who could not bring himself to break from the establishment without a Kennedy leading the way; and Kenny O’Donnell, who had begun drinking himself to death, instead of telling the world what he had seen that day in Dealey Plaza with his own eyes; and even Robert McNamara, who had allowed himself to be debased by his allegiance to Johnson and the folly of his war. They now rallied around this new Kennedy crusade, and they were better men for doing so. They joined the battle for America’s soul, as if it were their own.

JFK’s assassins knew that Robert Kennedy was the only man who could bring them to justice. They had sought to keep him close after Dallas, with Dulles showering his condolences on the Kennedy family. “You have been much in my thoughts and Jackie, Ethel and you have my deep respect and admiration,” the spymaster wrote RFK in January 1964. He made sure that Bobby—as well as his parents and siblings—received complete, bound sets of the Warren Report. He fell all over himself, with unctuous eagerness, to respond to queries from RFK, including Bobby’s request that he sit for an interview with the Kennedy Library. In his oral history for the library, Dulles further disgraced himself and the memory of John F. Kennedy by singing false praises of the slain president.

But when Robert Kennedy announced his run for the presidency, he became a wild card, an uncontrollable threat. The danger grew as Kennedy got closer to his goal of winning the Democratic nomination. The June 4 California primary would be the make-or-break moment of his campaign. If he won the Golden State, the pundits declared, his momentum would be unstoppable.

Oh, God, not again.” That was the collective moan that erupted from deep within the crowd at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel on the night of Kennedy’s victory, as he lay mortally wounded on the grimy floor of the hotel pantry. As in Dallas, official reports immediately pinned sole responsibility for the shooting on a troubled loner, a twenty-four-year-old Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan. The accused assassin was undeniably involved in the assault on Kennedy as the senator and his entourage made their way through the crowded, dimly lit hotel pantry on the way to a press briefing room. But numerous eyewitnesses—including one of the men who subdued Sirhan—insisted that the alleged assassin could not have fired the shot that killed Kennedy. Sirhan was several feet in front of Kennedy when he began firing with his revolver. But the fatal shot—which struck RFK at point-blank range behind the right ear, penetrating his brain—was fired from behind. Furthermore, evidence indicated that thirteen shots were fired in the pantry that night—five more than the number of bullets that Sirhan’s gun could hold. Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles coroner who conducted the autopsy on Kennedy, thought that all of the evidence pointed to a second gunman. “Thus I have never said that Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy,” Noguchi would flatly state in his 1983 memoir.

Then there was Sirhan himself. Like Oswald, he did not claim credit for the assassination. In fact, from the moment he was taken into custody, he seemed utterly perplexed by the tragedy in which he found himself playing the starring role. The dazed Sirhan had no memory of attacking Kennedy. He struck many observers, including hypnosis experts who interviewed him, as a “Manchurian candidate”—an individual highly susceptible to mind control programming.

A security guard named Thane Eugene Cesar who guided Kennedy into the pantry later fell under suspicion. He was seen pulling his gun as the chaos erupted that night in the cramped passageway. But investigators quickly cleared Cesar, and his gun was never tested. Over the years, Cesar’s possible role in the assassination of Robert Kennedy has been debated by researchers and lawyers associated with the case. Some—like Sirhan’s current legal team—declare that Cesar, if not the actual assassin, played a role in the plot, perhaps helping set up Kennedy as a target.

Others, like investigative journalist Dan Moldea—author of a book on the RFK assassination—insist on the innocence of Cesar, who is still alive. “Gene Cesar is an innocent man who has been wrongly accused in the Robert Kennedy murder case, and any claim to the contrary is simply not true,” Moldea e-mailed the author in 2015, adding that he now acts as the reclusive Cesar’s spokesman and has his power of attorney.

John Meier—a former executive in Howard Hughes’s Las Vegas organization—has tied Cesar to CIA contractor Bob Maheu, who was hired by Hughes to run his Vegas operation in the 1960s. Meier claims he was introduced to Cesar in Las Vegas before the RFK assassination by Jack Hooper, Maheu’s security chief. Meier also stated that after Kennedy’s murder, he was warned by Maheu and Hooper never to mention Cesar’s name or his connection to Maheu.

But Maheu strongly denied the accusations. “Everything about [Meier] was a lie,” he snarled during an interview at his Las Vegas home before his death in 2008. “He was a 14-carat phony.” Cesar, too, has rejected Meier’s accusations, with Moldea—speaking on behalf of the former security guard—dismissing them as “just more garbage being peddled by Meier.”

Maheu pointed out that Meier was accused of evading taxes on money he allegedly skimmed from Hughes mining deals and was convicted on a related charge of forgery. But it was Maheu himself who was the biggest crook in his Nevada organization, Hughes told the press after fleeing Las Vegas in 1970. Maheu was “a no-good, dishonest son of a bitch [who] stole me blind,” fumed the eccentric billionaire. While running Hughes’s gambling casinos, Maheu had made sweetheart deals with mobsters and allowed the CIA to pay off politicians with Hughes cash and to exploit Hughes’s corporate empire as a front for spy activities. While Maheu was being paid over $500,000 a year by Hughes as his Las Vegas overseer, he still treated the CIA like his top client.

Maheu never concealed his hatred for the Kennedys. He even accused JFK of homicide during his testimony before the Church Committee, for withholding air support from the Bay of Pigs invaders. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “those volunteers who got off the boats that day were murdered.” But Maheu denied playing a role in the Kennedy assassinations.

As with his brother’s death, the investigation into Robert Kennedy’s murder would become clouded with murky agendas. There were hints of CIA involvement, Mafia corruption—and once again glaring displays of official negligence. Sirhan Sirhan’s prosecution was a streamlined process, with the defendant often seeming like a confused bystander at his own trial. Just like the JFK inquest, the outcome was never in doubt. Sirhan has spent the bulk of his life in prison, with his periodic requests for a retrial routinely denied.

Allen Dulles, who turned seventy-five in April 1968, kept up a busy schedule all that year, despite Clover and Mary’s concerns about his health. Dulles continued attending meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations intelligence study group and the Princeton Board of Trustees; there were luncheons at the Alibi Club, embassy parties and regular get-togethers with old CIA comrades like Angleton, Jim Hunt, and Howard Roman. And he continued to appear as a special guest on radio and TV shows.

Not even the civil unrest in Washington ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that April seemed to faze Dulles. After King’s assassination, his followers took their fallen leader’s Poor People’s Campaign to the nation’s capital, erecting a protest encampment on the National Mall that they christened Resurrection City. On June 24—after more than one thousand police officers swept into the camp, dispersing the protesters—riots again broke out in the streets of the capital, prompting officials to call out the National Guard and declare a curfew. But Dulles did not let the disturbances affect his social life. “Lest you worry at the news of a curfew in Washington,” Dulles wrote the following day to Clover, who was visiting Allen Jr. and Joan in Switzerland at the time, “you can rest assured that everything remains quiet here.” Dulles had invited their old friend, Helen Magruder—the widow of OSS deputy director, Brigadier General John Magruder—for dinner at Q Street. After supper, he wrote, “We were able to get a taxi shortly, and Helen returned home in safety.”

That afternoon, Dulles continued, he planned to go to a CIA social gathering with Jim Hunt and his wife. “I am afraid I will have to pass up [family friend] Marion Glover’s afternoon affair, as I cannot get to both,” he told Clover. There was always too much for Dulles to do in his leisure years.

That same month, Dulles found time to sit down and write a condolence letter to the brother of another murdered Kennedy. “Dear Ted,” he wrote the last Kennedy brother, “I join with a multitude of others in expressing to you my deep sorrow. I had the opportunity of working with Bobby on many occasions and had great respect for his dynamic approach to our national problems and for his vigor and forthrightness in dealing with them. His death is a great loss to the country and especially to those like yourself who were so close to him. I send you my profound sympathy.” Once again, Dulles’s flawless civility is chilling to behold.

Ted Kennedy responded warmly to Dulles’s letter, in a way that the spymaster must have found reassuring. “Joan and I want you to know how grateful we are for your message,” the senator wrote on his personal stationery. “At a time of sadness, nothing is more helpful than hearing from a friend. . . . I hope we will see each other soon.” It was clear that there would be no trouble from the youngest Kennedy brother.

On July 8, according to his day calendar, Dulles made time to meet with Dr. Stephen Chowe, an American University professor who was an expert in Chinese and Russian brainwashing techniques. Dulles had known Chowe, a former CIA researcher, for some time. The mind control expert had reached out to Dulles in June, arranging a time to discuss his latest work on “political psychology.” Then, on July 13, 1968—a few days after his meeting with Chowe—Dulles met with Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s pharmaceutical wizard, who was involved in the agency’s assassination and MKULTRA mind control programs. These meetings on the Dulles calendar are particularly intriguing, coming just weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the arrest of Sirhan Sirhan—a man who appeared to be in a hypnotic or narcotic state when he was taken into custody and, to some mind control experts, seemed to fit the mold of an MKULTRA subject.

That summer, Dulles also continued to keep a close watch on Jim Garrison’s investigation. In July, Angleton deputy Ray Rocca phoned Dulles to discuss an article about the New Orleans prosecutor by Edward Jay Epstein in The New Yorker. In September, CIA mole Gordon Novel called Dulles to give him another inside report on the Garrison probe.

The Old Man’s main social event of the fall season was the Washington fête in honor of Reinhard Gehlen, the West German spy chief Dulles had resurrected from the poison ashes of the Third Reich. On September 12, Gehlen’s U.S. sponsors threw a luncheon for him, and that night there was a dinner for Hitler’s old spy chief at the Maryland home of Heinz Herre—Gehlen’s former staff officer on the eastern front, who had become West Germany’s top intelligence liaison in Washington.

That fall, Dulles eagerly anticipated the long-delayed presidential election of Richard Nixon, the Dulles brothers’ former disciple. He got involved in the Nixon campaign, joining fund-raising committees and contributing his own money. On Halloween, Nixon sent Dulles a telegram, thanking him for his support and appointing him vice chairman of the “Eisenhower Team” for the Nixon-Agnew ticket. The Old Man had visions of returning to the center of official Washington, perhaps with a prominent appointment in the new Nixon administration.

But Clover and others close to him knew the truth—he was slowly fading away. At times, in the midst of his frenetic schedule, Dulles would suddenly seem lost. “Uncle Allen would go off to lunch at the Metropolitan Club or Alibi Club and forget how to get home,” said his cousin, Eleanor Elliott. “Sometimes he would just get lost in the neighborhood, and people who recognized him would bring him back. Clover was so worried.”

In December—working with Howard Roman, his longtime collaborator—Dulles finished editing a collection of espionage yarns, Great Spy Stories, featuring selections by masters of the genre such as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. In the book’s foreword, Dulles offered his final observations on the stealthy profession to which he had dedicated himself. In the past, he wrote, “the spy was generally thought of as a rather sneaky and socially unacceptable figure.” But World War II and the Cold War, he observed, had turned spies into dashing heroes. “The spy has the muscle and the daring to take the place of the discarded hero of yore. He is the new-model musketeer.” None of the blood and sorrow that had flowed all around him had left a mark on Dulles. He continued to have the highest esteem for himself and his “craft.” As he neared the end of his life, there was no self-reflection, only more tale spinning for a public that could not get enough of the cool romance of 007.

Soon after finishing the book, Dulles came down with a bad case of the flu, which confined him to bed. By Christmas Eve, the infection had settled in his chest and turned to pneumonia, and Dulles was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital. Over the following month, he struggled to recover, rallying at one point to write a congratulatory note to Nixon on his inauguration. But on January 29, 1969, Dulles died of complications from his illness.

Even after his death, the secret organism that Dulles had created continued to pulse. A team led by Angleton swept into the Old Man’s home office, while Clover lay in bed upstairs, and rifled through his files. CIA technicians installed secure phone lines to handle the flood of condolence calls. An effusive eulogy was crafted for his memorial service at Georgetown Presbyterian Church. The soft-spoken church minister, who was used to writing his own funeral orations, balked at reading the bombastic address that had been written by longtime Dulles ghostwriter Charles Murphy, with input from Angleton and Jim Hunt. But the Dulles team quickly set the cleric straight. “This is a special occasion,” the minister was informed by an official-sounding caller the night before the funeral. “The address has been written by the CIA.”

The next day, the minister stood up in his church—whose pews were filled with the solemn ranks of CIA spooks and political dignitaries—and recited the eulogy as instructed. “It is as a splendid watchman that many of us saw him,” he declared, “a famous and trusted figure in clear outline on the American ramparts, seeing that the nation could not be surprised in its sleep or be overcome in the night.

“It fell to Allen Dulles to perfect a new kind of protection,” continued the preacher, not knowing how ironic the words he spoke were. “[F]or us, as for him, patriotism sets no bounds on . . . the defense of freedom and liberty.”

Dulles’s funeral oration was a celebration of the lawless era that he had inaugurated. Under Dulles, America’s intelligence system had become a dark and invasive force—at home and abroad—violating citizens’ privacy, kidnapping, torturing, and killing at will. His legacy would be carried far into the future by men and women who shared his philosophy about the boundless authority of the national security system’s “splendid watchmen.” Dulles had personally shaped and inspired some of these watchmen, including Helms and Angleton—as well as the power players of future administrations, like William Casey, President Reagan’s defiantly lawbreaking CIA director, and Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s smugly confident conqueror of desert sands. And though they never met, Dulles also provided a template for Bush regent Dick Cheney’s executive absolutism and extreme security measures in the name of national defense. These men, too, firmly believed that “patriotism set no bounds” on their power.

Today, other faceless security bureaucrats continue to carry on Dulles’s work—playing God with drone strikes from above and utilizing Orwellian surveillance technology that Dulles could only have dreamed about—with little understanding of the debt they owe to the founding father of modern American intelligence. Dead for nearly half a century, Dulles’s shadow still darkens the land.

Those who enter the lobby of CIA headquarters are greeted by the stone likeness of Allen Welsh Dulles. “His Monument Is Around Us,” reads the inscription underneath the bas-relief sculpture. The words sound like a curse on the men and women who work in the citadel of national security, and on all those they serve.

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