JFK, RFK, the Mob and Dallas

by Ronald Goldfarb

The vast and intriguing post-assassination literature contains shocking and controversial disclosures bearing on the relationship between the work of the Justice Department's organized crime section and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While some of these disclosures are embarrassing and many are questionable, not all can be ignored or automatically discredited. Taken together they form a thesis that has to be pondered.

The Thesis:

Top mob members wanted Robert Kennedy and later John Kennedy murdered. First, they were outraged at what they perceived as the brothers' hypocrisy, and second, they were alarmed at the increasing danger of being further investigated and prosecuted. The hypocrisy they saw derived from their notion that Joseph Kennedy's history with organized crime figures plus some racketeers' support of JFK's election warranted protection from, not their selection for, aggressive prosecution. This compromising history was compounded by the administration's use of mob members in its attempts to deal with Castro. They delivered, and they expected appropriate acknowledgment of their cooperation. Rather than laying off, the Justice Department was piling on. Major mob leaders were outraged and planned revenge.

What is the factual basis for this thesis? Can this case be made as a matter of credible history or confirmed by rigorous prosecutorial standards?The elder Kennedy's mob connections reportedly began during the Prohibition era, when-like the mobsters themselves-Joseph Kennedy made a fortune in the whisky business. He reportedly maintained some of those contacts with underworld figures.

A respected J. Edgar Hoover biography revealed that FBI bugs uncovered the fact that Frank Sinatra had asked Sam Giancana for help with the Kennedy campaign in Illinois in the 1960 election and the organized-crime figure had provided it. Giancana had also raised money for JFK's crucial West Virginia primary campaign at the request of Joseph Kennedy...and later felt he was "not getting his money's worth." Giancana later cursed John Kennedy, complaining, "We broke our balls for him and gave him the election and he gets his brother to hound us to death."

Judith Exner, once close to mobsters John Rosselli and Sam Giancana, told talk show host Larry King on television in 1992 that she repeatedly carried satchels of money from JFK to Sam Giancana for his use in Kennedy's West Virginia primary. She'd not said this earlier, she explained to cynical questioners, because she was afraid to talk about it. She said that Sam Giancana bragged to her, "Your boyfriend wouldn't be in the White House if it wasn't for me." Exner added, "They hated Bobby."

According to Giancana's brother Chuck and his godson in the 1992 book, Double Cross, "Mooney," as they referred to their mobster kin, had markers from Joseph and Jack Kennedy. What markers? Their book states that Joseph Kennedy was saved twice from mob wrath-once in a scrape with the Purple Gang in Detroit and again in 1956 from a vendetta by Frank Costello in New York. Kennedy, pleading for his intervention, according to Giancana's literary heirs, promised, "He'll be your man...my son...will owe you...he won't refuse you, ever." Giancana thought he had a very valuable deal and told his brother that he and the Kennedys had a lot in common: "The good thing is that nobody knows it." The Giancana-to-Giancana conversations are impossible to confirm.

The thesis continues that Robert Kennedy as attorney general burned his candle at both ends, pursuing and exploiting the mob at the same time. In 1974, a Senate investigation led by the Church Committee disclosed outrageous Cold War abuses by the CIA that seemed to compromise both brothers, particularly Robert Kennedy. One of its carefully documented and confounding expos�s was that "U.S. Government personnel plotted to kill Castro from 1960 to 1965. American underworld figures and Cubans hostile to Castro were used in these plots and were provided encouragement and material support by the U.S." Recently declassified FBI and CIA documents provide further illumination of this sordid revelation.

The CIA's "hairbrained schemes, including using the Mafia to gun Castro down," began under Eisenhower, according to his biographer Stephen E. Ambrose. An ex-FBI agent then in the private investigation business was approached by the CIA....He in turn recruited Johnny Rosselli, a California rackets figure with Las Vegas ties. Along with Cubans hostile to Castro, Rosselli recruited two friends, "Sam Gold," Giancana, and "Joe," a.k.a. Santo Trafficante, Jr., the Mafia's man in Cuba before Castro deported him. The Church Committee discovered evidence "of at least eight plots" involving the CIA from 1960 to 1965 to assassinate Fidel Castro. President-elect John Kennedy was briefed verbally "in oblique terms" by the CIA's deputy director, Richard Bissell, about the plot to kill Castro, according to a document recounting this briefing that Jack Anderson says he's seen.

What did Robert Kennedy know and when did he know it? His aides say he did not know until mid-May, 1962, but intra- agency records suggest it was early in 1961. On May 22, 1961, not half a year after RFK had become attorney general, Hoover sent him a memorandum alluding to the CIA's use of the underworld in clandestine Castro plots.

In the interview with Larry King, Exner said that she was a longtime lover of Kennedy before and while he was president and had a brief affair with Giancana after Kennedy was killed. She also said that the attorney general knew about the president's reckless relationship with her. Exner told King that President Kennedy knew about the CIA's use of Giancana in the Castro assassination plot. "I carried the intelligence material between Jack and Sam...at Jack's request."

One of my (Justice) colleagues had discovered the records of phone calls between Exner and the President; he reported that fact to Robert Kennedy and the attorney general advised the president. Then, on March 22, 1962, Hoover lunched privately with President Kennedy at the White House, and hours later the long history of White House phone calls between the president and Exner (70 since the inauguration) ended.

On May 7, 1962, the attorney general met with CIA officials and was briefed about the CIA's use of John Rosselli and Sam Giancana in attempts to assassinate Castro. He told them to stop. But the Church Committee reported that after that, a CIA official-William Harvey-continued to work actively with Rosselli to arrange the assassination of Castro.

On September 7, 1963, Fidel Castro told Associated Press reporter Daniel Harker in Havana that he knew the CIA was attempting to use terrorists to assassinate "Cuban leaders," and he warned: "We are prepared to...answer in kind." If American plots continued, he added, "United States leaders would be in danger...they themselves will not be safe."

These cowboy CIA operations not only violated minimal notions of morality in foreign policy but also appear to have clashed with the heart of our ongoing organized crime program. And, if those events weren't perplexing enough, a recent disclosure suggests that Robert Kennedy's involvement with the CIA and the mob didn't stop with this inherited mess. Two articles in 1994 by Max Holland, a reputable Warren Commission historian, state that in November 1961, after the embarrassing Bay of Pigs disaster, JFK put his trusted brother RFK in charge of Mongoose, a no- holds-barred operation. According to Holland, Robert Kennedy's intimate involvement with the CIA's Cuba plans began "two days after the inauguration." And after the aborted invasion in April 1961, he "immersed himself in Agency affairs."

Whatever else he did, RFK kept the prosecutorial pressures on the mob. I know from personal experiences that he cannot be charged with compromising our mission to prosecute all members of the Mafia. Whatever private arrangements Kennedy may have had with mobsters such as Giancana did not, miraculously, get in the way of our section's aggressive pursuit of these men.

In retrospect, it is hard to fathom how the attorney general could have been prodding our group of prosecutors, as he did, to pressure and prosecute some of the very gangsters the government was in cahoots with while these foreign intrigues were going on. He was not forthcoming to the Warren Commission about these CIA capers. Thus the haunting speculation that Robert Kennedy's brooding agony over the assassination is understandable on another level than his obvious personal grief; the government's secret dealings with the mob might have led to his brother's murder.

Extending the Thesis:

Use of the mob in Kennedy politics and by our government in deadly clandestine shenanigans was not the only perilous undercurrent of which we were unaware. If the sins of the father and the brothers gave rise to the mob's fury, so too did the virtuous work of the attorney general.Our pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa had driven him to think of murder. Ed Partin, our key witness in the Hoffa trial, one for whose veracity and credibility we had vouched, told a Louisiana police official and department investigators of a chilling conversation he'd had with Hoffa in Hoffa's office in Washington in August 1962. This incident was reported by Teamsters biographer Dan Moldea, in The Hoffa Wars:

Hoffa had been thinking out loud, weighing the merits of two separate murder plans aimed at Robert Kennedy. The first plan, the one Hoffa was then leaning toward, involved firebombing Hickory Hill, Robert Kennedy's Virginia estate, with extraordinarily lethal plastic explosives. Hoffa was careful to note that even if Kennedy somehow survived the explosion, he "and all his damn kids" would be incinerated, since "the place will burn after it blows up." The second plan was apparently a backup scheme... Kennedy would be shot to death from a distance away; a single gunman would be enlisted to carry it out-someone without any traceable connection to Hoffa and the Teamsters; a high- powered rifle with a telescopic sight would be the assassination weapon.

The plot went beyond mere talk, according to this account. "While Partin was at a Holiday Inn in Baton Rouge, federal officials taped a telephone call between him and Hoffa in which Partin told Hoffa he had gotten the plastic explosives and Hoffa asked him to bring them to Nashville." News of this threat was known to close Kennedy aides at Justice. President Kennedy confided to his friend Ben Bradlee, then with Newsweek magazine, in February 1963 that Hoffa planned to have a trusted assassin shoot and kill Robert Kennedy. Bradlee noted at the time in his diary, "The president was obviously serious."

The plot to kill the attorney general escalated to one aimed at the president. In 1979 the House Assassination Committee expanded on this disclosure. Based on extensive wire taps of mobsters before and after the JFK assassination, it concluded: "There is solid evidence...that Hoffa, Marcello, and Trafficante-three of the most important targets for criminal prosecution by the Kennedy Administration-had discussions with their subordinates about murdering President Kennedy."

The mob was a certain beneficiary of the assassination. Committee Counsel Bob Blakey speculates that "the most plausible explanation for the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby was that Ruby had stalked him on behalf of organized crime." Oswald and Ruby both had ties to the organized crime world in New Orleans and Dallas. "The fingerprints of organized crime are all over Jack Ruby." Blakey concluded at the time of the House Assassinations Committee's report: "The mob did it. It's a historical fact."

Startling disclosures supporting the theory that there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy were suggested by a former mobster lawyer in 1992. New York Post columnist and Robert Kennedy biographer Jack Newfield interviewed a longtime Tampa- based lawyer for Trafficante and Hoffa, Frank Ragano, who told of chilling conversations with his two clients and with Carlos Marcello. Each of the three had strong motives for revenge and survival; each of them had been harassed and endangered by Robert Kennedy's organized crime drive; each was fighting for his life and fortune. One evening early in 1963 when Ragano was with Hoffa and other Teamsters playing cards in Florida, Hoffa asked his cohorts what they thought might develop if something should happen to Bobby, Ragano reports. They agreed the president would go after his enemies with added determination. What if something happened to the president, Hoffa asked; LBJ would get rid of Bobby, one of Hoffa's lawyers speculated. "Damn right he would," Hoffa replied, according to Ragano. "He hates him as much as I do."

On July 23, 1963, Ragano reports, he was in Washington with Hoffa when Hoffa asked him to tell Trafficante and Marcello when he saw them next, "Something has to be done. The time has come for your friend and Carlos to get rid of him, kill that son-of- a-bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done." Ragano passed on Hoffa's message and told Hoffa he had done so when in August he saw him again in Washington.

After the assassination, Hoffa told Ragano that he was delighted. "Did you hear the good news? They killed the son-of-a- bitch bastard." This meant that LBJ would get rid of Bobby, Hoffa rejoiced. Hoffa pulled down the flag that hung at half mast at Teamsters headquarters. Hoffa told one reporter, on the day Ruby killed Oswald, "Bobby Kennedy's just another lawyer now." Several days after the assassination, he took Ragano aside, saying: "I told you they could do it. I'll never forget what Carlos and Santo did for me." Later, in New Orleans, Marcello, who was waiting for approval of a huge Teamsters pension fund loan, told Ragano, "When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me, and he owes me big." He got his loan. Ragano's conclusion: "They had actually acted on the message I had delivered to them from Jimmy and now they wanted payoffs from him."

Ragano says Trafficante told him, in a conversation shortly before he died in 1987, "We shouldn't have killed John. We should've killed Bobby." House Assassination Committee counsel Blakey speculates that President Kennedy's fatal flaw, his affair with Exner, "left him vulnerable to assassination by organized crime." A recent biography of Johnny Rosselli, All American Mafioso, expanded on the thesis: "Bobby Kennedy's war on crime was more than an assault, it was a betrayal, a double-cross that violated the core of the Mafia ethic. Having enjoyed the beneficence of the mob, the Kennedys then spurned them. The mob's reaction was inevitable. As Rosselli exhorted Sam Giancana, "Now let them see the other side of you." Mob lawyer Ragano also believes "the double-cross factor" was what provoked the action against the president.

No doubt, Robert Kennedy unleashed the mob's fury by attacking it and its leaders as they had never been attacked before.

How credible is this theory that the assassination was planned, if not executed, by key organized crime figures? Some of the sources are, as they usually are in criminal cases, questionable characters with motives to lie. Much of the evidence is circumstantial and arose long after the events it describes. However, prosecutors often prove their cases with circumstantial evidence and with witnesses who have questionable pasts and compromising involvements.

If all the parties were alive today-Hoffa, Giancana, Marcello, Trafficante-would there be enough circumstantial evidence to bring a criminal case against them for conspiracy to kill the president? As could be said of many others, all had the motive and means to commit the crime. One could conclude from the existing credible evidence that there was a criminal conspiracy to kill the president, even if the best evidence to date indicates Oswald acted as a lone assassin, and there is inadequate evidence of a link between Oswald's act and such a conspiracy. Ragano's reports about Trafficante's and Marcello's and Hoffa's incriminating remarks, along with testimony about Hoffa's threats, and the report of Marcello's warning, and Giancana's brother's reports of their conversations and his boasts, combined with the fact of the killing, and the clear motive, arguably constitute a case of conspiracy that a jury might believe.

Certainly, a case can be made to consider all the available evidence in a court of public opinion, in a grand jury, a congressional hearing or before the Assassination Records Review Board which has the power to hear witnesses under oath and offer immunity. Such an inquiry would add an important-possibly decisive-postscript to the official history of the assassination.

Conclusions about the Thesis:

I realize now, from the vantage of a quarter-century's hindsight, how innocent we were of hidden forces swirling around us that unwittingly could have conspired toward a tragic end. Nonetheless, there is a haunting credibility to the theory that our organized crime drive prompted a plan to strike back at the Kennedy brothers, and that Robert Kennedy went to his grave at least wondering whether-and perhaps believing-there was a real connection between that plan and his brother's assassination.

How, one wonders, could this sophisticated man not have realized that what he was doing as attorney general and what his brother was doing as president were on a collision course? RFK knew of Hoffa's death threats toward him and he knew of Giancana's and Trafficante's roles with the CIA. Because he was aware of these furtive undercurrents, might Robert Kennedy, wittingly or unwittingly, have preferred to accept the simple conclusion of the Warren Commission so as not to open up compromising family and government secrets? As critic Max Holland has stated: "Full disclosure undoubtedly threatened the emerging Camelot view of the Kennedy Presidency, and, it must be said, RFK's political future as well."

How could Robert Kennedy not have surmised after the assassination that his and our intensive crusade had something to do with that event? How could he have compartmentalized his knowledge of our work prosecuting the rackets and his work as a cold warrior? What a profoundly agonizing weight he must have borne knowing the secrets he knew and anguishing, as he must have, over their possible consequences. Not one of his closest aides knew of these secrets Kennedy carried with him, or if they did, would admit it.

When he was grieving his brother's death, Jacqueline Kennedy gave Robert Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way and suggested he read it. People close to him reported he read and reread it and often carried a worn copy with him. Lines from the book appeared regularly in his speeches. How raw his reactions must have been to read there the words of Euripedes' Electra: "Brother, mine is the blame...."

We in the law enforcement world were ignorant of these undercurrents and of the risks they created. We believed that the battle lines between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" were clear-cut, along with the well-advertised dictum that no one would dare hurt us, that the Mafia was too smart to try such a thing. When the president of the United States was shot and killed, we knew we had lived an illusion, that the world, even for a popular and powerful president, was not a safe place, that anything was possible.

On the basis of the credible post-assassination literature, my interviews with knowledgeable insiders, and my personal experiences at Justice, I draw these conclusions about this strange chapter of Robert Kennedy's attorney generalship:

     Robert Kennedy participated in, and at times managed, clandestine cold warrior escapades in foreign affairs. In retrospect, these acts created an appearance of conflict with his authority over the department's organized crime program. From personal experience, I know that our organized crime program was quite successful and was not compromised by these unwise actions, hard as that conclusion may be to accept. Based on circumstantial evidence, the likelihood is that our organized crime program prompted Hoffa, Marcello, and Trafficante to plot an audacious assassination: First it was to be of Robert Kennedy, and later the plan shifted to JFK. To date, conclusive proof is missing although some circumstances suggest that their plot could have been connected to the deadly acts of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Ronald Goldfarb ('67) practices law in Washington, D.C., is an active literary agent and television producer. He worked for Robert F. Kennedy in the Department of Justice 1961-64. This book--Goldfarb's ninth--is a memoir of his experiences as a special prosecutor in the organized crime section.

[back]Return to COSMOS 1996 Table of Contents
[back]Return to COSMOS Journals