Friday, November 22, 2013

This is Not an Article About JFK

This is not an article about the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today. It’s not even an article about gun control, terrorism, or the other most likely topics for me to write about on the anniversary of a political assassination. This is an article about conspiracy theories, the US intelligence community, and why the lone gunman explanation for JFK's death will never be widely believed. This is the story of how the CIA became what it is today: one of the most universally feared, and hated, agencies ever established by the US government.

In case you haven’t noticed the flood of statuses, tweets, and articles on the internet today, JFK’s assassination still elicits speculation, political vitriol, and tales of schemes and plots, even half a century later. More than half of US citizens don't believe that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald alone, and many of those doubters point fingers instead at the Central Intelligence Agency. The shadow games played by the young CIA (note that the Agency wasn’t formed until after WWII) seem to have forever tarnished the Agency’s reputation: no matter what, there will always be those that think the Agency was behind JFK’s death, and every significant world leader’s death or terrorist attack in the last 50 years, for that matter.

The CIA has no one to blame for the aspersions cast against it by conspiracy theorists but itself. In the first decades of the Agency’s short life, all choices were clouded by the Cold War. The thinking of the time was that every decision was a life or death one, and as a result, snap judgments were made, ill-conceived missions were undertaken, and thanks to the oversight committees of the 1970s through today, the country was eventually shocked by the murders and other plots planned in US citizens’ names. The seemingly far-fetched stories of assassination by cigar or poisoned pen turned out to be true, and the CIA never recovered from the negative publicity.

The propensity of the Agency to launch such improbable missions lies at the heart of conspiracy theories. An agency that would seek to kill Castro with a Cuban (cigar, that is) seemed capable of anything, and Lee Harvey Oswald played perfectly into the conspiracy theorists’ hands. From the “one-in-a-million” angle of his bullet, to his supposed connections to Communist governments, no one could quite puzzle out how this lone gunman managed to kill the most heavily protected state leader in the hemisphere. That Oswald himself was killed before he could tell his own story only buffeted claims that the CIA was behind the assassination, or at least knew who was.

The past few decades have, if anything, only further tarnished the CIA’s public image and increased the ranks of those who believe the Agency is up to no good. The Agency simply doesn’t seem to care to follow laws, domestic or international, which makes it seem like it would do anything – and I mean anything – that it felt was in the national interest. The most recent example of this is the drone program, which enables the Agency to carry out targeted assassinations from half a world away. Despite the program being dubiously classified by the United States as a military action subject to the laws of war, the CIA’s drone program is in fact run almost entirely by civilians, who are subject to being tried for crimes against humanity. Arbitrarily depriving foreign nationals and at least five US citizens of life is not only illegal under international law, it’s illegal under domestic law as well. But of course, the CIA doesn’t need to worry about that. As long as the White House gives the go-ahead, the agency has long gotten away with missions that don’t exactly (or at all) follow the letter of the law.

Given all the evidence, it’s actually hard to see why more people don’t believe the conspiracy theories. With a history rife with nefarious and illegal dealings, it’s only a small leap of the imagination to place the CIA at the center of every political scandal since its inception: JFK’s assassination, yes, but even recent events like 9/11, Hugo Chavez’s death, Castro’s failing health, or Kim Jong Il’s demise. Personally, I don’t believe the conspiracy theories surrounding acts of domestic terror; it’s one thing to believe our government would target the leaders and citizens of other countries (which I do), it’s quite another to imagine that American citizens would target other American citizens in the most massive and tragic act of domestic terror the US has every known.

That being said, with an agency like the CIA, how can we ever know?

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