An Interview With Jefferson Morley on the CIA, Nixon and the Assassination of JFK

Photograph Source: Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News – Public Domain

Jefferson Morley is a Washington intelligence expert and investigative journalist. He is co-founder and editor of JFK Facts and vice president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which sponsors the internet’s largest archive of records related to JFK’s assassination.

His latest book is Scorpion’s Dance: The President, The Spymaster, and Watergate. The book  reveals the Watergate scandal in a completely new light: as the culmination of a concealed, deadly power struggle between President Richard Nixon and CIA Director Richard Helms.

Morley has been following the declassification and distribution of intelligence records related to the JFK assassination.  Though their disclosure to the public has been mandated by Congress, Joe Biden has continued to delay full disclosure, despite releasing a large tranche in December 2022. There’s still more to go.  Morley has filed lawsuits to accelerate the process of release. Even the MSM has tuned in to his efforts.


John Hawkins:  In 2022 you put out a new book, Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate.  The book explores the relationship between President Richard Nixon and his CIA director Richard Helms in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s humiliating resignation from office.  But it’s been more than 50 years since the Watergate scandal.  How is your book relevant for today’s readers?

Jefferson Morley:  Its relevant in two ways. First, over the last 50 years Washington has seen serial scandals involving large-scale, extra-legal conspiracies organized to prevail in the struggle for power. The Watergate affair was followed by Iran-Contra conspiracy, the Iraq WMD debacle, the implementation of the CIA torture program, and the January 6 insurrection. So understanding how Watergate unfolded in the media, the Congress and the Executive Branch tells readers something about how we got to where we are today. Second, Scorpions’ Dance is a biography of power, tracing how a president and CIA director gained and wielded supreme authority, which I think helps the reader understand how the CIA functions in the American system.

Hawkins:  Some people have compared Trump to Nixon. Especially their end days in office. Many news outlets passed on reports that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was so concerned about President Donald Trump’s mental health in the final months of his administration that he placed secret calls to a top Chinese general to assure him that the United States would not launch a nuclear attack against Beijing. This reminds me of Sy Hersh’s piece “The Pardon,” that he wrote for Atlantic in which he details the concerns of all those around Nixon about his mental health. One aide wonders:

Was it possible for the President of the United States to authorize the use of nuclear weapons without his secretary of defense knowing it? What if Nixon, ordered by the Supreme Court to leave office, refused to leave and called for the military to surround the Washington area? Who was in charge then? Whose orders would be obeyed in a crisis?

How were Nixon and Trump similar and dissimilar?

Morley: They were both graduates of the Roy Cohn School of Slash and Trash Politics, using invective to demonize elite foes and distinguish themselves as fighters for the people. They were dissimilar in that Nixon had a keen intellect, tenacious discipline, and was a master of policy. Trump had animal intelligence, lazy stubbornness, and policy ignorance. They were also dissimilar in relations with the CIA. Nixon sought to bend the Agency to his will through brow-beating and bureaucratic reorganization, and largely failed. Trump picked rhetorical fights with the CIA and its former leaders but had few objections to its policies and practices.

Hawkins:  In Scorpion’s Dance you describe the two Dicks doing a kind of martial dance with their foils raised.  Why did Nixon distrust Helms?

Morley: Nixon initially distrusted Helms because he came from the CIA, which he blamed for favoring John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election. With his East Coast pedigree and silky style, Helms made Nixon, awkward poor boy from Whittier, uncomfortable.

Hawkins: You write that Helms was instrumental in helping to take down Nixon. Like the story about the associate director of the FBI, Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, being huge in providing momentum to Washington Post reporters about following the money, the Helms role is underreported, it seems. Can you shed some specific details on what he did to help undermine Nixon?

Morley: I don’t think I wrote that Helms was “instrumental” in helping take down Nixon. I certainly didn’t intend to give that impression. I disagree with writers who say the CIA took down Nixon. Dick Helms did not. Helms didn’t like Nixon as a man but he liked Nixon as a president saying he was the most qualified of all the presidents he knew (Ike, JFK, and LBJ), which is high praise. Like Nixon, Helms was a conservative and a Cold Warrior who supported Nixon more loyally than most of the cabinet.

I think it would be more accurate to say that Helms abetted Nixon’s fall by artfully dodging responsibility for the Watergate burglars, whom he had effectively provided to White House via his longtime pal in covert action Howard Hunt. He also deployed his friend James McCord to deny CIA involvement and focusing media attention on the burglars patrons in the White House, not Langley. But when prosecutor Earl Silbert pressed Helms on the CIA ties of the burglars, the canny director never mentioned the June 23, 1972 meeting where Nixon demanded his help in shutting down the Watergate investigation. When released two years later, the transcripts of Nixon’s conversations ended his presidency.  So Helms could have damaged Nixon very badly if he had spoken candidly to prosecutors in October 1972. He never mentioned the meeting.

Hawkins:  As you know, the CIA charter prohibits domestic operations and yet CIA assets and operatives were used in the Watergate crime.  Do you see this as a violation of the charter and why did it play so small a role in the push for Nixon’s resignation?

Morley: It was definitely a violation of the CIA’s charter. I think the CIA’s abuse of power played a relatively small role in Nixon’s resignation because the Democrats in 1972 and 1973 wanted to focus their fire on the president, and the CIA (and Dick Helms) still had credibility on Capitol Hill. Democrats resisted implicating the CIA in the scandal because they believed Republicans, like Howard Baker, only wanted to investigate the Agency as a way of deflecting attacks on Nixon. Baker, while a partisan, was the only member of the Senate Watergate Committee not to take Dick Helms at his word. Democrats on Capitol Hill didn’t turn on the CIA until 1975 in the wake of new revelations about domestic spying and foreign assassination plots. By then Nixon was gone, and so was the CIA’s credibility.

Hawkins: Have Nixon and Trump left us with the scarifying realization that America is ripe for a future coup?  Alexander Haig after Reagan was shot declared he was in charge to much chagrin and criticism.  And though Milley called the Chinese to relieve them of the idea they’d be nuked, there is an aspect of it that seems treasonous. How do we reconcile?

Morley: Yes, they have.  Nixon and Trump are reminders that our strong presidential system is vulnerable to lawless men at the top who can only be curbed or stop by people who operate within that system. They are reminders that what we call “the system” is often only a set of understandings, traditions, or customs that can be abandoned—or defended by individual action. To dispel the idiosyncrasies of court politics and coup plotting, we need more explicit and stronger guard rails. The revision of the Electoral Count Act is a good first step.

Hawkins:  On another note, you have been following the JFK assassination for a long time and November 22 of this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Dallas kill. Some analysts have concluded that the Deep State was involved — a mélange of corporatists, the CIA, and  military DIA operatives, such as the scenario depicted in the film Executive Action (1973) — and have helped cover up the event all these years. And it has never sat well with lots of the Left that Allen Dulles sat on the Warren Commission and was certainly in a position to influence the findings and cover up the CIA’s role, if any, in the kill. Joe Biden said he’d release all the rest of the JFK archives, but he hasn’t. Why not, Jefferson?

Morley: Biden, like Trump, has acquiesced to the CIA’s extreme and bizarre claims of secrecy. At the end of the day, both presidents found it in their interest not to challenge the CIA on the JFK files, which tells you something about the Agency’s entrenched power. The CIA has made clear it intends to retain the right to control what the public does and does not see about Kennedy’s assassination. Some people say the CIA is hiding nothing of significance. I disagree. To me, the most plausible explanation for failure to disclose fully, as required by the JFK Records Act, is that they have something significant to hide. What they are hiding is the undisclosed interest of certain senior CIA officers in Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, while JFK was still alive. I first wrote about the undisclosed Oswald operation last November 22 at JFK Facts ( and I will be reporting more on the story in 2023.

Hawkins:  Speaking of films, Oliver Stone recently put out a retrospective of his JFK film, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.  It covers much of the documentation that has been released over the years and anticipates the records die-hard JFK assassination students have been waiting for — the final pieces.  I thought the film was especially effective regarding the Book Depository witness information regarding where Oswald was at the time of the shooting.  Have you seen the Oliver Stone release and, if so, what do you make of it?

Morley: Oliver and Jim DiEugenio are to be commended for doing something no major U.S. news organization has done: Review and summarize the vast body of new JFK evidence that has emerged since the release of Stone’s 1992 movie. I appear in JFK Revisited, which is not the only reason I like it. It’s a detailed reckoning with what we know now, compared to what we knew before.

Hawkins:  Many reporters and pundits have argued that the assassination of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani was murder and not justifiable, since America is not at war with Iran, and they are not on a terrorist list.  James Risen, who spent all of Trump’s presidency hating on the pink thug, wrote a piece for the Intercept headlined: Donald Trump Murdered Qassim Suleimani. At your Wikispooks blog you report that Trump had Soleimani killed almost as a favor to Israel, especially for his good bud Bibi. Iran has vowed revenge.  Do you believe they will exact revenge?  And how has the assassination changed the status quo in the region?

Morley: The assassination of Suleimani exemplified the close relationship of the United States and Israel. Iran will exact revenge but not in a comparable high-profile attack but with strategy of revolutionary fervor, paramilitary support, and diplomatic initiatives. Knowing that the U.S. and Israel possess overwhelming military superiority, Iran pursues its goals through asymmetric warfare: cultivating allies in Iraq, saving Assad’s regime by defeating U.S.-backed jihadist, and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi in Yemen. The assassination was a blow to Iran but I do not think it changed the status quo in the region.

Hawkins: I subscribe to Ed Snowden’s Substack site, Continuing Ed.  He recently published an entry — his first since Christmas 2021 — titled America’s Open Wound: The CIA is not your friend. Great piece. Historical overview of the Agency, then bam, no more pieces. Have you read the piece and, if so, do you want to speculate on why a piece on the CIA would be his only blog entry in a year?

Morley: I think Snowden and his wife have had a couple of kids. Maybe he has more rewarding things to do in life than write about the dirty tricks business. That’s just a guess.

Hawkins: Anything else you want to add?

Morley: I am struck by how many hard-right conservatives subscribe to JFK Facts, which is just a reflection of a large phenomenon that many have noted. Skepticism of the CIA and FBI, once a mainstay of the liberal left, has become a strain of hard-right conservativism, while the Democrats have become more sympathetic to the FBI and CIA, perceiving them as institutional enemies of Trump’s authoritarianism. Now some people like Glenn Greenwald say this is a terrible betrayal by the liberal left but I think the perception is accurate. Certainly, a CIA and FBI run by Trump or another MAGA president would pose much more of threat to American democratic institutions than secret agencies run by a Democratic president. That said, I hope CIA accountability could become an issue that transcends the culture war. Both left and right have good, if different, reasons, for demanding CIA accountability. This might be that rare thing: depolarizing issue.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.