If there is one mystery in Presidential history as tantalizing as who killed Kennedy, it’s what happened to the missing 18 ½ minutes of President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Watergate Tapes,” the series of secret White House recordings that exposed the corruption of his administration and ultimately led to his resignation in disgrace. But what if these two mysteries were actually one and the same? Amidst the profanity, reckless abuse of power and paranoid ranting that have come to define the recordings, President Nixon makes several oblique references to “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” Ostensibly a discussion of the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman eventually revealed that “Bay of Pigs” was actually a secret code for the Kennedy assassination. Did Richard Nixon know who was involved in the Kennedy assassination? Did the missing 18 ½ minutes contain the final clues needed to final unravel the crime of the century?
On June 17th, 1972, 5 burglars were arrested for attempting to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington D.C. In one of their address books was the name Howard Hunt, a veteran secret agent who was eventually implicated as the mastermind of the break-in. A veteran covert operative for the CIA and an accomplished espionage novelist, Hunt had been involved in the planning of the successful 1954 coup in Guatemala before being assigned to work on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Although typically associated with the Kennedy Administration, planning for Bay of Pigs began under the Eisenhower administration, when Nixon was serving as Vice President.
During the Church Committee investigations in 1975, it was revealed that the invasion was only “Track I” of the effort to take down Fidel Castro. “Track II” involved a covert plot to assassinate the communist dictator. Declassified agency documents reveal that in their attempts to kill Castro, the CIA turned to a group who hated the dictator as much as they did and didn’t mind doing the dirty work: The American Mafia. Between the CIA, disaffected Cuban exiles and organized crime, the United States intelligence community had created its own “Executive Action” apparatus capable of assassinating a world leader. As President, Nixon ordered the CIA to hand over documents relating to the plot to overthrow Castro, indicating that he was at least aware of these operations if not involved.
The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion caused a deep schism between President Kennedy and the CIA. While Kennedy publicly accepted responsibility, he secretly blamed the Agency and fired long-standing CIA Chief Allen Dulles. Meanwhile many involved in the Bay of Pigs blamed Kennedy for the failure, stating that his failure to provide air support left the commandos for dead and doomed the operation.
To prevent this from ever happening again, JFK issued National Security Action Memorandum 57 in June of 1961, which specified that the military would be responsible for all covert military operations, thus preventing the CIA from conducting missions such as the Bay of Pigs and putting agents like Howard Hunt, who served as Dulles’ personal aide, out of a job.
The Kennedy family had made enemies with some of the same mobsters who collaborated with the CIA and the Cuban exiles to assassinate Castro. Since JFK’s narrow victory over Nixon in the 1960 Presidential race, rumours had been circulating that Kennedy stole the election — possibly with the help of organized crime. Once in office, Robert Kennedy was appointed Attorney General and began a legal offensive against the Mob. If the Kennedys had used the Mafia to win the election and then turned against them, this would be seen as a betrayal. Even if that weren’t the case, RFK’s legal crusade would still have caused significant bad blood with the Mafia.
By failing to provide air support to the Bay of Pigs commandos and eventually cutting a deal with Castro not to invade, Kennedy enraged many of the virulently Anti-Castro Cuban exiles living in New Orleans and Miami.
The stage is set for one of the most popular conspiracy theories in JFK assassination lore. A CIA/Mafia/Cuban hit squad has been trained to assassinate a Chief Executive. The CIA felt betrayed by Kennedy after he fired Allen Dulles. The Mafia felt betrayed by Kennedy after his brother went after them. The Cubans felt betrayed by Kennedy for refusing to provide air support during the invasion. And finally, NSAM 57 put the assassination squad out of a job. So the team that was originally supposed to take out Castro allegedly decided to take out Kennedy instead. In other words, the assassination of JFK is in fact the direct result of the Bay of Pigs failure. Was this fatal blowback against Kennedy the “whole bay of pigs thing” Nixon was referring to in the Watergate tapes?
The “Smoking Gun” tape from the morning of July 24th 1972 reveals Richard Nixon knew whatever connected Howard Hunt, Bay of Pigs and Watergate could bring down his Presidency. Why exactly is far less clear. In the conversation, Nixon orders Haldemann to blackmail Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, telling Helms to call the FBI off the Watergate investigation because going after Hunt would expose “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” Ironically, this recording of Nixon’s attempt to obstruct justice was what eventually led to his downfall.
Later tapes demonstrate that Nixon’s efforts to suppress what Hunt knew was at the center of his obsession with covering up Watergate.
“Well, your major guy to keep under control is Hunt,” Nixon tells John Dean, the young attorney who would later blow the whistle on Watergate, including his own complicity.
“That’s right,” Dean agrees.
“I think. Because, he knows…” Nixon begins.
“He knows so much,” Dean continues.
“…about a lot of other things,” Nixon concludes.
Hunt pressed this advantage and began blackmailing the Nixon administration in the aftermath of the Watergate arrests. Desperate to keep Hunt silent, Nixon authorized the hush money and his inner circle coordinated massive payoffs. In December of 1972, Howard Hunt’s wife Dorothy Hunt boarded United Airlines Flight 553 out of Washington with $10,000 in cash. Although there can be no way to prove this cash was connected to the Watergate payoffs, it would not be a fantastic leap of logic to assume as much. Wherever the money came, Dorothy never got a chance to use it. United 553 crashed mysteriously, killing everyone aboard, including Illinois Congressman George W. Collins.
Just what was it Hunt knew and why was Nixon covering it up? Did the 18 ½ minutes fill in the details? Conventional wisdom has it that whatever was on the missing 18 ½ minutes was so damaging to the Nixon White House that it could never be revealed. But since the smoking gun conversation already brought down Nixon’s Presidency, ruined his career, sullied his reputation, and caused him to go down in history as America’s worst, most corrupt President, there is a question that no one seems to be able to answer: What was on the 18 ½ minutes that could possibly be worse than that? What was Richard Nixon so afraid Howard Hunt was going to squeal about?
Because of his involvement in the milieu of the assassination, Howard Hunt has long been a “suspect” in the Kennedy murder, despite no material evidence or witnesses linking him to the crime. Some, including Hunt’s own son, assert that Hunt was one of the “three tramps” arrested and photographed in Dealey plaza in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Theories abound that the other two tramps are fellow Watergate conspirator Frank Sturgis and hitman Charles Harrelson. Harrelson, father of actor Woody, was later convicted of assassinating a federal judge. During his arrest for that crime, Harrelson claimed to have also assassinated Kennedy, a confession he later attributed to being “high on cocaine.” The three individuals in these photographs bear little resemblance to Hunt, Sturgis and Harrelson, despite the adamant claims of many researchers. In 1989, the Dallas Police Department released arrest records proving that the men were in fact three tramps with no connection to the assassination.
For years, Hunt adamantly denied any involvement with the Kennedy assassination. According to his testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Hunt was in Washington D.C. on November 22nd with his family. When the far-right magazine The Spotlight ran an article claiming that he was involved in the assassination, Hunt sued the publication for libel. Although the jury found in favor of Hunt and awarded him damages, the ruling was later overturned. During the subsequent trial, the jury ruled against Hunt. To some, proving that The Spotlight’s claims against Hunt were in fact not libelous proved in a court of law that there was a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. Spotlight’s attorney in that case? None other than Mark Lane, father of the JFK conspiracy theory movement.
On his “death bed” Howard Hunt did eventually claim to have been aware of the Kennedy assassination, naming himself as a “bench warmer” for “the big event.” According to his son, Howard supposedly sketched out the chain of command for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the President including CIA operatives Cord Myer and William Harvey, Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis, French mobster Lucien Sarti and even President Lyndon Baines Johnson himself. Was Howard Hunt finally trying to clear his conscience or was this another example of a master secret agent manipulating public perception for his own advantage? Like with most spurious testimonies in the Kennedy assassination, it boils down to one of two things: he was lying before or he’s lying now. Either way, he can’t be trusted. He is a spy after all.
At the heart of the Kennedy and Watergate mysteries is the lack of motive. The Warren Commission acknowledged that they could never establish why Oswald would pull the trigger on Kennedy. Even Nixon’s inner circle never understood why the Watergate burglars broke into the DNC office. By its very nature, the Presidency is a position of extreme secrecy. In order to be the President, one must know what the rest of the world doesn’t and perhaps shouldn’t know.The Nixon administration epitomized this quality. Clearly, Nixon knew something about the Bay of Pigs that he wanted to keep secret and his closest aide was convinced it had something to do with the murder of John Kennedy. Perhaps the missing 18 1/2 minutes contained that dark and damning secret. Perhaps it was something far more tawdry — a personal embarrassment to the President’s character. Or maybe, just maybe Richard Nixon was telling the truth (for once in his life) after all and his secretary did delete the tapes by leaning halfway across her desk for almost 20 minutes. Either way, as with most failures in the Nixon administration, the tapes were deleted at an unfortunate intersection of criminality and incompetence. And as with many of the subjects discussed on this site, one thing remains: The mystery endures.