Robert F. Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the next morning. His bid for the U.S. Presidency was ended with “extreme prejudice,” a term used in covert operations to describe assassination.
I met Attorney General Kennedy twice while on top secret assignment as an Army Ranger special operations officer at the CIA’s Miami station (JMWAVE) in 1963. He was President Kennedy’s overseer of the administration’s secret war against Cuba following the 1962 missile crisis. The CIA had a mission to conduct covert paramilitary operations and espionage, including assassination, to eliminate Castro and bring about political change that would nullify the Russian-Cold War-communist influence that came with the Castro revolution of the late 1950s.
RFK’s death prompted me to write my 1976 book, “The War that Never Was.” A greatly expanded follow-up memoir, “Zenith Secret,” was published last year. At this 45th anniversary of RFK’s assassination, I share a footnote inexplicably left out of the printing of my manuscript. The setting is the summer of 1963, and I was involved in training Cuban exiles in survival, escape and evasion, paramilitary operations and running commando raids on the island. In the months preceding the assassination of President Kennedy, our operations intensified. A series of briefings were scheduled at the station headquarters.
Asked to come in from the field and attend these high-level briefings, I began to believe I’d been accepted by the CIA hierarchy at JMWAVE. I became more engrossed in clandestine culture and tactical concept of covert paramilitary operations. I was intrigued and excited, more determined than ever to perform my mission. This was heady stuff for a young Army Ranger captain.
I had an excellent relationship with one of the intelligence branch officials, and one day, without any formal approval, he allowed me to sign-out a copy of the agency’s crypto-top-secret tradecraft manual. About the size of an Army field manual, inch thick with a pale blue bound cover, it was titled, “The Science and Art of Tradecraft.” The spine and fly leaves contained no publication source, attributable authorship or date, nor in any way was there traceable connection to CIA production or security classification. Each page bore the same serial/log number, coinciding with the register I had to sign upon receiving the document. Nowhere did abbreviations USA or CIA appear.
It took me several nights to pore through the several hundred pages. The manual contained need-to-know information far beyond my relatively low-level assignment. It was essentially a how-to textbook on the science and techniques of spying and clandestine activities, everything from recruitment of agents, to secret writing, dead drops, covert meetings, cover establishment and maintenance, personal security, false identity and personal behavior guidelines. In some respects it could have been written by an imaginative pulp novelist.
I found the manual intriguing and, at some personal level, disturbing. It gave me a profound insight to the agency’s doctrinal philosophy reflecting, in general, that the ends justify the means. My impression at the time and to this day is the text, while being instructively unambiguous and direct as typical of field manuals, absent historic and source reference, in style it was more than an operational guide. I came away feeling I had just read a cynical, sinister policy manifesto.
One of the later chapters has remained with me to this day. It was titled “Influencing Political Change.” It set forth the techniques of covertly directing political dynamics — rumor, propaganda, media intimidation and manipulation, staged provocations, compromising sexual seductions, corruption of officials, bribes and the use of “straw men” to distract and disrupt the public process. Since the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and MLK, one closing line remains prominent in my memory. It read, “EXECUTIVE ACTION MAY BE REQUIRED WHEN AUTHORIZED BY THE DIRECTORATE.”
At the time I did not grasp the meaning of that sentence, and in light of the assassinations, I’ve been haunted by those words. (This footnote was deleted from my original manuscripts or, for reasons of relevance or space, did not appear in Zenith Secret).
The U.S. government establishment investigations of the assassinations are a botched mess, as the post-mortem history reflects. While I personally steer clear of the conspiracy subculture, much of the American public does not accept the lone-nut assassin conclusion in the deaths of JFK, MLK and RFK. Today, with all the new evidence of broader complicity, and advanced technological capability, why as a society do we resist pursuing the truth via a vigorous legislative-judicial process?
Editor’s Note: Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. He is an Army Ranger CIA, DEA Veteran. Now 79 and semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wis. His book “Zenith Secret” was released in November by Rosedog Books.