A new book from General Ion Mihai Pacepa is cause for celebration, because he is among a tiny handful of people who know a lot about the intelligence services of the Soviet Empire, and because he writes about it with rare lucidity, always with an eye to helping us understand our world. His first book, “Red Horizons,” is indubitably the most brilliant portrait of a Communist regime I’ve ever read. “Programmed to Kill” is equally fascinating, not least because it contains both a convincing theory about the Kennedy Assassination and scores of enlightening stories about Pacepa’s own life, many of which I had never heard before.
Pacepa was unique in the Cold War: the highest ranking intelligence officer to defect from the Soviet bloc. He was Ceausescu’s top strategic adviser, and the acting chief of the Romanian secret intelligence service. His defection resulted in the total shutdown of the Romanians’ clandestine activities, making him unique in the history of modern espionage. Moreover, his many intimate working relations with Soviet intelligence officials made him an invaluable source of information and understanding of our major enemy.
He arrived in Washington back in 1978 with two blockbuster messages: first, that the presentation of Ceausescu as an “independent Communist” with whom the United States could work, was a deliberate deception. And second, that Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of John F. Kennedy, was an agent of the KGB, programmed to kill JFK, and did so despite frantic Soviet efforts to stop him.
American officials hated both of those messages, because they were in direct conflict with what the U.S. Intelligence Community had been telling successive presidents, and challenged the bases of much of American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. Both the Intelligence Community and the State Department had assured the White House that Ceausescu was genuinely independent, and ‘we could work with him.’ Pacepa showed that Ceausescu worked in lockstep with the Soviets, and, for example, was tricking the United States into selling advanced technology to Romania that went directly to Moscow. For a while some of the spooks were so upset with what Pacepa had to say that they threatened to send him back to Romania, and certain death, a testament to the lengths to which some bureaucrats will go to silence someone who has “bad news” they don’t want heard.
I don’t think anyone can read “Programmed to Kill” and still believe that Oswald had no working relationship with the KGB. Pacepa painstakingly takes us through the documentary evidence, including invaluable material on Soviet bloc cyphers that throws new light on Oswald’s letters to KGB officers in Washington and Mexico City. And he argues convincingly that the KGB had assigned a case officer to Oswald, about which I will say no more except that his secrets were on the verge of becoming public, whereupon he blew his brains out.
No novelist could have written a more exciting story, made all the more compelling because of Pacepa’s first-hand involvement in the Russians’ efforts to hide their Oswald connection. He spent many hours writing the language that disinformation agents were to use with their Western friends, and he recognizes his words in some of the articles and books that purported to tell the true story of the Kennedy Assassination.
Why were the Soviets so desperate to stop Oswald? Surely not because they had suddenly developed moral qualms about assassination, and least of all because Khrushchev — who had ordered the operation in the first place– — ad decided Kennedy was a good guy. Khrushchev didn’t just call off Oswald’s operation, he cancelled all assassinations after a KGB agent had been caught in West Germany in the course of a similar operation. The Soviet dictator decided it was best to lie low for a while, and several murderous plots were put on hold. This, too, was part of Pacepa’s work.
Finally there is the fascinating question of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer. Pacepa is not convinced by Ruby’s claim that he killed Oswald out of rage. Pacepa thinks he acted at the behest of the Cuban regime, and was later poisoned in order to silence him.
It’s a complicated tale, because, Pacepa argues, you need to know a great deal about Soviet intelligence methods in order to understand the evidence. To that end, he provides a long supplement at the end of “Programmed to Kill,” entitled “Connecting the Dots.” He goes through the evidentiary trail bit by bit, including his own experiences that help understand the “dots.”
It’s entirely appropriate, for Pacepa’s own life is the key to understanding that terrible moment in November, 1963, from which so much of the contemporary world took shape.