The Kennedy’s Secret Sicilian Operation

What the CIA didn't tell the Warren Commission

I and others have written of the breach that grew between Jack and Bobby Kennedy and the covert operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency over the Kennedys’ repeated demands that the agency find a way to assassinate Fidel Castro. Cuba’s Communist leader was in the brothers’ sights before and after he survived the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961.

The Kennedys were media darlings despite that failure. Richard Helms, head of the agency’s covert operations, and his immediate staff understood that there was no turning down the mission. They had to keep trying to get rid of Castro—and they did keep trying—until the November 22, 1963, assassination of the president freed them of the task. I was told that the night of the Kennedy murder was a night of drinking and celebration for some of the clandestine operators in the agency.

I didn’t fully understand the depth of the CIA’s anger at the Kennedy brothers until I began talking to Sam Halpern, a retired senior aide to Helms. Halpern was known as a keeper of secrets who knew how to keep his mouth shut. Sammy was very old school: the only reason he ever talked to a reporter was to spread a lie. He was said to know the name of every foreign government official who had been recruited by the CIA and how much they were paid annually. If this information was not in his head, then it was in a mythical black book some believed he constantly carried on his person. 

Halpern was not a talker and he was not my friend, to put it mildly, even in the 1990s, because of my reporting for the New York Times and the New Yorker about secret operations that included the explosive revelation of a book of CIA horrors—known internally as the Family Jewels—that was maintained by the agency. But Halpern was long retired and his name was in the telephone book. I called him and told him the magic words: I was writing a book on Jack and Bobby. He invited me for an early morning coffee at his suburban Virginia home. Over the next few months there were many more morning coffees. Sammy unloaded on me a litany of CIA operations ordered by the Kennedy brothers that went nowhere. Eventually he told me about the one event in 1962 that he viewed as the most egregious of them all. Over the objections of many in the operations bureau, Bobby Kennedy personally authorized the agency to assign a senior agent to his office for operations against the Mafia. These actions would not be carried out in America but in Sicily, the home of many powerful and brutal Mafia families.

It took weeks of checking the attorney general’s publicly available visitor and telephone logs before I was able to take the name Charles Ford to Halpern. He acknowledged that Ford, a husky, dark-haired veteran of the Second World War, was indeed Bobby Kennedy’s personal agent. Ford made at least two trips out of Washington a month for the next year or so on the attorney general’s behalf, and never told CIA superiors or colleagues where he went or what he did. Those were secrets to be shared only with his new boss. “He was Bobby’s man, and nobody was going to touch him,” Halpern told me. Inevitably, Halpern said, there was concern for Ford’s safety. “We like to control our [agents’] meeting places,” he explained. “We don’t like [our agents] to walk into an unknown place.”

My book The Dark Side of Camelot was published in 1997, and it included what little I then knew about Bobby Kennedy and Charley Ford. It stayed that way until early in the George W. Bush presidency. I got a telephone call at my office in downtown Washington from Ford’s daughter, Kathleen, then married and living with her Army husband on a military base in Tennessee. She had noticed a reference to her father in my book, and she had two important memories she wanted to share. 

A teenager in the fall of 1963, Kathleen Ford was attending an all-girls school in Bethesda, Maryland, when she was abruptly pulled out of her classroom by federal agents, put into a waiting car, and driven to a secure military airbase where her parents were waiting. The family was flown to a naval air station at Newport, Rhode Island, site of the US Naval War College, where her father had been reassigned. Shaken, she was sent to a local school, accompanied by security personnel. She remembered spending weeks under constant watch for reasons she did not understand or could not recall. Her other memory was that around this time her father’s CIA career had been seriously compromised and he spent years until his death constantly complaining about that “son of a bitch” Bobby Kennedy. Charley Ford died in 1990. 

Sam Halpern died in 2005, and I never had the chance to ask him about Kathleen Ford’s memories. Charley Ford remained a mystery to me until a few years ago. During a conversation with someone in the intelligence community about the agency’s troubles with the Kennedy brothers, I asked a question that had been left hanging for decades. What had Charley Ford had been assigned to do, at the urging of Bobby Kennedy? I had learned along the way, perhaps from Halpern, who always knew more than he would tell, that Ford’s cover name for his secret work against the Mafia was an Italian classic—Rocky Fiscalini.

The story that emerged took me back to a tale of Mafia betrayal and payback, triggered by Bobby Kennedy, that should have been disclosed by the agency after Kennedy’s assassination to the Warren Commission, but never was. It surely figures among the many thousands of CIA documents that have been withheld from public release by the John F. Kennedy Library. It’s likely it will never be released.

Charley Ford’s assignment was to spread disinformation among the always competitive and quick-to-anger Mafia families in Sicily. There was some logic in the mission. Bobby Kennedy had made his mark in the 1950s as a pugnacious foe of organized crime while serving as chief counsel for a Senate investigating committee. One of his committee’s targets was Sam Giancana, the head of organized crime in Chicago. There was a famed electric moment during a hearing in 1959 when witness Giancana repeatedly invoked the 5th Amendment in response to Kennedy’s questions, and smiled while doing so. “I thought only little girls giggled, Mr. Giancana,” Kennedy said. It made big news.

The junior Kennedy was named attorney general after his brother won the 1960 election at the heated insistence of father Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch. There was no immediate sign that the far from qualified new attorney general was handcuffed in his pursuit of organized crime. Within days of taking office, he announced what the Wall Street Journal approvingly called “the most sweeping campaign against gangsters, labor racketeers and vice overlords that the country has ever seen.” He presented his war against organized crime as a moral crusade. Yet he would intervene a year later in an FBI wiretapping case against Giancana upon being informed that Giancana had worked with the CIA in the Bay of Pigs debacle. (Bobby, of course, knew all about that.) Testimony before the 1975 Senate Church Committee hearings on the CIA showed that Kennedy agreed to drop the Giancana case after sternly warning the CIA never to “do business with organized crime again” without letting him know in advance. At the time, Kennedy was himself, via Charley Ford, trying to do business against the Italian mob. Travel records for Bobby Kennedy on file at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston show that the attorney general visited Rome twice in early 1962—once in January and once at the end of February—just as the operations against the Italian Mafia were getting underway. Aside from a publicly reported audience with Pope John XXIII and meetings with senior Italian officials, his doings in Rome—including two days of private meetings, according to the New York Times—are not known and, given the library’s repeated refusal to declassify certain records pertaining to either of the brothers, may never be.

Another factor in Bobby’s decision to drop the charges against Giancana had to be the widespread belief that his father, with Jack’s approval, cut a deal with Giancana, whose political ties in Chicago were extensive, for political support in the 1960 election. It was also the case that Jack Kennedy and Giancana were sleeping with the same woman, a fact that would not be known to the public until her name, Judith Exner, was leaked during the Church Committee hearings. Bobby surely knew that, too.

The specifics of what the attorney general was doing with Charley Ford remained a mystery to me until few years ago when I happened to ask a source with strong intelligence credentials what was going on. He told me that CIA files known to many clandestine operators showed that Ford’s assignment was to create dissension among Mafia families in Sicily. The CIA station in Rome had been working with the FBI to target the Mafia there, with the assistance of the Carabinieri, the respected Italian federal police. 

By the early 1960s, the Mafia had built a sophisticated private communication system. It began with stolen walkie-talkies, then included mobile mid-range portable military-style equipment, often used in vehicles. It expanded to a long-distance radio network that spanned Europe and supported the smuggling of cigarettes and other profitable contraband. The telephone lines in Italy were unreliable and insecure, but the families, who each had their own frequencies and often changed them, believed their network to be secure. They were unaware that the Carabinieri and the CIA were monitoring their calls. The surveillance extended to their meeting-places and homes, which were bugged with a variety of devices. 

The early 1960s were a time of relative peace for Sicily, as the La Barbera brothers and the Greco cousins, leaders of the two major families in Palermo, the island’s capital, had moved from control of the wholesale food markets into the much more profitable control of construction and union organization as the city of Palermo grew and modernized. It also was a time of huge profits in the heroin trade, as the Italian Mafia became a major broker and supplier of the raw drug to the fellow gangs in New York. A secret CIA analysis credited Bobby Kennedy’s agents—Charley Ford was not alone—with triggering a major dispute between the brothers and the cousins in Palermo. 

At the time, all of the Mafia families were under the control of the Camorra society, based in Naples. The society was being monitored by the CIA station in Rome, which was working closely with FBI agents recently assigned there. The event that would set off a murderous Mafia war in Sicily that ran into 1963 was a US-engineered dispute over the profits from a heroin shipment to New York. The two major Palermo families accused each other of theft. A series of murders broke out, and the war spread throughout Sicily. I was told that an internal CIA study concluded that the mob war was caused “by internal manipulation of CIA information about each group, with the goal of planting information to trigger paranoia and eventual open warfare among the various families.” Bobby Kennedy’s purpose in fomenting such mayhem was said to be his belief that conflict among Mafia families in Italy would lead to a weakening of the Mafia families in the US. With the apparent approval of his brother—the president’s relationship with the mob and its woman had to be kept secret—Bobby Kennedy was to “take advantage of the fact that the Mafia families were always poaching on each other’s territories.”

The Mafia killings were seen as business as usual—newspaper headlines spoke of another mob war as bodies piled up—until one of the families blew up a van full of members of the Carabinieri and the Italian army in Ciaculli, a mob-controlled suburb of Palermo, killing seven. The central government in Rome, with popular support, then acted to rein in the Mafia families. The van bombing turned what had been yet another bloody internal mob war into a rare public crackdown on the Mafia.

At some point, however, according to the internal CIA study, someone inside the Mafia learned, through extortion or via bribery, from a senior officer of the Carabinieri that the CIA had been involved in igniting the mob war. Growing public pressure forced the Mafia to organize a peace summit in the summer of 1963 at a secret site arranged by Salvatore Lima, the mayor of Palermo. What the mob did not know was that Lima, a member of the dominant Christian Democratic party in Italy, had been on the CIA payroll for years, as were hundreds of local and regional Christian Democratic politicians. The agency’s penetration of all things political and corrupt in Italy was its greatest postwar success.

The CIA had thrown its money into the corrupt Christian Democrats, the Mafia, and the media after World War II in fear that the left—that is, the Italian Communist Party—with its emphasis on social programs and worker stability, would gain power. 

With Lima’s approval, the CIA, working with elements of the National Security Agency, wired the meeting room. It was understood by the Mafia, as reported in CIA files, that it was “the Americans who started the war.” I was told the wiretaps “produced much talk—predictable talk—about revenge. But revenge toward whom?” A number of specific targets were articulated, ranging from President Kennedy and his wife Jackie to Bobby Kennedy and his wife Ethel to one or more of Jack’s or Bobby’s children. There was anger expressed over the extent of damage the Mafia war had caused, but no action was agreed upon.

I was told that it was not known whether Bobby Kennedy was informed, even after the assassination of his brother, about the CIA wiretaps. And there was no mention of any threat to Charley Ford and his family. There also was no evidence in the CIA files that the Secret Service was told of the Mafia threat before the assassination. Nor was the affair disclosed to the Warren Commission, whose stated assignment was to investigate all possible leads around the assassination.

In a much later conversation, my source made it clear that the agency’s assessment was that the fact that there was so much Mafia chatter about murderous revenge “did not mean that they did it. There was no message saying ‘Mission Accomplished.’”

The Kennedys’ successful gambit against the Mafia in Sicily did not reach the American press at the time because it was a highly classified CIA program, and highly classified CIA programs, even those involving the destruction of pipelines, do not leak—unless some inside the government, or the agency, want them to.