Lucien Conein

Lucien Conein

Lucien Conein was born in Paris in 1919. Five years later his widowed mother arranged for him to live with her sister in Kansas City, who had married a soldier in the United States Army (he had served in France during the First World War).

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Conein returned to France and joined the French Army. After the German invasion in 1940 Conein returned to the United States. He now joined the U.S. Army but because of his knowledge of France he was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

In 1944 he was sent to Vichy France with orders to help the French Resistance attack the German Army during the Allied landings in Normandy. He worked with the Jedburghs, a multinational band directed by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).

While in France Conein working with the Corsican Brotherhood, an underworld organization allied with the resistance. Later Conein was to say: ""When the Sicilians put out a contract, it's usually limited to the continental United States, or maybe Canada or Mexico. But with the Corsicans, it's international. They'll go anywhere. There's an old Corsican proverb: 'If you want revenge and you act within 20 years, you're acting in haste.' " With the death of Adolf Hitler and the surrender of Germany in April, 1945, Conein was sent to Vietnam where he helped organize attacks against the Japanese Army.

At the end of the Second World War Conein returned to Europe as a member of the OSS. This included organizing the infiltration of spies and saboteurs into those countries in Eastern Europe under the control of the Soviet Union. Conein later joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was involved in covert operations in several different countries.

Lucien Conein in 1945
Lucien Conein in 1945

In 1951, Gordon Stewart, the CIA chief of espionage in West Germany, sent Conein to establish a base in Nuremberg. The following year Ted Shackley arrived to help Conein with his work. The main purpose of this base was to send agents into Warsaw Pact countries to gather information needed to fight the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The venture was not a great success and the governments in both Poland and Czechoslovakia announced that they had smashed several CIA espionage rings. Later he worked with William Harvey in Berlin.

In 1954 Conein was sent to work under General Edward Lansdale in a covert operation against the government of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam. The plan was to mount a propaganda campaign to persuade the Vietnamese people in the south not to vote for the communists in the forthcoming elections. In the months that followed they distributed targeted documents that claimed the Vietminh had entered South Vietnam and were killing innocent civilians. The Ho Chi Minh government was also accused of slaying thousands of political opponents in North Vietnam.

In the late 1950s Conein worked closely with William Colby, the CIA station chief in Saigon. Conein helped to arm and train local tribesmen, mostly the Montagnards, who carried out attacks on the Vietminh. These men also guided Vietnamese Special Forces units who made commando raids into Laos and North Vietnam.

President John F. Kennedy eventually became convinced that President Ngo Dinh Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Several attempts had already been made to overthrow Diem but Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect him. In order to obtain a more popular leader of South Vietnam, Kennedy agreed that the role of the CIA should change. Conein provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem. At the beginning of November, 1963, Diem was overthrown by a military coup. After the generals had promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country they changed their mind and killed him. Nguyen Van Thieu now became the chairman of a 10-member military directorate.

It has been suggested that Conein might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In his book, The Last Investigation (1993), Gaeton Fonzi points out that Conein was closely connected to E. Howard Hunt and Mitchell WerBell, two men suspected of the crime. Joseph Trento has also pointed out that Conein worked with Ted Shackley and William Harvey at the JM/WAVE CIA station in Miami in 1963.

Leroy Fletcher Prouty claimed that Conein has been identified as being in Dallas on the day of the assassination. Whereas Ron Ecker and Jack White have suggested that he was standing at the corner of Main and Houston at the time Kennedy was killed. However, Larry Hancock has investigated Conein and believes he never left Vietnam during 1963.

Conein left the CIA in 1968 and became a businessman in South Vietnam. In 1970 E. Howard Hunt introduced Conein to President Richard Nixon. Two years later Nixon appointed Conein to the Drug Enforcement Administration, where he directed an intelligence-gathering and operations unit. It has been claimed by William Turner and Warren Hinckle in their book, Deadly Secrets, that this work included "plots to assassinate key international drug figures".

In 1972 E. Howard Hunt considered hiring Conein for the group that bungled the 1972 Watergate burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Conein later told the historian, Stanley Karnow: "If I'd been involved, we'd have done it right."

Lucien Conein died after a heart attack at Suburban Hospital, Virginia, on 3rd June, 1998.

Primary Sources

(1) David Corn, Blond Ghost: The Shackley and the CIA's Crusades (1994)

Shackley embraced his position as an intelligence officer with passion. He compensated for his lack of experience with diligence. Conein often found Shackley at his desk late in the evening. For the most part, the two went their separate ways. Conein was a hell-raiser. Shackley was calm and cool, a detailist, who plotted the most minute specifics of an operation. The pair shared an occasional drink at the officers' club and lunched together maybe once a month, but they did not collaborate. The guiding principle was need-to-know, a sacred rule of secret services. There was no reason for these two officers to be aware of the other's activity.

(2) Seymour Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997)

By the end of October, it was clear that Diem had no intention of turning away from his brother. He would stay in Saigon and so would Nhu. Shortly before the coup, Lodge offered Diem safe conduct by airplane to a neutral country, but the proud Diem rejected the offer as apparently was expected. There is no evidence that Lodge or any embassy official made a serious effort to save Diem. No American, for example, urged General Minh and his fellow plotters to spare Diem's life. In his 1975 testimony to the Church Committee, Lucien Conein claimed that at about six o'clock on the morning of the coup he was asked by General Minh to procure an aircraft to evacuate Diem. He checked with the CIA station in Saigon, Conein said, and was told that it would be impossible to get a plane to Saigon within twenty-four hours. The aircraft had to be capable of flying Diem to a suitable neutral country without being forced to land for refueling - no one in the Kennedy administration wanted Diem to hold a planeside news conference. The only plane available, Conein said he was told, would have to be flown from Guam. By eight o'clock that morning, as Conein surely knew, Diem was in the hands of the military men who would murder him. In any case, a suitable aircraft could easily have been provided in advance but was not. Jack Kennedy had written off Diem, and everyone in Saigon knew it.

(3) Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation (1993)

Then there was WerBell's buddy Lucien Conein, whom he had known in his OSS days. "You've got to start with the premise that Lou Conein is crazy," said one of his former CIA bosses once. Crazy enough to always survive. A beefy, scarred, gnarled old grizzly of a man, Conein left Kansas City when he was seventeen to join the French Foreign Legion. In 1941 in France, he switched to the OSS and lived and fought with the notorious Corsican Brotherhood, which was then part of the Resistance. (Later, the Brotherhood became deeply involved in the drug trade and was considered much more effective and dangerous than its Sicilian counterpart, the Mafia.) Moving on to the Far East, Conein was part of an OSS team parachuted into Vietnam to fight the Japanese alongside the Vietminh. He then fought against the Vietminh with the "Blackhawk" operation, helped Ngo Dinh Diem consolidate his power in South Vietnam and then, in a policy turnaround, was the CIA's liaison with the cabal of generals who murdered Diem.

It was Conein's involvement with this last coup which led another old OSS cohort, E. Howard Hunt, to give him a call several years later. Hunt, by then, was working in the Nixon White House. Besides wanting Conein to release a group of phony telegrams which would have squarely blamed President Kennedy for the Diem assassination (Nixon then considered Edward Kennedy his prime political foe), he wanted Conein to run what was, ostensibly, the White House war against the international drug trade.

Conein got involved in a series of sensitive operations with Hunt, some of which, according to a later report in the Washington Post, "appear to have stretched so far over the boundaries of legality that they were undertaken in total secrecy." One of these, part of a program called "Gemstone," was "Operation Diamond," a large, secret organization which Bernard Barker was putting together for Hunt in Miami. Barker reportedly recruited some 200 former CIA Cuban agents and organized them into specialized groups for future operations. Among these were intelligence and counterintelligence units known as "Action Teams," the old CIA term for units with paramilitary skills, including assassination.

Then, in November, 1973, Conein got moved out of the White House-though not out from under White House command-to become chief of Special Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was to be part of Nixon's highly publicized nationwide police campaign, led by White House enforcers with special powers, to combat drug abuse.

It has been suggested that Nixon's antidrug campaign was, in actuality, a bid to establish his own intelligence network.

(4) Alan J. Weberman, Coup D'Etat in America: The CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1975)

Kennedy dug his own grave by trying to stop the Howard Hunts of the CIA from killing Castro. As Frank Sturgis put it "... Howard tried to assassinate Castro, and Castro is still around, bigger than ever. Alright, but hey, listen, Howard was in charge of other CIA operations that involved 'disposal' and I can tell you, some of them worked."

One gains insight into Hunt's feelings about Kennedy by looking at his activities exposed as a result of Watergate. There is Howard Hunt, a CIA agent who also wrote books. One of these books is a blatant anti-Kennedy allegory. When John Dean opened Howard Hunt's safe he found bogus telegrams linking Kennedy with the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. Hunt had shown General Charles Conein copies of these forged telegrams because the General had served under Kennedy in Vietnam in 1963. After speaking with Hunt, Conein began to shift the blame for Diem's assassination to Kennedy. Soon after, Conein got a job in the Drug Enforcement Administration. While he was with the DEA, Conein was in contact with a private company that produced sophisticated assassination weapons. The New York Times printed part of a memo written on the letterhead of this company which read, "Enclosed is a catalogue which was put together only after we started working with Lou Conein." There is no evidence that Conein helped forge the telegrams. Hunt's safe also contained material relating to an investigation of Chappaquidick. He cultivated informers within the Kennedy clan" and may have forged documents blaming the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion on a secret agreement between Kennedy and Castro.