Book Review: The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government


“The important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.”
~ Eric Ambler

By Catherine Austin Fitts

Power in America is gathered and distributed by covert means.

The public perception of American power promotes a mythic picture of how things work with stories and policies that make us look and feel good. The real power lines – like the third rail in a subway system where the electricity runs – drive the real decisions that control and allocate prestige and resources, often in life-and-death struggles.

America is run by what former diplomat and professor Peter Dale Scott describes as “the deep state” – a complex web of public and private enterprises, societies, investors and networks that operate in the shadows and act above the law with impunity.

If we liken America’s deep state to a runaway train, the conductor lost control as a result of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the success of the subsequent cover-up. Successive rounds of assassination, invisible weaponry (including the implementation of surveillance and control systems) and extraordinary amounts of financial fraud have continuously emboldened the deep state ever since.

In The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, David Talbot writes about the life of Allen Dulles, the first civilian and longest serving Director of the CIA. The book chronicles Dulles’ work in the American intelligence apparatus through WWII into the creation and growth of the CIA and the amassing of unaccountable domestic and global power by the deep state.

The Devil’s Chessboard doesn’t explain the deep state. But readers glimpse some of its aspects and one of the most important avenues through which it has become so powerful today.

Talbot is the founder, former CEO and editor-in-chief of Salon magazine. Since leaving Salon, he has continued researching, writing and publishing most notably on the Kennedy administration and assassination. The Devil’s Chessboard was published in 2015, seven years after Talbot published Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (which was published 47 years after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and 52 years after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas).

Beautifully written, Talbot carries us through Dulles’ personal life and career, building a careful picture of the nature, behavior, experience and networks of the man. In the process, he describes some but not all of the many dark corners that marked the CIA while Dulles served as DCI:

  • The coordination between US corporations with the Nazis during WWII and the subsequent integration of Nazi scientists into American universities, government programs and investments networks;
  • The authority given to the CIA following WWII to manage the hidden system of finance created from assets seized by the Americans and to create a black budget with funds siphoned off from the accounts of federal agencies;
  • The development of MK-Ultra and mind control and biological warfare experiments on American citizens;
  • The growth of narcotics trafficking by CIA affiliates in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the resulting growth in money-laundering leadership by US financial institutions.

Talbot slowly and carefully builds an in-depth portrait of Allen Dulles. We visit dark corners as they inform the man, the agency and the operations he created. The reasons for doing so become apparent to the reader as the threads Talbot weaves come together in the final third of the book.

To develop a credible theory describing the assassination of President Kennedy, one must envision the creation and execution of a conspiracy involving a substantial number of powerful establishment players.

You would need a leader with a deep resume – someone to persuade and coordinate between the CIA and their covert capacities, the Secretary of State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who were responsible for the President’s security in Dallas) and their intelligence services, the Secretary of the Treasury (who controls the Secret Service), the FBI and other parts of the Department of Justice, the Washington press corp, the Federal Reserve and the banking and investment community (particularly in New York and Boston), and various groups which coordinate policy between such as the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

Such a leader would have the ability to work full-time for many years without anyone noticing (Dulles was retired with time on his hands) while keeping the conspiracy a secret and dealing forcefully with those who did not. Such a leader would determine who would be “dealt with” in the cover-up. He would work with covert operations to implement the subsequent flow of payoffs, threats and assassinations.

Did Dulles “project manage” the Kennedy Assassination? Talbot leaves it to the reader to decide. Most readers would say, “yes.”

Dulles was the man with the motivation, the networks, the relationships and the time who was in a position to coordinate with the CIA and their assets. From the evidence that Talbot lays out, it is likely that Dulles was essential to designing and organizing the initial conspiracy which, after the approval of much more powerful members of the growing deep state, was then turned over to paid professionals in the intelligence, military and enforcement bureaucracy. With his appointment to the Warren Commission, Dulles had a major hand in covering up the truth.

That was the real coup – getting away with it. What I remember best is how the success of the cover-up created an unstoppable arrogance.

Why should we revisit this history? It is invaluable to understand the pathology and ambition for absolute power that was birthed during this time and institutionalized in portions of the American government.

Yes, things have changed. Subsequent to 1981, a great deal of this capacity has moved into private corporations and enterprises which now run a majority of the US government from behind the scenes — as well as the media, telecommunications and social media that increasingly run the “surveillance capitalism” economy.

The pathology, however, has remained and blossomed. We are facing the continued growth of an inhuman culture. If we are going to understand how to restore and revitalize a human culture and human enlightenment, it will help to understand what we are dealing with and how it became so powerful.

David Talbot has made a masterful contribution to the history of the Kennedy Administration, the CIA and the United States. I  recommend it to you. You can buy The Devil’s Chessboard here.

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