The estimable Andrew Sullivan has weighed in on the JFK conspiracy question. He claims Oswald Killed Kennedy, Period. So has Slate’s Fred Kaplan. He argues that even the best JFK conspiracy theories are bunk.
Let me say I think Sullivan and Kaplan are among the very best online journalists we have. I’m glad to say I count them as friendly acquaintances. I’m sorry to say I also think they have fallen victim of JFK denialism: the very Washington impulse to dismiss troubling evidence in the JFK story.
Their take on JFK reminded me of one of those epigrams coined by New Republic editor Michael Kinsley for whom Sullivan and I both worked long ago. During the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, Kinsley noted an odd discourse that prevailed in the upper-ranks of the scandal-ridden Reagan administration. It is relevant to today’s JFK discourse.
The Iran-contra scandal erupted when President Reagan and a dozen top national security advisers had been caught in a blatantly illegal effort to circumvent an explicit Congressional ban on aiding counterrevolutionary rebels in Nicaragua (the contras). These high-level miscreants had a permissive understanding of their own culpability, Kinsley noted. Their defense, he quipped, amounted to, “I haven’t been indicted yet, therefore I’m innocent.”
That’s the dubious logic at the heart of the JFK conspiracy debate that our leading pundits seek to quell: Because there is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that any one notorious person conspired to kill JFK, it seems that everyone is innocent of wrongdoing.
This is peculiarly blinkered way of thinking about a critical turning point in American history.
The intelligence failure of Nov. 22
Let us stipulate for the purposes of argument that Oswald fired the fatal shots alone and unaided. Why should that (alleged) fact end the discussion of the causes of JFK’s death?
Everyone can agree that the murder of a sitting president in broad daylight was an epic failure of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. Why do major news organizations only debate the credibility of “conspiracy theorists” in 2013 and not discuss the causes of the CIA’s failure to protect JFK on November 22, 1963.
(Could it be because the CIA issued a worldwide directive in 1967, never rescinded, instructing its employees in the art of “countering critics of Warren Report?” To say the CIA’s talking points had — and have — no influence on the Washington media elite would be ahistorical, if not willfully naive.)
The plain fact is that if Oswald killed JFK, the CIA failed to perceive he posed a threat to the president. Yet no one at the agency lost their job, or even a promotion, as a result of that indisputable and lethal failure. The CIA hid the whole story and Helms and Angleton served another decade before their illegal activities caught up with them.
But — the agency’s defenders will cry — these patriotic, honest, hard-working civil servants in Langley had no way of knowing the pathetic Oswald was actually one of the most cunning assassins in world history.
Oh wait, the CIA was told he was a potential assassin, according to journalist Edward Epstein.
It is well-known that in April 1963, Oswald took a shot at General Edwin Walker, a cashiered right-wing general and harsh critic of JFK’s allegedly treasonous liberal policies. Oswald had his wife take a picture of him with his rifle and he gave a copy of the photo to his friend, George de Mohrenschildt, an itinerant oil engineer who fed intelligence to the CIA to advance his business interests. On the back of the photo Oswald scrawled the words, “Hunter of fascists, Hah.” Oswald told de Mohrenschildt that he had taken a shot at Walker.
De Mohrenschildt, worried he might be tainted by his association with such a rash character, rushed to tell the local representative of the CIA. The agency did not tell the story to the Warren Commission in 1964 nor did de Mohrenschildt. But de Mohrenschildt did tell it to Epstein in 1976. (And then, in one of those violent plot twists that abound in the JFK assassination story, de Mohrenschildt blew his brains out with a shotgun.)
The official story is that de Mohrenschildt’s information about Oswald’s attempted assassination of Walker never reached the CIA hands in who knew the most about Oswald.
If so, it was a rare moment of inattention to Oswald in Langley.
The ‘maturing’ Oswald
You won’t hear it about it from Sullivan or Kaplan but the most important JFK revelation since Oliver Stone’s movie ruffled Washington feathers 20 years ago is this: the number of senior CIA officers who knew all about Lee Harvey Oswald before JFK’s assassination was not small.
None of these officers ever acknowledged hearing about Oswald’s attempt to kill Walker. But CIA records declassified since the 1990s demonstrate beyond all doubt they knew a lot about Oswald in the fall of 1963.
These CIA officers knew where Oswald was born and that he had served in the Marines. They knew about his defection to the Soviet Union in October 1959. They knew he had returned with a Russian wife. At least one of them (Angleton) had intercepted and opened Oswald’s mail.
Some of them knew Oswald had been interviewed by the FBI. Angleton’s staff was informed by the FBI about Oswald’s pro-Castro politics and his encounters with a CIA-funded anti-Castro group in New Orleans. They all knew about Oswald’s peculiar trip to Mexico City in October 1963 and his contacts there with suspected Cuban and Russian intelligence officers.
Among the officers in the know about the thoroughly obscure Lee Oswald when President Kennedy was preparing for his trip to Dallas:
— Tom Karamessines, Helms’s trusted deputy;
— Bill Hood, the urbane chief of CIA operations in the Western Hemisphere and a close friend of Angleton’s;
— Jane Roman, a loyal senior aide to Angleton;
— David Phillips, a charismatic protege of Helms and chief of anti-Castro operations outside of the United States;
— John Whitten (aka “John Scelso”), an overbearing senior desk officer for Mexican operations;
— Win Scott, the impressive Mexico City station chief;
— and Anne Goodpasture, Scott’s canny assistant.
Individually and collectively, these covert operators knew that Oswald fit the profile of a security risk to U.S national security in many ways.
Yet when Mexico City station chief Win Scott asked CIA headquarters for its assessment of Oswald in early October 1963, associates of Helms and Angleton’s collaborated in writing a four-page cable to Scott that that concluded with the sage observation that Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union had a “maturing effect” on him.
Such was Langley’s optimistic assessment of the alleged aspiring assassin as of October 10, 1963: To wit: Don’t worry about this guy. He’s growing up. (Here’s the CIA cable containing their lethal mistake about Oswald.)
None of them recommended taking any security action in response to Oswald’s leftist politics, provocative actions, or foreign contacts.
Forty three days later, JFK was shot dead and the “maturing” Oswald was arrested for the crime.
End of discussion
It is possible that Sullivan, a Brit of catholic interests, has not drilled down on the history of the CIA. Kaplan’s research into JFK conspiracy theories in the 1960’s and early 1970’s preceded the documentary revelations of the 1990s. They should know some of this history but evidently do not. Certainly Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Dallek, and other respected historians of the airwaves are familiar with the upper echelons of the CIA in November 1963. They all prefer to talk about JFK conspiracy theories rather than CIA history.
Now let us return to Sullivan’s confident claim: “Oswald did it. Period,” and Kaplan’s imperious “Bunk.”
I do not want to litigate Oswald’s role in the events of November 22, 1963, in this article (except to say it was not wholly innocent). Sullivan and Kaplan are determined not to get dragged into an interminable debate about JFK conspiracy theories with obsessive denizens of the chat rooms. And who can blame him?
It’s the impulse to add “Period” and “Bunk” that fascinates and bothers me. These are the most succinct expression of JFK denialism we have. They are the sign on the door of a closed mind: “Senior CIA officials are not indictable. Therefore they are innocent. The JFK discussion is over. Please don’t bother me.”
What explains such defensive dogmatism?
Is it really so implausible to think that one or more of the CIA officers named above — some of whom feared and loathed JFK’s liberal foreign policies — have been involved in a plot to kill Kennedy? Or that they might have chosen not to investigate a plot by others that removed a commander in chief whom they regarded as weak and incompetent and replaced him with Lyndon Johnson, a man of more conventional national security impulses?
That may sound far-fetched to those inside the Beltway; it will sound all too plausible to others whose livelihoods do not depend on Washington respectability. Given the fact that the CIA retains more than 1,100 documents related to the JFK’s assassination that have never been made public, the possibility cannot be dismissed. Even CNN’s Thom Patterson admitted as much this week.
That’s the problem with our stupid JFK conspiracy debate. It means that some of our best journalists do not think to ask, much less answer, a seemingly taboo question on the 50th anniversary of the Dallas tragedy: Did the CIA’s mishandling of intelligence about Oswald contribute to JFK’s wrongful death?
That’s just not a question American journalists or historians care to address. They just won’t do it. Period.
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