Edward Epstein, prolific independent journalist and author of three books related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is one of the most knowledgeable working journalists when it comes to the JFK story
On Sunday, Epstein appeared at the Newseum in Washington to talk to moderator Shelby Coffee (former editor of the Los Angeles Times) and a studio audience of about 125 people about his new book, “Annals of Unsolved Crime,” and his interpretation of the JFK assassination story.
His take: JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald for ideological reasons which Oswald might have shared with Cuban intelligence officials in Mexico City six weeks before JFK was killed.
Epstein’s theory of Oswald, the ideologically motivated pro-Castro assassin, is more reassuring than persistent JFK conspiracy theories that hold the CIA or organized crime responsible for the death of the 35th president. It is also more realistic than the theory that Oswald was a “lone nut,” a notion that Epstein took care to refute, noting that Oswald had a wife, a child and a wide circle of friends. I expect we will be hearing more about the pro-Castro assassin as the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination approaches in the fall.
With all due respect, I am not persuaded. And Epstein is due respect. As the author of three JFK books (“Inquest,” “Legend,” and “Deception”), Epstein is undoubtedly the only living person who interviewed eight out of nine members of the Warren Commission, as well as 300 people who had contact with Lee Harvey Oswald. His appearance at the Newseum is proof positive that his interpretation of JFK’s death is influential in Washington journalistic institutions.
But is he right? I think his case depends on indulging in speculation about Cuban knowledge of Oswald and his motives while ignoring the now well-documented fact that senior CIA officials were tracking Oswald’s movements as he made his way to Dallas.
1. Epstein’s argument
Epstein told the Newseum crowd that when he first began investigating JFK’s assassination in the 1960s, he faced a basic choice.
“One view was that Oswald was a patsy, that could not have possibly done the shooting,” he said. “I came to the conclusion that he did do the shooting. The question is Why? ”
Epstein said he was especially swayed by the views of Thomas Mann, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 1963. In the wake of JFK’s death, Mann frantically pressed the CIA and FBI to investigate the possibility that Oswald had acted at the behest of Cuban Fidel Castro.
“That was squelched,” Epstein said without explanation, a point to which I will return.
Oswald was willing to shoot people in service of his political views, Epstein went on. He noted that Oswald tried to shoot Gen Edwin Walker in April 1963. Walker was a cashiered U.S. Army general known for his anti-communist and white supremacist fervor. Oswald, accompanied by another person never identified, fired a shot at Walker’s home on April 10, 1963, but missed him.
Esptein acknowledged that the CIA might have known about this shooting from Oswald’s friend George de Mohrenschildt, a geologist who fed information to the CIA in hopes of receiving favorable treatment for his business interests. Not long after the Walker shooting, Oswald gave de Mohrenschildt a photograph of himself with a rifle inscribed with the words, “Hunter of fascists, hah!”
Finally, Epstein says, the CIA’s efforts to assassinate Castro in late 1963 showed that Castro had a motive to kill Kennedy. Castro seemed to be aware of these plots in September 1963 when he told Associated Press reporter in Havana that U.S. efforts to assassinate Cuban leaders would put U.S. leaders themselves in danger.
“The AP story appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune and that was what set Oswald in motion,” Epstein said.
Oswald traveled to Mexico City in September 1963, where, Epstein says, he told Cuban diplomats, presumed to be intelligence officers, that he planned to kill Kennedy. Epstein theorizes, without much evidence, that Cubans may have encouraged Oswald.
(Fabian Escalante, retired chief of Cuban counterintelligence, denied that charge to me in a 2009 interview, arguing that Oswald was the patsy of right-wing forces within JFK’s government.)
“I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever influence was brought to bear on Oswald, happened on that trip,” Epstein concluded.
2. Is Epstein right?
My question is, if Epstein’s theory that Oswald was influenced by Castro is so plausible in 2013, why did senior CIA and FBI officials make sure it was not investigated in 1963.
Epstein was right that Ambassador Mann’s efforts to investigate the pro-Castro Oswald were squelched. Within a week of JFK’s death FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent an FBI agent to Mexico to tell Mann to stop asking questions. The CIA’s two top men in Mexico, Win Scott and David Phillips, attended the meeting and gave Mann the same message (a scene I describe on pp. 225-226 of “Our Man in Mexico”).
Mann was baffled by this meeting for the rest of his life and for good reason. Hoover’s order begged an obvious question: Why did the thoroughly anti-communist CIA and FBI want to spare the hated Castro from investigation of possible involvement with the pro-Castro assassin?
The answer is found in newly available records that Epstein may not be aware of.
CIA records found by historian John Newman and published in his 1995 book “Oswald and the CIA” showed that Phillips, chief of anti-Castro operations outside of Washington, had targeted the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) of which Oswald claimed to be a member, for disruption and harassment via CIA operations in 1961 and 1962.
FBI records uncovered by historian David Kaiser in his 2007 book “The Road to Dallas,” show that the Bureau had targeted the FPCC for surreptitious disruption and harassment in mid-1963.
My decade-long FOIA lawsuit for the records of Phillips’s colleague George Joannides showed that he had funded the Miami-based anti-Castro organization that publicly denounced Oswald’s one-man FPCC chapter three months before JFK was killed.
Collectively, the new records illuminated why Epstein’s theory was not fully investigated after JFK’s death: because any such inquiry would have revealed that the CIA and FBI had been playing close attention to the FPCC and Oswald in the years, months and weeks before JFK was killed.
The new evidence, in short, is more incriminating of the U.S. government than of the Cuban government. That’s why it was hidden in 1963. That’s why the CIA continues to conceal the details of Joannides’ operations a half century later.
Epstein errs, I think, is not taking seriously the evidence that the Kennedy’s assassination was the result of CIA manipulation, negligence or malfeasance. Instead, he insinuates Castro was involved, which is a relatively reassuring message for Washington tourists on a balmy spring afternoon.
But the new historical record of JFK’s assassination is not so reassuring.