The Washington Post‘s Ian Shapira had a fascinating piece over the weekend about a son pursuing his father’s journalistic legacy.
Jim Scott, 64, a retired Navy public relations officer who lives in Maryland, wants to know why the CIA wiretapped his father, Paul Scott, a syndicated columnist and investigative reporter in Washington in the 1960s. Scott was half of “The Allen-Scott Report,” a popular syndicated column that ran in some 300 papers nationwide.
One reason why Scott was bugged by the CIA: his JFK reporting.
Scott and his partner Robert Allen, both deceased, were exemplars of Washington journalism in the 1960s. They were not as well known as another reporting duo, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who plied the Georgetown social circuit where the Kennedy administration officials mingled and did business. Scott and Allen did not mingle with the social elite but cranked out informative reporting on the government bureaucracy. The CIA first started wiretapping Paul Scott in the spring of 1963, apparently because of his reporting on Soviet weapons in Cuba.
The files obtained by Jim Scott showed that his father was still the object of CIA concern in 1968. What Jim Scott didn’t know was his father also attracted CIA attention in March 1967 with a mini-bombshell published in the Northern Virginia Sun, a newspaper that no longer exists. A short item in the Allen-Scott column of March 9, 1967, stated:
“An affidavit at the National Archives documented that the State Department had received a cable from the CIA on Lee Oswald’s ‘current activities’ just six weeks before JFK was killed.” While the affidavit was declassified, they reported, “the CIA report is still marked secret.”
This short item gave top CIA officials a heart attack — literally.
In March 1967, the Warren Commission report was only three years old. Public skepticism about its conclusions was growing rapidly as books like Mark Lane’s “Rush to Judgment” and Harold Weisberg’s “Whitewash” climbed the best-seller lists. When it came to the CIA and Oswald, the American public only knew what the Warren Commision had reported: that in October 1963, the CIA notified the FBI that a man named Oswald had visited the Soviet Embassy and Cuban consulates in Mexico City in an unsuccessful effort to get a visa to travel to Cuba.
The Warren Commission was not shown the actual cable that was sent to the FBI and the State Department, which told a rather fuller story. In response to a query from the Mexico City station about Oswald, the CIA did more than simply tell the FBI that a man with that name had appeared in the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic offices. The CIA supplied the State Department with a detailed biography of Oswald and noted some of his recent activities.
Nor was the Warren Commission told that the CIA had sent another cable about Oswald on October 10 to the Mexico City station. That cable also detailed Oswald’s politics and travels while suggesting he was not the object of concern. That cable said that, in the State Department’s view, Oswald’s residence in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1962 had had “a maturing effect” on him.
Six weeks later, JFK was shot dead in Dallas, allegedly by the maturing Oswald.
The Allen-Scott item posed a problem for the CIA’s leadership. Scott and Allen were bureaucratically savvy reporters who were calling attention to an internal CIA communication whose existence the agency preferred to deny. They even had a source who knew the document’s classification status, which meant they might have a source who could show them the cable itself.
In Mexico City, station chief Win Scott was worried. Scott and Allen’s syndicated column was published in the Mexico News, an English language paper. When the item about the Oswald cable appeared, its accuracy alarmed him. If the U.S. government confirmed the Scott-Allen story, he told CIA Director Richard Helms, it would be an admission that the U.S. government had eavesdropping capabilities in the Cuban and Soviet offices. It would compromise one of crown jewels of his operation in Mexico, a wiretapping program run with the help of senior Mexican officials called LIENVOY. He urged the agency not to declassify the cable.
How worried was Win Scott? Ten days later he was feeling chest pains. He checked himself into a Mexico City hospital. He had suffered a minor heart attack. (I tell the story in my biography of Scott, “Our Man in Mexico,” p. 242.)
In Langley, Helms had his own reasons for palpitations. He had only recently ascended to the director’s chair. He was worried about growing public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s conclusions that he felt impugned the CIA’s credibility. He was personally vulnerable. He certainly did not want it publicly known that three of his top deputies (Tom Karamessines, Bill Hood, and John Whitten) had signed off on a complacent assessment of Kennedy’s alleged killer. People were starting to wonder, “Did the CIA track Oswald before JFK was killed?” The cable answered that question affirmatively and definitively. The conspiracy theorists would have a field day. Helms made sure the cable stayed classified.
Paul Scott’s scooplet was especially threatening in March 1967 because New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison had just started making headlines nationwide by announcing his intention to investigate an alleged JFK assassination conspiracy in New Orleans, which he said involved CIA operatives. Garrison might demand to see the Oswald cable with an eye toward discrediting the CIA and advancing his scattershot prosecution.
How worried was Helms? Three weeks later, he launched a secret campaign, “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report,” in which he ordered CIA officials worldwide to use their media contacts to discredit critics who argued JFK had been ambushed by his enemies in Dallas.
If the CIA listened in on Paul Scott’s phone line in 1967 as they did in 1963, they surely wanted to find out his sources for the story on the Oswald cable. Scott continued to investigate issues related to the Kennedy assassination with a rare diligence in the Washington press corps, but he never broke the story of the Oswald cable. The Oswald cable(s) would not become public until 1998.
The Post story reports that the Scott family has had no luck in getting the CIA to explain its actions. No surprise there. The wiretapping of Paul Scott was a clear violation of the Agency’s charter, which bans operations on U.S. soil. The CIA is especially loathe to admit that it targeted a reporter who was investigating the CIA’s pre-assassination knowledge of Oswald.