Birch O’Neal: the CIA’s unknown Oswald expert

Birch O'Neal

Birch O’Neal, counterintelligence officer who opened the CIA’s Oswald file in 1959

One of the most significant new JFK files concerns a CIA officer you probably never heard of.

Birch O’Neal is virtually unknown in the vast literature of JFK’s assassination. He is not mentioned in the reports of the Warren Commission or the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He figures in no conspiracy theories.

Yet O’Neal played a seminal role in the story of the CIA and accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. As a mole hunter for counterintelligence chief James Angleton, O’Neal controlled the agency’s Oswald file from November 1959 to November 1963.

O’Neal’s story is still sensitive, more than 20 years after his death in 1995. Last November the agency released a heavily redacted version of O’Neal’s personnel file. Of the 224 pages in the file, 177 contain redactions, and three are wholly secret.

But one important page was released.

Birch O'Neal, molehunter

Who was Birch O’Neal?

O’Neal, a native of Georgia, became an FBI agent during World War II and then moved to the CIA. In 1954, he served as station chief in Guatemala during the CIA-sponsored coup. In 1955, he went to work for Angleton, running a secretive office known as the Special Investigations Group. The SIG, as O’Neal’s aide Betty Egerter, later told investigators, was “the office that spied on spies.” It was the home of Angleton’s mole hunters.

Betty Egerter

Betty Egerter, aide to O’Neal who controlled access to the Oswald file

O’Neal is a significant character in the JFK story because he oversaw the unusual handling of Oswald’s file.

After Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959, O’Neal did not open the standard “201 file,” that the agency uses to collect information on people of interest. Instead, O’Neal created a file for Oswald held by the agency’s Office of Security (OS). Access to OS files was much more tightly controlled than access to 201 files. If there was mole inside the CIA who was interested in ex-Marine who defected to the Soviet Union, he would have to identify himself to Angleton’s staff got access to it.

O’Neal and Egerter maintained control of the Oswald file from November 1959 to November 1963 (a story I tell in my biography of Angleton, The Ghost.) During this time Angleton used Oswald’s file in his efforts to ferret out moles whom he suspected were working inside the CIA. After President Kennedy was killed, O’Neal was involved in disseminating information about the accused assassin to the rest of the government.

He knew a lot about the accused assassin. When JFK investigators scrambled to figure out Oswald’s whereabouts on a specific day in September 1963, they asked O’Neal.

The most important document in the extant O’Neal file is a 1959 job evaluation (shown above) for his work at the time of Oswald’s defection. It shows that his primary responsibility was directing “special investigations,” a euphemism for mole-hunting, and that he worked with the Office of Security on “sensitive matters”– one of which was the creation of the Oswald file.

Thus the O’Neal file corroborates the fact that Angleton and his aides used Oswald for counterintelligence purposes starting in 1959, a fact that the CIA never shared with assassination investigators. O’Neal, in short, was an Oswald expert, before and after November 22, 1963, which is why his file remains heavily redacted 55 years after JFK was killed.

Read the Birch O’Neal file here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. joe kozul says:

    Hello Jeff, in reading documents about Birch Oneal, I noticed on page 63/224 May 7, 1948 “Memorandum To Secrettary of State” reference to “attn: Mr. Jack D Neal. There was an ITT executive with the exact name in the 70’s : https://www.nytimes.com/1972/03/23/archives/i-t-t-is-accused-of-having-tried-to-influence-us-policies-in-latin.html

  2. […] Birch O’Neal: the CIA’s unknown Oswald expert. […]

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