The History Channel’s upcoming documentary series, “JFK Declassified: Tracking Oswald” sounds enticing. A videogenic and decorated former CIA operations officer Robert Baer revisits the secret intelligence dimensions of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Baer is not the worst choice for a guide to the JFK story. He is an incisive commentator on CIA affairs, and no apologist. He rejects torture and expresses skepticism on drones. He comes across as a thinking man’s intelligence officer. (The fact that George Clooney played Baer in the movie Syriana gives him a whiff of Cool Liberal cologne.)
What Baer Doesn’t Know
Still, there is a problem–and it is a big one. Baer and the History Channel don’t seem to know the CIA side of the JFK assassination story, especially not what has been learned in the last ten years–which is a lot.
John Newman made the first serious study of Oswald’s CIA file in his pioneering, if dense, 1995 book, Oswald and the CIA. Newman demonstrated Oswald was a figure of intense CIA interest from 1959 to 1963.
Bill Simpich’s ebook State Secret, published in 2013, updated and advanced the story. Simpich, a civil rights litigator, depicts in granular detail, the CIA’s surveillance and counterintelligence operations which Oswald walked into when he visited Mexico City in the fall of 1963.
In my forthcoming book from St. Martin’s Press, The Ghost; The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, I will illuminate the bigger picture: how Oswald came to figure in Angleton’s counterintelligence operations–including his infamous “mole hunt”–from November 1959 to November 1963.
Based on the available summary of the six episodes, the History Channel series will focus on something else entirely: explaining how the KGB tracked Oswald, a worthy story to be sure. Baer promises an interview with KGB man who has never spoken on camera (but I think I know who it is). Baer apparently sees Oswald’s time in Mexico City as crucial to understanding the events of November 1963, which is undoubtedly true.
The KGB trail will apparently lead Baer to the conclusion that Oswald had some kind of help in killing Kennedy. As for who that might be, the History Channel trailer (below) is coy.
Return of ‘Castro Done It’?
If nothing else, the trailer indicates that the mainstream discourse around JFK is evolving. Usually JFK specials produced by major corporate media outlets focus on proving Oswald’s sole guilt. Less credible sources focus on promoting JFK hoaxes like “the Secret Service man did it” (REELZ Channel) or “Ted Cruz’s dad done it.” (President Trump). Now the History Channel is opening the proverbial door to the possibility long preferred by a solid majority of Americans: that more than one person was involved.
This is progress of a sort. After all, 21 cops at the crime scene thought JFK was caught in crossfire. The accused assassin said he was a “patsy” a day before he was killed in police custody. JFK’s widow, brother, successor and chief nemesis all believed that JFK was killed by his enemies. That scenario, though unproven, remains the most likely explanation. It is a welcome, if overdue, development that the History Channel can at least entertain it.
If I had to guess, the “who helped Oswald?” question will be answered in Cold War fashion: by communists. The summary gives some hints that Baer may endorse a theory akin to that of Brian Latell, a former agency analyst for Cuba. In his books (and a Q&A with JFK Facts), Latell argues that Oswald was encouraged to kill JFK, but not actually, helped by Cuban intelligence operatives in Mexico City.
If Baer links Oswald to Castro in this fashion, the History Channel is, in my opinion, making a factual and historic mistake.
Baer and Latell are experienced CIA officers but that does not mean that they know the details of the CIA’s role in the JFK story, much less that they care to air it publicly. From a journalistic perspective, Baer is certainly a credible source. I am glad he promises an “independent investigation.” But Baer cannot serve as an independent observer of the CIA. To state the obvious, he has no incentive to investigate the possibility that employees of his former employer connived in JFK’s death, and he has every incentive not to. So he may have an analytical blind spot on the road to Dallas.
Remember too, that if Baer settles for the “Castro done it” conspiracy theory, this is old news. The first JFK conspiracy theory was published by paid CIA propaganda assets in Miami before JFK had even been buried. Fifty five years ago, the agency’s agents promoted the theory that Oswald and Castro were the “presumed assassins.” It is revealing–but not exactly news–if an ex-CIA officer says the same thing publicly in 2017.
[See my piece, “Who Paid for the First JFK Conspiracy Theory?” for the full story.]
The Larger Problem
All of which points to the larger problem with the History Channel series: it seems to ignore the CIA’s intelligence gathering and propaganda operations involving Oswald.
It is not a theory but a documented fact that Angleton’s Counterintelligence Staff monitored Oswald’s movement, contacts, politics and personal life for a longer period of time than the KGB did. Angleton’s people had access to much more information about Oswald than the Soviet did, especially in 1963.
The story of Oswald and the Soviets is important. There is much to be learned about what federal judge John Tunheim has described as the KGB’s five-foot tall Oswald file. But the story of how Angleton and his Special Investigations tracked and monitored Oswald, may be more important.
The question is whether the History Channel series acknowledges the new facts?
–What will Baer say about the paper trail that shows Angleton’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald?
–I’m curious about what Baer makes of this October 10, 1963 cable (excerpted above), signed by six of Angleton’s colleagues, which deliberately misled the Mexico City station about the “latest HDQs info” on Oswald.
–What can Baer tell us about this September 18, 1963 CIA memo? The Agency had just learned that Oswald was active in the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) in New Orleans. The CIA’s anti-Castro operatives then notified the FBI that they were targeting the FPCC for disruption in a foreign country.
Was it coincidence when Angleton was immediately notified about Oswald’s arrival in Mexico City two weeks later?
Putting the Story Together
Some conspiracy theorists may say that the History Channel is promoting a CIA cover story. Not me. If Baer has a different interpretation of November 22, 1963, he has earned the right to have it. I am hopeful his series will at least advance our understanding of the KGB side of the Oswald story, which is important.
But let’s not be naive. The cultural and political forces that are strong enough to still enforce absolute secrecy in 2017 around 3,500-plus JFK assassination records, are strong enough to discourage a media-savvy CIA man and a politically-sensitive cable TV network from delving into aspects of the JFK story that the government has refused to disclose for more than a half-century.
(To be continued).