John Whitten is a rare hero of the JFK story. He was a senior CIA official who sought, behind the scenes, to conduct an honest investigation of what the agency knew about accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, before President Kennedy was killed.
But at a meeting on Christmas Eve 1963 deputy director CIA Richard Helms and counterintelligence chief Jim Angleton shut down Whitten’s efforts to investigate Oswald’s contacts among pro- and anti-Castro Cubans and relieved him of his responsibilities for investigating JFK’s assassination.
Whitten’s story, which I first reported in the Washington Monthly in 2003, illuminated the inner workings of the CIA in the days and weeks after JFK was killed. It is the story of a “good spy” whose pursuit of the truth about JFK’s death cost him his career.
Whitten’s ordeal in December 1963 was so sensitive it could only be recounted behind closed doors on Capitol Hill fifteen years later and would only become public knowledge twenty years after that. As the 50th anniversary of the JFK’s death approaches, Whitten’s story endures as a cautionary tale of how two top CIA officials prevented a real investigation of JFK’s asssassination.
At a CIA staff meeting the day after President Kennedy was killed, Helms put Whitten in charge of reviewing all Agency files on Oswald. He was chief of the Mexico and Central America desk of the clandestine service, which meant he was familiar with all CIA operations in the region. Oswald had visited Mexico in October 1963 so his experience was relevant.
Whitten was also highly regarded as an investigator. He had pioneered the use of the polygraph at the Agency and built a track record of success in counterespionage investigations. A brilliant if overbearing man, he assembled a staff of thirty people and worked eighteen hours a day to read every report related to the assassination, no matter how ludicrous or trivial. Within two weeks, he had drafted a 23-page “Preliminary biographical study on Lee Harvey OSWALD.” He circulated it to various offices in the clandestine service asking for comment.
Angleton was annoyed by his efforts, Whitten said.
“In the early stage Mr. Angleton was not able to influence the course of the investigation, which was a source of great bitterness to him,” Whitten recounted to the Church Committee 13 years later. “He was extremely embittered that I was entrusted with the investigation and he wasn’t. Angleton then sandbagged me as quickly as he could.”
Whitten soon discovered he, like Mexico City station chief Win Scott, had been cut out of the loop on information about Oswald. His realization came on December 6, 1963 when the FBI informed the CIA that its initial report on Oswald was done and appropriate CIA officials were free to review it before its release on Dec. 9.
The Counterintelligence (CI) Staff, which had been watching Oswald since 1959, was also interested in the FBI’s findings, so Whitten went to the Justice Department accompanied by Birch O’Neal, the chief of a highly secretive office within the CI staff, called the Special Investigations Group. O’Neal’s office, known as CI/SIG/, had controlled access to Oswald’s CIA file ever since Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959.
As Whitten recalled in his secret sworn testimony:
“We went to Mr. Katzenbach’s office in the Department of Justice and read this very thick report, For the first time I learned a myriad of vital facts about Oswald’s background which apparently the FBI had known throughout the initial investigation and had not communicated to me. …Reading Katzenbach’s report for the first time I learned that the FBI was in possession of diary-like material which Oswald had had in his possession and was found after the assassination. I learned for the first time that Oswald was the man who had taken a pot shot at General Edwin Walker, two key facts in the entire case.”
In his diary Oswald wrote about his plans to confront the anti-Castro Cuban Student Directorate in New Orleans and provoke a fight with them. The FBI’s information was relevant to any understanding of Oswald, and no one had told Whitten, nominally the man in charge of the agency’s Oswald file review.
“None of this had been passed to us,” Whitten complained. He was specific about the information that had been denied to him:
“Oswald’s involvement with the pro-Castro movement in the United States was not at all surfaced to us [meaning him and his staff] in the first weeks of the investigation,” he said.
Whitten had never gotten the FBI reports on Oswald from Dallas and New Orleans. All he knew about Oswald’s encounters with the anti-Castro students came from the Washington Post, even though the group was funded by the CIA and run by a highly regarded officer named George Joannides.
Whitten continued to circulate his draft report, incorporating comments along the way. His probe came to an abrupt end two weeks later when he distributed a final draft of his report, now 61 pages long. He acknowledged its shortcomings. It was not, he noted, “a full appreciation of either the FBI report as such or of other material we hope to get from the FBI today.”
On Christmas Eve Helms called a meeting in his office to review Whitten’s draft, and invited Angleton to comment. Whitten gave a summary of what he remembered from the FBI report and said his report was “obviously useless” in light of the information it did not contain. He said more investigation was needed. He suggested that the Soviet Bloc offices of the clandestine service analyze the Soviet angles in Oswald’s diary. He also thought Oswald’s Cuban connections deserved more scrutiny. In retrospect, he said “the whole investigation” should have moved to Miami.
Angleton ignored Whitten’s suggestions and disparaged his work.
“This report has so many errors in it we can’t possibly send it over to the FBI,” he said.
Whitten protested that no one had ever envisioned sending the document to the Bureau. Angleton said the Oswald investigation should be turned over to the Counterintelligence Staff. Helms agreed on the spot. Whitten returned to his duties on the Mexico and Central American desk.
Whitten was relieved of his job, Helms explained, because “we could see that this investigation was broadening far beyond Mexico City and it did not make much sense to have it in the hands of a man who was running the Mexico City desk.”
That wasn’t true, at least not for the CIA. As J.C. King had told station chief Winston Scott, Mexico City was the only major overseas station reporting on the case.
Under oath and behind closed doors, Whitten expressed a different view.
“Helms wanted someone to conduct the investigation who was in bed with the FBI,” he said. “I was not and Angleton was. ”
Whitten mistrusted Angleton. He told the Church Committee that he once sought to help the Justice Department identify the Panamanian bank accounts of Las Vegas casino owners who were skimming the daily take. When he tried to get CIA approval to obtain the information, Angleton killed the proposal. Whitten complained to division chief J.C. King.
“Well, what do you expect?” asked King.
“Well, I didn’t expect that,” Whitten huffed.
“You know Angleton has these ties to the Mafia” King said, “and he is not going to do anything to jeopardize them.”
“I didn’t know that,” Whitten said.
“Yeah,” said King. “It had to do with Cuba.”
Thanks to Helms and Angleton, there would be no internal investigation of Oswald’s Cuban contacts. As an sometimes provocative leftist, Oswald had attracted close attention from some anti-Castro exiles. But on that subject, the independent-minded John Whitten could not be trusted.
“Helms wanted someone to conduct the investigation who was in bed with the FBI,” Whitten had said, and that someone was James Angleton. They had a mutually protective relationship. The nature and extent of the CIA’s contacts with Oswald before JFK was killed would be concealed from investigators and the public for the next thirty years.
After his Christmas Eve 1963 confrontation with Angleton and Helms, Whitten never received another promotion. In 1970 he retired and moved to Vienna where he became a professional singer.
In the late 1990s, his testimony about the abortive Oswald investigation was declassified by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). But the CIA insisted on keeping Whitten’s real name out of the public record (the pseudonym “John Scelso” was used).
Whitten died in a Pennsylvania nursing home in 2000, silenced by his former employer and unknown to his countrymen.