Yes, closely and constantly.
This is one of the biggest JFK revelations of the past 20 years, and one that we need talk up in social and news media on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
While the CIA assured Congress in the 1970s that its interest in Lee Harvey Oswald before JFK was killed was “routine,” the newest documents tell a very different story: Oswald was monitored closely and constantly by an super-secret office within the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff from 1959 to 1963, known as the Special Investigations Group.
The documents show that the CIA officers most knowledgeable about Oswald reported to two of the most powerful men in the agency: deputy director Richard Helms and counterintelligence chief James Angleton, both of whom thought JFK’s policy toward Cuba was weak and misguided.
John Newman’s book
The story was first documented in John Newman’s 1995 book “Oswald and the CIA.” Newman is a former intelligence officer turned academic historian. Newman, who taught at the University of Maryland, traced how the CIA intercepted Oswald’s correspondence when he was living in the Soviet Union 1959 to 1962.
He showed how the CIA’s own records document growing interest in Oswald in the course of 1963, culminating in October 1963 when a group of senior CIA officials collaborated on a four-page cable assessing Oswald as a security risk. These officials assured colleagues in the CIA and the FBI that Oswald was “maturing” and thus becoming less of a threat. This happened just six weeks before JFK was killed.
Read this CIA cable — not fully declassified until 2001— from beginning to end. It shows that Oswald’s travels, politics, intentions, and state of mind were known to six senior CIA officers as of October 10, 1963. Oswald had just moved to Dallas and been taken off the FBI’s Watch List.
Because the CIA is so often caricatured in JFK discussions, some background is helpful in understanding who wrote this document and why.
Oswald in Mexico City
In the fall of 1963, Oswald, a 23-year old ex-Marine, is said to have traveled from his hometown of New Orleans to Mexico City. There a man identifying himself as Lee Oswald visited the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, seeking a visa to travel to both countries. A CIA wiretap picked up his telephone calls, which indicated the person calling himself Oswald had been referred to a Soviet consular officer suspected of being a KGB assassination specialist.
Win Scott, the chief of the CIA station in Mexico, was concerned. He asked his photo surveillance teams outside the Soviet Embassy to supply pictures of all American visitors. Scott was given a photo of the only American-looking visitor. He sent a query to headquarters: Who is this guy Oswald?
Scott’s question was referred to the agency’s counterintelligence (CI) staff. The CI staff was responsible for detecting threats to the secrecy of agency operations. The Special Investigations Group had been closely monitoring Oswald ever since he had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959. Oswald had lived there two years, married a Russian woman, and then returned to the United States in June 1962.
Jane Roman a senior member of the CI staff, retrieved the agency’s fat file on Oswald from the SIG office which controlled access to it. The Oswald file included some three dozen documents, including family correspondence, State Department cables, and a Sept. 1963 FBI report. The FBI said Oswald was an active pro-Castro leftist who had recently been arrested for fighting with anti-Castro exiles in New Orleans.
Jane Roman and the CI staff drafted a response to the Mexico City station that said, in effect, Don’t worry. Ignoring the recent FBI report, the cable inaccurately stated the “latest HQS info” on Oswald was a 16-month old message from a diplomat in Moscow concluding that Oswald’s marriage and two year residence in the Soviet Union had had a “maturing effect” on him.
Their draft was reviewed and endorsed by five senior CIA officers, who are identified on the last page of the cable. At the same time these same also officers passed on an incorrect description Oswald to the FBI, State Department, and Navy. This peculiar series of actions has never been explained by the CIA.
The many anomalies in the story convinced Newman and other JFK authors that Oswald had been impersonated while in Mexico City. In custody, Oswald denied going to Mexico City and some researchers believe that he never went at all.
In any case, the CIA would kept the names of these highly-regarded officers — Tom Karamessines, Bill Hood, John Whitten (“John Scelso”), Jane Roman, and Betty Egeter — secret for 30 years. These high-level aides could have — and should have — flagged Oswald for special attention. All five were anti-communists, well-versed in running covert operations and experienced in detecting threats to U.S. national security.
Karamessines was the trusted deputy to Dick Helms. Bill Hood oversaw all covert operations in the Western Hemisphere, and would later co-author Helms’s posthumous memoir. John Whitten, dogged and curmudgeonly, had built a reputation in the agency with his pioneering use of the polygraph. Jane Roman was a trusted aide to Angleton, who later told me that the cable reflected “a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need-to-know basis.”
Their complacent assessment of Oswald had real-world consequences.
In Mexico City, Win Scott never learned about Oswald’s recent arrest or the fact that he had gone public with his support for Castro. He stopped investigating Oswald.
In Washington, a senior FBI official, Marvin Gheesling, responded to one version of the CIA’s benign assessment by taking Oswald off an “alert” list of people of special interest to the Bureau. When it came to the erratic and provocative Oswald, the CIA and the FBI were standing down in October 1963.
Conspiracy or not, the CIA blew it. Oswald had been calling attention to himself. He had clashed with anti-Castro students in New Orleans, then contacted a suspected KGB operative to arrange an illegal trip to Cuba. By standard CIA procedures of the day, he should have gotten closer attention. Instead, he got a pass from Helms and Angleton’s staffers.
Oswald returned from Mexico to Dallas where he rented a room in a boarding house under an assumed name. Six weeks later JFK was shot dead, and the allegedly “maturing” Oswald was arrested.
These same CIA officials then concealed key details about their pre-assassination interest in Oswald from the Warren Commission. But we now know what they suppressed
TOMORROW: What happened to the information the CIA collected on Oswald? DId agency officials destroy a wiretap recording, made in Mexico City, of someone calling himself “Lee Oswald”?