My JFK debate with CIA historian David Robarge

In a November 2017 post for the Washington Decoded blog, the chief historian of the CIA, David Robarge, joined the discussion of the causes of the assassination with JFK researchers.

As I said in my first comment on Robarge’s review of The Ghost, I take his criticism as a compliment. Clearly, my book has struck a nerve with the CIA and those who defend the widely disbelieved theory that a lone gunman killed President Kennedy for reasons known only to himself.

That nerve is the still-unexplained role of Angleton, the legendary counterintelligence chief, in the events leading up to the gunfire in Dealey Plaza.

In his review, Robarge asks

if Angleton was using Oswald for the limited purpose of helping him conduct the molehunt, then why blame him for an ‘epic’ counterintelligence failure by not stopping Oswald?

Let me explain by responding to Robarge’s comments on  four of the most important findings in The Ghost.

1) Angleton and JFK’s assassination

James Angleton

James Angleton testifies

Robarge says that I claim “Angleton and the CI Staff supposedly were, or should have been, preoccupied with Oswald.” He says, “Morley denies that he ever wrote that, but then how can he declare that Angleton’s “pre-assassination interest in Oswald” “indicates his “culpability in the wrongful death of President Kennedy?”

Here’s how. Robarge and I agree that Angleton opened an Office of Security file on Oswald in November 1959, an unusual procedure intended to assist Angleton in the mole hunt. The CIA did not share Angleton’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald with the Warren Commission, the Rockefeller Commission, the Church Committee, or the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA).

Why this material evidence was withheld from investigators is not hard to guess. To admit that senior CIA officers had been following the suspected assassin for four years would have opened the agency up to legimitate questions and investigation. Angleton and others might well have have lost their jobs. So the CIA fed a lie to the Warren Commission–we didn’t know much about Oswald–and the story stayed buried for decades. When the truth could be denied not longer, it was downplayed.

In a 2013 article for a CIA journal, Robarge acknowledged that the CIA had not informed the Warren Commission about its plots to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro and described this deception as a “benign cover-up.”

I’m not alone in wondering how any CIA coverup in the murder of a sitting president could qualify as “benign,” but I agree with Robarge that it was a cover-up.

The CIA’s failure to disclose Angleton’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald also qualifies a cover-up, which Robarge also seems to view as benign. I’m not so sanguine.

To summarize what I wrote in The Ghost:

Every piece of paper about Lee Harvey Oswald that came into the CIA between 1959 and 1963 was routed into a file controlled by Birch O’Neal, chief of the mole-hunting Special Investigations Group.

As the ex-Marine made his way from Moscow to Minsk to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas, Angleton’s mole hunters in the SIG were informed at each step of the way. And, to repeat a point that Robarge does not care or dare to dispute, as of November 15, 1963, Angleton knew Oswald was in Dallas.

(See my recent Daily Beast piece “CIA Spyhunters Knew Oswald Was in Dallas.“)

And when Oswald was arrested for killing JFK a week later, the CIA concealed the nature of Angleton’s interest–the mole hunts–from the FBI and the Warren Commission.

CIA officers who knew about Oswald

Six CIA officers working for Angleton prepared and signed a cable about Lee Harvey Oswald six weeks before JFK’s assassination.

Coming Clean

Now, 54 years later, the CIA is starting to come clean. Robarge allows that Angleton may have used Oswald for “limited purposes” related to the mole hunt. In The Ghost I identified two of these limited purposes: the hunt for the mole who betrayed Peter Popov and the possible mole in Mexico City. Was Oswald used for any other purposes that have not yet been disclosed?  I think Robarge and the CIA have a legal and moral obligation to provide a fuller explanation of why these activities were not shared with assassination investigators.

Robarge asserts “that the US government did not have actionable information that Oswald was a clear threat to the President before 22 November 1963”–which is true. He says, correctly, that historians “must fairly assess why people acted based on what they knew at the time.”

And that is exactly what I did. By late September 1963, Angleton knew a whole lot about the obscure Oswald.

Angleton knew that Oswald was a surly leftist who had gone to the Soviet Union threatening to reveal military secrets. He knew that he had married a Russian woman who had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union with unusual ease.

Angleton’s liaison officer, Jane Roman, had signed for two recent FBI reports that showed Oswald was active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which the Justice Department listed as a subversive organization. The FBI reported that Oswald beat his wife and had been arrested for fighting with CIA-funded Cubans in New Orleans.

On October 8, 1963, Angleton’s office was notified that Oswald had appeared in Mexico City where he visited the Cuban Consulate, which Angleton had identified as a local hub of Cuban intelligence activity in this important but overlooked memo.

And Angleton was informed that Oswald had made contact with presumed Soviet intelligence agents, including Valery Kostikov, a suspected KGB assassin.

That is what Angleton “knew at the time.”

So on October 10, 1963, Angleton could have told Mexico City station that Oswald was a violent leftist who was active in a subversive organization, and in contact with known KGB agents, while seeking to travel to two hostile countries.

He could have said the same thing to the FBI in Dallas and New Orleans.

He did nothing of the sort. Instead, Angleton’s aides (Jane Roman, Betty Egerter, Bill Hood, John Whitten, and Tom Karamessines) researched, composed, revised, and signed off on a cable to Mexico City stating, erroneously, that “the latest HDQS info” on Oswald was a 17-month old State Department report.

In the cable Angleton’s people repeated to station chief Win Scott the State Department’s outdated claim that Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union had had “a maturing effect” on him.

If we accept for the purposes of argument that Oswald killed the president, the October 10 cable is smoking gun proof of Angleton’s failure to report accurately or respond appropriately to actionable intelligence on an presidential assassin.

Other interpretations are possible. Maybe Angleton was running an operation involving Oswald. When I interviewed Jane Roman about the cable, she said that its contents indicated someone in the CIA had “a keen interest” in Oswald “held on a need to know basis.”

Robarge says Angleton’s actions don’t qualify as an “epic” failure. Reasonable people may differ. My question: What is Robarge’s preferred adjective for Angleton’s handling of the reports about Oswald that his office received in the six weeks before JFK was killed?

Oswald

Lee Oswald leafleting for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee

2) Angleton and the surveillance of Oswald

Angleton failed to act on the timely Oswald intelligence he received.

The FBI interviewed Oswald twice in the summer of 1962 after he returned from the Soviet Union because of his presumed contacts with Soviet intelligence. At least one those reports was read by Angleton’s staff.

After Oswald contacted with Soviet and Cuba intelligence in October 1963, Angleton had actionable intelligence indicating that Oswald fit the current definition of a security threat.

Robarge does not dispute that Angleton knew Oswald was in Dallas one week before the assassination, another welcome and significant clarification of the record.

Did Angleton choose not to investigate Oswald’s KGB and DGI contacts in Mexico City because of his interest in using him for “limited purposes” in the mole hunt? Or for some other reason?

The CIA has not yet answered that question. But any serious account of JFK’s assassination needs to take into account Angleton’s use of Oswald in the mole hunt shortly before Kennedy was murdered.

As for the issue of culpability, I do not judge Angleton’s actions through the lens of criminal law because I’m not a prosecutor, JFK Facts is not a criminal courtroom, and I’m not addressing a jury, or seeking to secure a conviction from a jury of the defendants’ peers. Rather, I judge Angleton by the standards of civil law, which is more akin to journalistic or common sense standards of proof. Criminal law, for example, tells us the O.J. Simpson was not guilty. Civil law tells us that he was.

In The Ghost, I argue the preponderance of the evidence released since the late 1990s shows Angleton was negligent in his handling of intelligence about Oswald. While using Oswald for intelligence purposes, he did not respond to Oswald’s threat profile as he could have and should have.

Angleton could have preempted Oswald in June 1962 when he returned from the Soviet Union. Oswald had spoken of giving military secrets to the Soviets; Jane Roman had written as much in a memo. Angleton could have asked the FBI to investigate or to press charges. He did not.

Angleton could have preempted Oswald in October 1963 after he received report that Oswald had fought with CIA-funded Cubans in New Orleans and contacted Cuban and Soviet intelligence officers in Mexico City. The FBI located Oswald in Dallas, and on November 15, 1963, the Counterintelligence Staff was informed. Angleton did not seek to have him interviewed.

Then Oswald allegedly shot the president. Angleton’s inaction enabled Oswald to proceed to the crime scene without contact from the FBI when it was fully warranted by the standards of the moment. That is how he contributed to the breakdown of security in Dallas.

The fact–also reported in The Ghost and so far undisputed by Robarge–that Angleton subsequently committed perjury and obstructed the JFK investigation, adds credence to the notion that he was seeking to evade accountability for the disaster of November 22.

Contradiction?

Robarge says that “Morley does not try to resolve the logical contradiction he sets up in his description of the CIA’s mail-opening operation: either it was all-pervasive mass surveillance that preoccupied Angleton and his staff, or they should have been watching one relatively insignificant person and ignoring the others being monitored.”

There’s no contradiction: the mail opening operation was a mass surveillance operation that delivered specific actionable intelligence about many people to Angleton’s desk. One of them was Lee Oswald.

I didn’t say that Angleton should have paid more or less attention to Oswald. I said he paid a lot of attention, which is beyond dispute. By November 1963, Oswald’s CIA files, as Robarge acknowledges, shows Angleton was interested enough to use him in the mole hunt.

Operation Northwoods

From graphic artist Mack White, the story of Operation Northwoods.

3) Angleton and Cuba

Another key finding in The Ghost is that Angleton was more deeply involved in Cuba operations in the Kennedy years than the CIA has ever acknowledged. Rather than dispute this point, Robarge downplays my treatment of Angleton’s overlooked but important May 1963 memo on Cuba.

Angleton’s analysis was written in support of declared U.S. policy of supporting the overthrow of the Cuban government. Angleton thought Kennedy’s Cuba policy was feckless and favored a more aggressive policy. Deputy director Richard Helms distributed the memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the heads of 15 U.S. government agencies involved in Cuba–but not to Attorney Robert Kennedy, JFK’s point man on Cuba.

Robarge says the omission of RFK wasn’t intentional. I say Angleton knew of RFK’s interest in Cuba policy. If he wanted the Attorney General to have the benefit of his findings, he would have sent them to him. He didn’t, so he didn’t.

Robarge disputes my assertion that Angleton was trying to “forge an inter-agency consensus around a more robust policy aimed at what we now call ‘regime change.’”

If Angleton’s memo to 15 different agency chiefs wasn’t intended to inform and support U.S. policy of overthrowing Castro, what was its purpose?

4) Angleton and NORTHWOODS

Robarge insists that I wrote that the White House “activated” the NORTHWOODS plans for an engineered provocation to justify U.S. invasion of Cuba. To support this argument he cites a passage that, alas, does not mention the White House.

He quotes my observation that “Like the CIA-funded Cuban students, he [Angleton] was not averse to linking Oswald to Castro.”

He also quotes me as saying Angleton ““wanted to preserve the US ‘freedom of action’ in the wake of JFK’s death. The CIA’s gambit [emphasis added] wasn’t hard to figure. It was the NORTHWOODS concept: If the crime in Dallas could be blamed on Castro, the United States would have justification for the overdue elimination of the Communist regime in Havana.”

Note that I referred to the CIA, not the White House.

Specifically, I was citing Tom Karamessines’ strange and urgent late night order to Win Scott on the night of November 23, 1963, saying the CIA wanted to preserve “freedom of action” on Cuba policy in the wake of JFK’s murder.

In consultation with Angleton, Karamessines, the trusted assistant to Helms, expressed the logic of NORTHWOODS: that a perceived Cuban attack on a U.S. target–in this case the assassination of the president–could be used to give U.S. policymakers more “freedom” to attack Cuba.

As I write in The Ghost, there’s no proof that JFK’s assassination was a false-flag operation along the lines of the schemes proposed in Operation Northwoods. In his rebuttal, Robarge assures us that Northwoods plans were never put into effect.

Yet Robarge admits he cannot produce a single piece of paper about why a policy approved by the JCS was not implemented. How curious. How often does the JCS adopt polices and then not implement them? Robarge’s claim that NORTHWOODS was discontinued cannot be confirmed by the available record.

DRE Trinchera

The first JFK conspiracy theory

The events of November 22 resembled the template of the NORTHWOODS schemes in another way. The  plans called for the use of U.S. intelligence assets to blame any U.S.-engineered provocation on Cuba.

And, as Robarge knows, within hours of JFK’s murder, the CIA-funded Cuban Student Directorate, known by the code name AMSPELL, linked the accused assassin to the Castro government in the press and broadcast media.

Was the CIA-funded effort to link Oswald and Castro the result of an undisclosed CIA psychological warfare operation? Was George Joannides, the operations officer credited with establishing control over the AMSPELL network in the summer 1963, a participant in such an operation?

The question can’t be answered because the CIA did not disclose the existence of Joannides’s operations in the summer of 1963 to the Assassination Records Review Board.

Robarge himself could clarify the issue by having his office declassify all of the assassination-related material in Joannides’s files when the CIA releases the last of the government’s JFK papers in April 2018.

Etc.

Now let’s turn to some less important matters.

Robarge first said The Ghost is organized “erratically.” I replied it is organized chronologically. Now he agrees it is organized chronologically “to a fault.” He’s right that I am zealous about recounting the events in Angleton’s life story in the order that they occurred.

Robarge says Tom Hughes’s comment about the positioning of the USS Liberty in June 1967 was speculative. That’s why I wrote that Hughes “speculated.”

Robarge says I shouldn’t quote a source who believes that the Israel’s lobby in Washington influenced U.S. policymaker’s response to the Liberty attack. I didn’t quote the source on that point, but such an opinion doesn’t strike me as disqualifying. JCS chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer said the same thing. That doesn’t diminish his credibility.

Robarge says the Directorate of Intelligence wrote the first CIA cable about the Liberty attack. I believe that Angleton, as the Israel desk officer, had decisive input into the contents of any report about Israel that was shared with the White House and other agencies.

Robarge taxes me for my chapter on Angleton’s coddling of fascists after the war. My account is based largely an interview that Angleton gave to the Italian newspaper Epoca. For Robarge, it seems that Angleton is not credible source about Angleton.

Robarge says I have overstated Angleton’s role in the CIA’s intervention in the Italian elections of 1948.

The facts are these: Angleton, fluent in Italian, was sent back to Rome in early 1948 for the express purpose of working on swinging the election to the Christian Democrats. Large amounts of cash were exchanged with Christian Democratic party leaders and Catholic lay activists. Angleton was cognizant of these payments. Robin Winks says that Angleton was in a position to make a decision that could have swung the election. The operation was successful, and Angleton emerged with a deservedly enhanced reputation in the ranks of the CIA. This seems beyond dispute.

Robarge insists that Israeli spy Baruch Nir wasn’t Angleton’s “man in Havana.”

He doesn’t deny that Angleton ran Nir as an agent and approached him for a sensitive and dangerous mission, which Nir declined. I cited Angleton’s relationship with Nir to support the idea that Angleton took an active role in Cuba policy in the Kennedy administration, something no previous Angleton book had mentioned. Angleton’s successor as CI chief, George Kalaris, observed that Angleton often bypassed normal reporting channels while running his operations. Running Nir is a good example of how he did that.

Did Angleton play a supporting role in the creation of the MKULTRA mind-control program?

Robarge and I agree that Angleton was cleared for BLUEBIRD, the original mind-control program and predecessor program of MKULTRA.

We agree that Angleton facilitated George Hunter White’s relationship with the CIA and with Sidney Gottlieb, the driving force in MKULTRA. White went on to open two CIA-funded safe houses that conducted LSD experiments for the next 20 years.

I say Angleton was present at the creation of MKULTRA. Robarge says there no evidence he played “a supporting role.” I say the evidence of the supporting role is Angleton’s many appearances in White’s diary where their collaboration in the early days of the program is documented. The rest is semantics.

Robarge asserts the MHCHAOS operation did not and could not “spy on and infiltrate the entire antiwar movement.” He cites Frank Rafalko’s book, which alternates between justifying the need for surveillance and dismissing those who thought it a violation of the CIA charter. Rafalko, a participant in CHAOS, is not the most disinterested source, which is why I did not credit all of his claims.

The Church Committee concluded that MHCHAOS accumulated files on 7,200 Americans, and a computer index totaling 300,000 civilians and approximately 1,000 groups. The targets ranged from the armed left of the Black Panthers and Weather Underground to the genteel liberals of the Women’s Strike for Peace and muckrakers of Ramparts.

In addition, Angleton was reading the mail of antiwar radicals like Kathy Boudin of the Weather Underground and antiwar liberals Frank Church and Ted Kennedy of the U.S. Senate. One CIA spy even gained a role in running a leading underground newspaper that opposed the war. Robarge doesn’t dispute the numbers, just the characterization that the surveillance was pervasive. Readers can judge for themselves.

Robarge makes one good point. He cites an article which stated that an accused NSA spy named Petersen “was allowed to plead guilty on the least important count to avoid the need to disclose secret information at the trial.”

I wrote that “Angleton allowed Petersen to plead guilty”—which is not what the article’s author stated. I should have written “Angleton’s handling of the matter allowed Petersen to plead guilty. “

In sum, Robarge’s response to  The Ghost is encouraging, even though I disagree with it. He would do a public service by explaining James Angleton’s “limited use” of Oswald and the nature of George Joannides’s secret operations in late 1963 by the time the CIA’s remaining JFK files are released in April 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. Mark Landsbaum says:

    Nice job Jeffrey. Ghost is a fascinating read.

  2. mac brantley says:

    So, how do these new facts on Oswald/Angleton’s relationship change our understanding of the assassination? Are we saying that Oswald went rogue and assassinated the president while an operative of the CIA? In which case, Angleton is negligent. Or

    Are we saying that proof of Oswald/Angleton cooperation gives more credence that some elements of the gov’t were involved in the assassination?

    Or are the conclusions more modest–confirms that CIA knew LHO, participated in a cover up to obscure that fact?

  3. David Mclean says:

    I found The Ghost is compelling yet judicious. Indeed, careful enough to engage a”professional” response. I like that Mr Morley’s kindly acknowledges David Robarge, as well as Tim Weiner and Anthony Summers, whose own CIA related works seemed to me like fence-sitting, if not apologetic. So many questions remain: was there an anti-FPCC/LHO op in play in Mexico City(Tilton Sept 16), who else was playing LHO(DAP, Bannister, Morales, ??), and linking Dick Russell’s TMWKTMuch to recent Mexico City findings. Thanks Jefferson, and all toilers in this vineyard.

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