JFK documents illuminate the death of a diplomat who asked too many questions about Oswald

James Angleton

James Angleton oversaw the surveillance of Oswald

Phil Shenon has a long piece in The Guardian excavating the sad story of Charles Thomas, a U.S. diplomat who investigated Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions in Mexico in the 1960s.  Thomas was rebuffed by top CIA officials, including counterintelligence chief James Angleton. Thomas was denied an expected promotion and later committed suicide.

The story illuminates a central mystery of the JFK assassination story but not quite in the way than Shenon proposes.

Thomas  did not stumble on evidence of a Cuban plot against JFK. He stumbled on evidence of a CIA operation involving Oswald and the Cuban Consulate before JFK was killed.

Shenon suggests that Thomas had found evidence the Cuban government was complicit in JFK’s assassination and this is why his career was derailed.

This theory depends on the improbable assumption that Angleton, a vigilant lifelong anti-communist, would condone the killing of his friend the president. (Angleton and his wife Cicely socialized with Jack and Jackie Kennedy in the late 1950s.) And it ignores the fact that Angleton participated in the CIA’s effort to kill Castro in the early 1960s.

To argue that Angleton protected a communist he wanted dead (Castro) by not acting on possible evidence of his alleged role in the murder of an American president strikes me as close to absurd. Angleton’s reaction to Thomas’ actions needs a more plausible explanation.

‘Last Plea’

Shenon is right that the JFK files could shed more like on who killed Thomas’  career and drove him to suicide. He writes:

“In a memo written in 1969, in his final days at the department, Thomas made a last plea that someone go back to Mexico. Though he made no allegation that Fidel Castro had any personal role in any plot to kill Kennedy, Thomas wanted the US to investigate whether the Warren Commission had missed evidence of a conspiracy in JFK’s death between Oswald and Cubans loyal to the Castro regime.”

Charles Thomas

Charles Thomas, far right, with family and friends in Mexico City. (Photo credit: Cynthia Thomas)

What Shenon’s account overlooks is that Thomas’ proposal to re-investigate Oswald’s actions in Mexico City threatened the CIA, more than it threatened the Cuba government.  While the evidence linking Oswald to hostile Cuban communists was mostly hearsay and not corroborated by other CIA sources, Thomas’ probing threatened to blow the agency’s cover story, fed to the credulous Warren Commission, that its officers knew very little about Oswald’s visit to Mexico City when it occurred.

In a January 1964 memo Richard Helms, deputy CIA director and Angleton’s friend and patron, lied to the Warren Commission.

“After the assassination [editor’s note; emphasis added]….. it was learned that Oswald had also visited the Cuban Consulate and had talked there with a clerk, a Mexican national, Sylvia Duran,” Helms wrote.

Helms’ claim, which was repeated on p. 777 of the Commission’s final report, was false, as Mexico City station chief Win Scott later wrote in his  unpublished memoir.

Scott claimed (and declassified CIA records confirm) that the Mexico City station informed CIA headquarters about Oswald’s Cuban contacts within days of their occurrence, ie, six weeks before JFK’s assassination.

Professor Peter Dale Scott argues that Helms’ prevarication amounted to obstruction of justice. Whatever legal interpretation applies, Helms most likely lied to protect the agency’s  “sources and methods,” that is to say, an operation.

If the U.S. government officials had pursued Thomas’ line of inquiry, they would discovered that the CIA had deceived the Warren Commission on a key point of fact: the agency’s knowledge of Oswald’s Cuban contacts. And they might have learned this deception was cover for an operation involving the man who would be arrested for killing Kennedy.

Thus Thomas’ insistence that there was more to learn about Oswald in Mexico City threatened Angleton more than anyone else. Before JFK was killed, the counterintelligence chief knew more about Oswald than just about anyone in the CIA.

John Whitten

John Whitten: His Oswald investigation was also killed

Angleton’s mole-hunting office, the Special Investigations Group, headed by his aide Birch O’Neal, had monitored Oswald’s personal and political life constantly since November 1959.

When Oswald was arrested for fighting with CIA-funded Cubans in New Orleans, Angleton’s liaison officer Jane Roman received two FBI’s reports on the incident.

And when Oswald name was heard on a sensitive Mexico City wiretap in October 1963 talking to Cuban and Soviet diplomats, Angleton’s office was notified first.

Angleton made sure even close colleagues did not learn the story. A month after the JFK was killed, he thwarted the agency’s internal investigation of Oswald by sidelining the senior officer, John Whitten, who was asking too many questions about his Cuba-related activities.

By the time Thomas made his case in 1967-69, Angleton already had a record of blocking investigation of Oswald’s Cuban contacts.

‘No Action’

Thomas got the same treatment as Whitten.

Working as a consul at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, Thomas had heard stories from credible sources about Oswald’s contact–and possible romance–with Silvia Duran, as well as  other information that the Warren Commission’s superficial investigation had not uncovered.

As a career civil servant, Thomas expected, not unreasonably, that senior officials in the State Department, FBI, and CIA would be interested in new facts about JFK’s accused murderer. He thought wrong. That’s what killed his career and possibly drove him to suicide.

Thomas had not stumbled on evidence of a Cuban plot against JFK. He didn’t know it but he had stumbled on evidence of a CIA operation related to Oswald’s visit to the Cuban Consulate.

This is a more plausible scenario than the anti-communist Angleton protecting the ultra-communist Castro. And a variety of new evidence supports it.

Angleton had targeted the Cuba consulate in Mexico City as a locus of intelligence activity in his May 1963 assessment of Cuba’s security forces. His staff had been notified about Oswald’s visit to the consulate in late September 1963. Five of his aides wrote a curious cable about Oswald, dated October 10, 1963. And when the Warren Commission asked Angleton for details of what he knew about Oswald’s actions before JFK was killed, he said he preferred to “wait out” investigators rather than explain.

All the while, Angleton strongly supported the declared U.S. policy of overthrowing Castro.  He had a conspiratorial frame of mind and he harbored suspicions that the KGB might be involved in JFK’s assassination.

If there was any credible evidence that the Cuban government had connived in JFK’s death, Angleton’s most likely reaction would have been to  investigate for the sake of exposing communist treachery and  justifying Castro’s removal by force.

Angleton preferred to bury the subject. When the State Department referred Thomas’s findings to the CIA in September 1969, Angleton replied that he saw “no need for further action.” He was less interested in investigating evidence of Cuban complicity than in covering up CIA operational activity involving Oswald. He wasn’t protecting Castro. He was protecting himself.

Whether the new JFK files will shed any new light on the mistreatment of Thomas depends on whether President Trump makes good on his promise to release all the files this week.

Source: JFK documents could show the truth about a diplomat’s death 47 years ago | US news | The Guardian

11 comments

  1. This perspective is a lot more plausible than the Guardian piece and its strange conclusion that somehow the CIA was not interested in following up an Oswald Cuba connection. It makes more sense that Angleton was covering his butt. In fact, the theory that the USSR or Castro assassinated JFK has been debunked since the end of the Cold War.

  2. david drewelow says:

    the ease with which angleton decides to ignore the legal demands of the warren commission seems to reflect a sense of personal or institutional authority above the U S government itself. this sense of impunity may have been carved out and shaped as the CIA grew and developed its mission in the Cold War, or it may have been carefully crafted with precise legal parameters and extensive code by the Cia’s lawyers and policy architects. the ‘operating manual’ for the agency vis-a-vis the US govt has probably never been seen from the outside. the founding fathers left a wide berth in an area called ‘policy’ that did not require oversight for every line of charter, purpose, regulations, although problems areas could be placed under committee review if bounds were overstepped.

  3. Eddy says:

    Mr Morley, it would appear from your writing that you have identified a plausible break in the chain between persons you believe killed JFK and Angleton. It would be unfair to expect you to speculate on who was responsible, but a fair question to you is; What evidence are you relying on that detaches Angleton from active culpability for the death of JFK?

    • All I can say is there is a lot we don’t know. Was Angleton running Oswald? Or was someone else? There’s some evidence that makes me think Angleton was surprised by Kennedy’s assassination. Bill Simpich thinks Angleton was not part of a plot to kill JFK for reasons that make sense. So rather than commit to a speculative position without direct evidence, I’ll just say I don’t know. Because I don’t.

  4. GM says:

    If there was a plot/conspiracy in the assassination of President Kennedy, the only real plausible one in my opinion would involve anti-Castro Cubans (possibly involving an organized crime element as well) being directed to carry it out, at the behest of powerful figures in the American military or/and the intelligence agencies. People point to CIA figures in covert operations, but these individuals were known to be intensely loyal to the agency. In practical terms, you would think they would have sought, in all likelihood, to be given the seal of approval to progress with what was and is an incredibly extreme operation, by any measurement, i.e. violently and publicly deposing of your own democratically elected head of state. Would they proceed with a plot to murder JFK, carry it out, and then cover it up, possibly by way of blackmailing their own employers, or would they seek out approval, at least some institutional and media support, sanction and cover beforehand?

    We also certainly don’t know what happened in terms of the likes of Angleton, Dulles, Helms, were they kept completely in the dark, did they authorize it etc? No, there is no answer on that yet, whether there ever will be is open to question. But we have fairly good indications that the likes of Winston Scott, John Whitten, and many others were kept in the dark about the events of November 22, 1963, whatever actually happened on that fateful day. Of course, David Phillips is another enigma, to match Angleton and George Joannides, in that regard. So still huge questions hanging over these issues.

    Of course, you may still believe the official story, with all its contradictions, flaws, and idiosyncrasies attached and involved to it. In that case as one book has it, the case is already closed….

    • Peter says:

      I believe you are correct GM with regards to certain anti-Castro Cuban and organised crime figures possibly being responsible. There was set of individuals from both groups that were very intertwined that also had links to the CIA which stand out. They also appear to have a number of indirect links to Oswald. While there is a possibility that a particular individual from the CIA may have been involved to some degree I don’t think it went any further than that.

      It makes perfect sense why there was a cover up and why authorities moved so quickly to convince the American public that Oswald was responsible and acted alone. The bottom line is, if the American public knew anti-Castro Cubans had been involved in the assassination of their President it would be much harder to gain their support in taking any direct action to get rid of Castro which had been on their agenda for a number of years.

      The involvement of organised crime figures presented a different problem with their links to the CIA in the assassination attempts on Castro. It’s well documented the lengths the CIA went to in trying to cover this up and how the crime figures used it to their advantage.

      Once Oswald was dead, the authorities had an easy way out.I’m sure there are other parts to the whole story such as Oswald’s relationship with the FBI or even the possibility that Oswald was wittingly or unwittingly part of some intelligence operation(not JFK’s assassination), but if you believe there was a conspiracy and are looking for suspects then these particular people would be the obvious candidates.

  5. robert e williamson jr says:

    Mr. Morely, I have no good idea of just how much interest in the population you have created in the JFK matter of late. I would like to think that in spite of the three ring circus in D.C. it has been substantial. Don’t you think in light of that growing interest now might be a good time see if your followers are dedicated. You need citizens to write letters to congress. Congress needs some way to redeem themselves for the voting public. Who knows!

    Your response to Eddy,is intriguing to me. Simpich thinks Angleton was not part of the the plot for reasons that make sense. That begs the question if Angleton is top of counter intelligence how could he not know? How can no one working for him not know? Why is JJA desperately covering for himself. Why would Helms lie to protect him. This brings me to my complain about what happened.

    The U.S. government has paid for two expensive investigations into this matter, the murder of a WWII hero and sitting president and no is convinces the truth has been unearthed. Through your efforts and those of others enough new information has been revealed to question the finding of the original two official investigations. But much more than questioning the original investigations much of the info you have found points to some one inside the U.S. government being involved. This appears to be the case to me for certain. Given the total dysfunction occurring in D.C. at the highest levels why wouldn’t the government in a move to build confidence let the truth be known. What other reason do they have to continue resist.

    Now that last question I admit is the words of a cynic but the government must be pressed super hard on these issues.

    I believe it may well be time to ask the public to petition their government for the truth. The reasoning being that CIA’S stand against releasing the material is soley self-serving in that their resistance is to shield the agency from a dark past. A dark past that works to the detriment of society and weakens government.

    You see you have already taken CIA on a adversary. You have them backed into a corner of sorts. We need to pin them down. All of us. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

    I still think this is much bigger than JFK and includes the deaths of others we all are familiar with. THINK BIGGER

  6. Benjamin Cole says:

    Great post.

    It is plausible that Oswald was a CIA asset. I suspect Oswald worked for David Atlee Phillips, who sent him to Mexico to either get into Cuba and become a source (a small chance, but remember Oswald got into Russia on theatrics), and to enhance Oswald’s reputation as a leftie-commie (a version of “sheep-dipping”).

    If the above is true, that alone would be enough to warrant the CIA’s cover-up ever since the JFK assassination. Oswald may have lost his mind and committed the deed without CIA involvement, but the CIA would still be ruined

    Imagine this: “Yes we sent our Oswald-asset to Mexico, and he met of Kostikov who might be a KGB wet-work guy, and then Oswald came back and shot the President.”

    And that is the nicest way to put it. This makes Keystone Kops look benign.

    Sadly, I suspect CIA papers regarding Oswald were destroyed long ago, and operational papers may never have existed. That is, Phillips never documented what he was doing with Oswald. Phillips may have cleared operations through live meetings, in which he suggested ideas that were not dismissed.

    Robert Blakely reluctantly concluded the CIA is not honorable, regarding disclosures. And he should know.

  7. Mark says:

    I don’t see how anyone w/ any degree of intelligence could not see the men at the very top organized and executed the murder of JFK. The mob, the cubans were certainly part but they were at a low level basically running (unintentionally) interference and providing plausible deniability. The “power that be” know everything that happens in this country. Nothing happens accidentally. Waco, 9/11, Vegas shooting, etc., ALL are planned and “allowed” to happen. The cable converter boxes in all our homes are audible microphones and the fbi does listen to us. I assure you. The CIA/FBI are everywhere from you local podunk police dept. to the highest levels of state law enforcement. This is how they stay in power. Certain people get certain approved jobs while others don’t. LHO was nothing but a “patsy”. He realized it when Tippit was murdered and he ran to movie theater owned by Howard Hughes and it hit him like a sledgehammer. He knew then he had been setup for this “event” for years. He knew he was dead. Once I’m out of where I currently live I’ll never have another cable box or non satellite phone. We are watched and threat analyzed. I was followed by the fbi across the country even having a flight marshall sit beside me on a plane. They take height as degree of toughness but it stupid. The toughest, baddest dude I’ve ever met was 5’7″ and 180lbs who would beat the sh#@W out of damn near anyone regardless of how tall and skinny he was. They never learn.

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