The first nationally known analysts to weigh in on the new JFK files are Phil Shenon and Larry Sabato, former New York Times reporter and University of Virginia professor respectively. In a story for Politico Magazine, they purport to tell the story How the CIA Came to Doubt the Official Story of JFK’s Murder.
The tipoff to the story’s limitations is the headline, which sounds a bit odd: how the CIA came to doubt the official story…
The CIA was the source for key parts of the official JFK story–that a lone gunman killed President Kennedy out of “hatred for American society.” The CIA’s doubts only surfaced in the spring of 1975 when the official story was shredded by revelations about the agency’s pre-assassination knowledge of Oswald and plots to kill Castro.
The frame of the Politico story because it gives the CIA the benefit of the doubt on an issue where it has repeatedly lied and continues to stonewall in federal court. I sued the CIA for certain JFK files in 2003; fourteen years later, the case is still pending.
This is not to say Shenon and Sabato are CIA apologists. They are both deeply knowledgable about the JFK case, and I consider both of them friends. But I think their reading of the new files is too charitable to the CIA and too predictable in suggesting Castro might have been to blame.
They might have at least noted that the first “Castro Done It”conspiracy theory to reach public print 54 years ago, was paid for by a CIA undercover officer.
Lies of the Official Story
This much is certain: The Warren Commission relied on the CIA’s information in telling the American public about Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union in October 1959, his return in June 1962, and his curious visit to Mexico City in October 1963.
As Shenon and Sabato note, perhaps too casually, senior CIA officials lied to the Warren Commission on each and everyone of these points. A dispassionate observer would say that the initial lies call in to question the sincerity of the later doubts.
In fact, Oswald had been monitored closely by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff from 1959 to 1963. CI chief James Angleton, personally controlled Oswald’s file for 48 months before JFK was killed. As of mid-November 1963, Angleton knew Oswald was in Texas, according to a declassified CIA record.
[I tell the story in my forthcoming Angleton biography, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, available for pre-order now.]
Suffice it to say, the Politico headline is simplistic, if not misleading.
When the editors of Politico say “the CIA came to doubt” the official story by the mid-1970s, what they mean is the agency was forced to acknowledge that Angleton (and deputy director Richard Helms) had misrepresented what they knew about Oswald before JFK was killed.
If CIA officials doubted the official story of a lone gunman in the mid-1970s, it was because they realized the agency had some explaining to do. They knew that Oswald’s Cuban contacts had never been properly investigated. Two leaders of the CIA–Angleton and Helms–had personally prevented it.
What Politico Gets Right
Shenon and Sabato get a couple things right in their article. The documents they call attention to are indeed the most significant new JFK assassination records to surface in the first batch of JFK records released online by the Nationals Archives on July 24.
The files, labeled “HELMS HEARING DUPLICATE,” were given to former CIA director Richard Helms in 1978. That’s when he imperious CIA man, once dubbed “the gentlemanly planner of assassinations,” was later summoned to testify secretly to Congress about his involvement in the CIA assassination plots against Castro and other foreign leaders.
Shenon and Sabato, note in passing that the documents came from Ray Rocca, identified as a “senior counterintelligence officer.” Rocca could be more accurately described as Angleton’s loyal deputy. The file was assembled by Rocca to assist in Helms’ defense.
The new JFK files do not, in my view, support Shenon and Sabato’s recycled “Castro Done It” theory, which predictably points the figure of culpability at the Cuban government in Havana.
Rather these files, in their totality, tell a more disturbing story, which points to culpability in the U.S. government in Washington, and the CIA in Langley.
It is a story of obstruction of justice: how top CIA officials lied to the Warren Commission to prevent disclosure of the agency’s plots to kill Castro and to block investigation of Oswald’s role in two authorized CIA operations in the summer of 1963.
James Angleton was witting to all three.
Next: In 1964 CIA officials conspired to hide Castro assassination plots from the Warren Commission.
You can access the 157-page “HELMS HEARING DUPLICATE” file here, courtesy of BlackVault.com.
James Angleton’s real life is the most intriguing, moving, and at time shocking spy story in American history. In The Ghost, Jefferson Morley has capture the man in all of his brilliant and sometimes delusional eccentricity. A must read’ for anyone who wants to understand just how strange and secretive the CIA was at the height of the Cold War.
–David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post and author of The Director.