Why did the CIA’s Angleton want to cut off questions about Oswald?

In response to my recent post on a declassified April 1972 CIA memo ordering that “no defector or source” be asked about Lee Harvey Oswald, a faithful reader asks:

Where is April 1972 in the Nosenko chronology? Was there a time at which saner CIA people simply told Angleton to back off from his Nosenko-KGB theories?

The answer is that Angleton was motivated both by his interest in Nosenko and his desire to block CIA people from questioning the dubious official story of Oswald as a lone assassin about whom the agency knew little.

In fact, as Angleton knew better than anyone, the CIA had monitored Oswald’s movements, politics, personal life, and foreign contacts for four years before JFK was killed.

The other relevant question is, “Where is April 1972 in the Oswald chronology?”

I provide a more detailed answer in my forthcoming book The Ghost: The Secret Life of The GhostCIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, but I will summarize the complex story here.

State of the Nosenko Case in 1972

The case Yuri Nosenko had been resolved to the satisfaction of the CIA leadership by the spring of 1972.

To recap one of the most famous spy vs. spy episodes of the Cold War, Nosenko was KBG officer who defected to the United States in January 1964 with the promise of a $50,000 payment and an annual salary of $25,00 for an indefinite period.

Nosenko said, among other things, that he had seen the KGB’s file on Oswald and that it contained nothing incriminating about the Soviet intelligence agency.

Angleton and other counterintelligence officers didn’t believe Nosenko’s story and persuaded Helms to renege on the agreement. Nosenko was detained, without judicial authorization, at a secret CIA facility in Clinton, Maryland and later at the CIA’s Camp Peary in Virginia, (what would now be called “black sites.”)

Nosenko was not tortured but he did endure solitary confinement and hostile interrogation for four years. Angleton believed that Nosenko was a false defector and he set out, in the words of Soviet Bloc division chief David Murphy to “break” him.

The new JFK releases contain extensive documentation of the Nosenko affair, including tape recordings and interrogation reports, which will shed new light on this murky affair.

Suffice it say,  Nosenko never confessed. A group of CIA officers who believed Nosenko was bona fide defector pressed to have Nosenko removed from Angleton’s control. These officers included George Kisevalter, the agency’s top Russian speaking agent handler, and Len McCoy, an officer in the Soviet Bloc division.

Yuri Nosenko, KGB
Yuri Nosenko, controversial KGB defector

A fierce bureaucratic struggle ensued which “nearly wrecked” the CIA’s Soviet operations. The struggle was finally resolved by deputy director Rufus Taylor in October 1968, who ruled against Angleton and his allies. Nosenko was released in early 1969 and resettled, at CIA expense, first in the Washington DC metropolitan area and then in North Carolina.

Angleton and his acolytes continued to believe that Nosenko was a false defector and continued to search for evidence to confirm this theory. Around this time, Richard Helms, a close friend of Angleton, asked CIA officer John Hart to review the case. Hart concluded that Nosenko was a bona fide defector. He wrote up his findings in a classified report called “The Monster Plot,” and in a open source book, The CIA’s Russians, which contains a lucid account of the whole affair.

So, to answer the reader’s question, the Nosenko case was effectively closed by April 1972 By that time, Angleton’s reputation as a paranoid conspiracy theorist was growing within the Agency.

So the readers’ question is worth asking: were saner CIA types simply seeking to get Angleton to back off?

The answer is no. A close reading of the April 1972 memo shows that it did not come from Nosenko believers (like Kisevalter, McCoy and Hart) who wanted to shut down Angleton’s inquiry.

To the contrary, the memo was sent by an Angleton loyalist, his longtime deputy Ray Rocca, identified in the memo as DC/CI (deputy chief, Counterintelligence). Angleton, through Rocca, had arranged for the prior approval of Dick Helms, who was a Nosenko skeptic himself. Rocca did not issue any orders that were not approved by his boss.

The order was not directed at Angleton, but at the SB/CI, the counterintelligence office of the Soviet Bloc division. The order asserted that the Counterintelligence Staff, not the Soviet Bloc division, would handle Oswald-related questions.

In other words, the April 1972 memo was not designed to shut down Angleton’s mole hunt. It was an expression of Angleton’s desire to continue the mole hunt that had largely been shut down.

But the memo, I believe,  was was also motivated by a desire to control unwanted questions about Oswald, who had denied he shot JFK before being killed in police custody.

State of the Oswald Case in 1972

Oswald in Custody
Oswald: “I’m a patsy”

Why do I say this?

First, because Angleton had long monitored skeptics of the official story that Oswald acted alone.

In 1968, he set up the so-called Garrison Group within the Counterintelligence Staff to spy on New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison who tried to make a conspiracy case against businessman Clay Shaw, who had served as a “highly paid CIA contract source” in the 1950s, according to a CIA historian.

When Garrison set up a national committee to reopen the JFK investigation in 1969, Angleton asked the FBI for more information on the group’s members. When Warren Commission critics held a conference in 1973, Angleton sent a colleague to spy on the proceedings.

In short, Angleton kept tabs on people who doubted Oswald’s sole guilt.

More importantly, the April 1972 memo was not the first time Angleton sought to shut down questions about Oswald inside the CIA. It was the third instance, and the other two had nothing to do with Nosenko.

The first time is documented in Phil Shenon’s book, A Cruel and Shocking Act.

In September 1969, Angleton received a detailed report from the State Department, written by Charles Thomas, an earnest Foreign Service Officer stationed in Mexico in the 1960s, who had investigated Oswald’s visit to Mexico in September 1963.

Thomas had spoken with several Mexicans who recalled meeting Oswald. He collected credible evidence that Oswald had some kind of relationship with Silvia Duran, an employee of the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City, who was known to the CIA for her good looks and communist sympathies. Thomas’s evidence was sufficient to convince Mexico City station chief Win Scott that Oswald had a sexual relationship with Duran. 

Thomas felt obliged to report what he knew to Washington, assuming the FBI or the CIA, would want to know more about Oswald’s Cuban contacts. The FBI wasn’t interested. So State Department referred Thomas’ reporting to Angleton.

No one outside the CIA knew it at the time, but Angleton had known all about Oswald’s visit to Mexico City six weeks before JFK was killed. His staff had prepared two cables about it that were sent to various Washington agencies and to Win Scott.  The existence of these cables was not known in 1969.Our Man in Mexico

Angleton also knew that all personnel at the Cuban Consulate where Duran worked were presumed to work for Cuban intelligence. Yet. Angleton wasn’t interested in Thomas’s information. He replied to the State Department with a note stating he saw “no need for further action.”

The second time Angleton suppressed Oswald information around this time is documented in my book, Our Man in Mexico.

It happened in April 1971. When Mexico City station chief Win Scott suddenly died, Angleton went to Mexico City and seized Scott’s unpublished memoir. In the memoir, Scott flatly–and accurately–disputed a key finding of the Warren Commission.

The commission’s final report stated (on p. 777) that the CIA had not learned of Oswald’s visit to the Cuban Consulate until after the assassination of JFK. That was a lie and Scott knew that it was a lie. His photo and audio surveillance operations reported on all visitors to the Consulate  No American came and went the doors of the Consulate without Scott being informed within 24 hours. Oswald’s visit to the Consulate on September 27, 1963 were no exception.

Angleton seized Scott’s manuscript and shared it with no one.

So, a year later, in April 1972, when Angleton learned that the Soviet Bloc division asked Soviet defector, Oleg Layalin about Oswald, the counterintelligence chief had two good reasons to seek cut off questions. He wanted to pursue the mole hunt and he wanted to cut off unwanted inquiries into Oswald’s past.



The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.

The Ghost by Jefferson Morley

The Ghost is the compulsively readable, often bizarre true-life story of American spymaster James Jesus Angleton – the CIA’s poetry-loving, orchid-gardening mole-hunter for almost 20 years. Capturing the extent of Angleton’s eccentricity, duplicity and alcohol-fueled paranoia would have challenged the writing skills of a Le Carre or Ludlum, and Jefferson Morley has done it with flair. This important book depicts the trail of wreckage left behind by Angleton in a CIA career that involved him in virtually every major spy-versus-spy drama of the Cold War and drew him deeply into the mysteries of the Kennedy assassination and the murder of one of JFK’s mistresses.”
—Philip Shenon, author of A Cruel and Shocking Act


Click here to pre-order: The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.





















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