One of many fascinating features of the debate about the causes of the JFK’s assassination is the evident anxiety of some people who defend the theory that one man alone killed the president for no reason. As the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, their anxiety is growing.
Exhibit A: Dale Myers and Gus Russo attack me for having the temerity to say that the CIA is obligated to release all of its JFK-related files.
Exhibit B: Professor John McAdams is in a tizzy by my review of the trailer for “Parkland,” the new JFK film produced by Tom Hanks, that will be released on October 4. In my post, I predicted that “Parkland” will not deal with the troubling issue of an October 10, 1963, CIA cable in which five senior CIA operations officers said Lee Harvey Oswald was “maturing.”
This is “buff stuff,” writes McAdams in an email.
Actually, everything I wrote comes from CIA and FBI records and interviews with retired CIA officers. But let’s skip the tedious, ad hominem attacks that bore everybody.
Let’s look at the record.
(Warning to readers: What follows is a discussion of a complex historical issue that cannot boiled down to sound bytes that appeal to talking heads of cable or the trolls of the Internet chat boards. It is merely factual. Those in search of a JFK conspiracy (or anti-conspiracy) are guaranteed disappointment.)
The issue that provokes such worry on Professor McAdams’s part is a cable that senior CIA officials wrote on October 10, 1963, seven weeks before President Kennedy was killed. (For background on this fascinating and important document, read this post, “Did the CIA track Oswald before JFK was killed.”)
McAdams writes that the October 10 cable is “simply a summary of what was in CIA files on Oswald. Nothing at all sinister about it. How in the world [emphasis in the original] does Jeff think it’s sinister? I know. He’s assuming that the CIA knew a lot more about Oswald.”
Actually I’m not assuming anything. The CIA did know more about Oswald, as Jane Roman, one of the CIA’s officers who wrote the cable, told me in an interview. Roman acknowledged that the October 10 cable did not summarize what was in CIA files on Oswald at that time.
Roman, a career counterintelligence officer, was commenting candidly on the CIA’s own records. A CIA routing slip, declassified in 1993, showed that on October 4, 1963, just six days before the cable was written, she had received an FBI report about Oswald’s arrest in New Orleans in August 1963 for fighting with members of the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE), a CIA-funded anti-Castro organization. In the interview, Roman acknowledged reading the FBI report.
That meant that “the latest headquarter infor” on Oswald wasn’t 17 months old, as the cable stated. It was less than a week old.
When this discrepancy was pointed out, Roman said, “Yeh, I’m signing off on something that isn’t true.”
(I reported Roman’s comments in the Washington Post in 1995. Read the article here. The tape of the interview is part of the JFK Collection at the National Archives. Anyone who wants to check my reporting is free to do so.)
So, contrary to Professor McAdams’s claims, the CIA officers who wrote the October 10 cable did know more about Oswald than they shared with Mexico City. They knew Oswald had been publicly promoting the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), which had led to his fight with the DRE boys and his arrest.
But they didn’t tell their colleagues in Mexico City that. Instead, they chose to pass along the happy notion that the future assassination suspect was “maturing.”
Why did they do that?
Professor McAdams (like Myers and Russo) seem determined not to address, much less answer, this question. I think this is because they — like the rest of us — don’t have any good answer to it. But while some of us try to answer the question — or better yet, force the CIA to answer the question — they prefer to impugn anyone who raises it.
This is an expression of the fear of JFK transparency that still pervades commentary on the assassination story 50 years after the fact.
This fear is unnecessary. Even defenders of the Warren Commission (especially defenders of the Warren Commission!) should want to know why senior undercover CIA officers were telling fibs about Oswald seven weeks before he allegedly killed the president.
In the interview, Roman — a highly credible source in my view — offered her view. She said that the phrasing of the cable indicated a “keen interest” in Oswald, closely held by people in the Special Affairs Staff, i.e, anti-Castro operations.
I think this is the best available explanation. There was something about Oswald’s actions as they related to anti-Castro operations that the most senior officials who signed off on the cable — assistant deputy director Tom Karamessines and Western Hemisphere operations chief Bill Hood — did not want to share with their colleagues in Mexico City.
There are two pieces of evidence that lend credence to Roman’s hunch, both well-explicated by Bill Simpich, a San Francisco attorney and JFK author.
1) The day before the October 10 cable was sent, an FBI supervisor named Marvin Gheesling canceled a FLASH notice on Oswald that had kept him on the FBI’s national watch list of persons of interest. Gheesling’s explanation for why he released the “stop” on October 9, 1963, is contained in an memo to the FBI’s second in command Clyde Tolson: The “stop was placed in event subject returned from Russia under an assumed name and was inadvertently not removed by him on 9/7/62 when case closed.”
2) Two hours before the October 10 cable was sent to Mexico City, the CIA sent a very different message to the FBI, State Department and the Navy about Oswald’s appearance at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City. It was a teletype that described Oswald as “approximately 35 years old, with an athletic build, about six feet tall, with receding hairline…” (Read it here.)
Not only was this description inaccurate. It flatly contradicted the description — written by the same CIA officers! — given to Win Scott on the same day. The October 10, 1963, cable said, more accurately, that “Oswald is five feet ten inches, one hundred sixty five pounds, light brown wavy hair, (and) blue eyes.”
As Simpich has observed, “The description sent to the FBI, the State Department, and the Navy is a deliberate lie.”
Why would senior CIA operations officers deliberately lie about an obscure character named Oswald?
One possible explanation is that, as Jane Roman said, Oswald’s actions were of “keen interest” to certain officers in anti-Castro operations who did not think their colleagues in the Mexico City station or at the FBI had a “need to know” about them.
The evidence begs another question: why didn’t the FBI put Oswald back on the FLASHLIST? He had been taken off, according to Gheesling, because of an inadvertent mistake in September 1962, and nothing in his actions since then seemed to pose a security issue. The next day the the FBI received notice that he has visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, and within eight days had received even more disturbing news.
As JFK authors Lisa Pease and Jim DiEugenio have noted, Win Scott reported on October 16 to other U.S. government offices in Mexico City that Oswald had spoken to an Soviet official named Kostikov, whom the CIA station believed to be a KGB assassination specialist. Scott’s report reached FBI headquarters on October 18.
Yet Oswald, whose Soviet contacts now obviously posed big security issues, was not put back on the FLASHLIST.
Thus even when the CIA did share significant and troubling information about Oswald with senior FBI officials in Washington, those officials did not share it with the Bureau’s Dallas office via the FLASHLIST.
Any credible account of Oswald’s role in JFK’s assassination needs to explain these baffling events.
The explanation offered by Professor McAdams, that the CIA shared everything it knew about Oswald, is not supported by the facts.
The CIA doesn’t answer questions on the subject.
JFK conspiracy theorists generally avoid these facts because they hinder their desire to implicate Lyndon Johnson or George H.W. Bush, or the Federal Reserve in JFK’s death.
More careful JFK historians are left to contemplate other scenarios.
One possible explanation is that one or more of these FBI and CIA officials were aware of a U.S. government covert operation targeting the FPCC and that this operation somehow involved Oswald, a supporter of the FPCC.
The explanation is not entirely speculative. Newly discovered records show that both the FBI and the CIA had targeted the FPCC for secret operations in 1963. As historian David Kaiser reported in his 2007 book, “The Road to Dallas,” the FBI was conducting a COINTELPRO operations to disrupt and discredit the FPCC in 1963.
As Simpich has noted, the CIA’s John Tilton (a supervisor of George Joannides) notified the FBI on September 16, 1963, that the agency was launching an operation against the FPCC in a foreign country.
If one or both of these operations involved Oswald, that might (emphasis on the conditional) explain why Jane Roman and her colleagues at CIA headquarters chose not to tell Win Scott about Oswald’s recent arrest. It might also explain why Marvin Gheesling and the FBI decided Oswald’s name should not go on the FLASHLIST — so as not to compromise a secret operation.
I’ve never stated this hypothesis as historical truth. I’ve never written that this proves a conspiratorial explanation of JFK’s death. I’ve just put the facts on the table with two goals in mind: to allow readers to make up their own minds about their implications and to make the case for greater transparency.
This dual agenda disturbs my critics for reasons they can best articulate.
In my personal opinion, their attacks on my reporting are an expression of anxiety about the troubling issues raised by the CIA’s handling of pre-assassination intelligence on Oswald. The easiest way to dispel the anxiety is to impugn me. I can only say I share this anxiety but I am not the cause of it. (I was in kindergarten when these events happened.) The cause is the historical record itself.
And I freely concede there are other possible explanations of these events. I welcome discussion of them. If Professor McAdams (or Myers and Russo) have an different account of the actions of the CIA and FBI in October 1963, they should address the full range of issues raised here. That would be a welcome contribution to the discussion of a difficult issue.
Bill Simpich published his findings about the newest JFK records in Op-Ed News in July. He has a different interpretation of the events of 1963. I don’t necessarily agree with him but no one has better research into the most recently declassified CIA records.
As noted Lisa Pease and Jim DiEugenio have also addressed this issue. Just because I agree they have reported accurately on the facts cited here, does not mean I endorse their JFK conspiracy theories. I do not.