Former CIA analyst Brian Latell says Cuban government officials were complicit in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I have posted my take on Latell’s claims.
Here is how he made his case to me. The interview was conducted by email. I have deleted three questions for which Latell said he had no independent knowledge. Otherwise, Latell’s comments have not been edited.
JFK Facts: Your book, Castro’s Secrets, argues that Cuban leader Fidel Castro connived in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? If that a fair summary?
Not quite. I have no evidence that Castro connived or conspired against the president’s life, though the odds are good that he did. I do believe, however, that Fidel and a number of Cuban intelligence officers were complicit in Kennedy’s death. It is a distinction with an important difference, because I am convinced the Cuban association with Lee Harvey Oswald was compelling and crucial, yet mostly opportunistic.
Specifically, the urge to kill Kennedy probably originated during Oswald’s meetings with Cuban spies and provocateurs at their consulate in Mexico City in late September, 1963. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald most likely “intended to remain in Cuba,” and his wife testified that “I honestly did not expect to see him again.” His arrival at the consulate occurred just twenty days after Fidel, in a session with foreign reporters in Havana, revealed that he was tracking American assassination plots against him.
AP reporter Daniel Harker quoted him:
“We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. US leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.”
because so much new and compelling information has become available in recent years, the Kennedy assassination should be added to the agenda for official Cuban-American negotiations.
Harker’s story was printed in newspapers across the United States. The Cuban intelligence officers Oswald dealt with in the Mexican capital were surely cognizant of what Fidel said, and Oswald probably was too.
Recently, I have been able to confirm from a declassified CIA document that Castro’s threat was intentional and considered. The Daily Report, an Agency compilation prepared for director John McCone, was devoted exclusively to Cuba. (As a young analyst I wrote for it beginning in July 1964.) The September 9 1963 issue stated: “press cables on Castro’s remarks were held up for more than ten hours in Havana, apparently for official checking.” Only Fidel had the authority to do that; he wanted to be sure he was quoted accurately. Since then, he has only spoken once about the threatening interview. In 1978 he told representatives of the House Select Committee on Assassinations that:
“my intention . . . was to warn . . . that we knew about the plots against our lives . . . that they could become a boomerang against the authors of those actions.”
Here too Fidel’s words were characteristically calculated as he essentially admitted that, at a minimum, retaliatory assassination plotting had been under consideration in Havana in the fall of 1963.
It was probably inside the Cuban consulate when Oswald’s several-years-long desire to fight as a warrior for Fidel produced the inchoate idea to kill Kennedy. He had not been known previously to detest the president, so what happened? I asked a retired CIA officer who had worked against Cuban intelligence for many years and was a noted expert. He told me that the Cubans Oswald encountered stoked his murderous passions.
“They would have agitated him, given him new, even violent impulses. . . the idea for the assassination.” They may have known of his attempt five months earlier in Dallas to assassinate retired extreme right-wing general Edwin Walker –a notorious Castro hater. The Cuban agents were proficient at manipulation and recruitment and the Castro-adoring Oswald would not have needed much encouragement to come to the aid of his hero Fidel.
Why else would he have shouted his intention to kill the president as he bolted from the consulate after being refused a visa to travel to Cuba? There should be no doubt about the authenticity of the FBI reporting of Oswald’s outburst, or the reliability of its source. Jack Childs, a colorful American communist, was a trusted agent working for the FBI in its Operation SOLO. It was during a meeting with Fidel in Havana in May, 1964 that an unsuspecting Castro volunteered to Childs that Oswald had shouted “I’m going to kill Kennedy for this.”
For what exactly has never been clarified, though perhaps it was the knowledge Fidel had revealed to Harker of American assassination plotting against him. In June 1964 the FBI’s New York field office vouched for Childs and the accuracy of what he had reported. Director Hoover was informed that Castro “was speaking on the basis of facts given to him by his embassy personnel who dealt with Oswald.” Fidel had been “in a very good mood” and was not under the influence of liquor. He had spoken in “broken English” and “there was no question about the accuracy of what he said.” Yet Hoover’s report to the Warren Commission minimized and distorted the incriminating information Castro shared with Childs.
Within a day of Kennedy’s assassination a justifiably worried Fidel delivered a rambling speech, and referring to Oswald, asserted “We never in our life heard of him.” Yet Childs reported that Castro told him he had “received the information about Oswald’s appearance . . . in an oral report from ‘his people’ in the embassy.” He was “told about it immediately.”
After all, if it leaked that an otherwise unimpeachable, high-level Cuban intelligence defector had arrived with new information about the Kennedy assassination, a public outcry might have been unavoidable.
Other Cuban sources confirm that Fidel lied. Alfredo Mirabal, an intelligence officer under consular cover in Mexico City in late 1963, inadvertently revealed in 1978 that he had informed his headquarters about Oswald’s visit. Since he was one of the Cubans Oswald dealt with, his testimony before the House investigating committee must be considered unassailable.
And finally, Vladimir Rodriguez Lahera, the first important defector from Cuban intelligence –fully trusted by the CIA and used in sensitive operations— told his Agency handlers in May 1964 that Castro had lied about Oswald. Rodriguez was at intelligence headquarters in Havana when news of Kennedy’s death was broadcast. It was there that he heard colleagues discussing what they already knew about the assassin. Despite the accumulation of evidence that he lied, Castro has never recanted. He knows, of course, that if he were ever to admit having known that Oswald threatened to kill Kennedy after meetings with Cuban intelligence officers, his regime would logically be suspected of complicity in Kennedy’s death.
JFK Facts: Your view seems similar to that recently expressed by former Warren Commission staffer David Slawson who says Oswald did not have co-conspirators but he did have pro-Castro Cuban accessories. Do you agree with Slawson?
Yes, and I can provide names.
Alfredo Mirabal was the incoming chief of the Cuban intelligence center at their embassy in Mexico City when Oswald visited. He witnessed exchanges with Oswald, each he told the congressional committee years later, lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. The defector Rodriguez Lahera recalled that during a visit to the embassy in early 1964 he worked with Mirabal plotting subversive operations in El Salvador.
Eusebio Azue, the Cuban consul and probably an intelligence officer, was described in a CIA agent report in 1960 as “blindly antagonistic to the United States.” He told the congressional committee that he argued with Oswald “violently or emotionally.” According to Mirabal, it was Azcue who gave him information for the report he submitted to Havana. In his testimony he sought to muddy the waters by insisting that the man he argued with at the consulate was not actually Oswald, but a double, an imposter. None of the other Cubans who met with the committee agreed with Azcue. Yet, Fidel vouched for him: “He is a person you can trust.”
Manuel Vega Perez, the outgoing intelligence Center Chief when Oswald visited and his deputy, Rogelio Rodriguez Lopez, were among the most proficient and ruthless Cuban operatives. In Mexico City they were running the largest and probably busiest Cuban intelligence center in the world. Two independent sources told their CIA handlers that in February 1964 the two masterminded an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Anastasio Somoza, commander of the Nicaraguan National Guard. The defector Rodriguez Lahera believed that Vega and Rodriguez Lopez had seen Kennedy’s assassin at the consulate.
Manuel Pineiro (Redbeard). The head of the Cuban intelligence service in 1963, he would have been in the loop about Oswald’s visit and how he was handled by his officers in Mexico. Pineiro died in Havana in 1998 under mysterious circumstances.
Ramiro Valdes. Then minister of interior with intelligence and security responsibilities, he is now in his early eighties and remains a prominent figure in Raul Castro’s government. He too would most likely have been in the loop about the strange happenings with the American visitor at the Cuban consulate.
Luisa Calderon. More about her later.
JFK Facts: The general thrust of your allegation is not new. The first JFK conspiracy theory to reach public print was published on November 24, 1963 by the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (DRE), an organization funded by the CIA and run by George Joannides, chief of the psychological warfare branch of the Miami station. What do you make of the fact that the charge of Castro’s complicity was originally generated by CIA psychological warfare personnel? Do Joannides and the DRE/AMSPELL deserve credit for first making the charge that you claim to have documented?
If nothing else, the DRE’s linkage of Castro raises anew the question of whether the CIA is still concealing information relevant to your allegations against the Cuban government. Do you think the CIA should release still-classified records related to Joannides’ handling of the DRE/AMPSELL in late 1963?
Yes, the CIA should release surviving records relating to Joannides’ work with the Cuban exile DRE. They ought to have been covered by the terms of the Kennedy Assassination Records legislation. I do not recall ever meeting Joannides, and my research has not led me to any judgments about his role. Perhaps he did play a part in spawning the first public allegations of Cuban government complicity in Kennedy’s death. However, my impression is that the charge originated in New Orleans, where the DRE delegate (Carlos Bringuier) had met with and debated Oswald and had fairly wisely taken his measure.
JFK Facts: In the new paperback edition of Castro’s Secrets you write that four credible sources (Vladimir Rodriguez Lahera, Alfredo Mirabal, Jack Childs, and Florentino Aspillaga) say that the DGI had “advance knowledge” of Oswald.
Aspillaga was a Cuban intelligence and counterintelligence officer with years of experience when he defected in 1987. He provided the CIA with an enormous trove of information, among other things, unmasking dozens of Cuban double agents supposedly working for CIA. A ranking Agency officer who participated in debriefing Aspillaga told me, “I never doubted his bona fides.” No one else familiar with his reporting did either. “Before Aspillaga’s defection,” another ranking CIA officer told me, “(W)e lost the espionage war to the Cubans.” With Aspillaga’s help that began to change. Arguably, there has never been another Cuban defector as valuable.
I was slow and reluctant to conclude, as I do more forcefully in the revised edition of Castro’s Secrets, that top CIA officials deceived the Warren Commission.
I met him for the first time in 2007 as I contemplated writing a book about Cuban intelligence, following the publication of After Fidel. Aspillaga’s revelations that I recorded during about fifteen hours of interviews on three occasions are featured throughout the pages of Castro’s Secrets. His most sensational experience occurred on the morning of November 22 1963. He was at work at a small communications intercept station in the western suburbs of Havana, on the coast. His intercept equipment was directed toward detecting CIA agents and seaborne infiltration teams.
He told me he had never had any other assignment, and until that morning did not deviate from the standing priority. Around 9 or 9:30 A.M. Eastern Time, he received a coded message by radio to walk to another small structure and use the secure phone there to call his headquarters. He was then ordered to cease all his tracking of the CIA. Aspillaga told me they wanted him to focus on Texas. “Listen to ham radio and other transmissions,” he was ordered, “and if anything important occurs, inform us immediately.” About four hours later the shots rang out in Dallas. His conclusion, one from which he never wavered as we endlessly discussed the events of that morning, was that “They knew Kennedy would be killed.. . . Fidel knew.”
Gradually, after initial skepticism, I decided that Aspillaga’s memory of the incident had to be taken seriously. His ability to recall details and names had proved almost photographic. It did not make sense for me to discount one of his recollections when, as far as I could tell and had been told, everything else he reported had proven accurate. His retellings of the story betrayed no fabrication or exaggeration. It was always told in exactly the same way. He had nothing to gain by convincing me. He has no interest in my book and asked for nothing in return for sharing his experiences. Still, I looked for more ballast. I found it immediately after our first meeting. That morning as were beginning, he gave me a copy of an English language translation of a manuscript he had written in 1990, about three years after his defection. Would his November 22 1963 story be included in those pages? It was a critical test, likely a reliable way of determining whether he had concocted the story sometime long after defecting. I scoured the manuscript. It contained essentially the same brief, unadorned account, written sixteen years earlier. It ends this way:
“I am absolutely convinced, and have always been, that I was instructed to monitor (ham radio and other transmissions in Texas) before the assassination occurred.”
Eventually I was able to acquire a copy of the original Spanish language version of his manuscript. The translation was accurate. At least I could be confident that he had not invented the story for my benefit.
JFK Facts: What should the current CIA leadership do with this information? Specifically, would it be appropriate for U.S. officials to raise this issue with their Cuban counterparts in their current negotiations about reestablishing diplomatic relations?
Yes, because so much new and compelling information has become available in recent years, the Kennedy assassination should be added to the agenda for official Cuban-American negotiations.
JFK Facts: If true, Aspillaga’s account should be captured in a CIA document and, according to the JFK Records Act, the agency is required to release that document because it is “assassination-related.” Where is the Aspillaga debriefing?
I don’t know. Debriefings were conducted over a period of time in the late 1980s and most of what he shared was of counter-intelligence value, and therefore of a different class of sensitivity. Researching Castro’s Secrets I read tens of thousands of pages of declassified CIA records related to the Kennedy assassination, but don’t recall seeing anything relating to Aspillaga.
JFK Facts: If Aspillaga didn’t tell the story to the CIA, why didn’t he? If he chose not tell his story to the U.S. government, why should we believe him?
He was emphatic during our meetings that he shared the story about the orders he received on the morning of Kennedy’s death with his CIA debriefers. One of those officers, now deceased, told me he remembered that to be true. But two others told me they have no recollection of such a ground-shaking revelation.
As I speculated in Castro’s Secrets, “Perhaps it was thought to be so incendiary—and suspect—that it was quietly cocooned, not put on paper, recorded, or repeated to anyone outside a small circle at CIA headquarters. Under the circumstances, temporizing may have seemed the best option, the most prudent way to deal with a matter of such historic significance. After all, if it leaked that an otherwise unimpeachable, high-level Cuban intelligence defector had arrived with new information about the Kennedy assassination, a public outcry might have been unavoidable.”
One respected counter-intelligence officer, not involved in the assassination plotting, never trusted Cubela, but he was disregarded.
JFK Facts: Would you be willing to share a transcript or notes of your conversations with Aspillaga or contact information so that other might interview him?
Aspillaga lives with a new identity and wants to stay out of the limelight. For years he lived under the threat of assassination. In any event, I am no longer in touch with him, and doubt I will be able to renew contact. I plan to donate all of my papers compiled when researching Castro’s Secrets to a prominent university archive. All of the records I collected when writing After Fidel are already available to researchers at the Hoover Archives at Stanford University.
JFK Facts: You talk about what certain DGI officers knew about Oswald before JFK was killed. What about the senior CIA officers who were informed about Oswald’s movements, political activities and foreign contacts before Kennedy’s assassination. I am referring to the signatories of an October 10, 1963 cable from CIA headquarters about Oswald’s actions in Mexico City. They included: assistant deputy director Tom Karamessines; chief of Western Hemisphere operations, William J. Hood; Mexico desk chief John Whitten (“Scelso”) and counterintelligence officers Ann Egerter, Jane Roman, and Stephan Roll. Roman and Egerter had been receiving and reading reports on Oswald since his defection to the Soviet Union in November 1959.
Were these CIA officers outsmarted by the DGI officers named above?
Yes; as good as they were those seasoned CIA officers could have been “outsmarted” in the compartmented hall of mirrors of counterintelligence. But as far as I have been able to determine, none of them was aware of the 1963 assassination plotting against Castro and did not have solid information that Oswald met with a number of Cuban intelligence officers in Mexico City. Connecting the dots was not possible until later.
JFK Facts: To me, the implications of what you write in Castro’s Secrets are incredible. You are saying the leaders of a government implacably hostile to the United States connived in the death of an American president. Not only did the CIA fail to detect this potentially criminal activity, agency officials refused to investigate the possibility or even share relevant information with the Warren Commission. In addition, you suggest that when this criminal nexus was substantiated by a former agency employee in good standing (you), the agency took no action. It seems to me that you are suggesting that current CIA officials are shielding Fidel Castro and his supporters from justice and the judgment of history? Are they?
I was slow and reluctant to conclude, as I do more forcefully in the revised edition of Castro’s Secrets, that top CIA officials deceived the Warren Commission. Among other examples described, I found no evidence that the defector Rodriguez Lahera’s reporting that Castro had lied about his prior knowledge of Oswald was shared with the commission. Regarding current CIA officials, and others in office since my book was published, I have no reason to believe they have intentionally abetted a cover-up.
JFK Facts: Are you saying that current CIA officials are unintentionally abetting a cover-up of credible information that implicates the Cuban government (and living suspects) in the murder of President Kennedy?
No, I do not intend to put too fine a point on this; I just don’t know. I retired from the Agency in 1998 and have not maintained security clearances since soon after. Regarding Aspillaga’s debriefings, I am not uncomfortable with the surmise that he and his reporting –acutely embarrassing as it was to the Agency—simply faded in importance as other, more demanding intelligence priorities and missions imposed.
JFK Facts: Are there any Cuban government officials or supporters, living or deceased, who you would describe as “accessories” to Oswald? If so, who?
Luisa Calderon, described as a loyal, deep cover Cuban operative, is the most tantalizing of the Cuban witnesses to Oswald’s Mexico City interlude. A young intelligence officer, she was heard rejoicing after Kennedy’s death in a phone conversation secretly recorded by the CIA. When told the news, she exclaimed, “how great!” Kennedy, she said, was a “degenerate, unfortunate, an aggressor.” The caller told her the president had been shot three times in the face. She thought that was “perfect.” Her ferocity probably reflected the generalized hatred of the president rampant among officers in the Cuban intelligence center.
Another of Calderon’s intercepted phone conversations, this one about four hours after Kennedy died, has attracted considerable attention. The caller asked her if she knew what had happened in Dallas. “Yes, of course, she replied, “I learned of it almost before Kennedy.” The House committee vigorously pursued that lead –the possibility that the Cuban center was aware of the impending assassination– but to no avail. Although a number of other Cuban officials, including Fidel, were interviewed, the request to meet with her was deflected. The committee was told she was not available, supposedly ill.
It is not known whether she dealt personally with Oswald at the consulate, or socially after working hours. That possibility is enhanced, however, by the fact that she spoke fluent English after residing with her parents in Miami from 1951 to 1960.
Calderon has lived obscurely in Cuba since shortly after the assassination. She went into seclusion in the Mexican capital within days of the assassination, and was returned permanently to Cuba a few weeks later. The defector Rodriguez Lahera reported that she “continued to receive “a regular salary” from Cuban intelligence, even though she did not perform any services.”
Calderon was born in March 1943, and unlike the much older colleagues who served with her in Mexico, may live today in retirement somewhere in Cuba. To my knowledge, no foreign investigator or reporter has been in contact with her. If she were ever willing and able to come forward and truthfully describe what happened when Oswald was in Mexico City, I suspect Cuban government complicity in Kennedy’s death would be confirmed beyond a doubt.
JFK Facts: One of the CIA’s plans to assassinate Castro in 1963 turned on the recruitment of Rolando Cubela whose code name was AMLASH. With the benefit of hindsight what do you make of Agency’s handling of AMLASH?
Castro certainly had motive to want Kennedy killed, to retaliate in kind. After all, he knew of every twist in the assassination plotting against him orchestrated by Robert Kennedy and the CIA. As I have shown, relying on diverse sources, Cubela was actually a Cuban double agent working for Fidel. He was a peculiar, contradictory man and there were unresolved doubts about him from the start. I describe a number of red flags, all revealed in declassified CIA records, that should have convinced the Agency to his duplicity. For example, Cubela refused to submit to a polygraph exam, and oddly, was allowed to continue in the covert role of AMLASH anyway. When I interviewed him in Miami in 2009 I concluded that he had been less than truthful with me.
One respected counter-intelligence officer, not involved in the assassination plotting, never trusted Cubela, but he was disregarded. In his memoirs, Richard Helms, the most senior Agency officer involved in the assassination plot, also expressed some doubt about Cubela. More importantly, he also wanted historians to appreciate why he stayed with the Cuban. Helms highlighted the depth of the dilemma he experienced, how much pressure he and the three other CIA officers involved in the Cubela assassination plot experienced. He wrote:
“Given the relentless, blistering heat from the White House, I was scarcely of a mind to drop anyone whom we were satisfied had reasonable access to Castro and was apparently determined to turn him out of office.”
JFK Facts: You write in Castro’s Secrets that the Cuban government has records related to JFK’s assassination. Can you be more specific? If you met with Cuban government officials today about the JFK story, what would ask them?
By now, especially since the publication of Castro’s Secrets, I expect that any Cuban government records that may have survived into this century have been destroyed. For years it has been standard practice in important ministries to burn any records that could be incriminating to the leadership. Yet, one special archive may have escaped the constant purging. Miguel Mir, a Cuban intelligence agent who defected in New York in 1996, served for a period as Military Historian for Fidel Castro’s Personal Security. Mir told me that in that position he was custodian of the regime’s records of historical memorabilia related exclusively to the commander in chief, Fidel Castro. They were kept in a secret vault at a military facility near Havana. We can only hope that they continue to be maintained.
JFK Facts: The CIA retains more than 1,100 assassination-related records that are scheduled to be made public in October 2017? Do you have favor the release of all of these records at that time?
Absolutely. I can’t wait to review them myself because I imagine I will find something that will corroborate Aspillaga’s story about November 22 1963.
JFK Facts: Is there anything else that readers of JFK Facts should know in order to better understand the story of JFK’s assassination?
In the new Introduction to the paperback edition of my book I probe the previously little explored possibility that the cheap Hotel del Comercio where Oswald lodged while in Mexico City was used as a sanctuary for Cuban intelligence operations.
I discovered that early interest in the hotel was spurred by Thomas Mann, the distinguished American ambassador in the Mexican capital in 1963. He strongly suspected Cuban involvement in Kennedy’s death and that came to the attention of Warren Commission staffers. They asked him, “to what extent it was known in Mexico City that the Hotel del Comercio was a headquarters for pro-Castro activities?” Mann responded that “it was not known generally at all (but) only in intelligence circles.
The ambassador worked closely with CIA station chief Win Scott, and if he was correct in his assertion, the information about the hotel must have originated with Scott. Mann suspected that Oswald chose to stay at the Hotel del Comercio because he was directed there. If so, it would appear that Cuban operatives had been in touch with Oswald before he left New Orleans on his way to Mexico. Ambassador Mann lobbied his concerns at the highest levels in Washington, but was spurned.
Interested readers can find additional details about this in Castro’s Secrets. Suffice to reveal here, that ambassador Mann’s unpublished memoirs, written in 1982 when he was 70, provide a chilling glimpse into an apparent Washington cover up of information that could have directly implicated Cuba in Kennedy’s death. From a friend I acquired a copy of Mann’s memoir. Inter alia, he wrote:
“The embassy received instructions to cease our investigation of Oswald’s visit to Mexico and to request the Mexican government to do the same. Having only begun our investigation, I sent a telegram to the Department (of State) asking that the instruction be reconsidered and that the embassy be allowed to conclude its investigation. The request was denied. No reasons were given. Similar instructions were received by Embassy intelligence officers from the intelligence agencies to which they reported.”