4 CIA officers who made a lethal mistake about Lee Harvey Oswald

A handful of senior CIA officers were informed about the travels, contacts, and politics of Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before President Kennedy was killed and expressed no security concerns, according to a declassified CIA cable,

Indeed when four CIA officers learned about Oswald in October 1963, they all signed off on a cable saying that he was “maturing.”

Forty two days later, Oswald allegedly killed JFK in Dallas.

The names of the CIA officers who made this lethal mistake were Jane Roman, William J. Hood, Tom Karamessines, and John Whitten. All are deceased.

Their names appear on the once top-secret cable, dated October 10, 1963.

A little background. In the cable they responded to a query from the CIA’s Mexico City station about Oswald, an itinerant leftist who was seeking to travel to Cuba. These four senior officers assured their colleagues in Mexico City that they knew all about Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union in 1959 and his subsequent return to the United States in May 1962. Not to worry, they said. Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union had a  “maturing effect” on him.

Who were the CIA officials who misjudged the accused assassin?

They all held senior positions.

1) Jane Roman, who died in 2007, was a long-time assistant to James Angleton. He was the legendary spymaster who ran the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff from 1954 to 1974. Roman’s position made her a consummate CIA insider. According to the CIA, she and her husband Howard, also a CIA officer, helped former CIA director Allen Dulles write his 1963 book, The Craft of Intelligence.

Roman’s job title was liaison officer. That mean she was in charge of all communications between the Counterintelligence Staff and other offices of the government. It was Roman who opened Oswald’s CIA file in December 1960. She had been reading CIA cables, State Department memoranda, intercepted correspondence, and FBI reports about Oswald for more than three years before JFK was killed.

If Oswald was a sociopathic communist assassin, as some contend, he was a sociopathic communist assassin who was known to Jane Roman and her colleagues.

In 1995, I interviewed Roman for story for the Washington Post Outlook section. She had some interesting things to say about this cable.

Roman later “bitterly regretted” talking to me.

In her unpublished 1996 letter to the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), an independent civilian panel, Roman acknowledged that “Oswald was the subject of great interest to both the CIA and FBI” before November 22, 1963.

William J. Hood, retired CIA officer
William J. Hood at his home in Amagansett, New York in April 2011.

2) The second CIA officer who said Oswald was “maturing” in late 1963 was William J. Hood. He died on January 28, 2013, his role in the JFK story still unknown to the public, journalists, and historians.

In 1963, Bill Hood occupied one of the most senior positions in the clandestine service. He served as the chief of covert operations in the Western Hemisphere. He was close to Jim Angleton and assisted him on counterintelligence operations.

Hood was the “authenticating officer” on the October 10 cable, meaning he was responsible for the accuracy of its contents.

I interviewed Hood at his home in Amagansett, New York, in 2007 for my book Our Man in Mexico. He denied that the CIA was running an operation involving Oswald before JFK was killed. He rejected the idea that Kennedy had been killed by enemies.

But he had no explanation for the assertion that Oswald was “maturing.”

“I would like to think that 80 percent [of CIA cables] would be more competent,” Hood told me. “I don’t find anything smelly in it.”

In 1963 Tom Karamessines served as the CIA’s assistant deputy director of covert operations.

The most senior CIA officer to sign off on the faulty Oswald cable was 3) Tom Karamessines. He was the trusted assistant to deputy CIA director Richard Helms, and the “releasing officer” for the cable. That meant he was responsible for making sure that its content and distribution supported U.S. policy.

In 1976, Karamessines testified to the  Church Committee investigating CIA abuses. He was asked about his approval of Oswald cable. He explained that his job was:

“to make sure that it [the cable] wasn’t violating any particular policy of ours, particularly since it was dealing with a man who at least had been an American and might still be an American. And we were taking an interest in this fellow even though he wasn’t an American.”

Or course, Oswald was an American, so Karamessines’s explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense. His testimony sounds nervous, as if he was trying to head off the accusation that the CIA was spying on an American.

“I read the message,” Karamessines went on. “It concerns a Marine defector, who apparently according to the incoming message to which this was a response, was trying to get in touch with some Soviets or Cubans in Mexico. That would be the extent of my interest it at the time.”

Karamessines offered no explanation or defense of the claim that Oswald was “maturing.”

CIA desk officer John Whitten

The fourth CIA officer who signed off on the faulty Oswald cable was John Whitten. In 1963 he ran the Mexico and Central America desk of the CIA’s operations directorate. He was the only one of the four who sought to investigate Oswald after JFK was killed.

In May 1976 and again in May 1978 Whitten testified to JFK investigators. He explained that on November 23, 1963, deputy director Helms put him in charge of reviewing all CIA information about the accused assassin.

Whitten assembled a staff and worked long hours for two weeks reviewing the avalanche of reports from around the world about Oswald. But he soon realized his colleagues were not sharing all relevant information with him.

Specifically, he said Counterintelligence Chief James Angleton had not shared FBI reports about Oswald’s encounters with the New Orleans chapter of the Cuban Student Directorate, a CIA-funded Cuban exile group, in August 1963.

“Oswald’s involvement with the pro-Castro movement in the United States was not at all surfaced to us [meaning him and his staff] in the first weeks of the investigation,” Whitten said.

Tim Weiner, author of  a best-selling history of the CIA, said Angleton’s conduct amounted to  “an obstruction of justice.” (See “Legacy of Ashes,” p. 265.)

When Whitten protested, Helms took him off the Oswald investigation and put Angleton in charge. Angleton hid the CIA’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald from the Warren Commission.
John Whitten was the only one of the four CIA officers to suffer adverse consequences from his role in the erroneous Oswald cable. After 1963, Helms stymied his CIA career. In 1969, Whitten took early retirement and moved to Vienna where he became a world-class concert singer. He lived the rest of his life in self-imposed exile (a remarkable story I recounted in the Washington Monthly).
Jane Roman, Bill Hood and Tom Karamessines all retired in good standing with the CIA. Making a mistake about the man who allegedly killed JFK was not an obstacle to a long and successful career at the agency.





30 thoughts on “4 CIA officers who made a lethal mistake about Lee Harvey Oswald”

  1. Dale C- “Why did the SS pin a felony on Abraham Bolden when he filed a lawsuit against them for not protecting the President?”

    I’m not aware of a lawsuit filed by Mr. Bolden- what is the source?

    Also, I have reached out previously regarding the Chicago plot to kill JFK. I am trying to ascertain who was told of this plot- JFK,
    HIS Secret Service men, Dallas law officials, etc?

    Please do not refer me to websites- I’ve read quite a few- but can’t seem to find a defenitive answer. Can anyone help?

    1. According to Bolden, the FBI and SS were aware of the threats. It’s difficult to ascertain more at this point. Three years after Congress passed the JFK Act ordering that all government records related to the assassination of President Kennedy should be preserved and immediately disclosed, the Secret Service destroyed Protective Service records, among them files on Kennedy’s aborted Chicago trip in early November of 1963.

  2. Regarding William Hood’s comment on Oswald “maturing,”
    I suppose his own CIA, the FBI and LBJ’s ultimate regret about Lee
    Oswald, was that he wasn’t “mature” enough to confess to killing
    President Kennedy, when he didn’t even shoot at him. That
    just may be the penultimate definition for “theater of the absurd.”

  3. Dale Conspiracy

    If it wasn’t a conspiracy, why did everyone’s pictures never get returned to them from the FBI, Secret Service, and the Dallas Police? Why did the SS pin a felony on Abraham Bolden when he filed a lawsuit against them for not protecting the President? Why was Oswald supposed to be a good shot but his first one hit the curb and cut James Tague’s face? No conspiracy? Tell which Standard Operating Procedure “was” enforced that day? Why Did Dr. Humes burn his original notes? Really? Thank you Mark Lane.

  4. As a High school history Teacher for 30 years, every year i ask my students to ask “Where were you when Kennedy was shot “? to observe the quick reaction of the responder (called a picture moment in memory). NEVER has a student observed a pause or “i can’t recall” answer. I have always been a George Bush admirer; up until now!

      1. John, he said he was “somewhere in Texas” and felt that was enough to answer the question. I submit that on that day-11-22-63-it wasn’t enough.

  5. I can, and do, admit I misinterpreted the meaning “maturing effect” in the context; however, most US Embassy personnel tie into the military or CIA information lines as eyes and ears. This report on Oswald does not mean Oswald had matured, but that an observer felt Oswald’s experience in the Soviet Union had a “maturing effect” on him. The meaning of “maturing effect” is left open to interpretation, particularly interpretation through ‘CIA speak’.

  6. I think the word “maturing” is being misattibuted here. It’s implied that the CIA used the word to describe the agency’s view of Oswald in October, 1963 – just a month before the assassination. Yet the cable clearly attributes that word to someone in the US Embassy, Moscow, speaking about Oswald’s decision to return to the US in 1962.

    “US EMB Moscow stated twenty months of realities of life in Soviet Union had clearly had maturing effect on Oswald.”

    I admire Messrs Morley & Newman’s work. And I tend to come down on the conspiracy side of this issue. But the use of the phrase “maturing” seems uncontroversial here. And it doesn’t refer to the CIA’s view of Oswald as he may have been in October, 1963.

  7. Paul, you are partially correct when you state the security failures of the security team responsible for the President’s life. However, you follow the false trail of the writer’s of the lies about Oswald. I will no longer dignify their descriptions of Oswald as an assassin, accused or alleged. Oswald as an assassin is laughable because it is from the very people who created his “legend” as a ‘defector’ to the USSR. It is because of CIA intrigue that Oswald was labeled a “defector” when he knowingly was part of a “false defector program” run by the Military. The fact that ear witnesses described the gun fire as Bang! Bang-Bang! means that two or more guns were firing into the Presidential limo. The Warren Omission report cannot be relied upon when it comes to Oswald because the FBI, CIA, and Military (read: guilty parties)fed the Omissioners the Oswald legend (based on incorrect CIA “seeded” files containing the exact false description of Oswald (i.e., Lee Henry Oswald, 5’11”, wavy hair, blue eyes). This description MATCHED the other false defector sent into the USSR before Oswald, who was captured by Soviet Intelligence and an attempted to be rescue him was made by Mr. Rand (of the Rand Corporation). Rand’s father was CIA. Oswald’s legend may have been used by “intelligence agencies” prior to, and after, the assassination. Jack Ruby knew Oswald’s legend and corrected Dallas D.A. Henry Wade at a press conference on 11/22/63; members of the “criminal” underworld were aware of “Oswald’s” legend. How? Remember, the CIA colluded with the National Syndicate (Organized Crime) to assassinate Fidel Castro and these plots were still active on November 22, 1963!

  8. “Maturing effect” is an interesting choice of words. For brevity, and a little levity here, this reminds me of the cheese commercial where the cheese is checked on to see if it is mature enough for its purpose – to be mass distributed for mass consumption. The cheese is portrayed in a variety of “immature and juvenile roles” until the checker decides that the cheese is “mature enough.”
    The CIA has its own language folks. The “maturing effect” statement, coupled with “his time spent in the Soviet Union” smacks of collusion among those signing off on the memo. Could it be, ah, um, CODE!? Oswald is finished being sheep dipped and is ready for Dallas now that all of his “bonafides” are in place? I’m thinking that Wm. King Harvey and James Angelton were prominently behind the Oswald legend. Oswald may have shot at Gov. Connelly for not changing his dishonorable discharge status. Others may have piggy backed on this misguided plan of Oswald, and assassinated Kennedy.

  9. Dear Paul!

    “Occams razor” is a philosophical way of expressing the simplest way of reaching a conclusion. If a teacher shows the Zapruder film to a class of 13 year old kids not telling them, that we have to do with the killing of a president, and asks them: “Does this headshot come from the front or from the back?” What do you think, they will answer with not much hesitation?
    Of course, it comes from the front. Therefore, as Lee Oswald was in the school book depository, behind the car, and the headshot came from the front, we by simple logical derivation arrive at the conclusion: we have to do with a conspiracy. There is no need of taking anything more into consideration, before we can draw this conclusion, even that there are thousands of other elements, that lead to the same.
    The problem in all this consists of two things: People who for many reasons cannot think logically and people, who will not think logically, because they have another agenda.

      1. no ,put there by an agent of the SS. told years later,found in car when cleaning up the rear seat.put on stretcher ,not thinking about it.

    1. I am from rural America, I have enjoyed many Years hunting and fishing with my Family.
      WHEN YOU SHOOT A DEER IN THE HEAD, THE HEAD DOES NOT MOVE TOWARD YOU! There were at least 2 shooters on the day. Possibly
      3. All you have to do is follow the wound track in JRK’s frontal lobe and anybody with any comon sence can see where the bullet came from, It makes a big “V” with the impact point at the front of His head. With the bullet coming low and from the right front. Maybe Oswald was in on it, maybe he hit Him in the neck. I don’t know. But if we don’t find out soon all of these people that had anything to do with it will be dead and no one will ever know.

      1. Larry Flint spent a while getting documents released, and in one photo recovered from the events in dealy plaza, A close up of the grassy knoll in my mind shows a police officer(badge on chest and Hat) weapon at shoulder, and with smoke at barrels end……..The publication housing the info Mr Flint recovered was soon removed and now very hard to find….but I know where one is……

  10. The CIA and the FBI surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald prior to his assassination of JFK, was an embarrassment of emphatic incompetence,
    ineptitude, unprofessionalism, and downright stupidity given what they knew about Oswald’s activities(which are well documented). It was a complete failure of National Security, and if the proper security procedures were put in place around Dealey Plaza on November 22nd 1963, President JFK would never have been assassinated. Where was the security on that fateful day(morning) when Oswald arrived at work and carried his cheap rifle freely into the Texas School Book Depository in a brown paper bag. Open windows everywhere. Here is a guy who defected to the soviet Union. Was openly Pro-Castro etc, etc. They failed to protect the President of the United States from Oswald. It is understandable that people have concocted bizarre and unfounded conspiracy theories(none of which hold any water) due to the security failures prior to and during the assassination which were the result of complete non vigilance and sheer incompetence.

  11. Well, as an addendum of sorts to this post, it might be helpful to state that the use of some phrases – like “conspiracy buffs” – is meant pejoratively, and therefore used in a way not consistent with the guidelines.
    It’s a stupid phrase because it doesn’t really say anything useful; after all, are historians of Julius Caesar “conspiracy buffs?” I think whenever one uses that phrase it’s a giveaway that the person using it wants to dismiss all discussions and diminish those inquiries by analogizing them to a ‘hobby’ with no real world impact, like collecting magazine covers.

  12. Dear readers, this is a general etiquette reminder that is a bit overdue. We recognize that the subject generates passionate debate, but there are some general guidelines we would like to maintain. First and foremost, we ask that you address the issues and not indulge in personal attacks, however subtle. Our patience is growing thin when it comes to snide remarks or condescending language. You may have a truly insightful comment, but if you add an unnecessary jab at those who might disagree, you put your comment at risk. We also ask that individual comments grow no longer than the original posts. Policing comments is a subjective art and we try to be consistent. Please try to respect the guidelines so we can keep the debate a robust and compelling one. Thank you. (This reminder will appear in all the most recent threads and does not necessarily speak to comments within this thread.)

  13. Why should they have been concerned? According to many conspiracy buffs on this blog Oswald was a innocent man who couldn’t hurt a fly.

    1. S.R. "Dusty" Rohde

      I do not recall making the assertion that LHO was innocent of involvment, just innocent of taking the fatal head shot.
      I have indicated in posts that it certainly appears that LHO was aware something was going on, but does not imply he was complicit. Much of the evidence implies this is true, which would essentially define the situation of a “Patsy”.

      1. I agree that there is still some question marks over Oswald’s involvement with the people involved in the assassination. Not the least of which is even as a “patsy” how could it be guaranteed that Oswald would be alone at the crucial time of the shooting and not have joined any of the groups viewing the parade? I don’t think that could be guaranteed unless he was specifically instructed to stay inside the building by himself during the parade. Or he was with a group of people who were also involved in the assassination and therefore not likely to admit that their ‘patsy’ was with them instead of shooting the President.

    2. That is a non-sequitur (at best). It’s not really about “should have been concerned” it’s about “would have been concerned”, had the parties responsible for internal security been able to see the big picture regarding Oswald before 11/22.

      What is presented above is strong evidence of intentional obfuscation around Oswald’s activities in the lead up to the assassination. The question is, can someone come up with an innocent reason for that?

      A person could understand post-assassination coverup. After all, if Oswald was affiliated with the CIA, and then he went rogue and shot JFK, you’d probably want to cover that up. (You’d also want to cover it up if he was KGB, which may be what LBJ, Warren, etc thought.) But the pre-assassination obfuscation looks more sinister.

      1. I’m not sure there’s a truly “innocent” explanation for the obfuscation you mention.

        I suspect there was an element of backside covering going on post-assassination by a number of CIA personnel. One might also reasonably suspect that concealing sensitive operations (eg. embassy wiretaps) would also be a paramount priority, both at the time and later on.

        The real problem when trying to understand what on earth was going on in Mexico City is finding a coherent explanation for the nature of the information that went back and forth between Mexico City and HQ. On the face of it, the differing descriptions of Oswald, photos and phone transcripts look very odd, bordering on highly suspicious. I find it hard to believe that’s the result of some kind of clerical or human error.

        However, I’m not sure these anomalies in themselves are evidence of a massive plot, perhaps it could be explained to some extent by compartmentalized operations with differing actions and agendas.

        A lot of folks see things like this and immediately start joining dots and jumping to conclusions about a gigantic conspiracy. I’m guessing that the truth of the matter, whatever it might be, is a lot more nuanced and multi-layered.

        Some of the people involved here are far from easily comprehensible. Angleton for example seems to have spent years lost in a wilderness of mirrors where white was black, black was white and the agency was full of moles. One can’t help but wonder what kind of impact working in that environment had on some of the folks mentioned above and their analysis and judgement of Oswald. Were they too pre-occupied with finding traitors in their midst and too curious about where Oswald might lead them to intervene?

    3. Good point.

      The CIA memo actually states “US EMB Moscow stated twenty months of realities of life in Soviet Union had clearly had maturing effect on Oswald”.

      This statement reminds me of a scene in Killing Kennedy wherein the ambassador or official first told Oswald that defection wasn’t the right thing to do, and that he would come to his senses after a year, or words to that effect.

      Therefore, I don’t relate the use of the word ‘maturing’ to ‘dipping’.

      HOWEVER, the memo refers to Oswald’s plea for any arrangement to have any legal proceedings dropped against him.

      What arrangement did he make to satisfy his return to the USA?

      Did he agree to be an informant or operative of any government agency?

    4. Yes, I agree that it does look that way. On the other hand there must be some conspiracy buffs who would agree that LHO was definitely involved and not innocent. Perhaps they don’t speak up as much?
      But more on the subject. I did recently read that agencies like the FBI and CIA didn’t share information or cooperate with each other so we know that the CIA would withhold information from the FBI and other government agencies, like Naval Intelligence and the State Department. They would withhold the fact that they were aware of Oswald, thinking him a very real danger. This information would not have been passed on and would for sure cause major problems later.

  14. Jeff, Do you still have your interview notes from your meeting with Ms. Roman? I wonder how she felt the Outlook piece in the Post had stepped over the line? I’m sure she thought she couldn’t have given away much at the time, but then when she found out that people like John Newman had connected more of the dots about Mexico City and about Oswald’s intelligence connections, she felt a sickening feeling that she had betrayed her former employer, the CIA. They say you never leave the Agency, even when you retire. Unless you are thrown out, like Phillip Agee was.

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