As part of the paper’s 50th anniversary JFK coverage, Scott K. Parks of the Dallas News recounts a story that roiled the national press in early 1964: the rumor that accused assassin Lee Oswald was a paid FBI informant. Using declassified FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Parks sheds new light on how an independent Texas law man shook up official Washington.
In Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade believed the story that Oswald was an FBI informant and he persisted in talking about it, which worried U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, chairman of the commission investigating the assassination. It also worried the commission’s general counsel J. Lee Rankin.
“They did not want to be seen as conducting an investigation of Hoover’s FBI,” the story notes.
The rumor that Oswald was a U.S. government informant was not just threatening to the FBI. It was also threatening to the CIA. The FBI was responsible for watching Oswald, a former defector to the Soviet Union, in 1963 but the CIA had been monitoring his travels and contacts since 1959. The rumor especially concerned those CIA officers–including top deputies to Richard Helms and James Angleton–who knew even more about Oswald than the FBI on the eve of Kennedy’s assassination..
In a meeting with Warren and Rankin in January 1964, Wade did not mince words about how U.S. government agents would have handled an informant like Oswald: without a paper trail.
From the Dallas News story:
“Wade went on to tell Rankin and Warren that when he was an undercover FBI agent in South America during World War II, he didn’t have to keep receipts or identify his paid informants.”
“The implication was clear: FBI headquarters — meaning J. Edgar Hoover — might not even know if Oswald had been a bureau informant, because field agents might not have shared that information with their Washington superiors.”
Hoover ordered an investigation of Wade and found that Wade had kept paper records of his informants. Wade was forced to change his story. The FBI director had protected the bureau’s reputation. But Wade never back off his point: somebody could have been handling Oswald.
Wade’s words stirred concern in Washington because he was treading close to some of the U.S. government’s most sensitive national security operations. As scholars David Kaiser and John Newman documented, the FBI and the CIA and made sure that their operations in late 1963 targeting the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee, of which Oswald purported to be a member, were not disclosed to Warren Commission. The reason: “national security.”
Yet these “national security” operations were at the heart of the intelligence failure that culminated in JFK’s death. In the last three months of JFK’s life, while senior FBI and the CIA officials were targettng the FPCC for penetration, disruption and destruction, some of these same officials were informed as Oswald publicly promoted the FPCC, an organization officially classified as “subversive” by the U.S. government.
These same officials were notified when Oswald was arrested for fighting with CIA-sponsored Cubans in New Orleans. Then Oswald went to Mexico City where he met with Cuban and Russian diplomats. These conversations were recorded by the CIA and reviewed by senior undercover officers–who kept their FBI colleagues in the dark about Oswald. Then Oswald moved to Dallas with his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.
The response of the CIA and FBI? On October 10, 1963, they removed Oswald’s name from the FBI’s “alert” list of persons of interest to the FBI headquarters. They reduced Oswald’s security profile as he made his way to Dealey Plaza.
Why such hands-off treatment for a known leftist whose biography and travels were well-known to senior CIA operations officers? (Those in the know about Oswald included assistant deputy director Tom Karamessines, chief of Western Hemisphere operations William J. Hood, Mexico desk chief John Whitten and counterintelligence liaison officer Jane Roman.
One possible explanation is that these officials thought of Oswald as an asset, a person who could provide information and/or be manipulated. In a word, Oswald may have been what Henry Wade said he was.
There’s no piece of paper that says that, say defenders of the FBI and CIA.
Henry Wade’s voice of experience was a useful corrective to such willful naivete. The people who ran agents didn’t have to keep receipts or even identify their paid informants to superiors, Wade said. At a time when the extent fo the CIA’s pre-assassination surveillance of Oswald was a supreme “national security” secret, Wade’s candor endangered the FBI and the CIA’s “plausible deniability” on Oswald.
One online biography of Wade states that in 1964, “Wade produced a screenplay on the assassination entitled Countdown in Dallas. The script suggested that Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were involved in a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. The film was never made.”
Wade stayed on as D.A. in Dallas for another decade, gaining a measure of fame for his role in the landmark abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade.
It would be thirty years before the full extent of the CIA and FBI’s pre-assassination surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald would be revealed to the American people.
Kim Wade, a Dallas attorney and Henry Wade’s son, reviewed his father’s FBI file at the request of the Dallas News. Afterward, he said: “If my dad were alive and looking back on this incident, I think he would be wryly amused. He may have adjusted his story to maintain good relations with the FBI. But the big picture is that the FBI wanted it to appear that it had nothing to do with Oswald.”