What the curious case of Richard Gibson tells us about Lee Harvey Oswald

I was on BBC 3 Radio yesterday talking about the curious case of Richard Gibson, co-founder of the leftist Fair Play for Cuba Committee and, it turns out, a longtime CIA spy.

The larger context of Gibson’s story, which I broke in Newsweek, tells us a lot about the CIA’s surveillance of Lee Oswald in 1963. 

Richard Gibson

Richard Gibson, CBS News writer who became a CIA spy

The fact that CIA dumped Gibson’s file while he is still alive is striking. The agency is not careless about protecting “sources and methods.” A journo-friend who knows the CIA well, asks: “Do you think this was just a massive screwup, or some sort of revenge for something he did?”

Probably the latter. Maybe CIA found out Gibson was selling information to the KGB as well. Maybe Gibson gave them bad intelligence. There has to be a reason why CIA officials chose to burn a living source–especially after President Trump tweeted that living sources would be protected.

Its too bad Gibson cannot give his side of the story.

Suspicions of Gibson have been around a long time. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan found some of the first evidence 25 years ago and asked Gibson about it. He denied all.

Defending Cuba

Mike asks “Does this mean the FPCC was a CIA operation? If so, since Oswald passed out FPCC pamphlets, is this further evidence that he worked with the agency in some capacity?”

Not exactly. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee was not a CIA operation. It was a CIA target. The Gibson story, along with a lot of other evidence, shows how agency officers sought to penetrate, manipulate, control, and disrupt Americans who sympathized with the Cuban revolution. One of those Americans was Lee Oswald.

Gibson and his CBS News colleague Robert Taber did not intend the FPCC to become a mass organization. They brought together about 30 intellectuals to sign an ad in the New York Times in April 1960. They hoped to do nothing more than persuade news organizations and newspaper readers to look at the aims and accomplishments of the Cuban revolution more objectively.

FPCC ad

The New York Times advertisement announcing the creation of the FPCC

At a time when Jim Crow ruled America, the racial diversity of the signatories, starting with the writer James Baldwin, is striking. The fact that black intellectuals signed on to a foreign policy manifesto, when most whites expected blacks to restrict themselves to the “Negro question” was also radical.

Targeting the FPCC

Striking too was the instantly hostility of the CIA, FBI, and Senate Internal Security Committee.  As college students and professors formed chapters of the Committee, the FPCC was suddenly a growing organization and perceived as a growing threat to U.S. officials.

The popularity of the idea that American should give Cuba a break forced Gibson to take on a job he never expected to have: running a national political movement. He was not a CIA source–not yet. But the U.S. government was already seeking to disrupt and destroy his organization, by any means.

Gibson and Taber

Founders of the FPCC: Richard Gibson, left, and Robert Taber, right, (Credit: Richard Gibson Papers, George Washington University)

Gibson was wiretapped by the CIA while talking to June Cobb, a CIA informant known as LICOOKY-1. He was served with two subpoenas by the Senate Internal Security Committee, which was determined to press criminal charges against the group in 1961.

The FBI intercepted and opened the group’s mail. When the FPCC hired an accountant to handle the flood of donations, the FBI turned him an informant.

Gibson, feeling harassed and underpaid, resigned from the FPCC and offered his services to the CIA in July 1962. By 1963, the FPCC had dozens of chapters around the country. The Senate Internal Security Committee was still seeking to demonize and disrupt the group with hostile hearings. And the CIA had the co-founder of the group as a potential source.

Oswald in New Orleans

Lee Oswald in New Orleans, August 16, 1963

Targeting Oswald

The purpose of the CIA’s penetration was not just to spy on American sympathizers with Cuba. The agency sought the ability to act in the name of the FPCC, the better to destroy it.

In September 1963, CIA officer John Tilton asked the FBI for the FPCC’s mailing list and stationery the purpose of “planting deceptive information which might embarrass the Committee.”

Tilton, it should be noted, was in communication at this time with George Joannides, aka “Walter Newby,” the chief of the psychological warfare branch of the Miami station. Both Tilton and Joannides shared their deliberations with Angleton’s operations office, known as CI/OPs.

While most of the Joannides files are still classified, the circumstantial evidence indicates he participated in the CIA’s covert campaign operation against the FPCC. His assets in the DRE/AMPSELL program publicized Oswald’ FPCC connections in August 1963. After JFK was killed, they published–with CIA funds–the first JFK conspiracy theory.

Of course, none of this was disclosed to the Warren Commission. The Commission’s bright young liberal lawyers trusted the CIA. They could not imagine that senior agency officials would deceive them about material evidence related to the assassination of JFK. But they did. Among many other things, the CIA men concealed their targeting of the FPCC at the very time Oswald was publicly supporting the group.

Howard Willens, one of those lawyers, conceded to me, “I was naive, to say the least,” about the CIA.

Understanding COINTELPRO

The Richard Gibson story gives lie to a common myth about the U.S. government’s program of political harassment known COINTELPRO. The myth is that it was the creation of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In fact, it was a joint enterprise with the CIA, and specifically with counterintelligence chief James Angleton. COINTELPRO, after all, stands for “Counterintelligence Program.”

DRE Trinchera

The first JFK conspiracy theory

The recruiting of Richard Gibson, co-founder of the FPCC, was a key part of the U.S. government’s plans to destroy the FPCC. Those plans came to fruition on November 22, 1963, when Oswald was arrested for killing the president, a charge he denied. Joannides’ AMSPELL assets went to newspaper reporters with evidence of Oswald’s support for the FPCC, Kennedy had been killed by a communist, said the CIA’s agents. Oswald and Castro were “the presumed assassins.”

A month later, the FPCC disbanded, its work forever tainted by association with the suspected (and now conveniently dead) assassin. The operation to destroy the FPCC had succeeded.

George Joannides would get a medal for his covert work in Miami. Richard Gibson would get a job as a spy.

5 comments

  1. Steven P Schwendeman says:

    Thank you for your important post.

    You wrote:

    “The Gibson story, along with a lot of other evidence, shows how agency officers sought to penetrate, manipulate, control, and disrupt Americans who sympathized with the Cuban revolution. One of those Americans was Lee Oswald.”

    From the last sentence are you implying that Lee Harvey Oswald legitimately supported the FPCC while handing out pamphlets with the address of the office building (544 Camp St.) holding the anti-communist office of Guy Banister? Do you actually think Oswald’s association with Bannister was unknown to the CIA targeting the FPCC?

    https://www.maryferrell.org/pages/The_CIA_and_the_JFK_Assassination.html

    • Oswald was a leftist and an admirer of Castro so his political views were consonant with the FPCC.

      I do NOT think Oswald’s association with Bannister was unknown to the CIA men targeting the FPCC but I have no evidence to support the idea. So I don’t state possible CIA knowledge of the association as a fact and I don’t make any assumptions based on the possibility.

  2. Paul f says:

    Was Oswald really a leftist, or is that another one of those things that is assumed without foundation?

    • In his personal comments and dicussions with friends he espoused a moderate leftist line on the issues of the day. He admired JFK’s civil rights policies and defended Cuba from North American aggression.

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