Phil Shenon has a long piece in The Guardian excavating the sad story of Charles Thomas, a U.S. diplomat who investigated Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions in Mexico in the 1960s. Thomas was rebuffed by top CIA officials, including counterintelligence chief James Angleton. Thomas was denied an expected promotion and later committed suicide.
The story illuminates a central mystery of the JFK assassination story but not quite in the way than Shenon proposes.
Thomas did not stumble on evidence of a Cuban plot against JFK. He stumbled on evidence of a CIA operation involving Oswald and the Cuban Consulate before JFK was killed.
Shenon suggests that Thomas had found evidence the Cuban government was complicit in JFK’s assassination and this is why his career was derailed.
This theory depends on the improbable assumption that Angleton, a vigilant lifelong anti-communist, would condone the killing of his friend the president. (Angleton and his wife Cicely socialized with Jack and Jackie Kennedy in the late 1950s.) And it ignores the fact that Angleton participated in the CIA’s effort to kill Castro in the early 1960s.
To argue that Angleton protected a communist he wanted dead (Castro) by not acting on possible evidence of his alleged role in the murder of an American president strikes me as close to absurd. Angleton’s reaction to Thomas’ actions needs a more plausible explanation.
Shenon is right that the JFK files could shed more like on who killed Thomas’ career and drove him to suicide. He writes:
“In a memo written in 1969, in his final days at the department, Thomas made a last plea that someone go back to Mexico. Though he made no allegation that Fidel Castro had any personal role in any plot to kill Kennedy, Thomas wanted the US to investigate whether the Warren Commission had missed evidence of a conspiracy in JFK’s death between Oswald and Cubans loyal to the Castro regime.”
What Shenon’s account overlooks is that Thomas’ proposal to re-investigate Oswald’s actions in Mexico City threatened the CIA, more than it threatened the Cuba government. While the evidence linking Oswald to hostile Cuban communists was mostly hearsay and not corroborated by other CIA sources, Thomas’ probing threatened to blow the agency’s cover story, fed to the credulous Warren Commission, that its officers knew very little about Oswald’s visit to Mexico City when it occurred.
In a January 1964 memo Richard Helms, deputy CIA director and Angleton’s friend and patron, lied to the Warren Commission.
“After the assassination [editor’s note; emphasis added]….. it was learned that Oswald had also visited the Cuban Consulate and had talked there with a clerk, a Mexican national, Sylvia Duran,” Helms wrote.
Helms’ claim, which was repeated on p. 777 of the Commission’s final report, was false, as Mexico City station chief Win Scott later wrote in his unpublished memoir.
Scott claimed (and declassified CIA records confirm) that the Mexico City station informed CIA headquarters about Oswald’s Cuban contacts within days of their occurrence, ie, six weeks before JFK’s assassination.
Professor Peter Dale Scott argues that Helms’ prevarication amounted to obstruction of justice. Whatever legal interpretation applies, Helms most likely lied to protect the agency’s “sources and methods,” that is to say, an operation.
If the U.S. government officials had pursued Thomas’ line of inquiry, they would discovered that the CIA had deceived the Warren Commission on a key point of fact: the agency’s knowledge of Oswald’s Cuban contacts. And they might have learned this deception was cover for an operation involving the man who would be arrested for killing Kennedy.
Thus Thomas’ insistence that there was more to learn about Oswald in Mexico City threatened Angleton more than anyone else. Before JFK was killed, the counterintelligence chief knew more about Oswald than just about anyone in the CIA.
Angleton’s mole-hunting office, the Special Investigations Group, headed by his aide Birch O’Neal, had monitored Oswald’s personal and political life constantly since November 1959.
When Oswald was arrested for fighting with CIA-funded Cubans in New Orleans, Angleton’s liaison officer Jane Roman received two FBI’s reports on the incident.
And when Oswald name was heard on a sensitive Mexico City wiretap in October 1963 talking to Cuban and Soviet diplomats, Angleton’s office was notified first.
Angleton made sure even close colleagues did not learn the story. A month after the JFK was killed, he thwarted the agency’s internal investigation of Oswald by sidelining the senior officer, John Whitten, who was asking too many questions about his Cuba-related activities.
By the time Thomas made his case in 1967-69, Angleton already had a record of blocking investigation of Oswald’s Cuban contacts.
Thomas got the same treatment as Whitten.
Working as a consul at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, Thomas had heard stories from credible sources about Oswald’s contact–and possible romance–with Silvia Duran, as well as other information that the Warren Commission’s superficial investigation had not uncovered.
As a career civil servant, Thomas expected, not unreasonably, that senior officials in the State Department, FBI, and CIA would be interested in new facts about JFK’s accused murderer. He thought wrong. That’s what killed his career and possibly drove him to suicide.
Thomas had not stumbled on evidence of a Cuban plot against JFK. He didn’t know it but he had stumbled on evidence of a CIA operation related to Oswald’s visit to the Cuban Consulate.
This is a more plausible scenario than the anti-communist Angleton protecting the ultra-communist Castro. And a variety of new evidence supports it.
Angleton had targeted the Cuba consulate in Mexico City as a locus of intelligence activity in his May 1963 assessment of Cuba’s security forces. His staff had been notified about Oswald’s visit to the consulate in late September 1963. Five of his aides wrote a curious cable about Oswald, dated October 10, 1963. And when the Warren Commission asked Angleton for details of what he knew about Oswald’s actions before JFK was killed, he said he preferred to “wait out” investigators rather than explain.
All the while, Angleton strongly supported the declared U.S. policy of overthrowing Castro. He had a conspiratorial frame of mind and he harbored suspicions that the KGB might be involved in JFK’s assassination.
If there was any credible evidence that the Cuban government had connived in JFK’s death, Angleton’s most likely reaction would have been to investigate for the sake of exposing communist treachery and justifying Castro’s removal by force.
Angleton preferred to bury the subject. When the State Department referred Thomas’s findings to the CIA in September 1969, Angleton replied that he saw “no need for further action.” He was less interested in investigating evidence of Cuban complicity than in covering up CIA operational activity involving Oswald. He wasn’t protecting Castro. He was protecting himself.
Whether the new JFK files will shed any new light on the mistreatment of Thomas depends on whether President Trump makes good on his promise to release all the files this week.