JFK Most Wanted: Dave Phillips’ CIA operations files

David Phillips
David A. Phillips, chief of CIA anti-Castro covert operations in 1963

David Phillips was a failed actor turned expatriate newspaper publisher in Santiago, Chile when he was recruited into the CIA in the early 1950s. He made his mark fast. In 1955, he won a Distinguished Intelligence Medal, one of the agency’s highest honors, for mounting deceptive radio broadcasts in the CIA’s overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954.

After that his CIA career took off. With Howard Hunt, Phillips served as propaganda chief in the CIA’s failed effort to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs In April 1961. When he was assigned to Mexico City in 1962, station chief Win Scott described him as “the finest covert action officer I have ever met.”

After JFK’s assassination, Scott was not so complimentary and I suspect the reason why was Oswald’s curious handling of Oswald. .(I tell the story in my biography of Scott, Our Man in Mexico. Buy it here.)

Phillips on Oswald

Philllips is a significant figure because there is no dispute that he was informed about about Oswald’s travels and politics  before JFK was killed.

Working undercover in Mexico City in 1963, Phillips oversaw CIA photo and audio surveillance of the Cuban diplomatic offices in Mexico City. When Oswald contacted the Cuban consulate on September 27, 1963, Phillips was informed with a couple of days.

Phillips told several contradictory stories what he knew about Oswald and when he knew it.

In his 1977 memoir, Nightwatch, Phillips described Oswald’s visit as a “just another blip on the station’s radar screen. It did not seem important when we first noticed it.” (p. 239)

In November 1976, he added remarkable details not in the book that suggested Oswald was more than a “blip.” He  told Ron Kessler of the Washington Post and Daniel Gillmore of the United Press International agency that Oswald had offered his services to the Cubans during his visit to the consulate.

According to Kessler’s story, Phillips said that Oswald said, “I have information you would be interested in I know you can pay my way.”

In Gillmore’s article, Phillips was quoted as saying, “I have the recollection hazy after fourteen years that Oswald intimated that he had information that might be useful to the Soviets and Cuba, and that he hoped to be provided with free transportation to Russia via Cuba.”

The implication was that Oswald had acted in concert with the Soviets or the Cubans.

The day after he spoke to Kessler, Phillips was questioned, under oath, by Richard Sprague, the general counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Sprague asked to confirm the quotes and he backtracked.

Gaeton Fonzi
Gaeton Fonzi (Credit: Gordon Winslow)

“I think I may have said that or something near to it, but what I intended to convey was that Mr. Kessler was saying, well, is that the idea and I said yes, that was the idea,” he replied.

(Here’s Phillips’ HSCA Nov. 27, 1976 deposition; see p. 40)

There is no transcript of a phone call that corroborates Phillips’ claim and, by the end of the deposition, he had all but retracted the story he told the two reporters. HSCA general counsel Richard Sprague observed to Phillips “to some degree you have slithered around what are quotes by people in the news media.” (See p. 92).

If Oswald was a lone psychopath, why would tell Phllips such different stories on consecutive days?  You can speculate about the answers. What seems indisputable is that Phillips did not give a coherent account of his pre-assassination knowledge of Oswald.

Phillips’s inconsistent, inaccurate, and evasive answers to questions about Oswald, prompted HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi to allege in his book The Last Investigation that Phillips was guilty of perjury in the case of the murdered president.

Fonzi’s belief was fortified by the credible but uncorroborated story of Antonio Veciana who worked with the CIA in 1963. Veciana  said he saw Phillips in the company of Oswald in Dallas in September 1963.

Phillips and assassination

After JFK’s assassination, Phillips went on to become the chief of CIA operations in Latin America. Upon his retirement in 1975, he established himself as one of the most prominent public defenders of the CIA. To defend the agency’s reputation, he founded an organization, the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers, which still exists today.

Phillips consistently denied that he was involved in Kennedy’s assassination and sued JFK authors who suggested he did. Late in life, Phillips told former HSCA investigator Kevin Walsh that he thought JFK was killed by unnamed “rogue” CIA officers.

Phillips, who died in 1987, also knew how to arrange an assassination.

In 1998, the non-profit National Security Archive obtained and posted CIA documents showing that Phillips, at the direction of CIA director Richard Helms and President Nixon, had worked with ultra-right-wing Chilean military officers responsible for the assassination of General Rene Schneider in October 1970.

What is the CIA censoring?

A search of the online JFK database of the National Archives shows that the CIA retains four files containing 606 pages of material on Phillips,

This material is supposed to be made public in October 2017, though the CIA has the option to ask the President to delay release after that date.

I have a hunch that the withheld material likely includes documents about the conspiracy to kidnap and assassinate Gen. Schneider. It may also include revelatory material about Phillips and the events of 1963.

David Phillips
National Archives list of David Phillips files that remain secret

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