Newseum to host Warren Commission critic who got played by a CIA spymaster

Edward J. Epstein, Warren Commission critic who got played by retired CIA official, James Angleton.

As a citadel of modern Washington culture, the Newseum embodies robust respectability. It has the gravitas of the Smithsonian and the digital savvy of the Spy Museum. Its marble edifice, engraved with the First Amendment, is a reminder of the importance of a free speech in the capital of a national security state that has never been more powerful.

So I’m happy that the Newseum is hosting a talk this Sunday, April 7, by Edward J. Epstein, one of the original critics of the Warren Commission. Not since Oliver Stone ruffled feathers with a combative defense of “JFK,” the movie, at the National Press Club in 1992 has a Warren Commission critic had such a respectable venue in Washington.

But Ed Epstein is no Oliver Stone. Say what you want about the provocative Hollywood director, but even his harshest critics cannot deny that the success of his film shamed Congress into passing the JFK Records Act in 1992. The law resulted in the long overdue declassification of some four million pages of assassination-related records, a trove that students and historians of the assassination and the Kennedy era will mine forever.

The legacy of Epstein’s JFK work has not been quite so illuminating.

Unfortunately, his JFK scholarship has served to obscure the appalling performance of CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton in 1963, a central chapter of the JFK story that remains largely unknown to the public, and to ill-informed Washington journalistic institutions such as the Newseum. Epstein’s Washington appearance at least offers the hope of dispelling the self-serving but influential mythology that the CIA continues to perpetuate around Angleton’s role in the JFK assassination story.

Epstein’s talk, entitled “Inside Media: The Warren Commission and the JFK Assassination,” will certainly offer a rare opportunity to hear a perspective at variance from the capital media consensus that avoids the JFK story with a mixture of arrogance and condescension about the public’s long-standing rejection of the Commission’s conclusions.

To his credit, Epstein has never avoided the JFK story. From The Newseum website:

Epstein’s 1966 book, “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth,” was one of the first books on the Kennedy assassination investigation and an instant best-seller. After interviewing every member of the Warren Commission, Epstein concluded that enough remained uninvestigated that conspiracy theories would persist for years.

This telling formulation suggests the Newseum’s agenda in hosting Epstein. The suggestion seems to be that what matters about the Warren Commission’s failure to produce a credible account of JFK’s murder is not that it failed to identify the murderers of a sitting U.S. president. The problem with the Warren Commission seems to be that it created skepticism and confusion about the government’s official account.

Epstein can certainly shed light on that story.

1. What Angleton told Epstein

Epstein was among the mildest of the early Warren Commission critics. He did not charge conspiracy or provide a new account of the crime in Dallas. He took on a more limited mission: to identify the shortcomings of the Warren Commission’s report — and he did so effectively.

He was not alone. In 1966 many mainstream commentators were reconsidering the Warren Commission’s conclusions. Look magazine, a popular national newsweekly, called for a new investigation that year. So did former JFK aide Richard Goodwin. So did conservative columnist William F. Buckley.

Unlike the Washington press corps, Epstein did not abandon the JFK story in 1967. That was when New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison launched a scattershot prosecution charging that the CIA was behind JFK’s death, and when CIA Director Richard Helms responded with a secret global campaign aimed at “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report.” Garrison’s failure to secure any convictions discredited the JFK story among most journalists. The effects of the CIA’s campaign were also felt — though never acknowledged — in the Washington press corps.

Again to his credit, Epstein was not deterred. An independent writer based in New York, he continued to pursue his interest in the case of the murdered president in the 1970s, but increasingly from the perspective of the CIA. Indeed, his 1978 book “Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald,” showed the influence of a knowledgable source, disgraced CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton.

James Angleton

James Angleton, chief of counterintelligence in 1963, whose self-serving JFK conspiracy theory proved influential and unfounded.

Though mainstream news organizations avoid the story, CIA records released since the 1990s show that Angleton is a central character in the JFK assassination story.

Angleton, the scion of a well-to-do family and Yale graduate, was part of the founding generation of the CIA. His responsibilities for protecting the agency from penetration by the Soviet Union gave him enormous power in the agency from 1954 to 1974. His political opinions became right-wing to the point of paranoia. By the mid-1960s he believed that the British government and the French intelligence service were effectively controlled by Moscow.

In his view, liberals (such as President Kennedy) who did not share his views were dupes or tools of the international communist conspiracy. To protect the country, he launched a massive illegal program to open and read the mail of hundreds of thousands of Americans, a blatant violation of the CIA’s charter that continued for more than 15 years. When the program was exposed by the New York Times in 1974, CIA director WIlliam Colby fired him.

A brilliant and devious man, Angleton sought to escape disgrace by sharing his views with journalists and historians and persuading them that his view of the communist threat was prescient, not paranoid. Angleton was a master of manipulating people, and Epstein proved vulnerable to his charm. In a series of background interviews in the 1970s, Angleton convinced Epstein of his personal JFK conspiracy theory: that the Soviet Union had mounted an elaborate deception campaign around Oswald and JFK’s assassination.

It is worth noting that few historians of the CIA or the Kennedy presidency subscribe to Angleton’s theory today, and even Epstein has backed off of it. But as retired CIA officer Cleveland Cram noted in a withering review for an CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, Epstein’s “Legend,” proved to be an “enormous stimulus to the deception thesis by suggesting that Yuriy Nosenko, a Soviet defector, had been sent by the KGB to provide a cover story for Lee Harvey Oswald, who, the book alleged, was a KGB agent.”

In fact, an exhaustive CIA investigation concluded Nosenko was a genuine defector and found no basis for Angleton’s “Soviets done it” conspiracy-mongering. To date, there is no evidence that Oswald was a KGB agent.

Cram’s critique of Angleton is especially compelling. Cram was trusted CIA veteran who, as JFK researcher John Simkin has noted, spent six years studying Angleton’s tenure as counterintelligence chief and wrote an assessment that ran to ten volumes. Cram concluded that Angleton was a fraud whose alcohol-fueled theories and off-the-book operations had done untold damage to the Agency’s legitimate work. Cram’s study is so damning of Angleton that most of it remains secret 30 years later.

Confirmation of Epstein’s gullibility came in 1988, a year after Angelton’s death, when Epstein published “Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA.” The book retailed Angleton’s elaborate theory that Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost was merely the sixth phase in a grand strategy of Soviet deception strategy that could soon bring the West to its knees, unless Western leaders followed his advice.

The book proved less influential than Epstein’s previous work and for good reason. Three years later, the Soviet Union went out of existence.

2. What Angleton Didn’t Tell Epstein

The real story of Angleton and JFK’s death began to emerge in 1994 as the JFK Records Act forced the agency to disgorge its assassination-related records. It showed what Angleton hadn’t shared with Epstein.

The new CIA’s files, first analyzed comprehensively by John Newman, showed that it was Angleton’s staff, not the KGB, that had monitored Oswald’s travels, politics and contacts most closely between 1959 and 1963. Angleton’s aide Jane Roman told me in an interview that senior CIA officials had a “keen interest in Oswald” in October 1963, that they held on a “need to know” basis, a story that I published in the Washington Post in 1995.

The new CIA records also showed that an office in the Counterintelligence Staff, known as the Special Investigation Group, had controlled access to Oswald’s file from when he defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959 to when he moved to Dallas in 1963. The Agency’s public statement that its pre-assassination interest in Oswald was “routine” was shown to be not merely inaccurate, but an astonishingly bald lie. The CIA’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald was anything but routine. The CIA has abandoned that cover story in favor of discreet silence.

Epstein’s trust in Angleton was misplaced to say the least.

Angleton’s staff had watched Oswald’s every stop as he made his way from Moscow to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas. When notified of Oswald’s arrest for fighting with anti-Castro exiles in the the summer of 1963 and his contact with Cuban and Soviet diplomats in the fall, Angleton’s staff not only failed to identify him as possible threat to President Kennedy but also two of Angelton’s most trusted aides, Roman and Betty Egeter (along with William J. Hood, an Angleton acolyte on Helms’s staff) assured the CIA station in Mexico City in October 1963 that Oswald was “maturing.”

Their cable, dated October 10, 1963, asserted that Oswald had seen the error of his communistic ways: “Twenty months of realities of life in the Soviet Union had clearly had a maturing effect on Oswald,” it said.

Six weeks later, JFK was dead, allegedly at the hand of Oswald.

(You can read the Counterintelligence Staff’s lethally complacent Oswald cable here. Note the signatures of Roman, Egerter, and Hood on the last page. I interviewed Hood about this incriminating document in 2007; you can read his lame explanation here.)

And in the wake of JFK’s assassination, it was Angleton who thwarted John Whitten, a senior CIA official and rare hero in the JFK story, who sought to to investigate Oswald’s Cuban contacts. While Epstein assumed that Angleton sought the truth about Oswald, Whitten’s story showed how he sought to hide it.

I broke the story in a 2003 article for the Washington Monthly.

John Whitten, a rare hero in the JFK story, who tried to investigate Oswald and was thwarted by Angleton.

In 1963, Jon Whitten served as chief of the Mexico desk of the clandestine service, and was known for his skill in espionage investigations. Within a day of JFK’s death, deputy director Helms assigned him to review all CIA cable traffic on Oswald. Whitten assumed that he would receive all information about the accused assassin but soon discovered that Angleton had not shared the FBI’s reports on Oswald with him.

In secret sworn testimony to congressional investigators in 1978, Whitten described what he had been denied:

“Details of Oswald’s political activities in the United States; the fact he had shot at General [Edwin] Walker, the fact that diaries and … autobiographical sketches of himself had been found among his effects… These vital things had never been communciated to me. Maybe they were communicated to Angleton but not to me.”

When Whitten complained, Angleton denounced him. Helms removed Whitten from the Oswald probe and replaced him — with Angleton!

The results were predictable. The furtive counterintelligence chief never produced a report on what the CIA knew about Oswald before the assassination. When the Warren Commission asked for more information, Angleton told an aide he preferred to “wait out” the investigators. And so he did. It would be 30 years before the story began to emerge

In sum, Angleton’s staff reassured colleagues about Oswald when JFK was alive. When JFK was dead Angleton personally prevented his colleagues from investigating the accused assassin. Fifteen years later, Angleton suckered Epstein into publishing his now-defunct KGB conspiracy theory. And Epstein passed his fiction along to the public as fact.

Now the Newseum offers up Epstein as an expert on the Warren Commission and the media. He is —though not quite for the reasons his hosts know.

LIke I said, I’m glad Epstein will be speaking in public in such a distinguished venue. Its time for Angleton’s apostles to set the record straight. It would help clarify the causes of Kennedy’s assassination, which remain unknown.

——–

(Full disclosure: I have a sporadic, friendly acquaintance with Epstein. He gave a favorable review to my book “Our Man in Mexico” in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.)

 

 

 

 

33 comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    Angleton may have been “brilliant and devious” as you write, but he failed for quite some time to perceive Kim Philby was a turncoat and during this time had a number of private and chummy conversations with Philby.

    This is the sort of thing that happens when an individual is given power not subject to review.

  2. Uh, to call Edward Epstein a Warren Commission critic would be like calling Sarah Palin a great thinker. There’s no evidence for either. He’s more of a cover-up artist on this case. He was a protege of James Angleton’s and was interviewing George De Mohrenschildt when, during a lunch break in their interview, De M went home and allegedly killed himself.

    Epstein’s two books after his incredibly lightweight critique of the Warren Commission clearly were Angleton-inspired. He wrote a book based on the lies of others that unfairly attacked Jim Garrison, and then he wrote a book in which he pushed Angleton’s line that Oswald was a Soviet Agent. I’d hardly put him in the class of “Warren Commission critic.”

    • leslie sharp says:

      Epstein’s version of deMohrenschildt’s spontaneous suicide is revealing at best.

      • Jonathan says:

        I believe deM’s and Pitzer’s suicides were like Henry Marshall’s, just done more skillfully. I believe the same about Dorothy Kilgallen’s “accidental” death.

        I believe the CIA taught certain of its employees and contractors how to kill secretly, so that the cause of death easily could be misrepresented.

    • H.L. Hunt, the oilman, and James Angleton were 2 men who pushed the disinformation fantasy that the Soviets were behind the JFK assassination. I think CIA operative Frank Sturgis did it as well (yes, I think Sturgis was involved himself in the JFK assassination.)

      JFK “researcher” Dave Perry once told me that he thought Oswald killed JFK, but he implied that he thought that the Soviets told him to do it.

      I give that theory a zero percent probability. Ditto the “Castro did it” theory.

    • Alan Dale says:

      ^ Great to see Lisa Pease participating here. Thank you for your illuminating research on JJA. Invaluable.

  3. Brian LeCloux says:

    How much of a critic was Epstein when he assumed Oswald’s guilt? As Harold Weisberg says in the link below, an extended critique of Epstein’s first book, instead of using a critical approach to the work of the Warren Commission lawyers, he became their flack.
    Is he going to talk about that?
    http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files%20Original/E%20Disk/Epstein%20Edward%20Jay%20Chapter%2024/Item%2001.pdf

  4. Eric Hollingsworth says:

    If “Inquest” hadn’t been one of the first books I read on the assassination, I might not have delved any further. It raised legitimate questions about the Warren Report that made me curious to find out more.

    I just read the Scelso deposition for first time. I’m not sure I’m buying all of it yet. I have to reread it (erg), but one thing that struck me the way he really laid it on thick about Harvey. It reminded of the scene in “Schindler’s List” where the boy confesses “He did it!” and points at the dead guy.

  5. Jonathan says:

    “…the Newseum embodies robust respectability.”

    I’m always alert to appeals to authority.

    And to the vision of Dostoevsky sitting at a table with his vodka and woman writing “Crime and Punishment.”

    Authority reeks. It deserves no respect.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Jeff,

    You like and respect journalists.

    You wouldn’t like me. E.E. degree. Defense Language Institute. Law degree.

    EOM

  7. JFK researcher Mark Gorton on his conversation with Edward Jay Epstein about who killed JFK:

    http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=19273

    “I asked Ed [Epstein] who he thought was behind the assassination, and he said “the CIA”. When I asked who at the CIA, he had no idea. I found it strange that I could have a better idea who was behind the assassination than he did. But his work investigating the assassination was quite early, and Ed seemed to have moved on from paying attention to the assassination. He had never heard of E Howard Hunt’s death bed confession. He knew a lot from first hand experience, but he seemed not to have paid much attention to the work of other researchers.”

  8. jeffmorley says:

    For those who want to know more about the Philby-Angleton relationship, I recommend the first four chapters of “Our Man in Mexico.” The story line focuses on the budding friendship of Win Scott and Jim Angleton in the 1940s. It illuminates how Philby duped Angleton and the CIA and explains how Bill Harvey was the first to figure it out. Philby’s audacious deception was a formative and traumatic event for Angleton, emotionally and intellectually.
    Tom Mangold’s “Cold Warrior” is also quite good on the subject. My account tracks with his but adds more detail.

    • Shane McBryde says:

      I really enjoyed this particular article in light of the fact I’m currently reading Joseph J. Trento’s, “The Secret History of the CIA.” Unfortunately, I believe the book forwards the KGB did it theory.

      I’m very interested in reading “Our Man In Mexico” but, I generally get books from my local public library, and to date none of the local branches are carrying it.

      • Alan Dale says:

        !!!!

        That’s one of the essential resources, Shane. Absolutely a “must have.”

        These are the top of my (personal) list:

        Oswald and the CIA, 2008 ed., John M. Newman
        Our Man In Mexico… 2008, Jeff Morley
        Enemy of the Truth, 2012, Sherry Fiester
        Deep Politics ll, 2003 ed., Peter Dale Scott
        Wilderness of Mirrors, 1980, David C. Martin
        JFK and Vietnam, 1992, John M. Newman
        Flawed Patriot,2006 ,Bayard Stockton
        JFK and the Unspeakable, 2009, James W.Douglas

      • Eric Saunders says:

        I think I remember reading elsewhere that Trento was actually influenced by Epstein. The strange thing is that much of the rest of Trento’s book lays out a lot of the rather sinister networks that were involved in ‘off-the-books’ operations, drug running, and the Kennedy assassinations. Trento’s myopia is bizarre but sadly not that uncommon. Think of Chomsky, Alex Cockburn, William Blum, etc.

  9. Alan Dale says:

    ^ Brothers, 2008, David Talbot

  10. “His political opinions became right-wing to the point of paranoia. By the mid-1960s he believed that the British government and the French intelligence service were effectively controlled by Moscow.”

    The odds are French intelligence in the 1960’s was heavily infiltrated with Russian operatives. And the French and Russians were acutely aware of one critical fact: that John Kennedy had been murdered by a high level domestic American conspiracy: both thought it was Texas oil and the American intelligence agencies. Coincidentally, that is *exactly* what Lyndon Johnson told Madeleine Brown on 12/31/63 as for who murdered John Kennedy: Texas oil men and “fucking renegade intelligence bastards.”

    That knowledge probably had a big role in the creation of the book “Farewell America” published in France in 1968 as a way of helping the 1968 RFK campaign. Contrary to what DiEugenio thinks, “Farewell America” is not a disinformation tract; it is basically quality JFK research and analysis for its time; it was written by the “good guys” in an attempt to help RFK in his 1986 presidential campaign.

    http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-America-The-Plot-Kill/dp/1883955327/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365182295&sr=8-1&keywords=farewell+america

    In fact there is a chapter in “Farewell America” entitled “Spies” which points towards the involvement of US intelligence in the JFK assassination. Note the book also points towards Texas oil and H.L. Hunt.

    H.L. Hunt and James Angleton were two people who both put a lot of effort into blaming the Russians for the JFK assassination. Hunt did it by financing the book “Khrushchev Killed Kennedy” by Michael Eddowes (1975); this is during the same time period Jay Epstein is being fed a load of bunk by James Angleton, who was also pushing the utterly ridiculous “Russians did it” scenario.

    The psychological term for this behavior is “projection.” The warfare term for this “diversionary tactic.” The spy term for this is “black propaganda.”

    • leslie sharp says:

      RM: I know first hand that as late as the 1980’s, a Hunt family enterprise hired European born fascists who were allowed to dress in brown shirts (sans regalia) in celebration of Hitler’s birthday every year.

      To my knowledge, this area of study as it relates to the Kennedy assassination has long since been dismissed, unfortunately. The new generation of those who feel passionately about knowing the truth behind the murder may not grasp the threat posed by this shadowy movement.

      • Ignore the role of H.L. Hunt in the JFK assassination at your peril. Remember Hunt was in Los Angeles at the 1960 Demo convention, & according to John Currington he urged LBJ to take the VP slot.

        There is no doubt H.L. Hunt had a spectacular hatred of John Kennedy. Hunt in fall, 1963, as well as the other Dallas, TX oil men Murchison & D.H. Byrd would have been acutely aware that the Kennedys were in the verge of destroying their political investment in LBJ.

        And the Kennedys were going after the oil men to, in their wallet. The oil depreciation allowance alone, and nothing else, could have been a prime reason for the JFK assassination.

        • leslie sharp says:

          RM: I view the issues relating to oil depletion allowances, steel monopolies, etc., as standard political conflict, contributing factors to the hatred of President Kennedy.

          But I do not believe those issues, in and of themselves, represented sufficient grounds to kill a president in broad daylight, any more than I believe that Cuba was.

          The threat that Kennedy posed to industry/military expansion – including their presence in Cuba – created a unifying factor, and beyond that was a unifying philosophy in line with certain elements of the American intelligence apparatus (CIA, MI, ONI, DIA, FBI) and the military which were co-opted by industry to act in Dallas. It was a symbiotic agenda.

          I am convinced that a limited number of representatives of these entities worked in tandem to murder the president and that Dallas was critical to the success of the operation because of the favorable conditions it provided.

          • leslie sharp says:

            should read: … certain elements WITHIN the American intelligence ….

          • Eric Saunders says:

            The social sciencey way to say it (if social scientists acknowledged assassinations) would be that the Kennedys’ deaths were overdetermined.

        • leslie sharp says:

          RM: I’m surprised there is no reaction to the implications of avowed fascists working in the shadows in Dallas. Is this topic taboo?

          • JSA says:

            Maybe it’s the fear of “messing with Texas”? ; )

            I think the oil money has permeated into the media in ways that might keep some journalists (especially in TV) from “going there.”
            Just look at NOVA on PBS. It’s funded in part by the Koch family. Mobil (now Exxon-Mobil) has its tentacles in the media as well. Part of the reason global warming hasn’t been admitted in the open in this country for so long has been because of a very powerful minority clique funding the nonsense denial movement, and keeping many Americans confused about the science. Maybe the same thing has been going on with the JFK assassination?

            As an aside: speaking of PBS, Jim Lehrer of the NewsHour has sided with the lone-nutters, but his earlier co-partner, Robert MacNeil, who was in Dealey Plaza that day, said he thought it was not implausible for there to have been a second gunman and a conspiracy. Most of the rest of the mainstream media is in league with the “conspiracy denier” camp.

  11. leslie sharp says:

    JSA: Hopefully Koch and those with similar financial power are not buying control of dialogue among private citizens regarding the assassination.

  12. Note to JSA: John and Robert Kennedy were messing with Texas in a very big way 1963; especially in their sub rosa war with Lyndon Johnson and antagonisms with Texas oil executives and the oil industry in general.

    See what happened to them?

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