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.
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.
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.)