Oswald under surveillance: the last JFK secret

WaPo Oswald
The CIA paid close attention starting in 1959.

While JFK researchers seek to come up with an accurate count of just how many JFK assassination files remain secret in advance of the April 2018 deadline for full disclosure ordered by President Trump, we can be sure the number is more than 1,000 and maybe higher than 3,000.

The precise number, however, matters less than what is still secret–and this we know with certainty.

One of the most important JFK stories in the unreleased files is the CIA’s surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald from 1959 to 1963.

A Senate investigator’s memo, released in December 2017, gives the exact date that the surveillance of Oswald began: November 11, 1959.

This is one of the most important JFK records released in the Trump era, so its details are worth understanding.

Watching Oswald

The mail surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald was ordered by counterintelligence chief James Angleton in November 1959, not long after the Washington Post reported the news that a 20-year-old Marine had defected to Moscow.


Oswald Under SurveillanceOswld under surveillance


The 1975 Senate memo documents when a number of Americans were put on Angleton’s “watch list.” The list consisted of persons whose overseas mail was to be intercepted, copied, and filed by the CIA. This mass mail surveillance program was known by the code name of HT/LINGUAL.

(Note that this document is not dated with the American-style month/day/year format but with the European-style day/month/year format.)

Betty Egerter
Betty Egerter, aide to James Angleton. She controlled the CIA’s Oswald file from 1959 to 1963.

Angleton ran LINGUAL. In the late 1950s, the brillant, Yale-educated Angleton was one of the most powerful and feared men in the CIA. With responsibility for disrupting KGB operations in America, he naturally had a deep interest in the two dozen U.S. servicemen who defected to the Soviet Union or other communist countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Oswald was one of them. His  name was put on the LINGUAL list on November 11, 1959. It was removed four months later on March 5, 1960.

Angleton’s staff continued to receive State Department reports on Oswald, and on August 7, 1961, Oswald’s name was put back on the LINGUAL watch list. Angleton’s aide, Betty Egerter, kept track of the names on the list.

(See below for the declassified CIA note card below that memorialized Egerter’s role in the surveillance of Oswald.)

Oswald’s name was removed from the LINGUAL watch list for a second time on May 28, 1962. That’s when Angleton’s staff learned from the State Department  that the former Marine was returning to the United States with his Russian wife, Marina.

Surveillance Continues

Angleton did not lose track of Oswald after his return, nor lose interest, according to declassified records. On June 22, 1962, the LINGUAL intercept team sent a newspaper clipping about Oswald’s return to Texas to Angleton’s office.

“This item will be of interest to Mrs. Egerter, CI/SIG,” the memo states.

The surveillance of Oswald continued. When FBI agent John Fain interviewed Oswald in Fort Worth in August 1962, director J. Edgar Hoover forwarded his report to Angleton’s staff.

This declassified CIA routing slip shows how the August 1962 FBI interview of Oswald was passed to two offices in Angleton’s domain: the Special Investigations Group (CI/SIG) where Egerter worked, and the Operations office (CI/OPS).

The fact that a detailed FBI report on Oswald was sent to Angleton’s operations office, CI/OPS, is strong evidence that the ex-Marine was considered, if not used, for operational purposes. Why else would an operations office be notified, if not for operational reasons?

Surveillance in 1963

James Angleton testifies
James Angleton, spymaster

Over the course of the next year, Oswald came to the attention of other CIA intelligence collection programs. Not coincidentally, these programs are still shrouded in official secrecy an incredible 55 years later.

Case in point: the AMSPELL files.

In August 1963, members of the anti-Castro, CIA-funded Cuban Student Directorate (code name AMSPELL) had series of encounters with Oswald in New Orleans. They confronted him about his pro-Castro politics. They debated him on a New Orleans radio program. They denounced him publicly.

The AMSPELL program is still a top secret issue for the CIA a half century later. In December, the National Archives reported the agency had released 75 pages from the AMSPELL file. Not quite. In fact, 60 of the pages are still redacted.

The records of George Joannides, the deceased CIA case officer who “guided and monitored” the AMSPELL program in August 1963, are also top secret, according to the CIA.

Are these files relevant to JFK’s assassination?

I think so. That’s why I sued the CIA to get access to them back in 2003.

The CIA says no. Next month, lawyers working for Attorney General Jeff Sessions will argue in federal court that there has been–and will be–no “public benefit” from information forced into the public record by my FOIA lawsuit.

The government’s message in 2018 is clear: There is nothing to be gained from looking twice–or even once–at the Joannides and AMSPELL files from 1963.

I disagree.

More Surveillance

Here’s what the new JFK files tell us.

Oswald left New Orleans in September 1963 and travelled by bus to Mexico City–where he triggered another sensitive CIA surveillance program, known by the code name LIENVOY. It happened when Oswald visited the Cuban Consulate and unsuccessfully applied for a visa to travel to the island.

Once again, the details are still top-secret. If you consult the National Archives database of JFK assassination records, you will find at least 18 files tagged with the key words “Oswald” and “Mexico City Trip.”

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the surveillance of Oswald remains a sensitive issue in 2018.

What is ‘surveillance?’

CIA historian David Robarge and some JFK researchers dispute the notion that Oswald was under “surveillance” before JFK was killed.

They downplay the significance of the agency’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald. The unassuming but dangerous ex-Marine, they say, was only surveilled accidentally or coincidentally. There was neither rhyme nor reason to the CIA’s attention to him. No one, they say, connected the proverbial dots.

Yet the reporting on Oswald by various CIA collection programs between 1959 and 1963 was not randomly distributed among CIA components that failed to communicate with each other,

In fact, the new JFK files show that virtually all U.S. intelligence reports on Oswald–from State, FBI, or the Navy–were funneled to the same bureaucratic destination: CI/SIG, the Special Investigations Group of the Counterintelligence.

The CI/SIG office was right down the hall from Angleton’s suite on the second floor of CIA headquarters.

If the Oswald dots were not connected, the Counterintelligence Staff is where the failure occurred.

What does it mean?

The definition of “surveillance” is “close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal.”

The CIA’s records show that Angleton’s Counterintelligence Staff closely observed Oswald’s actions–his personal life, his political activities, and his foreign contacts–from November 1959 to November 1963.

If Lee Harvey Oswald was, as cliche has it, a “lone nut,” he was the one and only isolated sociopath monitored by top CIA counterintelligence officers in the weeks and month before JFK was killed.

The surveillance of Oswald is perhaps the biggest JFK secret awaiting full disclosure by President Trump’s deadline of April 28, 2018.


[For more on the surveillance of Oswald, please buy my book THE GHOST: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angeton. 

Additional details of the surveillance of Oswald can be found in Bill Simpich’s invaluable ebook, State Secret, published by the Mary Ferrrell Foundation. )

10 thoughts on “Oswald under surveillance: the last JFK secret”

  1. I’ll admit my circle is small, but, when I bring up JFK and who was really behind it, the response I get is; So what? What are you going to do about it?
    That is a valid question and my response is usually “you can’t have too much information”, or, “knowledge can manifest itself in ways unimaginable”.
    For me personally it validates my beliefs about the corruption that has been occurring since before the ink was dry on the rules for the servants.
    Maybe someday, someone will say- you were right- when it’s them they come for.

  2. I hope you know that there are a slew of us out here throughout America who are pulling for you Jefferson. You speak for us. You represent our wishes for the U.S. of America to come clean about this sickening event. Our government has made this entire tragedy more painful, more bitter, more like a wound that cannot heal because they are running away from what took place. President Kennedy’s life was ultimately lived in vain if America refuses to own and grow from its past. What would he say? What would he want us as Americans to do?

  3. Thanks, Jeff. Great work, well-described and documented, and incredibly necessary. We’ll never be afforded our right to know without the efforts of you and others to keep a light shining into these ancient, dark, hoards of government secrets. To those who haven’t the time to study these half-century-old mysteries but become even superficially aware of the government’s current diversionary tail-dragging and violations of the law regarding release of records, there is one common, simple question: WHAT ARE THEY HIDING? Our so-called defenders of the public’s right to know — those in our national media — and those in the Congress whose laws have been dishonored and disobeyed should also be asking the question, particularly in light of the information that you so aptly describe. Yet, they continue to meekly ignore these matters. They should be embarrassed. Keep it up, my friend, sooner or later, somebody will pay attention.

  4. “The CIA will argue in federal court next month that there has been and will be no “public benefit” from any disclosure of Joannides’ actions as they relate to the JFK story. This argument is revealing.”

    What does that have to do with releasing the records as required by law? “National security” is the only issue they cite as a possible rationale to challenge cooperation, I thought.

    Keep up the great work, Jefferson.

    1. The question before the court concerns legal fees in the case, not the classification status of the Joannides files.
      Usually, when a FOIA plaintiff wins a lawsuit, the government pays the plaintiff’s court costs. In my case, the CIA refused saying there was no “public benefit” to the information I obtained. “Public benefit” is the first of four criteria that the courts use to determine eligibility for paying court costs/legal fees.

      1. The damn CIA is like its own branch of government , not holding to ANY disclosure or for that matter , our money spent on files they deem not to release , even after a half century ? Are we really a government by the people if by law the CIA continues to ignore the JFK act ? If Trump tells them to hand over the files and they basically ignore him ? If they are not beholding to the President then why is the CIA considered a part of the executive branch ? My guess is they will never give up documents because people were murdered ( Oswald and others ) to cover up the coup. They will never admit to that. Even though they will continue to obfuscate over the political murders of the sixties , they fool no one but willing fools.

  5. To nitpick, the memo has LHO added to HT/LINGUAL watch list on Nov. 9th (not 11th), 1959.

    Keep up the good work, Jeff! What is CIA hiding and why?

    1. No, it does not. The date “9/11/59” in the document does not refer to Sept 11, 1959 or to November 11, 1959. It refers to November 9, 1959. The proof is found in the other date, 28/5/62. That can only refer to May 28, 1962.

      You overlooked my parenthetical aside: “(Note that this document is not dated with the American-style month/day/year format but with the European-style day/month/year format.)”

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