Philip Shenon’s 2013 book, A Cruel and Shocking Act, reconstructed the story of the assassination of President Kennedy with an unusual focus: not on the perennial question of conspiracy but rather on a narrower issue: the destruction of evidence that followed in the wake of JFK’s murder on November 22, 1963.
The book opens with the unnerving untold story of Charles William Thomas, a State Department official in Mexico City. In the mid-1960s, Thomas picked up on information about Lee Harvey Oswald’s famous trip to the Mexican capital in October 1963, six weeks before the president was gunned down in Dallas. Thomas insisted his superiors re-investigate the story. They responded by destroying his career. Thomas went on to commit suicide. The government later admitted error and compensated the family without much explanation of what had actually happened.
You have to wonder: If Oswald was a lone maniac, why destroy the man’s career for calling for a second look? You don’t have to agree with Shenon’s position on the larger conspiracy question to be impressed by the detail he brings to this story.
Shenon’s latest piece in Politico revealed that David Slawson, a Warren Commission investigator — and defender — now says the commission was deceived by the CIA and FBI and that Oswald may have had accessories in Mexico City.
A few weeks ago I sent Shenon a few questions. He responded via email as follows.
JFK Facts: How significant is Slawson’s mea culpa? Does it give you pause in your own conclusions about the Warren Commission? In the first edition of A Cruel and Shocking Act you found no persuasive evidence of conspiracy. Has your own thinking changed since then?
PS: As you’d expect, I think it’s very significant that David Slawson has come to believe that the commission was denied such basic information, especially about Oswald’s long-mysterious Mexico City trip, and how that could rewrite the history of the assassination. David was the central conspiracy hunter on the commission’s staff, and he’s a very thoughtful, credible guy who has risked plenty of grief by stepping forward publicly like this.
In the course of researching and writing my book, David and I went on an interesting journey together, as I brought him more and more evidence from declassified government files — some of it first revealed in your remarkable book and in reporting by a handful of other fine researchers and writers — that suggested that Oswald was not this “lone wolf” portrayed by the commission.
The evidence suggests that other people may well have known about Oswald’s plans to kill JFK and encouraged him, which would truly undermine what had been the official story.
My book began as an effort to write the inside history of the commission, as told by its surviving staff members. I went into the project with no strong feelings about whether the Warren Commission had gotten it right. (As you know, my first book was a history of the 9/11 Commission, so “Cruel and Shocking Act” seemed a natural second project. I otherwise had no background on the Kennedy assassination.)
But this book became so much larger, as I kept stumbling on to more and more information that suggested how much evidence had been hidden from the commission — and specifically, from David Slawson — all those years ago. The most tantalizing material involved Mexico.
I’ve read the suggestion, on the basis of what Slawson has to say, that this promotes the theory that Fidel Castro was behind the assassination. David is NOT suggesting that. In fact, he is clear that he does NOT believe Castro personally had anything to do with Kennedy’s murder. That is a view he has held consistently since 1964. The question is about whether people in Mexico City — Cuban diplomats and spies and Mexicans who were champions of Castro’s revolution and who may have thought they were acting in Castro’s best interests in the wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis — encountered Oswald, heard him say that he wanted to kill JFK and then encouraged him to do that if he had the chance. Those people could not have been certain that Oswald would ever have that chance, since at the time of his visit to Mexico, Oswald did not have his job at the Texas School Book Depository.
JFK Facts: What has been the most interesting response to your Politico piece?
PS: It was interesting to see prominent journalists from traditional news organizations — some of the same news organizations that have defended the official story for so long — go on social media to promote the piece after Politico was kind enough to publish it.
JFK Facts: Slawson told you “I think it’s very likely that people in Mexico encouraged him [Oswald] to do this. And if they later came to the United States, they could have been prosecuted under American law as accessories” in the conspiracy. He specifically mentioned “Cuban diplomats and Mexican civilians.”
Do you think any specific individuals in Mexico City (Eusubio Azcue, Silvia Duran, Guillermo Ruiz, Louisa Calderon or others) were accessories in a legal sense?
PS: I’m not a lawyer and I certainly wouldn’t want to identify anyone by name who might be culpable, given how little is really known about what happened in Mexico. But let’s say, hypothetically, that someone in Mexico City did promise help to Oswald escape if he was able to kill Kennedy (a hypothesis that was first developed by David Belin, another of the commission staff members, back in 1964). Would it be so hard to imagine that prosecutors might consider a criminal charge against that person as an accessory?
(I questioned the plausibility of this scenario in “The problem with Pollitico’s JFK conspiracy theory.”)
JFK Facts: Fidel Castro has a different perspective. He told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “There were people in the American government who thought Kennedy was a traitor because he didn’t invade Cuba when he had the chance, when they were asking him. He was never forgiven for that.” So that’s what you think might have happened [in Dallas]? “No doubt about it,” Fidel answered.
PS: I certainly heard that theory repeatedly over the years of my research — that Kennedy was killed by some sort of rogue element of the U.S. government outraged over the failure at the Bay of Pigs. Robert Kennedy Jr. suggested in 2013 that his late father feared rogue CIA operatives might have been behind the assassination. I don’t have any evidence to back that theory up, though. I wouldn’t blame Castro for thinking that might be the case.
JFK Facts: You attach a great deal of importance to J Edgar Hoover’s letter to Rankin about Oswald’s alleged threat. In its final report in 1979, the HSCA decided the information in the letter was not credible.
“On balance, the committee did not believe that Oswald voiced a threat to Cuban officials. However reliable the confidential source may be, the committee found it to be in error in this instance.”
What’s your take on the HSCA’s take?
PS: I guess I’d disagree with the HSCA. It sounds like Oswald’s outburst did occur. FBI Director Clarence Kelley, Hoover’s successor, said that after reading the raw intelligence files on the assassination, he came to believe that Oswald made the threat at the Soviet embassy in Mexico, as well.
The real significance of the letter to me is how it seems to have disappeared before reaching Slawson and others on the commission’s staff. (It’s not just David who has no memory of ever seeing or hearing about the letter.) You’d think that if the commission’s staff learned that Oswald had been talking openly in Mexico City about killing Kennedy, it would have been a bombshell; the commission would have insisted that the FBI and CIA go back to Mexico City and determine who heard the threat and what they did with that information. But that never happened.
I know that the commission’s logs show that Hoover’s letter was received in the commission’s offices, but the original paper copy has disappeared from the investigation’s records at the National Archives. The existence today of a digital copy of the letter does not prove that anyone actually saw it in 1964. Beyond David Slawson, the letter should have reached his commission colleague and friend Wesley Liebeler. The record shows that Liebeler, politically a very conservative fellow, was eager to find a Castro-Cuban link to the assassination. He would have seized on the letter if he had seen it. He would have been thrilled by it.
JFK Facts: What should specific agencies or branches of the government do to answer the questions that your reporting raises?
PS: J. Edgar Hoover vowed in 1964 that the FBI would never close the investigation of Kennedy’s murder. Congress has repeatedly gone back to review the facts of the assassination. Perhaps the FBI or Congress or both should send investigators back to Mexico, where many of the people who encountered Oswald all those years ago are still alive and willing to talk. I tracked down some of them myself — people who had never been interviewed by the U.S. government about what they knew.
Under the right circumstances, I wonder what Silvia Duran might reveal. As you know, she was never interviewed by the FBI or CIA. And Chief Justice Warren refused to allow Slawson and his colleagues to interview her — maybe Warren’s most baffling decision.
JFK Facts: Are you going to continue your JFK reporting or are you moving on to another project?
PS: I’ve begun work on a new book that, blessedly, has nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination. But I suspect I’ll get drawn back to this story again from time to time. All the cliches are true. It’s the greatest detective story — the greatest murder mystery — of all time, and there are more chapters to be written.