What Politico doesn’t know about the JFK files

Politico’s Thomas Maier mines the new JFK files to competently retell the oft-told but still-disturbing story of how respectable CIA officials and murderous Mafia dons tried and failed to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.

Along the way, Maier drops this claim:


“The JFK files, released by the National Archives in batches since last year, have already been picked over for signs of any new information about Kennedy’s death in Dallas. (To the chagrin of conspiracy theorists, the documents contain little evidence that anyone besides gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible for the tragedy.)”

I’m not a JFK conspiracy theorist so I can’t say as I am chagrined (meaning “angered by being let down”) by the contents of the new files. I confess it does bother me that the JFK Records Act, passed unanimously by Congress, has yet to be fully enforced, four months after the statute’s full disclosure deadline of October 26, 2017.

Mostly, I’m chagrined that Maier has not spent more time in the new files. They tell a story he and Politico need to know.

The new files corroborate a fact that has gone under-appreciated by conspiracy theorists and Warren Commission believers alike: the man accused of killing President Kennedy had been under CIA surveillance for four years before he was arrested in Dallas. I tell the story in The Ghost, my biography of James Angleton, and the new files buttress its conclusions.

The Fact of Surveillance

James Angleton
James Angleton oversaw the surveillance of Oswald

A Senate memo shows the mail surveillance of Oswald, under a program called HTLINGUAL, began on November 9, 1959, and continued through May 1962. Angleton’s aide, Birch O’Neal, was in charge, according to his partially-redacted personnel file.

The surveillance continued in New Orleans in August 1963 when Oswald tangled with members of the Cuban Student Directorate, an organization  funded by the CIA under a program with the codename AMSPELL.

The Cuban students were run by undercover officer George Joannides, who would go on to feloniously stonewall Congressional investigators in 1970s about what he knew of Oswald and the Cubans.

The CIA did release a 86-page AMSPELL file last November. I was chagrined to discover that 62 pages of it are still redacted.

And then in October 1963, Oswald went to Mexico City where he tripped a host of sensitive intelligence collection operations with code names like LIENVOY, LIONION, and LIFEAT. His antics were immediately reported to top CIA officers, including Angleton, a story the CIA is still loathe to talk about 2018.

My informal check of the National Archives JFK database indicates that at least 18 CIA documents related to the surveillance of Oswald in Mexico City have yet to be released.

What We Were Told

Oswald in New Orleans
Lee Oswald in New Orleans, August 16, 1963

To understand the implication of these revelations, you have to remember that the American people were told nothing about the multiple surveillance operations that had picked up on Oswald before JFK was killed.

The Warren Commission described Oswald as a man who had barely come to the attention of the agency. The Commission assured the American people that the CIA had fully cooperated in its investigation–a deliberate lie that CIA historian David Robarge has since retracted.

(Politico’s Phil Shenon broke that story in 2015.)

Like a minority of Americans, Maier believes the official JFK story that Oswald fire three shots at the presidential motorcade killing JFK. This reassuring narrative claims that a little man shot a great man for no reason, and that’s the tragedy of life.

Even if we assume this controversial proposition is true, however, Oswald’s allegedly bloody deed was a far greater counterintelligence failure than the CIA has ever acknowledged.

Truman's complaint
Harry Truman’s reaction to Dallas.

If the American people had been told that Oswald was not just a “lone nut” but an isolated sociopath whose travels, politics, contacts and personal life were known to top officials, we know what would have happened. They would have been disgraced and lost their jobs.

Instead, Angleton covered up what he knew about Oswald (and when the knew it) under the usefully tragic story of a lone gunman. His divisive and dysfunctional reign at the top of the CIA lasted another decade.

Former president Harry Truman was no conspiracy theorist, but his reaction to Dallas was telling in its specificity: It was time, he wrote in the Washington Post, to abolish CIA covert operations.

Who Was Responsible?

So, contra Politico, I would say the new JFK files, even in their still-redacted form, contain new evidence that Oswald wasn’t the only one responsible for JFK’s wrongful death. These files indicates that the CIA officials who failed to intercept Oswald on his way to Dallas were also responsible.

Joannides medal
Retired CIA officer George Joannides (left) received the Career Intelligence Medal in 1981, two years after misleading House investigators about what he knew about Lee Oswald. (Photo credit: CIA)

I am speaking primarily of Angleton and his top colleagues Birch O’Neal and William J. Hood, but also of Cuban operations officers such as Bill Harvey, David Phillips, Ann Goodpasture, and George Joannides.

Some or all of these CIA officers knew the name of Lee Harvey Oswald in the fall of 1963, either through his Russian experience of his pro-Castro politics. And Angleton probably knew the most.

According to a Washington Post report on the new files, the counterintelligence chief was informed in early October 1963 that that Oswald had made contact with presumed Soviet and Cuban intelligence officers in Mexico City, including a possible KGB assassin.

A declassified CIA routing slip shows that Angleton was informed on November 15, 1963, that Oswald had returned from Mexico and gone to live in Dallas.

A week later, JFK was dead and Oswald was under arrest.

The CIA’s Defense

This is not to suggest or imply that Angleton was party to an assassination conspiracy; there’s no proof of that and I don’t believe it. Rather, the new files belie the reassuring story that there’s nothing new to learn about the JFK story. They point to a more unsettling reality ignored by both conspiracy theorists and Warren Commission believers:

Whether or not there was a conspiracy, Angleton’s handling of Oswald intelligence before November 22, 1963, amounts to malfeasance, if not criminal negligence.

The CIA’s chief historian David Robarge, while not disputing the counterintelligence coverage of Oswald from 1959 to 1963, has offered a defense. Yes, the CIA knew a lot about Oswald–a lot more than they ever told investigators–Robarge says, but they had no information or indication that he posed a threat to the president.

That’s a narrow, if not particularly sturdy, defense.

Six weeks before JFK was killed, Angleton and other top officers knew that Oswald was an active leftist in a proscribed subversive organization (the Fair Play for Cuba Committee); that he recently had been arrested in New Orleans; that he beat his wife, and that he had foreign intelligence contacts in Mexico City, including with a possible KGB assassin.

They wrote a misleading cable to the Mexico City station and then did nothing. No one suggested the FBI or the Office of Naval Intelligence interview Oswald about his curious contacts in Mexico City or his attempt to travel to Cuba, then forbidden by U.S. law.

Despite his provocative actions amid a host of sensitive collection operations in late 1963, Oswald was never assessed as a threat by any of the top CIA officers who received reports on him.

And remember that, under CIA doctrine, protection from assassins is a counterintelligence responsibility. In his memoir, Richard Helms, Angleton’s great good friend and patron, defined counterintelligence as:

“information gathered and activities conducted to protect against espionage, sabotage or assassinations [Emphasis added] conducted for or on behalf of foreign powers, organizations, or persons.”

Whether Oswald acted alone or in concert with others, CIA counterintelligence failed to protect JFK on November 22, 1963, and no one was ever held accountable for this lethal lapse.

That’s bad enough, but the CIA is still trying to hide the rest of the story, 55 years later. That doesn’t bother Politico but a lot of us feel, well, chagrin.



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