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.



10 thoughts on “What Politico doesn’t know about the JFK files”

  1. Any suggestion that Angleton was simply incompetent rather than completely amoral flies in the face of all evidence and common sense. It is patently obvious that LHO was a CIA asset (Patsy) from his time at Atsugi (U2 base in Japan) and his training in Russian. LHO very loudly ‘defected’ claiming to give Russians secrets not long before Gary Powers U2 was brought down (Mayday 1960) just in time to destroy the Paris Peace Talks. We know from historian Michael Beschloss (see:https://www.amazon.com/Mayday-Eisenhower-Khrushchev-U-2-Affair/product-reviews/0060155655/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=one_star&reviewerType=all_reviews#reviews-filter-bar ) that Dulles & Angleton would have used LHO as patsy to explain how the Russians succeeded in downing the U2, but this ruse was not required. LHO was then allowed back into the US and given work at sensitive intelligence photo analysis (CIA). So the question: Angleton fool or knave? Shenon and his ilk fools or knaves?

  2. Steven P Schwendeman

    Thanks Bill and the rest for the interesting comments.

    And once again similar to my statement to Jefferson, I bow to your expertise – Bill. As I understand from Jeff’s book the false descriptions you mention were part of a “mole hunt.” It seems such an initiative might serve as a good alibi for something more sinister should the oswald – counterintelligence connection ever be established by the public? If one were to try to understand Angleton’s motives, it would seem extremely difficult to understand such a complex human being – but maybe continuing to interview former tops spies, people who could really understand Angleton best (and/or my have known him), might be a useful strategy. The danger that JFK posed to the CIA’s illegal operations and the lives (including Angleton’s – see what happened to Dulles?) of the devoted individuals involved would appear to have been a strong motive as well as the divergent views of cuba/communism/(and maybe utility of mafia). Still hard to believe that if D. A. Philips were involved, then Angleton would not be too? I don’t suppose any would like to argue for D. A. Philips’ innocence? Hope I am making sense! Best wishes!

  3. My problem with the theory that Angleton played an active role in the assassination is this: Why would you assassinate a President and leave a paper trail indicating that your subordinates such as Ann Egerter were spreading false descriptions of his alleged assassin in the weeks before the killing? It makes you complicit. Instead, it explains to me why Angleton wanted to preserve his office and his career by playing a key role in the cover-up.

  4. In my view there is no organisation other than the CIA capable of coordinating the cover-up, I think that assumption is bordering on a fact.(They admit a ‘benign’ cover up).

    It appears the early structure of the CIA and the characters at the forefront of its creation lend themselves to action that could either be plausibly denied or simply not widely known about.

    Mr Morley’s comment is a big surprise to me. I’m waiting with baited breath for his next instalment.

  5. Please tell your readers that the man “identified as Oswald” in Mexico City was an imposter. The fact that Oswald was impersonated in Mexico City is proof positive that someone was trying to set him up to look like a Communist.

  6. I notice in the link to the Washington Post article by Shapira and Miller that they describe Valery Kostikov as the reputed head of the KGB assassination operations. They also quote you as saying “Now we know that Angleton also knew Oswald had been in contact with a KGB officer who some say was a KGB assassin.

    Kostikov is an extremely important part of the JFK assassination story but it is a leap to suggest he was a KGB assassin let alone head of KGB assassination operations based on the available information. At the time he was only suspected of being part of the 13th Department which was responsible for assassinations and sabotage. Most likely he was, but his role appears to have involved potential sabotage. At least that is what first brought him to the attention of the FBI along with a link to a confirmed member of the 13th Department. After the FBI passed this information on to the CIA, Angleton then informed the FBI that the CIA records contained no further information that would indicate Kostikov being a representative of the 13th Department. This all happened before Oswald arrived in Mexico.

    Based on this to state that Kostikov was a KGB assassin or head of assassination operations a bit of a stretch.

  7. This is an excellent post (and so are the related or linked articles).

    I believe that there’s circumstantial evidence proving more than one shooter, which means a conspiracy.

    Whether that involves Angleton or not, is another matter.

    However, his knowledge of Oswald’s activities since 1959, including the visit to Mexico City and return to Dallas, was an apparent failure to notice and act on any ostensible threat to the President’s visit to Dallas. This amounts to incompetence if not negligence.

    Does it amount to more?

    That’s the $64,000 question.

    When one of the linked articles mentions the curious omission of the meeting with Kostikov from a cable to the FBI, that smells!!!

    Was that by design?

  8. It is hard alternatively to believe Angleton would not have known if rogue CIA were involved.

    And yes I was left after reading your book with the same question as to why you dont think Angleton was involved.

    It was frustrating to read your book and not have this question answered.

    You do go as far as to say it was malfeasance and possibily criminal negligence.

    Is there some reason you dont think Angleton played a Manager Role pethaps in the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

  9. i agree with prior comment. You say you are not a conspiracy theorist, but that would mean you think Oswald fired three shots from the 6th floor of the TSBD with a crappy Mannlicher Carcano rifle.
    It has to be one or the other…

  10. Steven P Schwendeman

    Thanks for your post. I am sure I have read only a tiny tiny fraction of relevant material as you, and you obviously have studied Angleton as much or more than anyone else. Regarding your comment:

    “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.”

    I have the following question: If the general theory were true that a cia/mafia team, known to exist to assassinate Castro, was used to kill the president, don’t you think there is a possibility or even probability that Angleton was heavily involved if not one of the principal architects?

    From the little I have read and the apparent massive government (and mafia) cover up that followed (“we must convince the public that Oswald was the ‘real assassin’ “; mysterious deaths, leading witnesses to change testimony etc), it would seem to me, the novice, that the likelihood of Angleton’s guilt is more than 50% as being involved in a conspiracy.

    Can you explain why you don’t think he was involved in a conspiracy?? I wish to know what I have missed!

    Thank you!

    I enjoy your site very much!!

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