As the United States and Cuba seek to negotiate a new relationship, ancient history is intruding.
“What if the answers to the many, persistent questions surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy lie not in Dallas or Washington, D.C., but in the streets of a foreign capital that most Americans have never associated with the president’s murder? Mexico City.”
So begins Phil Shenon’s new piece in Politico, What Was Lee Harvey Oswald Doing in Mexico? Shenon is surely correct that the U.S. government’s response to Lee Oswald’s visit to Mexico City in October 1963 is key to understanding the JFK assassination story.
And before Washington and Havana can reach any real rapprochement, renewed allegations that the Cuban government aided JFK’s accused assassin demand clarification.
Skeptics of the official story of JFK’s assassination have argued that Oswald’s Mexico City visit is critical to understanding the crime of Dallas since at least 1978. That’s when Oswald’s visit was first investigated by Dan Hardway and Ed Lopez of the House Selection Committee on Assassinations.
Anthony Summers was the first professional journalist to follow up with serious reporting from Mexico City in his book Not in Your Lifetime. I deepened and clarified the CIA’s perspective on Oswald’s actions in Our Man in Mexico, my 2008 biography of Mexico City station chief Win Scott. Attorney William Simpich added new details from recently declassified CIA records in his 2013 ebook, State Secret.
The fact that Politico, the chatterbox of the capital’s political class, is now willing to question the Warren Commission’s superficial and misleading account of Oswald’s antics is a welcome development. For too long, the Washington press corps has averted its collective eyes from the dubious theorizing, selective evidence, government malfeasance, and outright deceit that underlie the official theory that JFK was killed by one man for no reason. Politico is now at least willing to air the once-taboo notion that the JFK’s murder might have been a political deed perpetrated by enemies of his policies.
And for good reason. The CIA’s fallacious claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and Edward Snowden’s indisputable revelations of the NSA’s mass surveillance of U.S. citizens have made it obvious to even the most pro-government reporters that secretive officials in U.S. national security agencies are willing and able to manipulate intelligence (and intelligence agents) to advance their own policy goals and preserve their power beyond the reach of the elected government.
When critics of the Warren Commission made this argument in the 1960s, most Washington reporters derided them as “conspiracy theorists” and “scavengers.” Now the editors of Politico have finally joined the skeptical majority that thinks we don’t know the whole story of what happened in Dallas. That’s progress of a sort.
What We Now Know
Shenon has also done a service by pointing out how many senior officials in the CIA, FBI and the State Department knew that the Warren Commission’s investigation of Oswald’s visit to Mexico City overlooked or avoided or dismissed relevant evidence.
It is startling to discover how many credible government officials—beginning with Ambassador [Tom] Mann and CIA station chief Scott—have suggested that evidence was missed in Mexico that could rewrite the history of the assassination. The list includes the late former FBI Director Clarence Kelley and former FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan, as well as David Belin, a former staff lawyer on the Warren Commission.
And now Shenon has added another name: David Slawson, former Warren Commission attorney who had responsibility for investigating the possibility of conspiracy. In the afterword of a new edition of Shenon’s 2013 book A Cruel and Shocking Act, Slawson said he is now convinced the commission was the victim of a “massive cover-up” by the CIA and other agencies to hide evidence that might have identified people in Mexico City who knew and encouraged Oswald to carry out his alleged threat to kill JFK. In Slawson’s formulation, Oswald had accessories, not co-conspirators.
Politico’s JFK theory can be summarized in a phrase: “Oswald did it — with Castro’s help.”
The long history of this JFK theory highlights its one strength — serious people believe it — and its biggest problem: It posits that a tacit conspiracy of senior U.S government officials has been shielding Fidel Castro from justice for a half century.
Really? Are we to believe that U.S. government officials are protecting a proud and sworn enemy of the United States from evidence that he connived in the murder of a popular American president?
This is one of those JFK theories that deserves careful scrutiny.
The History of Politico’s Theory
The “Oswald did it with Castro’s help” theory is not new. It is 51 years old, and there is no disputing it was first espoused by a CIA-funded organization.
The anti-Castro (and anti-JFK) Cuban Student Directorate (DRE), the recipient of $51,000 a month from the agency, published a broadside on the morning of November 24, 1963, declaring that Oswald and Castro were “the presumed assassins.”
Carlos Bringuier, the DRE’s delegate in New Orleans, touted this theory to Slawson’s colleagues on the Warren Commission in 1964 and was ignored. Bringuier then wrote two books advancing his thesis, albeit without much new evidence.
Sen. Robert Morgan (R-North Carolina) said in the 1970s he thought Castro was complicit in JFK’s death. Former cabinet secretary Joseph Califano said the same thing in his 2005 memoir Inside.
Authors Gus Russo and Stephen Moulton made the most substantive case for Castro’s involvement in their 2008 book Brothers in Arms. They quoted a manuscript of a former Cuban intelligence officer and a variety of unnamed sources as saying that Oswald had friendly contacts with Cuban government officials in Mexico City during his visit in September and October 1963. Russo and Moulton argued that JFK’s assassination was Castro’s pre-emptive retaliation for CIA plots to kill him.
Former CIA analyst Brian Latell offered a variation on the theory in his 2011 book Castro’s Secrets. He quoted another former Cuban intelligence officer Florentin Aspillaga as saying that Castro’s intelligence service seemed to have advance knowledge that Kennedy might face danger in Dallas.
But if Politico, Shenon, Slawson, the DRE, Carlos Bringuier, Gus Russo, Stephen Moulton, Brian Latell, and Joe Califano are correct that Oswald had Cuban accessories — that Castro got away with murder — why isn’t the U.S. government doing anything about it?
In Havana, the argument that the U.S. government has protected Castro from anything will seem ludicrous. In Washington, it seems at least inexplicable.
Slawson told Shenon that he believes the CIA was desperate to shut down any investigation in Mexico City “out of fear the Warren Commission might stumble onto evidence of the spy agency’s long-running schemes to murder Fidel Castro.”
But the CIA’s plots to kill Castro were exposed 40 years ago. That doesn’t explain why the CIA and other government agencies would still be concealing evidence of Castro’s complicity in JFK’s murder in 2015.
How to Test Politico’s Theory.
I think there is a more plausible explanation of why Oswald’s Cuban contacts in Mexico City were not investigated in 1963 and why they remain the subject of official secrets today: because any serious investigation will have had to explain the CIA’s knowledge of Oswald’s actions and answer questions like, Why did six senior CIA officers sign off on this misleading cable about Oswald on October 10, 1963?
Only more transparency can resolve such questions.
Shenon notes what JFK Facts first reported in June 2013: that the CIA retains more than 1,100 assassination-related documents that it says it will not release until October 2017.
“While refusing to describe what is in the documents, CIA lawyers have acknowledged over the years that many of them are out of the files of agency employees who were stationed in the early 1960s in, of all places, Mexico City,” Shenon writes.
In fact, as JFK Facts has reported, the suppressed JFK files include:
— 606 pages about the operations of CIA officer David Atlee Phillips who knew about Oswald’s presence in Mexico City within days of his arrival. Some HSCA investigators wanted to indict Phillips for perjury but were overruled by HSCA general counsel G. Robert Blakey who now admits that the CIA compromised his investigation.
— 286 pages about the operations of CIA officer Anne Goodpasture, also based in Mexico City in 1963, who also knew about Oswald’s visit when it happened. In 1997 Goodpasture admitted under oath to the Assassination Records Review Board, that she did not tell JFK investigators that station chief Win Scott had a tape of a caller to the Soviet Embassy who identified himself as Oswald. The CIA has never produced that tape.
The public release of these files now — while Cuba and the United States are seeking to establish a new relationship — would go a long way toward clarifying an important episode in the history of both countries.
I’ve asked Shenon and Slawson to explicate their views for readers of JFK Facts. Shenon has promised to respond.