Why would senior CIA officers circulate two inaccurate descriptions of Lee Harvey Oswald with various government agencies six weeks before he allegedly shot and killed President John F. Kennedy?
The answer to the question is elusive. The CIA has never formally offered an explanation, another reason why all of the government’s assassination-related documents need to be released. Presently, key documents about the death of the 35th president will not be released until October 2017 at the earliest. Other documents now found in the National Archives are riddled with redactions hiding key names, dates, words and phrases.
Where has this shameful secrecy taken us? To a place of confusion and suspicion.
Even David Slawson, former Warren Commission investigator, has repudiated his past defense of the commission. Slawson now says that the first official inquiry into JFK’s murder was the victim of a “massive cover-up” by the CIA and FBI.
CIA officers talk about the man who would soon be accused of killing Kennedy
Among the evidence not shared with investigators were two erroneous CIA cables about accused assassin Lee Oswald that circulated among the federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies in October 1963 just six weeks before JFK was shot to death in Dallas.
The story is well known. In late September and early October, Oswald visited Cuban and Russian diplomatic offices in Mexico City. The CIA’s extensive surveillance network captured a man identifying himself as Oswald making a phone call to the Russian Embassy.
On October 8, 1963, the CIA’s Mexico City station then asked headquarters for information about Oswald. With its query, the station included a surveillance photo of a man leaving the Russian Embassy, with the clear implication he might be Oswald. This individual, who looked like a 35-year-old Soviet official with an athletic build, became known as “the Mystery Man,” and the publication of the photograph led to a host of rumors linking Oswald with the KGB officers in the Soviet consulate.
What happened next is not well known.
A group of CIA officers in Langley (all of whom reported to deputy director Richard Helms or counterintelligence chief James Angleton) responded on October 10. They drafted and circulated two cables about Oswald. These cables are a puzzle that has yet to be solved.
Not only did the two Oswald cables contradict each other, they both contained erroneous information about the man who would be charged with killing Kennedy.
Read the two cables side by side, and they are hard to reconcile.
The first October 10 cable
The first October 10 cable reported that a “reliable and sensitive source” describes “Lee Oswald” as an “American … approximately 35 years old, with an athletic build, about six feet tall…”
This was a mistake and a bad one. Documents available in Oswald’s CIA file showed that Oswald was about to turn 24 years old and stood five foot nine with a slender build.
This faulty description of Oswald was apparently based on the photo of the man leaving the Soviet consulate, which had been identified to CIA headquarters by Mexico City officer Ann Goodpasture. This individual was “the Mystery Man” who resembled a 35-year-old Soviet official with an athletic build. Publication of his photographs led to a host of rumors and theories linking Oswald with KGB officers in the Soviet consulate.
This cable was drafted by Charlotte Bustos, who covered matters regarding Mexico at CIA headquarters. She relied on sources known in CIA terminology as coordinating officers. They were Ann Egerter, an analyst on Angleton’s staff, and Stephan Roll, a counterintelligence officer in the Soviet Russia office of the clandestine service.
Egerter and Roll were unlikely to make such a mistake. Both were well-acquainted with Oswald’s biography. Egerter had opened a biographical file on “Lee Henry Oswald” in December 1960. Of course Oswald’s real middle name was “Harvey,” as Egerter knew. But the middle name was not the only mistake in the cable. Between 1960 and 1963 Egerter received a stream of FBI and State Department reports on Oswald’s travels and politics and family life. Nothing in Oswald’s file suggested that he was six feet tall, 35 years old, or had an athletic build.
The final draft of the cable was 4:12 pm Washington time (time-stamped 20:12, or 8:12 pm Greenwich Mean Time) and sent to the headquarters of the State Department, FBI and the Navy. All of these agencies had tracked Oswald after his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959. The cable said that the information about Oswald would be provided to “your representatives in Mexico City.”
That statement was deliberately misleading.
Three other senior CIA officers also signed off on this memo. A few hours later, the above-named officials at Langley sent a very different physical description of Oswald to the Mexico City station.
The second October 10 cable
At 6:29 pm Washington Time (time-stamped 22:29, or 10:29 Greenwich Mean Time) a second memo about Oswald was sent out by Bustos at CIA headquarters, with her colleagues Egerter and Roll again providing the narrative. Four other senior officers signed off on this memo, including Dick Helms’s trusted deputy Tom Karamessines.
The second memo accurately described Oswald as 24 years old, rather than 35. However, it contained a closer-but-still-flawed description of “Lee Henry Oswald” as “5 foot 10, 165 pounds” — which is how Oswald had been consistently described in reports on his stay in the Soviet Union. In the real world, Oswald was five foot nine and never weighed more than 140 pounds.
The second cable was not circulated to the headquarters of the FBI and other federal agencies, which had received the first memo. Instead, the second memo instructed the Mexico City station to share this different description of Oswald with the local Mexico City offices of the FBI agencies, who had no idea of Oswald’s history! Although this cable did mention Oswald’s defection, it did not state what CIA learned since June 1962: that Oswald and his family had returned to the United States and that Oswald had recently been arrested in New Orleans. Information about Oswald was held closely six weeks before JFK was killed.
Hidden from the American people
As intelligence historian David Wise complained as early as 1968, the Warren Commission only got to see one of these documents in paraphrased form — and now we can see why.
On March 16, 1964, an agreement was reached between the Warren Commission and the CIA that paraphrased documents would be acceptable when there were “security problems,” but that the full memo of October 10 that went to “other federal agencies” would be provided to the Commission.
On March 24, 1964, the text of the first October 10 cable was provided in full to the Commission as part of a package referred to as CD 631. The Warren Commission was not told about the second October 10 cable.
Most of the details of both memos were blocked from public view until the 1970s, when the two cables were released in heavily censored form. Even at the conclusion of the HSCA hearings in 1978, blacked-out portions of the documents prevented the public from learning that Charlotte Bustos had written both of the memos, and that she had relied on information provided by Ann Egerter and Stephan Roll.
When former CIA director John McCone was confronted with these two descriptions at a classified 1978 deposition, he protested that attaching any significance to the difference between the two descriptions amounted to “nitpicking.”
Why did the same CIA officers disseminate two different stories about the unimportant Oswald on the same day? The CIA has never answered this simple question! Obviously, their actions were related to their responsibilities for counterintelligence, espionage and covert operations. I offer a more detailed answer in the preface to my online book State Secret.
But the real question is this: Why are our leaders allowed to discuss the death of John F. Kennedy in any context without providing the documents that provide the best chance at providing the best answer?