My fellow JFK researchers note lugubriously that the New York Times and Washington Post obituaries of the late Priscilla Johnson McMillan, prominent defender of the official theory of JFK’s assassination, made no mention of her documented relationship with the CIA.
Too true! Newly declassified records reveal what McMillan (and the newspapers of record) did not care to share publicly. At the time McMillan wrote an influential biography of supposed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, she was a “witting collaborator” with the clandestine service.
Before I go on, let me just say, tediously, no, I do not think McMillan was part of a plot to kill JFK. No, I am not citing her CIA ties to justify any theory of JFK’s death. No, I’m not speaking ill of the dead; citing a relationship that she herself cultivated cannot be considered derogatory.
The documents are authentic, their revelation indisputable. I’m just asking (along with a few other people) why wouldn’t the editors of the Times and Post see fit to print these facts?
I think it’s because McMillan’s narrative of a lone gunman was–and is–so comforting. Her story bolstered the unconvincing Warren Commission Report and absolved absolutely everybody in Washington–and the CIA–of responsibility for the grossest of intelligence failures–the murder of a president.
What McMillan didn’t report in her book Marina and Lee is what we now know from JFK files declassified in the 1990s: the supposed “lone nut” was monitored closely and carefully from October 1959 to November 1963 by the Agency’s super-secret Counterintelligence Staff, headed by James Angleton.
As I noted in my 2017 biography, THE GHOST, Angleton’s record on the assassination was “atrocious.”
Cold War Scholar
McMillan offered a happier tale. As a young reporter in Moscow in 1959, Priscilla Johnson interviewed Oswald, a twenty year old ex-Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union because he believed in communism. She wrote a story about him. Johnson married and continued her career as a journalist Priscilla McMillan.
The CIA continued to watch Oswald. Contrary to the lies the Agency fed the Warren Commission (and to the press), senior Agency officials monitored Oswald’s movements step by step after he returned from the Soviet Union in June 1962.
For example, six weeks before JFK was killed, six top operations officers wrote this cable about Oswald.
On November 22, 1963, Oswald was arrested on suspicion of shooting the president from the window of an office building. Assets in a CIA propaganda program, code-named AMSPELL, then linked the supposed assassin to Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the press. Oswald denied killing Kennedy and was killed in police custody.
The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald alone and unaided killed Kennedy, a finding that steadily lost credibility over the years. A majority of the public came to reject the the lone gun man theory.
So did President Lyndon Johnson, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They all came to believe and say privately the Warren Commission was wrong. None of them was a conspiracy theorist.
McMillan befriended Oswald’s Russian wife, Marina. She went on to write Marina and Lee, an influential 1977 biography of Oswald. In the book, McMillan, identified as a journalist and “Cold War scholar,” defended the U.S. government’s–and the CIA’s–account of JFK’s death from the rising tide of public and private skepticism. Oswald, McMillan wrote, was a psychologically disturbed man who killed the president for reasons known only to himself.
The CIA was the first to recognize it might have a problem. When Congress re-opened the JFK investigation in 1977, CIA general counsel Scott Breckenridge worried that McMillan’s cover relationship to the Agency in 1959 might be exposed.
“Pamela Johnson McMillan may be called to discuss her contacts with Oswald in Moscow at which time her “witting source” affiliation may be exposed,” Breckenridge wrote in a memo.
A witting source is someone who knows they are giving information to the CIA. In 1959 many patriotic Americans were witting sources, of course. There was nothing wrong with supplying the U.S. government with useful information. McMillan was certainly not a tool of the Agency, not at that time. She was considered for Agency employment several times and rejected for her youthful association with leftist groups.
Nonetheless, McMillan maintained contact with Agency officials who recognized she was sympathetic to the Agency’s purposes. British popular historian John Simkin cites a declassified December 1962 CIA memo, which stated about McMillan before she married.
“I think that Miss Johnson can be encouraged to write pretty much the articles we want. It will require a little more contact and discussion, but I think she could come around…. Basically, if approached with sympathy in the cause she considers most vital, I believe she would be interested in helping us in many ways. It would be important to avoid making her think that she was being used as a propaganda tool and expected to write what she is told.”
A mutually useful relationship developed and was documented in McMillan’s CIA file. According to this January 1975 CIA memo, the Agency classified McMillan as a “witting collaborator.”
The relevance of these new records–their newsworthiness–seems indisputable to me. They show McMillan was not just the independent scholar she purported to be. She was also a CIA asset and thus less independent than she wanted to be known.
How are these facts relevant to our understanding of the JFK story today? The Priscilla McMillan story is a reminder that the Agency used–and uses– its covert assets to influence American public opinion on the question of who killed JFK. That’s not a theory. That’s a fact.
It’s another reason why President Biden should enforce the JFK Records Act and order full and complete disclosure of the last of the secret JFK assassination files on October 26, 2021.