Why the Tsarnaev-Oswald analogy falls apart

More than few people, such as this Andrew Sullivan reader, are citing the parallels between Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Lee Harvey Oswald. Both men took trips to Russia, returned to America, believed in an anti-American creed, (allegedly) committed a violent deed, and met a violent death. It is a tidy analogy that yields the comforting conclusion that both men are “just sad, all-too-familiar human tragedies.”

The most recent revelation that the FBI knew about Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia but didn’t tell the Boston police offers another point of similarity: the CIA and FBI knew about Oswald’s trip to Mexico City but didn’t tell the Secret Service or the Dallas police.

But the comparison buckles under the weight of the facts.

Oswald, unlike Tsarnaev, was not vocally anti-American. In his public statements in 1963, he was critical of Kennedy’s Cuba policy, not of the American system. He protested against legal segregation in New Orleans by peaceful means, not with violent deeds or language.

Oswald, unlike Tsarnaev, denied committing the crime.

Oswald, unlike Tsarnaev, did not resist arrest with guns blazing; he was murdered while defenseless in police custody.

To conclude that Oswald’s story is “an all-too familiar human tragedy” is an all-too familiar exercise in denial that manages to exclude the bizarre, inexplicable and unprecedented circumstances of Oswald’s death from consideration. Anybody who suggests there was something “familiar” about the execution of an alleged assassin on national TV is illuminating the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, not commenting on historical reality.

Finally, consider the government’s surveillance of the two men. The FBI learned of Tsarnaev’s trip and interviewed his family about it. Oswald, by contrast, was constantly monitored by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff from 1959 to 1963. Six senior CIA operations officers discussed Oswald among themselves six weeks before Dallas and wrote a reassuring cable about how he was “maturing.” (You can read the cable here; the names of the six officers who knew about Oswald while JFK was still alive are found on the last page.) There is nothing analogous to high-level interest in Tsarnaev’s story and nothing “familiar” about it either.

Unfortunately, the story of the CIA’s pre-assassination interest in Oswald is unknown even to Andrew Sullivan, an otherwise well-informed and trenchant critic of the American national security state. He and his readers don’t know about it because major news organizations and many JFK conspiracy theorists are locked into that perennial cage wrestling match known as the conspiracy vs. lone nut debate. Since the CIA records, classified until the 1990s, about the Counterintelligence Staff’s abiding interest in Oswald do not not constitute “smoking gun” proof of conspiracy, nor vindicate the theory of a lone nut, neither side regards it as evidence at all.

Thus spared the burden of the new evidence, the armchair historian is free to make airy analogies that seek to reassure but fall apart upon examination.


7 thoughts on “Why the Tsarnaev-Oswald analogy falls apart”

  1. Jeff, perhaps drop Sullivan and other journos a note and link your website. They may not know that high-quality info is out there.

  2. Eric Hollingsworth

    Tamerlan is a very provocative name.

    “Since the CIA records, declassified until the 1990s.” Did you mean “classified?”

    These days, is there any historian besides an armchair historian? Herodotus was long known as “The Father of Lies” until (most of) his writings were borne out.

  3. Jeff, I think your interview with Jane Roman, showing that senior CIA staff apparently deceived their own station chief in Mexico City about Oswald, is a critical piece of evidence. [And it certainly distinguishes Oswald from Tsarnaev!]

    But one part of her account has bothered me: From reading your interview, I got the impression that Roman had not given thought to the CIA’s Oswald connections in many years when you talked with her. She seemed to be trying to decipher the meaning of the communique to Mexico City from her memory of agency procedures and documentation practices. She seemed to say that Oswald must have been a person of “keen interest” based on the features of the document, rather than personal memory of CIA acitivities regarding Oswald.

    But given the notoriety that Oswald achieved shortly after that communique, wouldn’t you expect her to remember on her own that Oswald had been a person of keen interest? Wouldn’t it have been one of the most momentous and terrifying events of her career, that a guy she and her colleagues were secretly and closely monitoring then shot the President? How could ever she forget?

    Or am I misunderstanding what she conveyed during the interview?

  4. Another distinction may be drawn from the comparatively candid handling of the knowledge of the prior investigation of Tsarnaev. As noted in today’s NY Times:
    “… By 3 a.m., after an F.B.I. agent had used a fingerprint scanner on the dying suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in a hospital emergency room to learn his identity, Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I. director, had arrived in a suit and tie at his agency’s headquarters in downtown Washington. His agents gave him the bad news: two years earlier, the F.B.I. had interviewed, and closed its file on, Mr. Tsarnaev. Mr. Mueller took it in without showing emotion, his aides said. He turned to a deputy and ordered the release of the information — knowing it would call into question whether the F.B.I. failed to head off one of the most spectacular attacks on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.…” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/us/politics/in-bombings-a-bitter-bookend-for-robert-mueller.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)
    By contrast, a stark lack of candor about Oswald’s case preceded and followed the murder on Nov. 22, 1963. Indeed, even within the CIA, dissimulation about Oswald affected the dissemination of information to key agency employees. The mischaracterization of Oswald’s biography to the Mexico City station prior to the assassination, and the blockade of the facts forthcoming to the Warren Commission investigators, could be seen as continuing through the 1978 HSCA investigation. The former chief counsel to the HSCA has commented that the agency’s failure to disclose the true role of the CIA’s liaison to the committee, George Joannides, was a material breach of trust and likely influenced the course of the HSCA investigation. As Mr. Morley is specifically aware, documents involving Joannides and possible links to Oswald and/or Oswald associates are still being blocked, as the decision of the court is awaited on the FOIA suit seeking disclosure. One document that we will never see is the note admittedly delivered by Oswald to the FBI office in Dallas shortly before the president’s murder. The note was destroyed by a Dallas FBI agent under orders from a superior. Of course, the destruction of this note also was concealed for many years.

  5. The Andrew Sullivan reader asserts Oswald was a lone wolf. Then asserts Tamerlan was too, except for his brother.

    Oswald was anything but a lone wolf, even if he shot JFK all by himself. He may not have been gregarious, but he interacted successfully with an amazing array of individuals following his return to the U.S. in July 1962.

    The Andrew Sullivan reader is a keyboard typist lacking knowledge of pertinent history.

  6. 2 quick questions:

    (1) Could the surveillance of Lee Oswald be nothing more than CYA>

    (2) What agency, domestic or foreign get pleasure out of embarrassing the FBI & why?

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