William J. Hood, a senior CIA officer involved in the intelligence failure that culminated in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, died last month at age 92.
Hood was one of the highest ranking CIA officials who failed to anticipate that accused assassin Oswald might pose a threat to JFK. On October 10, 1963, he and five senior colleagues at CIA headquarters signed off on a misleading classified cable sent to the CIA station in Mexico City that omitted mention of Oswald’s recent arrest in an altercation with anti-Castro Cubans. Based on the cable’s favorable assessment, the FBI took Oswald’s name off of a list of people of interest to the Bureau. Six weeks later, Oswald was arrested for killing JFK in Dallas.
In a 2007 interview Hood conceded to me that “the information that is left out [of the cable] is pretty significant.” But he denied that there was anything “smelly” about the cable.
In fact, the Oct. 10, 1963, Oswald cable stands out as one of the most odoriferous JFK assassination documents to emerge from the CIA in the last 15 years. Not fully declassified until 2001, the cable has more than a whiff of intrigue because it details what the agency hid from the Warren Commission and what agency officials still attempt to deny: that a handful of senior CIA operatives discussed Oswald’s foreign travels, left-wing politics, and communist contacts just weeks before JFK was killed.
One of them was Bill Hood.
A former newspaper reporter, William Hood first made his name at the CIA running undercover operations for the Office of Strategic Services, the war-time predecessor of the CIA. He rose in the ranks to become chief of all covert operations in Latin America in 1962. In that capacity he was asked to respond to a report in October 1963 that a man named Oswald had made contact with the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. Hood was one of six CIA officials who signed off on a three-page cable purporting to share what was known about Oswald. (His signature, “W. Hood,” is visible on the last page of the cable.)
As I reported for the Washington Post in 1995, the cable erroneously stated that the “latest [headquarters] info” on Oswald was a State Department report from May 1962. In fact, the CIA had just received an FBI report on Oswald’s arrest for fighting with anti-Castro exiles in New Orleans. Instead of informing the CIA’s Mexico CIty station about Oswald’s run-in with the law and his actions on behalf of a pro-Castro group, the cable concluded on a favorable note: Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union had had a “maturing effect” on him. Forty-three days later, JFK was shot dead, allegedly by the “maturing” Oswald.
When I showed Hood a copy of the cable at his home in Amagannsett, N.Y., in February 2007, he acknowledged that he participated in writing it. He admitted the cable was “unusual” because it had gone to his boss Thomas Karamessines for approval. He noted that many CIA hands had participated in the drafting of the cable. “It goes all over the place,” he said, noting its many signatories. “That’s a lot of coordination.”
Hood had no explanation for why the unknown and apparently harmless Oswald received such high-level attention. Nor could he explain why the FBI’s most recent arrest report on Oswald had been omitted from the cable. An affable and urbane man, Hood dissembled for about ten minutes. “You got me,” he finally shrugged. “I don’t know what the fuck this is.”
The conversation then took a curious turn. He started questioning me.
“What would anyone’s motive be for not informing” the Mexico City station about Oswald? he asked.
That seemed odd: the former chief of operations for the CIA was asking me, someone who never worked at the CIA, about agency practices.
Perhaps, I said, somebody was running an operation involving Oswald and holding details on a need-to-know basis.
“Absolutely not,” he snapped. “It’s not possible.”
Then he admitted it was possible.
“If it was something at Helms’ level, there might be a reason not to tell somebody in the field,” he said. “But not at this level.”
I pointed out the cable was written at Helms’ level. He himself was reporting directly to Helms at the time; and the cable was also signed by Karamessines, Helms’ most trusted deputy.
So what was the reason, I asked again, for not telling the CIA people in the field about Oswald’s arrest?
Hood had no explanation, except to say, “I don’t see any master hand in it.” It was an evasive and defensive performance. (I met with Hood again in 2011 and could tell he had lost power of memory and was not in a position to answer questions.)
It is a pity Hood wasn’t more forthcoming. There were few men more knowledgeable about the first quarter century of the CIA. He was a trusted aide to Dick Helms, who served as CIA director for almost seven years, and to counterintelligence chief James Angleton. He co-authored Helms’ posthumous memoir and penned three spy novels.
With his passing the mystery of the Oswald cable endures. Was Hood or one of his colleagues running an operation involving Oswald in October 1963? The possibility can’t be ruled out based on the available facts. Hood was responsible for overseeing covert operations at the time. He was informed about Oswald. He concealed what he knew. And he didn’t have any explanation for his actions — other than to deny that there was a secret operation.
It is a testament to the CIA’s enduring ability to defy accountability on the JFK assassination story that Hood was never required to testify under oath about what he knew of Lee Harvey Oswald before the murder of the president. He kept the CIA’s JFK secrets.
(This excerpt from the CIA’s October 10, 1963, cable on Oswald shows the names and positions of six senior CIA officers who were knowledgable about the accused assassin’s travels and contacts while President Kennedy was alive)