Response to John McAdams: "Fidel Knew that Oswald Intended to Shoot at Kennedy"


Brian Latell is Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami and Former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America.

By daring to write about the Kennedy assassination in Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine I feel as if I have joined a fractious fraternity of experts all steeped in the minutiae of competing conspiracy theories. Since I make no claim to be a serious student of the assassination, and in fact it constitutes a relatively small portion of my book, I entered the fray with nagging misgivings.

By concluding that Fidel Castro knew in advance that Lee Harvey Oswald would fire at John F. Kennedy that long-ago day in Dallas, I had no illusions about how taunting my findings might seem to some who are immersed in the subject. No one, after all, had ever argued quite the case that I make: not a Cuban murder plot, but a conspiracy of silence.

Much of the evidence I cite is from highly unconventional sources: defectors from Cuba’s intelligence and security services, declassified CIA cables and documents, and anonymous former Agency officers. So naturally, I expected to be criticized, my evidence pared and plumbed. But a number of John McAdams’s assertions in his intermittently favorable review should not be left to stand uncorrected.

He seems to be astounded that the DGI, Cuba’s foreign intelligence service, could have succeeded in filming and photographing American intelligence officers in Cuba as they conducted supposedly covert operations. The televised week long Cuban expose that was aired in the summer of 1987 containing such footage must have been, he says, a recreation with “a bunch of actors.” And he imagines that possibility had not “dawned” on me. Actually, it did, and I therefore made determined efforts through interviews with a number of people intimately familiar with the cases to be sure the televised vignettes had occurred as the Cubans claimed. I spent many hours viewing and studying the films. They are difficult to find, and McAdams does not say whether he has also viewed them. But what I describe is what happened; it was not Cuban theatre.

And similarly, he debunks my conclusion that the American diplomatic mission in Havana was compromised by Cuban intelligence during the nearly seventeen years the building stood unoccupied. He believes, without explaining why, that after it was reopened in 1977 American countermeasures would surely have detected audio and visual penetrations. But just as in ferreting out suspected moles, it’s not always so easy. To know you are likely penetrated is not to know exactly how and where. The Cubans, with the assistance of the Soviet KGB and East German intelligence, had developed highly sophisticated capabilities that I describe in detail. One of the main themes of my book is that Cuban intelligence has long been among the best in the world, and should not be underestimated as it was by its American adversaries for a quarter century.

In June 1987 a watershed event began to rearrange this correlation of intelligence forces. That is when Florentino Aspillaga, the most important and valuable defector ever to flee Cuban intelligence explained in debriefings just how calamitously the Cubans had defeated us. McAdams values my book for other reasons, but is deeply skeptical about what Aspillaga told me about the order he received early in the morning of November 22, 1963. The defector concluded that “Fidel knew” what might happen when the Kennedy motorcade passed in front of the Texas Book Depository.

My confidence in Aspillaga’s reliability is based on many considerations, starting with my assessment of him during many hours of recorded interviews. I know furthermore that his bona fides as a genuine defector were never in doubt. What he revealed about his former service’s successes were so stunning and shocking, and quickly proven in every instance to be true, that his authenticity has not been questioned. One ranking American who dealt with him told me, “his value as a defector was as good or better than any the CIA had anywhere. If he had been a Soviet, it would have been the best by far we had in our entire history.”

There is more I must defend. McAdams wrongly states that I had “absolutely no evidence that Oswald had some contact with DGI officers in the Cuban embassy” in Mexico City when he visited in late September 1963. I lay out that evidence in detail. Vladimir Rodriguez Lahera was the first to defect from the DGI, in April 1964. He had recently spent time in the DGI Center at the Cuban embassy in Mexico, and interacted with colleagues. Known as AMMUG in the voluminous declassified CIA records of his work, he was by every measure a reliable source. He reported, amid much more, that “before, during, and after (emphasis added)” Oswald’s visit to the embassy, “he was in contact” with the DGI. It is not clear exactly how much Rodriguez knew about this, but there is no doubt he was aware of Cuban intelligence officers personal knowledge of Oswald.

Rodriguez was also the first to report that Fidel lied when, about thirty hours after Kennedy’s death, he took to the airwaves to deny he had known anything about Oswald. “We never in our life heard of him.” In a speech a few days later he went on to deny Cuba knew anything about Oswald’s visit to the Cuban embassy. But multiple other independent sources confirm that Fidel lied. One, a reliable FBI penetration of the American communist party, heard from Castro that in Mexico Oswald had threatened to kill Kennedy. McAdams denigrates the report; “was it true?” But there is another well known source, a British journalist who reported almost exactly the same thing after meeting with Castro.

Who could argue though with the incoming chief of the DGI Center in Mexico in the fall of 1963? Alfredo Mirabal, in an oddly unguarded moment, later told a congressional investigating committee that he had prepared a report for his headquarters following Oswald’s visit. He had witnessed the American’s tirades and demands. Mirabal must not have been aware he was contradicting what his commander in chief had solemnly claimed years earlier. But there it was, on the record from one of Castro’s own, proving he had lied. Further, in Castro’s Secrets I cite evidence that strongly suggests Cuban intelligence started a file on Oswald as early as 1959 when he was a young Marine in southern California.

So, the evidence --much of it overlooked until now-- is overwhelming: Castro lied about his foreknowledge of Oswald. Why was he compelled to do so? I stand by the reporting of the FBI source and the two Cuban defectors, Rodriguez and Aspillaga, the most valuable and trusted ever to change sides. I believe it adds up to this: Fidel knew that Oswald intended to shoot at Kennedy.

* * * *

Response from John McAdams:

Mr. Latell implies – quite correctly it turns out – that I haven’t seen the Cuban documentary footage that he believes to be genuine, but which appears to have been a recreation. My assessment was simply based on what he reported, which I quoted in its entirety. If he has accurately described the documentary, it’s vastly implausible that it’s actual intelligence surveillance footage. If his description is grossly inaccurate, then I might be wrong. I suggest he upload the entire series to YouTube, and let people see for themselves. But claiming to have sources confirming that “the televised vignettes had occurred as the Cubans claimed” doesn’t help him, since Cuban TV might have recreated real events.

But the most central problem Latell has is that he conflates and confuses four different (but related) propositions, which are (arranged from the more to the less plausible): 1) Castro knew of Oswald’s late September visit to the Cuban Embassy, 2) Castro told people, after the assassination, that Oswald had threatened Kennedy’s life, 3) Oswald did threaten Kennedy’s life, and 4) the Cubans knew that Oswald was going to shoot Kennedy on November 22. Thus Latell quotes Mirabal’s statement to the HSCA as supporting proposition #3, when in fact it only renders plausible (but does not prove) proposition #1.

To get to proposition #4, Latell puffs the reliability of Aspillaga. But he seems not to understand that one, even initially honest witnesses may embroider their testimony over time, and two, even quite honest witnesses misremember events decades after the fact. Jeremy Gunn, Executive Director of the Assassination Records Review Board (which took a lot of witness testimony in the 1990s) warned a Stanford audience about “the profound, underscore profound, unreliability of eyewitness testimony. You just cannot believe it. And I can tell you something else that is even worse than eyewitness testimony and that is 35 year-old eyewitness testimony.”

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