The Mystery of Oswald's Contacts with the CIA in Mexico
Mr. Morley is the author of Our Man in Mexico City: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA, published by the University Press of Kansas. The October 10, 1963 cable and other documents reported in the book can be viewed at http://ourmaninmexico.com/documents.html.A small group of senior CIA officers may have been running an authorized counterintelligence operation involving Lee Harvey Oswald six weeks before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
That’s the controversial but conditional conclusion I reached while writing the biography of CIA spymaster Winston Scott, the agency’s top man in Mexico for more than a decade. Our Man in Mexico, argues that if there was an Oswald operation, Scott, a brash and brilliant spy, was not a participant. The CIA has never acknowledged the existence of such an operation, if there was one. Many historians will deny it. But the new JFK paper trail is clear: some of Scott’s CIA associates knew much more than they ever disclosed about the man who apparently went on to kill President Kennedy in Dallas.
Newly declassified records and interviews with retired CIA officials illuminate the JFK story as it has never been seen before: through the eyes of Win Scott, long a shadowy figure in the history of the agency who was renowned for the brilliance and diligence of his espionage. In 1963, Scott was serving as the chief of the CIA’s station in Mexico City. It was here his path intersected with Oswald’s.
In the summer of 1963, Oswald, a 23-year old ex-Marine with a Russian wife, leftist political views and a penchant for scheming, was living in New Orleans. In the course of the next 100 days of his life, he would come in contact with four CIA intelligence gathering programs. Two of the programs that Oswald encountered were run by Scott, who operated out of an office on the top floor of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The other two were run by his colleague David Atlee Phillips, a highly regarded counterintelligence officer also stationed in Mexico City. Scott had a front row seat on the events that would culminate in the Dallas tragedy.
Such high-level CIA interest in Oswald does not necessarily mean that there was an operation involving Oswald, much less a CIA conspiracy. The evidence allows different readings. Win Scott himself did his own private investigation of Oswald a few years later and concluded the Soviets were likely behind the gunfire that killed Kennedy. David Phillips, who would go on to found the Association of Foreign Intelligence officers, a pro-CIA lobbying group, said late in life that he believed that JFK was killed by rogue U.S. intelligence officers. Win Scott’s son, Michael who spent more than 20 years sifting his father’s life story, thought Phillips was more likely right.
Winston Mackinley Scott was not one of those CIA men from the Ivy League. He came from rural Alabama, specialized in mathematics, joined the FBI, then the Office of Strategic Services then the CIA, where he became friends with all of the leading figures of the Agency’s halcyon early days: Allen Dulles, CIA director from 1953 to 1961, was a good friend. So was James Jesus Angleton, the legendary counterintelligence chief whose alcoholic brilliance and bitter decline have inspired a half dozen books and a couple of major motion pictures including Robert DeNiro’s CIA epic, The Good Shepherd.
When Oswald visited the Cuban and Soviet diplomatic offices In Mexico City between September 27 and October 1, 1963, Scott’s vast and efficient surveillance networks picked up on his presence almost immediately. Within a few days, the station had learned his name and Scott queried Washington asking for more information. The result was perhaps the single most important JFK assassination document to emerge in recent years. It is the fully declassified version of headquarter’s response to Scott’s inquiry. The cable, dated October 10, 1963--six weeks before Kennedy was killed--is not any sort of “smoking gun” proof of conspiracy so often sought by cable news producers and publishing houses.
But it does reveal some troubling facts:
- A group of senior CIA officers were not only monitoring Lee Harvey Oswald’s political activities while President Kennedy was still alive. They were manipulating information about him.
Among those most deeply involved in the selective handling of information about Oswald were Angleton, the chief of the counterintelligence staff who died in 1986; Phillips, the chief of anti-Castro operations in the Western Hemisphere, who died in 1988; his boss Tom Karamessines, the deputy director of the clandestine service who died in 1976; and, possibly, Phillips’s subordinate, George Joannides, an up-and-coming undercover officer who was running psychological warfare operations out of Miami in 1963. Joannides died in 1991. (The exact nature of Joannides’s involvement is hard to discern because the CIA is fighting in federal court to block disclosure of virtually all records related to his secret operations in 1963.)
There is no evidence that any of these men were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. There is lots of evidence, however, that they were very discreet about what they knew of Oswald’s political activities, travels and intentions before Kennedy was killed. They certainly never cooperated with assassination investigators in any meaningful way.
- In October 1963, senior officials at CIA headquarters deliberately cut Scott, the CIA’s top man in Mexico, “out of the loop” of the latest FBI reports on Oswald.
- Scott rejected a key finding of the Warren Commission report on JFK’s murder. The Agency told the Commission that its personnel did not learn of Oswald’s contacts with Cuban embassy officials on September 27 1963 until after Kennedy was killed. Win Scott said that was not true--and the CIA’s own records confirm his point. In fact, Win Scott and David Phillips knew about Oswald’s contacts with Cuban consular officials within a few days of when the occurred and well before Kennedy was killed.
Does this curious paper trail signal the existence of intelligence activity that deliberately involved Oswald?
Between 1995 and 2007, three retired CIA officials involved in pre-assasination intelligence gathering on the accused assassin spoke to me. All three acknowledged an often under-appreciated fact: information about Lee Harvy Oswald circulated among a small group of senior counterintelligence operatives just a few weeks before Oswald allegedly killed Kennedy.
Jane Roman, William J. Hood, and Anne Goodpasture agreed in separate interviews that the October 10, 1963 cable reflected an unusual level of interest in Oswald.
“To me it's indicative of a keen interest in Oswald held on a ‘need to know’ basis,” said Roman, a longtime aide to CIA counterintelligence chief Jim Angleton, in an interview at her home in Washington in November 1994. I first published an account of Roman’s remarks in the Washington Post a few months later. Roman, who later regretted her remarks to me but did not recant them, said she did not know who was responsible for the final version of the misleading cable.
Hood, a longtime aide to Helms, discussed the Oswald cable at his home on Long Island last year. Still hale in his 80s, Hood reviewed a copy of the Oswald cable on which his own initials appear. He took care to express surprise that no fewer than six CIA component offices helped prepare the report on the itinerant ex-Marine.
“Jesus, it goes all over the place,” he whistled. “That’s a lot coordination.”
Hood denied the cable was evidence of a CIA operation involving Oswald. But his denial came with what I regarded as a significant loophole.
Was it possible, I asked Hood, that Tom Karamessines had not shared with Win Scott the latest information on Oswald because somebody at headquarters was running an operation involving Oswald and wanted to restrict the circulation of information about him so as to preserve confidentiality of an operation? Was information about Oswald being held on what Jane Roman called a"need to know basis"?
“Absolutely not,” Hood said. “There’s no reason to. If [the operation] was something at Helms’s level there would be a reason not to tell somebody in the field. But not at this level.”
I pointed out that the October 10 1963 cable on Oswald had almost reached Helms’s level: It was reviewed and approved by Helms’s top deputy, Tom Karamessines, who was known for his discretion and loyalty. The decision not to share Oswald information while JFK was still alive had been taken at the highest level, I said.
Hood blamed incompetence, not operational interest. “The information that is left out [of the cable to Win Scott] is pretty significant,” he conceded. “It really should have been sent in the cable. But I don’t find anything smelly in it.”
Anne Goodpasture, Win Scott’s longtime assistant, was more circumspect about the anomalies of the October 10 1963 cable. She did not agree that the involvement of many CIA hands in a misleading communication reflected an operational interest in Oswald. She did not deny it. “I really couldn’t say,” she said.
In my mind, all three former CIA hands had basically defaulted to the proverbial “non-denial denial,” a factually accurate statement, seemingly dispositive, that was actually paved with escape routes for those who preferred not to be pinned down about the agency’s sources and methods.
After the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the story of the CIA’s machinations around Oswald instantaneously became one of the Agency’s most closely guarded secrets.
In Mexico City, Win Scott searched his files for reports, tapes, and possibly photos of Oswald. In Washington, the White House and the FBI sought to tamp down widespread fears of a conspiracy. In Cuba, Fidel Castro went on national television to insinuate there was a sinister plot from reactionary forces to blame the crime on his communist government.
In the weeks that followed, CIA officials privately denied any special pre-assassination knowledge of, or interest in, Oswald, a claim accepted by the Warren Commission investigating Kennedy’s murder. In September 1964, the commission concluded that Oswald had acted alone and unaided.
But Win Scott knew better than anyone there were problems with the Mexico City station’s handling of Oswald’s visit. He continued to collect reports from credible sources about Oswald’s contacts with Mexican communists that CIA surveillance seemed to have missed. He could never reconcile himself to the official finding about Oswald. In an unpublished memoir seized by the CIA after his death, Scott rejected the Warren Commission’s claim that the Mexico City station did not learn of Oswald’s contacts with Cuban officials until after Kennedy was killed. To the contrary, he wrote, Oswald, “was a person of great interest to us … reports were made on all his contacts with both the Cuban Consulate and with the Soviets.”
Scott didn’t say anything about an operation involving Oswald but he was a CIA loyalist who steadfastedly refused to reveal the agency’s sources and methods. Scott, however, did have a piece of evidence about Oswald that was relevant to the question of Oswald and U.S. intelligence: an audio surveillance tape containing his voice. The existence of an Oswald tape had long been promoted by JFK conspiracy theorists and denied by the agency. But Anne Goodpasture said under oath in a 1997 deposition that she gave a copy of an audio surveillance tape of the accused assassin to her boss in the panicky hours after Kennedy’s murder. Goodpasture repeated the story to me in a May 2005 interview. She said she assumed Scott stashed the tape in his home office safe.
The tape would have shed light on the nature of the CIA’s interest in Oswald. It might have settled the question of whether there was an Oswald operation or not. But the tape vanished. It was probably in the material seized by the CIA from Scott’s home after his death in 1971. The CIA never shared the tape with JFK assassination investigators. A CIA record destruction order found in the late 1990s disclosed that the material found in Win Scott’s safe was destroyed in January 1986.
In other words, the Agency concealed material evidence in the murder of a sitting president for 22 years and then destroyed it. Whether the Oswald tape was destroyed to hide incompetence or malfeasance is unknowable. The possibility that it was destroyed to hide evidence of the CIA’s operational interest in Oswald cannot excluded.
comments powered by Disqus
rudy aversa - 10/14/2008
The smoking gun for me proving that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy and a coup de'tat is the recorded 11-23-63 phone conversation between LJB and J. Edgar Hoover regarding Oswald's visit to Mexico.
Cutting to the chase:
Lyndon B. Johnson: Have you established any more about the visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico in September?
J. Edgar Hoover: No, that's one angle that's very confusing, for this reason - we have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet embassy, using Oswald's name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man's voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet embassy down there. We do have a copy of a letter which was written by Oswald to the Soviet embassy here in Washington, inquiring as well as complaining about the harassment of his wife and the questioning of his wife by the FBI. Now, of course, that letter information - we process all mail that goes to the Soviet embassy. It's a very secret operation. No mail is delivered to the embassy without being examined and opened by us, so that we know what they receive... The case, as it stands now, isn't strong enough to be able to get a conviction... Now if we can identify this man who was at the... Soviet embassy in Mexico City... This man Oswald has still denied everything. He doesn't know anything about anything, but the gun thing, of course, is a definite trend.
Who was framing Oswald in Mexico? CIA!
Charles S Young - 5/2/2008
Oswald had "come in contact with four CIA intelligence gathering programs"
What does that mean? Next to nothing.
Seeing as Oswald moved to the USSR for a time, there is nothing surprising about him being kept track of. Would the CIA hide that even if they had no dark involvements? Absolutely. Who wants to be the official who failed to stop Oswald?
There are simple and obvious reasons for Oswald to "encounter" the CIA, so there is no reason to challenge the rock-hard explanation of a lone nut.
In an absolute sense, it is "unknowable" whether monkeys will fly out of my butt, especially considering my repeated encounters with zoos on days simians were known to be present. But there's no reason to investigate this.
The author makes very lame qualifications saying he does not have absolute proof. But the treatment of evidence is much the same as other conspiracy buffs -- coulda happened, might have happened, it is logical that, but no hard evidence. He quotes various high officials who think there was a conspiracy, but does not reveal any hard evidence they based this on. This is the standard approach, all supposition.
- Five Things You Need to Know to be a Better Digital Preservationist
- Book on Losing British Generals Wins American History Prize
- Stanford scholar explores civil rights revolution's positive impact on the South's economy
- Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn on Amazon's Tentacular Reach
- Q&A with historian and author Nick Turse