August 11, 2017
By Jefferson Morley*
In May 1964, top CIA officials stonewalled the official investigation of the murder of President John F. Kennedy by concealing or downplaying evidence about the Cuban contacts of the accused assassin, according to newly declassified documents.
The documents, released online last month by the National Archives, show how two CIA spymasters concocted a series of false and misleading statements that served to steer the Warren Commission investigation away from evidence that might point to a conspiracy.
The long-secret records, stamped with the words “Reproduction Prohibited,” shed new light on two key issues related to the death of JFK: 1) the agency’s plots to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the time JFK was killed; and 2) the CIA’s pre-assassination knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald, the 24-year-old ex-Marine, who was arrested for killing Kennedy.
The JFK Story
Kennedy, a popular liberal president, was shot and killed as his motorcade passed through downtown Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963.
At least 40 bystanders (including 21 police officers) said gunfire came from in front of the motorcade, as well as behind. A bystander’s home movie footage lent credence to the notion, but was suppressed by the government.
These shocking and baffling events traumatized the country, and the world, like no other single event, at least until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A solid majority of the American public immediately suspected more than one person was involved. The Warren Commisison concluded that Oswald had killed JFK for no discernible reason. A congressional investigation in 1978 concluded JFK had been killed by a conspiracy whose perpetrators could not be identified.
A half-century later, conspiracy theories about who killed JFK are still favored by a majority of Americans. Many of the theories are absurd. Donald Trump used a bogus JFK theory to smear rival Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential campaign. Others are quite plausible. Washington insiders like President Lyndon Johnson, First Lady Jackie Kennedy and JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, privately concluded that JFK had been killed by his enemies who opposed his policies.
The JFK story is back in the news. Under a law passed by Congress in 1992, all of the government’s JFK files had to be released within 25 years, by 2017.
The July 24 release was the first in a series of document dumps that National Archives says will take place before October 24, the statutory deadline for full disclosure.
Politico claims the first batch of new files show “How the CIA Came to Doubt the Official Story of JFK’s Murder.” In the article, reporter Philip Shenon and professor Larry Sabato revive the theory that Fidel Castro might have been behind the crime.
The “Castro done it” theory, it is worth noting, was first floated within hours of JFK’s murder—by CIA propaganda assets. The Cuban Student Directorate, a Miami-based organization funded by the agency, published a broadsheet less than 48 hours after JFK’s death, declaring that Oswald and Castro were the “presumed assassins.” The group was funded under a covert program with the code name AMSPELL. A declassified CIA memo shows the group was receiving $51,000 a month (the equivalent of $350,000 today) from the agency at the time of its conspiracy mongering.
The “botched” investigation of the Warren Commission failed to pick up on the possible Oswald-Castro connection in 1964, Shenon and Sabato say.
Only in 1975, they claim, did CIA officials realize that “no one had properly followed up on clues about an especially mysterious chapter in Oswald’s life—a six-day, apparently self-financed trip to Mexico City.” As result of these lapses, they say, Oswald’s ties to Cuban intelligence were never properly investigated.
Botched vs. Controlled
This is a charitable reading of the new files, as WhoWhatWhy has noted. A more thorough reading of the new records tells a different story: The JFK investigation was not “botched” or “bungled”—it was controlled by two top CIA officials.
If no one in the ranks of the CIA or FBI followed up obvious questions raised by Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and other key issues, it was because deputy director Richard Helms and counterintelligence chief James Angleton made sure they didn’t. Helms and Angleton were the second and third ranking officials in the agency in 1963. They proceeded to crush colleagues like John Whitten, chief of the agency’s Mexico desk, who dared to seek a real investigation of Oswald.
Helms, who served as CIA director from 1967 to 1973, was the first director to be convicted of a crime. In 1978, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lying to Congress about an assassination plot in Chile. Helms died in 2002. Angleton was fired as counterintelligence chief in December 1974 after the New York Timesrevealed he had presided over a massive program to spy on opponents of the Vietnam War. He died in 1987.
The new documents show how these two spymasters relied on a series of deceptive memoranda to steer investigators away from evidence that indicated a possible pro- or anti-Castro Cuban conspiracy. If the official investigation was botched, it was because Helms and Angleton intended it to fail.
The Politico story, while rightly focusing on the most important new records to surface, whitewashes the reality they disclose: that the CIA leadership effectively gained control of the JFK investigation within a few months of the assassination and corrupted it.
It’s not a pretty picture. The two senior CIA officers, opposed to JFK’s policy on Cuba, blocked and impeded investigation of a possible conspiracy behind his murder. At the same time, they concealed their own role in the monitoring of the accused assassin and in conspiring to kill Fidel Castro.
- The agency’s conspiracy in November 1963 to assassinate Fidel Castro.
- The date CIA personnel first opened a file on Lee Harvey Oswald.
- What CIA operations officers knew about Oswald’s contacts with an agency-funded anti-Castro group in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.
- What top officials knew about Oswald’s visit to the Cuban consulate six weeks before the assassination.
These misrepresentations ensured that the Warren Commission never knew about, much less investigated, the CIA’s role in the events leading to the tragedy of Dallas.
The new JFK revelations, found in a 157-page file called “Helms Hearing Duplicate,” documents these lies. The file is a collection of papers gathered by former director Helms as he prepared to testify to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978.
The memos tell the story of how the CIA dealt with the Warren Commission in the spring of 1964, when a senior counterintelligence officer named Harold Swenson began raising some uncomfortable questions that the CIA did not want to share with investigators.
Swenson’s findings and recommendations were suppressed for a decade. Other memos from 1975 recount the agency’s defensive reaction when the CIA manipulation of the Warren Commission was first exposed. The file, in short, tells the story of a coverup, how the CIA gained control of the official investigation of Oswald and effectively killed it.
There is no theory here, no anonymous sources, no Alex Jones BS. All the evidence is clickable.
Controlling the Commission
Lie 1: All CIA information was furnished to the Warren Commission.
“There is no conclusive evidence of conspiratorial sponsorship of Oswald.… all Agency information bearing on the problem has been furnished to the Commission.”
So declared a May 1964 memo, prepared at Angleton’s direction .
Not true. Helms and Angleton were both aware of the CIA’s efforts to assassinate Castro in 1962-1963, which were highly relevant to the question of conspiratorial sponsorship, and motive. If the CIA was trying to kill the Cuban leader, perhaps Castro had taken pre-emptive action in Dallas.
Helms and Angleton hid these plots for the next decade. The new JFK files include a letter from investigators, written 12 years later, asking if the CIA had been plotting to kill Castro at the time JFK was killed .
The subsequent investigation confirmed that CIA knew about multiple plots to kill Castro at the time the agency assured the Warren Commission that “all information” bearing on the conspiracy “problem” had been shared.
Lie 2: The CIA wasn’t initially interested in Oswald.
“The CIA file on Lee Harvey Oswald was opened on 9 December 1960 to accommodate biographic information developed by CIA in response to an inquiry from the Department of State on a list of American defectors in Soviet Bloc countries.”
False. Actually, the first CIA file on Oswald had been opened a year before, according to agency records declassified in the 1990s. Intelligence historian John Newman tells the story of Oswald’s file in his pioneering book, Oswald and CIA.
The date of Oswald’s CIA file is not a trivial detail, but a tell-tale indicator of the agency’s early interest in the accused assassin.
The first Oswald file was opened and held by the agency’s Office of Security in December 1959, shortly after Oswald moved to the Soviet Union. This file was controlled by Betty Egerter, an aide to counterintelligence chief Angleton, who worked in an office called the Special Investigations Group. All information about Oswald received by the State Department, FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence was funneled to the SIG.
Only a year later, on Dec. 9, 1960, did Egerter open a “201 file” on Oswald.
This misrepresentation led the Warren Commission, the Washington press corps and the American people to believe that agency officials thought so little of Oswald that they took a year to open a file on him, and that they did so only at the request of another agency.
The effect, if not the intention, of this lie was to conceal Angleton’s early interest in Oswald from investigators.
Lie 3: Under the AMSPELL,
“all information in the possession of the Agency regarding Oswald’s activities and associations outside of the United States has been made available to the Commission…”
Elegantly false. This artful lie is impressive in its audacity. Yes, the CIA had turned over information about Oswald when he was outside the United States. But the agency had not turned over all information about Oswald’s activities and associations insidethe United States.
It was a telling omission. The CIA’s charter bars the agency from operating on U.S. soil, a prohibition that was honored mostly in the breach in the early 1960s.
In the summer of 1963, Oswald had repeated encounters in New Orleans with members of a CIA-funded anti-Castro group, the Cuban Student Directorate (aka AMSPELL). After JFK was killed, AMSPELL agents disseminated the first version of the “Castro done it” conspiracy theory to Miami supporters and unwitting newspaper reporters.
The CIA did not share any information about the Oswald-AMSPELL contacts or AMSPELL’s conspiracy theory with JFK investigators.
This lie is still a sensitive subject with the U.S. government in 2017. Some AMSPELL records were only made public last month. Other AMSPELL documents from 1963 remains off-limits to the American people.
When I sued the CIA for AMSPELL files, the CIA refused to make them public on grounds that the release of these ancient records would harm U.S. “national security.” In reporting on my lawsuit, theNew York Timesdescribed the agency’s response to my lawsuit as “cagey.”
Lie 4: The CIA didn’t know about Oswald’s Cuban contacts before Kennedy was killed.
“After the assassination of President Kennedy and the arrest of Lee Harvey OSWALD, an intensive review of all available sources was undertaken in Mexico City to determine the purpose of OSWALD’s visit. It was learned that Oswald had also visited the Cuban Consulate….”
So Helms told the Warren Commission in a Jan. 31, 1964 memo .
Untrue and incriminating. This is perhaps the most revealing lie of all to emerge from the new JFK files. In fact, senior CIA officials knew about Oswald’s visit to the Cuban consulate on Sept. 27, 1963, almost as soon as it happened. I tell the story in my book, Our Man in Mexico, and JFK scholars do not dispute the details.
The CIA’s audio and photo surveillance teams picked up on Oswald’s visit and reported it immediately to Mexico City station chief Win Scott. When the CIA’s lie was repeated on p. 777 of the Warren Commission report, Scott repudiated it. In an unpublished memoir, Scott wrote:
“Every piece of information concerning Lee Harvey Oswald was reported immediately…and included in each and every one of these reports was the entire conversation Oswald had, from Cuban Consulate…”
The CIA’s profession of ignorance about Oswald’s visit to the consulate was intended to deceive. As I show in my forthcoming biography of James Angleton, the counterintelligence chief was paying close personal attention to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City at the time Oswald arrived there in late September 1963 to apply for a visa to travel to Cuba. The lie was intended to conceal Angleton’s knowledge of Oswald’s Cuban contacts while JFK was still alive.
Who to Believe?
Are these misrepresentations evidence of an investigation that was “bungled” or “botched,” as Shenon and Sabato say? Or are they evidence that the JFK investigation was cunningly compromised?
These are sensitive questions. Mainstream news organizations in Washington, like Politico, now seem willing to air the unthreatening “Castro might have done it” conspiracy theory, while still loath even to mention the possibility of a plot from within the U.S. government.
To me, Shenon and Sabato, while well-informed, are less convincing than French president Charles de Gaulle and Cuban president Fidel Castro. The former was a stodgy center-right statesman, the latter a canny leftist revolutionary. They didn’t agree on much, but they were both astute men of power and had both survived CIA-backed assassination plots. De Gaulle and Castro agreed JFK was killed by enemies in his own government.
The JFK files to be released in the next two months will not yield “smoking gun” proof of conspiracy one way or another. They will, however, shed more light on the disturbing story of how top CIA officials, including Helms and Angleton, conspired to kill the truth about who killed JFK.
*Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Press, October 2017).