The CIA and the JFK Assassination
CIA Headquarters in Langley,
"It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government." - CIA CounterIntelligence head James Angleton, in testimony to the Church Committee.
The three letters C.I.A. recur over and over again in the Kennedy assassination saga, with many unanswered questions. Were the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Fidel Castro somehow related to JFK's murder? Did the CIA conduct a cover-up after the assassination, including hiding a relationship with alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald? Was Oswald in fact an agent of the CIA? Why did the CIA bury some of its knowledge of Oswald's trip to Mexico? What have we learned from the voluminous CIA declassifications of the 1990s? Was the CIA involved in the Kennedy assassination?
President Kennedy, the CIA, and CubaPresident Kennedy entered office as an advocate of a stronger line against Fidel Castro's Cuba, and was a fan of the kind of counterinsurgent warfare employed by the CIA. This changed with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, inherited from the Eisenhower administration. Kennedy accepted responsibility publicly, but privately blamed the CIA and obtained the resignation of longtime Director Allen Dulles and others. He also implemented NSAM 55, transferring control of paramilitary operations to the Defense Dept.
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro
with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
The Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered today as a Kennedy success story, and indeed Kennedy's steady hand during the crisis may very well have prevented World War III. But many insiders at that time viewed the Kennedy blockade as yet another sign of weakness and failure of nerve. Senator Richard Russell, when informed of the situation, was among those who advocated immediate military action to remove the missiles, telling Kennedy: "It seems to me that we are at a crossroads. We're either a first-class power or we're not.....And I think that we should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation." CIA officer William Harvey sent commando teams into Cuba during the crisis, which earned him the emnity of the Kennedys and eventual exile in Rome.
During 1963, plans for the overthrow of Castro continued, while the Kennedy administration simultaneously began pursuing a "second track" of accomodation. Tensions even within the government were so high on Cuba that this "peace track" was undertaken behind the back of the State Department, CIA, and Pentagon. One of the intermediaries, a journalist and emissary named Jean Daniel was meeting with Castro when news of JFK's assassination came.
Castro Assassination PlotsOn the same day, November 22 1963, a CIA officer was handing an assassination instrument to Rolando Cubela, code-named AMLASH, in the latest of CIA attempts to murder Fidel Castro. The case officer's superior, Special Affairs Staff Desmond Fitzgerald, had personally met with Cubela earlier, and presented himself as a personal representative of Robert Kennedy. Both Fitzgerald and his boss Richard Helms later testified that RFK had not been informed.
Rolando Cubela with Fidel Castro
Some of the figures involved in these CIA-Mafia plots - Johnny Roselli, Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana, Bill Harvey - have long been "persons of interest" in the Kennedy assassination. Roselli and Giancana were both murdered during the Church Committee's investigation. The coalition involved in these plots - mob figures beset by RFK's war on organized crime, Cuban exiles frustrated with Kennedy's inaction on Cuba, and CIA officers similarly dismayed by perceived Kennedy weakness - had both the motive and the means to turn on JFK. Whether they did so remains in dispute.
The CIA and the Warren CommissionIn the aftermath of the JFK assassination, a senior officer named John Whitten was put in charge of collecting investigative data on Oswald and the assassination. Within weeks he was replaced and James Angleton's CounterIntelligence division was put in charge. Angleton's group had opened a file on defector Lee Henry [sic] Oswald in 1960 and had opened his mail under its HTLINGUAL program run by Birch D. O'Neal. With CounterIntelligence officer Ray Rocca as the main contact point, the CIA supplied the Warren Commission with information about Oswald and his wife Marina, their contacts in the Soviet Union, Oswald's trip to Mexico City, and more.
The Church Committee in the 1970s analyzed the CIA's role in supporting the Warren Commission, and found it lacking. The Committee "developed evidence which impeaches the process by which the intelligence agencies [CIA and FBI] arrived at their own conclusions about the assassination, and by which they provided information to the Warren Commission."
Angleton was also responsible for the incarceration of Yuri Nosenko, a Soviet defector who arrived in the U.S. with the seemingly unwelcome news that the KGB had had no interest in Oswald during his tenure in the Soviet Union. Angleton and other CounterIntelligence officers were convinced that Nosenko was a false defector sent by the KGB on a mission. Nosenko was locked in a small room and interrogated for more than three years, while a battle raged within the CIA over his bona fides. Because this issue was unresolved during the Warren Commission's tenure, the Commission received reports about him but did not use his information in its publications.
A prominent Warren Commissioner was former CIA Director Allen Dulles, who Kennedy had let go after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Dulles maintained some contact with the Agency during the Commission's tenure, including coaching it on what questions the Commission might ask; one internal memo summarizing such a contact included this: "I agreed with him [Dulles] that a carefully phrased denial of the charges of involvement with Oswald seemed most appropriate."
The CIA and the Garrison ProbeThe ill-fated investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison into the Kennedy assassination was not running for long before it started to pull CIA assets into its sights. An internal CIA memo from September 1967 lists those claimed by Garrison to have Agency ties: Clay Shaw, Lawrence LaBorde, Emilio Santana, Victor Manuel Paneque, Alberto Fernandez Hechavarria, Carlos Bringuier, Gerald Patrick Hemming, Jack Rogers, William Dalzell, Schlumberger Corp., Donald Norton, and Gordon Novel. Only in the latter two cases did the CIA claim absolutely no relationship; others were at least contacts or in some cases more (Carlos Bringuier's DRE anti-Castro organization was "conceived, created, and funded by the CIA").
businessman Clay Shaw.
businessman Clay Shaw.
Whether Shaw had any deeper relationship with the Agency, perhaps related to the International Trade Mart he was Director of, remains unsubstantiated though disputed. Certainly the CIA was worried about his prosecution - CIA Director Helms' assistant Victor Marchetti revealed in the 1975 that Helms held meetings where he would ask "are we giving them all the help we can?" CounterIntelligence officer Ray Rocca held meetings on 20 Sep 1967 and 26 Sep 1967, and incorrectly predicted that "Garrison would indeed obtain a conviction of Shaw" (Shaw was acquitted after an hour of deliberation). The Agency also produced a series of 9 numbered memos tracking the Garrison investigation (see sidebar), and circulated to station chiefs a guidebook for defending the Warren Report, with specific strategies for refuting the critics.
Beyond the monitoring of Garrison, there have long been allegations that CIA agents infiltrated the DA's staff, which certainly produced its share of defectors and leakers. Many stories swirled around William Martin (who had been a former CIA contact), William Wood aka "Bill Boxley" (also former CIA, though known as such by Garrison), and anti-Castro exiles Bernardo de Torres and Alberto Fowler. The truth of the level of infiltration of Garrison's staff remains murky. The real attack on Garrison came from the mainstream media, including an NBC reporter who had formerly worked for the CIA, NSA, and Robert Kennedy - Walter Sheridan. The Justice Dept. also played a role, including taking the step of flying JFK autopsy doctor Boswell to New Orleans during the trial to be ready to rescue his floundering colleague, Dr. Finck.
The Last InvestigationThe post-Watergate Church Committee documented CIA plots to kill Fidel Castro in great detail; its probe into the Kennedy assassination was more limited, as seen in the name of the slim volume "The Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Performance of the Intelligence Agencies." But this report was highly critical of both the CIA and FBI; Senator Schweiker told a TV audience that "the [Warren] report...has collapsed like a house of cards" and spoke of "senior intelligence officials who directed the cover-up."
The Church Committee's unfinished business fell to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which got off to a rocky start. Shortly after Chief Counsel Richard Sprague declined to sign CIA secrecy oaths and began asking pointed questions about Oswald's visit to Mexico City, he began to be denounced in the press and even by his own committee chairman, Henry Gonzalez. The committee was almost terminated before it really got started, rescued only by the dual resignations of Gonzalez and Sprague, and the untimely apparent suicide of key witness George DeMohrenschildt on the eve of a refunding vote.
HSCA Chief Counsel
G. Robert Blakey.
G. Robert Blakey.
These questions have not been adequately answered to this day. HSCA staffers compiled a report entitled "Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City" (aka the "Lopez Report" after one of its co-authors) which addresses some of them, and takes issue with CIA's positions in many instances. This report was not released by the HSCA, but was declassified in the mid-1990s, with many redactions. The Committee's investigation generated a great deal of hostility with the CIA; one memo from Chairman Stokes to CIA Director Turner essentially accused the Agency of lying about the existence photographs of Oswald taken in Mexico City.
The HSCA concluded in its Final Report that "The Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency were not involved in the assassination of President Kennedy." But even the write-up supporting that conclusion noted the Committee's difficulty in determining whether Oswald had been an agent of the CIA, unexplained anomalies related to CIA's file on Oswald, the allegation of an officer that he had personally seen a report from a CIA field office which had "interviewed a former Marine who had worked at the Minsk radio plant following his defection to the U.S.S.R.," among other allegations and issues.
The relationship between the CIA and the HSCA, particularly some of its staff, was often tense. Neatly summarizing some CIA officers' frustrations with what they thought were inexperienced and overzealous investigators was one internal memo reviewing an HSCA writeup. CIA officer Chuck Berk wrote the following, regarding the allegation that the CIA withheld information from the Warren Commission: "For instance, if we had reports on why the monkeys lost their tails in Zamboango, it would not be provided as it had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination (although HSCA investigators might think it so)." [For readers for whom this reference might be too obscure, here is a link to the traditional song entitled Zamboango.]
HSCA Chief Counsel often sided with the CIA in such disputes, and now regrets it. Two decades after the Committee closed up shop, Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley discovered that the CIA liaison officer to the Committee was not what he appeared. George Joannides, brought out of retirement to help guide HSCA staffers in their document requests, had been from 1962-64 the case officer for the DRE, the very Cuban exile group which with which Oswald had had multiple interactions in the summer of 1963. Thus, a person knowledgeable of one of the most sensitive areas of intersection between the CIA and Oswald was in a position to monitor and manage the HSCA's investigation in this area, Told of this, Blakey said that if he had known he would have had Joannides on the witness stand rather than as liaison, and wrote a tirade against the CIA, which said this of the Agency: "Many have told me that the culture of the Agency is one of prevarication and dissimulation and that you cannot trust it or its people. Period. End of story. I am now in that camp." Significantly for the HSCA's findings, he also wrote: "I now no longer believe anything the Agency told the committee any further than I can obtain substantial corroboration for it from outside the Agency for its veracity."
Was Oswald a CIA Agent?
Dallas arrest photo of
Lee Harvey Oswald.
Lee Harvey Oswald.
Oswald's defection to the USSR has long attracted interest; he and many others defected precisely at a time when US knowledge of the Soviet Union was lacking (prior to satellites), and many observers have long suspected that he was part of a "false defector" program. This suspicion was fueled by the U.S. Government's curious treatment of the man who declared he would give radar secrets to the Soviets - the government loaned him money to return to the U.S., never prosecuted him, and claimed never to have even debriefed him.
While no official acknowledgement of such a false-defector program has been forthcoming, the CIA did admit privately to HSCA staff that at least one officer named Thomas Casasin had "run an agent into the USSR" and like Oswald this agent had come back with a Russian wife. Interestingly, Casasin had written a memo on 25 Nov 1963 that he and another officer in the Soviet Russia division had on Oswald's return discussed the "laying on of interview(s)," but "I do not know what action developed thereafter." For its part, the HSCA failed to mention Casasin's having "run an agent into the USSR" in its published defector study.
Oswald's odd behavior in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 is also a source of speculation about his motives and associations. His pro-Castro activities, including pretending to be the head of the New Orleans chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee--Oswald was its only member in the city--seem bizarre, except perhaps when looked through the lens of the CIA's ongoing anti-FPCC intelligence operations. Jim Garrison discovered that an address stamped on one of Oswald's handbills, 544 Camp Street, was the address of a building holding the offices anti-Communist operative Guy Banister. Banister's secretary Delphine Roberts told investigator Anthony Summers that Banister had told them that Oswald was "associated with the office," and Garrison's staff was told by Banister's widow that she had discovered FPCC leaflets among her husband's possessions. Garage owner Adrian Alba testified that, among other activities, he had seen an FBI agent in a car passing an envelope to Oswald. And as noted earlier, at a time when Oswald got engaged in a street scuffle with DRE delegate Carlos Bringuier, the DRE's case officer was George Joannides, the officer who would later be brought out of retirement to serve as liaison to the HSCA.
Returning to the CIA files on Oswald, the HSCA was concerned about Oswald's "201" file, which was opened in November 1960 but contained materials dated from prior to that time, suggesting that there may have been a prior file on Oswald. Ann Egerter, who opened the 201 file on Lee "Henry" [sic] Oswald on the basis of a State Dept. about several defectors, denied that the handwritten annotation "AG" meant "agent." But her CI/SIG unit in CounterIntelligence was primarly tasked to protect the Agency from penetrations or moles: "We were charged with the investigation of Agency personnel who were suspected one way or another." She also noted that "Operational material is not stored in 201 files."
Ray Rocca, a CounterIntelligence officer who had been a liaison to the Warren Commission, was questioned by the HSCA about why the CI/SIG group would have been the one to open the Oswald file. After a seemingly evasive exchange in which Rocca brought in the DDP (operations) branch of the CIA, the HSCA questioner responded "Again, though, Oswald had nothing to do with the DDP at this time, at least apparently." To which Rocca responded: "I'm not saying that. You said it."
After all these years, it remains unclear whether Oswald was an agent of the CIA or of any other intelligence agency. An entire book, Philip Melanson's Spy Saga, was devoted to the circumstantial evidence that he was. Alternative theories include that Oswald was operating with people like Banister outside the CIA per se, or that perhaps he was manipulated without being witting of exactly who he was dealing with. Author Peter Dale Scott has even argued that Oswald's file, more than the man himself, was the subject of an intelligence operation, specifically CounterIntelligence chief James Angleton's famous search for a Soviet mole. Some dismiss all this, saying that Oswald was simply a loner and malcontent. If this were true, then Oswald's strange capers effectively would make him an agent of his own one-man intelligence agency, a theory no less strange than any of the others.
Friends and AgentsIf despite the anomalies Oswald was not connected to U.S. intelligence, the same cannot be said for many of his associates. For some of them, persistent allegations of such connections remain unsubstantiated. For others, declassified files prove connections to varying degrees, though the ultimate meaning of those connections is subject to debate.
Oswald's "best friend" in Dallas was a curious and well-connected oil geologist named George DeMohrenschildt. Long suspected of early ties to French intelligence, or perhaps German intelligence, DeMohrenschildt himself admitted an association with the CIA's Dallas office head, J. Walton Moore. As a businessman, of course, such association might be routine, except that DeMohrenschildt further said that he had talked about Oswald with Moore; DeMohrenschildt also apparently encouraged Oswald to write a report about his experiences in Minsk which in some parts reads like an intelligence report.
Some others in Oswald's orbit had clearer Agency connections. Journalist Priscilla Johnson, who interviewed Oswald during his defection in Moscow and later befriended Marina, had in the 1950s attempted to join the CIA. Though this never happened, she maintained multiple contacts with Agency officers and was cleared for various information-gathering projects. Johnson attracted interest of assassination researchers not only because of her book Marina and Lee, which reinforced the Warren Commission view of Oswald just as the HSCA was gearing up, but also due to curious events such as her participating in the finding of a bus ticket "proving" that Oswald had been to Mexico. Senator Russell for one was highly skeptical that the federal agencies had missed finding this ticket among Marina's possessions during multiple searches.
Priscilla Johnson was hardly alone among journalists in having CIA contacts. Dallas Morning news reporter Hugh Aynesworth, another longtime commentator on the case, was in contact with the Dallas CIA office. A declassified memo described a working relationship with multiple Miami Herald journalists. As Congress discovered in the 1970s during investigation of intelligence abuses, the Agency had developed many intimate contacts with the media. The contacts with Johnson and Aynesworth and others is not sinister per se, but it does raise the legitimate question of bias.
One other close associate of Lee and Marina Oswald was Ruth Paine, a Quaker housewife who befriended Marina and gave her a place to live when she and Lee were separated, who got Oswald the job at the Book Depository, and in whose house much of the incriminating evidence was found. Ruth's sister, it turns out, worked for the CIA under Air Force cover. Was Ruth a "babysitter" for Marina, as some suspect? In 1968, Marina told the Orleans Parish Grand Jury why she had cut off contact with Ruth after the assassination: "I was advised by Secret Service not to be connected with her, seems like she was…..not connected…..she was sympathizing with the CIA. She wrote letters over there and they told me for my own reputation, to stay away."
Perhaps it is not surprising that a returning defector would find himself surrounded by people with contacts in the intelligence world. But it should give pause before giving full credence to the oft-told stories of the "loner" Oswald, stories often told by these same sources.
Confessions of Involvement"Someone would have talked," goes the old refrain. In the case of some CIA officers and others associated with the Agency, they did talk. But who's listening?
Infamous CIA officer
E. Howard Hunt
E. Howard Hunt
Other confessions have carried a bit more weight. David Morales, Chief of Operations at the JMWAVE station in Florida where he trained Bay of Pigs participants and by some accounts was involved in assassination operations, was getting drunk one night with childhood friend Ruben Carbajal and a business associate named Bob Walton. Both men said that Morales went on a tirade about Kennedy and particularly his failure to support the men of the Bay of Pigs. Morales finished this conversation by saying "Well, we took care of that son of a bitch, didn't we?"
John Martino was not a CIA officer or agent, but did travel in circles which intersected with many of the Agency's anti-Castro activists, including Morales and soldier-of-fortune and later Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis. Martino told family and associates that he had been involved in the assassination in a peripheral way, and that "The anti-Castro people put Oswald together. Oswald didn't know who he was working for--he was just ignorant of who was really putting him together. Oswald was to meet his contact at the Texas Theatre. They were to meet Oswald in the theatre, and get him out of the country, then eliminate him. Oswald made a mistake...There was no way we could get to him. They had Ruby kill him."
CIA Records on the JFK AssassinationThe FBI was the primary investigative body in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, and continued that work on behalf of the Warren Commission. But the CIA became involved as well, particularly in foreign aspects - Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union and his contacts with Soviet and Cuban embassies several weeks prior to the events of Dallas. During the later Church and HSCA investigations, the Agency's anti-Castro murder plots and other operations became a prime focus.
CIA files in the JFK Collection held at the National Archives number on the order of a half-million pages, and the vast bulk of them are online on the MFF website (although in some cases the National Archives' copy has been re-released with fewer redactions). The records fall into several sub-collections:
• Oswald 201 file - A small pre-assassination file, which then became the CIA's primary post-assassination investigative file. • Segregated Collection - Split into two portions, one stored on paper and the other microfilmed, these are the files made available to the HSCA. They contain a great deal on anti-Castro personalities and groups. • Russ Holmes Work File - This JFK assassination document archive was maintained in the CounterIntelligence division by an officer named Russell Holmes. Other smaller collections include the Latin America Division Work File (the group was charged in the 1970s with looking into Castro's involvement in the crime), and files from the Office of Security, the Deputy Director of Plans, and other miscellaneous files.
Important CIA reports of interest to a wide audience are the Inspector General's 1967 Report on CIA plots to kill Castro, volumes one and two of an Inspector General's report on the Bay of Pigs, and the recently-released "family jewels" report compiled during the Watergate era.
More may be forthcoming. The CIA is currently in a legal battle over the records of officer George Joannides, and has admitted to the existence of 1100 assassination documents withheld in full. The completeness of existing collections remains in doubt in some instances, and falsification of certain records has been alleged by researchers who study them. Nonetheless, the declassifications of the 1990s delivered a wealth of information; much of the preceding discussion is only possible due to records released since 1993.
Was the CIA Involved in the JFK Assassination?
President Kennedy pinning a medal
on outgoing CIA Director Allen Dulles.
on outgoing CIA Director Allen Dulles.
But is there any direct evidence of such involvement, beyond the meager confessions noted earlier and the discredited allegation that Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis were two of the three "tramps" found in a boxcar not far from Dealey Plaza?
The evidence is circumstantial, but not absent. First of all, there is no serious question that the CIA has been involved in cover-up of its pre-assassination knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald. In particular, the official story of the Oswald visit to Mexico City is fraught with problems. Overwhelming evidence exists that at least one tape of a person calling himself Oswald, contacting the Soviet Embassy, were available on November 22, and not "routinely recycled" as CIA officials later claimed. More importantly, FBI agents in Dallas who listened to recordings determined that it wasn't Oswald's voice on the tape.
expert David Phillips.
expert David Phillips.
The issue of a cover-up related to the Mexico City visit is hardly academic. Allegations that Oswald was in league with the Soviets and Cubans, and had been in contact with a KGB assassinations expert while in Mexico City, fueled the fear of World War III and helped put together the Warren Commission. Lyndon Johnson told Senator Russell that, after Earl Warren refused to serve on the Commission multiple times, "I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City," and Warren relented, reportedly with tears in his eyes.
There are indications that the Mexico City visit was a CIA operation of some sort, possibly related to operations against the Fair Play for Cuba Committee "in foreign countries" where the CIA told the FBI in September 1963 that it was "giving some thought to planting deceptive information which might embarrass the Committee in areas where it does have some support." A sensitive CIA operation might explain why FBI Domestic Intelligence officer Marvin Gheesling took Oswald's name off a watch list the day before a cable reporting the Oswald visit reached Washington DC. Oswald had been on this list, which ensured that incoming information on Oswald would be routed to the FBI's espionage division, since 1959.
But there are many motives for cover-up. If there was an intelligence connection to Oswald, and the Mexico City visit was part of this, might this alone explain the need for a cover-up? Perhaps CIA leaders decided it could simply not afford the embarrassment of an association with the man alleged to have killed the President?
CIA CounterIntelligence Chief
James Jesus Angleton.
James Jesus Angleton.
Newman's analysis notes the importance of focusing on the actions of individuals - it is nonsensical to say that an agency as large as the CIA killed Kennedy. Even those who say that the assassination was run "from the top" of the Agency often excuse John McCone, who was after all the Director. The CIA is highly compartmentalized; the number of Agency officers knowledgeable about the Castro murder plots, for instance, was not very large. The "need to know" test limits access to knowledge of any covert operation, let alone a plot to murder the president of the United States. But the allegation that CIA officers were involved in such a plot, while never proven, has only grown in strength over time, gaining the adherence of many who have studied the assassination closely.