It’s easy to reach wrong conclusions about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination based on a 1963 CIA document released this month.
Among 2,500 declassified Top Secret CIA Presidential Daily Briefings (“PDBs”) released Sept. 16 is a briefing stating that Kennedy’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald visited two Communist embassies in Mexico City six weeks before he allegedly shot Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. We reported the overall document dump Sept. 27 in a routine summary story that has already received nearly two thousand website hits. Today, we drill down on the document that has received the most attention so far nationally.
The CIA assertion provided a news peg for a Washington Times story this month headlined, CIA confirmed Oswald contacted Cubans, Soviets before assassination, memo shows. Reporter Kellan Howell wrote, “According to the Nov. 25, 1963 briefing, Oswald — a former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 — visited both the Cuban and Soviet embassies on Sept. 28, 1963.”
The Times reporter, busy also preparing an advance story for the GOP presidential debate that evening, used the CIA document to imply the conventional story line. The official story was, as summarized in the Warren Commission report in 1964: that Oswald was a Communist sympathizer who killed the American president for reasons associated with Cold War animosities. The reporter’s brief story this month promptly received nearly one thousand reader comments and some 2,500 “likes” on Facebook, thereby illustrating the public’s ongoing thirst for knowledge about the crime of the century.
But the newspaper failed to explore strong evidence that the official CIA report on Oswald, made to Kennedy’s presidential successor Lyndon B. Johnson, was at best incomplete, confusing, and otherwise unreliable.
Less charitably, the newly released CIA document can also be interpreted as being evidence of a suspected plan by federal authorities to frame Oswald as a patsy, thereby allowing others to escape responsibility for Kennedy’s murder.
The murder mystery’s importance goes far beyond this month’s story. In this column, we test an official document for its likely veracity. That method needs to be more common in review of other official documents, particularly relating to sensitive matters. Cable commentator Bill O’Reilly’s best-seller Killing Kennedy, for example, adopts the findings of the commission for the most part and then merely dramatizes them.
The Warren Commission asserted in 1964 that Oswald visited Mexico City from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3. The implication was that his activities there showed his pro-Communist and anti-American mind-set.
But the seven-member commission and its investigators disregarded significant questions about whether Oswald undertook his years of post-military and seemingly anti-American activities as an undercover federal agent playing a role. Oswald joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a teenager and won a high-level secrecy clearance because he worked at the Atsugi Air Force base in Japan on the secret U-2 spy plane overflights of the Soviet Union and China. He defected to the Soviet Union after learning to speak Russian in the Marines, but developed extensive contacts with CIA, FBI, and military personnel upon his return from the Soviet Union in 1962 with U.S. government assistance for him and his Russian-born wife.
After Oswald’s arrest in 1963 after Kennedy’s killing, he tried unsuccessfully to phone from the Dallas police station a contact in Nag’s Head, North Carolina. That was the location of the Navy’s secret “false defector” program during the 1950s. The locale trained personnel to defect and act as double agents, according to numerous sources quoted by Richard Belzer and David Wayne in Hit List. Their expert sources included U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker and former high-ranking CIA executive Victor Marchetti.
Some scholars, including James Douglass in his 2008 best-seller JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, argue that the CIA and allied authorities sought to use imposters and false paperwork to create suspicions of pro-Communist and erratic behavior by Oswald to help confirm his guilt in the public mind after the assassination. Remember the title of the Douglass book. As explained below, the word “unspeakable” is relevant to the Pope Francis address to Congress last week and to each U.S. citizen.
Beyond such questions about the JFK assassination, the debate this month over the CIA’s 1963 PDB on Oswald illustrates why official documents are not always accurate even when they describe, as here, secrets never expected to become public.
Therefore, those relying on such research should always regard such documents as a tool but not necessarily the truth.
Faked Oswald Photos?
The Washington Times story failed to mention at least two major pieces of evidence directly discrediting the CIA’s Nov. 25 PDB for Johnson, the Texas-reared vice president who assumed the nation’s top office Nov. 22 after JFK’s death.
First, CIA surveillance photos of the balding, heavyset man visiting the Soviet embassy (shown above and included in the 1964 Warren Report exhibits) suggest that he was not Oswald, whose photo is below left on his visa application to Cuba from that period. Jefferson Morley authored the biography Our Man in Mexico on the career of the CIA’s Mexico City Bureau Chief Winfield Scott. Morley flatly states in his book that Scott, the powerful CIA bureau chief from 1956 to 1969, mistakenly thought “the Mystery Man” leaving the Soviet Embassy on Oct. 1 was Oswald. So, Scott reported that finding to the CIA, which included that information (with an apparently mistaken date) in the PDB sent to the new president Nov. 25.
Second, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told Johnson on Nov. 25, according to now-declassified records, that FBI voice tests indicated that Oswald did not make the phone calls that the CIA claimed Oswald had made in Mexico City to set up appointments at the embassies. That’s correct: The FBI was contradicting the CIA, and no one disclosed the contradiction to the public.
The reasons are tangled. But they can be summarized this way, thanks to scholarly study: Hoover (shown below right in a 1967 portrait) and his FBI competed fiercely with the CIA, while also cooperating on some matters. Kennedy had forced out the CIA’s top three officials in 1961 in fury over their war-mongering behavior. Kennedy was planning also to oust Hoover, who hated both the president and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover’s nominal boss at the Justice Department.
With a new president in office, Hoover doubtless wanted to show off on Nov. 25 his insider knowledge, his willingness to help Johnson, and the kind of mistakes and over-reaching that the rival CIA was making. It helped that Johnson was Hoover’s close political ally and neighbor. For years, they had lived across a street from one another in the capital’s northwest section.
After Hoover made his point his FBI conveniently lost the suspected phony “Oswald” audiotapes discrediting the CIA. The CIA also lost key evidence regarding Mexico City. Then, the FBI promptly authored an 800-page report in early December 1963 confirming what Hoover told the president on the day of the assassination: that Oswald killed Kennedy and a Dallas policeman, J.D. Tippet, and acted alone in doing so. Johnson told his eminent recruits for the Warren Commission they merely needed to confirm Hoover’s FBI report. Thus, the busy commissioners participated in few of the witness examinations of their supposed probe, which was tightly controlled by staff focused almost solely on evidence that could portray Oswald as guilty.
But even the Warren Commission hand-picked by Johnson with a mandate to blame Oswald could not cite the FBI’s 800-page report in its 26-book report issued in September 1964. In the report and followup, Hoover and his staff stubbornly insisted that all three “Oswald” shots hit Kennedy. But that failed to explain how a shot discovered in March 1964 to have wounded a bystander could be reconciled with an Oswald-only crime using a bolt-action rifle in a seven-second time-frame.
The commission, leaning heavily on staffer Arlen Specter, the future U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, then adopted a theory that one bullet changed direction multiple times and created multiple wounds, including through bone. The bullet emerged in near-pristine condition on a hospital gurney even though Texas Gov. John Connally, shot at the same time as JFK, insisted (as did experienced Dallas hospital personnel) that some bullet fragments were found during Connally’s treatment and also remained in his body.