Just seven weeks before the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the CIA intercepted a curious phone call to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. “My name is Oswald,” said the caller, speaking in broken Russian, seeking information about his request for a visa to return to Russia. It was indeed Lee Harvey Oswald, the Marxist misfit soon to be identified as Kennedy’s accused assassin. In this instance, Oswald didn’t get very far. Seeking an update on his visa request, the Soviet official who answered the phone told Oswald he had no update to give and then hung up on him.
Most of a 23-page internal CIA memo documenting that phone call and other details of Oswald’s pre-assassination trip to Mexico City — a visit that has been the subject of endless speculation — was released years ago. But a few previously classified portions of that memo were finally released this week, a small part of the more than 13,173 newly unredacted documents disclosed by the National Archives under a 1992 law requiring the release of all government material relating to what was arguably the most shocking and consequential crime in American history.
So what was the CIA hiding all these years? The long-concealed section speaks for itself. “This piece of information was produced from a telephone tap center which we operate jointly with the office of the President of Mexico,” the memo reads, explaining how the CIA intercepted Oswald’s call to the Soviets. “It is highly secret and not known to Mexican security and law enforcement officials, who have their own center.”
In short, like much of the newly disclosed JFK papers, the memo didn’t contain any bombshells that prove an elaborate conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Instead, it was the CIA trying to hide how it does its business — in this case, forging a relationship with a foreign official to operate a secret listening center on Mexican soil.
The Kennedy assassination remains to this today the mother of all conspiracy theories, giving rise to countless books and movies arguing — take your pick — that the Mafia or the Cubans or the Russians or the CIA itself played a hidden role in the president’s murder. And there is little doubt that the agency’s failure to release all of its records relating to the assassination has fueled the idea of a massive government cover-up. “What are they hiding?” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son and namesake of Kennedy’s brother and, to many, a notorious conspiracy theorist himself, asked two months ago when a new lawsuit was filed to force the release of the remaining material.
But the latest release only underscores the point that what has been hidden from the public is largely about highly sensitive agency collection activities and exotic plans for operations that, while in some instances highly embarrassing and by today’s standards indefensible, bear little if any relevance to the crime itself. A prime example is one of the newly disclosed documents — a seven-page Aug. 31, 1962, Defense Department memo about Operation Mongoose, the secret operation to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government that had been authorized by Kennedy (and overseen by his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy) after the disastrous failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Written more than a year before Kennedy’s assassination, the memo tells us nothing about that event. But it does reveal the extraordinary lengths to which the officials running Operation Mongoose were prepared to go to achieve Kennedy’s desired result: “Arrange for caches of limited Soviet-Czech arms to be ‘discovered’ in selected Latin American countries, ostensibly smuggled in from Cuba,” one section of the memo reads. In short, it was a plan to frame the Cubans by linking them to a gun-smuggling operation that the U.S. itself would conduct.
In that sense, the document meshes perfectly with the guiding thinking behind Operation Northwoods, the Pentagon plan to stage a so-called false flag terror attack on the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay that could be used as an excuse to launch a U.S. invasion of the island. “We could blow up a ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” read one previously released memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (The idea was rejected by Kennedy.)
But the newly released August 1962 Pentagon memo shows that the idea of launching covert U.S. military operations against Cuba didn’t disappear. The memo mentions apparent proposals to dispatch saboteurs to blow up oil refineries, electrical plants and a paper mill in Cuba. It is far from clear how much, if any of this, was actually carried out. As the memo itself notes: “Each operation entails risk, not only physical risk for the saboteurs, but also risk of attribution to the U.S. in case of capture. Care will be taken to give these the appearance of being done by internal resistance groups, and in isolating team members from press sources upon return.”
Like the CIA’s previous attempt to assassinate Castro using notorious Mafia figures, all of this was unquestionably unsavory — and as details have emerged over the years, it has given the Cubans no shortage of talking points to hammer the U.S. government.
But what, if anything, does it tell us about Oswald himself — and whether he had any secret contacts with anybody in the U.S. government in the months before the assassination? He was, of course, on the FBI’s radar screen. An agent in Dallas was assigned to keep tabs on him given that he had previously defected to the Soviet Union) and the agent’s brief, testy dealings with Oswald — in particular an angry letter Oswald wrote the agent after he had tried to interview his wife — was destroyed and hidden from the Warren Commission, a panel appointed by President Lyndon Johnson that investigated the assassination. But it has been an article of faith among many JFK conspiracy theorists that something far more sinister was going on — that CIA operatives working to overthrow Castro had some sort of “operational relationship” with Oswald and, using anti-Castro Cubans in the United States, were somehow manipulating them.
But there is nothing in any of the CIA material that was released this week, not to mention the thousands of pages of documents that were previously disclosed, that points to that. In fact, the CIA memo on Oswald’s trip to Cuba suggests otherwise. The memo establishes that, of course, the CIA was aware of Oswald and had a file on him. But here is how the news of Oswald’s arrest went down inside a clearly chaotic CIA headquarters.
“When word of the shooting of President Kennedy reached the offices of our operating divisions and staffs on the afternoon of Friday 22 November 1963, transistor radios were turned on everywhere to follow the tragedy,” the memo reads. “When the name of Lee OSWALD was heard, the effect was electric. A phone message from the FBI came at about the same time, naming OSWALD as the possible assassin and asking for traces.”
At that point, here is what happened, per the memo: James Jesus Angleton, the chief of CIA counter-intelligence, passed the FBI’s message on to something called the Special Investigations Unit. Another operative, a woman named Betty Egerter, “immediately recognized” Oswald’s name and “went for his file.” The Mexico desk chief called in to remind his colleagues “that we had something on Oswald.” A cable was dispatched to Mexico City asking “for more information on OSWALD.” At that very moment, the CIA station in Mexico City sent its own cable as a “reminder of the information the Station had sent in on him.”
What emerges from this account is not so much a portrait of CIA officials horror-struck that their role in the president’s murder might be exposed but of government bureaucrats scrambling to find details about the accused assassin and cover themselves, no doubt worried that they might be blamed for not paying more attention to him before the murder.
Will the new release settle anything? Of course not. Even with this week’s release, the CIA acknowledged in a letter to the White House just made public that the agency is still withholding “limited” material that might reveal, among other things, the names of particular CIA employees, “intelligence assets and sources, specific tradecraft and intelligence methods still in use, specific operational details, foreign intelligence liaison relationships, certain CIA installations” and, perhaps most intriguing, “still-classified covert action programs still in effect.”
On the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast, Jefferson Morley — a former Washington Post reporter and prolific author who runs a website dedicated to the assassination — argued that the CIA is playing a “shell game” and concealing documents that will ultimately reveal Kennedy was “killed by enemies in his own government who had the ability to make it look like something else.” But how did that work? “That’s shrouded in secrecy and so I can’t explain the mechanics of a conspiracy,” he said.
Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter who wrote his own book on the assassination entitled “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” offered a different perspective. Oswald — who had purchased the Italian-made rifle that was used to kill Kennedy and then left it behind when he fled the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository after the assassination — was too erratic and unstable to have been part of any conspiracy, he said.
Still, Shenon acknowledged, the new release of material won’t settle the matter. “This is the ultimate rabbit hole,” he said on “Skullduggery.” He then cited the view of then-Sen. Richard Russell, the Georgia Democrat who Johnson had named to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. When it was all over and the commission released its report naming Oswald as the lone gunman, Russell was quoted as saying “people will still be debating these conspiracy theories a thousand years from now.”