THE BLOG

JFK at 49: What We Know for Sure

11/22/2012 02:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2013
  • Jefferson Morley Moderator of JFK Facts (jfkfacts.org) and author of "Our Man in Mexico: WInston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA"

November 22 marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The memory of the tragedy in Dallas seems to be fading in America's collective consciousness. Few people younger than myself (I'm 54) have any memory of the day it actually happened. 9/11 has certainly replaced 11/22 as the time stamp of American catastrophic angst.

Yet the JFK story still acts as a gravitational vortex in America's pop culture galaxy. ABC News released of audio tapes of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy conversations shortly after her husband's death. The factually grounded but over the top Jesse Ventura blamed JFK's assassination on "the same old military industrial complex." Stephen King published a time-travel epiccalled November 22, 1963. Bill O'Reilly wrote an uncharacteristically wimpy JFK book. And next year, Tom Hanks plans to release a big-budget assassination drama called Parkland, the hospital where JFK died.

In this media spectacle, the Internet is a mixed blessing. The Web keeps the JFK story alive by providing a platform and audience for ever more fantastical theories about the death of the 35thpresident. More constructively, the Web has made the government's troubling records about JFK's death available for the first time to millions people outside of Washington and the federal government. I believe this diffusion of knowledge is slowly clarifying the JFK story for everybody.

Two years ago, I addressed the question, "What Do We Really Know About JFK?" Since then five new developments are worth noting.

1) American cultural elites continue to resist the idea that JFK was killed by a conspiracy.

Some of America's headiest popular culture thinkers have started weighing in on the conspiracy question. King told documentarian Errol Morris that he found JFK conspiracy scenarios aselusive as UFOs. Malcolm Gladwell endorsed statistician Bill James' probabilistic take on Kennedy's death.

Gladwell and James argue, in effect, that so many guns were fired in America in the 20th century that was only a matter of time before one of those many bullets would randomly intersect with the path of a passing president. (Thankfully Grantland editor Bill Simmons expressed some skepticism about this cheerful evasion of politics.)

Robert Caro, epic biographer of Lyndon Johnson, is more judicious. With the release of his fourth volume on LBJ, Caro said he had not found "a single hint" to implicate LBJ in Kennedy's death, as one popular and (I believe, unfounded) conspiracy theory holds. Caro, however, added that he did not attempt to reach a final judgment on whether somebody else besides LBJ might have been behind JFK's assassination.

2) Conspiratorial suspicions abound in popular opinion and on the Internet, but the fact remains there is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt of specific perpetrators of JFK assassination conspiracy.

The only JFK theory to have gained much attention in the past year is a variation on the unconvincing "Fidel Castro did it" theory. This scenario was first advocated by CIA sources within hours of JFK's death in 1963. Now it has been updated and modified by Brian Latell, a former Cuba specialist at the CIA.

Latell's scenario is actually more a criminal negligence theory, than a conspiracy theory. The Cuban leader played a "passive but knowing" role in JFK's assassination, he alleges. As I reported in Salon last spring, corroboration for these claims is lacking. Even the CIA's own in-house publication, Studies in Intelligence, agreed.

Latell is on firmer ground in suggesting that the prevailing media discourse of "conspiracy" serves to obscure other possible explanations of JFK's death, including negligence.

But his allegations advertently highlighted a truth that his admirers have overlooked:.

3) There is more evidence of CIA negligence in JFK's death than Cuban complicity: A lot more.

The truth is this: Lee Harvey Oswald was well known to a handful of top CIA officials shortly before JFK was killed.

Read this internal CIA cable (not declassified until 1993) and you will see that that accused assassin's biography--his travels, politics, intentions, and state of mind--were known to top CIA officials as of October 10, 1963 six weeks before JFK went to Dallas for a political trip.

While Latell speculates about what Castro knew, CIA records document what Langley knew.

In the fall of 1963, Oswald, a 23-year old ex-Marine traveled from New Orleans to Mexico City. When he contacted the Soviet embassy to apply for a visa to travel to Cuba, a CIA surveillance team picked up his telephone calls. A tape recording indicated Oswald had been referred to a consular officer suspected of being a KGB assassination specialist.

Winston Scott, the respected chief of the CIA station in Mexico City, was concerned. He sent a query to CIA headquarters, asking who is this guy Oswald?

Scott's question was referred to the CIA's Counterintelligence (CI) Staff. With responsibility for detecting threats to the agency operations, the CI staff had been watching Oswald ever since he had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959.

A senior official of the CI staff named Jane Roman retrieved the CIA's fat file on Oswald, which contained dozens of documents including intercepted correspondence and FBI reports. Roman and other senior staffers drafted a response which said, in effect, don't worry: Oswald's marriage and two year residence in the Soviet Union had helped him grow up. Oswald was "maturing."

This optimistic assessment was personally read and endorsed by no less than five senior CIA officers. They are identified by name on the last page of the cable. Their names--Roman, Tom Karamessines, Bill Hood, John Whitten (identified by his pseudonym "Scelso"), and Betty Egeter--were kept from the American public for thirty years. Why? Because all five reported to deputy director Richard Helms or to Counterintelligence Chief James Angleton in late 1963. Because of "national security."

Their inaccurate and complacent assessment of Oswald had real world consequences.

In Mexico City, Win Scott never learned about Oswald's recent arrest or the fact that he gone public with his support for Castro. He stopped investigating Oswald. In Washington, the FBI responded to the CIA cable to taking Oswald off an "alert" list of people of special interest to the Bureau. The Oswald cable contributed to the breakdown of presidential security in Dallas.

After JFK's death, Angleton and Helms kept mum about their subordinates' pre-assassination interest in Oswald. They responded airily or inaccurately to inquiries from the Warren Commission. Of the CIA hands who had vetted Oswald before JFK's death only one, John Whitten, attempted to find out what had gone wrong.

Whitten is a rare hero in the JFK assassination story. He was chief of the Mexico Desk in the clandestine service in 1963, and by all accounts "a good spy." His specialty was counterespionage investigations--how to determine someone's ultimate allegiances. That was exactly what the U.S. government needed to know about Oswald after JFK was killed.

Whitten tried to mount an internal CIA investigation into the accused assassin, especially his contacts among pro-and anti-Castro Cubans in New Orleans. As Whitten later recounted to Congress, he was blocked by Angleton's hostility and then effectively fired by the icy Helms.

Whitten retired and moved to Europe. He died in a Pennsylvania nursing home in 2001, his sacrifice in service to truth forgotten by his country.

4) There is no proof of a CIA conspiracy in JFK's death. There is much evidence of CIA negligence.

The problem originated at the top of the CIA. Senior aides to Helms and Angleton had been tracking Oswald closely for years and failed to recognize the threat he posed to the president. When the Warren Commission started asking questions Helms and Angleton provided inaccurate or deceptive statements.

Both men came out ahead with the succession of Lyndon Johnson to the White House. In 1966, LBJ named Helms as CIA director, a job in which he gained a well-deserved reputation as The Man Who Kept the Secrets.

Helms played an inscrutable role in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon and later pled guilty to lying to Congress.

This "gentlemanly planner of assassinations" died in 2002 leaving behind a posthumous memoir, co-written by William Hood, assuring readers that Oswald acted alone. To defend his good name, his widow, Cynthia Helms, has just published a memoir.

Angleton remained chief of the Counterintelligence Staff until 1974 when he was disgraced by the revelation he had overseen a massive illegal spying program on Americans and (with the FBI) a sinister program of political harassment known as COINTELPRO.

Angleton's exploits have inspired a small library of books and several Hollywood movies, including The Good Shepherd starring Matt Damon. Angleton's monitoring of Lee Harvey Oswald from October 1959 to October1963 was first documented in historian John Newman's groundbreaking 1995 book, Oswald and the CIA.

I'm not expert in law but I think Dick Helms and Jim Angleton and some their aides were guilty of criminal negligence in JFK's wrongful. It is hard to say for sure because:

5. Official secrecy still shrouds the CIA's role in the JFK tragedy.

One of the most promising JFK developments of the past two years is the Kennedy family's pledge to release 54 boxes of long-secret files held by Robert Kennedy, including those on Cuba. These records may well shed new light on JFK's private overtures to Castro in late 1963 and RFK's enduring suspicions of a CIA-Mafia conspiracy.

Otherwise, the situation concerning JFK records has actually worsened in the past two years. The Obama administration took office with ambitious plans to declassify some 404 million long-secret government documents by 2014 -- but some 1,100 secret JFK records now held by the CIA won't be among them.

The administration's National Declassification Center (NDC) announced on camera in August that they would not declassify this batch ancient JFK assassination records -- most of the 50 years old -- any time soon.

The CIA's priorities are peculiar but hardly surprising. The agency is releasing long-secret records about the Katyn Forest massacre in the Soviet Union in 1942 and UFO's -- but not an estimated 15,000 pages of material related to murder of a sitting American president. (As I reported in Salon last year, these 1,100 documents are extraordinarily sensitive. The CIA says they won't be made public until 2017 at the earliest.)

The CIA's extreme -- some would say suspicious -- claims of JFK secrecy have been defended by the Obama Justice Department and the some federal judges. Nine years after it was filed myFreedom of Information Action Act lawsuit for the records of George Joannides, a deceased counterintelligence officer who reported to Helms in 1963, is still pending in federal appeals court in Washington. In a September 2012 affidavit, information coordinator Michelle Meeks said the CIA will reveal nothing about Joannides' actions in the fall of 1963 -- for reasons of "national security."

Such is the state of JFK at 49. Official secrecy and conspiracy theories are prevalent. The CIA's responsibility is hidden. Accountability is thwarted. And historical truth is elusive.

Jefferson Morley is a former Washington Post reporter and author of Our Man in Mexico; Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. He blogs at JFKFacts.org, a social media Web site aimed at improving online discussion of the JFK assassination story. For more information, visit "JFK at 50: Memory Truth and Meaning.