Tuesday, Nov 22, 2011 8:20 PM UTC

The holy grail of the JFK story

Seven steps to unlocking the historical truth about the assassination in Dallas

JFK and Jackie

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy arrive in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  (Credit: JFK Presidential LIbrary and Museum)

Two years from today Americans will observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is likely to be a moment of national introspection, as well as an opportunity to complete the historical record of one of the most painful days in American history.  Yet, incredibly enough, the Central Intelligence Agency is likely to object to declassifying all of its records related to the murder of the 35th president in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The question on the 48th anniversary of the tragedy is whether the CIA’s extreme claims of JFK secrecy — reiterated in federal court filings this year — will be allowed to stand.

The tediously unresolved case of the assassinated president never quite goes away as some would wish. Stephen King’s new book, “November 22, 1963,”  is yet another imaginative retelling of a critical day in American history, a densely layered epic that appeals to the enduring impulse to understand how the president of the United States was gunned down in broad daylight, and why no one was ever brought to justice for the crime.

The official story, still defended by an articulate minority, was heard in a National Geographic special last weekend. Kennedy’s death was said to be the tragic result of the psychotic actions of one individual. But as the NatGeo special demonstrates, the defense of that perspective is growing more eccentric. The program offered a novel interpretation of the photographic and forensic evidence from historian Max Holland that has been cogently addressed by independent researchers and is not shared by many JFK scholars, whether pro- or anti-conspiracy. Holland’s theory merely confirms what has long been obvious to many: There are a lot implausible theories of who killed JFK, and the notion that a “lone nut” was solely responsible is one of them.

More likely, Kennedy was ambushed by enemies who sought to avoid detection.  That is what JFK’s widow, Jacqueline, and his brother Robert believed. As David Talbot demonstrated in his 2007 book “Brothers,” Bobby Kennedy concluded within hours of the gunfire in Dallas that his brother had been killed by anti-Castro Cubans. For the rest of his life, RFK never abandoned a conspiratorial interpretation of his brother’s death. (Full disclosure: Talbot is my boss and friend.)

The story is well-documented. Within a week of the assassination,  RFK and Jackie Kennedy sent a friend to Moscow with a message for the leadership of the Soviet Union. As historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Tim Naftali reported in their 1999 book on the Cuban missile crisis, “One Hell of a Gamble,” Bobby and Jackie wanted the Soviet leadership to know that “despite Oswald’s connections to the communist world, the Kennedys believed that the president was felled by domestic opponents.” This finding is worth repeating on the 48thanniversary of JFK’s death: Jackie and Bobby Kennedy “believed that the president was felled by domestic opponents.”

Naftali, now the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California, told me in an email that he and his co-author learned the story from a Soviet diplomat, Georgi Bolshakov, and found his written account of Bobby and Jackie’s message in the Soviet archives.  In that message Bobby and Jackie sought to assure the Soviet leadership that they did not believe that Oswald acted at Castro’s behest. The clear implication of the message was that Bobby and Jackie held the American right, not the international left, responsible for the crime in Dallas. “I was a little surprised what little reaction the … story got,” Naftali wrote.

No doubt inadvertently, the National Geographic JFK special fostered a reassuring yet false view of American history:  that there is little reason to doubt the official story blaming a “lone nut.” In fact, Bobby and Jackie were not alone in suspecting conspiracy in Dallas. At the time, 60 percent of Dallas residents suspected a plot. JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, privately suspected a plot emanating from JFK enemies in Cuba or Vietnam. In Havana, Fidel Castro, a man whose peaceful dotage is proof positive he knows something about detecting CIA conspiracies, concluded JFK had been killed by a right-wing faction within his own government. More recently, University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, a mainstream political pundit and author of a forthcoming book on the legacy of Kennedy’s assassination, has joined critics of the official JFK story.

“Critical documents that could explain more about what happened are being hidden, and aggressively so,” Sabato told me in an email. “It’s no wonder a large majority of Americans believe in various conspiracy theories. There’s plenty to be suspicious about.”

Sabato has company in academia. There is a growing scholarly consensus that JFK was killed by a conspiracy. Since 2000, five tenured historians at U.S. universities have published scholarly studies that addressed the causes of JFK’s death. Four of the five concluded there was a conspiracy (though they did not all agree on who was responsible).

Thus the enduring conundrum of JFK’s assassination story. While a confident minority in the opinion-making class dismisses any consideration of conspiracy, the majority of the public is left to ponder a bewildering array of theories without much guidance about what is actually the most plausible explanation of how the president came to be killed.

As someone who has written about the JFK story for 28 years without advocating any  ”theory” of the case, I recommend seven steps for those who want to understand the causes of JFK’s death.

Step 1: If you are looking for evidence of a JFK conspiracy, do as prosecutors and law enforcement do: start in the middle and work your way up.

It is tempting but foolish to start your personal JFK investigation by seeking to identify the gunmen or the intellectual authors of the crime. Start by identifying the people who were less involved and use them to identify those who were more complicit.

As a reporter for the Washington Post, I started by investigating those employees of the CIA most knowledgeable about the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Over the years, I found a dozen or more CIA officers who had sent or received cables about Oswald while President Kennedy was still alive. I interviewed some of them, as well as their surviving descendants, friends and associates. My goal was to answer the investigative reporter’s  basic question: What did these CIA people know about Oswald? And when did they know it?

Step 2:  Understand the intense psychological resistance to Step 1.

Some people cannot distinguish between serious journalism about the JFK story and the meretricious conspiracy theories peddled by the 9/11 truthers. This is unfortunate. Such resistance to conspiratorial thinking,  while sometimes useful, too often rationalizes a kind of anti-journalistic defensiveness that actually prevents discussion of the JFK story.

Talk show host Chris Matthews, a decent liberal and huge fan of JFK, grows agitated at the suggestion that a serious person might disagree with the official story. Cass Sunstein, an otherwise sane senior advisor to President Obama, has proposed that the government infiltrate JFK conspiracy chat groups to dispel the allegedly dangerous and delusional ideas discussed there. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller recently admitted he deletes all emails on JFK assassination without reading them, but offhandedly noted,  “There’s always has been something fishy about that assassination.”

In the face of such denial and indifference, the interested citizen must turn to  books such as David Kaiser’s “The Road to Dallas,” and James Douglas’ “JFK and the Unspeakable” to get the latest evidence on JFK’s assassination. Fortunately, the public can now visit quality websites, such as that of the Mary Ferrrell Foundation — which has the largest online collection of JFK records –  JFKLancer, and the home page of professor John McAdams. The sites seek to identify the most reliable information about the JFK story and encourage debate about the key questions, a chore most U.S. news organizations have long disdained.

Step 3: If you want to get into the conspiratorial weeds, educate yourself on Operation Northwoods.

This is story that the likes of Chris Matthews and Bill Keller don’t care to engage too closely. It emerged from a wealth of new information released as a result of Oliver Stone’s all-too-believable 1992 movie “JFK.” Among the new records were a batch of long-secret records about  a Pentagon scheme known as Operation Northwoods. These documents showed that by mid-1963, U.S. military planners had developed a uniquely devious approach to advancing their preferred policy of “regime change” in Cuba. The Northwoods concept called for CIA operatives to mount “terrorist” actions on U.S. soil that would then be blamed on the Castro government. By framing Cuba as an irresponsible and violent actor, the U.S. could justify an invasion of Cuba — something that the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously favored. JFK emphatically rejected such pretext operations in a tense meeting with the JCS in  March 1962. Yet the Northwoods planning continued, with CIA input, through the summer of 1963, according to the documents.

The Northwoods documents lend credence to Stone’s depiction of  Kennedy’s death as the work of a high-level national security cabal that sought to blame the crime on a communist to avoid detection. That sort of scenario was not the ex post facto invention of a Hollywood screenwriter. It was Pentagon policy circa Nov. 22, 1963.

Step 4: Understand the CIA’s role in the JFK story as it emerges from files declassified since Stone’s movie.

The new JFK files do not prove there was a conspiracy but they do prove this: There was a group of senior Agency officers who knew much more about Lee Harvey Oswald in late 1963 than they ever said publicly or shared privately with colleagues.

In Langley those knowledgeable about Oswald while JFK was still alive included James Angleton, the chief of the Agency’s Counterintelligence (CI) Staff. Angleton was a protean character whose penetrating intellect and obscure exploits have inspired a small library of books and several Hollywood movies. He was also an alcoholic, ultra-right-wing paranoiac who ran covert operations with no oversight from anyone. At least three of his closest aides, Jane Roman, William J. Hood and Birch D. O’Neal received pre-assassination intelligence on Oswald.

In Mexico City, Winston Scott, the trusted chief of the CIA’s Mexico City Station (the subject of my book “Our Man in Mexico”), his aide Anne Goodpasture, and his not-so-trusted deputy David A. Phillips oversaw the surveillance of Oswald’s visit there just six weeks before JFK was shot dead.

In the CIA’s Miami station, the chief of the psychological warfare branch, George Joannides, was running a network of Cuban agents who exposed and denounced Oswald for his pro-Castro political activities in New Orleans.

Most of these officials were not involved in any plot to kill JFK. I interviewed Roman, Hood and Goodpasture at length and came away certain they had nothing to do with any JFK conspiracy. I wrote a book about Win Scott and came to the same conclusion. As for Jim Angleton and David Phillips, I presume their innocence but have much less certainty about it.

The newly declassified CIA’s records show that Angleton’s CI staff kept track of Oswald constantly from October 1959 to November 1963. At Angleton’s direction, more than 40 reports about Oswald’s travels in the communist world, his family life and his political views were funneled to a secretive office in the Counterintelligence Staff  known as the Special Investigations Group. The SIG was headed by Birch O’Neal, a loyal aide who had served as CIA station chief in Guatemala during the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in 1954.

The CIA files show that the pace of intelligence gathering around Oswald quickened in mid-1963. In August 1963, Joannides’ assets started reporting on Oswald’s antics in New Orleans. When Oswald visited the Cuban consulate in Mexico City a few weeks later, he was surveilled by Phillips. When CIA and FBI reports on Oswald were sent to the SIG, they were signed for, and read by Angleton’s staff. No, this isn’t Internet fable: The routing sheets with their signatures can be found in the National Archives, and Roman and Hood confirmed their authenticity in separate interviews.

Six weeks after Angleton’s aides reviewed the Oswald file, JFK was shot dead and Oswald was arrested for the crime. These CIA officers did not investigate and conclude that Oswald had acted alone. Some, including Phillips and Joannides, took actions to insure that blame for the crime of Dallas would fall on Cuba. Others, like Scott, scrambled to learn more about Oswald. Angleton blandly disavowed his long-standing interest in Kennedy’s accused killer and concealed the paper trail that proved it.

Step 5: See the crime of Dallas as people in the CIA saw it.

In the course of writing my book about Win Scott, a math teacher from rural Alabama who transformed himself into one of the best CIA officers of his generation, I found  that he knew there was something very wrong with the Agency’s handling of information about Oswald.

Scott knew that deputy CIA director Dick Helms had lied to the Warren Commission about the Agency’s pre-assassination surveillance of Oswald. And he learned that Angleton, a longtime friend, had kept him “out of the loop” on the latest intelligence about Oswald in October 1963.

Scott also harbored doubts about his deputy Phillips, the chief of the agency’s covert operations against the Castro government at the time. After Kennedy’s assassination, Scott downgraded Phillips on his job evaluation, and came to question his reporting on Oswald. When Scott privately aired some of his misgivings to a colleague in the British intelligence service a few years later, Angleton intercepted the message and sent a warning to Scott: Do not talk about JFK’s assassination with anyone.

In the upper echelons of the CIA, Lee Harvey Oswald was not regarded as a “lone nut.” At the level of Jim Angleton, Win Scott and David Phillips, Oswald was regarded as an extremely sensitive operational matter.  It is inevitable that historians will view him the same way.

Step 6: Understand how U.S. national security operatives organized political assassinations in the 1960s and 1970s. 

David Phillips was still alive when I arrived in Washington in the 1980s. He had retired from the Agency to found a pro-CIA lobbying group, the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers. Phillips was a charming, cunning man, and a lively writer, even penning the occasional column for the Washington Post Outlook section where I later worked. One  colleague at the Post, well-versed in the intelligence world, once told me that he had gotten to know Phillips.  “He wasn’t the type” to be involved in a plot against JFK, this colleagues assured me.

A couple of years later, the nonprofit National Security Archive obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) a cache of  CIA records about a notorious political assassination in October 1970. The documents  showed President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to take action to prevent leftist Salvatore Allende from assuming the presidency of Chile. The assignment was given to a task force directed by Phillips, by then one of the most senior operative in the Agency’s Latin America division, which identified a target: Gen. Rene Schneider, the commander in chief of the Chilean armed forces. Schneider’s crime: He had decided that Allende, winner of a recent election, should take office.

If you want to know how the CIA went about killing a political enemy at that time, study  the records of this operation. Phillips brought in a team of four Agency operatives to organize a group of Chilean co-conspirators who were supplied with “three sterile 45 caliber machine guns.” The Agency’s operatives consulted with the Chileans about when to act and how they might justify the crime. The conspirators ambushed Schneider’s car in traffic, smashed the window with a sledgehammer, and shot him with the U.S.-supplied guns. After Schneider died a day later, Chile scholar Peter Kornbluh notes that Phillips co-authored a cable saying the CIA station had “done [an] excellent job of guiding [the] Chileans.”

Perhaps David Phillips was not the type to participate in the assassination of a U.S. president. But he did orchestrate the murder of a Latin American commander in chief. And his operational expertise in political assassination was never disclosed to congressional JFK investigators in the late 1970s.

Of course, this appalling episode in 1970 does not prove that Phillips participated in a JFK conspiracy in 1963. But if the CIA is interested in quelling long-standing conspiratorial speculation about Phillips, it should  practice full disclosure to set the record straight.

Step 7: Return to Step 1; start in the middle of the alleged conspiracy and work your way up.

Thanks to CIA records declassified since 1998, we now know much more about a key aspect of the JFK story: the Agency’s underappreciated role in spreading the story that JFK had been killed by a communist.

As David Phillips mounted covert operations against the Castro government in the summer and fall of 1963, he was assisted by George Joannides, a dapper, 40-year-old spy from New York City. In Miami Joannides handled the CIA’s contacts with a network of anti-Castro Cuban students whom Phillips had recruited on the campus of the University of Havana before Castro’s revolution. Within hours of JFK’s murder in Dallas, Joannides’ agents got his approval to alert reporters to the fact that Kennedy’s accused killer was a member of a pro-Castro group called the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Their revelation generated headlines in the Washington Post, New York Times and dozens of newspapers across the country asserting what some still believe: JFK was killed by a pro-Castro communist.

We can now see that the  aftermath of JFK’s assassination bore an eerie resemblance to the schemes envisioned in Operation Northwoods: After a terrible crime was committed in the United States, CIA operatives covertly sought to arrange for the blame to fall on Castro, the better to justify a U.S. invasion.

Was the CIA’s post-assassination propaganda about Oswald (to use Bill Keller’s word) “fishy”? The likes of Chris Matthews and Cass Sunstein (and even Keller himself) may  try to dismiss the thought. But Jackie and Bobby Kennedy could not. They “believed that the president was felled by domestic opponents.”

It certainly seems fair to ask: Did Angleton, Phillips or others who were well-informed about Oswald before the assassination simply misunderstand and underestimate him as he made his way to Dallas with a gun? Or is it possible that one or more of them participated in some kind of covert operation — sponsored by the Agency or the Pentagon — to manipulate Oswald before Nov. 22, 1963, for the sake of advancing the U.S. policy of overthrowing Castro?

Thanks to CIA secrecy, such questions cannot be answered.

One view is that there is not much more to learn about the CIA and the JFK assassination. On the National Geographic show, Max Holland was asked if there was a “holy grail” of JFK assassination researchers. He cited Oswald’s tax records, which remain private at the request of his widow, Marina, who still lives in Texas (and believes her first husband innocent of JFK’s murder).

I think most published JFK authors would find Holland’s assessment too narrow. There are other important JFK records that remain at large. Diplomatic historian David Kaiser has identified several. Researcher William Kelly has shown that Office of Naval Intelligence (which had responsibility for tracking Oswald, an ex-Marine) possesses assassination-related files that it has never released.

James Lesar, a veteran Freedom of Information Act litigator in Washington (and, more full disclosure, my pro bono attorney), has a larger holy grail: the 50,000-plus pages of unreleased JFK assassination records now held by the National Archives. Much of this material has been classified as “Not Believed Relevant” to JFK’s assassination — and most of it is. But within the NBR records, and elsewhere in CIA archives, are still-secret files of some of those officers who were knowledgeable about Oswald before Kennedy’s murder — and they are quite relevant to understanding how JFK was killed. At least 1,000 pages of such material remains secret.

How do we know? In 2003 I sued the CIA for the records of George Joannides, a secondary character in the JFK story. Eight years later, the Agency is still fighting the release of some 330 records on him, a legal defense that the New York Times aptly described in 2009 as “cagey.” Agency lawyers are scheduled to appear in federal court later this year to argue that none of this antique material can be made public in any form — supposedly for reasons of “national security.”

With Lesar’s help, I discovered that the National Archives retains 605 pages of CIA records about David Phillips in the JFK Assassination Records Collection in College Park, Md.  The Archives also has 222 pages about Birch D. O’Neal, Angleton’s aide who received reports on Oswald regularly between 1959 and 1963. The Agency says it will not release the Phillips and O’Neil material until at least 2017.

(Anyone can view what is known about these files by searching the National Archive’s JFK Assassination Records Collection here. Enter “David Phillips” or “Birch O’Neal in the first search field and “NBR” in the second. Then click on “Display Search Results.” To view more details about the withheld files, click on “Display All/Selected Hits.”)

These records can and should be made public by the 50thanniversary of JFK’s death in 2013. The National Archives is now embarked on a crash course to declassify some 400 million pages of classified U.S. government records. Two years ago, Michael Kurtz, a senior official at the Archives, said in a public hearing in Washington that the still-secret JFK assassination records would be a priority for release by 2013, a position that the Archives has since backed off. In the risk-averse culture of Washington, there is little appetite for full JFK disclosure. President Obama’s laudatory executive order on open government has proven entirely ineffectual in the case of assassination-related records.

Thus on the 48th anniversary of the Dallas tragedy, we have the usual dispiriting situation: the public remains confused, and the prospects for full disclosure are not bright. We collectively wonder if there is a “holy grail” of the JFK assassination story and the CIA refuses to share. The courts are acquiescent, and what remains of the press cannot be bothered to address the obvious questions.

Nonetheless, I prefer to experience  Nov. 22 as a day of hard-won hope. Public interest in JFK and Jackie Kennedy (and to a lesser extent, Bobby) remains intense and widespread.  Thanks to the Internet, public access to the full historical record of the JFK assassination story has never been greater. Many people sense that JFK died for a reason and want to know what it was. We’re not delusional. We’re realistic. We want the real history of our country.

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