What Can We Do About JFK's Murder?

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The importance of continuing to demand accountability from the officials who failed to protect the president -- and then spent decades covering up their mistakes

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Library of Congress

As November 22 comes around again, the memory of John F. Kennedy's assassination seems to be fading in America's collective consciousness, save among aging Baby Boomers like myself. Few people younger than me (I'm 54) have any memory of the day it actually happened. 9/11 has replaced 11/22 as the date stamp of catastrophic angst.

Yet that doesn't mean people have stopped looking for answers. There is of course still a broad cultural awareness of the assassination and the unanswered questions that surround it -- which has been amplified recently by the release of Jackie Kennedy's private conversations and the buzz surrounding the release of Tom Hanks' upcoming movie Parkland. Two years ago on this site, I tried to answer the question "What Do We Really Know About JFK?" With the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination approaching next year, the time for conspiracy theories has passed and the time for accountability is coming. Now is the time to ask, "What can we do about JFK's assassination?"

For one thing, we can use the Internet. The Web has birthed many conspiracy theories (most of them easily debunked), but it has also made the historical record of JFK's murder available to millions of people outside of Washington and the federal government for the first time. I have to believe this diffusion of historical knowledge will slowly clarify the JFK story for everybody.

For now, though, American journalists and historians tend still to ignore the widely available facts. Earlier this year, in an exchange with sports columnist Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell endorsed baseball statistician Bill James' theory that the fatal shot was fired by one of Kennedy's own Secret Service men. "When you have lots of trigger-happy people and lots of guns and lots of excitement all situated in the same place at the same time," Gladwell wrote, unburdened by evidence, "sometimes stupid and tragic accidents happen."

We can likewise treat with skepticism the CIA's latest interpretation of Kennedy's murder, proposed by Brian Latell, a former Cuba specialist at the Agency. In a new book, Latell has updated and modified the unconvincing "Fidel Castro did it" theory that was that was first put forward by the CIA within hours of JFK's death and is still believed by some.

Latell now argues that Castro knew (via his DGI intelligence service) that Oswald posed a threat to JFK, but he did nothing. The heartless Cuban communist, he says, played a "passive but knowing" role in JFK's murder. As I reported in Salon last spring, the most basic corroboration for these claims is lacking, as even an otherwise approving reviewer had to acknowledge in the CIA's Studies in Intelligence publication.

Latell is on firmer ground when he suggests that the media's obsession with "conspiracy" obscures other more nuanced explanations of JFK's death. But his allegations advertently highlight a truth that the CIA and my friends in the Washington press corps prefer not to acknowledge: There is a lot more evidence of CIA negligence in JFK's assassination than Cuban complicity.

The record available online confirms that Oswald was well known to the CIA shortly before JFK was killed -- so well known, in fact, that a group of senior officials collaborated on a security review of him in October 1963. And these officials assured colleagues and the FBI that Oswald, far from being a dangerous Castroite, was actually "maturing" and thus becoming less of a threat.

Read this CIA cable (not declassified until 1993) from beginning to end. You will see that Oswald's travels, politics, intentions, and state of mind were known to six senior CIA officers as of October 10, 1963. At that date, JFK and Jackie were just beginning to think about their upcoming political trip to Dallas.

Because the CIA is so often caricatured in JFK discussions, some background is helpful in understanding who wrote this document and why.

In the fall of 1963, Oswald, a 23-year old ex-Marine, traveled from his hometown of New Orleans to Mexico City. There he contacted the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, seeking a visa to travel to both countries. A CIA wiretap picked up his telephone calls, which indicated he had been referred to a Soviet consular officer suspected of being a KGB assassination specialist. Win Scott, the respected chief of the CIA station in Mexico, was concerned. He sent a query to headquarters: Who is this guy Oswald?

Scott's question was referred to the agency's counterintelligence (CI) staff. The CI staff was responsible for detecting threats to the secrecy of agency operations. Its senior members had been closely monitoring Oswald ever since he had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959. Oswald had lived there two years, married a Russian woman, and then returned to the United States in June 1962.

Jane Roman a senior member of the CI staff retrieved the agency's fat file on Oswald. It included some three dozen documents, including family correspondence, State Department cables, and a recent FBI report stating said Oswald was an active pro-Castro leftist who had recently been arrested for fighting with anti-Castro exiles in New Orleans.

Roman and the CI staff drafted a response to the Mexico City station, which said, in effect, Don't worry. Ignoring the FBI report, the cable stated the "latest HQS info" on Oswald was a 16-month old message from a diplomat in Moscow concluding that Oswald's marriage and two year residence in the Soviet Union had a "maturing effect" on him. This inaccurate and optimistic message was reviewed and endorsed by five senior CIA officers, identified on the last page of the cable.

The CIA would kept the names of these highly-regarded officers -- Tom Karamessines, Bill Hood, John Whitten ("John Scelso"), Jane Roman, and Betty Egeter -- secret for thirty years. Why? Because the officers most knowledgeable about Oswald reported to two of the most powerful men in the CIA: Deputy Director Richard Helms and Counterintelligence Chief James Angleton.

These high-level aides could have -- and should have -- flagged Oswald for special attention. All five were anti-communists, well-versed in running covert operations and experienced in detecting threats to U.S. national security.

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Jefferson Morley is a former editor at The Washington Post and the author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. He writes about JFK's assassination at JFKfacts.org.

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