Monday, November 23, 2015

A Cruel And Shocking Act (Part 2)

A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History Of The Kennedy Assassination
by Philip Shenon (2013)
(For Part 1 go here)

Warren Commission Members

Earl Warren (Chairman) - Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1953-69)
Hale Boggs (D-La) - House Minority Whip
John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky) - Senator
Allen Dulles - CIA Director (1953-61)
Appointed by Eisenhower, fired by Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Gerald Ford (R-Michigan) - House Minority Leader.
According to Shenon, Ford was "perhaps the most hardworking apart from Warren himself. . . [he] made a point of being present to hear the testimony of almost all important witnesses.  His questions were consistently well thought-out and reflected his close reading of the evidence".  The most thorough reviewer and commenter on the draft report of the commission.
John McCloy
One of the "Wise Men" who dominated the American foreign policy establishment from the end of World War Two until the mid-1960s.  McCloy served as High Commissioner of Germany (1947-49), President of the World Bank, Chairman of Chase Manhattan and Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Richard Russell (D-Ga) Senator.
Perhaps the most intelligent member of the commission, a friend of LBJ's and his opponent in the fight over what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act which was debated while the Warren Commission was underway.  Responsible for appointing the only woman investigator on the commission staff.  He and Warren despised each other. 

Philip Shenon's assessment:
The commission made grievous errors.  It failed to pursue important evidence and witnesses because of limitations imposed on the investigation by the man who ran it, Chief Justice Warren.  Often, Warren seemed more interested in protecting the legacy of his beloved friend President Kennedy, and of the Kennedy family, than in getting to the full facts about the president's murder.

. . . much of the evidence about the president's murder was covered up or destroyed - shredded, incinerated, or erased - before it could reach the commission.  Senior officials at both the CIA and the FBI hid information from the panel, apparently in hopes of concealing just how much they had known about Lee Harvey Oswald and the threat that he posed.
Overriding everything were the suspicions of President Lyndon Johnson that the Soviets or Cubans may have been behind the murder, even though he was not to learn the full extent of JFK's attempts to kill Castro until 1967 (see below).  If true, Johnson believed that public outrage would force the United States to respond in a way which could trigger events leading to a possible nuclear war which he wanted to avoid at all costs.  This concern led the White House to put limits on the investigation, pressuring to wind up its work as quickly as possible, and declare Oswald the sole gunman and calm public fears of a larger conspiracy.

In later years, LBJ spoke openly of his views.   In October 1968, after announcing he would not run for reelection, Johnson gave an interview to Howard K Smith of ABC News.  Off camera, LBJ told Smith something he could not use for broadcast:
"I''ll tell you something that will rock you.  Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first"., 1964 & 1972)

The July 1973 issue of The Atlantic contained an article by Leo Janos, who spent time with the retired president before his death in January.  Janos recounts one conversation:
"During coffee, the talk turned to President Kennedy, and Johnson expressed his belief that the assassination in Dallas had been part of a conspiracy. 'I never believed that Oswald acted alone, although I can accept that he pulled the trigger.' Johnson said that when he had taken office he found that 'we had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.' A year or so before Kennedy's death a CIA-backed assassination team had been picked up in Havana.  Johnson speculated that Dallas had been a retaliation for this thwarted attempt, although he couldn't prove it. " (from The Last Days Of The President, by Leo Janos, The Atlantic, July 1973)  
LBJ was not the only one with suspicions about a conspiracy;  Robert Kennedy also suspected it.  Shenon writes of Kennedy's political associates that
"They would admit years later that Kennedy had never stopped suspecting that there had been a conspiracy to kill his brother . . . Kennedy appeared worried, in particular, about the possibility that Castro or the Mafia was behind the assassination."
This suspicion weighed heavily on Bobby Kennedy who felt guilt that his involvement (RFK was the operational link between his brother and the CIA in the plots) in the attempts to kill Castro may have backfired and led to the death of his brother, a worry that haunted him until his death in 1968, according to some of his close associates.  In a final twist on the relationship between the Castro plots and the president's death, a CIA Inspector General reviewing the history years later:
"would determine years later that on November 22, 1963 . . . a CIA officer was meeting in Paris with a Cuban agent [who later turned out to be a double agent for the Castro regime] to hand him a poison pen".  The IG concluded "it is likely that at the very moment President Kennedy was shot, a CIA officer was meeting with a Cuban agent . . . and giving him an assassination device for use against Castro."
Testifying in front of Congress during the 1970s Richard Helms, who had personally approved the Castro plots and by then was CIA Director, said that he had determined, in his own mind, that the CIA's Castro plots had nothing to do with Kennedy's assassination, and therefore there was no reason to tell the commission about them.  "Besides, Helms asked later, why had it been his responsibility to tell the commission about the Castro plots, since he was certain that one of the commissioners - Dulles - knew all about them, as had Robert Kennedy?", from wikipedia)

The Kennedy connection went on to taint the famous Church Committee investigation of the CIA in the mid-1970s, which publicly exposed many of its secrets, including the Castro plots.  The portrait painted by the committee's chairman, Frank Church (D-Idaho) was of a "rogue" agency and played down the directive role of President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy in the Castro matter.  This framing may not have been an innocent error, as Senator Church was a close friend of Senator Edward Kennedy, and the Kennedy family has been very protective of its legacy, being much more comfortable with the image of JFK as "the civil rights president" than as "the cold war president".

Chief Justice Warren had his own pressures.  An admirer of John F Kennedy and the family, he understandably wanted to spare his widow and brother as much pain as possible during the investigation process.  One of his most controversial decisions was to forbid the commission staff from seeing the autopsy photos and x-rays of President Kennedy, because of the horrible wounds suffered by the president, and the risk that they might end up part of the public record.  The staff was forced to rely upon sketches of the wounds made by doctors during the autopsy.  When the photos and x-rays were made available decades later it was realized that the sketches had major errors in the placement of the entry and exit wounds (the photos can be found on the internet; they are very disturbing and wish I had not seen them).  The discrepancies in the erroneous sketches fueled the critics and help kindle theories of more than one gunman being involved, whether the fatal shot came from the back or front, and about the supposed implausibility of the single bullet theory, all of which were debunked once the photos and x-rays became available. Warren from michaelariens)

In addition to the White House pressure to quickly complete the commission's work, Warren may also have been asked to limit the look at possible Soviet or Cuban involvement.  According to the staffers Shenon interviewed, he proved particularly reluctant to pursue questions around Oswald's visit to Mexico City, in one instance refusing permission for a staffer to interview Silvia Duran, a young Mexican communist employed by the Cuban embassy who, it was alleged, had been seen with Oswald on several occasions, telling staffer David Slawson:
"You just can't believe a communist.  We don't talk to communists.  You cannot trust a dedicated communist to tell us the truth, so what's the point?"
Shenon reports:
"In light of what he later learned about the CIA, Slawson suspected - but could not prove - that Warren had been asked by the spy agency not to interview Duran."
Warren also exhibited a surprising naivete about the operations of government.  In an early meeting of the commissioners, John McCloy asked:
"Had the chief justice or anyone else been in touch with the CIA to determine what it knew about the assassination - and about Oswald and his travels in Russia and Mexico?"

"No, I have not" Warren replied, "for the simple reason that I have never been informed that the CIA had any knowledge about this."
From the beginning, Senator Russell had his own suspicions about what was going on with the investigation, writing a note to himself after the first commission meeting in December "Something strange is happening", referring to the CIA and FBI investigation of Oswald's visit to Mexico, and to him there seemed to be a rush to demonstrate that Oswald was the lone assassin of which he wrote "This to me is an untenable conclusion." & Senator Russell, December 1963 from digital history)

Which brings us to the final problem - the obstruction of the investigation by the FBI and CIA.  There were dual motives.  The first was avoiding bureaucratic embarrassment.  Both agencies, the CIA through its monitoring of the embassies in Mexico City, and the FBI, through its access to some of that information which was routinely forwarded to it by the CIA, had good reason to be concerned about Oswald.  Their failure to act on that information may have cost the president's life.  The second was the likely directive from the White House to both agencies to play down any possible Cuban or Soviet connection.  Both motives provided incentives to carefully manage the information flow to the Warren Commission, and the presidential directive provided a convenient excuse for the agencies to cover up their mistakes.

More mundane concerns also led to evidence destruction.  On November 24, 1963,  FBI Special Agent James Hosty (who handled the Oswald file prior to the assassination - as a returned defector the FBI kept an eye on him) was called to the office of Gordon Shanklin, his boss in Dallas.  Shanklin showed Hosty a note that Oswald had delivered personally to the FBI office in early November complaining of FBI harassment, writing "If you don't cease bothering my wife, I will take appropriate action" according to Hosty, who had contacted Marina Oswald in an attempt to interview her.  Shanklin said "Oswald is dead now,  There can be no trial" and told Hosty to get rid of the note which he shredded and flushed down a toilet.  Months later, a commission investigator decided to cross check the FBI's typewritten summary of Oswald's address book, provided to the commission as a courtesy since the agency said Oswald's handwriting could be difficult to read, against the original address book and was surprised to find that the FBI summary was missing Oswald's entry of Agent James Hasty (an obvious misspelling of Hosty) which included Hosty's office address, license plate number of his FBI car and was dated November 1, 1963.  Hosty later said that his name had been left off the summary prepared by another agent in the Dallas office in order to save him from Hoover's wrath.

From the start, commission staff viewed J Edgar Hoover as uncooperative.  He blatantly tried to preempt the commission by producing his own report on December 9, 1963 which concluded that Oswald was the lone killer, which he then arranged to have selectively leaked to the press.  The report was shoddily done with obvious gaps, and the commission members who read it thought it made no sense.

Hoover later testified to the commission under oath that "There was nothing up to the time of the assassination that gave any indication that this man was a dangerous character who might do harm to the president" but, as Shenon notes, "Behind closed doors at the FBI, however, Hoover's views, shared with his deputies, was precisely the opposite. Within days of the assassination, he determined that the FBI had, in fact, bungled its investigation of Oswald before the assassination . . . "

Hoover went on to discipline 17 employees for "shortcomings in connection with the investigation of Oswald", including the decision not to place Oswald on the FBI's internal Security Index, a roster that would have been shared with the Secret Service ahead of Kennedy's visit to Dallas saying the failure to do so "could not have been more stupid".  The commission was never informed of his actions nor that the FBI knew of Oswald's visit to Mexico City and the embassies weeks before the assassination.

And it is the events in Mexico City that are at the center of the FBI and CIA obstruction.  Commission staffers knew that Oswald had visited Mexico City for five days at the end of September and beginning of October, entering the Cuban and Soviet embassies and unsuccessfully trying to obtain visas.  They had fragmentary reports about what Oswald was up to and who he might have seen.  They knew the CIA in Mexico City had both embassies under surveillance but when interviewed, CIA station chief Winston "Win" Scott insisted it had neither photographs nor any audiotapes of Oswald. Scott from jfkfacts)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing leads was that Oswald had attended a party with Silvia Duran "attended by Cuban diplomats and spies, as well as Mexican supporters of Castro's government" at which "some of the guests had spoken openly of their hope that someone would assassinate President John F Kennedy, if only to ensure the survival of the revolution in Cuba that Kennedy had been so desperate to crush".  Win Scott poured cold water on these allegations and went out of his way to discredit those making them, and probably made efforts to avoid having some of the witnesses interviewed by commission staffers.

While commission staff realized as early as December 1963 that they were being played by the FBI, their view of the CIA was initially different.  It was only in February 1964 that they realized the CIA was also withholding information, including on Oswald's trip to Mexico City, which it justified by saying the commission "did not fully understand the implications of forcing the CIA to share everything it had on Oswald".  Yet it proved impossible for the staff to penetrate the agency's layers of obfuscation and, as Shenon reveals, many staffers were unaware of how badly they were misled until the declassification of many documents in the 1990s or in some cases, until Shenon in his interviews shared documents they had never seen.

Our ambassador in Mexico, Thomas Mann, was convinced early on that Cuba had something to do with the assassination and urged a thorough FBI and CIA investigation.  The FBI bureau chief reported Mann's conviction that the Soviet Union was "much too sophisticated" to be involved but that Castro was "stupid enough to have participated".  After much resistance Hoover sent an agent to investigate but, as that agent told Shenon "he came to understand years later that he had been part of a charade to avoid discovering the full truth about Oswald in Mexico". Mann & LBJ from U. Texas)

In 1977, Ambassador Mann was interviewed by investigators during the House of Representatives investigation into the JFK, RFK and King assassinations.  In the interview, which remained classified for years, Mann claimed he had been personally ordered by Secretary of State Dean Rusk days after the assassination to shut down any investigation in Mexico that would "confirm or refute rumours of Cuban involvement in the assassination" and that he believed the same "incredible" order was given to Winston Scott and the embassy's FBI legal attache by their superiors.

Shenon also reveals the existence of a mystery letter that turned up in the CIA files declassified in the 1990s.  On June 17, 1964 Hoover prepared a letter to the Warren Commission with explosive information.  It allegedly came directly from a conversation Fidel Castro had with a U.S. Communist Party member and confidential FBI informant Jack Childs, who was in Cuba that month.  Along with his old brother Morris, who was a senior official in the American Communist Party, Jack became an FBI informant in the early 1950s.  Because of their party connections, the Childs brothers received unusual access to international party leaders meeting with, among others, Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-Tung.  Their information proved "remarkably accurate" according to Shenon and in 1987 the brothers received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.

According to Hoover's letter, Castro was quoted as saying "Oswald stormed into the embassy, demanded the visa, and, when it was refused to him, headed out saying, 'I'm going to kill Kennedy for this'".   Castro went on to say that Cuban diplomats did not take this seriously, believing Oswald might be some type of CIA provocateur and insisted that the Cuban government had nothing to do with the assassination.

The letter never reached the commission but a copy somehow ended up in the possession of the CIA.

In 1971 Win Scott died and CIA officials visited both his office and home in Mexico City to remove files.  Among his papers was a draft memoir declassified in the 1990 which stated:
"Above all, Oswald's visits at both the Communist Cuban Embassy and the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City during his brief five-day stay in September-October 1963 are, together, with what is known of what took place during these visits, sufficient to make him a suspect agent, acting on behalf of the Soviets, in several things, possibly, including the assassination of President Kennedy."

Despite his insistence to the commission that the CIA had no surveillance photos of Oswald, [Scott wrote that] the CIA had photos of him outside both embassies.  He also said that despite denials at the time, the CIA had audiotapes with Oswald's voice in his phone calls to the embassies writing that "His conversations with personnel of these embassies were studied in detail".
After the death of Hoover in 1972, his successors spent years cleaning up the mess he left behind and attempting to restore the agency's reputation.  In 1975, FBI Director Clarence Kelly met with reporters from the Dallas Times Herald who informed him they would be running a story about the letter from Oswald that FBI Agent James Hosty destroyed two days after the assassination.  It was the first Kelly had heard of the incident and, after internal inquiries, he told the paper the FBI had no objection to its running the story because it was true. Kelly, wikipedia)

The incident prompted Kelly to undertake his own investigation of the agency's action before and after the assassination and I'll quote at length from the book because of the significance of the Director's findings:
He found Hoover's undelivered June 1964 letter and other materials and became very troubled about the entire Mexico City visit of Oswald and the handling of evidence, including that one of the people he met with in the Soviet embassy was Valeriy Kostikov, a KGB agent known to be a specialist in assassinations.

Kelly concluded that in Washington the FBI and CIA "had enough combined information on Oswald's trek to Mexico City to put his name in lights on a presidential security list of threats" but that Agent Hosty in Dallas was kept in the dark.  Kelly found that the two missing memos of the Dallas file [dated October 18, 1963 about what the bureau knew of the CIA surveillance of Oswald in Mexio City and dated November 19, 1963 about contents of a letter written by Oswald to the Soviet embassy in Washington about his Mexico City trip] were removed days after the assassination in the hope Hosty had not yet read them.  Kelly believed the order to remove the memo came from the #3 man in the FBI, William Sullivan, and that he appeared to be working on orders from the White House which "seemingly considered the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union over the Kennedy assassination as too great".   Kelly's final conclusion was that if the information had been given to the Dallas office the President's death could have been easily prevented.
Shenon also reports that while doing his research he went to Mexico City and was able to interview Silvia Duran, several of her relatives and other people involved in the events of 1963 and is convinced that Oswald was at the party mentioned above despite the CIA insistence otherwise., from stevenhager)

Finally, and most startling, is something Shenon claims was not known before his research, which is that, by January 1964, James Angleton had inserted himself as the person at the CIA controlling the flow of information to the Warren Commission.  I don't know enough about the literature around the assassination to judge whether Shenon is the first to discover this but, if he is correct, Angleton's presence in the middle of the investigation raises alarm bells.

Forty years after being fired by CIA Director William Colby, James Jesus Angleton remains the most controversial figure in the history of the agency.  Born in 1917 to a U.S. cavalry officer father and Mexican mother who met during General Pershing's 1916 expedition to punish Pancho Villa, Angleton spent most of his childhood in Milan, Italy.  He attended Yale where, as an aspiring poet, he was editor of the literary magazine Furioso and, according to Wikipedia, corresponded extensively with Ezra Pound, EE Cummings and TS Eliot.

Entering the American secret service during WWII, Angleton became friends with British intelligence agent Kim Philby while serving in London.  Philby was a Soviet double agent who did immeasurable damage to American and British intelligence efforts in the years immediately following the war, constantly promoted by the British and serving from 1949 to 1951 in Washington as British intelligence liaison with the CIA, where he continued his friendship with Angleton.  Suspicions about Philby's activities forced the British to recall him in 1951, and though in 1955 Foreign Secretary Harold MacMillan told the House of Commons there was no evidence Philby was a spy, in January 1963 he disappeared from Beirut, Lebanon, reappearing on July 30, 1963, when the Soviets triumphantly announced his presence in Moscow where he lived for the rest of his life.

Many believe that Philby's betrayal explains Angleton's own increasingly mysterious, complex, conspiratorial and suspicious attitude in his next role as CIA's Chief of Counterintelligence from 1954 until he left the agency twenty years later.  Over those decades, Angleton became increasingly convinced that the CIA had been penetrated by Soviet moles, and though he was never able to conclusively identify anyone, he ruined the careers of a number of CIA officers who became the target of his suspicions. His ongoing investigations served to tie the agency up in knots.

Informed opinions on Angleton differ widely which would probably please him.  CIA Director Helms held him in high regard, as does Edward Jay Epstein, himself a highly regarded author on intelligence matters.  Other experienced intelligence professionals and authors regard him as an incompetent alcoholic who paralyzed the agency and destroyed the effectiveness of the CIA operations directorate, an opinion shared by Director Colby, who forced him to retire.

Angleton's presence in the information stream to the commission adds yet another layer of obfuscation, since it was his nature to complicate things.  Everyone who has written of their interactions with him speaks about his obsession with nothing being as it seemed and of always seeing complicated and well-planned deceptions piled upon deceptions in any type of activity.  A  conversation with him was like entering a hall of mirrors.  Shenon suspects it was Angleton who prevented Hoover's June 1964 letter (a copy of which ended up in CIA files) from reaching the commission.  If Angleton was the culprit, my guess is that he thought Castro's statement was disinformation designed to deflect blame from Cuba, to which you might respond "but isn't that what the White House wanted?" and the answer being yes, but that is not necessarily what Angleton wanted and he knew best in his own mind.

It was also James Angleton who personally visited Win Scott's office and home in 1971 to collect his files, including the memoir declassified two decades later.  On top of a White House already interested in minimizing information on Mexico City, who knows what additional confusion and misdirection may have been sowed by Angelton's involvement?

I'd tell you about Angleton and the battle around the Soviet defectors Golitysn and Nosenko which also bears on the assassination but if we enter that hall of mirrors we would likely never find a way out.

What are we to make of all this?

The lack of access to the autopsy photos and x-rays led the commission to botch the analysis of the president's wounds and raise unneeded questions about the trajectory of the bullets.  If Justice Warren had allowed access it would have avoided errors and lessened the credibility of conspiracy theorists.

The pressure to speed things along led to gaps and mistakes that became an easy target for skeptics and should have been easily correctable with a little more time and a more experienced staff.

The Mexico City aspect is trickier.  The desire of the White House to avoid a nuclear confrontation is certainly understandable.  Perhaps the right course of action depends on what you think really happened there.  It is certainly possible that Oswald attended the party with Silvia Duran and heard comments about what a good thing it would be if President Kennedy was killed.  He may very well, as Castro supposedly claimed, made threats about killing the president while at the Cuban embassy.  Neither of these implicate Cuban officials, though if the CIA were aware of any of this, and failed to inform the FBI, it would have been an enormous failure on its part.

Even Oswald's meeting with KGB "wet work" specialist Kostikov at the Soviet Embassy that so bothered FBI Director Kelly can be explained.  Kostikov also had regular consular duties as part of his cover and, as the senior KGB man in the agency, it is understandable why he might meet with a U.S. citizen, a former defector to the Soviet Union who was now seeking to return there.  Moreover there was no clear motive for the Soviet Union to kill the president in the wake of the resolution of the Missile Crisis and the signing earlier in the year of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the reaction of Soviet leaders to the news of his death was panic that they would be blamed for the assassination.

Cuba is another matter.  As information has dribbled out over the decades we now know that the Castro demonstrated some erratic personal behavior during the 1962 crisis, including urging a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S., and the Soviets took steps to limit his control of their weapons in Cuba.  He also had a motivation since the Kennedy brothers were trying to kill him, had issued a threat of retaliation, and we can assume he was aware of the meeting scheduled in Paris on November 22, 1963 between the CIA and the Cuban double agent.  Yet there is still no direct or even indirect link indicating that the Cubans were willing to place the future of their country in the hands of the unpredictable Lee Harvey Oswald who, at the time he was in Mexico City seemed to have no realistic path to carrying out such a task.  That's why, while a Cuban role is possible, I still think it highly unlikely., from jfkfacts)

However, Kelly was right about Kostikov and Mexico City in the key respect.  In 1963, the process for a presidential visit involved the local FBI reviewing its files for potential security risks and forwarding those to the Secret Service which would examine each individual.   The CIA knew of Oswald's visits to the embassies and their purpose.  They may have had even more detailed and revealing information on his activities and conversations.  We know that some form of that information reached the CIA and FBI in Washington, but did not make it in usable form to the FBI Dallas Office (unless the still unexplained October 18 memo was sufficient).   If the local FBI knew that there was a Dallas resident, a former Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and returned to the U.S., engaged in pro-Castro activities in New Orleans in September, and then visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies seeking visas and meeting with a KGB assassination specialist, Oswald should have been placed on the security list and simple inquiries would have revealed he was working along the route of the presidential motorcade.  As Hoover concluded, the failure was "stupid" and as Kelly realized a decade later, proper handling of the information would have averted the tragedy.

Instead, geopolitical concerns provided a wonderful opportunity for both agencies to cover their blunders.  There is one constant about bureaucracies both inside and outside government.  Their priority is to protect themselves.

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