Friday, November 22, 2019

A Cruel And Shocking Act

A reworked and slightly expanded version of a post from 2015 . . .and particularly timely given the theme of government bureaucracies acting to cover up shortcoming.

I was in 7th grade and our teacher was absent when class was scheduled to start after lunch.  At first we sat quietly, patiently waiting, but as the minutes passed we began speculating about what was going on.  Our teacher finally walked into the room crying, told us the President had been shot (I can't remember whether the news was that he was dead) and that school was dismissed.

After walking across the school athletic fields to our house across the street I found the front door ajar and no one home.  Upon hearing the news my mother, a Democratic party official, had gone to the nearby home of our former Democratic Congressman where many local party officials were gathering.

Vivid memories remain of watching TV that November afternoon; the death of Dallas Police Office JD Tippit and the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald.  In the evening we saw Air Force One land at Andrews Air Force Base, disgorging the coffin and watching Jackie Kennedy disembark.  On Sunday morning a friend came over and we, along with my sister, took a break from the constant TV watching to go to my room and play a game.  Suddenly we heard my parents shouting, prompting us to run to the living room where we learned that Oswald had just been shot.  And then came the funeral on Monday.

John F Kennedy is the first president I distinctly remember.  In 1960, at the age of nine, I was a member of  Youth For Kennedy (and still have a clipping from the local paper with a picture of me as part of the group), and saw him speak at the train station in Bridgeport, CT on November 6, 1960, two days before the election (Connecticut was still a crucial swing state in those days).

Kennedy, Ribicoff(JFK in Bridgeport with Governor Abe Ribicoff second to the right from onlyinbridgeport)

Because of my mom's position in the state Democratic party we were able to stand next to the platform from which the candidate spoke, below and just to the right of JFK in this picture.  It was a bright sunny day and remember him pointing just as he is in the picture.  The area around the station was packed with an enthusiastic crowd and there were teenage girls jumping up and down screaming, just as they would for The Beatles only ten weeks after JFK's death.

JFK's assassination changed things.  After his death came the Vietnam War, riots in American cities and a general sense that things were out of control.  It bred a more conspiratorial and, at times, paranoid mindset, a mindset that has stayed in place over the decades.  Ironically, the academic view at the time was that the paranoia was from the right-wing; the best example being liberal Professor Richard J Hofstadter's influential November 1964 article in Harper's Magazine, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, a screed against the rise of Barry Goldwater, but as I can attest being a politically active young Democrat, it was JFK's death that set off an ever growing paranoid view of politics among liberals.  It became the conviction of large percentages of Americans that there was a conspiracy masterminded by dark forces in our society, thwarting a collective fantasy that, but for that event, we would have moved into "bright sunlit uplands", a viewpoint expressed in its most extreme form by the loony, but creative, director Oliver Stone (for more on him see Showtime's Agitprop) in the feverish conspiracy film, JFK, featuring the bizarre convoluted conspiracy theories of wacky New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison.

Stone's film, made in the early 1990s, merely reflected widespread views originating in the late 60s and early 70s.  After a brief honeymoon of public acceptance after its 1964 release, the credibility of the Warren Commission report, with its conclusion that Oswald acted alone, quickly eroded and by the mid-60s more than 50% of Americans thought there was a conspiracy.  By 1975, 81% believed in a conspiracy and Gallup Polling over the years has always shown more than 70% supporting the conspiracy hypothesis until its most recent survey, in 2013, showed a drop to a still substantial 61%.  JFK assassination conspiracy theories have even become punch lines in Hollywood movies.

I read some of the early books attacking the commission's work and claiming a government conspiracy by authors like Mark Lane and, while living in the Boston area in the early and mid-1970s , knew people associated with the Assassination Information Bureau (AIB), founded by the radical former president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Carl Oglesby.  The AIB became command central for those who propagated a variety of assassination theories, all centered around a right-wing conspiracy, usually involving Lyndon Johnson and various combinations of the CIA, FBI, Mafia, Cuban refugees, defense contractors, the Pentagon and the Illuminati (just joking on the last one, I think).  It was quite an experience listening to them go on and on in an all-knowing way.  For some reason, they believed that a self-proclaimed Marxist and Communist, who had defected to the Soviet Union and two months before the assassination tried to get visas to go to the Soviet Union or Cuba, a failure who felt he deserved to be a big shot and cultivated feelings of resentment and anger, constantly taunted by his Russian born wife for his inadequacies, a trained Marine rifleman who for several months had been going to shooting ranges to brush up on his skills and, who in April 1963 tried to murder the notorious right-winger, Edwin Walker, who idolized Fidel Castro and was aware of Castro's threat to get the Kennedys if they didn't stop trying to kill him and who may, while in Mexico City, have attended a party where Cuban diplomats, spies and others made remarks about their desire that John Kennedy die (for more on these last two see below), apparently lacked the motive and means to kill the president on his own.

And, as I found out in doing research for this post, Hillary Clinton's long-time henchman and recent advisor on Libya, Sid Blumenthal, played a key role in the AIB, co-authoring the only book published by the organization.  By all accounts he remains as obsessively conspiratorial minded.

Today it is clear to me, based upon the availability of more advanced computer based reconstructions of the timing and trajectory of the President's vehicle and the rifle shots, more accurate knowledge of his wounds, and thorough reexaminations of the evidence in several books including those by Gerald Posner (Case Closed) and Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History), that all of the shots came from the rifle of Oswald and were fired by him (for a more comprehensive discussion of the evidence read this).  There was no second gunman.  There is also no doubt there was not a conspiracy involving individually, or any combination of, LBJ, the Mafia, Jack Ruby, American right-wingers or the Russians.  What now seems obvious to me, however, remains controversial for many; just check out all the One-Star reviews for the two books mentioned above on Amazon.

What remains as a very slight possibility is Cuban involvement in one of two ways.  The first, and more probable of these still unlikely scenarios, involves Cuban intelligence, centered around Oswald's visits to the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City during his five day visit, September 27 through October 1, 1963 less than two months before the assassination.  Why might there be Cuban involvement?  Because JFK and Robert Kennedy were continuing to run, via the CIA, operations to kill Fidel Castro, despite the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous fall.  Castro was well aware of these repeated attempts on his life though the American public was not at the time.  The Associated Press published an article on September 8, 1963, by a reporter who interviewed Castro and quoted him issuing a warning "U.S. leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe".  The AP story was published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that same week.  Oswald, in New Orleans at the time, and publicly demonstrating in support of Castro, was an avid reader of that paper during his sojourn in the city.  It was after New Orleans that Oswald made his trip to Mexico City and the Cuban Embassy.

The second is the possible involvement of anti-Castro Cubans, incensed by what they saw as JFK's betrayal at the Bay of Pigs, manipulating Oswald into believing he was working on behalf of Castro in killing Kennedy.

There are many reasons for doubting there was any conspiracy but here are two I found easy to grasp.

It was happenstance that gave Oswald the opportunity.  While visiting with some of her neighbors Marina Oswald heard one of them mention that the Texas School Book Depository was hiring.  Desperate to get her unemployed husband a job, she asked the other woman to inquire of her friend about a job for Lee.  The Depository was hiring at both its locations and Oswald was randomly assigned to the one in Dealey Plaza.  All this happened in mid-October 1963, after his visit to Mexico City.  While there had been a public announcement of JFK's trip to Texas in late September, Dallas was not added to the visit until November 9, and the motorcade route not published until November 19; a route which had the president's limousine not only pass directly in front of the Depository building, but required a sharp left turn which slowed the vehicle down making the president an easy target in the open back seat.
(from McAdams, though the note referring to "Originally Planned" route is in error, the route was always planned to take a right and then a left on to Elm St)

And what about Jack Ruby shooting Oswald on November 24?  The shooting occurred as Oswald was being transferred from Dallas Police to Federal custody.  The planned transfer was delayed because, at the last minute, a federal postal inspector requested he be allowed to ask Oswald some questions, and then further delayed when Oswald asked he be allowed to go back to his cell to put on a sweater before leaving.  Meanwhile, Jack Ruby was at the Western Union office across the street from police headquarters waiting patiently in line to wire $25 requested by one of the strippers at his night club, having left his beloved dog to wait in the car for his return.  Seeing the police activity when he left Western Union, Ruby (well known to Dallas Police as a hanger-on and cop wannabe) walked down the garage ramp and into history.  If not for the delays in Oswald leaving, Ruby never would have had the chance to shoot him, and Ruby's actions that morning do not seem those of a man acting to some predetermined plan, rather he was, as those who interviewed him in 1964 concluded, psychotic and delusional.

I'm also strongly influenced by my own experience in doing investigations which has served to disabuse me of an easy acceptance of conspiracy theories.  Things that often look extremely suspicious at first usually end up as surprising, bizarre and unplanned chains of events leading to unfortunate incidents.  Even after completing investigations where those factors were clearly at play, I'm still amazed it happened without some grand plan.

The turmoil of 1960s America, both domestic and foreign, reduced the credibility of government.  Amid that growing cynicism some of the initial books questioning the commission seemed credible, contributing to a growing lack of public confidence in its conclusions.  Moreover, as we learned after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, in early 1964 the KGB started a covert disinformation operation to spread a message blaming the assassination on the American government, a theme initially gaining traction in Western Europe and then spreading to America, prompted by a Kremlin worried that it would be blamed for JFK's death; a campaign that fed right into the growing suspicion and disillusionment over the Warren Commission.

It is became evident over time that something went wrong within the Warren Commission which fed the growth of conspiracy theories.  Finding out what went wrong is the subject of the 2013 book by long time New York Times reporter, Philip Shenon, A Cruel And Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination.  It is the best overview to help understand how the White House, CIA and FBI managed to damage the credibility of the Commision Report.

The book's title is drawn from the first line of the Warren Commission's introduction to its report: "The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was a cruel and shocking act of violence, directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind."

The book's subtitle "The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination" is misleading; more accurately it should be, "The Secret History of the Warren Commission", because it is the investigation undertaken by that Commission which is the focus of the book.  Shenon began his research in 2008 and was able to interview a number of the then still-living younger staff of the Warren Commission.   He also exhaustively reviewed the commission and various government files, including the many documents declassified in the 1990s, as well as conducting interviews in Mexico City.

The author presents a fascinating intimate look at the operations of the commission, giving us vivid portraits of the often-reluctant commission members, particularly Chief Justice Earl Warren and Senator Richard Russell, both of whom were subjected to Lyndon Johnson's seductively persuasive arm-twisting tactics before agreeing to serve, and of the in-fighting among them from the time the commission began its work in December 1963 to the release of its report in September 1964.  He walks us through each step of the investigation, and introduces us to the young, and often relatively inexperienced lawyers, who conducted much of it.  I was struck by the lack of seasoned investigators on the commission staff.

We learn about many of the key personalities, like the increasingly erratic and untrustworthy Marina Oswald, along with smaller moments such as Lady Bird Johnson's testimony about coming face to face with Jackie Kennedy, in her blood splattered clothes in that small hallway at the hospital in Dallas, "I think it was right outside the operating room.  She was quite alone.  I don't think I ever saw anyone so much alone in my life".

But it is the story of the suppression of evidence and why it occurred that is the backbone of the book.

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.  If true, Johnson believed public outrage would force the United States to respond in a way which could trigger events leading to a possible nuclear war which he desperately wanted to avoid at all costs.  To avoid this outcome the White House put limits on the investigation, pressuring it to wind up its work as quickly as possible, 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, or his pursuit of the Mafia and Jimmy Hoffa, 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."
In Congressional testimony during the 1970s Richard Helms, who had personally approved the Castro plots and by then was CIA Director, said that since he had determined, in his own mind, that the CIA's Castro plots had nothing to do with Kennedy's assassination, 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 family 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 direct 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 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).  The discrepancies in the erroneous sketches fueled conspiracy 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.

In addition to 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, Warren was 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 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 it seemed to him there was a rush to demonstrate that Oswald was the lone assassin aoubt 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, concluding Oswald was the lone killer, which he then arranged to have selectively leaked to the press.  The report was shoddily done 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, declaring 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 FBI and CIA obstruction.  Commission staffers knew Oswald 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 they were being played by the FBI, their view of the CIA was initially different, finally realizing in February that the agency 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 even then, 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".

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 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 visiting Cuba.  Along with his old brother Morris, 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 reportedly 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 reporters from the Dallas Times Herald informed FBI Director Clarence Kelly 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 according to Shenon reached these conclusions:
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.

Finally, and most startling, is something Shenon claims was not known before his research, that 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 agency's history.  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, a Soviet agent who did immeasurable damage to American and British intelligence efforts in the years immediately following the war, was constantly promoted by the British, serving from 1949 to 1951 in Washington as British intelligence liaison with the CIA, where he became even closer 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 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.  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 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 bona fides of Soviet defectors Golitysn and Nosenko, a battle which also bears on the assassination, but if we enter that hall of mirrors we are likely never to 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 died.  He may very well, as Castro supposedly claimed, made threats about killing the president while at the Cuban embassy but this does not 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 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 and we know the reaction of Soviet leaders to the news of his death was panic 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 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 we knew the Kennedy brothers were trying to kill him which prompted his 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 on the most important aspect.  In 1963 the process for a presidential visit involved the local FBI office reviewing its files for potential security risks and forwarding those to the Secret Service which would examine each individual so identified.   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 would 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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