Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City
It was 1993, the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, when FRONTLINE first aired its documentary, “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?” In that program FRONTLINE concluded, “What now seems certain is that the CIA is still covering up its contact with Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Now, 10 years later, much material has been made available to the American public which sheds light on what the CIA had been hiding for 40 years. This new information is the result of the U.S. Congress passing the 1993 “JFK Records Act,” which mandated the full release of all government files relating to the assassination of President Kennedy and created a civilian Assassination Records Review Board to oversee this process. By the time the Board’s work was completed in the late 1990s, 6 million pages of documents had been made available to the public in the National Archives.
Arguably, the most startling information so far brought to light by the release of these intelligence records is the CIA cover-up relating to Oswald’s visit to Mexico City.
Oswald was in Mexico City in late September and early October of 1963. During his one-week stay, he tried to obtain visas from the Cuban consulate and Soviet embassy. But intelligence documents released in 1999 establish that, after Oswald failed to get the visas, CIA intercepts showed that someone impersonated Oswald in phone calls made to the Soviet embassy and the Cuban consulate and linked Oswald to a known KGB assassin — Valery Kostikov — whom the CIA and FBI had been following for over a year.1
The news of this impersonation and the link to Kostikov, learned within hours of President Kennedy’s assassination, electrified top government and intelligence officials and dominated their discussion in the immediate weeks following the assassination. It also became during the next 40 years one of the CIA’s most closely guarded secrets on the Oswald case.
What the Documents Show
Shortly after Oswald’s Sept. 27 visit to the Cuban consulate to try to get a visa, the CIA station in Mexico informed headquarters about it2 and requested information on him. But headquarters lied to its station, saying that no information on Oswald had been received by headquarters since his return to the United States 18 months earlier.3 Documents show, however, that most of the half-dozen agency employees who participated in the drafting and dissemination of this false story had signed for and read various FBI reports received on Oswald during those months, especially during the two weeks before this deception was invented.4
After President Kennedy’s assassination, documents show that the Agency created two more false stories in connection with Oswald’s Mexico City visit. The first cover story was that the CIA’s tapes of the phone calls had been erased before the assassination. The second cover story was that the CIA did not realize Oswald had visited the Cuban consulate until they looked into the matter after the assassination.
The cover-up was apparently put in motion the day after the assassination by Anne Goodpasture (unless someone else altered the cables she sent after the fact) in the CIA station in Mexico City. But it was a sloppy coverup. Files released in the mid-1990s show she sent a cable at noon (1pm EST) on Nov. 23 stating that a voice comparison (between two intercepted phone calls) had not been made at the time of Oswald’s visit because one tape (presumably of the Saturday, Sept. 28 call)5 had been erased before another had been received (presumably from the Oct. 1 intercept ). It was unlikely this would have happened, however, as tapes were kept for at least two weeks before erasure.6 It was necessary to deny that a voice comparison with the Cuban consulate tape had taken place, in order to facilitate the cover story that the station had not realized that Oswald had visited the Cuban consulate.
But Goodpasture’s cable only ruled out a voice comparison at the time, and left unresolved the issue of what tapes had survived.7 So, at 2:37 EST the following day, Sunday, Nov. 24, Goodpasture sent another cable saying all the tapes had been erased.
Whether these cables were inserted or altered after the fact no longer matters. They constitute the extant record and are not true. Ms. Goodpasture’s erasure cables are contradicted by her own 1995 deposition to the Assassination Records Review Board in which she stated she thought a tape dub had been hand-carried to the Texas border the night of the assassination,8 and that a copy of the tape was made at the CIA telephone tap center.9 She added that she was sure a copy of the tape would have been sent up to Washington as soon as it had been made. 10
Newly released internal CIA documents from the weeks following the assassination reveal that another copy of the October 1 intercept was found at that time,11 and that “the actual tapes” were reviewed.12 Furthermore, the Assassination Records Review Board also verified that in 1964 two Warren Commission attorneys, Coleman and Slawson, had traveled to the Mexico City station and listened to the tapes.13 There is no mention of this in either the Warren Commission’s 26 volumes or its final report.
Meanwhile, for the CIA’s erasure story to work, the FBI had to cooperate. FBI headquarters in Washington was still asking on the Monday after the assassination for the CIA tapes that had been sent from Mexico City to Dallas early Saturday.14 The FBI office in Mexico City provided the cover on the Monday afternoon after the assassination, sending a cable to headquarters saying that the tapes had been destroyed.15 When FBI Director Hoover learned of this lie, he was not amused. Eighteen days after the assassination, he censured, demoted or transferred everyone in the FBI that had been touched by the Mexico City story. Hoover was still fuming about it in January 1964, when his subordinates sent him a memo on illegal CIA operations in the US which stated that the CIA had promised to keep the Bureau informed. Hoover pulled out his pen and, in his characteristic large, thick handwriting scrawled, “OK, but I hope you are not being taken in. I can’t forget CIA withholding the French espionage activities in USA nor the false story re Oswald’s trip in Mexico City only to mention two of their instances of double dealing.” 16
But more than the Mexico City tapes were suppressed. As earlier noted, for reasons still only partially clear, CIA headquarters made the decision soon after the assassination to deny that anyone within the CIA — including the Mexico station — knew of Oswald’s visits to the Cuban consulate until after JFK’s murder. But the Mexico City station’s chief, the head of Cuban operations, and the others involved with Cuban operations all maintain that they knew about the visits and informed headquarters at the time. They also maintain that there was an additional Oswald phone call not accounted for in the extant records.17 Later, headquarters memos confirm what the station personnel said: One is a memo concerning Deputy Director Richard Helms’ discussion with the Warren Commission in 1964; the other, a memo by Counterintelligence Chief George Kalaris to the House Select Committee on Intelligence Activities in 1975. Both affirm the station knew and reported to headquarters Oswald’s Cuban contacts.18
If the recollections of all these people are correct, the record has been altered.19 When I showed the documents to Helms in 1994, he agreed it was obvious the CIA had known at the time, and he opined that the reason for the cover-up was to protect the Agency’s sources and methods. While perhaps true, this appears to be only part of the answer. Recall that in its Oct. 10, 1963 response to the Mexico City station, CIA headquarters had feigned ignorance of Oswald’s Cuban connections in Dallas and New Orleans. This was six weeks before the assassination and an internal matter unconnected to any post-assassination jitters.
The operational reason for this deception has yet to fully come to light. Could it, however, have been connected to a clandestine operation that the SAS (the CIA’s Special Affairs Staff for Cuban operations) was running?
A document supporting such a theory is the CIA memo sent to the FBI on Sept. 16, 1963 –the day before Oswald obtained his permit to go to Mexico.20 The Agency said it was considering countering the pro-Cuba “Fair Play for Cuba Committee”(FPCC) activities in foreign countries by planting deceptive information to embarrass the FPCC in areas where it had support. Such an operation against the FPCC would have been the responsibility of the SAS. Given Oswald’s activities on behalf of FPCC that had been reported in newspapers, did the SAS have advance knowledge that Oswald would be paying a visit to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City?
Shortly before Oswald arrived in Mexico City, the incoming FBI reports to the CIA about his activities in Dallas and New Orleans were not put in his 201 file (the one where all previous FBI and State Department reports on Oswald had been filed), but were diverted into another one – a FPCC (100-300-11) file. Agency components in possession of these files during Oswald’s trip, and at the time of the exchange of information about it with headquarters, included the Operations section of the Counterintelligence Staff (CI/OPS) and the Counterintelligence section of the SAS (SAS/CI). It was these components whose equities were most on the line when Oswald was publicly accused as Kennedy’s assassin.
The Agency’s first internal record of the moment Oswald’s name came over the radios after the assassination is revealing: “the effect was electric.”21 Whatever SAS/CI and CI/OPS had been up to was swept away by the story that no one knew of Oswald’s contacts with the Cuban consulate. Mexico station chief Win Scott was indignant about this lie. In his memoir Scott mocked this cover story and said that his station had immediately cabled headquarters with “every piece of information” about Oswald’s visits to the Cuban consulate.22
Why the Cover-up?
As the documents show, the intelligence cover-up on Oswald and Mexico City was real. The question is, why?
The impersonated phone call linking Oswald to Kostikov and the visit to the Cuban consulate certainly raised the possibility that Oswald not only had not acted alone, but was in the employ of Castro and the Kremlin. And, if this were the case, then the CIA and FBI, by failing to act for six weeks upon the Oswald-Kostikov link, might possibly have doomed President Kennedy.
Thus, it was a situation suggesting diverse motives for a cover-up — from protecting sensitive sources to hiding incompetence and even preventing a nuclear war, a nightmare scenario that gripped the White House within hours of the president’s murder.
At 10:00 am on Saturday, November 23, President Johnson asked FBI Director Hoover if there was anything new concerning Oswald’s visit in Mexico City (it’s unclear when Johnson first had learned of the Mexico City visit). It was at this point – just 22 hours after the assassination– that Hoover told Johnson about the Kostikov link and that it was not Oswald’s voice on the tape; he had been impersonated. 23
Over at the Justice Department, with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in mourning that weekend, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach handled the case. He met with Hoover on Sunday, shortly after Jack Ruby had killed Oswald. Katzenbach then prepared a memo for Johnson’s top aide, Bill Moyers, stating that the public had to be “satisfied” that Oswald had acted alone and that the “evidence” would have convicted him at a trial. Katzenbach warned that speculation about Oswald’s motive had to be “cut off” and that the thought that the assassination was a communist conspiracy or a “right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the communists” had to be rebutted.24 After the Sunday meeting Hoover observed, “The thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”25
To head off any congressional investigations, President Johnson decided to create a blue-ribbon commission that would be headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren and composed of august leaders like Senator Richard Russell. When Russell said he didn’t like Warren and refused the assignment, Johnson told him that he had no choice, that it already had been announced, that he could work with anyone for the good of America, and that Oswald’s apparent connection to Castro and Khrushchev had to be prevented “from kicking us into a war that can kill forty million Americans in an hour.” 26
Chief Justice Warren also refused at first to take the job even after both Robert Kennedy and Archibald Cox had asked him. In his talk with Russell, Johnson told Russell he had “ordered” Warren to come to the White House and in that meeting Warren had twice refused the president’s request. LBJ continued, “And I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City.” The president told Warren this would make it look like Khrushchev and Castro killed Kennedy. LBJ said that Warren started crying and agreed to take the assignment.27 In a 1972 documentary for public television Warren himself told the same story — except for the tears. He said that Johnson felt the argument that Khrushchev and Castro had killed Kennedy might mean nuclear war. Warren said he responded, “Well, Mr. President, if in your opinion it is that bad, surely my personal views don’t count.”28
So as the FBI record indicates, President Johnson, Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach, and FBI Director Hoover accepted that they would have to be in line with a lone-assassin scenario, a decision that was made no later than Sunday, two days after the assassination. And two days later, in a November 26 phone call, Katzenbach told the FBI, “there might have to be some so-called editorial interpretation” for any FBI report that would be released to the public.29
But for the lone-assassin scenario to stand, the Mexico City evidence at CIA — the tapes of the impersonation and some cables — had to be destroyed or altered. The problem was that news of the impersonation was spreading.
Memos were circulating at the highest levels of government concerning Oswald, Kostikov and the latter’s role in KGB assassination operations.30 And over at the FBI the documentary record within the first 24 hours was already considerable. There were those lower down in the FBI who had listened to the tapes, and there were memoranda circulating among the top four men in the FBI and Secret Service Chief James Rowley.31 The situation at CIA was similar. Besides personnel at the CIA Mexico City station, memoranda about the voice comparisons began circulating among senior officials at headquarters by Sunday, November 24th, two days after the assassination. 32
The staff of the Mexico CIA station and others at headquarters such as Richard Helms and George Kalaris (in their various memoranda and testimonies during the years after the assassination) would have little reason to contradict the record unless the record is untrue. Lies, as Hoover observed in that scolding note regarding the CIA to his subordinates, were told in the days after the assassination. As much as to protect sources and methods, these lies appear to have been invented to buttress the lone-assassin story — itself ostensibly created for the purpose of preventing war and saving millions of lives. Whether or not this also permitted conspirators to avoid the scrutiny of investigation — a possibility I take seriously — is something we will continue to debate.
While many of the pieces of this story became evident from the early 1993 and 1994 releases of documents to the Assassination Records Review Board, the daunting contours of the Mexico City story and the ensuing national security cover-up were not apparent until the late 1990s when the work of the Assassination Records Review Board was completed and earlier documents, which had been heavily redacted, were released in full.
Looking back over the 40 years since this case began, three things stand out. First, while cover stories may achieve their objective in the short run, they undermine public confidence when the truth comes out — as it inevitably does. Second, releasing the records to the public is the first step toward restoring that confidence. FRONTLINE’s documentary, my book, and this article would not have been possible without those records.
Finally, with 6 million pages added to the National Archives on this case from the Review Board’s work, we need to be patient and temper our inclination to want all the answers right away. We need a small army to read, analyze, and interpret what is now rightfully ours and what remains to be discovered of the historical record. For while the 1990s’ release of intelligence files was enormous, there are still some records that are missing – for example, Oswald’s Marine Corps G-2 files and some of the FBI files in 1959-60. They remain classified and might provide useful information.
This story was originally published Nov. 20, 2003
5 There were two Oswald impersonated calls intercepted: one on Saturday, 9/28/63, allegedly from the Cuban consulate to the Soviet embassy (Soviet officials there at the time have always maintained they never received such a call). The other impostor call occurred Tuesday 10/1/63 from somewhere in Mexico City to the Soviet embassy. In both calls the impersonator made statements that were inconsistent with the experiences Oswald had had in the embassy and the consulate. (return to top)
7 Furthermore, Goodpasture’s marginalia on a Washington Post article a year later clearly indicate a voice comparison had been made by Finglass (alias for Mrs. Tarasoff, a CIA translator who transcribed the tapes) after headquarters had responded to their first cable: View source. Her changing story at least raises the possibility that her cables were altered after the fact by someone other than her. (return to top)
17 We know about a 30 September tape because of the recollection of the CIA translator who transcribed it, Mrs. Tarasoff. She remembers not only transcribing it but also the fact that the Oswald voice was the same as the 28 September voice—in other words the same Oswald impostor. Mrs. Tarasoff remembers the Oswald character asked the Soviets for money to help him defect, once again, to the Soviet Union. In addition, the CIA officer at the Mexico City in charge of Cuban operations, David Atlee Phillips, in sworn testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), backed up Mrs. Tarasoff’s claim about the tape and the request for money to assist in another defection to the Soviet Union. But the Phillips story has a twist. The day before his sworn testimony, Phillips told a different, more provocative version to Ron Kessler of the Washington Post. He told Kessler that on this tape Oswald asked for money in exchange for information. Why was this crucial transcript destroyed? We can only wonder at what motivated Phillips to tell two different stories about this piece in less than 24 hours. (return to top)
18 For a detailed discussion of this and the supporting documents, see Oswald and the CIA, pp. 413-418, 514-515. (return to top)
19 HSCA investigators including its first chief, Richard Sprague, felt there was reason to believe some cables concerning the Cuban consulate visit were either destroyed or altered. See Oswald and the CIA, p. 510. (return to top)
20 See Oswald and the CIA, p. 508. (return to top)
22 See Oswald and the CIA, p. 514. (return to top)