The holy grail of the JFK story
Seven steps to unlocking the historical truth about the assassination in
(This year Americans) will observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is likely to be a moment of national introspection, as well as an opportunity to complete the historical record of one of the most painful days in American history.
Yet, incredibly enough, the Central Intelligence Agency is likely to object to declassifying all of its records related to the murder of the 35th president in
on Dallas Nov. 22, 1963. The question on the…anniversary
of the tragedy is whether the CIA’s extreme
claims of JFK secrecy — reiterated in federal court filings this year — will be
allowed to stand.
The tediously unresolved case of the assassinated president never quite goes away as some would wish. Stephen King’s book, “November 22, 1963,” is yet another imaginative retelling of a critical day in American history, a densely layered epic that appeals to the enduring impulse to understand how the president of the
was gunned down in broad daylight,
and why no one was ever brought to justice for the crime. United
The official story, still defended by an articulate minority, was heard in a National Geographic special…. Kennedy’s death was said to be the tragic result of the psychotic actions of one individual. But as the NatGeo special demonstrates, the defense of that perspective is growing more eccentric. The program offered a novel interpretation of the photographic and forensic evidence from historian Max Holland that has been cogently addressed by independent researchers and is not shared by many JFK scholars, whether pro- or anti-conspiracy.
theory merely confirms what has long been obvious to many: There are a lot
implausible theories of who killed JFK, and the notion that a “lone nut” was
solely responsible is one of them. Holland
More likely, Kennedy was ambushed by enemies who sought to avoid detection. That is what JFK’s widow, Jacqueline, and his brother Robert believed. As David Talbot demonstrated in his 2007 book “Brothers,” Bobby Kennedy concluded within hours of the gunfire in
that his brother
had been killed by anti-Castro Cubans. For the rest of his life, RFK never
abandoned a conspiratorial interpretation of his brother’s death. (Full
disclosure: Talbot is my boss and friend.) Dallas
The story is well-documented. Within a week of the assassination, RFK and Jackie Kennedy sent a friend to
with a message for the leadership of the Moscow Soviet Union.
As historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Tim Naftali reported in their 1999 book on
the Cuban missile crisis, “One Hell of a Gamble,” Bobby and Jackie wanted the
Soviet leadership to know that “despite Oswald’s connections to the communist
world, the Kennedys believed that the president was felled by domestic
opponents.” This finding is worth repeating on the 48thanniversary of
JFK’s death: Jackie and Bobby Kennedy “believed that the president was felled
by domestic opponents.”
Naftali, now the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in
, told me in
an email that he and his co-author learned the story from a Soviet diplomat,
Georgi Bolshakov, and found his written account of Bobby and Jackie’s message
in the Soviet archives. In that message Bobby and Jackie sought to assure
the Soviet leadership that they did not believe that Oswald acted at Castro’s
behest. The clear implication of the message was that Bobby and Jackie held the
American right, not the international left, responsible for the crime in California .
“I was a little surprised what little reaction the … story got,” Naftali wrote. Dallas
No doubt inadvertently, the National Geographic JFK special fostered a reassuring yet false view of American history: that there is little reason to doubt the official story blaming a “lone nut.” In fact, Bobby and Jackie were not alone in suspecting conspiracy in
At the time, 60 percent of Dallas
residents suspected a plot. JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, privately
suspected a plot emanating from JFK enemies in Dallas
or Cuba . In Vietnam ,
Fidel Castro, a man whose peaceful dotage is proof positive he knows something
about detecting Havana CIA conspiracies, concluded
JFK had been killed by a right-wing faction within his own government. More
professor Larry Sabato, a mainstream political pundit and author of a
forthcoming book on the legacy of Kennedy’s assassination, has joined critics
of the official JFK story. University of Virginia
“Critical documents that could explain more about what happened are being hidden, and aggressively so,” Sabato told me in an email. “It’s no wonder a large majority of Americans believe in various conspiracy theories. There’s plenty to be suspicious about.”
Sabato has company in academia. There is a growing scholarly consensus that JFK was killed by a conspiracy. Since 2000, five tenured historians at
universities have published scholarly studies that addressed the causes of
JFK’s death. Four of the five concluded there was a conspiracy
(though they did not all agree on who was responsible). U.S.
Thus the enduring conundrum of JFK’s assassination story. While a confident minority in the opinion-making class dismisses any consideration of conspiracy, the majority of the public is left to ponder a bewildering array of theories without much guidance about what is actually the most plausible explanation of how the president came to be killed.
As someone who has written about the JFK story for 28 years without advocating any ”theory” of the case, I recommend seven steps for those who want to understand the causes of JFK’s death.
Step 1: If you are looking for evidence of a JFK conspiracy, do as prosecutors and law enforcement do: start in the middle and work your way up.
It is tempting but foolish to start your personal JFK investigation by seeking to identify the gunmen or the intellectual authors of the crime. Start by identifying the people who were less involved and use them to identify those who were more complicit.
As a reporter for the Washington Post, I started by investigating those employees of the
most knowledgeable about the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Over the
years, I found a dozen or more CIA officers
who had sent or received cables about Oswald while President Kennedy was still
alive. I interviewed some of them, as well as their surviving
descendants, friends and associates. My goal was to answer the investigative
reporter’s basic question: What did these CIA
people know about Oswald? And when did they know it?
Step 2: Understand the intense psychological resistance to Step 1.
Some people cannot distinguish between serious journalism about the JFK story and the meretricious conspiracy theories peddled by the 9/11 truthers. This is unfortunate. Such resistance to conspiratorial thinking, while sometimes useful, too often rationalizes a kind of anti-journalistic defensiveness that actually prevents discussion of the JFK story.
Talk show host Chris Matthews, a decent liberal and huge fan of JFK, grows agitated at the suggestion that a serious person might disagree with the official story. Cass Sunstein, an otherwise sane senior advisor to President Obama, has proposed that the government infiltrate JFK conspiracy chat groups to dispel the allegedly dangerous and delusional ideas discussed there. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller recently admitted he deletes all emails on JFK assassination without reading them, but offhandedly noted, “There’s always has been something fishy about that assassination.”
In the face of such denial and indifference, the interested citizen must turn to books such as David Kaiser’s “The Road to
and James Douglas’ “JFK and the
Unspeakable” to get the latest evidence on JFK’s assassination.
Fortunately, the public can now visit quality websites, such as that of
the Mary Ferrrell
Foundation — which has the largest online collection of JFK records
– JFKLancer, and
the home page of professor John McAdams. The sites seek to identify the
most reliable information about the JFK story and encourage debate about the
key questions, a chore most Dallas
news organizations have long disdained. U.S.
Step 3: If you want to get into the conspiratorial weeds, educate yourself on Operation Northwoods.
This is story that the likes of Chris Matthews and Bill Keller don’t care to engage too closely. It emerged from a wealth of new information released as a result of Oliver Stone’s all-too-believable 1992 movie “JFK.” Among the new records were a batch of long-secret records about a Pentagon scheme known as Operation Northwoods. These documents showed that by mid-1963,
military planners had developed a uniquely devious approach to advancing their
preferred policy of “regime change” in U.S. . The
Northwoods concept called for Cuba CIA operatives
to mount “terrorist” actions on
soil that would then be blamed on the Castro government. By framing U.S.
as an irresponsible and violent actor, the Cuba
could justify an invasion of U.S.
— something that the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously favored. JFK
emphatically rejected such pretext operations in a tense meeting with the JCS
in March 1962. Yet the Northwoods planning continued, with Cuba CIA
input, through the summer of 1963, according to the documents.
The Northwoods documents lend credence to Stone’s depiction of Kennedy’s death as the work of a high-level national security cabal that sought to blame the crime on a communist to avoid detection. That sort of scenario was not the ex post facto invention of a
screenwriter. It was Pentagon policy circa Nov. 22, 1963.
Step 4: Understand the
role in the JFK story as it emerges from files declassified since Stone’s
The new JFK files do not prove there was a conspiracy but they do prove this: There was a group of senior Agency officers who knew much more about Lee Harvey Oswald in late 1963 than they ever said publicly or shared privately with colleagues.
knowledgeable about Oswald while JFK was still alive included James Angleton,
the chief of the Agency’s Counterintelligence (CI) Staff. Angleton was a
protean character whose penetrating intellect and obscure exploits have
inspired a small library of books and several Langley Hollywood
movies. He was also an alcoholic, ultra-right-wing paranoiac who ran covert
operations with no oversight from anyone. At least three of his closest aides,
Jane Roman, William J. Hood and Birch D. O’Neal received pre-assassination
intelligence on Oswald.
Winston Scott, the trusted chief of the Mexico City CIA’s
Mexico City Station (the subject of my book “Our Man in
Mexico”), his aide Anne Goodpasture, and his not-so-trusted deputy David
A. Phillips oversaw the surveillance of Oswald’s visit there just six weeks
before JFK was shot dead.
station, the chief of the psychological warfare branch, George Joannides, was running a network of Cuban agents who
exposed and denounced Oswald for his pro-Castro political activities in Miami . New
Most of these officials were not involved in any plot to kill JFK. I interviewed Roman, Hood and Goodpasture at length and came away certain they had nothing to do with any JFK conspiracy. I wrote a book about Win Scott and came to the same conclusion. As for Jim Angleton and David Phillips, I presume their innocence but have much less certainty about it.
The newly declassified
records show that Angleton’s CI staff kept track of Oswald constantly from
October 1959 to November 1963. At Angleton’s direction, more than 40 reports
about Oswald’s travels in the communist world, his family life and his
political views were funneled to a secretive office in the Counterintelligence
Staff known as the Special Investigations Group. The SIG was headed by
Birch O’Neal, a loyal aide who had served as CIA
station chief in
during the Guatemala CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in
CIA files show that
the pace of intelligence gathering around Oswald quickened in mid-1963. In
August 1963, Joannides’ assets started reporting on Oswald’s antics
in New Orleans. When Oswald visited the Cuban consulate in Mexico City a few
weeks later, he was surveilled by Phillips. When CIA
and FBI reports on Oswald were sent to the SIG, they were signed for, and read
by Angleton’s staff. No, this isn’t Internet fable: The routing sheets with
their signatures can be found in the National Archives, and Roman and Hood
confirmed their authenticity in separate interviews.
Six weeks after Angleton’s aides reviewed the Oswald file, JFK was shot dead and Oswald was arrested for the crime. These
officers did not investigate and conclude that Oswald had acted alone.
Some, including Phillips and Joannides, took actions to insure that blame for
the crime of Dallas would fall on Cuba. Others, like Scott, scrambled to learn
more about Oswald. Angleton blandly disavowed his long-standing interest in
Kennedy’s accused killer and concealed the paper trail that proved it.
Step 5: See the crime of
as people in the Dallas CIA saw it.
In the course of writing my book about Win Scott, a math teacher from rural
transformed himself into one of the best Alabama CIA
officers of his generation, I found that he knew there was something very
wrong with the Agency’s handling of information about Oswald.
Scott knew that deputy
director Dick Helms had lied to the Warren Commission about the Agency’s
pre-assassination surveillance of Oswald. And he learned that Angleton, a
longtime friend, had kept him “out of the loop” on the latest intelligence
about Oswald in October 1963.
Scott also harbored doubts about his deputy Phillips, the chief of the agency’s covert operations against the Castro government at the time. After Kennedy’s assassination, Scott downgraded Phillips on his job evaluation, and came to question his reporting on Oswald. When Scott privately aired some of his misgivings to a colleague in the British intelligence service a few years later, Angleton intercepted the message and sent a warning to Scott: Do not talk about JFK’s assassination with anyone.
In the upper echelons of the
Lee Harvey Oswald was not regarded as a “lone nut.”
At the level of Jim Angleton, Win Scott and David Phillips, Oswald was regarded as an extremely sensitive operational matter. It is inevitable that historians will view him the same way.
Step 6: Understand how
national security operatives organized political assassinations in the 1960s
and 1970s. U.S.
David Phillips was still alive when I arrived in
in the 1980s. He had retired from the Agency to found a pro- Washington CIA
lobbying group, the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers. Phillips was
a charming, cunning man, and a lively writer, even penning the occasional
column for the Washington Post Outlook section where I later worked. One colleague
at the Post, well-versed in the intelligence world, once told me that he had
gotten to know Phillips. “He wasn’t the type” to be involved in a plot against
JFK, this colleague assured me.
A couple of years later, the nonprofit National Security Archive obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) a cache of
records about a notorious political assassination in October 1970. The
documents showed President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA
to take action to prevent leftist Salvatore Allende from assuming the
presidency of .
The assignment was given to a task force directed by Phillips,
by then one of the most senior operative in the Agency’s Latin America
division, which identified a target: Gen. Rene Schneider, the commander in
chief of the Chilean armed forces. Schneider’s crime: He had decided that Allende,
winner of a recent election, should take office. Chile
If you want to know how the
went about killing a political enemy at that time, study the records of this
operation. Phillips brought in a team of four
Agency operatives to organize a group of Chilean co-conspirators who
were supplied with “three
sterile 45 caliber machine guns.” The Agency’s operatives consulted
with the Chileans about when
to act and how they might justify the crime. The conspirators ambushed
Schneider’s car in traffic, smashed the window with a sledgehammer, and shot
him with the U.S.-supplied guns. After Schneider died a day later, Chile
scholar Peter Kornbluh notes that Phillips co-authored a cable saying the CIA
station had “done [an] excellent job of guiding [the] Chileans.”
Perhaps David Phillips was not the type to participate in the assassination of a
president. But he did orchestrate the murder of a Latin American commander in
chief. And his operational expertise in political assassination was never
disclosed to congressional JFK investigators in the late 1970s. U.S.
Of course, this appalling episode in 1970 does not prove that Phillips participated in a JFK conspiracy in 1963. But if the
is interested in quelling long-standing conspiratorial speculation about
Phillips, it should practice full disclosure to set the record straight.
Step 7: Return to Step 1; start in the middle of the alleged conspiracy and work your way up.
declassified since 1998, we now know much more about a key aspect of the JFK
story: the Agency’s underappreciated role in spreading the story that JFK had
been killed by a communist.
As David Phillips mounted covert operations against the Castro government in the summer and fall of 1963, he was assisted by George Joannides, a dapper, 40-year-old spy from
In Miami Joannides handled the New York City CIA’s
contacts with a network of anti-Castro Cuban students whom Phillips had
recruited on the campus of the University of Havana before Castro’s
revolution. Within hours of JFK’s murder in Dallas, Joannides’ agents got
his approval to alert reporters to the fact that Kennedy’s accused killer was a
member of a pro-Castro group called the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Their
revelation generated headlines in the Washington Post, New York Times and
dozens of newspapers across the country asserting what some still
believe: JFK was killed by a pro-Castro communist.
We can now see that the aftermath of JFK’s assassination bore an eerie resemblance to the schemes envisioned in Operation Northwoods: After a terrible crime was committed in the
operatives covertly sought to arrange for the blame to fall on Castro, the
better to justify a
post-assassination propaganda about Oswald (to use Bill Keller’s word) “fishy”?
The likes of Chris Matthews and Cass Sunstein (and even Keller himself) may try
to dismiss the thought. But Jackie and Bobby Kennedy could not. They “believed
that the president was felled by domestic opponents.”
It certainly seems fair to ask: Did Angleton, Phillips or others who were well-informed about Oswald before the assassination simply misunderstand and underestimate him as he made his way to
with a gun? Or is it possible that one or more of them participated in some
kind of covert operation — sponsored by the Agency or the Pentagon — to
manipulate Oswald before Dallas Nov. 22,
1963, for the sake of advancing the
policy of overthrowing Castro? U.S.
such questions cannot be answered.
One view is that there is not much more to learn about the
and the JFK assassination. On the National Geographic show, Max Holland was
asked if there was a “holy grail” of JFK assassination researchers. He cited
Oswald’s tax records, which remain private at the request of his widow, Marina,
who still lives in (and
believes her first husband innocent of JFK’s murder). Texas
I think most published JFK authors would find
assessment too narrow. There are other important JFK records that remain at
large. Diplomatic historian David Kaiser has identified several. Researcher
William Kelly has shown that Office of Naval Intelligence (which had
responsibility for tracking Oswald, an ex-Marine) possesses assassination-related files that it has
never released. Holland
James Lesar, a veteran Freedom of Information Act litigator in Washington (and, more full disclosure, my pro bono attorney), has a larger holy grail: the 50,000-plus pages of unreleased JFK assassination records now held by the National Archives. Much of this material has been classified as “Not Believed Relevant” to JFK’s assassination — and most of it is. But within the
NBR records, and elsewhere in CIA
archives, are still-secret files of some of those officers who were
knowledgeable about Oswald before Kennedy’s murder — and they are quite
relevant to understanding how JFK was killed. At least 1,000 pages of such
material remains secret.
How do we know? In 2003 I sued the CIA for the records of George Joannides, a secondary character in the JFK story. Eight years later, the Agency is still fighting the release of some 330 records on him, a legal defense that the New York Times aptly described in 2009 as “cagey.” Agency lawyers are scheduled to appear in federal court later this year to argue that none of this antique material can be made public in any form — supposedly for reasons of “national security.”
With Lesar’s help, I discovered that the National Archives retains 605 pages of
CIA records about David
Phillips in the JFK Assassination Records Collection in The Archives
also has 222 pages about Birch D. O’Neal, Angleton’s aide who received reports
on Oswald regularly between 1959 and 1963. The Agency says it will not release
the Phillips and O’Neil material until at least 2017. College
(Anyone can view what is known about these files by searching the National Archive’s JFK Assassination Records Collection here. Enter “David Phillips” or “Birch O’Neal in the first search field and “
NBR” in the second. Then
click on “Display Search Results.” To view more details about the withheld
files, click on “Display All/Selected Hits.”)
These records can and should be made public by the 50thanniversary of JFK’s death in 2013. The National Archives is now embarked on a crash course to declassify some 400 million pages of classified U.S. government records. Two years ago, Michael Kurtz, a senior official at the Archives, said in a public hearing in Washington that the still-secret JFK assassination records would be a priority for release by 2013, a position that the Archives has since backed off. In the risk-averse culture of Washington, there is little appetite for full JFK disclosure. President Obama’s laudatory executive order on open government has proven entirely ineffectual in the case of assassination-related records.
Thus on the (50)th anniversary of the
tragedy, we have the usual dispiriting situation: the public remains confused,
and the prospects for full disclosure are not bright. We collectively wonder if
there is a “holy grail” of the JFK assassination story and the Dallas CIA
refuses to share. The courts are acquiescent, and what remains of the press
cannot be bothered to address the obvious questions.
Nonetheless, I prefer to experience Nov. 22 as a day of hard-won hope. Public interest in JFK and Jackie Kennedy (and to a lesser extent, Bobby) remains intense and widespread.
Thanks to the Internet, public access to the full historical record of the JFK assassination story has never been greater. Many people sense that JFK died for a reason and want to know what it was. We’re not delusional. We’re realistic. We want the real history of our country.
Jefferson Morley is the
editor of Salon. More
Jefferson Morley Washington