Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Former CIA Officer says Jake Esterline a Prime Suspect

As Jeff Morley points out - there are some former CIA officials who suspect the assassination of President Kennedy was conducted by rogue CIA officers - out of the Miami JMWAVE station - including Jake Esterline as a primary suspect. 

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, told a conference of intelligence professionals that his study of JFK’s assassination indicated that the president was killed by enemies in the CIA’s Miami station

According to an account on Medium by veteran Washington reporter Nina Burgleigh, “Mowatt-Larssen, using his access to classified CIA files, went looking for officers who would have had a motive, and access to information about Oswald.

“It takes an agent to find a mole,” he said. “Who would betray his country? We were looking for a team of rogues.”

Mowatt-Larssen’s prime suspect is a senior officer in agency’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. His alleged motive: JFK’s Cuba policy.

“The rogues must be expert, and they need a motive,” Mowatt-Larssen explained. “To me, JFK is the motive. He pulled the plug on the Bay of Pigs. And he was reckless. He almost got us into a thermonuclear war with the Soviets.”

Mowatt-Larssen’s conclusions are hardly definitive but his reasoning is logical. Given his expertise, his work deserves to be checked. He is asking the right questions….

Mr. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the Director of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center. 

Prior to assuming the Director position, Rolf served as a senior fellow at the Center and served over three years as the Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy. Prior to this, he served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, to include Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorist Center, and Deputy Associate Director of Central Intelligence for Military Support. Prior to his career in intelligence, Mr. Mowatt-Larssen served as an officer in the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY. He is married to Roswitha and has three children. He is a recipient of the CIA Director's Award, the George W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism, the Secretary of Energy's Exceptional Service Medal, the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal, Secretary of Defense Civilian Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Intelligence Superior Performance Medal, among others.

Spy vs. Spy

Ex-CIA spooks talk Trump-Russia, JFK, and more at Valerie Plame’s inaugural espionage conference

It was just a week after my return from Spies, Lies & Nukes, a weekend espionage seminar hosted by former CIA agent Valerie Plame in November at a hotel in downtown Santa Fe, when one of the conference attendees — let’s call him Snow Goose — buzzed my cell with some urgent news.

He wanted me to know that, based on his professional judgment, honed over decades in covert intelligence, one of our fellow guests at the conference was now playing for Moscow. His evidence was far from conclusive: Now officially retired, the other spy — call him Copernicus — had simply stated the opinion, to anyone who would listen, that presumed Russian meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Trump campaign was overblown. He’d pushed the same line in a private conversation with me.

To Snow Goose, Copernicus’ arguments hewed suspiciously close to Kremlin spin.

“I know what it looks like because I used to to do it myself, for our side, ” he told me on the phone. He said he planned to alert the FBI, just to be prudent, and warned me not to be surprised if I got a call from the bureau asking about my one-on-one chats with Copernicus.

I thanked him for the warning.

The conference had drawn an audience of 175 academics, historians, and espionage groupies, each of whom had paid up to $500, not including hotel rooms, for a series of presentations and panels bearing titles like “Terrorism, Intelligence, and the Paradigms of Perception” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Secret Intelligence Perspective.”

One of the final panels, featuring a group of ex-spies, examined the question: “Was There Russian Interference in U.S. Elections?” Nearly all of the participants answered in the affirmative, but they disagreed, sometimes vehemently, on the effects. (This predated a report last month that the FBI had, in fact, investigated whether Trump was working for the Kremlin.)

“The Russians did what they always do and what we frankly do, too,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, including Russia station chief, told attendees. “They went to active measures. They wanted to hurt Hillary and help Trump. There is no question they tried to influence voters.”

“If any of us did not try to remove this man [Trump] from office, we would be derelict. It is absolutely clear that Russian intelligence manipulated him.”

While Mary Beth Long, a former CIA agent and assistant secretary of defense, defended the president as the duly elected commander-in-chief and slammed former intelligence chiefs John Brennan and James Clapper for publicly criticizing Trump, she also admitted he might well have been compromised. “I would be shocked if it was not the case that, while Trump was a businessman, he was approached by Russians,” she said, “and I have no doubt he was sexually entrapped and he had arrangements, for business purposes. But that doesn’t make him a traitor.”

Then again, it certainly might, insisted Glenn Carle, who worked for the Agency for more than two decades on four continents before retiring in 2007. “This is the greatest threat to our country since 1861,” he said. “Not even Watergate, not World War II — there was never any real danger Hitler would walk down Constitution Avenue. But I think there is substantive, overwhelming evidence, and that if any of us did not try to remove this man [Trump] from office, we would be derelict. It is absolutely clear that Russian intelligence manipulated him.”

“I strongly disagree,” countered Larry Johnson, former staffer at the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism and ex-CIA agent, who now runs his own private investigation and security consulting firm. “Is there gambling at the casino?” he asked. “Yes, Russians have been intervening here for years. I harbor no illusions about that. But we do it, too.”

Johnson added that the “level of Russian hysteria” directed at the Trump election “is jeopardizing our ability to actually work with Russia, in places like the International Space Station.” “If they’re so damn bad,” he wondered, “why are we trusting our astronauts to them?”

Santa Fe is one of those places — like the South of France and the city of San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico — where American spies often go to retire. Today, the city, with its art galleries and turquoise jewelry, is best known as a moneyed playground for gentleman ranchers, heiresses, and horsey trophy wives. But that reputation belies a far more controversial backstory: the city’s vital place in the history of Cold War espionage. According to ex-CIA officer Bruce Held, author of A Spy’s Guide to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the nearby Los Alamos laboratories, where scientists developed the atom bomb, attracted the KGB’s attention early on. For decades, Americans working in the service of the Soviet Union showed up in the area, using code names like Star and Bumblebee, looking for technical information on the nuclear weapons program and delivering it to their Russian handlers. KGB agents dead-dropped papers and notes in invisible ink all over town, exchanged intel at clandestine meetings at the Paseo de Peralta bridge, and executed expert brush-passes at the Greyhound station.

Plame and her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, settled here after Plame’s cover as a CIA agent was blown — not by Moscow or another foreign adversary but by senior members of the Bush administration. A week before her outing in 2003, Wilson had publicly disputed one of the Bush team’s main rationales for the invasion of Iraq. Outing Plame was an attempt to retaliate and discredit him. The so-called Plame affair led to the conviction of Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for several felonies (he was recently pardoned by Donald Trump) and became the subject of the movie, Fair Game.

Now the author of a memoir and a few novels, and a regular on the lecture circuit, Plame launched the conference, Spies, Lies & Nukes, last year, inviting eight retired CIA agents to reminisce about their adventures in Russia, Chad, Libya, Switzerland, and other countries they said they were forbidden from naming. At least one, Mowatt-Larssen, bore the honor of having been PNG’ed at Moscow; as spies put it — caught out, declared “persona non grata,” and sent packing.

Having been obligated to keep their work secret for years, it turns out that retired spies like to talk. Working in intelligence can be lonely and thankless. The best operatives are invisible, so bland and colorless that they are capable of hiding in plain sight. It is not a job for someone with a narcissistic bent or a need for public validation.

The CIA “wanted me to exploit, manipulate, persuade, and bribe people. And I found out that not only was I good at it, but I enjoyed it.”

As spy-turned-novelist John Le Carre knew, the life can be psychologically and emotionally challenging. “What the hell do you think spies are?” the jaded British spy Leamas snarls to his naive girlfriend in the 1963 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. “They’re just a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me: little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

The spies who came in from the cold for Plame’s warm Southwestern spy-hang were not seedy or squalid. They didn’t swagger or drink heavily. They wore business suits or the fleece vests preferred by west of the Rockies elites, and reminisced placidly about hiding their identities, bribing foreigners with suitcases full of cash, and sometimes, risking their lives.

Even so, in his talk “Soul Catcher — How the CIA Recruits Assets,” James C. Lawler, retired member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service who spent much of his career tracking and fighting WMD proliferation, described the sort of old-fashioned tradecraft Leamas would have recognized.

An elfin man with a white goatee, Lawler said he decided to join CIA in 1980 without giving the idea much thought. “I had no idea what they wanted me to do,” he said. “Then, I learned they wanted me to exploit, manipulate, persuade, and bribe people. And then, I found out that not only was I good at it, but I enjoyed it.”

He added: “There’s sociopathy involved.”

The first rule of recruiting an asset, he said, is identifying the target’s vulnerabilities. “You study the cracks. What are your stress points?” he explained. “And then, you let them know, ‘I can relieve your stress.’” 

Revenge was one motivation to commit treason. Money was another. People going through a divorce were “prime bait” — child support, health care, the cost of education. And then there were those with what he called, “a Walter Mitty fascination” — people who would betray their country because it fed their sense of self-importance.

Lawler recounted his first attempt to persuade one embassy deputy in an unnamed country to share information with the CIA. The deputy, who had until then thought of Lawler as just an American acquaintance, turned him down. After worrying that the target would turn him in to local authorities (and knowing the CIA would cut him loose if it happened), he decided to call a week later to see if they were still on good terms. To his surprise, the deputy not only affirmed the friendship, but asked if the offer was still on. His wife had announced she was divorcing him, and he needed money. Lawler signed him up.

“Recruitment is metaphysical,” he concluded. “It’s as if you have a mental link to the target.”

In the end, he justified such manipulation by convincing himself he was improving his targets’ lives. “Maybe that’s my coping mechanism,” he told the audience.

The invitees broke for lunch, queuing at stainless steel chafing dishes piled with green chile enchiladas, guacamole, three kinds of local salsa ranging from really hot to make-you-gasp, and posole. I spent a lot of time talking to a shy farmer and homemaker named Rita Jo Flynn, a self-described lifetime spy-wannabe with 17 grandchildren, who traveled to Santa Fe from her home in Harper, Iowa. After watching the movie Fair Game on Netflix, she googled Valerie Plame, found out about the conference, and immediately bought a ticket.

“My husband and five kids kind of laughed, but they knew I always wanted to be a spy,” she said. So far, the trip had been worth it. “I usually get shingles when I travel,” she said. “But not this time.”

After lunch, Glenn Carle, the only CIA official to publicly refuse to participate in torture during the war on terror and author of the book The Interrogator,gave a talk entitled, “Terrorism, Intelligence, and Paradigms of Perception.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he declared, have been a waste of money, having cost $5 trillion, so far. In the years since 9/11, he pointed out, the same number of Americans (fewer than 200) have died at the hands of Islamist terrorists as have been killed by right-wing extremists.

Later, Mary Beth Long, the former assistant SecDef, gave a PowerPoint on the long and dastardly history of U.S. covert activities in foreign lands, from the Bay of Pigs and other Cuban adventures to Oliver North and Iran-Contra. She said she was aware of at least 20 other “extraordinary” Cold War operations ordered by various presidents, “most of which won’t ever make the public eye.” One recently declassified example, she said, involved the CIA’s manipulation of Lech Walesa and the Polish labor unions in the years before the Berlin Wall came down.

Long added that she and her colleagues had come to the conference partly because it offered an unusual chance to reconnect with former colleagues and to speak in public. “I don’t remember ever having had an opportunity to be in a room with my colleagues, especially this caliber of case officers,” she said. “We all are wired with a passion for public service, and after you leave the CIA you have to find a way to satisfy that. A lot of us struggle with that. We don’t usually engage people on questions regarding our work. So this is a very important opportunity, psychologically.”

Later that night, the group crowded into a ballroom for a screening of Active Measures, a 2018 documentary that examines the evidence that Donald Trump, whether wittingly or otherwise, is a tool of Vladimir Putin (full disclosure: the author of this article makes a brief appearance). The filmmakers were on hand to discuss the movie — but halfway through the screening, a fire alarm went off. By the time the hotel staff declared it a false alarm, the audience had scattered into the night, and the screening was cut short. Curiously, the alarm was only activated in the part of the hotel where the film was screening.
“Maybe it’s the Russians,” one of the filmmakers joked.

On the conference’s closing day, the white-haired Mowatt-Larssen walked us through his theory on who killed JFK. He started out with a key idea — that if the CIA killed Kennedy, the plot would have necessarily involved three people: a mastermind and two others — one to handle Lee Harvey Oswald and one to deal with Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who shot and killed Oswald before he could be interrogated.

Then Mowatt-Larssen, using his access to classified CIA files, went looking for officers who would have had a motive, and access. “It takes an agent to find a mole,” he said. “Who would betray his country? We were looking for a team of rogues.”

After going through the names of ranking officers during the years before the assassination, and then cross-referencing them, he settled on Jacob Esterline, the CIA’s project director on the failed Bay of Pigs assault on Cuba, as the likely mastermind, the man with the best motive, and the probable ringleader. In his role as the CIA’s director of Western Hemisphere, he would have had access to Oswald, as well.

“The rogues must be expert, and they need a motive,” Mowatt-Larssen explained. “To me, JFK is the motive. He pulled the plug on the Bay of Pigs. And he was reckless. He almost got us into a thermonuclear war with the Soviets.”

Esterline went on to serve as chief of the CIA’s Miami office, and as deputy director of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division. He died in 1999. Of course, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories about the death of JFK, but Mowatt-Larssen currently serves as director of the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project — at Harvard’s Kennedy School, no less — so his speculation carries some weight.

After operative Bruce Held regaled the audience with his adventures in Chad, including the story of being personally targeted for death by Moammar Gadhafi in the 1990s, the gang gathered in the dining room to say their goodbyes over coffee. Larry Johnson was elaborating on his opinion that it is impossible to rig American elections because they’re too decentralized. He said cyber experts call CrowdStrike, one of the security companies that has claimed to find evidence linking Russia to 2016 hacks into the Democratic National Committee, “ClownStrike.”

Across the room, Snow Goose was still fulminating about the lack of consensus on Trump as a Russian traitor. “The panel depressed me,” he said. “The facts are so overwhelmingly clear. There is no ambiguity. There is no debate on this.”

Students from the University of New Mexico’s political science department, who had volunteered their service for the weekend in exchange for the awesome chance to meet real spies, packed the various speakers’ unsold books into boxes and took down the tables. Mary Beth Long and Glenn Carle debated the wisdom of flying out of Santa Fe that afternoon, which had no direct flights back to Boston and Washington, D.C.

Valerie Plame hugged them all goodbye and extracted promises that they would return. She was so pleased with the turnout and the conversation that she vowed to start planning another Spycon for next year, perhaps with a major university or other institution involved.

Weeks have passed now since my alarming call from Snow Goose, and so far no G-men have appeared on my doorstep. But the conversation did leave me unsettled. What would I say if I got such a call? Journalists enjoy a measure of protection from government scrutiny — at least in theory. But that didn’t prevent a colleague of mine, Matt Cooper, from nearly landing in jail for refusing to name his source in connection with the Plame affair.

Copernicus didn’t strike me as a Russian asset, but in the “wilderness of mirrors,” as longtime counterespionage chief James Angleton put it, doubt and even paranoia go with the territory. I know that spies everywhere regard journalists as useful tools — trained information gatherers who can sometimes go where American officials cannot, and potential conduits for propaganda. Way back in 1977, Carl Bernstein published a lengthy investigation into links between U.S. intelligence services and mainstream journalists, and there’s every reason to believe such manipulation is still practiced.

Maybe Copernicus’ skepticism was part of a disinformation campaign. Or maybe Snow Goose was playing me. Or maybe Rita Jo’s fangirl-Iowa-housewife routine was just an elaborate cover…

In a post-truth world, you never know for sure, which many intelligence officials believe is exactly what our enemies want. During one presentation, spycatcher James C. Lawler compared the current American situation to a famous Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters on Maple Street,” in which suburban residents, during a power blackout, start squabbling and killing each other.

Mary Beth Long agreed. Sure, our adversaries would like to undermine our political culture however they can, she pointed out. But we’re the ones that make it possible. “The cracks are ours,” she said, “at the end of the day, it’s us.”


Writer, explorer, national politics at Newsweek, 5 books, NYC



Friday, March 22, 2019

Phil Shenon at it Again - Promoting the Castro Cover Story

Putting Phil Shenon and his theories into a proper perspective. 

Phil Shenon is unlike Gus Russo, Bob Baer, Brian Latell, Carlos Bringuier and Max Holland, all former CIA officers, agents and assets who promote the official cover-story for the Dealey Plaza Operation - Oswald did it alone but Castro encouraged and manipulated him. Phil Shenon is supposed to be a reputable former New York Times reporter and otherwise respected journalist but who parrots the party line even though he doesn't have the clear connections that make him a certifiable disinformation agent like the others have. 

Shenon says that he himself was encouraged by anonymous  former Warren Commission attorney to take on this story - shunned by most in the mainstream media as a career killer. While John Newman suspects the anonymous WC attorney was the late Arlen Specter, I believe it was Sam Stern, a former Warren Commission attorney whose House Select Committee on Assassinations interview I consider Smoking Document #2 - for a number of reasons. 

Shenon is clear that he is not interested in the truth behind the assassination, he accepts the false fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter, and is only interested in the well debunked cover-story that Castro was behind Oswald and the assassination,which is  part of a clearly defined disinformation campaign that was designed to deceive those who purse the actual killers. 

As an introduction to this false story - designed to deceive, Shenon focuses on a former State Department official who learned of and reported on a Mexico City "Twist Party" where Oswald was encouraged to kill JFK by Cuban embassy officials at the home of Sylvia Duran, a Cuban embassy employee who did deal with Osawld when he was seeking a visa to Cuba. 

Shenon mentions that also attending the Twist Party were two American Gringos, one of whom was a film actor, who were close to Oswald at the party and were seen with him walking on the street the next morning. While Duran refused to identify the American film actor, who she apparently knew well, because he was still alive and she wanted to protect him. 

The recent records released under the JFK Act include a CIA report on a wiretap of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City that picked up a post assassination phone call from Richard Beymer asking specifically for Sylvia Duran. When told she was not there, he asks how she was, indicating that he knew she was taken into custody by the Mexican police and was tortured. He also asks if she was home - implying he knew where she lived. 

When I contacted Bymer he claimed he didn't remember a Twist Party but that was something he and his friend would have done, as they were young, single, footloose Americans below the boarder, and he didn't know or remember Sylvia Duran. His traveling companion, Bradley Pierce, a New York City bar owner who became a Catholic Priest, recalled to me that they were in Mexico for only a few weeks and were there at the time of the assassination - so they couldn't have attended a Twist Party when Oswald was officially there a month earlier. 

Father Bradley recently passed away, but not before I talked with him, a good man who I wanted to meet to learn the story of how a bar owner became a priest. 

When his book was published Shenon was featured on National Public Radio (NPR) "Fresh Air" program with Dave Davies, who asked Shenon if he cooperated with other assassination researchers, and Shenon responded by saying he tried, but they won't accept him because he doesn't agree with their conspiracy theories. 

Well there is a tight knit network of assassination researchers who do cooperate and share information and discoveries, but it isn't their conspiracy theories Shenon disagrees with, it's that they don't buy Shenon's completely debunked conspiracy theory that Castro was behind what happened at Dealey Plaza. 

Now why won't Dave Davies interview any of those assassination researchers who do agree and cooperate and write books - some of whom have signed on to the Ten Points of Agreement manifesto - including David Talbot (Who DD did interview for "Brothers"), John Newman, Peter Dale Scott, Lisa Pease, Dick Russell, Joan Mellen, Jefferson Morley, et al. - there are many others. Why can't they get equal air time to refute Phil Shenon's nonsense. 

Thanks to Andrew Kreig for calling attention to this WP article. 

You can read my review of Shenon's book "A Cruel and Shocking Twist" at Lobster and 

The Full WP article: 

 Philip Shenon (author of A Cruel and Shocking Act, from which some of this obituary is drawn), March 22, 2019 (printed). 

By Philip Shenon

March 20 2019

Cynthia Thomas once thought that she had solved the most confounding mystery of her life — why her late husband, a respected career diplomat, was abruptly fired by the State Department in 1969. His dismissal plunged her husband, Charles, into a severe depression and, she was certain, led him to kill himself two years later at 48.

Mrs. Thomas, who went on to her own diplomatic career and who died March 13 at 82, said the images and sounds of the suicide never left her thoughts, at least not for long.

On April 12, 1971, her husband put a gun to his right temple in the second-floor bathroom of the couple’s rented home in Washington. Mrs. Thomas, downstairs, thought at first that the boiler had exploded.
His firing by the State Department — he had been “selected out,” in the agency’s Orwellian language of the era — shattered Charles, his widow said.

A self-made man, he was orphaned as a boy in Texas and raised by a sister in Fort Wayne, Ind., before joining the Navy and flying fighter planes in World War II. Despite his more hardscrabble roots, the 6-foot, preppily handsome Charles moved easily among the blue-blooded Ivy Leaguers at the State Department during his postings across Africa and Latin America. For 18 years, he had received glowing evaluations.

“It was nonsensical,” Mrs. Thomas once told this reporter of his dismissal. “Charles was the best sort of American diplomat.” But they discovered they had almost no means of appeal. The department then had a strict up-or-out promotion policy for diplomats — either you were promoted, or you were “selected out.”

Charles Thomas found it difficult to launch a new career, his wife said, in part because he insisted on telling potential employers that he had been dismissed by the State Department short of a pension. To pay the bills, Mrs. Thomas occasionally catered neighbors’ parties, and Charles would deliver the food. The day he died, three more job-rejection letters had arrived in the mail.

His death left Mrs. Thomas nearly penniless and with two young children. She had a single physical asset of value — a beaten-up 1966 Plymouth sedan worth $500 — and $15,000 in debts, including $744.02 for her husband’s burial.

But she was also left with a mission, she said. Within weeks of her husband’s death, she mounted a one-woman lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill for an explanation of why his career had been derailed — what had put him on the path to ending his life.

With the help of outraged lawmakers, she got an answer. A State Department investigation in the mid-1970s showed he was dismissed because of a clerical mistake — the misfiling of his personnel records, including an especially flattering review from his final foreign posting at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. That evaluation described him as “one of the most valuable officers” in the diplomatic corps.

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the family — and pressure from Congress and Charles Thomas’s former colleagues — forced the department to overhaul its error-plagued promotions system. A grievance board was established that allowed department employees to appeal the rulings of promotions boards. A set of other formal worker protections was put in place.

Mrs. Thomas might have taken comfort from what she accomplished for her late husband and future diplomats. In 1975, she received a formal letter of apology from President Gerald R. Ford: “I can only hope that the measures which came about as a result of this tragedy will prevent re-occurrences of this kind in the future.”

But the mysteries would never end for Mrs. Thomas.

Declassified government files released in the 1990s suggested to her and her family — and to some historians and researchers who have studied the case — that her husband’s career was ended to stop him from continuing to raise unwelcome questions inside the government about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy: specifically, about whether the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had accomplices in Mexico, where Charles Thomas was posted from 1964 to 1967. The misfiling of his personnel records, his family suspected, may have been intentional.

In recent years, Mrs. Thomas, who retired from the State Department in 1993, readily conceded that the idea of a connection between her husband’s dismissal and unanswered questions about Kennedy’s death might sound “crazy.” She dreaded being branded an assassination conspiracy theorist.

The long-classified State Department and CIA documents show that her husband alarmed his superiors in the late 1960s by pressing for a new investigation that might have pointed to a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death. It was a plot, he suspected, that had been hatched on Mexican soil and somehow involved officials of the communist government of Cuba.

Charles Thomas had identified witnesses in Mexico who said they had seen Oswald there weeks before the assassination in the company of Cuban spies and diplomats and that some of them had spoken openly of their hopes that Kennedy would be killed. Oswald, a self-declared Marxist and champion of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, had been in the Mexican capital apparently to obtain a visa for travel to Cuba.

Their account, if true, suggested to Thomas that Oswald may have had accomplices in Mexico who encouraged him to kill Kennedy, a theory that undermined the 1964 finding of the Warren Commission that there was no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic, in the president’s death.

The declassified documents — including a letter that Thomas wrote to Secretary of State William P. Rogers in 1969, the year that Thomas’s personnel files were misplaced — show that superiors repeatedly rebuffed Thomas in his pleas for a new investigation of what had happened in Mexico.

Over the years, former senior officials of both the CIA and FBI have acknowledged publicly that Oswald’s six-day trip was never adequately investigated.

The CIA’s in-house historian conceded in a 2013 report that the spy agency had engaged in a “benign cover-up” to hide “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission to keep the commission focused on “what the Agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’ — that Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing John Kennedy.”

“It all seems so bizarre and complicated, like an awful spy novel from the Cold War,” Mrs. Thomas said in 2017 when her family urged President Trump to meet a legal deadline that year for the release of thousands more government files relating to the assassination. “My daughters and grandchildren deserve answers. I hope President Trump will give us that.” Trump disappointed her that year when he extended the deadline to at least 2021.

Cynthia Robinson was born in Providence, R.I., on July 20, 1936, the youngest of four children. Her father was an accountant, and her mother left a career as an opera singer when she married.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1958, Cynthia moved to Manhattan and began working as a researcher at Time magazine while pursuing an acting career. She appeared in two off-Broadway shows staged by the Living Theatre acting company.

In 1964, she was introduced to Charles Thomas, then 41, through a mutual friend. The couple married within weeks and moved to Mexico, where Thomas had just taken up a post as a political officer. A year after their arrival, their daughter Zelda was born.

In 1975, Congress passed a so-called private bill that posthumously restored Charles Thomas to active duty in the Foreign Service, a designation that entitled his family to the salary and benefits he would have earned in the years since his death. They totaled about $51,000. Cynthia was invited to join the State Department, and she went on to serve as a political officer in India and Thailand. She never remarried.

She settled in Washington in retirement. In 2016, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other severe health problems, she moved into her daughter’s home in Minneapolis and died there, said Zelda Thomas-Curti.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include a stepdaughter, Jeanne-Marie Thomas of Rome; and three grandchildren.

In 2013, at a friend’s urging, Mrs. Thomas returned to the Washington bank where she had stored her husband’s old black-leather briefcase in a safe-deposit box. Inside the case was Ford’s signed letter of apology on embossed White House stationery.

Asked to read the letter out loud, she found that the tears overwhelmed her and asked the friend to do it for her.

“The circumstances surrounding your husband’s death are a source of deepest regret to the government he served so loyally and so well,” the president had written. “There are no words that can ease the burden you have carried all these years.”

Shenon, a Washington-based journalist, is author of the 2013 book “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination.”

Monday, March 18, 2019

Jeff Morley's What Jane Roman Said


A Retired CIA Officer Speaks Candidly About Lee Harvey Oswald
By Jefferson Morley

Long-secret CIA records show that operations officer George Joannides paid for the first JFK conspiracy theory, designed to link Lee Harvey Oswald to the government of Fidel Castro.

Dick Helms’ Man in Miami

Still more vindication came in November 1998. Without fanfare, the CIA declassified the personnel file of a previously unknown operations officer on the Special Affairs Staff named George Joannides. Jane Roman had said that in late 1963 certain people in the CIA’s anti-Castro operation were showing “a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis.”  Skeptics of my story could rightly ask, “Like who?”

The new records suggested George Joannides was one such SAS operative. The reason for his interest? The bulk of the available evidence indicates that Joannides in late 1963 was running a psychological warfare operation designed to link Lee Harvey Oswald to the Castro government without disclosing the CIA’s hand.
George E. Joannides (pronounced “Joe-uh-NEE-deez”) is a new and important character in the Kennedy assassination story. The son of a well-known Greek-American newspaper columnist in New York City, he went to law school and joined the CIA in 1951. Joannides, fluent in Greek and French, was sent to the Athens station. By 1963, he was 40 years old, a rising protégé of Tom Karamessines. He was highly regarded for his skills in political action, propaganda and psychological warfare operations. A dapper, witty man, Joannides presented himself publicly as a Defense Department lawyer. In fact, in 1963 he was Dick Helms’ man in Miami.

His personnel file showed that he served in 1963 as the chief of the Psychological Warfare branch of the CIA’s station in Miami. He had a staff of 24 and a budget of $1.5 million. He also was in charge of handling the anti-Castro student group that Oswald had tried to infiltrate in August 1963. They called themselves the Cuban Student Directorate and it was Joannides’s job to guide and monitor them. Under a CIA program code named AMSPELL, he was giving $25,000 a month to Luis Fernandez Rocha and Juan Salvat, the Directorate’s leaders in Miami. That funding supported the Directorate’s chapters in New Orleans and other cities.

Fernandez Rocha and Salvat, who still live in Miami, confirm the story. Fenandez Rocha is a doctor. Salvat owns a publishing house. Both recall a close but stormy relationship with George Joannides whom they knew only as “Howard.” The records of the Directorate, now in the University of Miami archives, support their memories. The group’s archives show that “Howard” worked closely with the Directorate on a wide variety of issues. He bought them an air conditioner and reviewed their military plans. He was aware of their efforts to buy guns. He briefed them on how to answer questions from the press and paid for their travels. Joannides was certainly responsible for knowing if a Castro supporter was trying to infiltrate their ranks.
Then came November 22, 1963. On a political trip to Dallas, Kennedy died in a hail of gunfire. Ninety minutes later, a suspect, Lee Oswald, was arrested. Not long after that Joannides received a call from the Cuban students saying they knew all about the accused assassin. He told them not to go public until he could check with Washington. They went public anyway. As the American nation reeled from the shock of Kennedy’s violent death, Salvat and Fernandez Rocha and other Cuban students embarked on a wide-ranging and effective media blitz to link Fidel Castro to Kennedy’s death.
DRE propaganda work for the CIA:In this memo, Cuban exile students in the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil tell CIA contact "Howard,"-the cover name used by George Joannides-- how they want to reorganize their propaganda efforts. The DRE was keeping the CIA apprised of its work in the propaganda field in the summer of 1963.

In the span of a couple of hours in the evening of November 22, one leader of the Cuban Student Directorate called Paul Bethel, an influential former State Department official active in efforts to liberate Cuba. Another Cuban student called conservative spokeswoman Clare Booth Luce and told her the Directorate knew for a fact that Oswald was part of a Cuban government hit team operating out of Mexico City. A third told a New York Times reporter that the accused assassin was a Castro supporter.
The next day, November 23, 1963, the Cuban students put their suspicions in writing. They wrote up a seven-page brief on Oswald’s pro-Castro ways. They also published a special edition of the Directorate’s monthly publication. It was a four-page broadsheet with photos of Oswald and Castro together under the banner headline “The Presumed Assassins.” This was probably the very first conspiratorial explanation of Kennedy’s death to reach public print--and the mysterious George Joannides of the CIA paid it for.
The goal of this operation, say Fernandez Rocha and Salvat, was to destabilize the Cuban government and create public pressure for a U.S. attack on the island. They say they acted on their own.

Fidel Castro feared the gambit might work. He put his armed forces on high alert. In a long, brooding speech on Cuban TV on the night of November 23, 1963, the Cuban leader denounced the exiled students’ effort to link him to the assassination, charging it was a CIA provocation.

Until now, historians and journalists have had little reason to credit Castro’s charge. The revelation of Joannides’ mission to Miami lends credence to—but does not prove--the longstanding view of Fidel Castro and his intelligence service who have long believed that the effort of the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil to link Oswald to Castro was part of a deliberate plan by rogue CIA operatives to exploit the assassination and provoke a U.S. invasion of Cuba.  That allegation, it now seems, has some merit. George Joannides was a CIA officer who helped perpetrate the post-assassination propaganda. 

Not surprisingly, George Joannides took his secrets to the grave. According to his Washington Post obituary, Joannides died in a Houston hospital in March 1990.

When I asked the CIA for comment on his career, I was told that the agency has no knowledge of his actions in 1963. The chief of the CIA’s Historic Review Program, James R. Oliver, wrote me a letter denying that Joannides had worked with the Cuban Student Directorate in 1963. He acknowledged that Joannides’s cover name “Howard” appears on CIA records about the Directorate but said “there is no other evidence to suggest that ‘Howard’ was an identity for Joannides.”

This is the CIA’s official position on George Joannides. It is untrue.
DRE press release on Oswald: In August 1963, as George Joannides took over as chief of Psychological Warfare branch in Miami, the DRE delegation in New Orleans had a series of encounters with a pro-Castro, ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald. The New Orleans delegation, supported by CIA funds, put out this press release calling for an investigation of Oswald.

The CIA’s own records are proof that Joannides was ‘Howard.’ Luis Fernandez Rocha, Juan Salvat and other veterans of the Cuban Student Directorate, now well-established professional men in Miami, told me of their frequent meetings with a CIA man named “Howard” in 1963.  The records of the Directorate at the University of Miami library document the group’s almost daily dealings with “Howard” in 1963. The former leaders of the Directorate described the CIA man’s New York accent, his well-tailored suits, his Mediterranean features, his legal training, and other characteristics of George Joannides. The 1963 Miami phone book and members of the Joannides family confirm that Joannides lived in Miami at the time. And his CIA personnel file specifies that he had responsibility for the largest anti-Castro student group in Miami, which was the Cuban Student Directorate.

Yet the CIA’s position is that George Joannides a.k.a “Howard” was not in Miami in 1963, did not handle the agency’s contacts with Cuban Student Directorate, and may not have even been an actual person.

Whatever the reason for such odd obfuscations, the revelation of George Joannides’s existence and activities in 1963 gives empirical substance to Jane Roman’s analysis: that certain operatives on the Special Affairs Staff were interested in Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination.

Roman had said, “There had to be a reason” for SAS to withhold information about Oswald. she said. The simplest and most plausible explanation is that George Joannides was one of those operatives and that he and his superiors sought to protect the “sources and methods” of a covert operation involving Lee Harvey Oswald in the fall of 1963.

Such a conclusion is not indisputable. There is no direct documentary evidence stating that Joannides ran such an operation. But the lack of such evidence is not dispositive.

First, it was Joannides’s job to make sure that his actions could not be traced to the U.S. government. He was, judging from his job evaluations in 1963, very good at his job.

Second, Joannides was well-known for his attention to paperwork. Very little of that paperwork has ever come to light. Running a group like the Cuban Student Directorate required monthly reports to CIA headquarters. The CIA has declassified these reports for the years 1960 to 1966.  Only in the 17 months that Joannides worked with the group, December 1962 to April 1964, are the monthly reports missing from CIA archives.

Third, and most importantly, CIA officials called Joannides was called out of retirement in 1978 to serve as the agency’s liaison to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Fifteen years after the fact, he could have shared what he knew about Oswald’s Cuban activities with investigators. He did not. G. Robert Blakey, a former federal prosecutor who served as the HSCA’s general counsel and worked closely with Joannides says the CIA man never let on that the anti-Castro Cubans who tangled with Oswald had been his assets. Why refrain from stating such a pertinent fact if not to protect a sensitive operation? Blakey told me that if he had known Joannides’ role in 1963, he would have required him to testify under oath.

“He was a material witness to events related to the assassination,” Blakey says.

While the details of Joannides’s motivations remain concealed, the results of his actions in 1963 are well documented. According to a Kennedy White House memo, the CIA “guided and monitored” the Cuban Student Directorate in mid-1963. Declassified CIA cables show that “Howard” demanded that the group clear their public statements with him. In his job evaluation from the summer of 1963, Joannides was credited having established control over the group. He dispensed funds from the AMSPELL budget, which the Directorate’s leaders in Miami and New Orleans used to publicly identify Oswald as a supporter of the Castro government in August 1963. AMSPELL funds were also used within hours of the Kennedy’s death to link Oswald to Castro.

The results of his expenditures, it must be said, were consistent with U.S. policy. The former Directorate leaders say their purpose in launching a propaganda blitz against Oswald was to discredit the Castro regime and create public pressure for a U.S. attack on Cuba.

At the time, the group was funded and authorized to carry out the agency’s desires. Indeed, the group’s propaganda chief, Juan Manual Salvat had operational approval as a CIA agent, according to the agency’s records.

Joannides kept his hand in all of this secret. Joannides certainly knew of the Directorate’s contacts with Oswald within hours of Kennedy’s death, if not earlier, yet did not report his knowledge in written documents. Such records might have been turned over to law enforcement and thus exposed the agency’s operations to public view.  His actions were consistent with his duty to protect “sources and methods” and with Jane Roman’s observation that SAS was keeping information about Oswald “under their tight control.”

To be sure, other interpretations are possible. Perhaps the Cuban students, while funded by the CIA for the purposes of political action, intelligence collection and propaganda, engaged in all of these activities against Lee Harvey Oswald but did so independently, without knowledge of or prompting from George Joannides or anyone else at agency.
Joannides receives a tape of Oswald:On November 22, 1963, Joannides learned that his assets in the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE) had collected intelligence on Lee Harvey Oswald, accused killer of Kennedy. The DRE leaders sent Joannides (a.k.a. "Howard") a tape of remarks Oswald had made on a New Orleans radio station.

The former leaders of the Directorate tend to this point of view. They stress that memories are hazy after 40 years and their allies at the CIA certainly did not keep them fully informed about anything. They were, they admit, impetuous and inexperienced young men while “Howard” was an older man of considerable experience and clout sent by the highest levels of the U.S. government. Of course, they worked with him while reserving the right to act on their own. Idealistic, if sometimes immature, they acted as Cuban patriots. 

They did not have to be told to dislike Lee Harvey Oswald’s pro-Castro politics or to resent his attempted infiltration of their group. After Oswald was arrested for killing Kennedy, they had every reason to use his politics to discredit Castro and create pressure on him.

One of the Directorate’s former leaders, Tony Lanusa, a Miami businessman, says he called “Howard” within minutes of the news of Oswald’s arrest on November 22, 1963. He recalls telling the CIA man that the group wanted to go public with what they knew about the accused assassin.  “Howard” told them to hold off until he could contact Washington for guidance. They went ahead anyway. Citing Lanusa’s very credible account, one could argue that the Cuban Student Directorate’s propaganda linking Oswald and Castro was not the agency’s responsibility.
The First JFK Conspiracy. On November 23, 1963, the leaders of the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE) published a special four page edition of their newspaper suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had shot President Kennedy at the behest of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. This is the very first JFK conspiracy to reach public prints-and it was paid for by CIA man George Joannides.

On a practical level though, the agency’s responsibility for the first JFK conspiracy theory is beyond dispute. By the admission of its own former leaders, the Cuban Student Directorate was totally dependent on CIA funding in 1963. Without the money provided by Joannides there would have been no delegation of Cuban students in New Orleans with the time to confront Oswald. There would have been no money for their press release to the local papers calling for an investigation of his pro-Castro ways. There would have been no tape recording of his remarks on a local radio station. There would have been no money for the Directorate’s phone calls to Clare Booth Luce and the New York Times on the night of November 22, 1963. There would have been no money for the broadsheet with photos of Oswald and Castro, and perhaps no post-assassination war scare. The fact that the Directorate’s leaders felt obliged to call Joannides on November 22, 1963 is mostly evidence of how seriously they took his guidance.

In any case, George Joannides was not displeased with the Directorate’s conspiracy mongering. The FBI checked out the Directorate’s claims about Oswald. The CIA apparently did not. None of the Cuban student leaders say they heard from Joannides after November 22, 1963, except for Luis Fernandez Rocha who says the CIA man offered some friendly advice: go back to school; The anti-Castro cause was doomed.

That sounds more like a spook shutting down an operation, than a clueless suit surprised to learn that his paid agents had been talking to Lee Harvey Oswald behind his back.

Nor is there any evidence that Helms and Karamessines were unhappy that Joannides’s boys in Miami had linked the accused assassin to Castro. The agency continued to fund the Directorate after the Kennedy assassination. Joannides received the highest possible job evaluation for his work in 1963.
Nonetheless, one might still concoct a scenario in which the independent-minded Cuban students had a series of encounters with the obscure Lee Harvey Oswald that somehow escaped the notice of the usually vigilant George Joannides (but not the FBI or CIA headquarters). One could further hypothesize that, when President Kennedy was killed and the overzealous Cuban students attempted to link the accused presidential assassin to Castro, Joannides and his superiors chose to bury the whole affair --and not investigate the claims of a Castro-Oswald connection--out of sheer embarrassment about the ridiculousness of the charge. In this view, the Cuban students were out of control, George Joannides was out of his league, Fidel Castro was above suspicion, and the CIA was honestly surprised by the exiles’s conspiracy mongering. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with such a scenario is that the CIA flatly rejects it. In the official story, George Joannides had no contact at all with Cuban Student Directorate in 1963. He wasn’t there, and that CIA personnel have no knowledge of or connection to the first JFK conspiracy theory.  This denial of reality is, 40 years after the fact,  bizarre. It lends credibility to the Cuban communist interpretation of 1963—that a rogue faction killed JFK and the CIA still has something to hide. Yet the agency stands by it.

In fact, all of he evidence suggests that George Joannides did his job in 1963 as his CIA bosses wanted. He was paid to mount covert operations--and he did. In the fall of 1963, he was, in all likelihood, working on an authorized psychological warfare operation involving the Cuban Student Directorate and Lee Harvey Oswald. The purpose of this operation seems to have been to expose Oswald’s pro-Castro ways, the better to advance the U.S. policy of overthrowing Castro’s government. Joannides and his bosses did what they conceived of as their professional duty by protecting the agency’s “sources and methods” both before and after Oswald was arrested for killing Kennedy.  Joannides’s stonewalling of the HSCA in the late 1970s was part of the same effort.

There is no evidence that George Joannides or the Cuban students whom he supported had anything to do with the gunfire in Dealey Plaza.

No one can insinuate that George Joannides was a co-conspirator in a plot to kill President Kennedy. His friends and family recall him as an ethical, funny, warm, and patriotic person, and I have no reason to doubt them. But his emergence, thirty five years after the fact, as a material witness to the JFK assassination story is remarkable, especially considering that his name appeared nowhere in the findings of five official investigations or in hundreds of books about the JFK assassination.  Whatever George Joannides did in 1963 it certainly had the approval of his boss, the late Dick Helms. Because the CIA denies knowing anything about Joannides’ actions in 1963, the exact nature of his professional activities awaits decisive clarification.

In any case, his actions emerge as the most likely explanation for what Jane Roman saw in the Oswald paper trail (and what John Whitten wasn’t allowed to see after Kennedy was killed.) George Joannides was, in all probability, part of a faction in the Special Affairs Staff that was holding information about Lee Harvey Oswald tightly under their control.

To my mind, the revelation of his existence and activities corroborated Jane Roman’s analysis and confirmed the importance that I attached to it. But the CIA’s evasions make definitive conclusions premature.
I felt vindicated. But I’d been stonewalled.

And that’s where my story ends. I have no “smoking gun” about who killed Kennedy. I have no JFK conspiracy theory. If you insist that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot on November 22, 1963, I would say you are probably right. If you insist there was a plot by a faction in the Special Affairs Staff to provoke an invasion of Cuba in late 1963, I would say you might well be right. With the CIA still withholding evidence, the issue is hard to judge.

Certainly, the records of George Joannides’ activities in late 1963 meet the legal definition of “assassination related” records, as defined in the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Act. In August 1963 Joannides’ paid assets in the Cuban Student Directorate had knowledge of and contact with Oswald; in November 1963 these assets attempted to use their knowledge to exploit the president’s death to advance the anti-Castro cause. Yet virtually nothing is known about his actions in those months.

What everybody from Oliver Stone to Ben Bradlee to Arlen Specter can agree on is that the CIA should account for the actions of George Joannides in 1963. As long as it does not, the agency is violating of the spirit and the letter of the JFK Assassination Records Act and  the JFK conspiracy question remains open.
As for Jane Roman, I am certain that she did not know what the men from SAS were doing with Oswald in the fall of 1963 nor the nature of George Joannides’s peculiar mission to Miami.  She knew a lot but she did not know the complex depths of the story of the CIA and Oswald. Like many in the nation’s capital, she did not want to know. That is why I can understand and sympathize with her feelings of vexation about my article and her desire to repudiate its implications.

The CIA’s own records, even the very incomplete paper trail that John Newman and I possessed in 1994, forced conclusions that she, a loyal, blameless insider preferred not to contemplate: That certain CIA officers in the anti-Castro operation hid the nature of their interest in Lee Harvey Oswald before and after President Kennedy was killed. Their actions may well have had the effect of insulating Oswald from scrutiny on his way to Dealey Plaza. They certainly prevented a real investigation into the causes of Kennedy’s death. Theirs was the intelligence failure at the heart of the November 22 tragedy, and Jane Roman was an honest, if unwilling, witness to it.

There lay the story that I pursued in the spirit of Ben Bradlee’s challenge, the story for which I was willing to sacrifice the family jewels. Of course, I failed. I didn’t get a big front page story. But I did get a nice little yarn that nobody outside (and few inside) the CIA ever knew: the story of the CIA man who paid for the first JFK conspiracy theory. It may not be a blockbuster, hold the presses type scoop, but, as we say in the journalism trade, it “incrementally” advances the story of the Kennedy assassination. And I didn’t lose any gonads along the way.

Thank you, Ben Bradlee.

--Washington, DC
January 15, 2002