Congress at long last is poised to open the so-called "secret" files on the Kennedy assassination from various investigations, beginning in 1963. It wants to satisfy academics and the curious, but the files are likely to set off new controversy.
Last week the House enacted a comprehensive JFK records bill, calling for the disclosure of virtually all the government's files on the assassination and setting up a review board to track them down. The files will show that while government officials and the Warren Commission launched a campaign to persuade the public that Lee Harvey Oswald alone plotted to kill John F. Kennedy, CIA analysts took the opposite position in secret. They believed that even if Oswald was the lone assassin, he may have been the agent of a foreign conspiracy.
The gap between the government's public and the CIA's positions was widest in the days immediately after the president's death. On Nov. 23, 1963, CIA analysts prepared a memorandum covering the facts they knew at the time.
They knew that Oswald had once defected to the Soviet Union. They knew that he made a trip to Mexico City two months before the assassination and talked to Soviet Vice Consul Kostikov about a visa. And they believed that Kostikov was a KGB assassination and sabotage expert.
From this, their memorandum argued, there was reason enough to believe that Oswald was part of a foreign plot. If this were true, CIA analysts predicted, then Oswald himself might be killed before he could talk.
The gist of this memorandum was to be passed through CIA liaison to the FBI _ with the warning that Oswald could be in danger. Unfortunately, relations between the two agencies were strained, and liaison was awkward; Oswald, while in police custody, was killed before the FBI received the message. The fact that Oswald was murdered, as CIA analysts had warned, fueled their suspicions.
Also on Nov. 23, the CIA asked Mexican authorities to delay questioning Sylvia Duran, an employee at the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City who had talked with Oswald when he went there for a Cuban visa. The CIA, fearing that Duran would reveal a Cuban conspiracy, wanted the questioning delayed until the United States decided how to react.
President Johnson was briefed by CIA Director John McCone during this critical period. McCone's cryptic memoranda omit important details, but may be the only record of what Johnson was told.
JFK's sophisticated taping system was removed from the White House on the afternoon of Nov. 22, and for reasons unknown, there are no tapes from the last two weeks of his administration. Johnson recorded telephone calls on a Dictabelt system he had used as vice president, but no one has yet had access to any presidential tapes from this period.
McCone's memorandum of his first briefing simply indicates that the subject was the assassination. It does not say whether McCone knew (or told LBJ about) CIA concern over Oswald's safety.
McCone's second briefing was at 10 a.m. on Nov. 24. A Cuban conspiracy was certainly a possibility; indeed, the CIA was involved at the time in a plot to kill Fidel Castro. Thus, it is significant that the subject of this briefing was not JFK, but rather CIA operational plans against Cuba.
Allegations of a Cuban conspiracy inundated the CIA. On Nov. 25 a man told U.S. Embassy officials in Mexico City that he was at the Cuban Consulate on Sept. 17, 1963. He claimed that Oswald was there and talked about assassination, and that the Cubans gave Oswald $6,500. The CIA later dismissed the story as untrue, but McCone's memoranda reveal that Johnson's concern was such that McCone would brief him for another week.
The story was consistent with other reports the CIA received on Nov. 25. For example, the Mexico City station cabled a reminder that Castro had issued a threat against U.S. leaders in September.
Thus, as of Nov. 25, 1963, the CIA had ample reason to suspect that Cubans or Soviets _ or both _ were involved. Despite this, and just four days after the assassination, the Justice Department advised the White House to declare publicly that Oswald acted alone. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote presidential assistant Bill Moyers on Nov. 26:
"It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy's assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told, and that a statement to this effect be made now.
"1. The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such he would have been convicted at trial.
"2. Speculation about Oswald's motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists."
Johnson wanted to accept this advice. On Nov. 26 he told McCone that the FBI had responsibility for the investigation; the CIA was only to assist. Since the FBI did not share the CIA's suspicions, Johnson's decision seemed to signal that he wanted the FBI view to prevail.
The CIA welcomed playing second fiddle, because it wanted its own efforts to be as independent as possible. CIA analysts felt that the FBI had been derelict in its handling of Oswald before Kennedy's assassination _ and they were right. In fact, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would secretly discipline 17 agents for mistakes in handling Oswald.
To allay public concern, Johnson, on Nov. 29, created the Warren Commission. Ten days later the FBI wrapped up its investigation and submitted a five-volume report to the White House and the commission; the FBI report found no evidence of conspiracy. Katzenbach immediately urged the commission to make public the FBI's finding.
At the CIA, however, the situation was different. Responsibility for the continued investigation was given to James Angleton's counterintelligence division, which was targeted against the KGB. Theirs was a world of suspicion _ and, not surprisingly, they were suspicious of the FBI's finding.
To Angleton's counterintelligence specialists, aspects of Oswald's odd character, which the FBI and the Warren Commission casually dismissed, seemed perfectly explicable. To them, Oswald acted like an agent of foreign intelligence: He used aliases and post office boxes. Less than two months before Kennedy was shot, he moved his family from New Orleans to Dallas, but lived apart and under an assumed name.
Oswald was in communication with organizations such as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee that may have had foreign ties. Agents often used such innocent-appearing contacts as means of relaying messages. Also suspicious was Oswald's counterfeiting of identity documents. The counterfeits were inferior by CIA standards, but how and why had Oswald learned this?
Then there was Oswald's trip to Mexico City. Agents periodically leave their home country in order to meet their intelligence "handlers" in safe houses. Oswald's six days in Mexico City got him out of the FBI's reach. He went to the Soviet and Cuban consulates to get visas, but the rest of his time was unaccounted for.
If there were a psychological profile for an assassin, Oswald fit it. He was disaffected with the United States and thought life would be better "on the other side." He seemed to lack conscience and could be violent. He had tried suicide once. Assassins and saboteurs with suicidal tendencies were thought willing to undertake recklessly dangerous missions.
These were only suspicions, however. When the Warren Commission's final report was issued in September 1964, the CIA publicly accepted its findings. But Angleton's secret investigation continued for years, and he was not alone in harboring doubts. LBJ was to say privately that he thought Castro had a hand in the assassination.
The secret files will not reveal a conspiracy to shoot JFK but, as Johnson's remarks suggest, they raise disturbing questions. Did the government believe, and tell the president, that there may have been a conspiracy to assassinate his predecessor? If so, why did it tell the public the opposite?
James Johnston, a Washington lawyer, was counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee's 1976 investigation of the assassination. This commentary first appeared in the Washington Post.