Wiretapping in Mexico City, Double Agents, and the Framing of Lee Oswald
by Bill Simpich
This book is about the counterintelligence activity behind the JFK story and its role in the death of President Kennedy. It examines how the existence of tapes of a man in Mexico City, identifying himself as Oswald, were discovered before the Kennedy assassination and hidden after the assassination. On November 23, 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote President Lyndon Johnson and the Secret Service chief, telling both of them that the caller was not Lee Harvey Oswald. These tapes showed that the supposed “lone gunman” had been impersonated just weeks before the killing of JFK, tying him to Cuban and Soviet employees in a manner that would cause great consternation in the halls of power on November 22.
The other aspect of this book is about how the importance of the Mexico City tapes collided with the national security imperative of hiding American abilities in the field of wiretapping. These tapes were created by wiretapping the Soviet consulate. World leaders prize wiretapping because it enables them to find out the true motives of their friends and adversaries. It's no wonder that Edward Snowden was castigated for daring to reveal the nature of these jewels. Back in 1963, wiretapping was the domain of the CIA's Staff D, the super-secret division that did the legwork for much of the signals intelligence or 'sigint' that was provided to the National Security Agency.
The hiding of the tapes paralyzed any effort to conduct an honest investigation into what happened. Within days of the assassination, the agencies were flooded with phony evidence tying Oswald to a Soviet assassination team and Red Cuban plots. Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy probably knew little about the tapes, but acquiesced to the cover-up rather than run the risk of a war on Cuba which might include the USSR. This story explains why LBJ was so insistent that Chief Justice Earl Warren chair the investigating commission and prevent the possibility of "40 million dead Americans", and why the Warren Commission was denied access to the investigators, witnesses and documents needed to solve the case.
To win over Warren, LBJ said that “I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City.” The purpose of this book is to bring this state secret into the sunlight. Sunlight on this secret dissipates idle talk of mystery. The more facts we can expose to the cold light of day, the less time is spent feeling our way through the dark.
Counterintelligence is the hidden heart of the story about this era
By counterintelligence, I initially mean the attempts by the CIA to induce defectors from Communist countries, and Communist efforts to induce Americans to defect. Counterintelligence also includes CIA and FBI efforts to penetrate other intelligence services, while other nations tried to penetrate the CIA and FBI. A formal definition of counterintelligence can be found in a US executive order: "Information gathered and activities conducted to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted for or on behalf of foreign powers, organizations or persons, or international terrorist activities...".
The counterintelligence game is about penetrating the defenses of the other side, and to prevent the other side from penetrating yours. Penetration is the role of the double agent, which is often the secret role of the defector. For example, high ranking CIA officers placed their trust in a Cuban named Rolando Cubela, who said in 1963 that he was willing to defect to the United States and assassinate Castro. The odds are very good that Cubela was reporting to Fidel the entire time.
If there was anything of greater value than a defector, it was a re-defector such as Oswald. Even if a re-defector had nothing to do with intelligence, such a person was the functional equivalent of a double agent.
HSCA JFK Exhibit F-166
This book tells the story of a Soviet defector named Lee Harvey Oswald who returned to the United States, and how he was closely watched over the last four years of his life; the plans to kill Castro during this era; the operations surrounding the Cuban consulate in Mexico City in 1963; and how everything went haywire when Oswald came to Mexico City two months before the assassination.
During his visit, wiretap tapes were created of a man calling himself Oswald and a woman identified as Cuban consulate secretary Sylvia Duran calling the Soviet consulate. After the JFK assassination, the CIA insisted that these tapes had been destroyed prior to the assassination. However, during the 1990s, two Warren Commission staffers admitted that these tapes were played for them during their Mexico City visit in April 1964. After this admission, Mexico City case officer Anne Goodpasture changed her story and admitted her role in disseminating the tapes after the assassination.
Strong evidence is provided in this book that both Oswald and Duran were impersonated on these tapes. Furthermore, I believe that Goodpasture realized during September 1963 that someone had found out about the CIA’s Mexico City wiretap operation. The impersonation of Oswald and Duran meant that the Agency had to take action to ensure its security. Goodpasture got together with the offices of covert action chief Dick Helms and CI chief Jim Angleton and launched an operation to try to figure out who had done it and why. It all blew up in their faces on 11/22/63, when the man who had been impersonated was named as JFK’s assassin.
When President Kennedy was shot down in Dallas, the CIA and their colleagues at the FBI were effectively blackmailed. If their Oswald memos written prior to the assassination had been made public in the wake of JFK’s death, public reaction would have been furious. If the word got out that CIA officers knew that Oswald had been impersonated prior to the assassination, this would imply both that Oswald had been set up for the assassination (which was presumably carried out by others), and that the CIA could have prevented JFK's death if it had reacted differently. The response would have been tectonic.
Prior to the assassination, the CIA Mexico City station concealed from its own headquarters that Oswald had visited the Cuban consulate, while reporting that Oswald had contacted the Soviet consulate. HQ responded in a similar manner by concealing from Mexico City Oswald’s history as a pro-Castro activist. The reason why has been a state secret. Similarly, the tapes had to be buried to hide the fact that the man introduced himself to the Soviets as “Lee Oswald”, but it was not Oswald’s voice. This has also been a state secret.
What it means to be a defector
The heart of the mystery surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald can be dispelled by a meditation on what it means to be a defector. For a spy, a defector is a potential treasure who was worthy of the closest scrutiny. Many things can be learned from the secrets that a defector provides about their former country, as well as one’s reaction to their new home. Most people do not simply renounce their original country, even if they move away.
When Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, it was a closed society behind an Iron Curtain. One estimate was that there were maybe twenty Americans residing in the entire USSR. American intelligence wanted to know everything that there was to know about the Soviet Union.
A re-defector is an extremely rare bird. To defect is an enormous upheaval. Many personal bonds are strained or broken. Most people think long and hard before defecting to another country. Very few people go back on their decision.
James Angleton, Chief of
Counterintelligence Staff at CIA
from 1954 to 1974
In the words of CIA Counterintelligence chief James Angleton, whose office followed Oswald throughout the Soviet Union and the last four years of his life, the re-defection of Oswald should have been “the highest priority for the intelligence community.” Although Angleton tried to deny that he had any serious interest in Oswald, his office tracked a lot of paper regarding the man before the assassination.
After Oswald returned, he was surrounded by spooky people with intelligence backgrounds for the rest of his life. He had a lot to offer. Even his casual conversation provided new insights to sift through and ponder.
His time in the Soviet Union also could be used to provide protective coloration if he wanted to impress left-wingers with his knowledge, or impress right-wingers by realizing the error of his ways.
Previous studies of the JFK case
Several governmental agencies studied the JFK case. The investigation of the Warren Commission was limited and hampered in 1964, with Angleton saying that he would simply “wait out the Commission”. The Church Committee and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) during the 1970s did more thorough investigations, but they were also denied the essential time, documents and resources needed to get to the bottom of it. Many of the problems were alleviated by the Assassinations Records Review Board (ARRB) in the 1990s, which focused on getting the documents to the public (but not reinvestigating the murder). The big problem – the passage of time – was bigger than ever.
Although we still don’t have everything, we have the documents denied to these previous investigations. We now have the ability to conduct a far more complete review, and unprecedented access to the actual operational material that contains the “sources and methods” guarded so jealously by the CIA. These sources and methods provide important information into how and why JFK died and why the initial investigations by the agencies were so badly flawed. These documents provide a meticulous view into the American secret war on Cuba in the early 1960s.
People who have studied the case are familiar with Oswald’s return to the Dallas area, where he spent a lot of time causing consternation in the White Russian community. Also carefully studied has been Oswald's time in New Orleans, where he had started a one-man chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Oswald managed to get himself on the radio, television and the newspapers as a pro-Castro advocate, while making less publicized statements in his diary and in private talks that his sympathies were actually with the United States government.
Meanwhile, Oswald and his wife were asking the Soviet embassy in Washington DC to provide them with visas so they could travel to the Soviet Union. Wittingly or unwittingly, Oswald was creating a legend so confusing that it was difficult to tell where his loyalties actually lay. I am less concerned about his loyalties and more interested in his legend. In intelligence circles, a “legend” refers to a story that has been made up about an individual.
We have a legend about Oswald’s visit to Mexico City. The legend goes like this: In late September of 1963, Oswald took a bus to Mexico City in order to obtain visas to visit Cuba and the Soviet Union. His wife was seeking to return to the USSR as a permanent resident. He had written during the summer and asked for her visa to be expedited ahead of his own because she was having a baby in October, but with no success.
On Friday, September 27, he visited the Cuban consulate three times and the Soviet consulate once. He told both of them that he had received visas from the other consulate. Members of the two consulates talked on the phone, and learned that he had lied to both of them. On Oswald’s final visit to the Cuban consulate, he started shouting and caused a scene when consul Eusebio Azcue told him that he would not be granted a visa.
On Saturday, September 28, he appeared at the Soviet consulate and caused a similar scene, laying a loaded pistol on the table and starting weeping tears of frustration due to FBI harassment. He was told that he would have to wait several months for a visa, and left the consulate with his now unloaded weapon.
Cuban consulate secretary
An hour later, Cuban consulate secretary Sylvia Duran telephoned the Soviet consulate, stating that a man wanted to talk to them. The man got on the phone and said that he had just recently been at the Soviet consulate and had given them the wrong address, he had returned to the Cuban consulate where he had left his proper address, and wanted to know if he could return to the Soviet consulate and correct his error. After receiving an assurance that he could return, the phone call ended.
On Tuesday, October 1, two phone calls were placed to the Soviet consulate by a man trying to follow up on his call from September 28. He was asking about the status of his visa request. In the second call, he specifically identified himself as Lee Oswald.
This is the Oswald legend in Mexico City. Records indicate that he left Mexico City the next morning.
A week later, the Mexico City station reported to Headquarters that Lee Oswald contacted the Soviet consulate, while omitting any reference to his Cuban consulate visits. The cable described him as a balding 35 year old man with an athletic build. This “mystery man” was clearly not Oswald, who was a slender 24 year old.
Headquarters then responded with two different memos, to two different sets of readers, with two different descriptions of Oswald, both of them inaccurate. To top it off, Headquarters omitted any reference to Oswald’s pro-Castro background. What kind of game was going on here?
I wrote this book after studying Oswald’s biography, and what I learned along the way can be read in a serialized chronicle archived at OpEd News. Oswald was clearly a spy in his own mind, but I have concluded that what he meant to do and whether he worked for anyone else is relatively unimportant. What is more important is how his biography was manipulated by the people who filed reports involving Oswald in the Soviet Union, after his visit to Mexico City, and after the assassination.
Four CIA officers and their aides get the spotlight in this book. Jim Angleton, the counterintelligence chief whose desire to beat back the Soviets whipped up a wave of paranoia that eventually tore the Agency in two; Bill Harvey, who never recovered from being taken down by the Kennedys as the head of Cuban operations before he could take out Fidel Castro; Anne Goodpasture, the Mexico City case officer who did her best to safeguard the secrets and surrendered them reluctantly over the years; and David Morales, a triple-threat hitman, paramilitary trainer and CI chief who may have got the last laugh of all.
I focus on these officers because I have never been able to get over the tale of the tapes. I believe that they are right in the middle of it. The CIA said that the tapes of the Mexico City wiretaps were destroyed by the time of the assassination. But two Warren Commission staffers admit that wiretap tapes with Oswald’s voice supposedly on them were played for them months after the assassination. Hoover told President Johnson that his agents listened to the tapes after the assassination and it wasn’t Oswald’s voice.
Why was such an incredible lie told about these tapes no longer existing by the time of the assassination?
If it wasn’t Oswald’s voice, whose voice was it?
Was Oswald seriously seeking visas to the USSR and Cuba, or did he have another agenda?
Did Oswald even go to Mexico City? Who saw him there? Can they be trusted?
For me, all these questions boiled down to one central question, “Did Oswald visit the Cuban consulate on September 28 or not?” Once I was satisfied that the answer to that question was “no”, it led me into a prolonged exploration of why someone would impersonate Oswald.
I came to the conclusion that the official account of September 27 was essentially accurate, as well as the Oswald visit to the Soviet consulate during the morning of September 28. The Soviet officers made it clear to Oswald that they would not change their earlier decision to refuse any attempt to speed up his visa request. The Cubans had firmly closed the door on Oswald the previous day. The purpose of his visit – to obtain instant visas to visit both Cuba and the USSR – appeared to be at an end.
The problems seemed to begin with Duran’s subsequent phone call from the Cuban consulate to the Soviet consulate, where she put Oswald on the line and he chatted with a Soviet officer for a minute. Duran was adamant that Oswald did not visit the Cuban consulate that day, nor did she make any such call. I concluded that she was telling the truth. Where did that lead me?
I decided that the best way to analyze this story was to approach it as if I was a competent and honest CIA case officer and found out that someone had impersonated an American on a line that I was tapping. I assumed that the officer had spent a lot of time trying to ensure that the wiretap operation was secure and that political adversaries did not know about it. I assumed that the officer would be shaken by the belief that someone was trying to “spoof” the wiretap operation with contrived information. I assumed that the officer - Anne Goodpasture - would report this to her superiors and come up with a plan of how to respond.
Once I reached that point in my thinking, the memos that were written about Oswald in early October 1963 made sense for the first time. Previously, I could never understand why a description of Oswald as a “mystery man” who had visited the Soviet consulate was provided to CIA headquarters. It was very odd, especially when it turned out the Mexico City station had the date wrong for the mystery man’s visit. It was even stranger for Angleton's people to provide the key information contained in two different memos to two different audiences, telling one that Oswald was 35 years old with an athletic build and then telling the other that he was 5 foot 10 and 165 pounds. Neither description was right. Oswald was 24 years old, slightly built, and generally weighed 140 or less. At the time of his death, his weight was 131.
However, when I learned that the description of Oswald as “5 foot 10, 165” had been provided three years earlier in the Soviet Union, it started falling into place for me. When I read Peter Dale Scott’s The Hunt for Popov’s Mole, I learned that Oswald’s file had been used in the Soviet Union as bait to capture enemy spies in what is called a “molehunt”. If the story of Oswald had been used in the Soviet Union to catch spies, it makes sense that it would be used in the same way in Mexico City. What surprised me was to yet again see this “5 foot 10, 165” description provided by an unknown witness in Dealey Plaza minutes after the shooting. The witness could somehow determine the person’s height and weight from a sixth floor window, but couldn’t describe his clothing. The witness then disappeared, and remains unidentified.
The reason I wrote this book was to study the cover-up of the assassination and the tale of the Mexico City tapes, but I learned a few things along the way. After looking at the evidence, I felt that it wasn’t right to write about it without sharing my conclusions. I point the finger at what I think happened and who I think was responsible, while leaving room for other possibilities.
paramilitary chief at the
CIA station in Miami
I offer the hypothesis that David Morales ran a piggy-backed operation on top of an anti-Fair Play for Cuba Committee operation run by CIA officer John Tilton and FBI agent Lambert Anderson, outwitted both Angleton and Goodpasture, brought down the President, and got away with it. Whether or not Bill Harvey was part of this operation, his people were all over it and merit further scrutiny.
My essential point is that Harvey brought together a nest of trained assassins within the CIA who hated JFK for two related reasons. One was because of Kennedy’s repeated refusal to order a military invasion of Cuba, even after the humiliation at the Bay of Pigs and the horror of the Cuban missile crisis. Two was because Bobby Kennedy directly meddled in Agency operations in an insecure manner. That nest is the most likely place to find the people that were part of the impersonation of Oswald and the killing of JFK.
Bill Harvey, who ran Staff D
signals intelligence, the anti-Castro
Task Force W operation, and the
ZR-RIFLE assassination program.
Others have argued to me that Angleton and covert action chief David Phillips were part of a plan to kill Kennedy, but my present perspective is that both of them – like Goodpasture and operations chief Richard Helms, who I believe were in on the molehunt - were entrapped by the impersonation.
Angleton and Phillips drove the cover-up for their own protection. Otherwise, their careers and reputations would have been ruined, to say nothing of the future of the CIA. Phillips told investigator Kevin Walsh shortly before he died that he believed American intelligence officers were involved in the assassination. Angleton’s last words were filled with regret and sorrow. “I’ve made so many mistakes.”
The evidence I present here does not rule out the possibility that the Soviets or the Cubans ran the Oswald impersonation, or that Oswald killed JFK while acting alone. However, I am persuaded by the sheer weight of the evidence and the analyses by other researchers that these scenarios are very unlikely.
Whether you agree with my Mexico City solution or not, the important thing is to take on this case and other cases like it. We need more historians and researchers that are willing to roll up their sleeves instead of rolling over for another paycheck. This is a live case here, with people still alive who can talk. Thanks to public pressure, the JFK case is one of the only cases that bring CIA operations, their sources, and their methods, into the sunlight.
The cover-up of the President’s death is a state secret. The tale of the Mexico City tapes is a state secret. Much of the history of the United States is hidden from us, behind a wall of overclassifications and redactions. By comparison, we know more about the JFK case than I ever thought was possible. Much more of it sits in the National Archives and on the websites of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, the Poage Legislative Library at Baylor, the Harold Weisberg Archive at Hood College, the National Security Archive, the presidential libraries, and many more locations, waiting for us to read it, sift through it, and analyze it. The hyperlinks in this story enable the reader to view the original documents and engage in the hunt. Are we interested in serious work, or would we rather argue about it as a form of entertainment?
The JFK case is not an insoluble mystery, but more of a steeplechase. What we need is access to our history and a passion for tough-minded analysis. It’s not a lot different than a clear-eyed examination of the roots of war, or what it will take to end world hunger or global warming. Errico Malatesta was a well-known Spanish agitator who spoke throughout Europe about his vision for a better world. Malatesta would often suggest that “everything depends on what the people are capable of wanting.”