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The Twelve Who Built the Oswald Legend

Part 1: Mother, Meyer, and the Spotters

by Bill Simpich, Aug 22, 2010

Photos of Lee Harvey Oswald (HSCA Exhibit 386)
Photos of Lee Harvey Oswald (HSCA Exhibit 386)

If you appreciate gazing into the darkness, that's all the more reason to gather around the fire. This is a story about ghosts and spooks that haunt the United States of America. When it's over, I'm going to suggest that we talk to the people in Washington who can help us make sure we can get the end of the story right. Some of the last chapters are written down and sitting in cold, unlit basements. And though this story is filled with ghosts, some of the spooks are still alive and can still talk.

With millions of documents released in the years since the JFK Act was passed in the nineties, the intelligence backgrounds of the twelve who built the Oswald legend have come into focus. A legend maker can range from a "babysitter" who just keeps an eye on the subject to someone handing out unequivocal orders. I count twelve of them, and I'll tell you about them here in this series of essays.

Many of these legend makers did not know each other, and some of them know nothing about the JFK assassination itself, but their stories when put together can solve important puzzles. A couple of them are integral to the plot. Now is the moment to sum up what we have, demand the rest, and ask the right questions to those still alive. Although we may never know who fired the shots at JFK, you may agree that the new documents reveal who called the shots.

One important clue revealed in the documents is that the CIA consciously used Lee Harvey Oswald's visa requests for espionage purposes before JFK was assassinated. A CIA office used Oswald as "bait" while simultaneously trying to recruit Soviet officers and hunt for Soviet penetrators of the CIA itself.

Several CIA officials got Oswald into the Soviet Union in 1959 with an "instant visa" after sweetening up the Soviet consul in Helsinki. Otherwise this Marine would have never got past Moscow's border officials.

Oswald tried this again when trying to re-enter the Soviet Union through Mexico City. This time, he got used as part of a counter-espionage game aimed at the Soviets and the Cubans. The story of these instant visa searches is in my essay The Office that Spied on Its Own Spies.

It's not well known that most CIA employees sign a secrecy oath saying they will go to prison if they provide classified information. This oath made it impossible for many people to tell everything they knew. There is still time to get it right. The head of the House Select Committee of Assassinations investigation in the 1970s no longer believes that the CIA cooperated with their two year probe into the JFK and MLK cases. A copy of the 1963 version of this secrecy oath can be viewed here.

This is about how badly the US wanted Soviet secrets during the Cold War. The USSR was not well understood in the postwar era. The American people were extremely naive about the role of intelligence agencies. This is a story about how fear of the unknown was twisted into the drive to build an American empire. This is the story of the twelve legend makers of Lee Harvey Oswald.

The story will keep returning to Legend Maker #1

CIA CounterIntelligence Chief James Jesus Angleton
CIA CounterIntelligence
Chief James Jesus Angleton

The story begins with a man called "Mother". In every sense of the word, he is Legend Maker #1. Always in other people's business, he was a fisherman, a mad genius, and in a category by himself.

James Angleton was the chief of CIA counter-intelligence between 1954 and 1974. During the first days of the CIA, his British intelligence friend Kim Philby dubbed Angleton "the driving force of OSO" - the CIA's Office of Special Operations. He got the keys to the kingdom after the bitter end of the Korean War as the Cold War grew in intensity.

One of the first things Angleton did was to set up a small super-secret group known as CI/SIG, pronounced see-eye-sig, an acronym for the Counter-Intelligence Special Investigations Group. CI/SIG was the CIA of the CIA. CI/SIG's mission was to hunt within the CIA for enemy agents that might try to infiltrate the Agency. The preferred word was "penetrate", rather than "infiltrate". The preferred term was not "infiltrators", but "moles".

Angleton surrounded himself with other cagy molehunters that will pop up as we sit around the fire telling this story, such as his personal assistant Ann Egerter who controlled Oswald file, his chief of CI/SIG Birch O'Neil, and his trusted compatriot Ray Rocca who helped him direct the cover-up as a liaison to the Warren Commission.

Angleton's molehunts became more and more frequent, at least partially because the CIA was always trying to penetrate other agencies. His focus became an obsession during the fifties when he learned that his old friend Kim Philby from British intelligence was probably an agent of the Soviet Union. Before he fell into disgrace, Philby was nearing the top of the hierarchy of British intelligence. (In January, 1963, Philby defected and made it official.)

Two other British intelligence officials that were colleagues of Angelton and Philby had previously defected, but Angleton never imagined that Philby would become "The Third Man". The already famous 1949 film noir penned by Graham Greene was a cautionary tale. For Angleton, it was a humiliation that changed his life forever.

Angleton used CI/SIG in a ruthless manner, destroying the lives of innocent CIA agents and anyone else in the cross-fire. By the time Angleton was fired in the midst of the Watergate era, he was accused of being a Soviet mole himself.

The CIA was eager for ways to see inside the Soviet Union, which had closed itself off from many aspects of Western society. One way was to cultivate contacts that spoke the Russian language. That led inquiring minds to Harvard University, its Russian department, and a Radcliffe graduate student in the department named Priscilla Johnson.

A wealthy and attractive Long Islander whose father was in the textile trade, Priscilla Johnson, Bryn Mawr '50, was a catch. She was born on July 19, 1928 in Glen Cove, New York. Internationally minded, she was a member of the United World Federalists and other liberal groups. She applied for a job with the CIA in late 1952 as graduation beckoned the following spring. Just when it seemed that Johnson had successfully jumped through all the hoops, her application was rejected in March 1953 because of her membership in the United World Federalists, the League of Industrial Democracy, and her questionable associates.

Johnson landed on her feet. In April, she joined the research staff of the new senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. In fact, she withdrew her application before the rejection came in. Johnson may have nailed the JFK post thanks to the aid of her mentor and Long Island neighbor the CIA's chief of International Operations, Cord Meyer, Legend Maker #2. Johnson told military historian John Newman that she thought Meyer "was waiting for me to grow up".

Covert action chief Cord Meyer
Covert action chief Cord Meyer

In 1947, Meyer was one of the founders of the United World Federalists, a group hoping to stop the spread of atomic weapons and to build a stronger United Nations. He was engaged in postgraduate studies at Harvard while building the movement. However, the tides of history were working against Meyer. In 1948, the Soviets threw up a blockade around Berlin that lasted for months. In 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb. In 1950, a devastating war broke out on the Korean peninsula, taking millions of lives. Meyer saw his hopes for arms control wane, and his frame of mind steadily became more anti-communist. He left Harvard and joined the CIA's Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), headed by Frank Wisner.

By 1953, Meyer's duties included shepherding Operation MOCKINGBIRD, an infamous program where the CIA used the American news media "like a mighty Wurlitzer". Many reporters did the CIA's bidding and basically churned out stories as unpaid shills for the Agency. It was a great way to develop sources and advance one's career. MOCKINGBIRD established a pattern of a media/intelligence alliance that many believe has only accelerated to the present day. Johnson was willing to sing like a mockingbird, and built her career on it. She was to become Legend Maker #3.

The CIA wanted spotters at Harvard

Claiming that her passion was the oxymoron known as "Soviet law", Johnson made her way to the USSR in December 1955 for a four month trip. The highlight of her stay was landing a temporary paycheck as an "emergency" translator with the State Department, covering the historic Soviet Party Congress where Khrushchev denounced the legacy of Joseph Stalin. Johnson also picked up work at the New York Times office during her Moscow stay.

Upon her return to Boston, the records indicate that Johnson was then vetted by the CIA to work as a "legal traveler into USSR - spotter". Johnson denies knowing anything about this application to use her as a spotter. Without taking Johnson at her word, it's fair to say that the CIA may have used her or planned to use in ways that she did not know about, and the events surrounding her should be analyzed with that in mind.

The CIA's consideration of Johnson as a possible spotter marks an opening gambit in REDSKIN, a program designed to look at Russian-speaking students and recruit them into the legal travelers program to the USSR.

U.S. Consul Richard Snyder at the American Embassy in Moscow
U.S. Consul Richard Snyder at the American
Embassy in Moscow

It's been a matter of record for some time who actually was a spotter of Russian-speaking students at Harvard during 1956-57 --Richard Snyder, the consul at the American Embassy who met with Oswald at the time of his defection in 1959. Snyder was to become Legend Maker #4.

Although Snyder was a CIA officer between 1949-1950, he went so far as to deny on the record that he had any relationship with the CIA after 1950. This hurt Snyder's credibility with the House Select Committee of Assassinations (HSCA), the body that reviewed the JFK case in the late seventies. The HSCA unsuccessfully tried to repair the damage done by the Warren Commission's irresponsible investigation immediately after the assassination.

The HSCA was displeased by Snyder's denial of any CIA relationship after 1950, as it was documented that he was a spotter at Harvard while studying Russian, and had access to students that might be going to the Soviet Union. Snyder was working for Nelson Brickham of the Soviet Russia division within the Directorate of Plans. Brickham was responsible for running black propaganda, false flag recruitments and the gathering of information on Soviet missile silos.

"Black propaganda" consists of statements that blame one side for the actions actually committed by the other side. Similarly, a "false flag" recruitment means that a recruiter is not telling the truth about the purpose for the recruitment. It seems apparent that Brickham and Snyder were recruiting Harvard students into what was known as Project REDSKIN.

Three Priscillas? Or Five Priscillas?

Marina Oswald and Priscilla Johnson McMillan, circa 1978
Marina Oswald and Priscilla
Johnson McMillan, circa 1978

Priscilla Mary Post Johnson was identified with a CI/OA (counter-intelligence/operational approval) number in a 1956 CIA application (C-52373) four years after her initial 1952 application.

The response from the Office of Security in 1956 was odd, because it stated that C-52373 was "Priscilla Livingston Johnson", not "Priscilla R", and that "she was apparently born 23 September 1922 in Stockholm, Sweden, rather than 19 July 1928 at Glen Cove, New York."

During the formation of the HSCA, Johnson wanted to review what was in the records. "Priscilla Johnson McMillan aka Priscilla Mary Post Johnson" submitted a sworn FOIA request to the FBI asking for all records "indicating my employment in your agency". This statement revealed not only her previously unknown relationship with the Bureau, but also that the 1928/Glen Cove data is her authentic birthdate and birthplace. Now we have some reliable data on Johnson that should offer light when studying her path.

When Johnson's 1956 application was withdrawn in 1957, the memo from SR/10 contradicted the 1956 application with the claim that the birthdate for C-52373 was 19 July 1928. A game is being played with Johnson's identity and birthdates, a game that continues to this day. It's probably a holding action to protect Johnson's reputation, because her book Marina and Lee is now a central pillar in the continuing political battle about what happened in Dallas that day. (I would agree with Thomas Powers' assessment in the New York Times Book Review that Marina and Lee is a "miraculous book".)

What we do know is that on April 10, 1958, Cord Meyer sent a cable to Western Europe expressing interest in Johnson, right after Johnson applied for a Soviet visa in Paris. A couple weeks later, a request went out seeking approval for Johnson to become a "REDSKIN traveler and informant", and that "SR/2 (Soviet Russia Division #2) will have primary responsibility of handling agent."

Johnson was supposedly rejected in June 1958 because her "past activity in USS4, insistence return and indefinite plans inside likely draw Sov suspicions". Nonetheless, she decided to return to Moscow and study Soviet law under a fellowship grant from either Columbia or Harvard universities. By 1962, she was being vetted by the notorious anti-communist professor Richard Pipes and the CIA's Office of Security for a position in a "Soviet survey".

Other memos, one sent by "SR/RED/O'Connell", illustrate that three Priscillas have now emerged: Besides the original Priscilla Mary Post Johnson, we now also see the names "Priscilla McClure Johnson, Priscilla McCoy" that are not identical with the original. To top it off, if you add in the references to "Priscilla Livingston Johnson" and "Priscilla R. Johnson", there are now five Priscillas competing for space in the same case file.

These five Priscillas are corroborated by the four CI/OA numbers for Priscilla Johnson seen on her "approval work record" form.

1975 CIA record identifying Priscilla Johnson as a
1975 CIA record identifying Priscilla Johnson as a
"witting collaborator"

After all this smoke and fog, the American public has no reason to assume that the US government has done anything but confuse everyone about the role of Johnson.

I did find what is described as a "true name dossier" in the Office of Security files that lists Priscilla Johnson with the biographical file number 201-102798. Furthermore, the Office of Legal Counsel made it plain that it had reviewed "documents from Priscilla Johnson McMillan's 201 file (201-102798)." By the 1970s, Priscilla Johnson McMillan was her married name. We can see with our own eyes that a close-out document for the CIA's 201-102798 file describes "Johnson" as a "witting collaborator" in 1975.

Is it any surprise that Johnson responded in an interview with Anthony Summers and his wife Robbyn that "the Johnson in the 1975 document is someone other than herself?"

Under her married name of Priscilla Johnson McMillan, she muddied the waters further by releasing her book Marina and Lee - after fourteen years of writing and re-writing - in the midst of the reopened investigation of the JFK case by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978.

This exercise in game-playing will probably continue with the CIA refusing to reveal Johnson's files until after her death. Johnson could easily resolve these questions by releasing her own copies of the files to the public - and by squarely addressing further questions while she is still alive.

JFK recommended Priscilla Johnson as a member of a travel group to the Soviet Union

Three months after Johnson's apparent rejection by the CIA, the chairman of the "Inter-University Travel Group", David C. Munford, sought and obtained a recommendation from Senator John F. Kennedy for Johnson to be accepted as a member of his group traveling to the Soviet Union. It's unclear to me why such a recommendation was necessary, but it is fascinating that JFK tried to get Johnson into a group that was the focus of REDSKIN.

As fate would have it, Munford had been too successful in his recruitment efforts. Munford had to tell JFK that there wasn't room for Johnson in the group, but assured him that she could still join if someone dropped out. Munford wrote Johnson and remarked, "I gather I will go on hearing echoes of your serious intent in this matter."

Three weeks later, Munford wrote her another letter of congratulations for landing work as a journalist in the Soviet Union: "Some people make their own luck and you are one of them." In both letters between Munford and Johnson, both before and after one of the couples dropped out of the program, any participation by Johnson in the program seemed to be irrelevant and went unmentioned.

Johnson worked for NANA, an intelligence-linked news agency

At this point, Johnson had been accepted by the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) in Moscow. For good reasons, NANA has a bad reputation as a hotbed of intelligence.

Ernest Cuneo purchased NANA in the mid-1950s and was its owner and president until 1963. Cuneo started out as an aide to a World War I veteran, New York progressive mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served in World War I. Cuneo served with the OSS during World War II and was its liaison to the White House, State Department, FBI, and British intelligence. NANA's vice president was the well-known author Ian Fleming. Fleming later credited Cuneo with more than half the plot for Goldfinger and all of the basic plot for Thunderball. The dedication page in Goldfinger reads, "To Ernest Cuneo, Muse."

After Cuneo's death, Sidney Goldberg became NANA's president, the husband of Lucianne Goldberg. Goldberg was part of Nixon's "dirty tricks" operation that stalked McGovern during 1972, looking for "who was sleeping with whom, what the Secret Service men were doing with the stewardesses, who was smoking pot on the plane" - everyday dirt. Goldberg's team succeeded in the outing of Democratic vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton for electroshock treatments, effectively destroying any chance the McGovern campaign had to overtake Nixon's re-election machine. Goldberg suggested to Linda Tripp that she should tape all of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. After the tapes were made, Goldberg urged Tripp to take the tapes to Kenneth Starr and also tipped the lawyers on the Paula Jones case.

After Bill Clinton left a telltale mark on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, Goldberg was the one who tipped Tripp to convince Lewinsky not to launder the dress in order to trap Clinton. Although NANA folded in 1980, Goldberg maintains a news agency at her website, while her son Jonah Goldberg until recently was the editor-at-large for the right-wing National Review Online.

Priscilla Johnson saw life from the center of a whirlwind. We have a safe vantage point to watch this twisting tale as it draws in more lives. There's no point in cursing the darkness. Let's add fuel to the fire. Let's see what we can see.


- Bill Simpich

Bill Simpich is an Oakland civil rights attorney who knows that it doesn't have to be like this. He was part of the legal team chosen by Public Justice as Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2003 for winning a jury verdict of 4.4 million in Earth Firster Judi Bari's lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland police. He works with the Mary Ferrell Foundation to decipher the cryptonyms and pseudonyms used by intelligence operatives in the JFK documents, and suggests that we will achieve historical resolution in this case more quickly than most people believe.


Next => Part 2: An Instant Visa Gets the Marine Into Moscow



ENDNOTES

The head of the House Select Committee of Assassinations investigation in the 1970s no longer believes that the CIA cooperated with their two year probe: Frontline, Interview, G. Robert Blakey. See 2003 Addendum at end of interview.

A copy of the 1963 version of this secrecy oath can be viewed here: Termination secrecy oath of Ross Crozier, August 30, 1963, NARA Record Number: 104-10112-10194.

During the first days of the CIA, his British intelligence friend Kim Philby dubbed Angleton "the driving force of OSO", also known as the CIA's Office of Special Operations: David Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors, (Guilford, Connecticut, Lyons Press: 2003 ed.) pp. 55-56.

Johnson's application was rejected in March 1953 because of her membership in the United World Federalists, the League of Industrial Democracy, and her questionable associates: Memo from Deputy Chief, Security Research Staff/OS to the Deputy Director of Security, 3/10/64 NARA Record Number: 104-10119-10253.

Priscilla told military historian John Newman that she thought Meyer "was waiting for me to grow up": John Newman, Oswald and the CIA, (Carroll & Graf, New York: 1995), pp. 64-65.

Johnson obtained a temporary job with the State Department as a translator"and also picked up work at the New York Times: 10/25/63 FBI memo from SAC, WFO to Director, FBI, NARA Record Number: 124-10279-10217.

8/6/56 Approval request from Chief, CI/Operational Approval and Support Division to Deputy Director of Security Mr. Rice for 52373 "Legal Traveler Into USSR Spotter stamped POA expedite initialed WMO (William Osborne?) NARA Record Number: 104-10120-10446.

"Between 1956-57, Snyder was used as a spotter of students that might be going to the Soviet Union at Harvard by Nelson Brickham of the Soviet Russian Division within the Directorate of Plans. The apparent purpose was to recruit them into what was known as Project Redskin: Oswald 201 file, Volume 31, NARA No.: 104-10001-10138, Comment Regarding Article Alleging Oswald was Interviewed by CIA Employees.

Brickham was responsible for running black propaganda, false flag recruitments and the gathering of information on Soviet missile silos: Douglas Valentine, "Documents from the Phoenix Program".

On April 10, Cord Meyer sent a cable to Western Europe expressing interest in Johnson, right after Johnson applied for a visa in Paris: John Newman, Oswald and the CIA, (Carroll & Graf, New York, 1995), p. 65. Includes a copy of Meyer's cable.

Shortly after Cord Meyer expressed interest in her, a request went out on 4/28 seeking approval for Johnson to become a "REDSKIN traveler and informant... "SR/2 will have primary responsibility of handling agent": Request for Investigation and Approval, 4/28/63, HSCA Segregated CIA Collection microfilm - reel 9, NARA Record Number: 104-10173-10145.

Johnson was rejected in June 1958 because her "past activity in USSR, insistence return and indefinite plans inside likely draw Sov suspicions": RIF#: 104-10119-10287 (06/19/58)

She decided to return to Moscow and study Soviet law under a fellowship grant from either Columbia or Harvard universities: FBI memo, 10/5/63, p. 2, from SAC/WFO to Director, NARA Record Number: 124-10279-10217.

The chairman of the "Inter-University Travel Group" travel group sought and obtained a recommendation from Senator John F. Kennedy for Johnson to be accepted as a member. This is the type of legal travelers group that was the focus of REDSKIN: Letters to Senator Kennedy and Johnson, September 1958, NARA Record Number: 1993.07.12.17:05:59:680440.

Three weeks later, Munford wrote her another letter of congratulations on her activities in the Soviet Union: 10/16/58 letter from Mumford to Johnson, NARA Record Number: 1993.07.12.17:38:30:180440.

NANA's vice president was the well-known author Ian Fleming: FDR Library, Records of Ernest Cuneo.

Cuneo served with the OSS during World War II and was its liaison to the White House, the FBI, and British intelligence: Obituary, Ernest L. Cuneo, New York Times, 3/5/88.

A former president of NANA was Sidney Goldberg, whose wife was Lucianne Goldberg. Goldberg was part of Nixon's "dirty tricks" operation that stalked McGovern during 1972, looking for "real dirty stuff...": Goldberg's interview with J. Anthony Lukas in his book Nightmare, p. 161. UPI, 8/20/73, "Chotiner Confirms He Retained A Writer to Spy on McGovern".

Goldberg's team succeeded in the outing of Democratic vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton for electroshock treatments: Steve Weissman, Big Brother and the Holding Company (Palo Alto, CA: 1974), p. 42.

Goldberg suggested to Linda Tripp that she should tape all of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky: US News and World Report, "The Monica Lewinsky Tapes", Feb. 2, 1998, V. 124, n. 4, p. 23.

After the tapes were made, Goldberg urged Tripp to take the tapes to Kenneth Starr and also tipped the lawyers on the Paula Jones case: Evan Thomas and Michael Isikoff. Newsweek, November 9, 1998.

Goldberg was the one who tipped Linda Tripp to tape her phone calls with Lewinsky and to urge her not to launder the dress for blackmail purposes: Frank Greve, "Svengali of Scandal", Spokesman-Review, October 2, 1998.

Lucianne Goldberg's news agency is at http://lucianne.com.

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